Tag Archives: The Spy Who Loved Me

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.

Skyfall Countdown Day 13: Moonraker

“Why are we together again?”

I’m a NASA junkie and have been since before I can remember.  My family took me to Cape Canaveral when I was eight, and my most treasured acquisition from that trip was a plastic model of the space shuttle Discovery that my father and I built and painted together.  When Moonraker’s iconic gunbarrel opened to the sight of a space shuttle being carried on the back of a 747, my younger self was utterly enthralled.  The funny thing about James Bond for me is that I look at them with two sets of eyes – the kid who can be wowed by anything, for whom watching Bond was a way of bonding with his dad, and the older, more cynical bastard who always notices the wires dangling from the spaceship.  Everything critics say about Moonraker is true:  it’s silly, it’s out-there space fantasy, it’s the worst of every excess the Bond series ever suffered, and it’s fundamentally a transparent attempt to leech off the success of Star Wars.  But damn if I don’t still dig it.  I can acknowledge its flaws, I can shrug at the ludicrous spectacle of lasers flying left and right and the outright goofiness of the entire endeavour.  But I can still load it up on a rainy Sunday afternoon and groove on it.  Perhaps it’s just that the brand of James Bond is so enduring that even the lesser movies contain something of value – perhaps its “wow factor” continues to appeal to our inner kid.

Ian Fleming’s original novel, which takes place entirely in England, revolved around an English industrialist named Hugo Drax who has built a giant rocket to be deployed as part of Britain’s defense system.  Bond discovers that Drax is actually a German consumed with loathing for all things English who intends to aim his rocket at the heart of London instead.  For the movie however, trying to top the spectacle that was The Spy Who Loved Me, and seeking to cash in on the late 70’s cinematic space craze, anchoring the plot to earth was not even in question.  When the aforementioned space shuttle is hijacked in midair, and after a breathtaking opening freefall fight that required 88 separate jumps to capture on film, 007 travels to California to investigate the shuttle’s disappearance and match wits with Drax (Michael Lonsdale), rewritten here as the billionaire private contractor behind America’s space program.  Pursuing the trail from a glass factory in Venice to the carnival-filled streets of Rio de Janeiro and finally deep into the Amazon jungle, Bond and CIA agent Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) discover Drax’s plan to wipe out the human race using a nerve gas developed from rare orchids, prior to repopulating the planet with his version of a master race of perfect physical specimens.  Rocketing into orbit, and with assistance at a timely juncture by U.S. space marines, the two agents lead a battle aboard Drax’s space station to destroy the gas and save humanity.  The kid thinks “This is the most awesome thing ever!”  The old guy grumbles “Good grief.  Where’s my copy of From Russia with Love?”

But there are a couple of things both sides of me can agree on.  Ken Adam, in his 007 swan song, does a masterful job.  He takes clunky real-life NASA equipment like the centrifuge trainer and gives it a polished, futuristic look.  Drax’s Amazon base, which combines modern, almost German expressionist vertical lines with the crumbling limestone of an Incan temple, would be a suitable enough locale for a Bond film finale.  But even it pales next to the space station, for which Adam’s challenge was to differentiate it substantially from the Death Star and the rotating wheel of 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  It’s a modular creation (described as a mobile in space) and its interiors are a perfect balance of practical function based on extrapolation from then-current NASA technology, and a sleek designer’s touch.  With all respect to Adam’s successors, no Bond villain’s lair would ever look like this again, or make such a lasting impression on first view.  It had to, really, given the images throughout the movie that precede its grand reveal.  The visual effects throughout the climactic battle, supervised by Bond veteran Derek Meddings, still hold up extremely well today, and credit must be given to Meddings’ team for a reasonably accurate depiction of the space shuttle’s takeoff and flight in 1979 given that the shuttle did not launch in real life until 1981.  The action beats are solid, with the opening fall from the sky, a gondola chase through the canals of Venice and a fistfight aboard the cable cars of Rio standing out as highlights (spoiled somewhat by being punctuated with misguided attempts at comedy, but more on that later).  One of the most haunting deaths ever depicted in a Bond movie occurs when Drax’s assistant Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery) is hunted down through a forest by killer dogs.  John Barry returns and abandons the electric guitar and swinging percussion that characterized his early Bond work in favour of a more mature sound that uses sweeping strings and a choir to depict the vast emptiness of outer space.

Now, to the elements that the older man can’t forgive so easily.  As I indicated yesterday, I love the spectacle of Bond, but I want that spectacle to have some meat behind it, otherwise it becomes, as Shakespeare would put it, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Bond himself really has no character arc here, no personal journey to fulfill other than serving as the wrench which jams the engine of Drax’s master plan, nor is his relationship with the underwritten Holly Goodhead anything more than a happenstance of proximity – that is, she’s the only “good girl” in range.  As sinister as Michael Lonsdale is, with his refined French accent draping itself lovingly around lines like “You defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you,” he, like Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, is too straightforwardly evil to be a truly compelling foe for our hero – there are no layers to his villainy, no motivation other than the usual line about civilization having become corrupt and needing a reset.  In fact, the only character who has any kind of growth in the movie is Jaws (Richard Kiel), who finds love and morphs from remorseless killer-for-hire into a just-in-time good guy (apparently a request made by director Lewis Gilbert’s grandson).  Instead of character beats, we get comedy, and a regrettable trend toward silent movie era slapstick that will only grow over the next few films.  Jaws himself is portrayed as too much of a bumbling oaf to ever represent any kind of threat to Bond, and as a result the first two thirds of the movie are devoid of any serious suspense.  Even in Live and Let Die, Bond had to occasionally use only his wits to extricate himself from danger, but in this movie he always has the right gadget at the right time.  (A couple of machine-gun toting thugs oblige Bond by simply watching agape as his gondola transforms itself – verrrrrry slowly, mind you – into a car for an escape across the Venice piazzas.)  We need to have at least some sense that Bond might be in over his head to invest ourselves in his surviving, and unfortunately it doesn’t happen in this movie.

But there come moments, however, when you simply say the heck with all of that, and let the kid take over and get lost in the fantasy.  Moonraker is such a strongly designed film that the visual elements forgive the flaws in performance and narrative choices, and is worth a look by the older, more discriminating you for that reason if nothing more.  The kid will be wowed by the laser beams and the explosions and the half-naked gorgeous women, and whether we want to admit or not, sometimes, especially with James Bond, that’s enough.

Tomorrow:  For Your Eyes Only comes down to earth but brings the wrong luggage with it.

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.