Tuesday, March 06, 2012

James Bond Weekend: From Dr. No to On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Not a huge amount to say here other than that the weekend practically living at the Somerville Theatre was a genuine delight. I don't know if the folks who run that place get the credit they deserve for having the lowest prices of any theater on a subway line (both for tickets and concessions) in the Boston area, high quality projection overseen by an obsessed lunatic who knows making film look good backwards and forwards, and a schedule which supplements a relatively recent move to first-run features with quality repatory and festival programming.

Of the six prints, only Dr. No looked kind of beat up; the others were quite good-looking and the three "flat" prints (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger) each started with a United Artists cartoon. The crowds were good, and there was plenty of applause when manager Ian Judge announced that, yes, they were planning to do more of these later in the year, probably in the fall to lead up to the opening of Skyfall in November.

And, without further ado, the movies:

Dr. No

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (James Bond Weekend, 35mm)

The thing that's kind of striking about Dr. No is how, as the first James Bond movie, a lot of stuff hasn't gelled yet. There's no Q Division yet, for instance, and in a way, that makes the balance between certain elements very different: Bond is more human here - he doesn't just get knocked unconscious to revive exactly where he needs to be for a villain to exposit at him, but he gets beat up. By the end of the movie his clothes are shredded, a great many hairs are out of place, and he's never the unflappable 007 we've come to know since (witness how he goes to town crushing a tarantula with his shoe; dude does not like arachnids). He crawls through vents like John McClane in Die Hard, all sweat and clenched teeth.

So he's just a very good MI-6 agent, not yet a super-spy, which means that when he and Honey Ryder get past Dr. No's decontamination process and into the secret base which is staffed like a luxury hotel, the situation is rather surreal. Bond's a fantasy figure, but the audience still identifies with him, and suddenly his life isn't just dangerous, but weird. That's also when we first hear of SPECTRE, as opposed to this simply being a Chinese plot - which I believe is a change made for the movies; if I remember correctly, SPECTRE really only figured in three of the books (a trilogy formed by Thunderball, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice).

As an aside, Honey Ryder is unusually incidental to the plot; for as much as Bond Girls are traditionally eye-candy, it's rare for them to just be folks in the wrong place at the wrong time and fill a bikini well. It's a relatively small thing, but it shows how the formula is not really in place yet. And in a lot of ways, that's for the best, there are scenes in Dr. No that are more tense than usual for their realism and others that are stranger than expected despite likely not looking out of place in later Connery/Moore Bond films.

From Russia with Love

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (James Bond Weekend, 35mm)

From Russia With Love has always been one of my favorite Bond films, and that's in part because I somehow got it in my head that it was a realistic spy movie. It's not, of course, although it comes closer to it than many in the series. The plot's smaller in scale, and the deceptions are a lot closer to the chess game used as an obvious but fitting metaphor in the beginning. You've still got SPECTRE in the middle, of course, and the occasional goofiness of MI-6's Istanbul station.

And, of course, there's the whole bit with the Romany camp, where "settling things the gypsy way" means "no holds barred catfight". The franchise's attitudes toward women are still thoroughly rooted in male fantasies and fears, with naive beauty Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) one one side and nasty lesbian Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) on the other. Romanova is plenty likable, though, and there's just enough chance she'll stay a double agent to keep things interesting toward the end.

The movie is still one of the best of the series, even if it's not quite the one I remember. It is really an excellent little chase film in the second half as Tatiana and 007 discover that their escape plans have been thwarted and have to get to Western Europe without being killed. The supporting characters are fun, and there's just enough intrigue to make it feel like we're watching a more cerebral spy movie than the action picture we're actually getting.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 March 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (James Bond Weekend, 35mm)

Man, you shouldn't drop pop-culture references in your movies unless you know they'll hold up. Early on in Goldfinger, Bond dismisses something by saying he'd "rather listen to the Beatles without earmuffs". At the time, it probably made made him seem refined, a symphony-and-opera type. Now, he's totally square.

I wouldn't go nearly as far to snarkily comment on Goldfinger as Bond would on the Beatles, but, wow, does it have some fundamental problems that are hidden by its iconography. For example, Bond spends the entire movie being really terrible at his job as a covert operative - instead of observing Goldfinger, he decides to be a smirking jackass, which basically results in some poor family losing both of its daughters. His method of investigation is to show up, announce himself, and then get knocked unconscious and brought closer to the center of the villains' web but somehow not killed outright. And he pretty much stumbles through the last act uselessly, until he gets very lucky.

Despite all this, it's still a fun, memorable entry in the series. It gives us Gert Frobe as Auric Goldfinger, Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore, Harold Sakata as Oddjob, and Shirley Eaton painted gold as the doomed Jill Masterson. It's got one of the greatest lines in movie history, and Frobe seems to know that he's got a moment that will be remembered for a long time as it's coming out of his mouth. Sure, it's where the seeds are lain for the franchise to start getting really silly, but what does work and what is at the very least memorable is more than good enough to make up for the things that would get a new screenplay torn apart.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 March 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (James Bond Weekend, 35mm)

Thunderball is not quite so well-remembered as Goldfinger, in part because it led to Never Say Never Again and a weird legal battle which almost led to competing James Bond franchises in the 1990s (one of which would have had Liam Neeson as Bond), and in part because it does tend to lean rather heavily on the underwater stuff. The stuff with Kevin McClory isn't really its fault, although some of the other issues can be a little much.

It is, however, a whole lot of fun. Unlike a lot of Bond movies, especially later ones, the story here is less high-concept than execution - even in 1965, I suspect that terrorists stealing a nuclear weapon and attempting to hold the world hostage had been done a few times, but the details are a blast, from landing a bomber on the ocean floor (after a clever hijacking) to the final battle, which is one of the series' greatest. I strongly suspect that the underwater filming helped it a lot, in that the precision necessary results in clearer action, with less speeding up, extreme close-ups, quick cutting, and shaky camera work. You can see everything that's going on here clearly, and because underwater action is almost by definition a knife fight, it's vicious, mean stuff, which totally works for it.

There are issues, sure. Once the bombs are stolen, the movie does seem to be killing time until that finale, and while I dig the way these old Bond movies have a good deal of travelogue to them, the chase through the parade in the Bahamas seems kind of obligatory here. It's still fun, and was probably more so in the mid-sixties when there was no HDTV (heck, no color TV in many households), and this sort of movie was the closest a lot of people could get to world travel.

You Only Live Twice

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (James Bond Weekend, 35mm)

I came in a bit late for this one (I can't wait for the Red Line to run all the way to Alewife on the weekends again!), so I missed the opening gambit, theme song, and a few minutes of the "real" start of the movie. Still, I liked what I got quite a bit. It's enjoyably grandiose, hitting a sweet spot midway between Thunderball's commitment to the basics and Goldfinger's enthusiastic silliness.

The plot is on the goofy side - SPECTRE has the resources for their own space program, including a base in a hollowed-out volcano, but don't want to strike at the US or USSR directly, instead snatching spacecraft from orbit to get the superpowers to declare war on each other. And the second half requires Bond to "become a Japanese man" in order to train as a ninja in less than a week. It could be worse, though - one of the things I remember about the book is that Bond was astounded by how the ninjas could take so many blows to the groin, to be told that ninjas can retract their "equipment". Kind of glad we got body-hair jokes instead.

It's a nifty-looking movie - the location shooting of Japan is very nice indeed, and while the sets for the underground lair look kind of dated now, they're enjoyably big and elaborate. So is the action; there very seldom feels like anything is being held back, and while it may be a little more chuckle-worthy than usual at times, the movie does go for it more often than not, and that makes it a lot of fun.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (James Bond Weekend, 35mm)

There's a really good argument to be made that On Her Majesty's Secret Service is the best of the Bond movies. It's a little rough getting started - George Lazenby has a little trouble fitting into the part at times, although to be totally honest, Connery never really seemed to own the bon vivant aspects of the part either. This one's got the usual bunch of good action scenes (the ski work, especially, is tremendous) and over-the-top plot, but what it's also got are rare examples of the heroes and villains being genuinely motivated and interesting. Lots of Bond films have suspense; this one's actually got an emotional hook, something the series arguably wouldn't really have again until Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.

A large part of that comes from Diana Rigg as Contessa Teresa "Tracy" Di Vicenzo. She's one of the few Bond Girls to really be created as a potential match for 007, coming across as just as smart, adventurous, classy, and physical as he is. She's also fragile from the start, and that changes things; both the audience and Bond know that, unlike most of the women in this series, she can't be used and discarded; it would destroy her, and while Bond is a rake, he's no cad. Rigg and Lazenby really are great together and separately, with Tracy's brittle pride healing itself while Lazenby makes Connery's character his own by the time the movie is out while still keeping him recognizably Bond.

Sometime, I'd love to talk to people who saw OHMSS in 1969 without having read the book (or maybe having done so, considering that the adaptations were often quite loose). Watching it in sequence after the first five Connery movies during this weekend points up both how good and risky it is, since it genuinely feels like a radical reinvention might be going on. Given the way we meet Tracy and how she clearly becomes more than a dalliance, we know the formula is going to be broken somewhat early. But there's sharpness in other places - the relationship between Bond and M is less convivial, for instance. And the familiar Monty Norman James Bond theme doesn't appear until very late - it's like a concerted effort to give Lazenby's Bond his own feel. When that theme does re-appear, it's connected to Tracy just as much as Bond, like a signal that from then on in the series, she's going to be important.

Obviously, that doesn't happen, and the series soon returns to normal, arguably not getting under Bond's skin again until License to Kill and the recent Casino Royale reboot. Even if you don't think that has any part in a Bond movie, though, this one is done well, with pretty great action, a jaunty wit, and some somewhat creepy elements to its broad story. Meeting (and believing) the love of James Bond's life is the icing on the cake.

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