Posts Tagged ‘Donald Pleasence’

Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) starts off looking like a conventional thriller of its era: a plane makes a night-time landing, someone in a hat that screams ‘spy’ observes a distinguished-looking older gentleman getting off, pausing to shake the hand of Stephen Boyd as he does so, a motorcade zooms away, enemy agents attack it, and so on, and so on. Only with the onset of the opening credits does one get a sense that this movie is going to be a little further out there: the camera zooms in on the egg-like dome of the older gentleman, now receiving medical attention, teletype rattles across the screen, there are radiophonic pinging and boinging noises. It’s still very sixties, but in a rather different mode.

Soon enough we are back in the plot, with Boyd being picked up by some spooks and delivered to a secret underground base. Keeping the underground base a secret is no small feat (literally) as it is a whopper, as secret bases go. Most people working there travel around on little buggies rather than walking about: that’s how big it is. This is particularly ironic as it turns out it is the secret base of the Department for Shrinking Things (they have another name in the script, but it basically means the same thing). Too bad the Department for Shrinking Things couldn’t shrink their own HQ a bit.

Well, it turns out the chief problem with the Department for Shrinking Things’ shrink-ray is that it only works for an hour before things revert, potentially messily, to their original size: one of those conveniently precise drawbacks one so often finds in pulp SF. The secret of extending the miniaturisation period has been discovered by the older gentleman, but a blood clot in his brain threatens to kill him before he can share his breakthrough with the west.

All this proves to essentially be maguffinery, designed to get us to the high concept for this particular movie:  to remove the clot and save the patient’s life, a small submarine is going to be made considerably smaller and injected into the man’s bloodstream, this allowing a brilliant brain surgeon to carry out an operation as an inside job, so to speak. The brain surgeon is Arthur Kennedy, his winsome young assistant is Raquel Welch (in her movie debut), commanding the mission is Donald Pleasence, and Stephen Boyd will also be going along to keep an eye on things (there are some suspicions that there could be a traitor on the team).

And off they all go: the shrink ray even works on Raquel Welch’s hair, although it remains proportionately about three times bigger than one would expect for a woman her height and build. This is one of those SF movies aimed at a general audience for whom, it seems to be assumed, the simple fact of something science-fictional going on will be endlessly fascinating. So the actual shrinking sequence lasts about ten minutes, for no very obvious reason.

Then, before you can say ‘whoosh’, they are underway, cruising through the bloodstream. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan: one so rarely comes across Hollywood movies where a fistula is crucial to the plot, but this is one of them. Given the batty nature of the story, it hardly seems fair to single any particular moments out as being especially contrived, even though they seem it: they have to travel through the heart, which has to be briefly stopped while they do so; there’s a stop-off in the lungs to refill the air tanks; a detour through the lymphatic system results in the sub being covered in loft insulation. Raquel Welch is attacked by antibodies which cover her in plasticky crystals – she is nearly trampled in the rush as the rest of the crew surges forward to peel the stuff from her wet-suited person. And so on, and so on. In the end the traitor is revealed; his identity should come as no great surprise, given the presence of Pleasence, who sometimes seems to have a genuine problem not being icily sinister in any of his roles.

There was a popular misconception floating around, for a number of years at least, that Isaac Asimov was somehow involved in scripting Fantastic Voyage. Apparently the limit of his involvement was writing the tie-in novelisation, in which he duly did his best to fix some of the problems with scientific accuracy and various other plot holes. There are, as you can probably imagine, many of these, the main one being that come the end of the film, no-one has bothered to extract the submarine from within the patient – which means it should revert to normal size somewhere inside his head, with presumably messy results. Apparently there was a line supposedly explaining this which didn’t make it into the final edit – the operation turns out to be successful, in that the defector survives, but he suffers minor brain damage from having a wrecked submarine in his skull and forgets the bit of information everyone was after to begin with.

The finished movie isn’t big on this kind of irony, or indeed humour of any sort. It takes itself very seriously, and I imagine the makers would say that this is the only approach to be taken with this kind of outlandish story – you can’t run the risk of appearing to send yourself up. Well, there is something to be said for dour naturalism, but it is not the easiest of bedfellows when put next to the visual component of this film: naturalistic is hardly the word for this.

There’s a difference between presentational and representational storytelling: the representational kind apparently ignores the audience and strives for absolute realistic naturalism. Presentational storytelling acknowledges the presence of the audience (and, implicitly, its own existence as a piece of fiction), either explicitly or implicitly. Musical theatre and pantomime are usually presentational; so, arguably, is a lot of genre fiction, simply because it adheres to genre conventions. The script and performance style of Fantastic Voyage are both working hard to be representational and naturalistic (or as close as they can manage in a genre movie). The visuals and special effects, however, are something else again – the garish, surreal visions of the interior of the human body may have won an Oscar fifty years ago, but they just seem trippy today. The consequence is that the film feels camp more than anything else – not intentionally camp, but nevertheless camp.

In the end, it’s a watchable kind of camp, and it does help you overlook all the various plot holes in the story. Most of the performances are not especially memorable (Pleasence is the predictable exception), and Raquel Welch is about as ornamental as you would expect, although she does seem to be working hard to find places to act. Fantastic Voyage passes the time agreeably enough, but whatever reputation it has derives more from its memorable visuals and the strength of its concept than any real distinction in the rest of the film.

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If Plato’s Theory of Forms has anything to it (which I really doubt, but it’s spurious intro time again), the implications are profound. Basically, the idea is that everything in the world is the physical embodiment of a quintessential version of itself existing in some metaphysical otherworld. Thus every chair in some way is an imperfect recreation of the primal Chair Form, every dog is a flawed embodiment of the Dog Form, and so on. The connection with the Form is what allows us to recognise things as what they are. I am frankly dubious about this, but I got thinking about forms and formulas the other day with particular reference to movie franchises, and the Bond series in particular.

People talk about Bond films being formulaic as if it’s a negative thing and I suppose there’s a case to be argued here. And you can’t really deny that there is a fundamental blueprint for these movies that Eon have been very, very careful about staying close to (it’s almost inconceivable that they’d produce something as left-field as Ian Fleming himself did with his version of The Spy Who Loved Me – for the uninitiated: first-person viewpoint, lengthy pseudo-autobiographical section, two Canadian gangsters as the bad guys and Bond’s hardly in it).

Even people who don’t like these films and haven’t seen many of them know how the game is played: big opening stunt/action sequence, plot is established, Bond gets briefed, Bond gets tooled up, off to another country, meeting with local ally (often marked for death), meeting with first Bond girl (ditto), encounter with main villain (often involving a game or wager of some kind), etc, etc. I expect Wikipedia or somewhere has produced a table showing which elements are in which movie.

Now, you would expect this kind of semi-mandatory tick-list of elements to be the enemy of good, popular film-making, but the strange fact is that the best and most popular of the Bond movies are the ones that stick closest to the formula, while the ones that do wander off into other areas are the least well-remembered. So, the question must be asked – which of the movies is closest to the Platonic Bond Movie Form?

For a long time I thought it was You Only Live Twice. I suspect this is mainly because when people (and here I really mean Mike Myers) set out to parody Bond, this is the movie they mainly take as a template to work with. And up to a point, this is true, but.

You Only Live Twice was made in 1967, directed by Lewis Gilbert. International scallywags SPECTRE (headed by Donald Pleasence’s Blofeld) have built themselves a spaceship which goes around eating other spaceships, all in aid of starting a war between the USA and the USSR. British intelligence get a clue that these troublemaking operations are based in Japan and soon top agent James Bond (Sean Connery, like I need to say so) is sent to investigate.

Well, if the basis of the plot isn’t enough to tip you off as to the kind of film this is, let me explain to you how Bond decides to get to Japan. Does he pop on a scheduled commercial jet flight, possibly under an assumed name? He does not. Instead he fakes his own death in a collapsible bed, has himself buried at sea, is retrieved from the sea bed by a submarine, and then has himself fired out of a torpedo tube onto one of Japan’s many picturesque beaches. None of this, strictly speaking, is demanded by the plot.

Yes, this is an openly and ostentatiously silly film from beginning to end, but it still somehow works even as it floats cheerfully from one outrageously overblown set-piece to another, occasionally waving at logic and credibility as they sit, fuming, somewhere off in the distance (for example: at one point Connery has to disguise himself as a Japanese fisherman. He appears do so by covering himself in fake tan and putting his hairpiece on backwards, and yet the ruse still seems entirely effective). Scriptwriter Roald Dahl almost completely dispenses with the downbeat and internal plotline of Fleming’s novel and seems to have been given carte blanche to do absolutely anything he felt like in its place. Connery swaggers through the whole thing and the rest of the production follows his example. The franchise may have got both feet off the ground for the first time but it’s also absolutely at the height of its powers – silly it may be, but it’s also irresistibly self-confident and lavish.

But at the same time it’s not quite the Bond-by-numbers you would expect, and it departs from the formula a fair amount too. There’s hardly any of the frantic globetrotting you’d normally expect to see: once Bond arrives in Japan, very early on, the story stays based there for the duration. And this leads into another stylistic quirk – Dahl may have dismissed the novel as not much more than a Japanese travelogue, but there are times when the movie is just that. There are relatively lengthy sequences devoted to displays of Japanese customs and martial arts, most notably a traditional wedding. I suppose this all seemed rather more exotic back in the sixties.

That said, the traditional Bond elements are very strong here, and despite the absurdity of the story Lewis is careful to mix in corresponding levels of grit and toughness and wrap them around a solid narrative structure. Donald Pleasence, famously a piece of after-the-last-minute casting, nails the Bond supervillain role in perpetuity. Neither of the Bond girls here are likely to score highly in terms of name recognition, but they’re both highly qualified for the role. The action is nicely put together too.

I don’t think You Only Live Twice is the particularly Bondy Bond film I originally took it for, but it does have a tremendously strong identity within the series, simply due to its scale and energy. Even by modern standards this is a big, fun, engagingly ridiculous action movie, and possibly the overall high point of the franchise.

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