The release of SKYFALL, the 23rd “official” James Bond film, coincides with the 50th anniversary of the release of the first James Bond film, DR. NO, in England on October 5, 1962.
I would prefer to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bond on May 8 next year, since that would be the 50th anniversary of the U.S. release, which is what I remember, but we won’t have a new Bond film next May. I chose to re-watch a few classic Bonds before going to see the new one, just to remind myself what drew me to the films in the first place.
The first five Connery Bond films are a part of my cultural DNA. James Bond is my Harry Potter. Well before I saw any of the films I was collecting the James Bond trading cards, which provided detailed plot info about the first three Bond films, DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, and GOLDFINGER. (The second and third were both released in the U.S. in 1964.) My parents initially wouldn’t let me go see the early Bond films, presumably because of the sexual content. My father collected the books by Ian Fleming and I remember reading some of them, but I don’t recall whether that was before or after seeing the films for the first time.
I actually watched TV’s Bond rip-off, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” before I saw any Bond movies. I loved it. I wanted to BE a secret agent. I even used an old attaché case found in the garbage to fashion my own “spy kit.” (I’ve forgotten what tools of the trade I’d managed to gather, other than some tiny magnets whose purpose has been lost to time.) I showed it to a friend from the Boy Scouts and my dreams of a life of espionage where dashed when he declared, “That looks kind’a cheap.”
Finally, the first two Bonds, DR. NO and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, were re-released as a double bill in 1965 and only then did my father relent and take me and a couple of siblings to see them. The re-release was a big deal and I remember that we had to stand in line at a neighborhood theater on a weekend afternoon in May 1965 to get in—at a time when standing in line for movies was quite rare, as I recall. (Just to give you an idea of the moviegoing context that season, earlier that month I went by myself to see a double bill reissue of STALAG 17 and PSYCHO, and less than a month later, I went to see a double bill reissue of THE GREAT ESCAPE and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, all at the tender age of 11.)
I would later catch both GOLDFINGER and THUNDERBALL during their re-releases. The fifth YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, which I wrote about here on September 23 as part of 1967: Action Cinema’s Greatest Year, would be the first Bond film I saw during its initial release. Eventually, I’d see the first five Bond films close to 20 times each in theaters since they got re-released multiple times in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And then I’d catch them on TV and, years later, on VHS and DVD. After YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, I would catch each Bond film in theaters up to and including FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981). I found the Roger Moore Bond films so cartoonish that I stopped going to see them after that one. I went back for LICENCE TO KILL (1989), starring Timothy Dalton and I remember considering that the best Bond film since YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. I went to see just one Pierce Brosnan Bond film on the big screen, TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997) because of the Michelle Yeoh connection. (I even went to see it on the same day I’d seen an earlier Yeoh film, THE MAGIC CRANE at a festival of Yeoh’s Hong Kong action films in Manhattan.) And I’ve seen each of the Daniel Craig Bond films on the big screen, including SKYFALL on Wednesday, Nov. 21, lured in by the rave reviews they’ve been getting, critical assessments I simply have not shared.
I re-watched YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE this past September for my 1967 piece and then, for this piece, DR. NO on VHS, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE on DVD and LICENCE TO KILL on DVD.
DR. NO still has the power of its simple, streamlined plot offering just enough action and excitement to keep us entranced, without straining the film’s relatively low budget, and a visual look based on extensive location photography in Jamaica mixed with Ken Adam’s creative set designs, particularly in the big chamber where Dr. No stores the nuclear-powered equipment used to disable Cape Canaveral’s rocket launches. (If any one craftsman is responsible for the look of so many of the early Bonds, it’s Ken Adam.) What strikes me most watching it this time (the first time in many years) is how much of Connery’s Bond character is already fully formed. The cruel edge is already there, as seen in the way he regards the fake driver sent to pick him up at the airport, knowing he’s gonna make mincemeat of him in just a few short minutes, and in the way he calmly shoots Professor Dent point blank (with a silencer) after telling him, “You’ve had your six.” (Dent had retrieved the gun he’d dropped and then fired a blank chamber at Bond, while Bond coolly sat there.) His easy way with women is seen almost immediately as he takes the time needed to pack for his Jamaica assignment to sleep with Sylvia Trench, an elegant woman he’d just met at a private gambling casino in London. Later, he picks up Professor Dent’s secretary (Zena Marshall), in order to trap her and Professor Dent, yet he sleeps with her while waiting to spring the trap. Later, after escaping from his prison cell in Dr. No’s sprawling island complex, Bond overpowers a reactor worker, puts on his protective suit, and enters the room where Dr. No and his team are preparing to ruin another Cape Canaveral rocket flight by doing something to alter its trajectory. Bond has no idea what he’s going to do when he enters the room, he just knows he has to get in there and stop it. (He’d do something similar in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE.)
If I have any major complaint about the film, it’s that Dr. No really should have been played by an Asian actor and not by Joseph Wiseman, a Canadian who became a New York stage actor. I simply don’t buy Wiseman in the part. Wiseman is quoted on IMDB as saying “As far as I was concerned, I thought it might be just another Grade-B Charlie Chan mystery.” It shows in his performance. There’s supposed to be an element of racial bitterness in Dr. No’s psychological makeup, but since we never believe Wiseman is even remotely Asian, it’s hard to accept this.
DR. NO was shot in Jamaica several months before the island declared its independence from Great Britain and it’s still remarkably shot through with colonial-era stratification, as the islanders, both black and mixed-race, tend to be subservient to the white Englishmen on the island who hold all the power. Bond, for instance, tends to address his black ally, Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), like a servant, even though Quarrel’s actually a CIA contact, introduced to Bond by the CIA agent on duty, Felix Leiter (Hawaii 5-0’s Jack Lord). I enjoy the movie a great deal and it holds up beautifully, but this is what struck me as I watched it this time, especially in contrast with the way FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE embraces its multicultural milieu in a decidedly non-condescending way.
And that’s the strong point of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. For much of its running time it takes place in Istanbul and a lot of it was shot on location. There are many different ethnic and national groups making up the competing factions in the Spy-vs.-Spy-style intrigue that dots the film and we hear lots of different languages spoken.
We see Turks, Russians, Bulgarians, Gypsies, an Englishman and an Irish killer. The actors playing Russians include an Italian (Daniela Bianchi), a German (Lotte Lenya) and a Pole (Vladek Sheybal). The head of the Turkish Secret Service is played by a Mexican (Pedro Armendariz, who died of cancer only days after completing filming). The Gypsy fighting girls are played by an Israeli (Aliza Gur) and an Englishwoman from Jamaica (Martine Beswick). Bond moves through all these cultures with ease, showing respect to his allies and earning respect from them, while remaining ruthless with his enemies, although not as ruthless as he was in DR. NO. This is especially the case in the scene at the Gypsy camp where Bond and Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz) have gone to hide out. Bond has an easy rapport with the people there.
A bit of class warfare is introduced later when Bond is confronted by SPECTRE’s trained killer, the Irishman Red Grant (Robert Shaw), who’d adopted the cover of “Captain Nash,” a British agent who was supposed to board the train to aid Bond. Bond, with Grant’s gun trained on him, notes that Grant’s order of red wine with fish in the dining car should have alerted him that something was wrong. Grant snarls at Bond and clearly wants to humiliate him, demanding that he crawl over and “kiss my foot!” Bond, of course, has other ideas, leading to a knockdown, dragout brawl in the cramped train compartment, one of the best action scenes in any Bond film.
I was less impressed this time with the subsequent action scenes. The whole helicopter chase where a copter piloted by SPECTRE men chases Bond over the Yugoslavian countryside, ending with Bond shooting the co-pilot just as he’s about to drop a grenade, wasn’t as exciting this time around. Maybe I’ve seen it too many times. Maybe I expect more from an action scene these days. Maybe I didn’t get all the running around. The same can be said for the boat chase near the end, when Bond, in a motorboat, is pursued by three much larger, better-armed craft filled with Spectre personnel. Bond kicks drums of leaking gasoline into the water and shoots a flare which sets the oil slicks on fire and blows up the three ships, something that doesn’t seem terribly plausible now. It’s a lot less intricate than the Fort Knox shootout in GOLDFINGER or the raid on the volcano rocket base in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. At least this scene is followed by the final confrontation with Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and her lethal, poison-blade-equipped shoe, at a Venice hotel, a bang-up way to end the film.
I also didn’t like the quips that Bond constantly utters after violent encounters, e.g. “She should have kept her mouth shut,” after Kerim Bey shoots a Bulgarian assassin after he’s crawled out a secret exit placed in the mouth of a billboard-sized Anita Ekberg (in an ad for CALL ME BWANA). It just cheapens the whole tone of the piece and paves the way for the cartoonization of the Bond franchise that started in the 1970s (with either DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, LIVE AND LET DIE or THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, depending on your threshold for silliness).
Still, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is a great spy thriller, beautifully shot and staged, with a lean script and economical direction, not an ounce of fat on it and one which I enjoyed sitting through for the first time in eleven years (in 2001, when I first bought the DVD, along with YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, both purchased a month after I bought my first DVD player). I especially enjoy Lotte Lenya, whose Colonel Klebb makes a perfect Bond villain, ruthless, driven, tough, yet capable of an almost Nietzchean admiration of her charges, as seen in her first meeting with Red Grant when she punches him in the gut with brass knuckles, to test his ability to withstand such a blow but also to demonstrate a perverse kind of affection for him. She shows similar loving gestures in her first encounter with Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), the blond embassy employee chosen to be the one who will seduce James Bond, as part of a clever plan to use Bond to steal the Soviet Union’s Lektor decoding machine and turn it over to SPECTRE. She touches Tatiana on her shoulder, back, and knee and strokes her hair, not so much as a signal of same-sex attraction, but as genuine admiration for Tatiana’s beauty and figure and their value as a tool in getting Bond to drop his guard. It’s almost as if Klebb is taking credit for it and patting herself on the back for a job well done. I also like how Klebb has left her position as head of something or other for SMERSH, the Russian spy organization and set up shop at SPECTRE—without anyone knowing about it, since SMERSH has kept it secret—enabling Klebb to continue functioning in her official position, and thus able to recruit Tatiana so cleanly. It’s brilliant.
I used to see GOLDFINGER and THUNDERBALL a lot as well and have watched both within the last few years, but their luster has definitely worn off as the years have gone by. GOLDFINGER suffers from having Bond out of action and being held in captivity for much of its running time and taking place in a dull, unexotic locale (Kentucky) as Goldfinger prepares his raid on Fort Knox. Worse, they give Bond this great, gadget-filled sports car, only to have it fail to be of any help at all. He gets thrown off by the oldest gag in the book, Oddjob’s mirror-in-the-road routine and gets captured. A fat lot of good that car did. THUNDERBALL has its pleasures, including a genuinely suspenseful plot—one of the best in any Bond picture—but it is way too long and has its climactic action take place entirely underwater where things are considerably slower than on land.
I wrote about YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE here on September 23 and it remains my favorite Bond film of all time, chiefly because of the Japan connection and the use of ninjas and Japanese martial arts. And also because of the fun I had during that first screening of it with an enthusiastic kid audience surrounding me.
When I saw LICENCE TO KILL at the Loew’s Astor Plaza in Manhattan in 1989, it was my first trip to a theater to see a Bond film since FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, eight years earlier. I remember liking it a lot and thinking it was the best Bond film I’d seen since YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. It was deadly serious and had a plausible plot involving the pursuit of Central American drug dealers. It didn’t have the cartoonish action sequences of the Roger Moore Bonds and was treated more like a crime thriller. Timothy Dalton had some gravitas about him that certainly helped enhance the character and made him seem more like Connery’s Bond to me. (Roger Moore always acted like he was doing it as a lark and just picking up an unbelievable paycheck.) Yet for some reason I never revisited it until preparing this column and only after I picked up a DVD copy on sale at a local video store last weekend. (It was $7.99.)
It’s still an entertaining thriller, but I have reservations about it. It has streaks of cruel, sadistic violence and bloodshed that I found pretty alarming. And that violence is aimed at actors I like. David Hedison, Captain Crane from TV’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” plays Felix Leiter (a role he’d previously played 16 years earlier in LIVE AND LET DIE) and gets captured by the bad guys and lowered into a shark tank where he loses a leg after a shark bite. Two iconic 1970s bad guys, Anthony Zerbe and Don Stroud, both work for the main villain, a drug dealer named Sanchez (Robert Davi), and it was great to see both of them in decent-sized parts again, but at different points they’re both accused of betraying Sanchez, one falsely as it turns out, and subjected to an extremely gruesome death (in a pressure chamber) in the first case and a pretty ignominious one (death by forklift) in the second.
Sanchez later tries to send Bond down a conveyor belt which would suck him into some kind of chopping machine meant to process cocaine. Bond, of course, avoids the fate, but not one of Davi’s men, played by a young Benicio del Toro. (Poor kid.) All of this clearly pushed the boundaries of the PG-13 rating. I don’t recall whether any of this bothered me in 1989, but it did today.
Also, the final chase scene involving several tractor trailers filled with cocaine speeding down a mountain road took the film into Moore-like cartoon action, especially when Bond takes the wheel and does wheelies and other seemingly impossible maneuvers with the trucks. What was needed was some kind of down-and-dirty, mano-a-mano fight scene a la the Bond-Grant brawl in the train compartment in FRWL.
Which leads us to SKYFALL, which I saw in a Manhattan theater, digitally projected. It has a lot of imaginative scenes in it, including some very good use of London locations (how often have any Bond films spent a lot of time there?), an intricate journey up an elevator shaft of a high Shanghai skyscraper, and a pretty spectacular confrontation on the villain’s island that appears to be some kind of massive abandoned industrial development (filmed on Hashima Island, an abandoned coal mining facility off of Nagasaki, Japan). It has a flamboyant villain in former MI6 agent Silva, played with great flair by Javier Bardem. He’s certainly a lot more formidable than the villains in the previous Craig Bonds, Le Chiffre in CASINO ROYALE (2006), who wrote bad checks, lost his clients’ money on the stock market and ran a game of Texas Hold ’em, and Dominic Greene in QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), who sought control of the water supply in Bolivia. Not exactly world-shaking villainy there.
There’s a lot of genuine suspense in SKYFALL, including a scene where Silva and his hired thugs go after M (Judi Dench) while she’s testifying before a Parliament committee. (Although once word got out that he was on his way, you’d think they would have stopped the hearing and called in extra police immediately, instead of relying on court officers of the type I see when I serve on jury duty in the Bronx.) But it all derails with a “Home Alone” ending that finds Bond, M, and Bond’s old family retainer (Albert Finney!) rigging up Bond’s ancestral home with traps to waylay Silva and his army. It makes no sense to “protect” M by making her more vulnerable. And it fails. In fact, so many of the lead characters working for MI6 botch their jobs here, it’s a wonder they aren’t all fired by the half-way point. I will say, though, that Naomie Harris makes an attractive and charming field partner for Bond and brings the only element of humor (although very subtle) found in the entire film. (Paging J.W. Pepper!)
The ending comes out of left field and, in some strange way, brings us full circle back to where we started in 1962. I was scratching my head at this one. What’s next? Off to Jamaica to investigate Strangway’s disappearance and the island of Crab Key? “Underneath the mango tree…”
What does Bond mean today? Who is he supposed to be? In the 1960s, he was designed, whether intentionally or by happy accident, to defuse the Cold War, which, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, he managed to do in some small or major way (no one can really say). I always felt that East-West tensions diminished considerably after the Bond films came out. By the time THUNDERBALL was released we no longer had to do “duck-and-cover” bomb drills in our classrooms. Bond’s job in those films was not to spy on the Soviet Union, but to hinder the progress of SPECTRE and other international criminal masterminds who knew no national allegiance. In YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, it’s SPECTRE that’s engaged in an elaborate plot to manipulate the U.S. and Soviet Union into war.
I’m not sure what the function of Roger Moore’s Bond was. His first two films were just reflections of then-prevalent grindhouse phenomena, blaxploitation (LIVE AND LET DIE) and kung fu (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN), while MOONRAKER seemed intent on exploiting STAR WARS.
LICENCE TO KILL, the second of the two Bond films with Timothy Dalton, at least focused on Central American drug lords, inspired in part by TV’s “Miami Vice,” but also the drug machinations that surfaced during Iran-Contra and the civil wars in Central America. It was set in a fictionalized Panama, which would be invaded by President George H.W. Bush the following year, following an offense of some sort committed by the country’s strongman ruler, Manuel Noriega. So there was some relevance there.
I could never figure out Pierce Brosnan’s Bond and figured he was employed simply to keep the franchise operating until there seemed to be a reason for it.
Daniel Craig’s Bond emerged in a world where secret agents have become irrelevant, with their function served by intelligence gatherers sitting at computers and Special Op military units acting as field agents. They don’t wear tuxedoes or carry gadgets, but are equipped with night vision goggles, Kevlar body armor and automatic weapons. Craig’s Bond goes after a sort of white collar criminal rather than Osama bin Laden or the jihadists of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other assorted terrorist groups who make up the real threats in this new age of covert operations. There are some terrorist acts in SKYFALL, but their source is a disgruntled former employee, engaged in an exaggerated form of workplace violence rather than a soldier in a global war between conflicting ideologies or theologies. I would hope that the next Craig Bond would find a way be a little more relevant.