Friday, November 10, 2006

Bond Issues, Part 1

It may be hard to justify, but in the run-up to every new James Bond movie, something compels me to watch all the others in chronological order. Not, like, in a punishing marathon of two sleepless days, and not even on a strict "Seven [Time Periods] Of 007" schedule, but just whenever. It’s probably some subconscious threshold event -- if I can make it from Dr. No through Die Another Day and still have an appetite for the character, then I’ll see the new one.

I might not make it this year. I’m at the halfway point with a week to go, and I can’t see devoting an entire weekend to ten films' worth of Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan. Therefore, here are my thoughts so far.

Dr. No (1962): I’ve also been re-reading most of the books in publication order (just Octopussy left) and it’s ironic, but this was the first book that really felt like it could propel the character to film stardom. I can see why it was chosen for the first movie, despite it being one of the later books. The movie is a little more compressed, and I think it suffers from not yet having developed some of the trappings of the series. It is also not as slick as its successors, but that’s probably to be expected. Regardless, you can’t argue with Sean Connery’s presence in the role, backed up by the famous Monty Norman theme (woven into a score by John Barry). Production designer Ken Adam, who really brought a lot to the series, contributed a couple of space-age sets (most notably the room where Dr. No’s voice is first heard) and otherwise livened up the mundane London and Jamaica locales.

From Russia, With Love (1963): This is probably Connery’s best Bond, a thrilling tale of pretty straightforward espionage given a twist by the incorporation of SPECTRE into the book’s SMERSH-centered narrative. Red Grant doesn’t get the buildup he does in the book, but Robert Shaw makes him plenty menacing, and Daniella Bianchi is excellent as Tatiana Romanova.

Goldfinger (1964): Probably the quintessential Bond film, but I rate it just slightly below FRWL due to Pussy Galore’s conversion. (It’s about as likely as Tilly Masterton’s swooning over Pussy in the book.) Other than that, there’s a lot to like about this movie, which really opens up the scope of the series. The books never went in for gadgets on the scale of the Aston Martin DB V, and they tended to short-circuit the villain’s plot just before it got to the crucial step. Here, Bond gets down to the 0:07 mark before the bomb is defused, and Goldfinger’s still at large. Plus, Bond comes to Kentucky, and golf!

Thunderball (1965): The first real widescreen (2.35:1) Bond raises the stakes even more. Unfortunately, it dumps the book’s angle that Bond is ordered to the spa for his health (this is restored for the remake, Never Say Never Again) and I can never quite connect the funeral with the rest of it. However, once the bomber is hijacked, we’re off. This feels like an expanded and slightly reworked Dr. No, if only because it’s SPECTRE causing trouble in the Caribbean, but with the elaborate underwater sequences it goes ‘way beyond what the first film presented, and even Goldfinger’s big final battle.

You Only Live Twice (1966): Naturally this movie had to be bigger, so the plot shifts to SPECTRE hijacking space capsules in order to trigger nuclear war. This may be the best-looking and best-sounding Connery movie, with Ken Adam and John Barry really outdoing themselves. By putting a face on Blofeld, Donald Pleasance also gives Mike Myers’ career a second act. (I watched this right after I watched Halloween, coincidentally.) However, the film’s misogyny and its attempt to make Bond "Japanese" haven’t aged well.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): When I first saw this movie, I tended to wonder how it would have turned out if Connery had returned alongside Diana Rigg. Her character has to look pretty forlorn next to George Lazenby, and it's not like he's not credible -- he certainly looks more like Fleming's Bond than Connery does -- but Connery + Rigg > Connery + Honor Blackman, even. Still, Connery apparently wasn't aging well, judging by the next film, so this is probably for the best. The movie itself is very ... mod, I suppose, although I'm probably misusing that word. Director Peter Hunt was the previous films' editor, and fills the fights with quick-cut gimmickry. Ken Adam's absent too, for the first time since From Russia, With Love; and there's a truly annoying Christmas-y song (the movie takes place at the holidays) which could have come from the Barney songbook. Other than that it's pretty good, and would have been a good transition into Roger Moore.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971): However, Connery came back for one last "official" hurrah, and I have to say, he looks more like Bond's dad than he does the guy from You Only Live Twice. The pre-credits sequence doesn't quite work, because it's hard to connect Connery with the character who married Diana Rigg. Other detriments to the film include its assassins, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd. I don't have a problem with them being gay; I have a problem with them being annoying. Also annoying is Tiffany Case (Jill St. John) and Shady Tree, the old gangster who moonlights as an unfunny Vegas comedian. However, Ken Adam is back, and Connery's old mojo works more often than not.

Live And Let Die (1973): This year, I watched with screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz's DVD commentary on. He does a good job contrasting Roger Moore with Connery, explaining that Moore's style allowed Bond to have a different kind of humor. Specifically, Moore almost brought a "twit" sensibility to the character that Connery definitely didn't have. Moore's Bond could walk into the Fillet of Soul and play the buffoon, whereas a similar scene with Connery would have ended in violence. Now, that might have been closer to the original novel, but for 1973 I doubt it would have gone over very well. Ken Adam, Q, and John Barry are all on vacation for this one, so one of the high points is music by George "I Managed The Beatles" Martin and, of course, the classic title song by Paul McCartney and Wings.

The Man With The Golden Gun (1974): Bond takes on the former Dracula as Christopher Lee classes up the joint with his portrayal of the titular villain, Francisco Scaramanga. Surprisingly, Moore isn't as outclassed as one might imagine. Maybe it's because Scaramanga sometimes gets lost in all the travelogue-y details of Bond's tracking him throughout the Far East. These include the camera's unfortunate gawking -- that's the best way I can think to describe it -- at the locals, as they in turn gawk at the weird white man being chased by maniacal killers. The Moore movies did this a few more times, especially in Octopussy, and it never really got any less offensive. The movie wants to present this as a commentary on the carnage invading these peaceful little villages, and to underscore that TMWTGG brings back Sheriff J.W. Pepper, a slightly more cultured ancestor of Buford T. Justus, who gets to be the Ugly American again. However, where J.W. actually got to comment on the carnage invading his little Louisiana fiefdom in Live and Let Die, here he's just a goo-based punchline. Oh, and the theme song is one of the worst too, although John Barry uses the melody well in his score. Ken Adam is still absent, but a sunken M.I.6 office is a set-design highlight, as is Hi Fat's mansion. Finally, Herve Villechaize is a lot of fun as Scaramanga's henchman, Nick Nack.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): My favorite Moore movie, and in my top three Bonds overall. Sure, this movie starts from practically the same premise as You Only Live Twice, its SPECTRE elements were excised to avoid litigation, and it opened the door to the over-the-top Moonraker, but it has such swagger and joie de vivre, it's hard for me to resist. Ken Adam is at the top of his game here, offering the undersea citadel of Atlantis and the mammoth submarine pen, as well as a mix of expressionistic and Jet Age headquarters for M.I.6 and the KGB. The song, Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better," is perfectly complemented by Marvin Hamlisch's score, which is infused with wakka-chicka guitar work eminently appropriate to the era. Nods to continuity include a reference to Bond's wife, as well as M's first name and Q's last name. There's a moody set piece incorporating a Laser Floyd show at the Pyramids. All this and I haven't mentioned the Union Jack parachute, Jaws, or the Lotus. It's a long way from From Russia, With Love, and there are some groaners, but on the whole it all works in spectacular fashion.

Not a bad way to end the first half. We'll have to see if the second ten reach similar heights.


Reel Fanatic said...

I don't think there's any way I could make it through that many Bonds in so little time! .. That said, I'm convinced Daniel Craig will make a great 007, and can't wait to see the new "Casino Royale"

Anonymous said...

I don't think I could watch all the Moore movies again in my lifetime, let alone in preparation for Casino Royale. How will you get through A View to a Kill? (Aside from any scene with Christopher Walken gleefully chewing scenery, of course.)

Moore was the first Bond I saw as a kid and so the "real" one until I grew into the Connery pictures, at which point it became clear that Moore's Bond was indeed a twit. I like For Your Eyes Only quite a bit, but the rest of the movies are filled with goofy toys and ethnic stereotyping that we should've outgrown by the 1970s.

And then you've got the two "Say No to Drugs!" Dalton movies to look forward to (although I do like The Living Daylights), and Denise Richards... bail out, man!