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Posts Tagged ‘Terence Young’

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.

 

 

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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.

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Successful fictional creations seem to have a habit of breaking free of their creator’s control – sometimes, anyway. The more fully conceived a character or a setting, the more it seems to exist as a separate entity to the person who actually thought it up. I suppose this reaches its fullest expression when a new author is recruited to continue a popular series whose originator has passed away: the idea apparently being that the creator didn’t actually create somewhere new, but stumbled upon it and brought back stories already existing there, and that in theory anyone else could do the same. This is probably the ultimate backhanded compliment for a storyteller (it also happens to be a pet hate of mine, and I got told off for describing the new non-Douglas Adams Hitch Hiker book as literary grave-robbing).

Possibly the ultimate example of a character busting loose and rampaging off away from their roots is the James Bond phenomenon. I think many people could tell you who created the character, but of the billion-plus people who’ve seen one or more of the movies I suspect only a tiny minority have actually read one of Ian Fleming’s original novels. The essential concept of the character hasn’t changed that much over the years – Bond remains a very smooth blunt instrument at the command of the British government – but when you think of the (generally family-friendly) swagger and humour and over-the-top spectacle of the movies, it’s a world away from the darkness of the books. It’s also telling, I think, that when Timothy Dalton tried to go back to the source to find his characterisation audiences were not impressed – and while audiences liked Daniel Craig’s very Fleming-esque Bond in his first outing, by the time of his second they were showing signs of restlessness at how dark and downbeat the movies he appeared in were.

Ian Fleming’s own preferred choice of actor to bring James Bond to the screen was, as I think is quite well known, Roger Moore. His first choice of actor to play opposite him was his cousin Christopher Lee, which raises the alarming spectre – no pun intended – of his ideal Bond adaptation being the movie version of The Man with the Golden Gun. Then again, as I’ve said before, I think Moore is exactly right for the style of movies he made, and mainly gets stick simply for not being Connery. Going first, the Milkman (who Fleming himself apparently thought was ‘dreadful’) basically got to put up the goalposts himself – there’s a lot of Fleming’s Bond in Connery’s performance, especially at first, but he’s a bit more open emotionally (and, crucially, has more of a sense of humour) – even if he’s about as ruthless here as he’s ever allowed to be on screen.

Hey, what do you know, we’ve surreptitiously segued into an actual review of Dr No! Could this mean another Bond season is running, which will inevitably be followed by a string of Bond-related posts here? Could be. Having done the same for Moore, I think I am obliged to extend the Milkman the same courtesy.

I think it’s fairly doubtful that Eon anticipated the Bond franchise would run for 46 years (and counting) when they started pre-production on Dr No, but it’s very evident that they were playing a long game from the start. The beginning of the film is brilliantly designed to build up to our first sight of Connery’s face, which comes just as he utters one of the Bond catch-phrases and as the theme kicks in in the background. Connery has presence, there’s no denying it, but virtually anybody would come out looking good under these conditions.

In the end they persuaded him that a toupee was a better option.

The rest of the film is pretty low-key by Bond standards, with the weirder elements of the novel largely toned down or cut. (The novel’s centipede is replaced by a tarantula, a more conventional scare for those who don’t know exactly how painful tropical centipede bites can be – did I mention I was scarred for life by one of those buggers?) The omission of the climactic fight between Bond and a giant squid (no, really) one can mainly pit down to budgetary constraints, while alteration in the manner of Dr No’s demise (in the book Bond buries him alive under tons of powdered guano) is probably done for reasons of taste and decency.

What remains is a slick, tough, well-put together thriller – one can just about see the modern action movie coming into existence as the film unholds, but I don’t think anyone watching at the time would have thought the same. It’s slightly structurally odd in that of the three main characters, two of them don’t appear until deep into the second half of the story, but this does allow Bond himself to dominate which was surely the film-makers’ intention. Judging it as a ‘Bond movie’ is slightly odd and possibly unfair, as we’re talking about a set of criteria that didn’t even exist when it was made, but it emerges well anyway – shorter on spectacle than most, but also stronger on character. Almost certainly not the best movie in the series, but a landmark movie as well as a good one.

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