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Sunday, August 04, 2002

I've loved the James Bond films since I saw my first one: Moonraker, when I was in second grade. Someone has said that everybody's favorite Bond is the one they first saw. While this isn't true in my case -- more on that later -- I certainly don't agree with the a priori notion held by most people that there is Sean Connery and then there is everyone else. I've loved all of the Bonds, and I don't find Connery's Bond films to be any better, as a whole, than those that came after. What follows is Part One of my capsulized opinions on all of the Bond films thus far, in order of release. (The purpose of this exercise is, of course, to occupy my time while I print out several lengthy files.)

:: Dr. No. As the first ever James Bond film, this one almost has to be admired; if it had been a disaster, the series likely would never have gotten off the ground. A lot of the Bond tropes are here: Bond in a tuxedo, playing baccarat; lovely ladies both in glamorous evening wear and skimpy attire; a villain with a deformity; an ally of Bond's who dies most horribly; et cetera. That said, I have never really liked Dr. No. The film has always seemed a bit bloodless to me, with uncertain pacing, a lackluster villain, and acting that is, frankly, lousy (excepting Connery and Jack Lord as Felix Leiter). The music also turns me off; by film's end I am pounding on the side of my skull in a futile attempt to drive "Under the Mango Tree" from my mind. I'm grateful to Dr. No, but I just don't like watching it. (The Gadget: none. Q does not appear in this film, although Bond is ordered by M and a guy only called "the armorer" to carry his trademark Walther PPK pistol.)

:: From Russia With Love. This is one of my favorites. It's probably the only legitimate espionage thriller in the entire Bond series, relying almost entirely on intrigue and characterization than thrills and villainy. It's much better made than Dr. No, and features some of the most memorable characters in the whole series in Bond ally Kerim Bey, villainess Rosa Klebb, and assassin Donovan Grant. Bond's confrontation with Grant on the Orient Express is a fine, fine scene, and the whole film is taut and exciting. Especially notable is the sense of locale in From Russia With Love. The locations -- Istanbul and the gypsy camps in its countryside; the Orient Express -- never seem like mere backdrops to Bondian action but actual places with real cultural differences to which Bond must adapt. At one point, Kerim Bey tells Bond, "You're in the Balkans now. The game with the Russians is played a little bit differently here." And so it is. John Barry's score for the film is excellent; the theme song is lovely. One of the best. (The Gadget: a briefcase that contains a collapsible rifle, fifty gold sovereigns hidden in the lining, and a talcum powder can that actually dispense teargas if the briefcase latches are incorrectly positioned prior to opening. The villains also have interesting gadgets: shoes that carry venom-tipped points, and Donovan Grant's wristwatch garrotte. Desmond Llewellyn appears for the first time as Q.)

:: Goldfinger. This is nearly everybody's favorite Bond film. It isn't mine, however. I don't think it is a bad film by any means; the film is slick and well-made, with an excellent sense of pacing (except in one spot toward the end: the aerial portion of Goldfinger's raid on Fort Knox goes on for far too long). The villains are wonderful: surely Goldfinger's line "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!" is one of the dialogue highlights of the entire series, and Oddjob is probably the greatest of Bondian henchmen ever. My first problem with the film is with the Bond heroine, Pussy Galore. Simply put, the main heroine in any Bond film should never be the third or fourth most beautiful woman in the picture. Honor Blackman just doesn't do it for me, unfortunately. Another problem I have is unavoidable, really, given the film's plot: the locations. Try as I might, I just cannot see rural America as a likely spot for Bondian heroics; and I certainly should never see a Kentucky Fried Chicken in the background of any Bond movie. Part of the allure of a James Bond film is the sense that he really doesn't operate in the same world as the rest of us, and things like that shatter the illusion. More seriously for the film, though, are problems with the story. If you consider carefully the film's climactic scenes, you realize that Bond himself does almost nothing to thwart Goldfinger's plan. The note he tucks in the gangster's pocket to be found by Felix Leiter never gets to him (Oddjob kills the gangster instead); Bond seduces Pussy Galore and then it is she that tips off the CIA to Goldfinger's plot -- but Bond knows nothing of this at all. The fight with Oddjob, while exciting, has no bearing at all on the outcome; had Bond just sat down and twiddled his thumbs the good guys still would have arrived on time, probably shot Oddjob dead, and defused the bomb. In fact, Bond doesn't even stop the bomb; he is trying to figure out how to do so when one of Felix Leiter's friends pushes him aside and defuses it for him! The actions of James Bond are almost irrelevant to the entire last third of the movie. (And why on Earth would Goldfinger bother explaining his scheme to the collection of gangsters, when he is going to kill them anyway? and since he's already going to kill all of them, why take the other guy aside and kill him in what seems an awfully inconvenient manner?) Goldfinger pretty much loses me as soon as the story moves to the United States. That's a shame. (Although, even in the early going I have some problems: why, for instance, would there be a mirror installed at the end of an alley in Goldfinger's factory complex? Did he think at some point, "Hmmm....if ever a secret agent is involved in a high speed chase through my complex, a mirror might come in useful in stopping him....") (The Gadget: the Aston-Martin DB-V automobile, with bulletproof shield, smokescreen, front-firing machine guns, and an ejector seat. It's always bothered me that with Bond has one of the niftiest gadgets in all of the films, and even after exhausting its options he still gets captured.)

:: Thunderball. This film has an odd pedegree, coming from a story that Ian Fleming co-owned with producer Kevin McClory (which is why McClory, in a later court case, won the rights to make his own Bond film -- which turned out to be Never Say Never Again). SPECTRE makes its first grand appearance in Thunderball, with a classic plot: they conspire to steal two nuclear bombs, which they then use to blackmail the United Nations (or NATO, I can't recall) into some huge payment. It's a good hook for a Bond film, and the production is first-rate. This is the second Bond film to be set in the Caribbean (after Dr. No), and the sense of location is far more convincing -- mainly through the use of some very evocative underwater photography. The villain -- Emilio Largo -- is not quite in Auric Goldfinger's league, but he is still menacing; his femme fatale assassin, Fiona, is excellent. Sean Connery's performance gets more confident with each outing, and the Bond Heroine, Domino, is to this day one of the most stunning women in any Bond film. Thunderball, though, is a mixed bag, primarily because of its wildly inconsistent pacing. The film opens with a lengthy set-up as Bond, who is vacationing at a health spa, happens on some of SPECTRE's set-up work for their scheme. After about forty minutes, the film finally transitions to Nassau and the pace quickens a bit in keeping with the "race against time" plotline. However, it still meanders quite a bit as Bond investigates Domino and Largo. And then the film's pacing grinds to a complete stop with the beginning of thirty or forty minutes of slow underwater action sequences. Thunderball seems to have a stop-start-stop rhythm throughout its running time, which makes it a hard film to get involved in. The John Barry score is superb, though. (The Gadgets: Bond has a lot of them this time. He has a geiger counter that doubles as an underwater camera, a homing device that he swallows, and a two-minute rebreather the size of a pen. In the film's teaser sequence he uses a jet-pack to evade some thugs, before getting into the Aston-Martin which apparently now has the power to shoot water from its tailights with firehose force.)

To be continued....