Tag Archives: SPECTRE

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.

Skyfall Countdown Day 23: From Russia with Love

“I think my mouth is too big.”

24 days.  24 reviews.  The James Bond saga continues.

The closing credits of Dr. No began with what would turn out to be a highly premature announcement of “The End.”  After the first James Bond film exploded into a massive worldwide hit, a sequel was inevitable.  Armed with a bigger budget and one supposes an equal measure of increased confidence, producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman embarked on their second big screen Bond, emboldened perhaps by President John F. Kennedy’s choice of From Russia with Love as one of his ten favourite books.

Everything about From Russia with Love is bigger and better, beginning with a screenplay that adds layers of intrigue to Ian Fleming’s original novel about dastardly Soviets out to kill James Bond for causing them so much bother.  In the movie, the architects of this Cold War affair are now the notorious SPECTRE, led by cat-stroking (and Dr. Evil-inspiring) Ernst Stavro Blofeld, eager to pit East and West against each other, with Bond’s death merely a fortunate bonus.  To this end they enlist the innocent Russian corporal Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) in a scheme to lure Bond with the promise of a Russian “Lektor” cipher decoding MacGuffin as the prize, and assign ice-blooded killer Red Grant (Robert Shaw) to act as Bond’s shadow as he journeys through the underworld of Istanbul, unable to sense the slippery arms of the villains closing in until it is almost too late.  It’s a movie full of surprises and turns, riveting chases, locations lush and rich, performances pitched just right and a pace that never relents.  It’s also the only movie where Bond finds himself as a pawn of greater forces, almost an accidental hero, rather than the usual valiant knight riding in on the white horse to bring down the dragon and his kingdom of darkness.

The pressure of carrying the picture doesn’t seem to weigh on Sean Connery as much this time, and you can sense him beginning to enjoy himself, bringing sharper timing to his delivery of his lines and walking through scenes with much greater confidence.  The supporting players are a more capable lot this time as well, beginning with the only Bond actress to ever be mentioned in the Great American Songbook:  Lotte Lenya (of “Mack the Knife” fame) as the slimy Colonel Rosa Klebb, with her oily accent and spike-toed shoes.  Robert Shaw, light-years removed from Jaws’ Quint or A Man for All Seasons’ King Henry is a triple threat:  sinister, sadistic and silent, conveying an unnerving menace absent from other screen villains who were frequently neutered by censors in that era – slinking through the first half of the movie seemingly as a mindless brute and yet able to turn on an English congeniality when he finally introduces himself as “Captain Nash” and makes the fatally revealing mistake to culture snob Bond of ordering red wine with his fish.  Bond and Grant’s final fight scene aboard the Orient Express is to this day cited as one of the best such encounters ever put on film.  One can even see inspiration for future Bond villain Javier Bardem’s Oscar-winning turn in No Country for Old Men in Red Grant’s dead-eyed stare.

The greatest accolades however have to go to Pedro Armendariz as Bond’s Turkish intelligence contact Kerim Bey, a jovial old spy with a penchant for nepotism (employing his sons in every key position) and an appetite for women that rivals 007’s.  He radiates Old World charm, with a wily sense of humor, deep sense of honor and ownership of the movie’s most quotable dialogue.  What is even more remarkable about the performance is that Armendariz pulled it off while he was dying of cancer.  He created such an indelible imprint on the Bond series that the producers have been trying ever since to include character performers who could possibly measure up – they even cast Armendariz’s son in a small part in 1989’s Licence to Kill.  Leading lady Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana (again, dubbed by another actress) is a more modest sort of Bond girl, not quite as awe-inspiring in her uniforms and suits as Ursula Andress in the white bikini, and uncomfortable in scenes where she is required to play the seductress.  But she’s adequate for a story where Bond’s romantic entanglement takes a distant backseat to the more fascinating spy saga.  Preserving the requirement for pulchritude in excess, ravenous feminine wiles are displayed in a girl-on-girl barefoot fight scene in a gypsy camp.

Several important tropes that would come to further shape and define the cinematic James Bond are introduced in this movie:  the pre-titles teaser, the title song, the character of Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and his gadgets, and perhaps most important of all, the John Barry musical score.  Barry’s duties on Dr. No were confined to arranging the famous James Bond theme, but here he was given full control over the music and crafted a gorgeously orchestral score, fleshing out the Bond theme with explosive horns and layering in percussive instrumentation evocative of the Turkish locale to create a stylish, suspenseful, indubitably 60’s sonic accompaniment to Bond’s adventures.  Matt Monro, sounding something like an English Andy Williams, sings the song over the closing credits, and while “From Russia with Love” didn’t exactly burn up the charts, it laid the groundwork for an entire catalogue of sometimes brilliant, sometimes regrettable themes to follow.

In From Russia with Love, the rougher edges of Dr. No have been smoothed out, the production values amped up and the entire enterprise given a massive jolt of adrenaline.  In the annals of Bond fandom, there are two major camps – those who like their Bond gritty and down to earth, and the ones who relish extravagance and the kitchen sink approach.  This movie is something of a benchmark for the former, a standard to which all that follow are often compared.  (Indeed, when auditioning new actors to play Bond, the producers typically use the scene where Bond and Tatiana meet for the first time; DVD box set owners have likely seen both James Brolin and Sam Neill’s attempts at it.)  From Russia with Love is absent perhaps only the concept of the individual, flamboyant villain who battles Bond on an intellectual level as well as a physical one – contrasted as the remorseless counterpoint to Bond’s relentless crusader.  But it is a solid spy tale replete with twists Alfred Hitchcock would have approved, and it remains the work of artists at the top of their game creating an indelible entertainment that can still excite an audience after so many of them have long since departed this realm.  Top marks, 007.

Tomorrow:  Goldfinger and all that glitters.

Skyfall Countdown Day 24: Dr. No

“Bond… James Bond.”

It’s been a bit of a dry spell for us fans of James Bond of late, a drought not seen since the dreaded 1989-1995 hiatus when a combination of lawsuits, hostile takeovers and general public ennui made it seem like 007 had had his day.  The financial woes of the legendary MGM have kept Bond off the big screen since 2008, but as anyone who’s seen the trailers for Skyfall can attest, he’s ready to roar back in a big way, with Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes at the helm and a powerhouse A-list cast including the likes of Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney.  It occurred to me this morning that there are 24 days until the movie is released here in North America, and that there have been 24 James Bond films preceding this one (if you include the “non-official” 1967 Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again).  What better way to celebrate this new Bond than to review one 007 adventure a day culminating with my take on Skyfall (because you know I’ll be there on opening night)?  So let’s get down to it then – with the movie that started this 50-year rollercoaster ride.

Dr. No seemed an unlikely choice to kick off the film series in 1962 – it was Ian Fleming’s sixth James Bond novel and hardly the most cinematic of the ones he had written up to that date – to say nothing of that oddball title, a moniker probably more suited to a goofy 1930’s Flash Gordon-type serial.  True enough, producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had wanted to make Thunderball first, but it was tied up in litigation.  And the unknown Sean Connery was not anybody’s first choice for the leading role – Fleming himself wanted David Niven, and offers had been rejected by bankable stars of the day like Cary Grant, James Mason and Patrick McGoohan.  Yet it’s difficult to imagine any of them defining the role the way Connery did, particularly in his introductory scene.  There’s a sort of laissez-faire to the way Connery announces “Bond… James Bond,” cigarette dangling from his lips, like he just doesn’t give a rat’s arse whether you care who he is – he’s that confident in his awesomeness.  (One can imagine Grant delivering the line with his customary wink and smile – James Bond would have been Cary Grant, not the other way around.)

There has been a copious amount of criticism written around the “James Bond formula” – the exotic locations, the women, the cartoonish megalomania of the villains.  Many of the elements are introduced in Dr. No, but almost seem like they’re in rough draft form; indeed, it’s difficult to look at the movie objectively 50 years on.  The plot is probably one of the simplest of the film series – a British agent is murdered in Jamaica after looking into reports of radio interference with American space launches, and James Bond is sent in to investigate.  Bond is assisted by CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and local boatman Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), and eventually crosses paths with the half-German half-Chinese, handless Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), agent of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), who is using his private nuclear reactor to knock the American rockets out of the sky.  And of course there’s eye candy in the form of Eunice Gayson as Sylvia Trench, Zena Marshall as Miss Taro, 1961’s Miss Jamaica Marguerite LeWars as a photographer, and most famously, the voluptuous Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), whom Bond famously encounters as she strolls out of the ocean in a white bikini, knife on her hip, singing “Underneath the Mango Tree.”

Dr. No is a tough sell to modern audiences if it isn’t the first Bond movie you’ve ever seen.  It was made on a shoestring budget of $1 million (nowadays, that wouldn’t even pay for a third of an episode of CSI) and a lot of it does look very cheap.  The acting is pretty painful across the board, and Connery himself tends to flap his gums and yell his lines as he tries to figure out the character, not yet realizing that intensity doesn’t require volume.  Andress begins a long tradition of Bond girls having their lines completely dubbed by another actress, and the effect can be greatly distracting.  Apart from Wiseman, who is aware of his character’s cartoonishness and underplays to compensate, none of the villains are terribly menacing.  The fight and chase scenes are nothing special.  The “dragon tank” is a goofy excuse for a prop that belongs on Gilligan’s Island.  The latter half of the film, once Dr. No finally enters the picture, slows down and drags where it should be building tension to a breaking point, such that the climactic battle between Bond and the villain seems a bit like an afterthought.  Apart from the singular James Bond theme (which is regrettably hacked up in the opening credits) the musical score is cheesy and instantly forgettable.  Yet compared to the largesse of some of the later films, there is a rawness to this adventure and more of a sense of Bond as a bruiser of a man relying on his skills, wits and fists to extricate himself from sticky situations, rather than the finely-tailored dandy with nary a hair out of place who always has the right gadget at the right time.  When a bloodied, battered Bond is crawling through an air vent to escape Dr. No’s lair, you truly worry whether he’s going to make it out alive.  And there are several memorable scenes that help to define Bond as a new kind of morally uncompromising hero, most notably when he shoots an unarmed man in cold blood, and callously turns a woman he’s just slept with over to the police.  Bond is always at his best when he’s being an unrepentant badass.

In most recaps of the Bond series, Dr. No tends to rate around the middle, which is where I’d probably place it.  It’s a little low-key for how I like my James Bond, and really shows its age in certain places, particularly in its pacing.  It has not yet acquired the panache and greater sense of fun of the mid-60’s Bond pictures, and the cheapness of its budget is quite evident throughout.  In recipe terms, Dr. No is a soufflé with all the right ingredients that doesn’t quite manage to rise all the way.  But you certainly cannot argue that without it and its success to set the stage, we would never have had the James Bond that we’ve grown up with all these decades and continue to love.  That alone tends to earn it both a pass for its faults, and a greater appreciation of what it is – a competently-executed thriller bursting with promise for what is to come.

Tomorrow:  From Russia with Love raises the bar.