Tuesday, November 13, 2012

You Know His Name, Look Up The Number, Part One: The Back Nine


Oh, sure-- everyone else put out their "Best of Bond" lists last week. I distinguish myself by waiting, knowing that the best time to catch up a novice spy-watcher on the 007 oeuvre (say that three times fast, Miss Moneypenny) is just as he or she is coming out of a slam-bang new film like Skyfall, hungry for more. The first part of a menu of the tastiest Bond bits is below, in order of preference from worst to best (parts two and three will come later this week). It's easy to read the films explored here as the dregs at the bottom of the glass, but almost every Bond film has something-- a scene, a shot, a narrative twist, or just a great title song-- that makes it worth at least a glance. An existentialist hedonist like Bond is, after all, about living in a single moment of now, which is what makes him such a great axiom of popular cinema.

Or as Bond himself might put it more pithily, "Shocking. Positively shocking."



25. Quantum of Solace (2008)
What a pointlessly dour bit of emptiness this film is. After the brilliant reboot of the series with Casino Royale, anticipation was high for the next entry in the series, especially since it was promised that Quantum would pick up the narrative and emotional threads of the previous picture, something the Bond films hadn't attempted since the 1960s and early 70s (and then only with one or two scenes at the start of Diamonds Are Forever, and a handful of references to SMERSH, SPECTRE and Doctor No elsewhere). Daniel Craig had done such a good job of occupying a space of intertwined toughness and vulnerability in his debut, and it might have been cool to see how his grief and desire for vengeance over the betrayal/death of Vesper Lynd in Royale could deepen and shape the tone of the new film. That grief, after all, underlay the first decade of the character in Ian Fleming's books, providing a rationalization for the hard, dismissive shell the character wore like a suit of protective armor (it breaks in 1963's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, easily Fleming's best book). Furthermore, the title of Quantum comes from one of Fleming's best short stories, and easily his most offbeat, one where our central hero makes only a cameo. You can find it in Fleming's 1960 collection For Your Eyes Only, and I highly recommend it. It's a sad, moody, ironic little tale of marital strife, one told to Bond at an embassy dinner party. Bond historian and novelist Raymond Benson compared it, in his essential James Bond Bedside Companion, to the work of Somerset Maugham. Given its shortness of length and use of Bond as a supporting character (audience member, really) to the narrative, a straight adaptation of "Quantum of Solace" would be impossible; but a movie version that captured some of its ironic, elegiac tone might have been fascinating.


Instead, almost none of the humanity of that short story-- or Casino Royale--or, indeed, any of the other Bond films-- made it to the screen in 2008. My overwhelming memory of the film is Daniel Craig's grimace: A grimace behind the wheel of a car (in a brutal chase foolishly shot in mostly close-up, and edited by ADD); a grimace during a plane crash; a grimace at a swanky cocktail party; a grimace while shooting; a grimace while walking; a grimace during sex and a grimace in the desert. No Bond film ever captured the notion of 007 as an empty killing machine better than Quantum of Solace (in that sense, it's the best tonal adaptation of the Fleming version of The Man With the Golden Gun ever made), and the action scenes are often well-staged. But they're also soulless, with nothing around them to give them any meaning-- no style, no wit, no story, no hope. Bond tells Vesper, towards the end of Casino Royale, "I have no more armor. You've stripped it from me." The problem with Quantum of Solace is that it strips Bond of his humanity. From its dire pre-credits sequence to its turgid theme song to its lack of emotion at the end, it's an exercise in nihilism.

24. A View To A Kill (1985)
Oh. My. This is a mess of a film, and it's a shame, because it starts with real promise: the pre-credits sequence has some wonderful stunt work with snowboards (Bond and snow mix well), and leads into Duran Duran's campy, dramatic title song. The early parts of the narrative include lovely location work in Paris, a spectacular parachute dive off the Eiffel Tower, and an intriguing villain in Christopher Walken's Max Zorin (an English-American product of Nazi eugenics who may now be working for the Soviets. It's that kind of movie). Grace Jones has the physical presence and charisma to overcome her utter lack of acting skill, and Patrick Macnee makes an extended cameo that only brings good memories of John Steed with it.

And then...and then...

Roger Moore happens. Moore is underrated, and may be the nicest person ever to play James Bond (his UNICEF work is legendary). But he's awful here, struggling to raise a not-very-wicked eyebrow as he strains at his double entendres. He's far too old, but that's not as much of a problem as the boredom he conveys throughout. And if he's not going to be interested in Tanya Roberts, why should we be? Neither Roberts, nor the script, nor the direction, gives us any reason to care about her character, and the film would've been better off sticking with Alison Doody's villainous Jenny Flex, introduced with great delight in the first part of the film, then needlessly killed off (Doody would have her revenge by playing a marvelous villain four years later, in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade). I mean, it's not like Bond hasn't turned villainous women to his side in the past. Add in a truly wretched, played-for-laughs chase across the Golden Gate Bridge, and a climax that rips off Temple of Doom, and...oh, forget it. Let's just recognize that, at one point, Grace Jones looks out the window of a blimp and says, "That's a nice view...", to which Christopher Walken adds, "...to a KILL!" in inimitable, does-not-need-more-cowbell Walken style, and move on. OK?

23. The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)
This 1974 entry in the series starts with Christopher Lee's title character (a wealthy assassin named Scaramanga) stalking through his own private shooting gallery, picking off cardboard cut-outs of foes before shooting a similarly stiff cut-out of Roger Moore's James Bond. So, give The Man With The Golden Gun this: it announces its level of character depth and stylistic ambition right from the start.

Based on an unfinished Ian Fleming novel published posthumously in 1965 (Fleming died before he could polish his final draft), Golden Gun is a bizarro version of its source material: where Fleming's novel, due to his death, lacks his usual eye for detail, travelogue and sensuous description, the film version of Gun abounds with gorgeous location shooting in Hong Kong and Thailand (courtesy of veteran Bond director Guy Hamilton and cinematographer Ted Moore), top-notch set design from Ken Adam, and the usual fine scoring from John Barry. Fleming's novel is almost pure story, with none of the character asides that he'd been developing in his late period, and moves with alacrity; the movie Gun meanders, needlessly complicating its assassination plot with a trendy nod towards energy conservation (Scaramanga is also building a giant solar cell to blackmail the world. As assassins do.), and piles on unfunny comic relief from Hervé Villechaize's Nick-Nack and Clifton James' redneck sheriff J.W. Pepper (a holdover from the previous year's Live and Let Die, who logically shows up in...Hong Kong. As sheriffs do). Fleming's story is dark and brutal, without any kind of release; Hamilton played up the absurdity of his film's narrative, reportedly telling Moore and Lee (Ian Fleming's cousin), "Lightly, lightly!" during their climactic face-off.


For all of their differences, what film and novel share is a certain pointlessness, especially about their central character. Fleming died before he could finish his book, and was sick throughout its writing; I'm not sure what reasons or excuses Eon Productions had for their lack of focus. There are all kinds of good elements in The Man With The Golden Gun, but none of them cohere in an interesting way, and Moore seems bored throughout the picture. It feels poetic that Moore himself does not appear in either of the pre-credits sequences for his first two Bond films, as if the character can't bother, and isn't even needed in order to convey a "Bondian" atmosphere. But it's a laziness that The Man With The Golden Gun never quite overcomes.

22. License To Kill (1989)
License to Kill could be seen, in many ways, as the 80s version of Quantum of Solace: after a successful reboot of the series that darkened and humanized James Bond, the follow-up went one step too far, telling a tale of revenge that emphasized the violence and brutality of the character to such a degree that the wit, style, and underlying vulnerability got lost in all the gunplay (and, ironically, both films were followed by their distributing companies undergoing financial and legal troubles, leading to a long lay-off until the next film).

That's all true, as far as it goes; but License To Kill, for all of its many flaws (let's start with Gladys Knight's not-thought-out title song, and go on from there), is a far more ambitious and stylistically rich movie than Quantum: it's a mess, and a disappointment, but there are a lot of good elements along the way.

Chief among them are Robert Davi's oily villain Sanchez (literally oily, as he is a drug lord who hides his cocaine in petrol tankers), one of the series' more underrated thugs; Wayne Newton as a televangelist caught up in Sanchez's plots (Newton does a very funny parody of Jim Bakker that suggests a whole imagined film career lost to movie history); Cary Lowell struggling mightily with a choppily-written role (she's quite good, even if the part-- an early, admirable attempt to make the Bond series more feminist--never quite fits it all together); an utterly illogical but nonetheless delightful expanded role for Desmond Llewelyn's Q; an early film role for Benecio Del Toro as a creepy henchman; and a whole series of well-staged action set-pieces, including an attempted murder-by-shark that ranks as the series' bloodiest and most brutal sequence.

And then there's Timothy Dalton. At the risk of sounding like Andrew, I will say this: I love Dalton's Bond. Until Daniel Craig, he was the closest the series ever got to capturing Fleming's conception of a government assassin (and as far as I know, he's the only one to read the Fleming novels in any depth, and to say, "It's all there; it's all in the books"). He's smart, tough, brutal, and drily funny (as The Rocketeer, Hot Fuzz and Chuck would all prove, Timothy Dalton is a very good comedic actor, just not a comedic Bond). And within the narrative and stylistic structures License To Kill establishes, he does his job very well.


The problem is that those structures don't give him a lot of room to move. Bond is suspended from MI6 because he's declared his desire to go after Sanchez, who's nearly killed Bond's best friend Leiter; rightly seeing this as an emotionally driven revenge, M declares him unfit for service, but Bond doesn't care and goes off on his mission, anyway. In other words, this should be the most personal and emotional film since On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but none of that (aside from Dalton's pained looks) is ever really conveyed-- Bond feels much more like an automaton here than a human being. His relationship with Lowell's character never makes a lot of sense, and by the time we get to Las Vegas, the televangelist stuff is hilarious, and the truck chases feel like Wages of Fear, and none of it seems to mesh with the earlier revenge story. There are three or four great plot threads in License To Kill, but director John Glen can't make sense of any of them, or figure out how they fit. It's a shame, because Glen had done much to revitalize and streamline the character throughout the 1980s, and this was his final Bond film. It bombed in America, did superbly everywhere else, and sent Bond into deep freeze for six years.


21. Casino Royale (1967)
Charles Feldman was a legendary agent who played an important role in making movies like The Big Sleep happen. Let's remember that Charles Feldman, and not the one who mucked up the second adaptation of Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel by making it a parody (the first adaptation was a 1954 CBS TV movie with Barry Nelson which, if I included it here, would probably rank somewhere between our next two entries).

No, that's not fair. A Bond parody could have worked, particularly in 1967, when the character was at the height of his popularity. But this film certainly doesn't-- five directors, four writers (including an uncredited Woody Allen) and a monstrously big, glittering, utterly mis-used cast (including David Niven, who came close to playing Bond for real in 1962) came together and then fell apart, leaving us with a part-white-elephant, part-Marvel-Comics-mod mess that's completely fascinating and mostly unwatchable. There are cool ideas here-- like the notion that "James Bond" is merely a signifier, a name under which an endless number of agents can work, an idea the real series should explore sometime-- as well as some good one-liners, a wonderfully deadpan non-starter of a "pre-credits sequence," and the single best title song in the history of Bond films, courtesy of Burt Bacharach and Herb Albert ("The Look of Love" is trés snazzy, too). And the colors, the set designs and the people are often immensely beautiful. But unless you are utterly addicted to camp distance as a way of life, this is--at best--a curiosity.

20. Moonraker (1979)
My introduction to a visualized England came via PBS: I was six when Moonraker was released, and an avid viewer of the science-for-kids program 3-2-1 Contact. That has nothing to do with James Bond (although the brainy teens who lived in its solar-paneled house and did neat experiments probably would've tut-tutted the science of Q), but what followed the show did: Monty Python's Flying Circus, and more importantly, the "Thames Television" logo that preceded the episodes, its doubled image of Parliament and Big Ben and the river itself suggesting a mythical other-world to a Midwestern kid in the late '70s. When I was six, Python freaked me out-- Terry Gilliam's surrealist cut-outs in the credit made me change the channel right away, a fear I wouldn't overcome until I saw Life of Brian a decade or so later--but that Thames image stayed in my imagination. So did Tom Baker's Dr. Who, which aired on our PBS affiliate on Saturday afternoons, and made the notion of Britain-as-otherworldly a literal affair. Paddington Bear cartoons, Muppet movies and England-set specials (and the ITV logo at the start of The Muppet Show offering another vision of British television, its three letters looking like they were floating in space), the Wings songs that dotted the radio-- it all came at me piecemeal and out of context, and I didn't quite know what to do with it all. But it set "England" in my young mind as a fairy tale space of humor, color, terror and strangeness (in all senses of the word).

These are the things I associate strongly with Moonraker, the very first James Bond movie I ever saw (although not until a year or two later, when it aired on HBO). This is funny, because London is hardly in the movie at all: France, California, Venice, Rio and outer space are its main settings, and the movie is so indebted to then-recent American films like Star Wars and Close Encounters that it's severely less "English" than several other pictures in the series. But somehow, when I saw it, my imagined England blended with another alien space for a six-year old-- media depictions of adult behavior in the late '70s--to ground Moonraker in a specific time and place, moreso for me than any other film in the series (even if that space is part fantasy). Its seventies tackiness-- from the dated Martini & Rossi look of the clothing, to the slick magazine ad style of the cinematography, to the bloat and tonal instability of the narrative--is remarkably vivid, and immediately draws me back to memories of 1979.

Perhaps that's why I'm more forgiving of its numerous faults-- that horrible second half, the collapse of the Jaws character, the tendency to toss away genuine wit in favor of garish slapstick (there's a reason Roger Moore is in Cannonball Run)--than many other Bondophiles. It doesn't hurt that the first 45 minutes or so promise so much, from the lovely aerial stunt work in the pre-credits, to Shirley Bassey's sexy singing of the title song, to the suspenseful scene in the centrifuge, to the dazzling terror of the dog chase in the woods. It also has my single favorite line of any Bond villain in the whole series, from Michael Lonsdale's foppish Hugo Drax: "Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him."

19. Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman might as well have called this one "Middle-Age Spread." Coming on the heels of the tight, top-notch On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and at the tail-end of the series' initial burst of '60s glory, Diamonds Are Forever is not so much a bad film as a complacent one; it presumes that the rich, rounded tones and bushy eyebrows of the returning Sean Connery are enough to carry an entire film, and it is nearly right.

It's been suggested that Diamonds is a Roger Moore Bond starring Sean Connery, but I don't think that's actually true; it's really a Burt Reynolds movie starring Sean Connery. Reynolds, in fact, would be offered the Bond role a year later, after Connery again left the role, and Reynolds' Cosmo spread and performances in Deliverance made him a star. "An American can't play James Bond," he reportedly told producer Cubby Brocoli. "It just can't be done." Diamonds both rejects and confirms Reynolds' thesis. From Jimmy Dean's Willard Whyte (a funny but badly-used Howard Hughes parody that never really amounts to much), to Bambi and Thumper (a great opportunity lost to encroaching cheesiness), to the poorly handled gay assassins Wint and Kidd, to doomed Bond girl Plenty O'Toole ("Named after your father, no doubt," Bond quips, Connery delivering co-writer Tom Mankiewicz's most famous line in perfectly dry style), to the hokey crane fight that climaxes the film, it's not hard to see how this immensely laconic, what-me-worry style of action comedy would translate easily into the Needham-Reynolds films of the late '70s and early '80s. Most famously, the daredevil high-speed chase through Vegas that acts as the centerpiece would find its long-form apotheosis in Smokey and the Bandit, which takes Diamond's masterfully staged mixture of tension and Keystone slapstick in the scene, and stretches it out into an entire film.


But where Burt Reynolds, with his sex magazine mustache and devil-may-care flippancy, feels perfectly crafted to be the sun-kissed anti-hero of that kind of universe, Connery's Bond occupies it uneasily-- as Reynolds astutely notes, you can't Americanize James Bond (not to this degree). In the first part of the film, Bond's unease seems the narrative point-- back from revenge against Blofeld in the pre-credits sequence, and tossed into a junk-ridden Vegas universe where his sleek white tuxedo clashes with the wide-collared brown suits and garish slot machines, director Guy Hamilton gets a lot of visual and comedic mileage out of the culture clash, as if Bond is an Austin Powers who didn't need a time machine, only a plane ticket to America.

Co-writer Richard Maibaum had planned an elaborate quasi-sequel to Goldfinger, where Gert Frobe would play Auric's twin brother ("Poor Auric...Mother always did say he was a bit retarded," the new Goldfinger would intone), climaxing with Bond leading a flotilla of Vegas millionaires in their pleasure yachts into battle against the madman. But Frobe was unavailable, the producers were skittish to mess with the formula in the wake of George Lazenby, Blofeld was brought back in utterly illogical fashion, and Tom Mankiewicz was brought in to make things a bit looser, a bit campier (and he is a gifted comic writer, as his work on 1978's Superman would best display). Beyond the aforementioned car chase, there's no real tension or suspense, and Charles Gray's Blofeld, clad in a brown-olive Nehru-style jacket that makes him look like an elongated English pear, provides none of the spark of Telly Savalas's thuggish but deeply menacing portrayal in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Connery is always fun, but floats through the proceedings with a look on his face that says to the audience, "...Suckers."

18. Live And Let Die (1973)
Live And Let Die is one of those films that calls to mind the famous opening line of Greil Marcus' review of Bob Dylan's Self-Portrait : What is this shit?


This is such a bizarre movie, not only for its problematic racial politics/borrowing of even-then-feeling-over blaxploitation genre material (although, especially given the framework it's moving within, Yaphet Kotto, Julius Harris and Geoffrey Holder are all superbly menacing and charismatic), not only for its silly-even-for-a-'70s-Bond gender images (Jane Seymour's tarot power is tied to her virginity-- really?), but because it can't ever figure out exactly what it wants to be. Is it a tight crime thriller? An international globe-hopping adventure? A tongue-in-cheek parody of the previous decade of Bond? And is Roger Moore playing a smart, snobbish killer, or still channeling the Saint?


The film opens with a pre-credits sequence showing a series of murders occurring around the world, climaxing with a murder during a New Orleans funeral, an atmospheric setting whose iconography takes us into the fabulous title song by Paul McCartney and Wings. Atmosphere is what the movie really has going for it-- its New York and Louisiana locations offer a rich travelogue, and a visual space that feels different than previous Bonds. This attention to visual detail carries us over the unfortunate introduction of redneck sheriff J.W. Pepper and so much of the film's strange politics and needlessly convoluted narrative twists. It's not a bad introduction for Moore, and Guy Hamilton's direction is far more assured here than in Diamonds Are Forever or The Man With The Golden Gun-- there's a genuine kick to the violence, and more of an investment in the characters. But it doesn't cohere as much as it should, and along with Diamonds, inaugurates a period in the early '70s when the Bond films feel more like glossy, big-budget cop television shows than feature films.

17. Die Another Day (2002)
There's a critical tendency, with every new Bond, to burn off what came before, to reject the past wholesale in favor of declaring the new actor/film/approach "the best ever." Beyond commercial hyperbole, there's a certain evolutionary sense in this approach: for a series hitting age fifty, with twenty-three official and three unofficial films behind it (to say nothing of rip-offs and parodies), it sometimes feels necessary to make a psychic break, and to see each change as holding the possibility of real difference. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it forecloses one of the chief pleasures of a long-form, quasi-serialized work: seeing how the character moves, the approach develops or regresses, how all the pieces fit against a changing world of film style. And it tends to misrepresent and derange what came before, blissfully unaware that the new it's currently celebrating will face the same, ironic fate when the next fella shows up.


Which brings us to Pierce Brosnan, a Bond for the age of Blair and Clinton, for the weird mixture of go-go capital and prudish morals that the 90s embodied so well, for a Britain soon to be marred by the Millenium Dome (against which his Bond would crash, breaking his arm, at the beginning of The World Is Not Enough), a Bond in the age of Britpop. From the moment Daniel Craig shot a man in a bathroom stall in Casino Royale (or, at the very latest, when Craig walked shirtless out of the ocean), Brosnan was suddenly confined to the dustbin of pop history, as if he was Roger Moore or something. The chief evidence for his dismissal was this, his final film as Bond, and especially the invisible car shown in the picture above. Say it with me again-- the invisible car. And it's BMW-- it's not even an English car! As Q says in the new Skyfall, audiences didn't seem to go much for the exploding pens anymore.


Or at least they didn't want to admit they had (Die Another Day is the boy band of late-period Bond). Die Another Day is a mess-- it's easily the least-interesting and most narratively convoluted of the Brosnans. But it's still got a great deal going for it, and it's apparently very easy to forget that the Invisi-Car and the ice castles and the laser-whoosits of the second half of the film co-exist with the darker torture scenes of the earlier half, and a Bond who's literally and figuratively bruised by his time in a North Korean prison camp (director Lee Tamahori stages the action of these early scenes with a pleasing, graphic quickness). Owen Gleiberman, a critic with whom I've hardly ever agreed (and whom, I once suggested on this very blog, is the most pretentious film critic in the world), had one of his rare moments of clarity when he observed that Die Another Day was a Bond movie for a post-9/11 age-- wary, tonally unstable, where moments of striking violence suddenly arise (lash out, really), in unexpected ways, from gray banality. Halle Berry is very good, and so is Judi Dench's M (her scene with Bond, in an abandoned tube stop which functions as an MI6 station, is fabulous, and foreshadows much of what we see of that organization in the current Bond film).

But it's Brosnan who anchors the picture-- if he doesn't quite know what to do with the cartoonish second half, well, what Bond would? What I remember most are his darting, suspicious eyes and bruised cheekbones in the first half, that shadow of repressed rage that makes his model features transform into something menacing and real.

UP NEXT: The Middle Eight

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