Friday, 19 October 2012

Countdown To 007: Diamonds Are Forever, Live And Let Die, The Man With The Golden Gun

James Bond Roger Moore Live And Let Die Jane Seymour Solitaire

Enter the Roger Moore era. Well, one Connery movie is covered here, but its broad humour and lazy plotting marks the beginning of the series taking on traits more commonly associated with the man with the twitchy eyebrows. If you were expecting me to lavish nothing but praise on the Bond movies based on the two previous articles, think again: classic Connery is long gone, and two out of the three movies covered today have a legitimate claim to being among the series' worst.

These write-ups have been republished from Flixist's ongoing Across The Bond feature, where fellow Bond nerd Matthew Razak and I go through the series one by one. Later today, I'll be providing a link to my 007 Legends game review on Hit-Reset, so keep an eye out for that.
  
DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER  

Sean Connery James Bond 007 Diamonds Are Forever

When On Her Majesty's Secret Service didn't reach the anticipated heights at the box-office and George Lazenby departed the series on terrible advice from his agent, the producers abandoned all the good work they'd done in the previous film, ditching intricate character work in favour of broad humour and outlandish set-pieces, and begged Sean Connery to return, who did so only after agreeing a world record fee of £1.25m, more than the entire budget of Dr No under ten years earlier. From a financial perspective, the plan worked: Diamonds recouped a healthy $116m against its $7m budget, compared to the $82m achieved by OHMSS on a similar outlay. Creatively, though, Diamonds is one of the few genuinely bad Bond movies, with a grievously misjudged tone and Connery turning up in body (even then, noticeably out of shape and sporting a wig better suited to J.R. Ewing) but definitely not in spirit.

The opening sequence is a painful betrayal of OHMSS' wrenching climax, turning Bond's hunt for his wife's killer into a series of terrible jokes, with inexplicably lousy dubbing, and a tepid fight scene. Tracy isn't mentioned by name, which turns out to be for the best: her memory would be sullied by association. After being briefly elevated by Shirley Bassey's famous theme song, the movie continues in the same tiresome vein more or less from start to finish. There are a couple of great lines (the 'I'm Plenty' exchange; 'You've caught me with more than my hands up', and of course, the legendary 'Who is your floor?'), the Bambi and Thumper fight is sexy as hell and fun to see the tables turned on the misogynistic Bond - how Connery must have loathed being kicked around by two women - and whatever the homophobic undertones, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd are sleazily unsettling presences.
  
Unfortunately, those are only small highlights of an otherwise dreary two hours. Jill St. John's Tiffany Case represents the first truly stupid Bond girl, Telly Savalas' bitter snob interpretation of Blofeld is replaced by Charles Grey (who had a prominent role in You Only Live Twice just four years earlier) looking nothing like any previous incarnation of the character and dressing in drag, and the plot is a hodgepodge of stupid ideas which eventually coalesce into a bog-standard 'hold the world to ransom' scheme. At least it gave us cinema's greatest ever screaming Chinaman - you'll know him when you see him - in a hilariously bad sequence showing the power of Blofeld's satellite to make atomic detonations look like tiny puffs of smoke. Although never confirmed, the suspicion lingers that Connery's mind-boggling fee (estimated at just over £20m today) had a crippling effect on the budget, given how many shortcuts are taken with the effects work.

The famous blunder, where Bond's car enters a narrow alley leaning on one wall and emerges on the other, is 'corrected' in a way that shows how little thought went into making the movie work: a shot is inserted showing Bond somehow steering his car onto the other wall, which makes even less sense when you see it in action. The Las Vegas setting is also horribly handled: some fun material could have been mined from contrasting Bond's old-fashioned sophistication with one of the world's sleaziest cities, yet the movie instead acts as though tacky casino floors are the height of glamour. There's a nudge in the ribs every now and again, like Shady Tree's lousy stand-up act, but the location was chosen to pander to US audiences and it shows. (An American, John Gavin, had even been cast as Bond before Connery agreed to come back). Bits and pieces of Fleming's book are thrown in - the gangsters, death by mud bath, the international diamond smuggling pipeline - but without much care, leaving any serious fans wondering why the effort was made in the first place. The novel isn't anything special by Fleming's high standards, but contains the usual array of grotesque villains and sinister imagery, none of which comes through in the movie.

I'm struggling to think of anything else positive to say about Diamonds Are Forever - at a stretch, the fight with Peter Franks in the lift is pretty good, even if it ends on an unsatisfying comic note - which represents not only one of the worst Bond movies until Connery tried his hand again with the catastrophic Never Say Never Again (if we're only counting official movies, it took until Die Another Day in 2002), but an opportunity missed to showBond having to come to terms with the loss of his wife and satiate his vengeful fury against Blofeld and Irma Bundt. The movie's success led to the series adopting an ill-conceived comedic tone, with nearly any trace of its literary roots lost amid the excesses of the Roger Moore era.

LIVE AND LET DIE

Roger Moore James Bond 007 Live And Let Die Baron Samedi

After the mostly awful Diamonds Are ForeverLive And Let Die is a marked improvement but still a mixed bag. Roger Moore makes a confident debut, although that might have something to do with the fact he's playing Roger Moore rather than any previously recognisable version of Bond. That's not such a bad thing, as his persona overlaps with the character in many respects, only with a much greater emphasis on comedy. Moore can certainly deliver a line, seduce a lady and generally be the whitest man who ever lived - whoever had the idea of sending him into blaxpolitation-era Harlem for his first movie deserves a medal - but is physically a bit of a mess. As has been extensively documented, he can't run without looking like he's on broken stilts, and his fighting moves are ponderous at best. His charm wins out, though, making for a fun and slightly caddish presence at the movie's centre.

For once, it's a relief writer Tom Mankiewicz opted to ignore large chunks of Fleming's novel. The first half is pretty similar, with both taking place in Harlem and featuring a villain called Mr. Big (although in the book, the character's real name is Buonapart Ignace Gallia and isn't concealing an identity as the dictator of a small fictional island), but the movie mercifully forgoes the jaw-dropping racial stereotypes and Fleming's problematic attempt to phonetically transcribe his crude notion of black patois. I don't think the author was a racist per se, but clearly had no idea what he was talking about and fell back on prejudicial assumptions of the time. Attempting to ignore such issues, the book (Fleming's second, written before Casino Royale had been published) isn't as immediately gripping as its predecessor, but shows early attempts to deepen the character and his friendship with Felix Leiter. Fleming's knack for big villains continues with Mr. Big, and the idea of the Soviet Union working to undermine the West by collaborating with its criminal underworld adds a political frisson to the flavour of the book. I also like the idea that the Haitian Mr. Big controls his gang by cultivating rumours of his being the resurrection of vodou master Baron Samedi, the feared spirit (Loa) of the dead in Caribbean myth.

Where the black magic aspects to Fleming's story are explained away as superstition - though it's never made clear whether Solitaire, aka Simone Latrelle, actually has fortune-reading powers - the movie make the interesting choice of presenting them as potentially real. Rather than being an alter-ego of the main villain, Baron Samedi is his own character and damned creepy to boot. Bond has to kill him twice in the same scene (some speculate that the first version was a mechanical replica, hence it shattering when Bond shot it, but... what?) and then comes back again, complete with demonic laugh, sitting on the front of Bond's train for the movie's closing shot. It's ludicrous, but I quite like the idea of some supernatural elements existing in Bond's world, even if it's a relief the series has never tried to take them any further. Geoffrey Holder is an astonishing physical presence as Samedi, while everything revolving around Solitaire's tarot reading - the movie implies she really can see the future - is fascinating, with Jane Seymour strikingly gorgeous in her first major movie role. It's completely different to anything a Bond movie had done before or would do thereafter, and considering how formulaic the Moore movies would become, that's something to be thankful for.

Live And Let Die also marked the beginning of the Moore era's strong focus on big stunts and set-pieces, this time in the form of a prolonged speedboat chase across the Louisiana bayou. There's some fantastic stuntwork on screen, with boats zinging across dry land, flying over hills, smashing into police cars and generally causing havoc. It drags on, but is impressively ambitious. More ominous is the appearance of Sheriff J.W. Pepper, one of the most universally reviled characters in the Bond series, and while he's nowhere near as awful here as his return outing in The Man With The Golden Gun - I'm ashamed to say Clifton James' blustery delivery gets the occasional chuckle out of me ('Secret agent! On whose side?!') - he's a one-joke character whose joke isn't particularly strong to begin with and waaaaay overstays his welcome. As proof of how long the bayou boat chase is, Pepper doesn't appear in any other part of the movie yet still receives a top credit. The prior scene with Bond stuck on an island in the middle of alligator-infested waters is shorter and stronger, not only for being a situation Bond cannot get out of using a gadget, but his inspired escape by hopping across the reptiles' backs.

As a whole, the movie is an enjoyably daft romp, let down by a few poor choices and a plot which takes far too long to have any meaningful impact on proceedings. Yaphet Kotto is wonderfully composed and cruel as Kananga, but forcing him to wear a dismally unconvincing mask for his Mr. Big persona is ridiculous, and his death, though famous, is too idiotic even for Moore-era Bond. (Bond's pay-off line is not only weak, but is an answer to a completely different question than the one Solitaire asks him). Teehee and Whisper are fun henchmen, despite there not exactly being much to them, and David Hedison's Felix Leiter has plenty of charisma but is given nothing meaningful to do. Accompanied by Paul McCartney's terrific title song and George Martin's zingy score doing a respectable job standing in for John Barry, Live And Let Die is certainly one of the more interesting and individual of Moore's efforts, although it's worrying to see how its most problematic elements would only get more pronounced as his tenure continued.

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN

Roger Moore Christopher Lee James Bond 007 Man With The Golden Gun

There's a long-standing theory that the strength of a Bond movie can be determined by its villain. This is utter bollocks, to put it mildly. Some of the worst Bond movies have some of the best villains, and a few of the good ones - You Only Live TwiceSpy Who Loved MeLiving Daylights - have set Bond against fairly rote opposition.* Christopher Lee's Scaramanga is a case in point, a charismatic and sinister antagonist stuck in a thoroughly stupid, often tedious movie. Lee, cousin to Bond creator Ian Fleming and once suggested for the series' lead role, enlivens every scene he's in, with his cruel wit and debonair manner making an engaging foil for Roger Moore. It's a shame the contrast between the two isn't greater, because Bond is mean-spirited throughout, particularly towards the female characters. He slaps Andrea Anders around in her hotel room, then later has sex with her after bundling main squeeze Mary Goodnight into a cupboard. In fact, he'd look even worse were it not for the other 'friendly' characters being in similarly lousy moods: one of Bond's allies inexplicably leaves him for dead, and even Moneypenny is uncharacteristically snappy.

*If any such measure can be applied, judging a movie by its Bond girl is far more accurate, if hardly perfect.

Scaramanga, though, is actually pretty interesting, in addition to being one of the few characters who smiles occasionally. Unlike Bond, who works for Queen and country, Scaramanga's only allegiance is to himself. He kills for no other reason than his personal enjoyment, and his interest in the solex agitator, the MacGuffin driving a particularly aimless subplot, is not for political or financial gain, but as a practical means of providing power to his island lair. His sexual appetites show a perversity absent in the prolific but vanilla Bond, seemingly deriving pleasure from running the barrel of his signature weapon over Andrea Anders' naked body, before becoming angry when she responds with neither fear nor arousal. He's obviously pretty stingy too, with his island power station run by a single hired goon (hired goon?) who doesn't even have the nous to prevent Mary Goodnight from knocking him out, into one of the vats which will cause the entire lair to self-destruct, natch.

Goodnight, played by former Mrs. Peter Sellers Britt Eckland, is one of the most helpless and inept Bond girls to ever disgrace the silver screen. Her uselessness as an MI6 agent is a running joke throughout, and a tedious one at that. Her contributions to the movie mostly involve getting mistreated by Bond, and bungling every straightforward task she's set. Near the end of the movie, she even manages to reverse her arse into a button activating a solar laser, which almost takes Bond's quizzical eyebrows clean off. Britt Eckland tries to be charming, but no-one could salvage such an irredeemable 'character': why M apparently sees her as a valuable asset is one of the most inexplicable elements of a movie which barely hangs together at the best of times. Andrea Anders is far and away the better of the two main female characters, with future Octopussy lead Maud Adams creating a tangible sense of her character's fear of Scaramanga and the lengths she's willing to go to liberate herself from him. That slither of sympathy makes her death scene one of the movie's most powerful, doubly so since it precipitates the first face-to-face meeting between Bond and Scaramanga, but even the most forgiving viewers will only rue Goodnight not being the one to take an early bow.

Such misjudgments are a persistent feature of the movie, most notable in the return of Sheriff J.W. Pepper from Live And Let Die. There's no reason for him to be in the movie, and the writers even resort to having him visit a car showroom WHILE ON HOLIDAY IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY just for the purpose of forcing him into a car chase. (I'd like to think this is a subtle joke about Western holidaygoers doing the same stuff abroad as they do at home, though the movie is far too stupid to deserve such credit). Pepper was an ugly caricature in his first outing, despite a handful of vaguely amusing lines, but his worst attributes are multiplied tenfold here. The famous stunt where Bond's car pulls off a 360 degree spin in middair whilst jumping between two bridges is astonishing (moreso for having been executed by stunt driver 'Bumps' Willard in a single take), but unforgivably ruined by a comedy whistle sound effect and Pepper's 'Wowee!' reaction.

The movie has nothing in common with Fleming's book, although neither are particularly successful. Fleming died before he could complete a second draft, and apart from a stunning opening chapter where a brainwashed Bond attempts to assassinate M, it's a slow, dreary affair with little of the originality or experimental flair which the author brought to his best efforts. It's also home to the baffling notion that gay people can't whistle, a weirdly idiotic idea even by Fleming's less than progressive standards.

The novel doesn't sink to the same depths as the movie, but nor does it share the handful of outlandish concepts which provide a few highlights amid the gloom: midget butler Nick Nack, the funhouse shooting gallery (complete with wax Bond statue, making the movie's ending predictable even before the titles sequence) or Scaramanga's DIY golden gun (in the novel, it's just a gold-plated revolver). The Man With The Golden Gun was a disappointing finale for Fleming's literary Bond, and even worse as Roger Moore's sophomore outing in the movie series.
  
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