Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Sean Connery’

It has become almost facile to point out that the demise of the traditional western – as a significant part of the cinema landscape, anyway – occurred almost simultaneously with the rise of science fiction and fantasy films to the position of box office dominance they enjoy to this day. The conclusion to be drawn is very nearly as straightforward – it’s not quite that SF movies have simply replaced westerns, but that both genres meet the same need and appeal to the same audience. Or, to put it another way, there’s a certain type of action-SF movie which is basically a western in disguise.

The disguise is seldom as perfunctory as in Peter Hyams’ 1981 film Outland, however. Hmm, you may be thinking, where is this Outland place and why did they decide to make a film about it? Well, I have to tell you that this seems to be an example of film-makers not being able to agree on a good title and reaching a consensus on a duff one instead. The film was made under the title Io, which as any fule kno is a volcanically-active moon of Jupiter, but apparently the big brains of the production were concerned that non-astronomically-savvy audiences might read the title as either 10 or Lo, hence the change.

 

I will happily agree that Io is not a great title, but at least it’s accurate (personally I would have called the movie High Moon, because sometimes you just can’t be crashingly obvious enough). The film is set in one of those non-specific not-all-that-distant futures where the outer reaches of the solar system are being explored and exploited; people apparently go for many years without ever visiting Earth (the journey from the Jovian region to Earth apparently takes a year in cryo). Io is being mined for titanium and the story takes place in one of the mining outposts, mostly concerning the chief lawman of the place, Marshall (or Marshal, depending on where you look) Bill O’Niel (Sean Connery).

O’Niel has only recently taken up his post and is still receiving apparently mock-stern lectures from the outpost’s manager, Sheppard (Peter Boyle), about how he needs to be flexible in his approach to the job and cut the hard-working miners some slack. To begin with O’Niel is more preoccupied by the fact that his wife can’t hack rattling around yet another space outpost and has left him to go back to Earth, but his cop instincts are triggered when he comes across a string of suspicious deaths – workers cutting open their spacesuits while outside, or not even bothering to wear them.

(Outland is notable for its enthusiastic championing of the notion that if you go into a hard vacuum without a spacesuit, either your head or your torso will explode. Apparently this is just one of those myths, but it does allow the special effects department some fun. One of the people whose head explodes is John Ratzenberger, best known for playing Cliff in Cheers, but eminently spottable in small parts in many famous late 70s and early 80s films, thanks to a stint based in London.)

Normally the remains of these ‘accidents’ are quietly disposed of, but O’Niel eventually manages to lay his hands on the body of a worker who apparently goes mad. With the help of the outpost’s medic, Dr Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), O’Niel discovers that all the dead men had been taking high-powered amphetamines, allowing them to work longer and harder but eventually frying their brains.

It transpires that Sheppard and even some of O’Niel’s own men are in on the racket – the drugs increase productivity, which is all Sheppard and his bosses really care about. Their assumption is that O’Niel, like his predecessor, can be bought off, because only a fool would risk his life by taking on Sheppard and the men behind him. But this does not sit well with O’Niel, who finds himself compelled to hang onto his principles and take a stand (or, this being a Connery movie after all, a shtand).

One day someone will write about Outland and not draw comparisons between it and Alien. But that day has clearly not yet dawned. The aesthetic of the two films is almost identical, to the point where they could quite easily share a continuity: the mining outpost is a grimy, cramped, industrial warren of corridors, controlled by faceless and uncaring corporations.

The setting of Outland is important as it’s the only thing which gives it its SF credentials. The story itself is that of one principled man attempting to put an end to drug racketeering despite the odds being stacked against him – it could really be set anywhere. Even the drug racketeering is on one level just plot fluff, setting up the central conflict of the movie, which is not so much Connery versus the drug dealers as Connery’s sense of self-preservation versus his stubbornly principled streak. What is he really hoping to achieve? Nobody would blame him for taking bribes or running away…

This owes, of course, a big debt to High Noon, although Outland only really closely resembles the earlier movie for a chunk of its second half: a far-from-subtle digital countdown indicates how long before the space shuttle carrying professional killers will arrive at the outpost.

To be honest, though, I found these scenes and the eventual fight between Connery and the hitmen to be rather laborious, though fairly well-mounted; much more interesting are the earlier scenes in which O’Niel uncovers the extent of the corruption around him and realises just what a sticky spot he’s in. There is some really good material here, including some top-class moral outrage, and Connery plays it for all that it’s worth. I find that in a lot of Sean Connery’s later appearances, his tendency is just to play it very broad and just do the same lovable twinkly performance, but this is a proper acting job from the big man.

His main support comes from Sternhagen as the grumpy doctor, and she is also very good. This is a well-played film throughout, to be honest, and a reasonably well-written one. The film’s visual effects and model work are pretty good, but you can tell that the director and the screenwriter are also working hard to keep the film focused and credible.

I first saw Outland on TV in the late 80s and do recall that I wasn’t especially impressed by it: good production designs, but a bit dull. I think I would revise that opinion now – this is a solid film with a compelling central story and performance, but let down slightly  by its climax. And I do think it’s telling that Hyams admitted later that he only really wanted to make a western – the outer-space setting was just the only one that the studio felt was commercially viable. You can tell that none of the major talent involved was really that interested in making a science-fiction film, because in a very real sense they didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a watchable thriller with some distinctive elements.

Read Full Post »

I’m always on the lookout for a chance to do something new and innovative on the blog, not to mention a chance to showcase my freakish ability to identify obscure actors in minor roles. And so, hot on the heels of our look at Lust for a Vampire, featuring David Healy in the small but relatively important role of Raymond Pelley (aka Angry Father of Early Victim), I thought we would move on and examine another Healy movie from 1971 – Guy Hamilton’s Diamonds are Forever, in which the actor treats us to his take on Vandenberg Launch Director (an uncredited performance). (Other movies featuring the work of Mr Healy which are reviewed on this blog include You Only Live Twice, Phase IV, and The Ninth Configuration.)

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s just a coincidence (I’m still quite proud to have spotted him though). When you’ve spent nearly seven years reviewing virtually the entire canon of Eon Bond movies, you do start to run out of ways to start them off, but as this is the very last vintage Bond to cross off my list, that’s one problem I probably won’t have to worry about much in future.

Diamonds are Forever is one where Connery came back, for an enormous fee and for one film only, after an arguably rather overconfident George Lazenby decided not to stick around in the part. Fleming’s original novel provides about a third of what happens on screen, as Bond finds himself mixed up in diamond (well, duh) smuggling in Las Vegas, taking on sundry gangsters including the gay hitmen Wint and Kidd. Fairly soon, however, it all mutates into much more standard Bond movie fare, to wit Bond Plot 2: evil mastermind has nefarious scheme involving satellite-based superweapon. Other points of interest include the scene where Q uses his talents to defraud a casino, the one where Blofeld (Charles Gray) dresses up as a woman, and the one where Natalie Wood’s kid sister gets thrown out of a hotel window in her pants.

In the past I have commented on how the addition of SPECTRE and Blofeld to films based on books in which they did not appear often resulted in the improvement of the story. I’m not sure the same can be said in this case; while the presence of Blofeld in this movie was probably inevitable given how the previous one ended, all that results is a fairly bland piece of by-the-numbers Bond – the boxes of the formula get dutifully ticked, but not much new gets added to the recipe.

You could view Diamonds are Forever as the conclusion of the first phase of Bond movies, which nearly all concern themselves with Connery’s Bond taking on SPECTRE in various ways. From being virtually ever-present in the early films, neither SPECTRE nor Blofeld would really feature again for over forty years after this point, and I have to say that while this may have been forced on the film-makers for legal reasons, making most of the Roger Moore movies standalones with new villains does give them more variety and life. I’m always much more entertained by the blaxploitation or chop-socky stylings of the early Moore films than by anything in Diamonds are Forever.

One way in which Diamonds are Forever does set a precedent for the rest of the series is that it establishes that it is perfectly acceptable for Bond to be an older gentleman. Connery was in his early 40s by this point, and the part wasn’t played by anyone younger than this until the advent of Craig (who was only a couple of years shy of 40). Fleming’s Bond is said to be 37 at one point in an early novel, so it’s not as if this is wildly at odds with the source material. Quite what one should make of Connery’s performance here is another matter – as someone pretending to be a smuggler, he certainly has the ‘smug’ part down pat. One never gets the impression that Sean Connery has a problem with a lack of self-belief, and in this film he’s practically a battering ram of entitled self-satisfaction.

This is not especially good news for a film which has an odd tonal problem – there’s some quite hard-edged violence at a couple of points (there are sequences which trouble the TV censors more than most older Bond films), but coupled to a slightly camp tone. All the Bond films are essentially masculine wish-fulfilment fantasies, but it somehow feels more obvious here than in many other cases, and in a particularly unappealing and slightly sleazy way. Connery gets the dodgy ‘collar and cuffs’ gag (to be honest, I’m not sure he or Blofeld has an interaction with a woman in this film which isn’t basically patronising, although Bond is pretty patronising to most of the men, too), and there’s the very dated and frankly dubious (if not outright offensive) material with Wint and Kidd to consider as well.

One of the dated elements of the movie which occasionally draws attention is the rather peculiar sequence in which Bond, having infiltrated the enemy base, discovers what appears to be the filming of a fake moon landing in progress. This was 1971, after all, when the Apollo programme was an ongoing thing, and it has been suggested that this is a not terribly deeply coded signal as to what was really going on at the time. Quite how Eon got wind of the lunar hoaxes and why they decided to blow the gaffe in this slightly oblique way is never really adequately explained, though.

It would be nice to find more genuinely positive things to say about Diamonds are Forever – I suppose I’ve always enjoyed Charles Gray’s performance, and the theme song is good too. In the end, though, this is Bond as an almost totally mechanical, formulaic spectacle, and entirely lacking in the lightness of touch and charm which the best films of the series possess. A bit of a disappointment however you look at it.

 

Read Full Post »

From Russia, With Love is, of course, the James Bond story which concludes with the death of Agent 007, undone by his own hubris, not to mention a spiked toecap covered in nerve poison. Bond crashes to the floor, struggling for breath, and everything fades to black, thus allowing his creator to get rid of a character he’d grown rather bored by.

I refer, of course, to From Russia, With Love the novel, not From Russia With Love the movie, at the conclusion of which James Bond is as unstoppably lively and priapic as ever. (As it turned out, Ian Fleming’s intention to kill Bond off was not followed through in the books, either, and the character went on to feature in several more novels, courtesy of prompt first aid from the French secret service.) There was surely never any intention to retain the ambiguous ending of the book for Terence Young’s 1963 movie version, mainly because one gets a strong sense of the producers realising just how good a thing they might be onto here – there’s an almost cautious quality about Dr No, the film-makers’ message being ‘This is a bit different, we think it’s quite good’, but by the following year they seem much more self-assured: this time round the subtext is ‘This is great, you’re going to love it.’

One thing which I think is too-little commented upon is the way that several of the early Bond movies arguably improve on the plots of the novels on which they are based. I’m not talking about those instances of the two shooting off in wildly different directions – the novel of You Only Live Twice is a dark, introspective tale of the death of the self, while the film concerns Blofeld’s spaceship-gobbling volcano – but those where the movie script adds just another level of complexity and adventure to the story.

I’m thinking of the nuclear bomb angle in Goldfinger (absent from the novel), and the main thrust of the plot in From Russia With Love. Bond himself (Connery, obvs) is absent for nearly the first twenty minutes of the film (well, a lookalike in a Connery mask gets killed right at the start), which concerns the nefarious machinations of SPECTRE, back when the organisation wasn’t run by Bond’s long-lost estranged secret adoptive brother (because the series is so much more gritty and realistic these days). SPECTRE are planning on stealing a top-secret Russian cipher machine and then selling it back to the Kremlin, employing an engagingly labyrinthine scheme dreamt up by a Czech chess grandmaster (Vladek Sheybal). The plan involves traitorous former Russian officer Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a paranoid homicidal maniac (Robert Shaw), a home-made blue movie, a winsome Russian file clerk (Daniela Bianchi), and – of course – British Intelligence’s most libidinous operative.

The late Kevin McClory’s claim to part-ownership of the entire Bond movie franchise, not just Thunderball, was based on the fact that he co-created SPECTRE, which was inserted into movies based on books in which the organisation did not feature. McClory argued that it is the fantasy of SPECTRE which turns the Bond stories from being slightly dour thrillers into something more accessible and fun. SPECTRE doesn’t feature in the novel, which revolves around an attempt by the Russian secret service to take their British opposite numbers down a few pegs, but Blofeld and his team are inserted into the script with great deftness, arguably improving the story a lot. Bond and M assume that this is a Russian plan from the start, while the Russians themselves have no idea what’s going on either. It’s unusual for the audience to be quite so many steps ahead of Bond as they are for much of this movie, and it works rather well in establishing tension, as well as making Bond less of an annoyingly smug superhero.

We’re still not quite in the realm of Bond movies as the theatre of the absurd, either – From Russia With Love is a little bit out there with its depictions of Blofeld and ‘SPECTRE Island’ (just down the coast from Anglesey, no doubt), but most of it is no more ridiculous than the average Jason Bourne movie. The movie is trying to be credible, not incredible, which is why chief heavy Grant (Shaw) isn’t a cartoon character like the movie versions of Oddjob or Tee Hee, and more interesting and plausible as a threat.

That said, you can see the elements of the Bond formula coming into focus with this movie, many of which weren’t there in Dr No: the pre-title sequence, the catchy theme song, the scene in which Bond is kitted out with handy gadgets by Q (not named as such on this debut appearance, and not showing much personality, either), and so on. The rest of it is the usual mixture of glamorous exotic locations, masculine power fantasy, and action set pieces – though it’s telling that the last few action beats of the film are distinctly low-key to the modern eye: a few motorboats catch fire and Bond has a fight with a middle-aged woman. The film certainly feels like it climaxes with the (really well-staged) fight to the death between Bond and Grant.

Connery swaggers through it all with his customary insouciance – in the past I have occasionally observed that I don’t think he’s an actor with a particularly impressive range, but he is always very good at projecting this particular type of character. The rest of the support is pretty good as well. Notable Bond girl trivia includes the fact that Eunice Gayson reappears as Bond’s girl-at-home (I met her once, 40 years after this film was made, and, do you know – she looked completely different), and Martine Beswick (ahhh, Martine Beswick) racks up (if that’s the right term) another Bond appearance as one of the fighting gypsy girls (she is credited as ‘Martin Beswick’ in the titles, which gives a wholly misleading impression).

It’s 2017, and From Russia With Love is closer in time to the end of the First World War than it is to the present day. The Bond films that are made nowadays are different beasts in terms of size, scale, expectations, and tone, but they still owe a huge debt to this film and a few other early 60s Bonds. The film is so much a product of its time that this in itself is a surprise; the fact that it still stands up as one of the very best films in the series is another. But there you go. The Bond series has long since become a legend, and every great legend hides a few mysteries.

 

 

Read Full Post »

Didn’t post, or indeed make, anything approaching a New Year resolution this year, which may be a sign of advancing age, or advancing cynicism, or something, but anyway. Nevertheless, I had a bit of a tidy-up of the garret, did a bit of vague positive thinking, and so on. Yes, I know, deeply impressive, isn’t it?

Well, anyway, this has all put me in mind of finishing off a little project from a few years ago, namely, looking at all of the official James Bond films. My original plan was to get all of these out of the way prior to the release of Skyfall in 2012, but obviously this did not happen, and a few Connerys remain outstanding. (Unfortunately only one of the outstanding Connerys is actually outstanding.) But we may as well pick these off as they become available.

Thunderball-Poster

Terence Young’s Thunderball was released in 1965, and was the fourth Bond movie – but, in a slightly odd way, it was also the first Bond movie, inasmuch as it actually started off as a film script, rather than a novel. This, basically, led to a gravy train for many generations of lawyers, primarily between Eon, producers of the official Bond films, who were of the opinion that they had exclusive rights to all Bond-related material, and Kevin McClory, who helped write the Thunderball script, and was thus somewhat peeved when elements of it started turning up in adaptations of completely different books. (The legal shenanigans arising from this explain why Blofeld and SPECTRE weren’t referred to by name in any of the films between 1971 and 2015, and why McClory was able to remake Thunderball as a non-Eon film in 1983.)

Every version of this story (and, as you can, there have been several) follows more-or-less the same lines: the evil minds at SPECTRE, led as ever by Bond’s arch-enemy Blofeld, have cooked up their most ambitious scheme yet – planting a surgically-modified traitor inside NATO to steal two nuclear warheads, which they will then ransom back to the world’s governments for a huge fee. Unfortunately for the bad guys, the final stages of prep for their nefarious undertaking are based out of a health farm in southern England, which their most indefatiguable foe just happens to be visiting…

Well, at this point in history you can kind of see Eon realising they were potentially onto a very good thing with the Bond franchise, and you could probably argue it’s the first film in the series which is aware of its own identity as something called A James Bond Movie. It’s not quite that they’ve taken their foot off the pedal, although this movie has rather less of an edge than previous ones, nor is it that they seem to be taking particular pains not to mess with what was clearly a winning formula. It’s just that there’s a very slight whiff of perfunctoriness about proceedings, in some respects, a definite sense of the film-makers being more concerned with pure spectacle than anything else.

Of course, with its big set pieces and huge concluding battle/chase, Thunderball certainly delivers, but a lot of that spectacle takes the form of lavish underwater sequences, which are necessarily silent and just a little bit slow. (I believe this was the longest pre-Craig Bond film, probably due to all the sub-aqua stuff padding it out.) The bad guys, primarily SPECTRE bigwig Largo (Adolfo Celi) and femme fatale Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), are capable but not quite of the first rank – in fact the same can be said for most of the visiting cast. Rik van Nutter delivers the least arresting incarnation of Felix Leiter this side of Dalton’s first Bond film, and casting the rather insipid Claudine Auger as the main girl is a bad move, especially when you consider that the bodacious Martine Beswick was also hanging around the set, being criminally underused as one of Bond’s sidekicks.

So this isn’t a favourite Bond for me, and I find it a long and oddly charmless film compared to the ones on either side of it. But it is interesting inasmuch as it’s a textbook example of the classic Bond formula, not making any effort to deviate from the norms of the series.

Bond, by this point, is basically just a male wish-fulfilment figure who gets to swan around doing and getting whatever (and whoever) he wants. He still functions as a post-imperial fantasy hero on some level, but the wish-fulfilment thing is definitely where he’s coming from. And the odd thing is that this makes him a curiously unengaging and, by modern standards, actually quite unpleasant character. His arrogance has crossed the border into a very punchable smugness, and he’s just not human or vulnerable enough to be interesting. Bond’s sexual politics have always been a bit iffy, but some of the goings-on here are as nasty as anything else in the series – Molly Peters’ physio at the health spa initially wants nothing to do with him, but is basically blackmailed by Bond into being the recipient of a proper seeing-to, at which point she becomes as besotted with him as anyone else – predictably, he seems not to genuinely care for her at all.

Beyond this, Thunderball also epitomises the tendency for Bond films to look like adverts for various different things – cars, exotic locales, liquor, suits, jewellery, and so on. It’s a fantasy world of conspicuous consumption, and when the plot occasionally surfaces (as of course it must) it just means that the film looks like a commercial for things you wouldn’t want or be able to buy in the first place – people being eaten by sharks, impaled by spearguns, tortured, and so on. I suppose you could argue that this is the root of the complaint that the Bond films glamourise violence and immorality, and I suppose they have a point.

Perhaps that’s the thing about Thunderball – lacking a really sympathetic lead, and with a script that’s somewhat short of the usual jokes (there are some quite tired ones here), the dark side of Bond is perhaps closer to the surface than usual in a way that doesn’t usually happen. It’s kind of tempting to blame Kevin McClory for this, given that his involvement is the main change in behind-the-scenes personnel between this and the other Connery Bonds, but the odd thing is that Never Say Never Again, which remakes this story, does so with both grit and humour – then again, McClory was only executive producer on the 1983 film.

I suppose Thunderball isn’t really a bad film, but it’s as big a wobble as the Bond series had in the 1960s, especially when you consider the sheer overall quality of the initial run of Connery films. This isn’t quite the series resting on its laurels and going to autopilot, but it’s a near thing.

Read Full Post »

Crikey, here we are at the end of May – only five months to go until the release of Skyfall, by which point I hope to have finished looking at all the other Bond movies (well, apart from the original version of Casino Royale, and as for Never Say Never Again… mm-mm, we’ll see). Better get on with it then. Let us proceed with one of the (surely) indisputable masterpieces of the form, Guy Hamilton’s 1964 adaptation of Goldfinger.

Preening Scots-Swiss poseur and sex maniac James Bond (Connery, natch), who in his scarce free time does a little light duty as a civil servant, is put on the trail of Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), an industrial magnate suspected of being a major-league gold smuggler. (There’s nominative determinism in action for you and no mistake.) Bond is quite pleased about this as a previous encounter resulted in Bond getting bopped on the head and his then-girlfriend being painted to death (inventive stuff, this). Following one of the very few exciting games of golf in the history of the world, Bond ends up trailing Goldfinger to Switzerland, where the villain straps him to a table, points a laser gun up his trouser leg and threatens to cut off his benefits. Quick thinking on Bond’s part saves both his life and his social life, and finds himself whisked off to the States where Finger has bigger goldfish to fry. Oh, hang on a minute…

I’m being more than usually facetious about the plot of Goldfinger, but if any film can take it it’s this one – if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this is surely the most sincerely flattered film in history: of the twenty Bond movies to date which have followed it, all of them owe it a huge stylistic debt, and most of them cheerfully reinterpret key sequences. (To say nothing of the legion of Bond knock-offs down the decades.) Obviously this is not the first Bond film, nor perhaps the best (I think From Russia With Love still pips it, but only just), but it marks the point at which the Bond movies went from being a well-received and lucrative series of films to the iconic, world-conquering phenomenon they have remained for most of the intervening time.

So what’s different about Goldfinger, what made this the tipping point – or, if you prefer, the critical mass – for Bond? I think all the answers you need are in the first five minutes or so of the film. After the white circle/gun barrel routine, we see Bond emerge from the briny deep with a stuffed duck upon his head, sneak into the base of some politically-motivated heroin smugglers, blow lots of stuff up, remove his wetsuit to reveal an impeccable tuxedo, and attempt to kill some time by getting down to it with a nightclub dancer (but end up having to kill an assassin instead). At which point the greatest Bond title sequence of the lot slams in and Dame Shirley starts belting out the theme tune. In other words, we get daft sight gags, silly gadgets, carnage, a little bit of sex, an implausible violent death, a bad pun and just enough plot to keep everything else coherent: if that isn’t the classic Bond formula boiled down to its essentials I don’t know what is.

It is, of course, utterly ridiculous as the stuff of a serious thriller – although apparently the tuxedo-under-the-wetsuit gag was inspired by a real mission during the Second World War – but, crucially, the film is entirely aware of this and lets you know it, mostly through Connery’s very tongue-in-cheek performance. The whole of the film operates on this level – silly, but knowingly and fashionably silly, and the results are winning.

One of the interesting things about this film, watching it today, is how difficult it is at times to actually engage with Bond as the central character. My father, when watching this film, is wont to exclaim ‘How smug!’ at the end of many of Goldfinger’s big scenes – but he’s no more smug than Bond, most of the time. Bond himself is not just smug but a terrible snob – he declares the Beatles are unlistenable (I wonder if anyone told Paul McCartney that when he was working on Live and Let Die?) – and relentlessly patronising towards all the female characters. The most striking difference between Bond and Goldfinger, who are both bon viveurs of the highest order, is that the hero is young, saturnine and athletic, while the villain is middle-aged, pale and fat: we are perhaps getting uncomfortably close to the underlying politics of the Bond series here.

This is a James Bond film, of course, so James Bond is obviously going to be the hero. But even so… A friend of mine has been watching a Bond film most Sundays of late, and sharing his reactions with the world, and his response to Goldfinger was that it has very dodgy sexual politics, most obviously in the scene in which Bond forces his attentions on Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) – she initially resists, but her struggling rapidly changes to passionate enthusiasm.

One could automatically respond that this is a Bond movie, and so of course the sexual politics are going to be very dodgy – but even so, this is still a slightly troubling moment, made worse by the fact that it’s crucial to the plot – there’s no other reason given for Pussy’s change of allegiance, which is the sole reason Goldfinger’s schemes fail, but Bond’s magic shagging powers. It would have been easy to enough to make her oblivious of the lethal element of Goldfinger’s plan until informed of this by Bond, at which point her better nature would lead her to renege – but I suppose the magic shagging was easier to script.

I can’t find it in my heart to be too hard on a script as tight and well-thought-through as this, which in a couple of places indeed improves on the novel. There’s still the awkward requirement for a sequence in which Goldfinger explains his plan at great length to a group of people who he’s planning to kill minutes later, which is not the most elegant plotting, but the rest of it is fairly exemplary.

So exemplary, in fact, that Eon have spent some of the time since Goldfinger was made trying to figure out a different and better way of telling the story of a Bond movie. They have met with only limited success, which means that the rest of the time – the majority of the time – they have essentially been remaking Goldfinger over and over again with superficially different characters, settings and plot vouchers. Possibly not the best of the series, but very, very near the top of the pile, and arguably one of the essential movies of all time.

Read Full Post »

Sometimes persistent franchises sprout from the most unlikely places. Originally released in 1986, Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander was, by modern standards, a significant flop, only recouping about three-quarters of its budget. And yet here we are, over a quarter of a century later, with five movie sequels, nearly a dozen spin-off novels, and three TV series boasting 181 episodes between them, all resulting from this same flop movie. Is this an example of a cult classic that somehow failed to find an audience on its original release? Or just a slightly duff movie that doesn’t know how to take a hint?

Well, um, er. I knew the plot of Highlander long before I first saw it, so perhaps the details of the narrative didn’t surprise me as much as the makers hoped. If so, then Highlander ingenues may wish to avert their eyes as it’s summarisin’ time. New York City in the 1980s, and a man (Christopher Lambert) in the crowd of a wrestling match is troubled by visions of a mediaeval battle. As you would, he pops out to the car park, where a man in sinister mirrorshades accosts him and whips out a sword. Luckily our man has his own weapon and the two of them go at it with gusto until the mirrorshaded gentleman is summarily decapitated. Charming mid-80s special effects ensue.

It is, shall we say, a slightly bonkers start to a film and one which the rest of the plot completely lives up to. For our hero started life as Connor Macleod, warrior of a Scottish clan, born in the 16th century. Seriously wounded in battle with a brutal Russian warrior known as the Kurgan (perennial nearly-man Clancy Brown), Macleod should die – but he doesn’t. Driven out of his clan when his miraculous recovery draws accusations of witchcraft, Macleod is befriended by enigmatic Spaniard (or is he Egyptian?) Ramirez (Sean Connery), who reveals the truth. Both they and the Kurgan are Immortals, warriors destined to battle down the ages until a final reckoning in a distant land. Until that time they will never age or sicken, and the only way they can die is through beheading…

Well, four hundred years later and the final battle is at hand – Macleod, the Kurgan, and a handful of other Immortals are all in town, with the fate of the world ultimately at stake. If only Macleod didn’t have to worry about the NYPD forensic scientist (Roxanne Hart) – who also, as barely credible plot-contrivance would have it, happens to be an expert on mediaeval weapons – dogging his steps.

On a very basic level the plot of Highlander is clearly absurd – at one point Macleod demands to know why some people become Immortal and why they have to live their lives in accordance with some rather arcane guidelines, and Ramirez’s response is essentially ‘They just do!’ (Even so, this is probably better than all the extraordinary cobblers about aliens from the planet Zeist which gets retconned into the story in the first sequel.) It’s clear that writer Gregory Widen came up with the concept for the movie first and then wrote the details in later.

And, to be fair, Highlander does have originality on its side, if not sense. The out-of-sequence storytelling works quite well in keeping the story going and it avoids most of the cliches of the standard sword-and-sorcery film (because that’s essentially what it boils down to being). The concept is a strong one with much potential.

Unfortunately, its realisation here is not exactly ideal. Some of Russell Mulcahy’s visual stylings are interesting and effective, but all too often he gets carried away and the results are frenetically shot and edited sequences that just seem over the top. The New York end of the story comes across as comic strip stuff, with some dodgy dialogue and uninspired performances from the supporting cast.

The Scottish stuff, on the other hand, is more interesting – almost reaching the mythic tone it’s clearly gunning for, properly romantic in the true sense of the word. On the other hand, it’s also wandering very close to Monty Python and the Holy Grail territory much of the time, as a man with a strange French accent wanders the landscape giving a very eccentric performance.

Ah, Christopher Lambert. For all I know he may be one of the greatest living French actors, but in English the only performance of his I’ve ever seen that wasn’t all over the place was in Greystoke (and there they let him keep his own accent). The peculiar noises coming out of Lambert’s mouth in this film do not bear much resemblence to a Scottish accent, but then neither do they much resemble anything else. The problem is only compounded by the presence in many of the same scenes of Sean Connery, a man physically incapable of not doing a Scottish accent, even when playing an Egyptian (or is he Spanish?). Connery gives a typically big (possibly a bit too big) performance, and he’s one of the best things in the film, setting the tone rather well with his opening narration (recorded, apparently, in his own bathroom, hence the echo). As the Kurgan, Clancy Brown is likewise wildly over-the-top, but given the people and performances he’s got to compete with this is a fairly understandable choice.

So it’s all more-than-a-bit-silly, knockabout stuff, but what partially redeems it – and, I genuinely believe, is a major reason for this film enduring – is the soundtrack. The one moment in the film which is genuinely moving is when Macleod’s first wife ages and dies, with him a helpless onlooker – and it derives much of its power from the song playing over it. It is, of course, ‘Who wants to live forever?’ by Queen, just one of many songs which add enormously to the atmosphere of the film. Queen’s contribution to this movie is difficult to overstate – the film’s mixture of romance, glitzy excess, grit, and nonsense seems to have been an uncommonly good match for Queen’s own style. (It probably helps that, in Freddie Mercury, the band had a front-man supremely well-equipped to deliver a line like ‘I have no rival! No man can be my equal!’ with total conviction.)

Watching Highlander you’re never under the illusion that you’re watching a great movie, but it is a consistently fun and entertaining one. The story is interesting and well-told enough to make you overlook the various more-than-usually crap bits, and the lead performances are memorable in their special different ways. Watching it with my father, he was profoundly unimpressed by the conclusion – ‘That’s all? He just gets to grow old and die?!?’ (oops, spoiler there – sorry) – and I can sort of see his point. But the thing about Highlander in general, and this movie in particular, is that it’s much more about the pleasure of the journey than the reward at the destination.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »