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

 

 

 

From Russia With Love [1963)

James Bond came back to the big screen in his second Eon Productions (Everything Or Nothing) appearance with twice the budget of 1962’s Dr. No.  A smash success, its $2 million budget was heartily recouped (and fast) with $78 million in box office receipts.  Dr. No itself had been a hugely profitable venture at $1.1 million budget and $59.5 million at the box office.  The extra budget was evident (and worth it) even if the profit percentage was less.  It was clear that Eon had a hit series on their hands (and rightly so).

The series starts to stretch out–venturing from author Ian Fleming’s adopted writing retreat of Jamaica to exotic Istanbul.  The gypsy camp scene is particularly memorable and full of the gratuitous sexual aspects which some critics found distasteful as early as the previous Eon Bond production.  Apparently those in charge weren’t listening to the critics, but rather to the theatregoers.

Geography buffs will be happy to have the setting shift to the Cold War locale of Zagreb.  And fans of thrillers and nearly-escaped imbroglios will find high entertainment in Bond’s fistfight with Grant (the SPECTRE agent tasked with killing our hero).  Terence Young does a masterful job of framing the scene with a tension befitting a Houdini stunt.  Just as it seems Bond has no chance for escape, he finagles an opportunity for survival.  Bond’s apparent martial arts skills somehow prevail in the ensuing hand-to-hand combat with Grant.  We find Bond to be a super-human super-spy:  brilliant and physically miraculous.

It is, indeed, in this second installment of the Bond series (the “official” Eon series) which we encounter an absolute whole-cloth lifting of ideas from Hitchcock.  There is no crop duster, but rather a bubble-windowed helicopter which buzzes Bond repeatedly in what might be described as a flattering imitation of (and reference to) North By Northwest.  But Terence Young had a talent of his own and that becomes evident in the boat chase which ends with the once-again-brilliant Bond using a flare gun to ignite the oil-barrel jetsam which had been punctured and leaking petrol before Bond cut them loose to float in the vicinity of SPECTRE’s pursuing attack fleet.

We find in this film many archetypes which would be taken up humorously in the Austin Powers series.  The homely Number 3 (played by Lotte Lenya), the presence of Number 1…always stroking his cat (the man’s face is never seen in the film), etc.  Desmond Llewelyn makes his debut as Q (or, more accurately, head of Q branch).  The innovations were made possible by the largesse of United Artists (working with Eon Productions…even giving Connery a personal bonus which was equal to roughly 200% of the salary he was to make).

It is interesting to note that J.F.K. himself was impressed enough with Fleming’s novel From Russia With Love (upon which the film, of course, was based) that he named it one of his ten favorite books in Life magazine.  The film was the last viewing Kennedy would do in the White House as he was murdered two days after seeing it.

Dr. No’s production designer Ken Adam went on to do production design for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove rather than work on From Russia With Love.  1960 Miss Universe runner-up Daniela Bianchi was cast as the “Bond Girl” Tatiana.  Though Topkapi was considered a potential location for the filming of the gypsy camp, this and most other scenes were actually executed at Pinewood Studios in Britain (mainly to qualify for U.K. government funding assistance).

The many flourishes of the film include the character Kronsteen closely replicating Boris Spassky’s chess match victory in 1960 over David Bronstein.  Indeed, Kronsteen is the mastermind whose plans go awry when they encounter the unaccounted-for intangibles of the incredible James Bond.  Another nod to director Terence Young should be made for his help in choreographing the fight scene between Bond and Grant.  Young was, himself, a boxer while at Cambridge.  That single fight in the train stateroom took three weeks to film.  It really is a memorably evocative struggle.  Young’s own mettle was tested during filming when a helicopter from which he was filming crashed in 40-50 feet of water and sank.  He resumed filming the same day.  Another calamity would befall a filming vehicle when a boat filled with cameras sank in the Bosporus during the boat chase scene.

Once again, the Bond films should not be discounted as mere fluff.  Cambridge man Young managed to have opening credits (by Robert Brownjohn) reference Moholy-Nagy.  I will leave it to the reader to decide if this is as impressive as Hitchcock’s Vertigo opening with geometric shapes attributable to Jules Antoine Lissajous (by way, naturally, of Saul Bass).

J.F.K. saw this film before U.S. audiences as it was not released in the States until 1964.  Meanwhile, critics like Richard Roud continued to level accusations of immorality at the Bond movies upon its release.  At least he acknowledged it as, “fun.”  Indeed.  Several reviewers finally realized that the Bond series in fact had tongue wedged firmly in cheek.  It is cheeky.

Young was indeed doing something similar to the French New Wave in “exploding a genre from the inside-out” to paraphrase James Monaco (the genre in question being “thriller”).  And so it is that the enthusiasm for cinema (whether high art or low brow) should and does live on.  In reevaluating Terence Young and giving such directors as Wes Anderson an invitation to immortality, film history plods onwards by way of thinking…”deeper into movies,” to quote Yo La Tengo quoting Pauline Kael.

 

-PD