Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bondage, Pt. 10: The Spy Who Loved Me

This movie is widely considered to be the best of the Roger Moore Bond films. I disagree - but it's a close second to my favorite Roger Moore outing (which I'll save for later...hint, it's not Moonraker!). It does feature one of the least-pathetic Bond girls, and the Best Henchman of All Time.

In keeping with my goal of making these shorter so I'll actually finish (a goal I stated, but did not end up doing, in my last entry), I'll "dispense with the customary pleasantries" as M would say, and get on with it.

Synopsis: A genius madman (aren't they all?) named Stromberg wants to destroy the world by provoking a nuclear war (a plot used in at least two other Bond movies) so he can create a New World Order - this time, the new world would be under the sea. Bond teams up with a Russian spy, code named Triple X (the Bond girl of this film) to thwart Stromberg's scheme. Yes, it's basically You Only Live Twice and Moonraker, in terms of plot, but the details are different enough that this is enjoyable, and it's the best of the three that use the same device.

The Villain: Karl Stromberg is a megalomaniac who wants to provoke the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. into a nuclear war so that he can rebuild civilization beneath the sea. He was played by Curd Jurgens, a German actor. He has an interesting career, in that most of his major film roles were playing Nazis in World War II movies. Ironically, he was critical of the Nazi regime and was actually sent to a concentration camp during the war. He managed to live through it, and afterward became a citizen of Austria. He was a journalist for a long time before becoming an actor. Stromberg the character is very much in the mold of Blofeld, head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. That's because the original version of the script - which, by the way, contains absolutely nothing from the novel it was based on other than the name - used Blofeld as the bad guy. However, Eon Productions' nemesis Kevin McClory, who claims to have invented S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Blofeld while working on early Bond ideas with Ian Fleming, sued Eon to stop them from using the character or the organization. So they basically just changed the name (and, apparently, lost Blofeld's trademark cat), which is why Stromberg seems so Blofeldish. Stromberg is a great villain in that he's one of those who has actually deluded himself into thinking he's the good guy, and that his actions are necessary to ensure the future of human civilization, which he believes is hopelessly corrupt.

The Henchman: If you've never seen a single Bond movie, or you have but haven't really paid attention, I bet you can name only one or two henchmen, and one of them is this guy. "Jaws," played by actor Richard Keil, who suffers from acromegaly and stands some 7'2" tall, is perhaps one of the most enduring and iconic Bond henchmen. He's even been brought into some video games, voiced by Keil himself. Here's a picture of him with early Seventies hottie Caroline Munro (see below), which shows you just how freakin' big this guy is. Jaws' most interesting feature is not his height (and he's TALL...he TOWERS over Roger Moore, who's over 6 feet), but the steel braces he wears on his teeth. Jaws can cut heavy cable-car cables with those teeth, or bite people to death, or any number of other unwholesome activities. Jaws is somewhat one-dimensional in this film, though he was so popular with audiences that the producers brought him back in Moonraker. Jaws was based on a character featured in the novel named Sol Horror, who had steel braces on his teeth, but is otherwise pretty original. Keil got his start in the early Sixties playing the title role of Eegah, sometimes called "Teenage Caveman," which was featured in a particularly hilarious episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Jaws is a great henchman not so much because of his iconic looks - the height, the teeth - but because he's so relentless. No matter how many times Bond does him in, he comes back with remorseless energy. In the end of the film, Bond throws Jaws into a tank full of sharks and he's seemingly dead. But after the rest of the story is resolved, we see Jaws swimming away - he's bitten the sharks to death. You gotta love that.

The Bond Girl: Barbara Bach plays Anya Amasova, a Russian spy code-named Triple X. The Russians bring her in to track down missing plans for a new submarine tracking system when it becomes clear to the Russians that Bond is going after it. Bond killed Amasova's former lover, and she sets out for revenge. But - SURPRISE, SURPRISE - she eventually forgives Bond after falling under his unassailable charm. While Barbara Bach is certainly attractive, I have never been all that crazy about her looks. But she's one of my favorite Bond girls, because she is tough and resourceful and is pretty much Bond's equal. She gets the better of him on more than one occasion as they steal the secret plans back and forth from one another. They do decide to team up at some point when they realize their governments are on the same side - at least when it comes to thwarting Stromberg, and then, of course, in the end she forgives Bond and makes love to him in a submarine capsule. When it gets opened at the end, both British and Russian dignitaries are scandalized by what they find. Anyway, Bach may not kick me in the heart the way Jane Seymour does, but her character is one of the most admirable Bond girls.

The Sidekick: There really isn't one, though Bond has a buddy in Egypt who helps him out a bit. This is another one of those movies where the sidekick and the Bond girl are one and the same.

Gadgets: The most obvious is Bond's Lotus Esprit, which can turn into a submarine. There's also a cigarette that can shoot sleeping gas, a music box that's actually a top-secret KGB radio, a cigarette case that can turn into a microfilm reader, and more, including a slightly ridiculous ski pole that turns into a gun. Of course, Stromberg's underwater fortress is a gigantic gadget itself, though one grossly reminiscent of the one in You Only Live Twice.

Music: Longtime composer John Barry found himself unable to work in Britain due to tax reasons, so big-time award-winner Marvin Hamlisch was brought in as a temporary replacement. He added some disco elements that sort of date this movie, but his disco treatment of the Bond theme is pretty cool, actually. He also wrote "Nobody Does It Better," the theme song that was performed by Carly Simon. It's a great freakin' song, even if you're not into syrupy Seventies ballads. Great chord changes, lyrics, the whole nine yards. It might be my second or third favorite Bond theme song. It was nominated for an Academy Award, as was the original score. Neither won.

The Director: Lewis Gilbert, who directed You Only Live Twice, was brought in at the last minute to replace Guy Hamilton, who was hoping to direct the Superman movie (he didn't). Gilbert was instrumental in casting some of the key actors, including Jurgens, Keil, and, representing the "ROWR!" department, Caroline Munro, who plays a would-be assassin called Naomi. She, like Bond girl Jane Seymour, would also do a Sinbad movie.

Fun Facts: This isn't really a fact, but here's a really cute recent picture of Roger Moore and Richard Keil reminiscing. There's also a neat story out there in several sources about the London premiere, which was attended by the Queen, who started a standing ovation when Bond, toward the beginning of the film, opens a parachute to reveal the Union Jack. It's also worth noting that the title of this film was the obvious inspiration for the title of the Austin Powers parody film The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Favorite Lines: This exchange is typical of Bond movies. M asks Moneypenny: "Moneypenny, where's 007?" She replies, "He's on a mission sir. In Austria." M orders, "Well, tell him to pull out. Immediately!" This cuts to a scene of Bond making love to a woman. This one is also good, though subtle: Bond says he's "Bond, James Bond," and Max Kalba says, "What of it?" This is in keeping with the tone of self-mockery Roger Moore brought to the role.

Other Stuff: Most Bond movies end with a tag line, saying "James Bond will return in (name of next movie)." In this one, it says "James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only." But that wasn't the next movie. Because of the phenomenal success of Star Wars, the producers decided their next Bond movie better have spaceships.

So...that's what we got. Up next, one of the most ridiculous (but fun) Bond movies: Moonraker.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bondage, Pt. 9: The Man With the Golden Gun

Roger Moore is back for his second run at the Bond role in this, widely considered to be among the worst of the Bond films. While I don't disagree, this movie is something of a dichotomy: one of the least-inspiring Bond movies with one of the most inspiring Bond villains.

Since I'm way behind on writing these (I'm already up into the Daniel Craig films), I'm going to go with a "less is more" approach from here on out, just in the hope of actually completing these posts in a reasonable time frame. So here goes.

Synopsis: This one has Bond going after a device called the Solex Agitator that can harness the power of the sun to solve the energy crisis (which was supposedly pretty bad in 1973 in real life). The thing can also produce powerful solar rays that can (and does) do stuff like destroy airplanes. Throughout this process, Bond is up against Francisco Scaramanga, the proverbial "Man With the Golden Gun," a secretive and highly paid assassin with an island fortress.

The Villain: Scaramanga, the Man With the Golden Gun, gets $1 million per assassination. He literally has a golden gun and uses special golden bullets (the delivery of which allows Bond to track him down). Mi6 receives a golden bullet with "007" inscribed on it, which is Scaramanga's way of intimidating Bond. Scaramanga is played by Christopher Lee, who was already a veteran of B-grade Hammer films and whatnot by the time he did this. Late in his life, he'd have a major comeback playing villains like Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Count Dooku in two Star Wars movies. Scaramanga is a noteworthy villain because, at least at this point in the series, the villains rarely engaged Bond personally in gunfights and fisticuffs. Scaramanga is every bit as skilled and dangerous as Bond himself, and Lee plays him with a cool, cold, smooth kind of style. The funniest thing about him is that he has a third nipple - a fact Bond uses to impersonate Scaramanga at one point in the movie. Scaramanga constantly tests himself. On his island fortress, he has a funhouse-style combat training room that his demented protege, Nick Nack, programs with animatronics, booby traps and other dangers. Of course, Scaramanga also uses this room to trap and torment his enemies, and, inevitably, Bond winds up here as well. Frankly, Scaramanga is the best thing about this movie, and he's one of my favorite Bond villains.

The Henchman: As far as I know, the only little person to be a henchman for a Bond villain was Nick Nack, played by Hervé Villechaize, who is best known as Tattoo on the TV show Fantasy Island. He plays a pretty evil little bastard in this, though he doesn't get a lot of action scenes. In fact, most Bond henchmen are there because the villains are, by and large, thinkers, not fighters. Nick Nack is really more like a manservant, though he does create plenty of problems for Bond. Vallechaize himself was a tragic figure, committing suicide in 1993. His suicide note said he was despondent over health problems. By that time he was an alcoholic who was said to spend every evening sitting in a darkened room drinking and screaming obscenities at re-runs of Fantasy Island. I've read that he was also an accomplished painter, but I had trouble finding images of his artwork (not that I really looked all that hard).

The Bond Girl: This time it's Mary Goodnight, played by Britt Ecklund. She was married to Peter Sellers at the time, who himself was in the Bond spoof movie Casino Royale (the original...which, in my opinion, is unfunny and awful). Britt Ecklund is pretty and she's a good actress...but the character of Mary Goodnight rivals Diamonds Are Forever's Tiffany Case as being, perhaps, the dumbest Bond girl. She's supposed to be a British agent, and clearly they set the bar very low for her. She keeps screwing things up and getting Bond into trouble, such as when she pushes a henchman into the power plant at Scaramanga's island, which leads to a chain reaction that blows it up. Bond only escapes in the nick of time. She also manages to get herself locked in the trunk of Scaramanga's car while trying to place a homing device on his car. Maud Adams also deserves mention as Andrea Anders, Scaramanga's mistress. She helps Bond track him down and gets a golden bullet for her trouble. Adams would later play a different role in a Bond film as the title character in Octopussy. In a funny scene, Bond makes Goodnight hide in a closet while he beds Adams in the same room.

The Sidekick: Actually, this is one of those where the sidekick and the Bond girl are sort of the same person. However, Bond does team up once again with the ridiculous Sheriff Pepper from Live and Let Die, who just so happens to be on vacation in Thailand. He remembers Bond, and gets mixed up in a pretty cool boat chase sequence. Other than that he's a digression into flat-out comedy that probably should have been avoided. Bond is also aided by Lieutenant Hip, his contact in Thailand and Hong Kong. At one point he and his two nieces take out an entire dojo of trained martial artists. This movie, in fact, camps martial arts films that were popular at the time, much as Live and Let Die was influenced by blaxploitation flicks.

Gadgets: Perhaps the coolest gadget in this movie isn't Bond's at all - it's Scaramanga's: the "Golden Gun" itself. It disassembles into innocuous items (a cigarette lighter, cuff links, a cigarette case, a pen). Scaramanga also has a flying car. Yes, a flying car. This complicates things for Mary Goodnight when she gets stuck in the trunk. And though it's more of a secret base than a gadget, Mi6 has a remote HQ in the sunken wreck of the RMS Queen Elizabeth, a British ship that had, in real life, sunk in the Hong Kong harbor. The funniest gadget is a little rubber nipple Bond wears to mimic Scaramanga's third nipple when he's impersonating him.

Music: Speaking of music, I should mention that really what I've been writing about here is "The Theme Song." I haven't really touched on the orchestrated scores, almost all of which were written by legendary film composer John Barry. Perhaps I'll get back to that with an appendix to these posts one of these days. The title song for this one was described as "one long string of smut" due to its sexual innuendo. But the truth is, it's really not that explicit at all, though this line is funny: "His eye may be on you or me / Who will he bang? / We shall see. Oh yeah!" It was performed by Scottish singer Lulu, and written by John Barry and Don Black. Even though he wrote the music, Barry later described how much he hated the song, and said it was his worst.

The Director: This was Guy Hamilton's last foray into the Bond-verse. He got sidetracked afterward by being tapped to direct the Superman film, in early pre-production at the time, that ultimately went to Richard Donner, I think because Hamilton was a tax exile or something. It's interesting to note that despite directing one of the best Bond movies - Goldfinger - Hamilton managed to direct some of the worst ones, as well.

Fun Facts: The producers originally asked Alice Cooper to do the theme song, and here it is. For whatever reason, probably due to the fact that Cooper was more infamous than famous (audiences are jaded now, but Alice actually used to piss people off back in the day, from Eisenhower-era conservatives to liberal hippies, who found him too violent). I rather like Alice's version. It sounds very much like an Alice song but it also sounds like a Bond theme. He would later re-work parts of the song into Muscle of Love. This was also the last Bond movie producers Saltzman and Broccoli worked together on. Saltzman sold his share in Eon Productions to solve some financial crisis he was having, and the resulting legal wrangling meant it took three long years until the next movie (the longest break in Bondage to that point).

Favorite Lines: Sort of a wonky script, but there are some good ones. I like this one:
Bond, to Nick Nack: "I've never killed a midget before, but there can always be a first time!"
I also like this exchange between Bond and Moneypenny, when he says, "Moneypenny, you're better than a computer!" She replies: "In all sorts of ways. But you never take advantage of them." There is also an Oriental girl called "Chu Me" which is probably the most ridiculous name of a girl in any Bond film.

Other: Scaramanga's flying car was actually based on a real prototype under consideration at the time. Unlike Scaramanga's, it never got off the ground. This movie also featured one of the wildest vehicle stunts yet seen, when Bond's car leaps a broken bridge and spins around 360 degrees, doing an aerial twist. Even now, when the hosts of the TV show Top Gear tried to replicate this stunt, they couldn't. But it was no trick photography: stunt man "Bumps" Willard actually pulled it off in an AMC Hornet.

Next up, one of the better Roger Moore films: The Spy Who Loved Me.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Bondage, Pt. 8: Live and Let Die

With Live and Let Die, Roger Moore finally took the screen as Bond. He'd been considered before - even on the first go-round (he's older than Connery) but his commitment to the television show The Saint and, later, The Persuaders, kept him from claiming the 007 crown. But in Live and Let Die, he got it, and he'd hold onto it longer than any other actor to play Bond.

Moore fared a little better than Lazenby, probably because he was already known (to TV audiences, at least) long before he played Bond. But he wasn't the first choice for the part. We've looked at some of the other Bond hopefuls in previous posts; many of those same guys were considered again on this go-round, along with some Americans (shockingly, these include Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, and Robert Redford, all of whom politely declined to pursue the part). More appropriate hopefuls included Julian Glover (who'd later play a Bond villain), William Gaunt, and Simon Oates. The producers actually offered Connery $5.5 million - a staggering sum (I don't know how much that is in 2011 dollars, but in the last post we learned that $1.2 million then is about $15 million now, so they desperately wanted Connery). From there, they decided they wanted Michael Billington (who has auditioned for Bond more than any other actor) until they realized Moore was available. Moore didn't want to be compared to Connery, so at his instigation they changed up a few things. He injected more comedy into the films, and smoked a cigar instead of cigarettes (he also never ordered a martini shaken-not-stirred, although others ordered them or made them for him).

Synopsis: Mr. Big, a Harlem drug dealer, wants to distribute a bunch of free heroin to get everyone hooked and drive all other drug lords out of business. He's actually Dr. Kananga, a Caribbean dictator, in disguise (he rules a fictional island called San Monique). Bond runs into him because he is investigating the death of three other British agents. But Bond is soon embroiled in "gangsters and voodoo" before he can stop Kananga's dastardly scheme. This is the first (but not last) time 007's enemy is a drug dealer.

The Villain: The aforementioned Dr. Kananga, played by Yaphet Kotto (he might be the only black Bond villain, but I haven't yet seen two of the Pierce Brosnan movies, so I'm not sure). He often visits America in disguise as Mr. Big, which is how Bond first meets him. Kotto is actually the son of the former crown prince of Cameroon, and he definitely brings that combination of street-smarts and sort of a cool royal vibe to the role. Kananga, unlike a lot of other Bond villains, believes in voodoo, and at least partially makes his plans based on tarot readings. Like any good villain, he has a penchant for feeding Bond and others to snakes and crocodiles and whatnot.

The Henchman: There are actually several in this movie, including Whisper (a guy who only whispers) and Tee Hee, who, in classic form, has a pincer for a hand. But the one who steals the show is the flamboyant Baron Samedi, played by 7-Up pitchman Geoffrey Holder. Samedi is one of my favorite Bond henchmen, because he doesn't seem totally under Kananga's control; he also uses magic or occult-like acts to kill his enemies, and you don't see that much in Bond movies. Samedi seemingly dies at least twice, but then appears laughing just before the credits roll - so either he survived naturally, through luck, or it's inferred that he might actually be the voodoo god he claims to be.

The Bond Girl: Oh. My. God. Jane Seymour is my favorite Bond girl because, in my opinion, she is the most beautiful (I'm also partial to her performance in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger). Her character, Solitaire, is sort of a private fortune-teller to Kananga, and is adept in the use of the Tarot to tell the future, a task Kananga constantly demands of her. Unfortunately, she must remain a virgin in order to use her powers. But - OF COURSE - she manages to lose her virgin status, with none other than Mr. James Bond, 007 (surprise, surprise). But it was fated, perhaps - when she first meets Bond she draws the card The Lovers though she lies and says it's Death. Kananga is a little annoyed with her when Bond fails to die. Unlike almost all other Bond girls, Seymour went on to have a long career in movies and television.

The Sidekick: Felix Leiter is back, this time played by David Hedison - one of only two actors to have played Felix twice (he's also in License to Kill, much later). Quarrel Jr. - the son of the sidekick boatman Quarrel from Dr. No - also appears, and helps Bond destroy Kananga's poppy fields at the end of the movie. Rosie Carver, the first black lady Bond ever sleeps with on film, is supposedly an ally but it turns out she's working for Kananga. She later falls for James and tries to switch sides, but is killed by her employer.

Gadgets: Quite a few in this one, and not only used by Bond. Bond has a watch that can deflect bullets with magnetism and a little rotating saw. Bond is also given, by the CIA, a cutely named "Felix Lighter," a communications device disguised as a car cigarette lighter. Bond also has a clothing brush that allows him to send Morse code messages. The bad guys have some gadgets, too, including a robo-Baron Samedi, voodoo figurines that shoot poison darts, a flute that doubles as a communicator, and a souped-up El Dorado that fires poison darts from its side-view mirror.

Music: Obviously, the theme song is the best thing about this movie. Most were written by John Barry, who scored most of the films, and given to a pop singer to perform. In this case, Barry wasn't available. The producers contacted Paul & Linda McCartney (Linda is credited as a co-author) and their band, Wings, contributed what is, in my opinion, the absolute best Bond theme song ever. It was a huge commercial hit as well, and to this day it forms the centerpiece of McCartney's live show. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best song, but lost to the theme for "The Way We Were."

The Director: Guy Hamilton, who directed Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever. He'd come back to do one more, The Man With the Golden Gun.

Fun Facts: During the filming of Diamonds Are Forever, the producers decided to do Live & Let Die next, because the novel contains African-American bad guys. The producers thought it would be daring to have black bad guys in the movie, because the Black Panthers movement was in the news a lot at that time. It's also worth noting that the theme song Live & Let Die is the first real rock'n'roll song to ever be used in a Bond film. Also, George Martin wrote the score for the movie, at McCartney's suggestion. Martin, of course, was the producer of almost all the Beatles albums. Another interesting fact is that 17 speedboats were destroyed during the filming of a chase scene. Finally, this movie is the first of two to feature Sheriff Pepper, a pot-bellied Louisiana officer who tries, unsuccessfully, to catch Bond in a high-speed chase "Smokey & the Bandit" style.

Favorite Lines: Frankly, there aren't a lot of great ones, but I kinda like this one (after Kananga has been exploded by a compressed air pellet)
Solitaire: Where's Kananga?
James Bond:
He always did have an over-inflated opinion of himself.

Other: This Bond movie stands apart from others in many ways - not only does it have a slightly supernatural tone, it is so clearly influenced by the Blaxploitation films of the early 1970s that it sometimes appears to be one. This is one of those Bond movies that seems to have all the ingredients - awesome theme song, compelling villain and henchman, drop-dead gorgeous heroine...but somehow it falls a bit flat.

Next up - The Man With the Golden Gun.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bondage, Pt. 7: Diamonds Are Forever

This is the final Eon Productions Bond movie to star Sean Connery, although he'd later come back for the non-series Never Say Never Again in the Eighties. After George Lazenby turned down a seven-picture contract during On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the producers searched for another replacement Bond and considered John Gavin, Michael Gambon (who would later play Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies, and who rejected the offer, telling the producers he was "in terrible shape"), and even Batman's Adam West, of all people. In the end, Universal told the producers to get Connery back, and that money was no object.

I've read conflicting reports of how much they paid Connery to come back, but the best evidence suggests it was $1.2 million, a then-outrageous sum which is about $15.9 million, adjusted for 2011 inflation. The company also agreed to back two projects of Connery's choice (one was a version of Macbeth, which Connery was to star in, but this was dropped when Roman Polanski produced a version at the same time).

So they got Connery back for one last time, and, in his own words: "They bribed me."

Synopsis: In this one Bond goes undercover to infiltrate a smuggling ring, and winds up discovering a plot by his old nemesis Blofeld to use diamonds to build a giant laser.

The Villain: It's Blofeld again, this time played by Charles Gray, who played a minor part as a Bond ally, Dikko Henderson, in You Only Live Twice. He's up to his old antics. The film opens with Bond discovering a facility in Egypt where plastic surgery copies of Blofeld are being made; Bond thinks he kills the "real" Blofeld by drowning him in hot mud. Alas, Blofeld survives and moves to Las Vegas, where he impersonates Willard Whyte (a Howard Hughes analogue) and rebuilds his empire. His plan is to use diamonds to create a giant laser with which he can, predictably, take over the world.

The Henchman: This time it's a duo that fills the role of henchman - Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, homosexual assassins. Bruce Glover plays Mr. Wint - he is, incidentally, the father of actor Crispin Glover who played George McFly in Back to the Future, and they look a lot alike. I didn't realize that until writing this. Mr. Kidd is played by jazz bassist Putter Smith. Wanting two musicians, they offered the Bruce Glover role to musician Paul Williams first, but he held out for too much money. These two are often reviled as some of the worst Bond villains ever, but I think they're great. The homosexuality isn't played up for laughs or anything, but it does lend a sort of sinister Leopold & Leob sort of aspect to it. There is also another duo, this one female, "Bambi and Thumper," who try to beat up Bond at Willard Whyte's house.

The Bond Girl: The major one in this movie is Jill St. John, who plays diamond smuggler Tiffany Case. I agree with most critics' assessment of her as one of the least impressive Bond girls ever - true, she's gorgeous (perhaps one of the prettiest Bond girls) but as a character, she is "shrill and helpless." She's somewhat whiny and opportunistic. I found myself not really caring whether she lived through the end of the movie or not. But, she's pretty, and for a Bond girl I guess that's what counts. The other memorable girl from this movie is Natalie Wood's sister Lana Wood, who plays Bond's would-be girlfriend Plenty O'Toole, who gets a) naked, and then b) thrown out a window by mobsters.

The Sidekick: Since Bond is operating in U.S. territory for most of this movie, Felix Leiter is back. He helps organize a helicopter attack at the end of the movie, and Bond annoys him by running from Las Vegas police, leaving Felix to clean up the mess. This time Felix is played by Norman Burton, who portrays him as a kind of exasperated babysitter. Singing cowboy Jimmy Dean plays the Howard Hughes analogue Willard Whyte, who was kidnapped and impersonated by Blofeld. Dean was worried about playing the part, since he was an employee of Hughes' Desert Inn at the time. He would later become known for his signature brand of sausages.

Gadgets: In one of the silliest and/or most fun scenes, depending on how you look at it, Bond escapes from Blofeld's laser facility in a NASA moon rover, complete with waving robotic arms. The idea of Blofeld's orbital laser was poo-pooed by critics at the time, but doesn't seem so far-fetched now. Bond also drives a badass red '71 Mustang Mach I (it's actually Tiffany's car) in a classic car chase through Las Vegas. Bond manages to drive the car up on its side, among other ridiculous stunts.

Music: Shirley Bassey, who did the title track of Goldfinger, returns to sing this one. Apparently the producers didn't love it, and thought there was too much sexual innuendo. Indeed, composer John Barry later told reporters he told Bassey to pretend she was "singing about a penis."

The Director: This was Guy Hamilton's second stab at Bond, having previously directed Goldfinger. The producers chose him because they thought that was the best Bond movie so far and wanted to replicate it. Hamilton would later direct two more Bond films, Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun. Interestingly, Hamilton was active in the French Resistance during World War II.

Fun Facts: I was surprised to realize this, but Diamonds Are Forever is the last Bond film in which S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Blofeld appear. It's true that a bald man who resembles Blofeld is killed in the pre-title action sequence of For Your Eyes Only, but he's not named. The reason for this is that the guy who'd been giving the producers trouble over the film Thunderball finally convinced courts that he, not Fleming, created S.P.E.C.T.R.E. The villain from the original novel is Goldfinger's twin brother. But producer Cubby Broccolli had a dream that his close friend Howard Hughes had been kidnapped and replaced with an imposter. This led to Blofeld impersonating Willard Whyte in the movie.

Favorite Line: I didn't even have to think twice about my favorite line in this movie, just because it's an odd quip that is hilarious without really making much sense. It's this exchange here:
Plenty O'Toole: Hi, I'm Plenty.
James Bond: But of course you are.
Plenty O'Toole: Plenty O'Toole.
James Bond: Named after your father perhaps?

Other: Another fun fact? The moon buggy was built on a Corvair chasis (my high school girlfriend's dad was obsessed with Corvairs, so they're one of the few cars I know much about). Finally, I thought it was interesting that the scenes in Tiffany Case's house were shot in Kirk Douglas' house. Connery himself choreographed some of the fight scenes. He apparently enjoyed himself in Vegas, and delayed shooting one day because he was collecting his winnings at a casino.

With this one, we say goodbye to Connery for the official series, though we'll see him again as Bond (unofficially) in the Eighties. Next up we look at Live and Let Die, which was Roger Moore's debut as Bond. He was no one's first choice, but he put his own twist on Bond and would play the part more times than any other actor ever did or will.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bondage, Pt. 6: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

This one is definitely the odd man out in the Bond film series. Connery, having become sick of playing 007, hung up his Walther PPK and producers began casting about for a replacement. They tried Timothy Dalton, who would later portray Bond, but at the time he was 22 years old and felt he was too young for the role. Producers also talked to many established actors of the day, including John Richardson, Hans de Vries, Anthony Rogers, and Jeremy Brett (who would later have a great run as Sherlock Holmes). But despite the fact that all of those guys were name actors, it was a relative unknown, George Lazenby, who got the role. Producer Albert Broccolli later said it was Lazenby's "charm, arrogance, the ability to portray aggression" that won him the role.

Say what you will about Lazenby - he's got to be one of the bravest actors in film history. Stepping into Connery's shoes couldn't have been easy. Critics were not kind to him. That being said, the producers offered him a whopping seven picture deal, but halfway through filming this movie he said he'd only sign on for one. He felt that Bond would fade from popularity in the 1970s. He was wrong. The point is, they were going to give him the chance to build an audience, and I think he would have been accepted over time, but for whatever reason he gave it all up. Maybe he just chickened out, but he quit during filming, long before the bad reviews came in. Who knows? The truth is, though, I kinda like Lazenby as Bond.

Watching this movie after a solid run of Connery films, I can see why audiences were taken aback. Lazenby doesn't move like Connery. He's lankier, and walks with a bit of a bounce, entering the room with a bemused smile. Connery, on the other hand, coasted into a room like a shark or a panther or some other predator. But I still think folks would have gotten used to Lazenby over time. The truth is, about 20 minutes into this movie, I felt like I was watching James Bond. And the producers were right about his ability to display aggression: the fight scenes in this one are among the best ever put into a Bond film, and have a violence and intensity not seen again until bruiser Daniel Craig was given the role.

Another reason this one turned folks off (even though it made as much money as the other Bond films of the era) is that the producers decided to take a new direction with the tone of the movies. The producers decided to follow the novel very closely on this one, making it more realistic and serious compared to its predecessors, and the ending is a big fat bummer (spoiler alert: James Bond gets married and his wife gets shot in the head on their way to the honeymoon). That kind of a bring-down of an ending couldn't have helped.

But there is much to recommend this movie, and when I rank all of the Bond films at the end of this series, it will be nowhere near the last on the list. Let's jump into the categories:

Synopsis: Blofeld of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is at it again. This time he plans to poison the world's food supply by sending out his "Angels of Death," girls from all over the world who have been brainwashed in his fake allergy care facility in the Alps. Meanwhile, Bond is offered $1 million to marry the daughter of a crime lord (Bond saves her from committing suicide in the pre-title action sequence). He refuses, but romances her as long as the crime boss helps him track down Blofeld. He does, goes undercover in Blofeld's camp, and foils the plot. He falls in love with the girl and marries her - only to learn that you don't get to mess with S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and live happily ever after.

The Villain: It's Blofeld again, only this time he's played by Telly Savalas (who, incidentally, started off as a sports announcer). They replaced Donald Pleasance because in this film, Blofeld does some skiing, some shooting, and fisticuffs and it was felt Savalas was better-suited for the physicality of the role. He's pretty good as Blofeld, if a little forgetful (he just met Bond in the previous film, but in this one doesn't recognize Bond despite a very flimsy disguise). In this one, he's holding the world's food supply for ransom so that he can be granted immunity for his crimes in the previous films and be formally recognized as nobility. Bond poses as a gay heraldry expert who is going to help prove Blofeld's noble credentials - that's how he sneaks into Blofeld's fortress, anyway. During that whole time, by the way, Lazenby's voice is dubbed by the actor who played the character he's supposed to be impersonating, which gives Lazenby the impression of having bad vocal timing here and there.

The Henchman: It's another female henchman this time, Irma, who wrangles the Angels of Death and helps Blofeld try to kill off Bond (she appears in numerous Bond novels but only one movie). It is she who actually pulls the trigger on the gun that kills Bond's wife. The actress, Ilsa Steppat, died only four days after the film was released.

The Bond Girl: Diana Rigg, who had been on TV's The Avengers, was chosen to play Tracy di Vincenzo, whose father is a crime lord who for some reason is friendly with the British Secret Service. She is depressed and suicidal at the beginning of the film. She tries to drown herself, and Bond saves her - only to get beaten up and watch her run away in his own car. Here, Lazenby brazenly breaks the "fourth wall," looking at the camera and saying, "That never happened to the other fella." Anyway, Bond slowly falls in love with Tracy, and even passes up the chance to have sex with her, preferring to wait until they are married. Unfortunately, she dies before that can happen, making Tracy the only Bond girl who Bond never slept with, and the only one he actually loved.

The Sidekick: There really isn't one, although Tracy's father, Marc-Ange Draco, helps out quite a bit, and Tracy herself is cast in a sidekick role after Bond's escape from Blofeld's mountain fortress.

Gadgets: In keeping with the movie's strong adherence to the novel, Bond doesn't really have any over-the-top wacky gadgets in this one. However, there is an interesting scene after he argues with M and decides to resign from the secret service where he cleans out his desk and packs away several gadgets from the previous movies, with the theme song from each film briefly swelling. It's a nice touch that presumably served to remind us all that this is the same character who had all those other adventures, even if it's a new actor.

Music: The producers again broke with tradition on this one and did not use a vocal pop song for the opening credits, instead using a pretty awesome spy-themed instrumental piece. The Louis Armstrong Orchestra was brought in with it's depressing-as-hell "All the Time in the World," the theme song for Bond and Tracy's doomed love that plays over a "dating 007" montage in the middle of the movie.

The Director: This time it's Peter Hunt, who worked on all the other films as an editor and who had long lobbied for a chance to direct. Here, he gets it. "I wanted it to be different than the any other Bond film would be," Hunt said. "It was my film, not anyone else's". The result is a fine Bond movie, despite its departure in tone from the previous ones. In fact, film critic Leonard Maltin said if this movie had starred Connery, it would have been the best film in the entire series. That being said, Hunt never worked on another Bond film.

Fun Facts: Much of this is covered in the introductory paragraphs that open this installment; however, it's also worth noting that in this movie, we hear specifically that Bond is actually Scottish, not British, even though he serves in the Royal Navy and British intelligence services, a fact made clear in the novels but never before (or again) on film. Also, here's a fun photo of Diana Rigg displaying the assets that made her a Bond girl.

Favorite Line: It's gotta be the afore-mentioned "That never happened to the other fella." Incidentally, Lazenby has an autobiography due out next year called "The Other Fella." Another funny line is when a girl touches Bond under the table at dinner in Blofeld's fortress, which arouses and surprises him. Irma, the henchman, asks him what's the matter and he says "It's just a slight stiffness coming on."

Other: The best parts in this movie is the sequences with M and Moneypenny. Bond actually quits the service in this one after M orders him off the hunt for Blofeld. Moneypenny doesn't write the memo that way, though, and instead requests two weeks' leave. There's a scene where Bond is cleaning out his desk (the only time we ever get to see Bond's office at Mi6) and the wedding scene is really sad for Moneypenny, and actress Lois Maxwell will break your heart with the look she gives Bond before he drives off with his wife.

All in all, I think this movie is better than a LOT of other Bond movies, some of which, are, frankly, stinkers (we'll get to some of those in the 1970s). Lazenby may not have Connery's style, but he could have pulled it off if anyone (including himself) had been willing to give him another film or two. I think his performance was fine, and he only suffers in comparison to Connery. It should be noted that Lazenby is still very well received by fans at Bond-related conventions, and over time, the fashion among critics is to give this movie, and Lazenby, a second chance.

So here's to the Other Fella.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Bondage, Pt. 5: You Only Live Twice

We're approaching the end of the Connery era, but not quite yet. This next installment, You Only Live Twice, was the first Bond movie to basically abandon the books. While the others at least kept elements of the plot from the novels they were based on, You Only Live Twice only used some of the same names and locations and took a totally new take on the story.

First of all, a correction from the last installment: I misquoted Connery's spiteful remark about Bond. What he actually said was "I'd like to kill the bastard."

Synopsis: S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is at it again, with Blofeld himself at the reigns this time. The evil organization builds a spaceship that captures both American and Soviet craft, with the inevitable result that each blames the other. Nuclear war is threatened, which is exactly what S.P.E.C.T.R.E. wants - for the Cold War powers to annihilate each other so that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. can pick up the pieces. Bond has to travel to Blofeld's secret base in an extinct Japanese volcano and put a stop to it all.

The Villain: It's Ernst Stavro Blofeld, S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s "Number One." The producers finally bowed down to repeated requests from filmgoers to see Blofeld's face - previously, only his cat-petting hands had been shown. Donald Pleasence plays Blofeld, though his voice sounds nothing like the deep, menacing voices previously used for Blofeld. Pleasence was brought in to replace another actor who wasn't "menacing" enough. They gave him a scar on one eye that no other Blofeld ever had afterward - presumably he had surgery or something. Pleasence's go-round as Blofeld isn't bad, but frankly, he doesn't seem quite evil enough to me. The most enduring aspect of Pleasence's performance here is as the basis for the parody character of Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies.

The Henchman: Helga Brandt, played by Karin Dor, is the secretary of Mr. Osato, a Japanese industrialist who is secretly in thrall to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. She's also a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. assassin who manages to capture Bond early on. But she fails to kill him (as they always do) so Blofeld has her fed to piranhas, making her possibly the only henchman to be killed by her boss on purpose. Mr. Osato is also technically a henchman, I guess, though he isn't the type to get his hands dirty. Blofeld also has a tall, blond bodyguard in the Red Grant mold named Hans, who is sort of a minor henchman.

The Bond Girl: This movie followed a "three girl formula," they say, and they counted Brandt as one of the girls. The other is Aki, who is an early contact of Bond's in Japan. She works for Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese secret service, and saves Bond's bacon a few times by pulling up in her smart little convertible at the right moment when he's being chased. Later, she is poisoned by S.P.E.C.T.R.E. assassins while she is sleeping. Finally, Bond hooks up with ninja agent Kissy Suzuki (who ranks highly on the "cheesy Bond girl names" meter). Bond is disguised as Japanese (which he accomplishes by shaving his chest, combing his hair into bangs and squinting his eyes) and Kissy poses as his wife in order to get close to Blofeld's headquarters without arousing suspicion.

The Sidekick: I guess Kissy is a pretty good sidekick, because she follows Bond into battle in Blofeld's secret fortress. But she works for Tiger Tanaka, the Japanese version of M, who shows James around the country, teaches him how to be Japanese, and trains James Bond to be a ninja in just a few days. Helpfully, he provides an army of ninjas to help Bond take down Blofeld's men in the big climax of the movie.

Gadgets: Well, first of all, there is the ridiculous spaceship-eating rocket that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. has, which is capable of flying into space, enveloping a Gemini-sized capsule, and returning to Earth. Blofeld's fortress is in an extinct volcano, and it has a roof disguised to look like the surface of a lake. It retracts when evil rockets need to exit or enter, so it can't be seen by American satellites. As for Bond's gear, the big star of this one is "Little Nellie," a tiny one-man helicopter equipped with rockets, machine guns, and a bunch of other lethal goodies. Q brings it to Japan in several small cases and assembles it in a few minutes. Bond uses it to search for S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s hidden base. The machine was real, and during filming, its rotor blades chopped off a cameraman's foot, interrupting the shoot.

Music: The vastly overrated Nancy Sinatra sang the title song for this one, which references Bond's fake death at the beginning of the movie. It's also a line in the film: Bond says, "This is my second life," to which Blofeld replies, "You only live twice." Sinatra was nervous about her voice, and said she sounded like Minnie Mouse. Another, less well-known singer had already recorded it, but apparently someone made someone else an offer they couldn't refuse, and the song was re-orchestrated to fit Nancy's limited range (did Frank's people have a severed horse head put in producer Albert Broccoli's bed, maybe?). Perhaps I shouldn't pick on her so much, I've just never really thought she was that great. She actually does sing the song well, and it got a lot of radio airplay at the time. It was distinctive at the time for having an Oriental feel to the horn parts in the beginning.

The Director: Lewis Gilbert was an odd choice - he was known for character dramas and had just scored a big surprise hit in 1966 with Alfie, starring Michael Caine. He'd end up doing two more Bond movies after this one. They say he was pretty reluctant at first, until the producers told him he'd be directing for "the biggest audience in the world." The writer, Roald Dahl (more on him below) praised Gilbert for not trying to change the script while filming, which apparently had plagued other productions.

Fun Facts: The original screenplay was written by Harold Bloom, but the producers didn't like where he was taking the story. They kept a few elements but went to a writer who had virtually no experience in the film world. He did, however, have the benefit of being Ian Fleming's close personal friend. That was the incredible Roald Dahl, who would write a host of charming and sometimes macabre children's novels such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, George's Marvelous Medicine, and James and the Giant Peach. My son grew up on Roald Dahl books, and I read many of them with him. It was a nice surprise when I watched the opening credits and saw Dahl's name. I'd never noticed or made the connection before.

Favorite Line: It's subtle, but my favorite line from this movie is when Helga Brandt captures James Bond. She says, "I've got you now," to which Bond replies, "Well, enjoy yourself." Later, Tanaka says to Bond, "In Japan, men come first, women come second." Bond replies: "I just might retire to here."

Other: This isn't really about the movie, but in the novel You Only Live Twice, Bond gets amnesia after the final attack on Blofeld's fortress, and he ends up believing his cover story of being a Japanese fisherman. He lives with Kissy Suzuki for a few months and fathers a child by her. The character resurfaces in a non-Fleming Bond novel as "James Suzuki." I guess the kid would be about 44 years old now. But if we're going chronologically, Bond would be about 86. So I don't think anyone's paying attention. :)

After this one, Connery told the producers he was definitely out, and the search began for a new Bond. They ended up with George Lazenby, who audiences didn't particularly take to. But I think that may have had more to do with the fact that the producers decided to change direction with the next film, not only with the cast, but with the tone. They wanted to do something that was more serious and realistic, and whether they succeeded is, of course, up to each individual. Next up, we'll look at Mr. Lazenby's single Bond outing: On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

My feelings about this one surprised me very much. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Bondage, Pt. 4: Thunderball

It had been a long time since I'd seen this one, so it held my attention a little better than the others so far. Let's just jump right in, shall we? But first, a fun fact: Johnny Cash submitted a version of the theme song that was not used. That would have been weird, huh? Well, see and hear for yourself!

Synopsis: Bond travels to the Bahamas to deal with a plot by S.P.E.C.T.R.E. No. 2 Emilio Largo to use hijacked nuclear missiles to destroy an American or British city unless he is paid a ridiculous sum of money.

The Villain: This time it's high-ranking S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agent Emilio Largo, who has a penchant for yachts, card-playing, and eye patch-wearing. He is played by Italian actor Alfonso Celi, who, like Goldfinger, had his voice dubbed in to make it more understandable. Largo is certainly not my favorite Bond villain by any stretch, but he gives 007 more of a run for his money than some others. Honestly, I don't have really strong feelings about Largo one way or the other.

The Henchman: Some might say the Henchman in this film is Vargas, Largo's personal assistant, who is said to have given up smoking, drinking, and sex in order to focus on murder. But as he's killed rather handily by Bond on a beach with one shot of a speargun, he doesn't really live up to his reputation. No, the true Henchman in this movie is Fiona Volpe, played by Luciana Paluzzi, a fiery and resourceful motorcycle-driving redhead. The character was supposed to be Irish, but the producers changed the character's last name to reflect Paluzzi's accent. Fiona joins Grace Jones as one of the few female henchmen in the series.

The Bond Girl: Domino, the mistress to Largo, who murdered her brother, is pretty but run-of-the-mill as far as Bond girls go. The actress, a former Miss France, beat out Faye Dunaway, Julie Christie, and Racquel Welch for the part. Legend has it this was after she told the producers that she "enjoys being with older men." She took English lessons but they still had to dub her voice in anyway, which more-or-less confirms my theory that no Bond girl was ever chosen for her acting ability.

The Sidekick: Say hello again, Felix Leiter, who brings his buddy Pinder along for the ride. The CIA is pretty closely involved with Bond on this one, as he's operating very close to their shores (just like in Dr. No). Since consistency of character portrayal is something that never bothered the producers, they went this time with a new actor, Rick Van Nutter. Felix provides some vital support for Bond at the finale of the film - a really, really, really long underwater fight scene. But mostly he just follows Bond around in a helicopter.

Gadgets: They started getting way out there on this one. It all starts in the pre-title action sequence, when Bond takes off in a flying backpack after assassinating a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agent. Bond also gets a tiny little device that lets him breathe underwater, along with standard wet suits and spearguns. The "sky hook" that saves Bond at the end of the movie is actually real and was in use by the American government at the time to extract agents.

Music: The original song for this movie was called "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," after a name for Bond coined by an Italian journalist; it was recorded by both Shirley Bassey and Dione Warwick. But the producers felt that it just wouldn't do to have a song that didn't feature the title of the movie, so John Barry scored one at the last minute and they gave it to Tom Jones. Jones has a ridiculous, over-the-top, unnecessarily dramatic voice, and it works perfectly here. Jones later said he passed out in the recording studio after holding the final note of this song for too long.

The Director: Terrence Young, who directed the first two Bond films, returned for this one. It would be his last. He deserves credit for tackling some pretty tough underwater filming - about a quarter of the movie features underwater scenes.

Fun Facts: Believe it or not, this is the first Bond movie to feature Connery in the iconic opening gun barrel scene. The earlier ones actually aren't him, but a stuntman named Bob Simmons. They re-shot this sequence because Thunderball was the first Bond film to be shot in Panavision so they had a chance to throw Connery in there. Also, the opening credit sequence was the first to feature actual nudity, though it was obscured by shadow, making it the first Bond movie to technically have nudity.

Favorite Line: "My dear girl, don't flatter yourself. What I did this evening was for Queen and country. You don't think it gave me any pleasure, do you?" - Bond to Fiona after they make love. Another good, if obvious, line is "I think he got the point" after Bond spearguns Vargas.

Other: This movie was plagued with legal disputes that weren't ultimately settled until 2008, and are the reason there was a non-series Connery comeback in the Eighties with Never Say Never Again. It seems Ian Fleming, the author of the Bond books, had developed a screenplay with another guy way before the Bond movies started shooting, in a prior, failed attempt to get a film made. Later, he dusted it off and turned it into Thunderball, the ninth book in the series of novels. The other guy sued, got his name on the film as a producer, and retained the rights to a bunch of characters and elements of the plot. The producers treated him with kid gloves because they didn't want a rival Bond film that they had nothing to do with. They needn't have worried - it would take until 1983 for that nightmare to come true with Never Say Never Again (the title is a reference to Connery saying previously he would "never again" play the secret agent). Never Say Never Again has so many similarities to Thunderball that it might as well be a remake.

From what I've read, this is where the honeymoon ended for Connery. He was not even on speaking terms with one of the producers by this time, was angry about the press intruding on his life, and wanted to move on. He announced after the end of this one that he'd do only one more. As it turns out, he did two (or three, if you count Never Say Never Again) more. He actually refused to do interviews about the film with anyone other than Playboy. It seems he was already in the toupee by this time, as well. I believe it was about this time when Connery was famously quoted as saying, when asked about how he felt about James Bond:

"I hate the bastard."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bondage, Pt. 3: Goldfinger

This one, the third in the series, is where they finally hit the nail on the head. It was more successful than the previous two Bond films combined, and had twice the budget. It made its money back in two weeks, and Goldfinger is considered by many to be the quintessential Bond film, at least of the Connery era. It is the first to feature the title song over the opening credits, and is the first to have a pre-title action sequence that has nothing to do with the plot of the movie.

I'm going to try a different format this time and stick with it (I may go back and edit my previous two entries to match this format). As usual, I am indebted to IMDB and Wikipedia for fun facts.

Synopsis: Bond investigates gold smuggling by gold magnate Auric Goldfinger and eventually uncovers Goldfinger's plans to attack the United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, with the aim of setting off a Red Chinese nuke and irradiating the U.S. gold supply.

The Villain: Auric Goldfinger, a portly, red-haired evil gold magnate. He likes to win at all costs and is frustrated by Bond, who mocks him early in the film and later during a golf game. He's very good at playing cat-and-mouse with Bond, however, and is one of the first to capture Bond, tell him his entire plan, then leave him in a death-trap of some sort. One of these days, you'd figure the Bond villains would simply shoot him in the head and have done with it...Interestingly, the actor Gert Frobe was chosen based on a role where he played a child molester; his English was too poor and they dubbed in his voice with actor Michael Collins. Another interesting fact: Frobe was a member of the Nazi party, but supposedly hid Jews from the Gestapo. Goldfinger was banned in Israel until families came forward to thank him for saving them from Nazis.

The Henchman: The henchman in this one is Oddjob, who I believe is said to be Korean. He is mute (although he can sort of grunt) and has a signature move: throwing his bowler hat, the rim of which is lined with metal, to do things like break people's necks. Actor Harold Sakata was badly burned during his death scene, where he is electrocuted, but stoically stayed in character until they yelled "Cut!"

The Bond Girl: There are, arguably, two, or even three, in this movie, but the main one is Pussy Galore, who gets the prize for most ridiculous Bond girl name ever, hands down. Played by Honor Blackman (who also is in Jason and the Argonauts, another of my favorites from the Sixties), she's Goldfinger's personal pilot and runs an all-girl flying circus. She also knows Judo, but not better than James Bond, who uses his superior skill to manhandle her in a barn. Since she's the one he ends up making out with at the end of the movie, she's basically the official Bond Girl. But we can't forget Jill Masterson, who helps 007 in the beginning and get smothered in gold paint for her trouble. Her sister, Tilly, later tries to kill Goldfinger. She teams up with 007 for a while but is killed by Oddjob's hat.

The Sidekick: Once again we have Felix Leiter, making his second appearance. This time he's played by Cec Linder, who replaced Jack Lord. Apparently Lord demanded equal billing with Connery and too much money. He calls in the cavalry in the form of the CIA at the end, and otherwise spends his time watching Bond through binoculars and applauding whenever Bond seduces a woman: "That's my James!"

Gadgets: This film introduces Bond's Aston Martin DB5, which has oil slick, smokescreen, machine gun, bullet-proof glass, revolving license plates, and more...He also has a nifty homing device he can hide in his shoe that comes in handy.

Music: The theme song, Goldfinger, performed by Shirley Bassey, is performed over the opening credits for the first time. This is my favorite Bond theme song. It has really good lyrics and her trumpet-like vibrato fits the mood. Bassey has done more theme songs than any other performer (three - Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, and Moonraker).

The Director: Guy Hamilton, who directed four Bond films (this one, plus Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, and the Man with the Golden Gun) was brought in to replace Terrence Young, who had directed the previous two films. Young chose not to direct after a pay dispute. Hamilton had originally turned down an offer to direct Dr. No.

Fun Facts: Orson Welles was originally approached to play Goldfinger, but his financial demands were too high. That's too bad. I can't think of a better person to play a Bond villain than Welles.

Favorite Line: In the pre-title sequence, a girl is kissing James and is poked by the gun in his shoulder holster. She says "Why do you always wear that thing?" and he quips, "I have a slight inferiority complex." Other standouts include Connery saying "Shocking...positively shocking," after electrocuting a guy in a bathtub, and the great line from Goldfinger in this exchange (Bond: "Do you expect me to talk?" Goldfinger: "No, Mr. Bond...I expect you to die!").

Other: Just because I haven't mentioned her yet, this was Lois Maxwell's third time in the role of Miss Moneypenny, who enjoys an indefinite and unconsummated flirtation with Bond all the way up until the end of the Roger Moore era. I think she's prettier than she gets credit for (she suffers in comparison to all of the Bond girls but is quite attractive, especially in this early photo). Bond should have paid more attention to her.

Overall, I think Goldfinger may be my favorite of the Connery films, though I'll reserve judgment on that until I see them all again. It certainly has all the right ingredients. A classic moment is at the very end when Bond is trying to turn off a ticking nuclear bomb - it eventually stops seven seconds from detonation (the readout says "007").

Next up is one I haven't seen too many times, so I'm looking forward to it: Thunderball.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Bondage, Pt. 2: From Russia With Love

This is the second Bond movie, and it begins some traditions that will last for decades. My first impression watching this one again recently has been its utter lack of subtlety. One of the first shots in the credits is the number "007" projected onto the shaking boobs of a dancing girl, an image that says a lot about the James Bond mythos.

In this one, Bond is (knowingly) lured by S.P.E.C.T.R.E. into a trap; a beautiful Russian cypher clerk sees Bond's file and falls in love with him, supposedly; she sends word she wants to defect and bring the Russian's Lektor code machine with her. The Russians themselves have nothing to do with it - it's S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s plan - but she thinks she's working for Mother Russia. Her mission is to pretend to fall in love with Bond, but, of course, she really does fall in love with him. I won't bother with more of a plot synopsis than that.

This movie is the first to have a pop theme song (titled the same as the movie). You don't hear singer Matt Monro until the closing credits, but an instrumental version opens the movie. The song was written by John Barry, who composed the overall music. This starts a strong tradition of pop theme songs that will eventually include everyone from Louis Armstrong to Madonna, though they won't be performed over the opening credits until Goldfinger.

Another Bond first in From Russia With Love is Desmond Llewlyn as Q. He would hold the role from 1963 to 1999, appearing in more Bond movies than any other actor. In this one, he gives Bond his first true gadget - a briefcase that contains hidden knives, poison gas, and emergency gold. It comes in handy later versus the movie's main henchman.

The Henchman is another Bond tradition that starts with this movie. Here, it's Red Grant, played by Robert Shaw. The villain is ultimately pussycat-petting Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond's S.P.E.C.T.R.E. nemesis who is shown here for the first time (only his hands - in fact, only a "?" is credited for the actor who plays him). But the actual mission is run by Rosa Klebb, a ex-spymaster for the Russians, who is memorable for kicking people with the retractable spikes in her sensible shoes, and she's technically the "villain" of this movie. The girl in this one is Tatiana Romanova, played by Daniela Bianchi, who, like Ursula Andress before her, had a dubbed-in voice.

Connery is in fine form in this one, refining the Bond role and injecting it with a bit more humor. Here is an interesting fact about Sean Connery I bet you didn't know.

This movie was the basis for the video game of the same name, which featured all-new voice work by Connery (though it was funny to see his young likeness speaking with a sort of old-sounding voice). This game was too hard for me, and I never made it very far.

Next up, one of my favorites: Goldfinger.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Bondage, Pt. 1: "Dr. No"

Through various top-secret means I have obtained the complete collection of James Bond movies, and I plan to watch them all, in order, over the next few months. As I do, I'll share my thoughts here. First up, obviously, is Dr. No.

This is the first Bond movie. It doesn't have a pop song theme, as all the others do. This one uses the classic spy/surf guitar theme as its opener, as well as some Caribbean music which was all the rage in 1962.

In this we see touches of the Bond of the books. Of course, it's Sean Connery, which most people would pick as "the best Bond," I'm sure. He's got a mean streak in this one - fewer witticisms and more bullets. At one point he simply shoots a guy in cold blood, very calmly, when he realizes the bad guy is out of bullets: "That's a Smith & Wesson...and you've had your six."

The movie is also noteworthy in that it lacks an appearance from Q. No "pay attention, 007," followed by a breakdown of that movie's special spy gear. Instead, a nameless operative brings Bond a Walther PPK and M orders him to use it from now on (it seems Bond's previous gun jammed in an un-filmed adventure prior to this one).

Ursula Andress is the Bond girl in this one, and as the first, she sets the tone for all the rest (nice and curvy, until the 1970s, that is). She also set the tone for ridiculous names (Honey Ryder). Apparently she spoke very bad English and her voice is dubbed in. She did win a Golden Globe for this one.

Dr. No is a nice bad guy - no hands, psychopathic - and is supposedly Chinese but the actor is obviously a Caucasian, a fact they explain away by talking about how his father is German. We get our first mention of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), the fictional terrorist organization that would be Bond's nemesis throughout the early films.

Bond's sometime CIA ally Felix is played by Jack Lord from the original Hawaii Five-0, and Felix gets a bigger part in this than almost any other movie (over the years that guy has been skinny, fat, black, white, old, young...he's by far the most inconsistently portrayed recurring character in all of Bondage).

This is not my favorite Bond movie by any means, but it definitely sets the tone for all the rest. In some ways it's my least favorite of the Connery era, but that's only because all the other ones are so good. This one is still way up at the top of the Sixties spy movies list.

Next up, of course, is From Russia, With Love.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Catching Up With Comics

I've been reconnecting with my love for comic books recently. I used to read them all the time in the Eighties...mostly Iron Man, X-Men, and (for some reason) West Coast Avengers. I also read the Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns back then, which were big influences on me.

A month or so ago I started getting back into comics - not collecting individual issues, but reading trade paperback versions of cool stuff I've missed. I should point out that all of these books are ones that comics people already know all about...so they're old news for some folks, but great new discoveries for me. Might I suggest the following:

All-Star Superman - This is just about the best comic I've ever read, period, and certainly the best Superman story I've come across. The art by Frank Quitely is beautiful, and the stories, by Grant Morrison, take advantage of Superman's nearly godlike power. These are all familiar characters - Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Luthor...and they are everything they're supposed to be, but done in a way that's both new and original AND true to the roots of the Superman mythos. The end is both heartbreaking and hopeful. You can read more about it here, but there are some spoilers if you scroll down too far. I highly recommend this. I also just discovered that they're doing a cartoon movie version. I have owned this book for about a month and a half and I've read it six times. I cried the first two times - it's the only comic that's ever made me do that...!

Identity Crisis - This one is a classic murder mystery featuring the Justice League, so it's got a lot of different heroes in it and lots of interpersonal conflict between the members. One of the spouses of a JLA member is murdered, and it may be because of some past misdeeds by the heroes themselves. Very interesting book, although there is a lot going on and I had to read a few chapters twice to make sure I got it. Otherwise this is great stuff, and shows that a superhero story can go in directions other than fist-fights and world domination plots. This one suffers in comparison to the others on this list, perhaps, in terms of how much I liked it. But it's still A-level work. It was written by Brad Meltzer, who is primarily a traditional novelist and also hosts this interesting show on the History channel.

Kingdom Come - This book's art is by Alex Ross whose style I really like. He also worked on the story with writer Mark Waid. The story takes place in the future, with most of the heroes we're used to from the JLA aging. Even Superman sports Nick Fury-style graying temples. Several decades from now, a younger, brasher, less respectful generation of "superheroes" rises to prominence and eclipses the old-fashioned heroes of yesteryear (our time). They fight each other all the time, causing a lot of civilian casualties and losing sight of what heroes are supposed to do (save people). Superman comes out of self-imposed exile to set things straight, collecting an aged bunch of ex-JLA types to help out. But Batman, Green Arrow and some others don't appreciate Superman and Wonder Woman's ultra-conservative approach (Batman is especially offended by a prison Clark builds out in Kansas) and work against their old comrades. This is extremely compelling storytelling. I need to read it again but I'm pretty sure it's right up there with Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, as far as I'm concerned.

Astro City - I've only read the first collection of this (issues 1-6) but I'm pretty blown away by it. The setting is completely original - that is, not in the DC or Marvel universe - and the superhero stories here aren't like others I've read. For example, my favorite is about a small-time hood who accidentally sees a superhero's real face and spends the rest of the story trying to decide whether to sell the hero's identity to a villain, or to get out of town before the superhero can stop him. Another one is just about a date between Samaritan (a Superman analogue) and Winged Victory, and another is told from the point of view of a reporter who gets the story of the century and then can't print it. I can't wait to read the rest of these, but my local comics store only had the first collection. It's certainly true that you can do a new and compelling series about heroes. I also like the art in this one, which is kind of retro-looking. Reminds me of how comics used to look in the Seventies. Kurt Busiek is a fine writer!

Astonishing X-Men 1-24 - This is Joss Whedon's run on what would become DC's flagship X-Men book (there are so many X-Teams I can't even be bothered to keep up any more). I watched to motion comic version of this and went right out and got every issue Whedon wrote. There's more about this here.

You'll see that DC Comics weighs pretty heavily on this list. That's funny, because in high school, for some reason, my friend Jeff and I used to argue over which company was "better." I always took Marvel's side. Now, I'm not so sure there's an important difference. I do know that DC is much better at "branding" their characters. Everyone in the world knows who Superman is. I'm not sure you could say the same for Iron Man or Daredevil.

Comics make me happy. I'm not sure I could ever explain why and have someone really understand...unless they were also into comics.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"We Are All Geeks Now"

This video is worth watching, although it's about 40 minutes long and it's something you'll want to settle in for. Author Neal Stephenson discusses science fiction at a seminar at Gresham College, touching on everything from the Death of the Western to Lucy Lawless. Pretty interesting observations. He's one of my favorite writers but I think this would be interesting to anyone.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Wise Words

"There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving - and that is your own self." - Aldous Huxley

Friday, October 7, 2011

Motion Comics

At the urging of my friend Colin, I finally watched this motion comic. It's a six-episode adaptation of the first part of nerd-god Joss Whedon's take on the X-Men (he wrote 24 issues of the comic, I think, and the first storyline, "Gifted" is adapted here).

I used to read the X-Men back in the 1980s and this reminds me very much of those days (Whedon probably used to read them back then, too). The writing is as good as any storyline on any current television show, and while it is full of Whedonisms ("Now I've got cloud hair," for example) it's very much a traditional X-Men tale.

His take on the super team, specifically all the conflict between the main characters, gives me high hopes for the Avengers movie he's directing.

Art-wise, it only took me about three minutes to get used to motion comics. It's not quite full-bore animation, but it's not just a flat comics panel, either. I also saw part of the Spider Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D.) episode and thought the art was MUCH better (I think it's best for them not to bother to try to animate the mouths...watch one of the X-Men episodes then watch a Spider Woman episode and tell me which looks better).

One thing I know - I'll definitely look to pick up Whedon's whole run of this book.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Free Advertising

I decided to put up some free advertising to support two things I really like.

The first is Radio Rivendell, a 24/7 streaming internet radio station that plays "fantasy music" - that is, soundtracks from fantasy/historical movies and video games. I listen to it all the time these days. It's perfect background music for working, I think. Gives a nice heroic backdrop to the mundane stuff I have to do, and I often find it inspiring if I'm working on a game or something. One thing about it that is really cool is they feature a lot of unsigned "bands" - which mostly seem to be gamers like us with nice keyboards. There is some really impressive, pro-quality music out there from do-it-yourself types who have no record label or distribution other than Radio Rivendell.

The next is Pulp Fiction Comics & Games, in Lee's Summit, MO. I have been shopping there since it opened, and continue to do so even though my discretionary income has dropped significantly over the last few years. I can always find something cool here, even in the $10-$20 range. The staff is very knowledgeable and helpful, both about comics and games. Check them out if you never have.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Random Pictures

These are some photos I took for work recently. Not only do I like them, they save me from having to think of anything else to post this week. Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Uncle Sam + Ronnie James Dio

We have a federal auditor coming to work today - a random check, they say - and my bosses are annoyed by the intrusion. They decided to come on the one day we have a ton of things to do, they're rude, they're bossy, and totally inflexible. Personally, I think one of our major daily competitors is well-connected and that's how this happened. Anyway, my boss asked me to play some annoying music during the process. So, ladies and gentlemen of the federal government, I give you, at volume level 8 on my computer, an afternoon of Ronnie James Dio. Other than that, I plan on answering every question with, "You'll have to ask my boss."
Update: I took one look at the guy and turned off the Dio. :)