Thursday, February 4, 2016

I've Met You In Your Future Lives. (Never Say Never Again)

fig. 1: I originally had the impish intent to just use pics from Thunderball to illustrate this entire post. That was before Mister Bean showed up.
1983 was a banner year for franchise pictures. We take it for granted in 2015, which saw continuations of Marvel, Hunger Games, and Fast/Furious properties, and the revival of long-dead franchises in Mad Max, Jurassic World, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Star Wars, but it wasn't always this saturated. 1983, however, saw a third Superman movie, a third Star Wars movie, and a head-to-head contest between Sean Connery and Roger Moore in the Battle of the Bonds. You could have conceivably--if one theater actually held on to Moore's Octopussy for an absurd four months, have slipped out of one James Bond picture and in to another.

fig. 2: And while you're at it, check me out across the hall in Superman III! 1983 is Peak Gavan O'Hearlihy!

News outlets of the time made hay of it, used the aforementioned phrase "The Battle of the Bonds", and while odds-makers predicted Connery's return to the role after twelve years would beat out Moore's sixth outing, in the end Moore won out. But how did we get to this point? How do two versions of the same character end up in competition with one another in the same year? The answer to that, as well as the answer to at least one trivia question about Tom Jones, lies with Thunderball.

Ian Fleming approached screenwriter and producer Kevin McClory in the late Fifties to produce a James Bond feature film. The character had, in fact, already appeared on television in the United States in an episode of Climax!, (another trivia answer) which adapted Casino Royale, and Fleming knew there was money in the property. McClory and Fleming worked on an original screenplay after the former rejected adapting one of the previously existing novels, tentatively calling the film Longitude 78 West. Fleming eventually tried to force McClory out of the project, adapting the screenplay into the novel Thunderball and refusing to credit McClory for his work on the treatment. The whole business went to court. EON productions eventaully bought the rights to James Bond novels seemingly piecemeal, including a deal with McClory, to produce Thunderball as a movie, in 1965. This same haphazadery would result in Casino Royale being adopted as a spoof in 1967 and kept off movie screens as a proper James Bond adventure for nearly forty years after.

fig. 3: McClory, whose picture is the number one Google hit on the phrase "Longitude 78 West"

In the late Seventies, McClory tried to produce another Bond film, and the Fleming estate sued him. They lost the suit, and it was determined that McClory could make a Bond picture, provided he only use elements from his draft of Thunderball, making the film that would eventually come about, Never Say Never Again, a straight remake of the former film. Legal wrangling over the rights to the character would crop up again in the early 1990's, eventually dooming Timothy Dalton's third film, and again in the early 2000's, when McClory threatened to remake Thunderball again before the rights were finally bought out.

I know very little about British copyright law. What I do know is confined mainly to what I've read about this movie, and about Doctor Who, whose iconic monsters the Daleks were first conceived by writer Terry Nation (even if Nation had nothing to do with their iconic visual design) and, as such, had to abandon the monsters for several years when Nation took his ball to America and tried to get some other studio to play with him. It's hard to imagine coming from 2000's America and it's rigid rules on intellectual property zealously watched over by large media conglomerates. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster tried for years to wrest control of their creation, Superman, from Warner Brothers. Rocket Raccoon was in a movie that made Marvel Studios over three hundred million dollars. Bill Mantlo, who created Rocket, didn't see a dime.

Follow this link for more information on Bill Mantlo's ongoing financial and health concerns.

Never Say Never Again is an interesting film in part for the constraints under which it is forced to operate. There's no bullet sequence, no stylish overture full of scantily clad women, no title card announcing it's "Sean Connery as Ian Fleming's James Bond 007." There is an opening song, though it is played over an aerial shot of jungle before we meet up with our hero, rescuing a damsel in distress from kidnappers.

...Except he's not. It's a training mission, and Never makes the canny move of rolling with Connery's age. After it's all over (and Bond has failed the mission objective) the debrief pits Bond against a much younger and newly installed M, who is skeptical to the point of hostility of the whole Double-0 program, and has had Bond working as a teacher for some time. However, the theft of a pair of nuclear warheads puts 007 back in the saddle, because that's how these things go.
fig. 4: "You've got me so angry I'm poaching Stereotypical Black Police Captain lines!"

The orchestrators of this grand theft, and the extortion that comes after it, are SPECTRE, an organization that won't be seen again in the James Bond canon until 2015's eponymous film, and haven't been seen in any capacity since Connery's previous film, 1971's Diamonds Are Forever. This, again, is down to McClory, who created SPECTRE and its head Ernst Stavro Blofeld, in his treatment for Longitude 78 West, and whose legal wrangling kept the evil network off movie screens for a total of a total of forty-four out of the franchise's fifty-three years.

In its place James Bond faced any number of adversaries both memorable and not. Indeed, I would argue that the franchise is better off without SPECTRE, or at the very least that Spectre's bending over backward to reincorporate this piece of mythology after thirty-two years did the plot of that film no favors.

Still, there's something to it. James Bond is a fundamentally reactionary, conservative (and Conservative) figure. He fights for Queen and Country. He fights, he kills people, to preserve an order that is measurably the same as the order of yesterday. He perpetuates a system that is designed to keep people like him in power, people who are, on the surface, largely indistinguishable from SPECTRE's cronies.

So what do we make of the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion, this shadowy group organized much like the British Secret Service (in my reverse rewatch, at least, Bond has yet to be mentioned as a member of MI6 prior to the 1990's) which gives its operatives call numbers and is run by a cabal of Old White Men in business suits? These profiteers, sitting above the fray of the Cold War? Spectre later goes full-on with this interpretation, internationalizing the cast of characters but, tellingly setting their base of operations in Rome, that crumbling center of an old empire that once ruled the world. Who better than a Briton to send against them? Tellingly, Blofeld isn't after chaos or destruction or any particular ideology. He wants cash. But if there's a secret message to Never Say Never Again, or Spectre, or any other iteration of that capitalistic band of evildoers, it's not one that Fleming, or McClory, ever intended. It exists at the margins.

fig. 5: Blofeld, less the Slimy Easterner of before, decked out more like a Proper English Gentleman

The margins, again, are where Never Say Never Again does its work. Forced to play within the constraints of Thunderball's plot (action bit/spa/things turn deadly/stolen nukes/casino standoff/Domino/boat/ underwater bits) it finds whatever it can to say by doodling around the edges. Like the younger M (and a Moneypenny that has likewise been de-aged), Q is on hand, played by a different actor and with a different demeanor. The film seems to hedge its bets on whether this is Q, having the actor refer to Q in the third person, and having Bond refer to him as "Algy." Instead of the usual annoyance played by Desmond Llewelyn, Alex McCowen's Q is a bona fide James Bond fanboy. "Now that you're on the case," he says, "I hope we can see some gratuitous sex and violence." It's the culmination of a speech that wouldn't seem out of place in the Brosnan era, or in Craig's Skyfall. Algy bemoans the rise of pencil-pushing bureaucrats, never going forward unless the computer says it's okay. It's a line that will be directly echoed in GoldenEye, and prefigures the anxiety of the computer age in Skyfall and Spectre.

The trip to the health spa, similarly, has a different resonance with a much older Connery, what with the cracks about his diet/drinking habits and with the delicacies he sneaks in to the resort. In everything but the haircut, James Bond is showing his age, and really, you can imagine him as the man who wouldn't have changed his hair cut. He's a man out of time. At fifty-three, he's older than nearly everyone in this picture, including Never's villain Maximilian Largo, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer. Brandauer is forty years old here, just a few years shy of Adolfo Celi, who played Largo in Thunderball. But Celi's playing a older man: white hair, eye patch, one of those elegant little cigarette holders. Brandauer is a youthful svengali, flowing blonde hair and a cavalier attitude about life and death. If anything, he represents less the institutional evil that Max von Sydow's Blofeld in this picture, and Adolfo Celi's Largo in Thunderball, does. He's a fresher face. As a sign this movie was made in the Eighties, he's a computer genius who designed a video game based around world conquest.

fig. 6: Bond and Largo, the latter about to don the Red Beanie of Utter Global Crisis.
The man in this film who is almost exactly Connery's age is Max von Sydow, who plays Never's iteration of Blofeld. Rather than sit behind a screen and stroke that cat of his, he's an open, almost gregarious figure, ransoming the world by video. Von Sydow is around the age of the other Blofelds in their heyday of the 1960's. Bond has caught up to him.

Sean Connery has yet to return to the role of James Bond. He almost played the Kincaid role in Skyfall, which thankfully went to Albert Finney. An Octagenarian James Bond would be an interesting choice, (especially if they ditch the tired conceit of him seducing some nymphet), as the series has been particularly concerned with James-Bond-as-relic at least as far back as 1995. Even as his age slides backwards, James Bond is a man out of time. Connery, particularly as the originator of James Bond on the silver screen, is a figurehead for a certain brand of masculinity that the character's continual reboots and reimaginings have caused to escape the ravages of time, even as the world has moved on around him. It doesn't look like Connery will ever return, but like the song says...

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