This was Lewis Gilbert’s best Bond film (which isn’t saying very much). This film straddles the line between good and bad filmmaking for its entirety. At the end it’s hard to say just which has edged the other out in predomination.
Something tells me the director in question is less to blame for these debacles than I had previously thought. It seems that there was an artless voice from above which was exerting pressure upon our metteur en scène. Was it perhaps Albert Broccoli?
Enough with the finger-pointing. Let’s talk about why this film is bad (and occasionally good).
The opening sequence is quite masterful. It is, in fact, to these eyes more impressive than the feted ski jump from The Spy Who Loved Me. And so, from the start, we are back in the company of dear old Jaws (Richard Kiel). Any question as to whether he survived the fall from a plane sans parachute is answered quite quickly in the opening credits. His name is prominent enough (comes quickly after the top-billed stars) that we assume (and correctly) that he did indeed live through the plunge. It is just this sort of clumsy filmmaking which typifies Gilbert’s contributions to the series. This daft touch even shows up at the end of the opening credits when the last chord of the song carries over like a maudlin, syrupy blanket into the shot of Q milling about in M’s office. It is like we are watching Days of Our Lives. One can hardly take such careless filmmaking seriously.
At least Holly Goodhead continues a string of success regarding the names of Bond girls.
Perhaps the most telling S.O.S. from Lewis Gilbert is the obvious homage to Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu. As Drax and his hunting party are taking leisure in sportsmanship, his assistants are swatting at the tree trunks with sticks or canes to scare the birds into the air. Only the finest of minds would work this deft reference into such an otherwise brutish series.
The bit atop Sugarloaf Mountain is generally delightful. Perhaps Wes Anderson had this in mind when he plotted the funicular rendezvous in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Jaws meeting the buxom, bespectacled Dolly is just impossibly cute (with the strains of Tchaikovsky in the background). In a final bit of touching panache, Jaws switches allegiances to help out Bond and Goodhead. It is actually a masterful stroke in a series rife with pithy henchmen. We even get to hear Kiel’s voice for once (after he pops a champagne cork by prying it off with his metal teeth).
The film really gets bad when it tries to not only relive the glory of Thunderball, but also tries to transpose that elusive magic into the milieu of Star Wars. To say that the outer-space laser battle has not aged well would be a fairly grand understatement. Of particular offence are the sound effects which make Oskar Sala’s noises from The Birds sound like Mozart by comparison. The lasers sound so cheap and doinky that the entire mise-en-scène falls apart.
Gilbert didn’t really have a very persuasive Bond girl to work with either. Lois Chiles has about as much personality as a wet rag. Likewise, we are subject to “villain fail” once again. Michael Lonsdale is merely a sweaty schlub who happens to have the same tailor as Chairman Mao. Toshiro Suga is comedically unmenacing. Corinne Cléry would have made a much better Bond girl. At least her demise at the hand (paw?) of dogs was unique to the series thus far.
Truth be told: Blanche Ravalec is the most attractive girl in this movie (with honorable mention to the redhead and the short-haired blonde in Drax’s “ark”).
But saving the most important for last, let us try and deconstruct after Derrida. The positively worst, most abrupt cut in the entire series happens when Bond is ejected from the back of an ambulance onto a road in Rio. With absolutely no segue, we next see him on a horse in full vaquero costume. It is at this point that the movie becomes so absurdly bad and ineptly surreal. In truth, the whole film hinges on this one amateurish cut. And it is from analyzing outwards (concentrically) that I assume Lewis Gilbert was subject to a maltreatment akin to that suffered by Orson Welles post-Kane. No director deserves to be so abused.