Moonraker [1979)

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.

 

-PD

The Spy Who Loved Me [1977)

I hate to be a downer, but this one just doesn’t cut it.  It is as bad as You Only Live Twice.  It even shares the same essential plot as that clunker.  The common theme between these two films is the director:  Lewis Gilbert.  The sad conclusion is that Gilbert did not have the auteurist touch of Guy Hamilton or Terence Young.

At least there’s the ski jump (with Union Jack parachute).  At least Jaws (Richard Kiel) is magnificently creepy.  At least there is Barbara Bach (though her acting doesn’t register as highly as her physique).  Curd Jürgens is a snoozer villain.  Don Knotts might have been scarier.

Perhaps the best part of the movie is the song.  It is genuinely great!  “Nobody Does It Better” was written by Marvin Hamlisch and sung by Carly Simon.  Sadly, it’s all down hill from the opening credits.

 

-PD

You Only Live Twice [1967)

And here we start to drift…

Sure…we finally see the face of the man petting the cat (Donald Pleasence as the archetype for what would become Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers series), but I can’t say I was overly impressed with the directing of Lewis Gilbert.  In a series thus far dominated by the underrated Terence Young, even Guy Hamilton had turned in an admirable film with Goldfinger (1964), but You Only Live Twice might better have been allowed to only live once (or not at all).

When I saw Roald Dahl’s name in the opening credits, I was reassured.  And I am always glad to see production designer Ken Adam’s name.  But something is awry with this film.  It is a bit of a limp fish (and not, sadly, fine sushi).

From the beginning (Bond’s burial at sea) the modern viewer might be thinking of another figure supposedly buried at sea:  Osama bin Laden.  Perhaps the two deaths are equally credible.

Karin Dor might have saved this movie, but sadly she is eaten a bit prematurely by piranhas.  And while the piranhas fit with the methods of past Bond movies (sharks in Thunderball, for instance), there are some troubling details which make it clear the creators of this film might have been well-served to stick closer to Fleming’s novel than they did.

Bond flies a miniature helicopter to an island between Kobe and Shanghai:  somewhere along an 829-mile-long route.  Little Nellie (the chopper) could hardly have made it much outside of the bay before running out of fuel, but with all the gadgetry on board we might just suspend our disbelief.  Perhaps it is even Tokyo from whence Little Nellie departs:  an even greater haul.  It really isn’t made very clear (or else I missed it).  Maybe “Tiger” Tanaka had a base close to Blofeld’s island that I failed to register.

Karin Dor’s (Helga Brandt–#11 in S.P.E.C.T.R.E.) abrupt reversal from sleeping with Bond to disposing of him by parachuting from a plane in which she traps him really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  Why didn’t she just go ahead and use the plastic surgery tool in the first place?  Her interrogation is weak.  For what it’s worth, her threat of torture only got half the truth:  Bond admitting to being a spy (but an industrial spy after a measly $300,000).

At least the scene in the autogyro is somewhat entertaining, but nothing compared to the underwater battle in Thunderball.  Seems the Eon franchise was running a bit thin on ideas by this point.  Mercifully, the scenery of Japan is nice (the wedding, the passing funeral, etc.).

The overall premise of the movie is good.  It is believable.  It is only the execution and the details which mar what could have otherwise been another classic in this series.  The ninjas are a bit funny, but when in Tokyo (as they say)…  Perhaps the funniest part is Connery as a Japanese man (by way of Lon Chaney methods).

Kissy Suzuki takes the prize as the best name.  Score another for the Bond girls in the “memorable name” category.  But part of the confusion is that there are three possible Bond girls:  one who dies by poison, one who is  promising (and pleasing to the eye) until stripped to the bone by omnivorous fish, and Kissy.  It’s typical of a movie which doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to be.  It is formulaic, but that didn’t stop the first four Eon-produced Bond movies from being generally fantastic.  The error comes in tentative experimentation, not enough experimentation, and the setting-in of creative lethargy as regards the Bond series’ “tricks.”

No doubt, for 1967 this was some ambitious filmmaking.  Ken Adam did a reasonably good job of trying to take the series to the next level with his set design, but the overall product is just not convincing.  Truth be told, Adam and the main persons responsible for this film could have all died aboard BOAC Flight 911 had they not been convinced to stay in Japan on the scouting trip a bit longer and watch some ninjas.  Perhaps having the ninjas in the film was a bit of thanks for the disaster they narrowly escaped.  All on board the flight they were scheduled to take died when it crashed 25 minutes after takeoff.

Roald Dahl (whose name I mentioned earlier) wrote the screenplay.  He had been a close friend of Ian Fleming.  Despite their friendship, Dahl considered the novel upon which the movie was based to be Fleming’s worst.  Indeed, Dahl resorted (due to apparent lack of plot in the novel) to aping Dr. No to a significant extent.  Dahl was, however, quite complimentary of director Lewis Gilbert.  Perhaps the deck was just really stacked against the auteur in question.

There’s no doubt that great effort went into making this film.  A cameraman (John Jordan) lost his foot, for God’s sake!  No, the dearth wasn’t in physical “energy,” but in mental excitement.

Editor Peter Hunt went on to direct the next Bond film (due to his successful sorting and sifting of the footage from this gargantuan blob).

At least the title song is great (thanks to Nancy Sinatra).

 

-PD