Thursday, May 29, 2008
I'm not going to argue that it's one of the greatest Bond movies. I'm not going to have it in my top 5, or even my top 10.
And yeah, it doesn't have a "classic" teaser, opening credit sequence or theme song. And there's no Q, and no gadgets.
But what the movie does is, almost as well as possible, set the stage for the future of the franchise. Yes, there are laconic stretches. There are pacing and structural problems. But viewed from the right angle, this film is like looking at a childhood photo of someone you know--if you squint, you can see the features developing then that are so familiar now.
Last week, I discussed what could have happened had someone else besides Broccoli and Saltzman gotten ahold of the rights to all the Fleming novels. Well, Broccoli and Saltzman seemed to realize that, too, as they start out the film by making explicit comparisons between past conceptions of spy films, and what they had in mind.
Look at how the film begins: we see what a British agent looks like: a middle-aged man sitting playing bridge with his crusty companions. His "spying" consists of using a radio (gasp) to transmit a signal to London. Receiving that signal? A room fool of nerds in glasses, bow ties and sweaters. Their idea of "urgent" is to have a secretary rush a note over to someone on the other side of the same room. So, that's what MI-6 is like? It's all very Alec Guinness/Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which may be the most accurate view of what spying was actually like, but will it make a good film series?
But wait...suddenly this tranquil set-up is shattered by the bizarre. The three fake blind men (fake blind...I'm presuming that they're really men) shoot Strangways IN THE BACK!! They gun down his helpless secretary, a WOMAN!! They use a HEARSE!! Peter Hunt's editing helps makes it clear, this is not a menace from the normal world, and it's not something the "normal" British agents can deal with!
But now, we're at the Ambassador's Club, perhaps the antithesis of the casual country club at Jamaica. No middle aged man in a linen suit, playing bridge for dollar stakes with lads. When we meet Bond, he's wearing a tuxedo, playing exotic baccarat with gorgeous playgirls for thousands of pounds. It's almost the same scene as when we meet Strangways, but in so many ways the complete opposite.
And when we first see Bond...wow. Unlike Barry Nelson, Sean just looks comfortable and at home in the tux...yet still lean and hungry and dangerous. We don't know Bond yet, but we already believe he's smart, sharp and able to kill. (Fun fact most people don't remember: Bond only introduces himself as "Bond--James Bond" because that's exactly how Sylvia Trench introduces herself seconds earlier..."Trench--Sylvia Trench." And he passes up the chance to do so when Honey introduces herself the same way...So that whole cliche was really started by Sylvia!!)
And with the next scene, we realize that Bond wasn't even at work yet...that's just how he relaxes!!
And what a scene comes next...the writers are brave enough to throw us into M's office as if this universe is already "lived in." There's not a lot of plodding exposition. Bond already knows Moneypenny, long enough to already have the joking relationship. This isn't Bond's first 00 mission. M respects him, but knows when to be firm with him, making him adopt the Walther PPK. Yet he doesn't get upset when Bond tries to sneak off with his beloved Beretta...he knows this kind of risk-taking and stubbornness are needed for Double-0 missions. When Bond leaves, M intercoms to Moneypenny to "forget the usual repartee," again making us think this is just one more mission in a long line.
The whole scene...information is gently seeded into the normal conversation, not pounded into our heads in an exposition dump, as happens today in so many movies.
In those first 15 minutes, the basics of the franchise are established so successfully, they could have come from any of the Bond films (excepting, of course, for Q's absence). And we also have the Bond films' mission statement: this is no button down, Good Shepherd type of spy. The 00 branch is for the unusual, the aggressive, the things "normal" spies can't handle. Despite Dr. No's dismissal, this agent was nore mere "stupid policeman."
And then we get to Jamaica. Let's say first, the locations are used beautifully, the set designs wonderful. But our pacing...well, this is where we're not quite at the "mature" Bond films yet. It's over an hour into the movie until we even meet the Bond Girl, Honey Rider. We don't meet Dr. No in the flesh until 1:27 into the movie...with only 20 minutes to go!! That means we spend about 45 minutes touring around Jamaica, essentially killing time...and about half an hour hiding out on Crab Key waiting to get captured.
It's not that some of what happens isn't good--some of it is quite good--but do we need a 4-minute scene of Bond using hair and talcum powder to see if his room has been tampered with, and then another 3-minute scene where he examines them? There's lots and lots and LOTS casual loafing around until we get to the point, which makes the movie feel slack by today's standards.
There's also way too much establishing that everyone is scared of No, that Quarrel is superstitious and drinks, that Jamaica is beautiful. But, then again, you can never get enough of this hotel clerk checking out Bond's ass
One good thing during the film's languid middle is that we do get to establish what a ruthless, cold-hearted bastard James is. The game he plays with Miss Taro is almost too cruel. And casually popping that extra bullet in Professor Dent's back is so cold, it was almost censored from the movie.
When we finally get to Dr. No, he becomes the prototype Bond villain: urbane, physically deformed as a symbol of moral deformity, megalomaniacal. Jospeh Wiseman isn't given a lot to do...the vocal in the scene with Dent, and maybe 12-15 minutes of actual screen time. But he is the quintessential foe, the flawed but powerful maniac who can't be stopped by normal means. He's why every Bond parody villain where a Nehru jacket (hey, isn't it time for those to make a comeback?)
And check out his waiting room:
It's been said before, and it will be said again, but KEN ADAM IS A FREAKIN' GENIUS. I mean, look at that. Right from the start, Adam was taking his penny-ante budgets and creating scenic art that served a purpose: making sure that we knew down to our souls that Bond's world was not a normal one, that no mere agent could ever survive this. James Bond was in a heightened, one half-step into the future world. Kudos to Adam--and kudos to director Terrance Young for having the wisdom to set the scene well and properly use the sets Adam created.
Anyway, because of the slack middle portion of the movie, the ending does comes across as quite rushed. After the dinner with Dr. No, there's only 15 minutes left, and more than 5 are spent following EVERY INCH of Bond's escape (please...more ventilation shaft footage!). The last 5 minutes are spent with Bond and Honey escaping/being rescued. Which means the whole final "confrontation" with No takes less than five minutes, half of which consists of a disguised Bond just standing around watching No test his reactor. As a result, it's one of the least satisfying villain deaths in the series.
Fortunately, Bond does find time for love at the end, which again is pure Bond.
So what is Dr. No? Adolescent Bond...still stretching out, still getting used to how this new type of spy movie is going to work. It's far from perfect. But Broccoli and Saltzman manage to find all the perfect people: Connery, screenwriter Richard Maibaum, Director Terrance Young, editor Peter Hunt, designer Ken Adam...These people would cement the future of the Bond franchise forever. They're not quite there yet--this was the shakedown cruise. But they established the who, what and how of Bond marvelously. And by the next picture, everything would get tighter, tauter, sharper and better.
But the seeds are all here. So let's show Dr. No a little more respect.
SNELL'S RANDOM THOUGHTS AND QUESTIONS
**Uhh, after the nuclear reactor explodes, shouldn't that whole section of the Carribean, including Jamaica, be an uninhabitable radioactive wasteland? Just asking.
**How, exactly, did Sylvia Trench get into Bond's apartment? And, wouldn't you think James Bond might have a somewhat better security system?
**Bond had to send all the way to London for a Geiger counter? Really?
**Maybe it's a generation gap thing, as I hear those older than I constantly raving about the "Ursual Andress rising from the sea in THAT bikini" scene. Maybe it's because by the time I got to this movie, there were much, much skimpier bikinis everywhere. I was just never that impressed. Not to diss Ursula, because damn, she is gorgeous...but this scene didn't start me early into puberty or anything.
**This should have been a commercial:
**Note to evil geniuses...if your reactor reaches the "DANGER LEVEL" at 25, don't design the switch so you can turn it up all the way to 50. Really, what's the point of that?
**Back when Tomorrow Never Dies was released, some movie critic (sorry, I forget who) railed against the producers for "sell-out" product placement...I'm paraphrasing, but he declared "James Bond would never drink Smirnoff!!"
So what's Bond drinking in Dr. No?
***UPDATE: I found that review...Owen Gleibeman in Entertainment Weekly, who opines the the opening paragraph: "Still, they raise the question: Would James Bond really be caught dead drinking Smirnoff vodka? Sadly, the very notion of a Smirnoff martini blends all too well into the harsh-grained mediocrity of Tomorrow Never Dies." Sad, isn't it, when the crtics become snobbier than Bond...
***Compare and contrast: Jones, the fake driver sent to intercept Bond, kills himself with a cyanide pill concealed in a cigarette. In Die Another Day, Bond tells M he threw away his cyanide pill "years ago." Inpsired by Jones' painful death, perhaps?
**Bond score: 3. Sylvia Trench, Miss Taro (for at least 2 hours!), and Honey Rider. And he sure could have had that desk clerk if he wanted...
**Bond isn't very good at palming things...M catches him trying to sneak off with the Beretta, and Dr. No catches him trying to hide the dinner knife.
**References to things I wanna know: Destructor bags?? The mission where his Berreta jammed and he had to spend 6 months in the hospital? Tell us more!!!
**Another note to evil geniuses. Have your henchmen wear names badges with photos, so you can recognize when the hero is dressed as one of them. This won't be the last time Bond pulls this off...then again, Darth Vader had that same problem...
**Is there only ONE song in the WHOLE of Jamaica?!?!? Holy frak, I'm so sick of that damned mango tree song...
This wasn't in the credits, but JAMES BOND WILL RETURN in FROM RUSSIA FROM LOVE. be here next week.
Monday, May 26, 2008
Well, not so fast. I've got a little list here of things we have yet to experience in a Bond movie. It's probably too late to get these into Quantum of Solace, but we can start planning for Bond 23--The Hildebrandt Rarity.
So now, the top 5 things we need to see in future Bond films:
5) Modern music.
Ever since Goldfinger's sadly misguided jab at the Beatles, the Bond films have studiously avoided coming near any contemporary music. Oh, sure, the theme songs have tried to be aggressively hip, but within the movies themselves? Waltzes, tangoes, carnivale, dixieland, and garbled Russian versions of Stand By Your Man. Somehow, after his editorial comment on the Beatles, 007 managed to glide through the 70s, 80s and 90s without the slightest reference to disco, punk, grunge or electronica.
I mean, if 007 can dis John & Paul, can't he rip Coldplay or Clay Aikens, too? At least something to show some level of cultural awareness in these movies...
Sure, James Bond is a wine and alcohol snob. But do you ever see him eat anything? Or tell M that her creme brulee is pedestrian, or taunt a villain that his ceviche is poorly marinated?
Aside from the occasional caviar, James Bond pretty much ignores food. But doesn't it make sense that someone who is such an epicure for alcohol would also be something of a gourmand when it comes to food? Live a little, James...eat some Iron Chef, finish a meal for once. Prove you're a true gastronome and not just a drunk with delusions of grandeur.
3) Real World Politics
Don't get me wrong...we all like our Bond with at least one foot firmly planted in the realm of fantasy.
But sometimes, by being so deliberately blind to the state of the world, the 007 films just make themselves look stupid, not escapist. Bond will oppose North Korea, not because of dictatorship or a nuclear program, but because of one megalo-maniacal general with a solar satellite and a magic suit? (The rest of North Korean generals are apparently pretty nice guys, you see)Britain and China almost go to war, but not because of repression or Tibet, but because of an evil media mogul?
The movies used to have the occasional pithy comment about the Cold War or detente. Now the producers seem to afraid to do that. I don't want a "real world" Bond story. But just once, I'd to to hear 007 or M talk trash about the politicians who let things go to hell until MI-6 was needed to sort it out, or a remark about how a genocide going on somewhere was a lot worse than anything Le Chiffre was up to. I know that will NEVER happen, but it would be nice.
2) Summer sports
I don't know about you, but how many times can we see Bond ski down a mountain? Or snowmobile? Or bobsled? Or paraglide down a melting glacier?
Enough with the winter sports, guys. I know they look cool on film, but you've done them to death. Why not some summer sports? Bond's been roughed up on a hockey rink--why not a baseball diamond, or a cricket pitch, or a rugby field? Evil biathloners (sp?) have hunted Bond--why not evil track & fielders, hurling shot puts or javelins? Instead of a ski or bobsled chase, how about bicycles?
I know, I know, it all sounds silly. That's why I'm not a screenwriter. But variety is the spice of life, and we've done winter sports to death. And think about this setting for part of Bond 23--the 2012 London Summer Games. Is that perfect, or what?
Believe it or not, in the movies, Bond has never set foot in Australia. He did in at least one of the continuation novels (although I can't remember which). But in the movies, never.
Dudes, part of the charm of Bond is the exotic travelogue, and for almost 50 years, you've skipped over AN ENTIRE CONTINENT!! Which is especially embarrassing, because that continent is part of the Commonwealth!! Think of the story possibilities, think of the great footage you could get in Australia! Fix this now!!
Friday, May 23, 2008
I don't mean the 1954 American television version of Casino Royale. It was actually kind of decent, grading on the 1954 television live performance curve. And especially on the American curve.
No, what I mean is, thank the heavens that Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman ended up with the movie rights to rest of the Bond series. Because if the rights had ended up permanently with American producers...well, on the basis of this production, I shudder.
This was a live broadcast on CBS's CLIMAX! Mystery Theater, in October 1954. The video quality is fairly horrendous, because this is from before the days of video tape. The process they used then was kinescope...literally, a film movie camera mounted in front of a video monitor, filming the live broadcast off the screen. That's how they did it back in those days, kids. And they liked it!!
Interestingly enough, the opening of CLIMAX! showed the credits moving down a movie camera lens, making it look not entirely unlike the gun barrel sequence we've all grown to love (see the opening scene below).
We know right off that this isn't quite the James Bond we've come to know and love because our first shot of him...before we've even seen his face...is Bond hiding behind a tree while bullets fly.
Well, what does Bond actually look like?
American actor Barry Nelson played Bond. But not our James Bond. No, for purposes of this program, he was an American agent, working for "Combined Intelligence." And every one called him "Jimmy." Leiter even says he's well-known by his nickname--"Cardsense Jimmy Bond." Because I guess they just didn't trust American audiences to take to a British hero.
Oh, and Leiter? He's not Felix Leiter, CIA...nope, he's now British, and renamed Clarence Leiter. Sigh.
Vesper Lynd is also not in this...instead we have Valerie Mathis (not Rene!!), played by Linda Christian. And again, because we Americans just can't handle toughness or tragedy in our entertainment, they a) didn't have her betray Bond...instead, she was betraying LeChiffre for the French Secret Service; and b) she doesn't die at the end.
Nelson is game, but he plays the part more like a noir gumshoe than a dashing secret agent. He comes across as Humphrey Bogart-in-Casablanca-Lite. Instead of being poised and confident in the world of Monte Carlo, he seems ill at ease in his tuxedo. At the end he seems more panicked and uncertain than we like our hero to be, as if he's in over his head.
So if Ian Fleming had sold off the rights to the rest of his works to Americans, is this what we could have expected? An American tough guy traveling amongst Eurotrash toughs, using his fists instead of his wits? Where Bonds comrades never die, and never betray him?
Ah, but I'm too harsh. Fleming sold off the rights to Casino Royale before any other Bond novels had been published, so we can't say for certain that even he knew what he had in his hands, let alone the poor hapless American TV producers in the dawn of the mass video age.
They do keep the plot largely intact--LeChiffre has been playing around with communist party money, and they're coming to check up on him. He has to make a huge score at the baccarat tables to save himself. And MI6--oops, I mean American "Combined Intelligence"--sends Bond in to clean him out. Bond wins, LeChiffre comes after him to recover the money, there's torture.
But in this version, Bond shoots LeChiffre dead, not his communist masters. Vesper (or Valerie) doesn't betray him, doesn't try to steal the money, isn't being blackmailed thanks to a captive brother/lover. Here, she's just a former lover of Bond's, and she helps him win, and that's the end.
In many ways it's an oddly tepid affair. Everybody knows from the beginning who everybody else is. The bad guys know Bond's mission before he does. There's never any question of who's working for whom. And while they try to keep us guessing about Valerie, well, again this was 1950's American television, and they can't have the hero falling in love with an evil woman, can they? So there's very little tension in the narrative, no undercurrents or guessing.
By far the best thing about this production? Peter Lorre as LeChiffre.
He's such an old hand at this point he could probably play this role in his sleep. And maybe he is. But he brings his trademark sophistication combined with subtle menace here, and it works miracles. He's just heads and shoulders above everyone else in the show.
Oh, yes, torture. No, there's no carpet beater to the gonads (thank you).
But, as you can see in this shot, there are pliers to toes....The actual toe-twisting is done off-screen, but you can watch Bond's face...ouch.
Really, you have to be forgiving of this production. Can you imagine how tough it is to pull off a live broadcast of a show like this? As a result, you get some flaws. Lots of long lingering scenes that go on too long as our stars get to their next positions off-screen; flubbed dialogue (although not as much as you might imagine) and plenty of umms and repeated lines while actors search for their next lines; stumbles and trips; spotlights in the wrong position and moving quickly to get back on the actors. So you have to applaud the effort, and bow in respect at the game attempt.
Sadly, the lack of the ability to do multiple takes, multiple camera angles, and modern editing drained all the tension out of the baccarat game, which comes across as a pretty listless affair. At least they kept it baccarat, which surprised me, considering how much else they changed to try and cater to an American audience.
The 1954 Casino Royale isn't in print in solo form right now, although you can find it without much effort. It is included as a bonus feature in the 2001 DVD of the 1968 "comedy" version of Casino Royale. There's a new "40th anniverssary" version being released in October (although it's actually the 41st anniversary??), but I can seem to find out whether that new DVD will still have the 1954 Casino Royale on it.
You can also find the whole thing, chopped up into 7 parts, on YouTube. At the bottom of this post I've embedded the first part for your viewing pleasure. Also, every commercially available version for some reason truncates off the last minute of the show!! It's not terribly consequential...LeChiffre makes one last desperate attempt to get away, Bond kills him for good this time. I've embedded that for you, too.
So the final verdict? Hey, it's the first attempt at Bond...you've gotta watch it for that, if nothing else. And it's a look at how a different team, a different medium, and a different culture would have approached our hero.
At one point, Bond tells LeChiffre, "Pain and killing's part of my job." They got that part right.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
The only thing you need to know about me is that I love James Bond movies. I mean I really, really really LOVE them. For my entire adult life (editor's note--"adult?" as if!), I have taken the day of the latest Bond premiere off from school or work, so I can spend the entire day wallowing in the goodness that is Bond. I'll see the flick 3 times that first day. That's how much I freakin' love Bond. I know, I'm not healthy at all, am I?
You know what one of my favorite Bond memories is? At the debut of Goldeneye, I'm in the theater, waiting for the lights to dim. Sitting in the same row as I am, a few seats down, is a man in an expensive suit, and he's very clear that he's playing hooky from work just to catch the first showing of the latest Bond. Our eyes met, and we just nodded at each other...a mutual acknowledgement of our membership in the brotherhood (or sisterhood...we're all inclusive) that is Bond.
So, what am I going to blog about?
I'm not going to be a news site, or a rumor site (unless something amazing pops up). No celebrity gossip or daily updates.
No, my mission is simple: dealing with one Bond film per week, up until the debut of QoS. I've got it timed out, and if I include the non-Eon entries (the TV Casino Royale, the "comedy" Casino Royale, and the "renegade" Never Say Never Again, once per week takes us right up to the debut.
Sometimes I'll live-blog while watching the movie. Sometimes I'll have erudite essays (editor's note--I'll believe that when I see it). Sometimes I'll just go on a nitpick fest. I don't really have a solid plan, except to, once a week, just plain wallow in a Bond movie.
There will be other posts, also about once per week, wherein I'll rank the various elements of the Bond movies..best villain, best Bond girl, best gadgets...all my own very warped opinion, of course.
So join me as I try to work off the giddy energy that's building as QoS slowly approaches. Comments and discussions are always welcome, as long as no one goes SPECTRE on us.
Tomorrow (Friday) we'll start in earnest, as i tackle the first (and shortest) of the Casino Royales. I'll bring the Mountain Dew-flavored Doritos.