Tag Archives: Kevin McClory

Skyfall Countdown Day 10: Never Say Never Again

“Mr. Bean, at your service.”

It’s difficult to present a review of the most famous “non-Bond Bond movie” without delving first into the tangled history of how this one-off came to be.  As terms of the legal settlement that allowed Thunderball to be filmed in 1965, Kevin McClory agreed to refrain from producing a competing Bond movie for at least ten years.  At the time, this must have seemed like a good way to dissuade him permanently, for back then, no one could have conceived the potential of a single film franchise running much beyond that.  But as Bond went on, McClory (who once referred to the situation as “the greatest act of piracy in motion picture history”) merely bided his time, and in the early 70’s began putting together his own brand new 007 screenplay with the assistance of Sean Connery himself, to be called either James Bond of the Secret Service or Warhead.  McClory filed suit against Albert R. Broccoli and Eon Productions to prevent them from using Blofeld and SPECTRE in The Spy Who Loved Me.  Countersuits from Broccoli’s people ultimately prevented McClory from producing an original Bond story – he was permitted only to remake Thunderball, absent familiar elements like the gunbarrel opening and iconic James Bond theme which were intellectual properties of Eon.  And so, despite it being almost 20 years later and excepting a few surface aesthetic touches, that’s all Never Say Never Again is:  Thunderball Redux.

After failing a training exercise, a semi-retired James Bond (Connery) is sent by the penny-pinching M (Edward Fox) to the Shrublands health clinic to recuperate, where by coincidence, American air force pilot Jack Petachi (Gavan O’Herlihy) is recovering from surgery to replace his right eye with a copy of that of the President of the United States, in a plot by SPECTRE agents led by Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) to steal two nuclear bombs and hold the world hostage.  Petachi’s sister Domino (Kim Basinger), who happens to be Largo’s girlfriend, is unaware of her brother’s complicity in the plan and ultimately teams up with Bond to recover the bombs before it’s too late.  Because they were restricted to the basic Thunderball plot, the filmmakers attempted to refresh the tale by acknowledging Bond’s age, having Q’s department short on funds, making Felix Leiter African-American and throwing in, for comic relief, Rowan Atkinson as snivelling bureaucrat Nigel Small-Fawcett.  They also update the original showdown between Bond and Largo from the baccarat table to a video game that gives its players electric shocks when they lose points.  But one thing nags at you throughout the entire affair – if Kevin McClory had fought so long and so hard to be able to make his own Bond movie, why does the result seem so incredibly half-assed?  It was his chance to prove to those who considered him a bitter also-ran choking on sour grapes that he’d been right all along, that he knew how to make Bond sizzle, and instead, he completely blew it – whether it was in the personnel he hired to carry out production, or whether from simply being misguided, we’ll never know.  But that is inside Hollywood dish, and what matters to us is what we the audience are left with, which is a very boring movie.

Despite heavyweights in the cast like Brandauer and Max von Sydow (as Blofeld), no one seems to be giving it their all, with one major exception – Barbara Carrera as Fatima Blush, this movie’s equivalent of Thunderball’s Fiona Volpe, only twice as scorching and about twenty times as insane.  Carrera, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance here, is gorgeous, playful, bewitching and thoroughly, remorselessly evil, whether she’s tossing a lethal snake into Petachi’s car, planting a bomb on Bond’s air tanks, dancing through a lobby after having drowned a girl in the bath or reclining stylishly poolside as she dynamites Bond’s hotel room.  She is way over the top, certainly, but when everyone else is playing it so dour and humourless, it’s like a jolt of electricity crosses the screen every time she appears.  In the time-honoured tradition of Bond baddies, Fatima is undone by her own ego, insisting that Bond write a confession naming her as the greatest lover he’s ever had, and unwittingly giving him the chance to blow her up with an explosive pen, leaving behind – in homage to The Wizard of Oz – nothing but her high heels.  The trouble is she’s killed off much too early, and the movie then goes on for another hour and a half with little else to hold our interest.  The miscast Basinger in particular seems like she doesn’t want to be in the movie at all, and the acclaimed Brandauer has never been more unengaging.  Connery is trying, at least, to get everyone to live up to his standard, but one can’t help but thinking even he finds it all terribly familiar; like the audience, he too grows bored once Carrera is gone.

Ultimately, Never Say Never Again is burdened, like Thunderball, with having many of its scenes set underwater, and it seems that nothing has been learned in the ensuing twenty years of how to tighten the pace of those sequences.  Director Irvin Kershner, who made the best Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back, seems curiously out of his depth here, unable to marry crisp action and strong character the way he did just three years previously.  The cinematography and editing is so sloppy it borders on incompetent, and the whole movie has a faded look that makes it look cheap, despite the obvious robust expenditure on actors, sets and locations.  And quick – can you hum the theme song to Never Say Never Again?  I’ll wait.  Music has always been a critical component of the James Bond movies and composer Michel Legrand drops the ball here.  As dull as “All Time High,” the theme to Octopussy was, it at least had a melody that could be carried through the rest of the film as leitmotif; I’m not entirely sure what Legrand is up to with his disorganized collection of random notes that sparsely populate the movie’s running time.  It, like so many other elements of Never Say Never Again, is a wasted opportunity.

Sean Connery has alleged with his trademark Scots frustration that after the movie’s credited producer Jack Schwartzman abandoned the project, it was left to him and the assistant director to produce the final movie.  Never Say Never Again is something of a textbook example of what a movie would look like if nobody really cared about making it – if it succeeds at any level it’s only because of Connery’s charisma and Carrera’s wildly sexy villainess.  One is forced to speculate if, for Kevin McClory, the enterprise wasn’t so much about producing a quality feature but simply sticking it to Cubby Broccoli, and that the actual grunt work of production was never that interesting to him.  McClory would try again in the 1990’s, with rumours swirling of a rival Bond movie called Warhead 2000 A.D. starring Timothy Dalton to go up against the Broccoli family and Pierce Brosnan.  But it wouldn’t happen, and Never Say Never Again would remain McClory’s singular contribution, this oddity in the history of the cinematic James Bond that was born of lawsuits and animosity and never, it seems based on the finished product, the desire to entertain.

Tomorrow:  The review I’ve been dreading for fourteen days.

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Skyfall Countdown Day 14: The Spy Who Loved Me

“What do you mean you think Pete Best was a better drummer?”

The most common complaint about the James Bond film series among Ian Fleming purists is that they stray too far from the original books.  The screenwriters would keep the title, a few of the characters and maybe one or two scenes, but generally be permitted to make things up from scratch.  The Spy Who Loved Me, released on July 7, 1977 (or 7/7/77) is a case where not only does the movie have absolutely nothing in common with the Fleming book, but it’s because Ian Fleming himself wanted it that way.  The novel, a low-key tale told from the first-person perspective of a woman named Vivienne Michel (and containing Fleming’s misogynist and dubious observation that “all women love semi-rape”) with Bond appearing only late in the story, was a source of embarrassment for the author, and he stipulated when selling the rights that no material from it could be used, save the title, should a film adaptation be undertaken.  This must have been liberating to Albert R. Broccoli, now the sole producer in charge of James Bond following Harry Saltzman’s departure, and having to chart a course back to respectability after the disappointment that was The Man with the Golden Gun.

The core element Broccoli latched onto, wisely, was the idea of Bond as spectacle.  The previous few films had been very gritty and muted, in keeping with the early 70’s trend in cinema, but Broccoli knew that 007 fit more comfortably alongside the widescreen epics of the previous era.  He rehired Lewis Gilbert, the director of You Only Live Twice, and commissioned a story – after an abortive attempt to bring back Blofeld and SPECTRE that was thwarted when Kevin McClory’s lawyers reared their heads – that would see Bond pitted not against a villain merely interested in selling drugs or cornering the renewable energy market, but against an utter madman with designs on destroying the entire world.  As the story begins, one British and one Soviet nuclear submarine have gone missing, stolen out of the water it seems by someone who is able to track their movements.  James Bond and Soviet agent XXX, Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) are assigned by their respective governments to Cairo to trace the origin of the tracking system, and team up to pursue the architect of the entire affair:  billionaire, webbed-fingered Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), who is obsessed with the oceans and intends to accelerate what he feels is the inevitable decline of civilization by using his captured subs to start a nuclear war between Russia and the United States.  Adding a wrinkle to their reluctant collaboration, Bond has unknowingly killed Amasova’s boyfriend during a previous mission, and she has sworn that once their mission is complete, she will take her revenge.

Clearly this was not a tale that could be told in the buttoned-down, economic manner of the last two movies.  Spectacle requires a spectacular talent in the designer’s chair, and for Broccoli, there was only one name who could measure up:  Ken Adam, fresh off winning an Oscar for Stanley Kubrick’s period costume drama Barry Lyndon.  Adam’s sets open the movie up beyond the reach of the most imaginative audience member.  The staple of the villain’s lair this time was the interior of Stromberg’s enormous supertanker, large enough to contain three nuclear submarines and so large in fact that not only did the world’s biggest soundstage have to be built to contain it, but the film’s director of photography Claude Renoir could not see from one end of it to the other.  (In what has become the worst kept secret in the James Bond canon, Adam invited Kubrick himself to the set to advise on how to light it properly.)  Each set, from the warmth of M’s office to the sterile environs of General Gogol’s retreat, from the curves and spheres of Stromberg’s underwater home to the sandy brickwork of Q’s Egyptian laboratory, brings with it a lush and meticulous character that occupies the screen with as much presence – and in some cases, far more – as the actors wandering through the space.

Until recently, Bond movies were never renowned for their great acting, and while The Spy Who Loved Me is a visual banquet stretching from ski slopes to desert dunes and finally beneath the waves, the supporting performances are just a few notches above bread and water – doubly ironic given that this is the movie where Roger Moore finally cast off the shadow of Sean Connery and came completely into his own in his interpretation of James Bond.  Gone for good is the macho cruelty and slapping women around.  In its stead is a polished gentleman who kills when he has to, even if it is with great reluctance and only as a last resort.  Moore was never better as Bond than he is here, both in physical presence and manner, blending his ability to play quips with a forceful dramatic presence, particularly in the scene when Anya discovers that Bond is responsible for her lover’s death.  In that brief moment, Moore unveils the darkness lurking beneath the playboy surface, reminding those audience members who might aspire to be James Bond that his life, despite its exterior appeal, is destructive to the soul.

If only the actress opposite him in the scene could provide a solid counterpoint; alas, Barbara Bach, wife of Ringo Starr, is not up to the challenge.  She’s fine as eye candy but doesn’t really have the chops to be a leading lady, speaking her dialogue with unchanging facial expressions in an accent which defies location (but certainly isn’t Russian).  Caroline Munro, as Stromberg’s bikini-wearing, helicopter-flying accomplice Naomi, radiates more character and sex appeal in one seductive wink at Bond than Bach manages in an hour and a half of screen time.  Jurgens is effectively creepy as Stromberg but is as straightforward and one dimensional as the anonymous henchmen he sends after the heroes, and is not as interesting a social foe for Bond.  The most memorable villain is of course Richard Kiel as Jaws, the unstoppable behemoth with the metal teeth.  Without speaking a word, Kiel injects his lumbering brute with personality and a sense of humor, making him oddly likable even though he kills several innocent people (and eats a shark).

Despite not being so surefooted with his actors (Moore excepted), director Lewis Gilbert stages action extremely well and keeps the pace tight even in sections where it would be natural to let it sag a little.  The geography of the massive final battle between Stromberg’s men and the captured British and Russian naval crews aboard the supertanker is capably handled with no confusion ever about who is doing what to whom (Michael Bay, take notes!)  Interestingly enough, the movie’s signature moment occurs within the first ten minutes.  The filmmakers had seen a print ad with a man skiing off a mountain precipice and contacted the stuntman in question, Rick Sylvester, who confessed that the photo had been faked but that he could execute it for real.  A small filming unit spent weeks hunkered down in the Arctic waiting for the right conditions.  Finally, the weather broke and Sylvester had one chance to nail it – and when audiences watched James Bond, pursued by Soviet gunmen, ski over a sheer cliff ostensibly to his doom, only to be saved by a parachute emblazoned with the Union Jack, theatres exploded in cheers.  It was the surest indication that James Bond was back in the biggest way possible.  Marvin Hamlisch, who had achieved the rare feat of winning three Oscars in a single year, supplied his services for the music and composed for Carly Simon the movie’s famous title song to reinforce this point:  “Nobody Does it Better.”  In that moment, at that time, nobody did.

Tomorrow:  Moonraker shoots for the stars and gets lost along the way.

Skyfall Countdown Day 21: Thunderball

Sean Connery suffering another hard day at the office.

My contrarian instincts tend to show when it comes to Thunderball, because for me, it has always been the bête noire of the “official” Sean Connery Bond films.  In terms of sheer box office power it was the most popular of the movies he ever made.  It’s also rumoured that it was Connery’s personal favourite of his Bond appearances.  But the long and tortured history it took to get to the screen resulted in what, on reflection, is an overlong, uneven and rather pedestrian entry, which is all the more disappointing given the production values and the presence of arguably the most jaw-droppingly stunning woman ever to star as James Bond’s leading lady.

Had history unfolded differently, Thunderball would have been the first James Bond movie, and it would have hit screens several years prior to Dr. No.  Ian Fleming had initially worked with producer Kevin McClory and playwright Jack Whittingham to develop a 007 screenplay – when nothing came it, Fleming went ahead and adapted the work into his novel Thunderball and was subsequently whacked with a plagiarism lawsuit from his aggrieved former partners – the stress of which certainly contributed to the author’s failing health.  Claiming rights to Thunderball, McClory was later prepared to go ahead and produce his own James Bond film in competition with the Broccoli-Saltzman series until all parties agreed upon a truce – McClory would produce Thunderball in collaboration with Broccoli and Saltzman, Connery would star, and in return, McClory would agree not to make another Bond movie for at least ten years.  That would subsequently not turn out to be that, with McClory fighting a losing battle for the rights to James Bond for the rest of his life (he passed away in 2006).  More on that when we get to Never Say Never Again in a few weeks.

Anyway, despite its turbulent pregnancy, the movie is serviceable, if deeply flawed for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.  Agents of SPECTRE, coordinated by the eyepatch-wearing Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), hijack a NATO bomber with two nuclear weapons aboard, hiding it in the Bahamas and demanding 100 million pounds in diamonds as a ransom.  James Bond happens to be recuperating at a health clinic where the operation is being coordinated and requests assignment to Nassau to locate the bombs before they can be deployed against the United States.  He’s aided in his search by Largo’s beautiful girlfriend Domino (Claudine Auger), the sister of the NATO pilot who was murdered during the theft of the bombs, and challenged by sizzling femme fatale Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), who rides a motorbike equipped with rocket launchers.  A large portion of the movie takes place underwater, with the climactic battle unfolding between legions of scuba divers having at each other with knives and spearguns beneath the waves.

Unfortunately, the screenplay, so key to the success of Goldfinger, is not equal to the visual spectacle this time around.  A fundamental narrative mistake mars the plot in that the audience is always ahead of Bond; this is not always a bad thing (eg. From Russia with Love) but here the experience is frustrating.  We have seen exactly where the bombs are hidden in the first act – in a sequence of exhausting detail – yet are subjected to repeated scenes of Bond wandering around looking for them, in some cases literally flying over water peering down with binoculars, exchanging bland exposition with Felix Leiter (Rik van Nutter).  The main antagonist, Largo, is a paper-thin bad guy with no motivation other than as a required mechanism to move the plot along – he is SPECTRE’s muscle for this operation, nothing more, and accordingly receives no character development, giving us little interest in watching him be brought down.  His social interactions with Bond are awkward and unmemorable, and have nowhere near the electricity of Bond’s encounters with Auric Goldfinger.

It’s perhaps unintentionally ironic that “largo” in musical terms means a very slow tempo, for this movie unfolds at such a lethargic pace (even with the looming threat of nuclear destruction) that there never seems to be any great urgency by anyone to do anything.  The underwater scenes were likely a revelation in 1965 but they drag the film down – one gets the sense that so much money was spent in staging and shooting them that the producers did not want to waste a single frame of footage, however, a few minutes removed strategically here and there could have tightened the pace.  Even John Barry’s usually brilliant scoring work gets repetitive as he’s forced to bolster these lengthy servings of underwater action.  The temptation to push fast forward is regrettable for any movie, and you can skip whole sections of Thunderball and still follow the story.

So what remains to recommend this water-logged James Bond tale?  Well, Claudine Auger, the first of many otherworldly French Bond girls, is a spectacular sight (even though her deeper continental accent was dubbed by a higher-pitched actress), garbed to keep the best of her natural assets on display as much as possible, and usually just out of the water.  Even if her acting is not always up to par, her beauty alone makes her a compelling screen presence.  Luciana Paluzzi has some fun also with the first substantial “sexy bad girl” role in a Bond movie but never pushes things into the arena of camp villainy (villainessy?), ensuring that her character maintains a sliver of menace.  (There’s a fun scene where she mocks the convention established by Goldfinger where Bond’s sexual prowess can seemingly turn any evil woman to the side of the angels.)  The Nassau locations would have been suitably exotic to a 1965 audience even if they seem a bit tourist-trappy to the jaded eyes of today, and the scene where a wounded Bond attempts to lose his pursuers through the chaos of the Junkanoo parade is well-staged.  But overall the movie is bloated, lacks focus and is too enamoured of the technical prowess of its underwater scenes to make for a viewing experience one is terribly eager to repeat.

Tomorrow:  Ian Fleming gets the heave-ho in You Only Live Twice.