Saturday, 20 October 2012

Countdown To 007: The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only


We're deep into the Moore subtropics now, where eyebrows twitch in the undergrowth, safari suits frolic across grassy plains and the treetops echo with the sound of inexplicable puns. These three movies represent different extremes of the Moore era: Spy Who Loved Me as a generally entertaining extravaganza, Moonraker taking that formula way over the top in every respect, then For Your Eyes Only taking Bond back down to earth in something approximating the shape of an authentic thriller.

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. The feature will continue on Monday with three movies including Timothy Dalton's debut, then culminate on Thursday with Daniel Craig's two previous movies ahead of my Skyfall review on Friday.
 
THE SPY WHO LOVED ME

richard kiel jaws

Ian Fleming's The Spy Who Loved Me is the bravest, most controversial and personal novel in the Bond literary canon. The Spy Who Loved Me movie is pretty much the exact opposite of that. Due to the harsh critical reaction meted out to his book, Fleming made it a condition of his will that no part of the novel ever be adapted to the big screen. Looking at the series as we know it now, the chances of that ever happening are near about nonexistant given how completely different it is to any of the preceding novels, but Fleming died when the movie series was only two entries old.

With Dr No and From Russia both fairly close adaptations, his concern is more understandable. That said, it's a fascinating book: not always completely successful, but about as intriguing as airport novels get. The story is told from the first person perspective of the female lead, Vivienne Michel. The first section of the novel, entitled 'Me', is biographical, covering Viv's messy sexual history in fairly explicit detail, eventually leading her to give up on men and return home to Canada, stopping en-route at a cheap motel with a name so sleazy it could only lead to bad things: the Dreamy Pines Motor Court.

In a somewhat contrived turn of events that forms the book's middle section, 'Them', the owners leave Viv to look after the hotel for the night. During this time, a small group of mobsters come to visit, planning to burn the place down so the landlord can pull an insurance scam. Intending to kill her and leave her body behind as an alibi for the fire, the mobsters are overpower Viv and are about to molest her, before a guest appears at the door, an Englishman with a flat tyre. Thus begins the final section of the novel, 'Him', where the man reveals himself to be James Bond of the British Secret Service, who has recognised the danger Viv is in and sees off the gangsters before fulfilling the promise of the title.

It takes a while to get going, and the plot requires a handful of contrivances to get everyone in the right place, but I love how it grounds Bond's adventures in something approaching the real world, with Viv's first person account relaying how a 'normal' person might react to suddenly being dragged into Bond's world of death and danger. The character's lengthy biography in the first section - a tactic Fleming previously used to great effect for Donald 'Red' Grant in From Russia, With Love - goes on too long, but makes the eventual showdown at the motel all the more powerful as a break from the more everyday concerns of Viv's normal life. For Bond it's a mere diversion from more important matters - for continuity nerds, the adventure is stated as taking place sometime after Thunderball, in the middle of Bond's investigations into SPECTRE and a mission to protect a defected nuclear expert - culminating in a one-night stand which he'd almost certainly forget a day or two later, but for her marks the culmination of the adventure of a lifetime.

The book was greeted with intense controversy not only for its drastic abandonment of the usual Bond style, but also a late passage in which Fleming, through Viv, voices the opinion that 'all women love semi-rape'. The phrasing is obviously terrible, albeit not unfamiliar territory for Fleming, who previously described Bond enjoying a Casino Royale love scene for having 'the sweet tang of rape', but in this instance, it seems to me more a case of misunderstanding. Viv is clearly turned on by the danger and being with an alpha male like Bond: if 50 Shades Of Grey has taught anything, other than to never buy a 50 Shades Of Grey novel, it's that these feelings are not altogether uncommon. Was Fleming a sexist, probably misogynist? Definitely. Here, though, I think it's just a case of his using the worst possible terms to describe a fairly common fetish.

Controversy and experimentation are two words which will never be associated with the movie sharing the novel's title but nothing else, with some stunning stunt work (the Union Jack parachute jump still has the power to drop jaws) and general craziness (the submarine Lotus) making it one of Roger Moore's most entertaining. It remains the definitive example of what people expect from a Bond movie, with big stunts, tricked out cars, gorgeous women, crazy henchmen (Jaws is legitimately terrifying if you're young enough), shark-related death devices and an endless supply of cheesy quips which don't actually make much sense but are endearingly ridiculous nevertheless ('When in Egypt, one should delve deeply into all its treasures' ; 'Keeping the British end up, sir', etc.). It's a terrific blockbuster romp and Barbara Bach not only has a fabulously ropey Russian accent, but shares oodles of chemistry - for chemistry can only be measured in oodles - with Roger Moore. Marvin Hamlisch's score is also the most hilariously '70s thing you'll ever hear, only adding to the fun. The downside is that main villain Stromberg and his scheme could not be any more generic, and while it does everything a Bond movie is expected to do with a lot of flair, there's nothing - bar the aforementioned stuntwork - which could legitimately be described as new or surprising. Even the tanker is a direct lift from You Only Live Twice.

That said, the small continuity touches - Bond in his naval commander outfit, Anya referring to Q as 'Major Boothroyd', the poignant reference to Tracy - add just enough depth to make it a surprisingly important piece of evidence in the arguments against the little-knowing fools who claim each Bond actor is playing a different character. (A theory first voiced by Die Another Day director Lee Tamahori, as if conclusive proof were needed of how worthless an idea it is). Moore continues to prove his Bond quite the cold-hearted bastard behind the eyebrow-raising kitsch exterior (thoughtlessly discarding the corpse of a woman who had just sacrifice herself to save him, casually batting a henchman off a roof) but also in Bond's method of killing Stromberg in the anticlimactic, but surprisingly brutal, fashion of emptying his clip into his seated foe's chest.

MOONRAKER

moonraker drax james bond
  
Following the success of Star Wars, the decision was made to send Bond into space in one of his most unabashedly ridiculous movies to date. There's something inherently exciting about rockets and space travel, but it's a tough sell for a series like Bond. Yes, the gadgets are frequently overcooked and the villains exaggerated, but there's something about actually taking the character into outer space feels like a step too far. That said, the same can be said of the Earth-bound sections of the movie too, which feature such eye-rolling sights as Bond driving across Venice square on a gondola-hovercraft hybrid while pigeons do double-takes, then later conveniently landing right outside the villain's top secret lair whilst abseiling over the Amazon. These are just the worst examples in a movie overflowing with such contrivances (a sexy helicopter pilot is later revealed as illiterate for the sake of a dismal one-liner) and overwrought 'comic' situations.

There's some good stuff in Moonraker, but mostly confined to individual scenes: the spectacular pre-credits stunt, a staple of the Moore era, involves Bond getting thrown out of an aeroplane without a parachute, then freefalling to catch up with an enemy who does have one. It's a brilliantly filmed sequence, which took two weeks and eighty-eight jumps to get right, and even the dodgy rear-projection work behind any shot of Roger Moore and the unnecessary appearance of Jaws can't spoil it. The centrifuge sequence is also terrific, managing to create some tension even through the distraction of Roger Moore's primly composed visage getting ravaged by G-force. The zero-gravity bits on Drax's space station are pretty cool, because zero gravity always is, and the final scene features one of the all-time great cheesy Bond one-liners: upon activating a direct visual feed to Bond's escape shuttle, the Intelligence services get a good eyeful of he and the appropriately named Holly Goodhead going at it. 'What's Bond doing?' M exclaims in outrage. 'I think he's attempting re-entry, sir!' is Q's immortal reply.

It's not for those minor pleasures that I have a secret affection for Moonraker, though. It's really all about Michael Lonsdale's Hugo Drax. Lonsdale plays the part with a wonderfully condescending sneer, and gets all the movie's best lines. 'James Bond, you appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season' is a villain line par excellence, and Lonsdale makes every syllable count. Lonsdale's performance actually adds an extra layer to the character, instigating a theory I've long held about Drax: his entire scheme, to poison the earth and later return to repopulate it (fnarr), is motivated by boredom. Think about it: this is a guy rich enough to have an entire palace brought brick by brick from France to California, and only prevented from doing the same with the Eiffel Tower due to being denied an export permit. When Bond appears to apologise for his government losing a Moonraker shuttle, Drax instructs his Generic Asian Henchman to kill him, even though there's absolutely no reason to consider Bond a danger at that point. Drax is evidently an enormously intelligent man, so why make such an obvious blunder? Answer: he wants Bond to come after him.

Lonsdale gives Drax the countenance of a man for whom life holds no more surprises, whose riches allow him to indulge his every whim, and who is vastly more intellectually gifted than anyone around him. Having Bond on his tail is a challenge, which explains why he persistently refuses - in an even more overt manner than the many villains which have gone before him - to try and kill Bond in anything but the most ridiculously circuitous ways. 'Mr. Bond, you persist in defying my attempts to create an amusing death for you,' he states. Poor old Drax. He just wants to be entertained, and if the human race isn't going to do that for him, he's going to wipe them off the face of the Earth and spend his remaining days boning hot women to repopulate an entire planet. While never stated directly in the movie, only supported through Lonsdale's performance and a certain interpretation of the character's lines and actions, my Moonraker Theory is how I choose to see Drax and his relation to the plot, and is pretty much my favourite villain motivation in any movie, ever. There's no other logical way of explaining why Drax is doing what he's doing, and it makes the movie much more entertaining to watch it from that perspective.

Despite the title, the Ian Fleming novel is one of the more grounded, with much of the book closer in tone to detective fiction than the heightened thrillers making up the bulk of the Bond canon. The movie has nothing in common with it except the presence of a villain called Drax, which is par for course for the majority of the Roger Moore era. Interestingly, significant chunks of the novel were later used in heavily altered form for Die Another Day, whose plot also revolves around an entrepreneur's supposedly altruistic technological venture turning out to have more devious intentions. The movie's villain, Gustav Graves, also shares a fair bit in common with Fleming's Hugo Drax. Don't let that put you off the novel, however: Die Another Day's fatuous sci-fi excesses are all its own, and there's no sign of anyone called Jinx.

The plot sees Bond invited to investigate the death of a security officer at the launch site of esteemed scientist Sir Hugo Drax's Moonraker rocket project, intended as a nuclear deterrent protecting Britain against its Communist enemies. Though Drax is considered above suspicion, Bond and his ally Gala Brand (whose name has never been used in the movies as the producers thought it sounded like a sausage) find strange inconsistencies between his story and that being fed to the government, leading to the grand reveal that Drax isn't intending to use his rocket to protect Britain, but destroy it. His reasons for wanting to do so are fantastic, but you'll have to read the novel (or the Wikipedia page, I suppose) to discover them for yourself.

As with any of Fleming's novels, it attracted some controversy, this time for an early scene where Bond drinks a mixture of champagne and benzedrine (speed) to humiliate Drax in a rigged card game. The sequence is one of Fleming's most memorable, a marvellously executed coup de théâtre where Bond explains the nature of his ploy at the beginning, allowing readers the pleasure of experiencing the trap slowly close on its insufferably arrogant prey. Even without having a clue how Bridge is played, it's a fantastic sequence, all kicked off by a similar vein of snobbery to From Russia With Love's 'red wine and fish': despite Drax being a decorated member of high society, M believes he may be a villain because he's suspected of cheating at cards.

FOR YOUR EYES ONLY


After taking Bond into space, producer Cubby Broccoli could either have completely given up any trace of realism remaining in the series and remade Forbidden Planet with an eyebrow-raising English spy, or brought its hero back to Earth. Thankfully, he chose the latter option. For Your Eyes Only is widely considered one of Moore's strongest outings for being a relatively serious affair, with its predecessor's excesses pared back to a minimum. I have to admit that it's a film I respect for that decision more than I enjoy watching, with large swathes lumbered with exposition-heavy dialogue and leaden pacing.

Moore was expecting Moonraker to be his final outing, and the pre-credits scene was written to make an immediate connection between whomever the new actor would be and the series' long history. As fate would have it, Moore stuck around and the scene was kept in regardless. While it's an interesting idea to show Bond finally putting Blofeld - or an unnamed and faceless version of him, since there were rights issues surrounding the character - to the sword, or rather chimney, cramming such an important event in the series' history into a five-minute stunt sequence, existing in isolation from the rest of the movie, is more of a 'what did I just watch?' moment than gratifying payoff. Seeing Bond place flowers at his deceased wife's grave is a lovely piece of continuity, and I'm relieved Blofeld's fate was sealed in more permanent fashion than provided by the ever-unsatisfactory Diamonds Are Forever, but the short scene features so many shoddy creative decisions - from Blofeld's comedy foreigner accent to his utterly baffling offer to buy Bond's mercy with a 'delicatessen in stainless steel' (has anyone worked out what that line means yet?) - it ends up a bit of a mess. Still better than Diamonds, natch, and the helicopter stunt work is pretty cool, but ultimately another flubbed attempt to do right by the squandered dramatic opportunity of Tracy's death.

In many ways, that's the story of the movie as a whole: nice ideas, mixed execution. For Your Eyes Only features some fantastic moments, but reaching them unfortunately means sitting through an interminable sojourn through an Italian sky resort, featuring by-the-numbers action sequences (having a skiing Bond being chased down a mountain by motorbikes is a neat idea, but comes out of nowhere and struggles to generate much excitement) and the horrendous and superfluous character of Bibi Dahl, a (very) young ice skater who takes a shine to the considerably older Bond. Whatever comedy potential the idea might have had - Bond having to turn down a girl because she's so clearly underage - is offset by the off-the-scale creepiness factor, not to mention how out of character it seems for the increasingly archaic Moore to turn down a young woman. Carole Bouquet, the actress who played lead Bond girl Melina, was in fact only two years older than the actress (Lynn Holly Johnson) playing Dahl.

Bouquet is one of the movie's greatest strengths, giving Melina Havelock an honour-bound determination to seek revenge for the death of her parents. Her performance is full of fierce sincerity, giving the character greater depth than just about any lead female since Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. She's not a patch on Diana Rigg, of course, but a huge improvement over the likes of Britt Eckland's Mary Goodnight and her penchant for crossbows gives her a defining weapon. Bouquet works well with Moore, and their budding romance is made all the more effective by how understated it is. True, several beats are replayed from The Spy Who Loved Me, but it's a rare instance during the Moore era where there's a real spark between Bond and his leading lady.

Melina is the biggest holdover from Fleming's short story of the same name, which sees Bond volunteer to undertake an assassination mission against a Cuban hitman who has murdered two of M's oldest friends, a Jamaican couple called the Havelocks. Before Bond can take his shot, the Havelocks' daughter, Judy, takes the kill instead with her bow and arrow. Despite being renamed - Melina is the Greek word for Honey, a nod to Dr No's Honey(chile) Rider - and given a different nationality, the character is much the same as in the short story, where Fleming gives her plenty of personality despite featuring only briefly. The assault on Kristatos' drug smuggling operation is taken from another short in the FYEO collection, 'Risico', which gave the movie the Kristatos and Colombo characters and the twist involving their respective allegiances, an interesting conceit - the assumed ally turns out to be the main villain, and vice versa - wasted by the movie playing it so casually. Regardless, it's no surprise that so many of the movie's best ideas derive from Fleming's work, as the universal truth for the movie series is that the further it deviates from its literary roots, the less interesting it becomes.

For Your Eyes Only certainly isn't a bad film, but definitely one which could have done with some strict editing (it drags at over two hours) and a few rewrites to ditch the tedious, and not especially important, Italy-set sections. The movie improves a lot in its second half with a number of standout sequences: the sequence where Bond is attacked whilst climbing a sheer cliff-face is a series high point for suspense, and Kristatos using his speedboat to drag Bond and Melina through coral reefs - lifted from Fleming's Live And Let Die - almost equals it. Topol's Colombo is a charismatic, moustachioed ally in the Kerim Bey vein, and Bond kicking Emile Leopold Locque (one of my favourite villain names, for some reason) to his death puts Moore's cold-hearted streak to more satisfying use than mistreating women. Interesting, Countess Lisl, the secret Scouser who becomes the movie's inevitable sacrificial lamb after Bond beds her, is played by Cassandra Harris, then wife to a certain Pierce Brosnan. We'll be hearing more from him next week...

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