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.