|Happy Miracle Monday|
Monday, May 16, 2016
Saturday, May 7, 2016
|fig. 1: James Bond|
Stop me if you've heard this one: a man--a renowned card sharp--engages in a high-stakes battle of wits with a fellow player at a faraway European casino. The card game is a bit of realpolitik. The man's opponent, who goes only by the name Le Chiffre has embezzled funds from his organization, and needs to gamble them back. If the man, James Bond, can successfully bankrupt Le Chiffre, than Le Chiffre's organization will be humiliated, and down a man.
Though it seems unthinkable now, the first James Bond was portrayed by an American, Barry Nelson. He portrays the character with an avuncular affability, to where I got the sense he'd be slightly more at home out of that tuxedo and in a polo shirt, mowing his lawn. Nelson really only seems to come in to his own at teh climax of the picture, when Bond is held by Le Chiffre and tortured. He seethes with pain and defiant rage in a way that makes you say "Oh, there you are."
|fig. 2: It's not really made clear, but it seems as though they're pulling off his toenails.|
The rest of the roles are familiar: Le Chiffre is portrayed here by Peter Lorre in just the manner you'd expect. Felix Leiter, in response to Bond's being made American, is now an English secret agent named Clarence Leiter. Vesper Lynd and Mathis have been conflated into a character named Valerie Mathis, an old flame of Bond's who is a double-agent within Le Chiffre's ranks.
If the James Bond series can be read as an extended meditation on Western masculinity, than the contrast between Nelson and his successors is telling in how those portrayals differ between the US and the UK. Connery's interpretation of the character is much closer to the books, and his chilly remove distinguishes him from Nelson's Regular Joe. It's only later in the film that Nelson's Bond is shown as a Verified Secret Agent. In those first few scenes it's easy to imagine him simply as someone who won World Series of Baccarat and got recruited to clean out Le Chiffre. Nelson's character isn't portrayed particularly as a womanizer either, though that could be a reflection of the fact that Casino Royale only had an hour to tell its story, but he seems pretty hung up on Valerie through the course of the film, and their romance and reconnection is a major through-line. The silver-screen incarnation of James Bond is always held at a remove, be it Connery's chilliness or Moore's ironic distance. Nelson is much more American. His high competence as a card sharp and secret agent doesn't separate him from anyone. He's just a guy who's good at his job.
|fig. 3: *shrugs*|
The "Casino Royale" telemovie was broadcast on October 21, 1954, as part of Climax!, a TV anthology series. The novel had been out a little over a year, and while it sold quite well in the UK, it didn't do so well in America. The telemovie features an introduction by host William Lundigan and a focus on the mechanics of the game of baccarat, as the game has never been particularly popular in America. I learned more about how baccarat is supposed to work here, as Bond and Leiter carry out a conversation on it for the benefit of prying ears, than I did all through the later James Bond films.
In contrast to the later globe-trotting incarnations of the character, Bond here is confined to a handful of sets: the casino floor, the hallway outside his hotel room, and the room itself. "Casino Royale" was a live TV broadcast, essentially James Bond: The Stage Play, so these sets are more perfunctory than in aid of any sort of claustrophobic feeling. Much like the book, it failed to set the world on fire here in the States, and none of Fleming's succeeding novels would be adapted again in the following eight years before Dr No. "Casino Royale" remains an interesting footnote, but barely that. It's like an echo in reverse, a premonition of what was to come.
Saturday, April 30, 2016
|fig. 1: Dent in the room.|
One of the more interesting aspects of Dr No is how, in contrast to its successors, it holds off on the introduction of its villain until almost an hour into the film. The eponymous evildoer begins as a name on a file folder, then a name overheard, then a voice in an empty room, ordering one of his subordinates to perform a hit on James Bond. It's a microcosm of the introduction of SPECTRE, first referenced by No in his tet-a-tet with Bond, then glimpsed fitfully until Blofeld's full reveal, five years later, in You Only Live Twice. It is, also, a macrocosm of James Bond's own introduction.
Bond is introduced after a flurry of activity. The hit on Strangways, a malfunctioning rocket, and those files on Doctor No being stolen lead to a string of phone calls before the hero is seen, first from the back, then to the reveal, and that classic line.
|fig. 2: Man, if everybody wasn't already smoking in 1962, they were by the end of this.|
This general command of the room is what defines Bond in this first picture, and every film going forward. It's key to his appeal. He arrives in Jamaica and generally takes over the situation, issuing clipped orders to the help and his CIA contact alike. Seas of paragraphs have surely been sailed through about the fantasy appeal of the character, and it's on full display here. He's unflappable, he takes charge, he's adored by the ladies.
The spy film didn't begin with James Bond, or Dr. No. There have been espionage and intrigue movies as long as there have been movies. Much of the time, however, these films, particularly those made by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930's, were about ordinary people caught up in the workings of espionage, or of home agents defending against invasion and sabotage. Along with the more famous trappings of his sub-genre, James Bond turned a character that would have easily been a villain in, say, The Thirty-Nine Steps, and made him the center of the film. Rather than an invasion/sabotage picture, or the paranoid thriller of mistaken identity, Dr. No is an imperial film. The British agent heads out into the uncivilized world to set it all to rights.
Which, again, has been covered, by people more qualified than I am, surely. What's interesting to me, again, is this film's preoccupation with esoteric and removed spaces. This also is nothing particularly new for the genre. As early as Fritz Lang's 1928 film Spies, audiences were being introduced to the idea of secret headquareters. Where the Bond films of the Seventies would be the high point of this trend, Dr No finds the idea still in its infancy. The eponymous physicist's hideout is on a secluded island no one will willingly visit. Supposedly it contains a bauxite mine, and when Bond finally gets there he sees some of the trappings of this before being led inward into the place's truer and more sinister purpose.
|fig. 3: I wonder if this is a radiation zone?|
Inexplicably, the place is run by a bunch of cheery nuns, who serve no real purpose to the plot other than to accentuate the strangeness of the place. The same thing is true, generally, of the Evil Doctor's hands. Withered from exposure to radiation, Doctor No had them replaced with bionics, and while the threat of him crushing Bond to death is made explicit, all he manages in the film's finale is a couple of well-placed judo chops before the hero dispatches him.
No is an operative of SPECTRE. I'd forgotten how early on that organization rears its head. He makes his claims about the organization opposite this big fish tank. "Minnows pretending they're whales," Bond remarks. "Rather like you, Doctor."
"Depends on which side of the glass you're on," No replies. There's a host of aquatic imagery associated with SPECTRE in its early days. Doctor No and his fish, the octopus logo, Blofeld's Japanese fighting fish (as well as his boat) in From Russia with Love and his piranhas in You Only Live Twice. To say nothing of the entire plot of Thunderball. Even Honey Rider, here, is threatened with death by drowning. Minnows and sharks. Throughout this film, James Bond is never seen to be out of his element, or much more than inconvenienced by the threats against his life. It's only there, facing those minnows,that Bond seems as thoguh he's stepped into the middle of something.
|fig. 4: That's some fish story.|
It makes sense then that this would cast such a long shadow over the franchise. Fifty-three years on, Spectre rushes through this establishment. "You're a kite in a hurricane, Mister Bond," Mr. White tells our hero, subbing in wind for water. Ultimately, it's why the reveal in Spectre that Blofeld was, in fact, Bond's long-lost brother was so goddamn disappointing. There is no deeper water there. Doctor No refers to East and West as mere points on a map, and in its staking out a claim on the spy adventure genre, the Bond series' use of SPECTRE as antagonists played a crucial role. It emphasized the escapist aspect in a world beset by the Cold War, but also the organization served as the ultimate esoteric space. Like those secret labs and lairs just to the side of the world you know, SPECTRE is the ultimate criminal threat, existing just outside the conflict between East and West that Doctor No so quickly dismissed as petty bickering. Carried with those minnows and sharks is the promise of the strange future that is to come.
Saturday, April 23, 2016
|fig. 1: Chess is a metaphor, you guys!|
Some of that is down to production designer Ken Adam--almost single-handedly repsponsible for the "look" of James Bond through the Sixties and Seventies--doing Dr Strangelove instead of this film, but also it's down to director Terrence Young, who was keen to make a more grounded, realistic film than the one that preceded it. There is one bit, a periscope in the catacombs of Istanbul (not Constantinople) that looks into the Russian embassy, but otherwise, the world is presented pretty straightforwardly.
There is, however, a first for the series, and that's Desmond Llewelyn's Q and the gadget briefing. The previous entry had a Major Boothroyd, but he came along just to switch out Bond's Baretta from the books for a Walther. The gadgetry is a bit tame by the standards the series would later rise to: it's a brief case with some hidden pockets for a flip knife, gold sovereigns, and a bit of exploding talcum powder for the unwary thief.
Bond gets the brief case in advance of his latest assignment: meet up with a Russian defector in order to secure a Lektor decoder. He's walking in to a trap and he's pretty sure he knows it, though not a trap organized by the Russians. Again, this is the work of SPECTRE, and it's a targeted bit of business in retaliation for his killing of Doctor No in the previous installment. They're out to humiliate Bond, and then murder him. The conceit advanced to the British is that a Russian cryptographer has fallen in love with Bond over a file photo of him. The British don't believe it, but figure what the hey, any chance to get a Lektor, right?
The odd thing about it is, this clearly telegraphs that Bond has been made. He's a secret agent of whom the Soviets have a good enough photograph of that someone could semi-plausibly fall in love with him from it. It would seem to me at least that his value as an asset in the field is effectively zero. This becomes the first in a running gag that proliferates throughout the series: Bond as a well-known commodity. He's well enough known that SPECTRE can create a false mask of the guy to use in training exercises, because apparently you need someone who looks just like Sean Connery to teach you how to murder Sean Connery, and because it didn't occur to renowned chess master and also supercriminal Kronsteen that a fully convincing mask of James Bond could do some of this humiliate-and-discredit footwork all on its own.
That opening scene is of a piece with many of the other entries in Connery's tenure, in it's funerary bait-and-switch. It's only until the mask is pulled that the audience understands it's not James Bond, but some other schmuck. Likewise, Thunderball opens with a coffin clearly marked "JB;" You Only Live Twice begins with an elaborate fake out to both the audience, and the world of the film, that James Bond has been murdered; and Diamonds Are Forever has that bit where Connery is nearly cremated alive in his funeral suit. More than any other Bond, Connery's is the one threatened with death, even from outside the narrative.
From Russia With Love follows a form that the series more or less abandoned: that of the travelogue. Part of what made these movies so popular back in the Sixties was their ability to transport audiences to exotic locales when air travel was still a thing many Americans couldn't easily afford. Bond spends a not-at-all-germane-to-the-plot amount of time faffing about Istanbul (not Constantinople), befriending the local branch manager and getting into scrapes at a gypsy camp. It never feels overly long, but the film is clearly taking its time, luxuriating in the sense of place that would be out of character for a film today, which structures its location-switching more like video game levels: Find the thing in Port-au-Prince, move on to the Bolivia level.
|If you've got a date in Constantinople...|
The fight with Grant, a series highlight, is interesting too in the regard that Red Grant is essentially Bond's opposite number, which is to say he's a functionary. He's not a gold-irradiating criminal or a power-mad despot. He's just a guy who's pretty good at his job. This, too, would be something the film series would largely eschew going forward. Much more dramatically satisfying for Bond to be deposing the heavy-hitters. Not only that, but the megalomaniacs Bond eventually routinely pits himself against are allowed to have some personality, some different flavor of world-conquering, which Red Grant can't. In its deliberate low-stakes, meandering storytelling, From Russia with Love represents a path not taken, a series of possibilities before the franchise became set in its ways.
Saturday, April 16, 2016
|"To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization."|
Stop me if you've heard this one: a master criminal, whose name is a play on words, plans the crime of the century, and the only person standing in his way is a stalwart defender of truth and justice, who happens to have just about the most tricked-out car in the world.
Just over a year separate the release of Goldfinger in the United States and the premiere of 1966 Batman TV series. The pair of them arrived on the heels of Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp," published in the preceding year, which brought to mainstream attention an aesthetic that would define both that TV series and the James Bond franchise. Roger Moore gets a lot of guff from Bond purists for the amount of camp his entries indulged in. Clearly, those purists must be misremembering Pussy Galore's Flying Circus, and the raft of old-timey gangsters Auric Goldfinger recruits for his attack on Fort Knox.
Goldfinger is awash with iconic moments. Oddjob and that hat of his. The laser drill scene. The Aston Martin pulling out all the stops: water jets, guns, ejector seat. Pussy Galore and her silly name. It says something that James Bond, whose name was picked by Fleming because it was so forgettable and unremarkable, should constantly run into people with names like Plenty O'Toole and Holly Goodhead and a guy who finds gold so nice he was named for it twice.
|"Detachment is the prerogative of an elite; and as the dandy is the 19th century's surrogate for the aristocrat in matters of culture, so Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture."|
The film is in fact a kind of a reverse heist movie, at least from Bond's perspective. He stumbles on to the thing after the planning has been done, after Goldfinger has brought his supplies in from different parts of the world, cleverly disguised, after the villain has recruited Ms Galore and her aviatrix squadron and planned his assault on the base in meticulous detail. We even get a scene where Goldfinger explains the whole thing, though, rather than the cliched "Bad Guy Explains The Plot To The Hero" business, it's him explaining the robbery to those gangsters, who from their own perspective thought they were in a crime film until the walls of Goldfinger's den start moving around and they realize they've stumbled into a James Bond picture.
That is, of course, before the eponymous bad guy murders them all, having got what he wanted. I guess that's the difference between when a good guy plans a heist and a bad guy plans a heist. Before his little killing spree, and right as the landscape in his den changes from "man cave" to "supervillain control room," Goldfinger explains that "Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He's fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor...except crime!"
Seriously, whose rogues gallery could that possibly remind you of?
But as far as Bond might stray from his roots, the character is fundamentally less elastic than Batman. With the exception of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which virtually every reiteration of the character across media sees fit to re-stage (one notable exception: Batman '66) Batman creators feel no particular obligation to recreate classic elements. Whereas the Bond franchise is more burdened by its own tropes. This film, as iconic as it is, casts a long shadow. Goldfinger is where all the elements that would come to define the franchise for decades are finally present and humming along beautifully. Which means, however, that it casts a shadow so large it is difficult for the character ever to entirely escape.
|"Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of 'style' over 'content,' 'aesthetics' over 'morality,' of irony over tragedy."|
Saturday, April 9, 2016
|fig. 1: Signs this movie was remade in 1983.|
One consequence of this, however, is by the time that I get to Thunderball, a film that seems on autopilot with regard to so many of the Bond canon's tics, I find I have very little actually to say about it. Particularly down to the fact that this film was remade almost twenty years later as Never Say Never Again, a much more interesting picture in terms of what it had to say about the character by telling almost the exact same story, but aging him ahead.
There were rumors/threats in the 1990's of another Thunderball remake, to be titled Warhead or Warhead 2000 AD. They obviously never came to pass and while it's easy to imagine the mathematics of diminishing returns on these, it would be worth it to see a geriatric Connery go through the undersea motions again, just to find out what we could learn from the juxtaposition between the constraints of the script and the onward press of history.
Most of the set design in this film is unremarkable. Bond spends his time mainly at a health clinic, or in and out of a hotel in the Bahamas. Even Supervillain Emilio Largo (love the name) operates out of a house that would be at home in any American suburb, give or take the pool full of man-eating sharks. Two other locations in this film, however, are much more interesting.
The first is SPECTRE HQ. The top-secret criminal syndicate operates out of a secret room in a humdrum office building in Paris. Turn down the right corridor, push the right button, as happens so often in these movies, and you're transported to a modern, stainless-steel conference hall where the top criminals of the world report to their shadowy, shuttered leader.
|fig. 2: Whose job is it to polish these fixtures? Number 2000?|
By contrast, take a look at the fabulously baroque, old-world hall the Double-0 agents meet in conference with M and some British and NATO bigwigs.
|fig. 3: The Halls of Power|
Contrast Thunderball's slickly ultramodern SPECTRE with the skulking-in-the-shadows version of it in 2015. And compare Spectre's Spectre, too, to what we see of MI:6 in Thunderball. Put a balcony halfway up those long walls and turn out all the lights, the rooms would be strikingly similar. They both represent institutionalized, aging power. In Thunderball, SPECTRE is a kind of nightmarish modern vision of progress, a criminal conglomerate, a monopoly on evil price-fixing heroin and consulting on the British Train Robbery.
This is notably similar to QUANTUM, the ersatz SPECTRE from 2008's Quantum of Solace, who conduct their business meetings through bluetooth ear pieces while watching modernist updates of opera. When Spectre itself came back (un-acronymed, the acronym being a very 1965 way of showing something as forward-thinking), perhaps to set itself apart, and perhaps because Sam Mendes just loves loves him some dramatic shadows, the HQ of this world crime league, now moved to Rome, located to a palace of shadowy affluence.
|fig. 4: Updated|
Since 2008, the organization has regressed. Spectre saw M actively reject the clear-glass modernism of Andrew Scott's MI:5 for the old World War Two tunnel aesthetic from Skyfall. In terms of architecture, then, it's only the obvious money on display in Spectre's digs that separates them from those of the film's MI:6. They have come, in the end, to the same place, signifiers of old empires, their conflict now represented as the blood feud between two brothers. What older story is there?
|Couldn't resist, even if God is displeased with sacrifices of low-hanging fruit.|
Saturday, April 2, 2016
|fig. 1: Mickey Rooney|
Where to begin?
Some trivia: The screenplay for this film was written by Roald Dahl, as a kind of a swap with Fleming, where Fleming wrote the screenplay adapting Dahl's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Either as a result of this or because the producers couldn't quite swing their original plan of adapting On Her Majesty's Secret Service just yet, much of the plot of the novel went out the window. It marks the first full-on glimpse of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played here by Donald Pleasance in a performance that would be readily parodied in decades to come. Pleasance plays Blofeld as a slimy little creep, and we finally get our first look at him just as James Bond does.
It's a build-up audiences were waiting for since the second James Bond film, From Russia With Love, which first introduced the character, and SPECTRE. This was, however, Pleasance's only turn in the role. Blofeld would be played two years later by Telly Savalas--who, despite his baldness, bears zero resemblance in his portrayal to Pleasance--and two years after that by Charles Gray, who again switches up the character traits, making him cheerily, urbanely evil.
|fig.2 John Wayne|
|fig. 3: Warner Oland|
The tradition of yellowface goes back at least as far as the beginnings of cinema, because racism. The most prominent early examples are the Charlie Chan series of films starring Warner Oland, a Swedish actor in heavy makeup who played the titular detective in sixteen movies throughout the 1930's. Chan would go on to be played by White actors Sidney Toler (twenty-one films!) , Roland Winters (six films), and J. Carrol Naish (TV series: forty episodes), not getting an actual Asian actor until the Seventies when Keye Luke played him. Oh, but fret not. He'd be played later by other White actors, including one of my favorite performers, Peter Ustinov.
|fig. 4: Luise Rainer|
Wong is a tremendous example of the damaging effects of this kind of Hollywood-mandated racism. A mesmerizing performer, she wasn't even considered for the lead. A third-generation American, Wong was pigeonholed into Butterfly and Dragon-Lady roles throughout her career, encountering hostility in her ancestral country and typecasting in America.
|fig. 5: Sean Connery|
In the novel, Bond is made up to look Japanese in order to pose as a coal miner and get closer to Blofeld's organization. This works right up until his confrontation with the evil mastermind and the ensuing fight, which leaves Bond with amnesia, believing himself to be a Japanese fisherman until he reads his own obituary. In the film, the ruse is simply to get him geographically closer to the secret volcano lair of SPECTRE. It never comes up, and by the time Bond swims over to Blofeld's volcano fortress, the whole business has washed off just in time for the climactic fight.
You could argue SPECTRE's goons are active in the surrounding fishing villages, and that Bond--who makes about as convincing a Japanese as your average 6'2'' Scotsman--needed to blend in, but this whole business could have been excised completely from the film without much hand-waving.
|fig. 6: Christopher Lee|
It's a shame, because there are things to like about this movie. Much like the later Roger Moore films, the sets in You Only Live Twice are just frigging dynamite. The volcano lair gets much attention (And it should: that monorail, yo.) but Tiger Tanaka's office is also great, the sets at the Osata corporation are fantastic in this mod Sixties fashion, and the cavernous workings of US Central Command, where the Men in Charge watch events transpire at a tremendous remove are well worth looking at also. Tanaka himself is an enjoyable presence, even dubbed. This is a stylish film, and set designer Ken Adam deserves a lot of credit.
Unfortunately it has aged just astonishingly poorly.
|fig. 7: Scarlett Johansson (Honorable Mention)|