In any event, it gives me a chance to do what Popdosers often do: stroll down memory lane. Week-to-week, most of this column is in the here and now, but today I go back…way back, from Bond 1 to Bond 21. We start at the age of eight, circa 1973, when Nixon was still in the White House and my dad took me to see a double feature of Diamonds are Forever and Live and Let Die. I have vivid memories of the former, Sean Connery’s second-to-last turn in his signature role: From the get-go, it was more perverse than what I was used to be taken to, with gay villains, lesbian villainesses, and a bad guy in drag, not that any of this registered with any clarity (though its swishy portrait of homosexuality is on a third-grade level today). But I immediately grasped its structure, with the pre-opening credits action, the fusion of opening song and sinuous animated titles, the introduction of series regulars, and a rise-and-fall pattern to the expository, bedroom, and action scenes. Everything snapped perfectly into place, like one of Q’s gadgets.
There was a playful formality to it, credited, I came to recognize, to co-producer Albert R. Broccoli, who from Dr. No to Licence to Kill lavished as much attention on his baby as David O. Selznick did on Gone with the Wind. (His partner Harry Saltzman, who I think kept some of his lesser impulses in check, left the series after The Man with the Golden Gun, as the series made a decisive shift.) The journeyman directors, never A-list auteurs in their own right, who were hired to keep the works running smoothly did some of their best work on the series. Then again, how could they not, with the likes of composer John Barry, production designer Ken Adam, and titles creator Maurice Binder in their corner?
(That was a lot to begin to process, so I had dad remove me from Live and Let Die as soon as it got boring—which was right after Paul McCartney and Wings slashed through the title song. When I sat through the whole thing years later, figuring I must have missed something, I realized I had it right all along. It’s near the bottom of my Bond pile.)
Hooked, I began my most persistent movie obsession. I watched them every time they ran on ABC Sunday Night at the Movies (even the bizarrely edited On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with its Bond narration and flashbacks), and stayed up way past bedtime, eyes glued to the black-and-white TV in my room, when they migrated to late night slots. Seeing them again on HBO, minus commercials and censor cuts, was a revelation, and without the extra words from our sponsors I got to sleep a whole lot earlier. I bought them all when they hit VHS in inexpensive ($19.98) editions, where I learned, as I had always suspected, that Secret Service played like a normal Bond movie, and that ABC engineered the deforming cuts on what is a highlight of the series. Laserdisc was the great leap forward: Experiencing them in widescreen was a revelation, like watching them anew. (If only I had bought the pricey Criterion editions of the first three, with juicy, fly-on-the-wall commentary tracks that were reportedly ordered suppressed by an unhappy Broccoli.)
Just as the tapes had gone to the second-hand shops out, too, went the LDs, when the Bonds arrived, again, as Special Edition DVDs. I thought that was it, the end of the format food chain—but then they were remastered as Ultimate Editions. I held out, figuring the claims for them had to be hype, only to cave when the four box sets—grouped not chronologically but as a mix of classic and not-so titles, obliging you to buy the whole box to get the one or two you wanted—hit $24.99 apiece on Amazon. I have a few nits to pick, but I was right to double-dip; the early, problematic Bonds have been transferred with great frame-by-frame sensitivity, minimizing, for example, the obvious wires that mar the plane-set finale of Goldfinger. (Lots of DVDs of older films senselessly jack up the resolution, which makes dated special effects positively primitive.)
As for the Blu-ray discs, tied to the new movie, I’m not blue over not having taken the plunge into the format. It’s backtracking to pay laserdisc prices all over again. (Come to think, the LDs may have been redone sometime in the history of that dead format, and I probably picked them up.) The Blu Bonds are reported to be rife with gremlins, extras not playing on most machines and that kind of thing. Have I finally reached the finish line? Definitely, maybe. As Sean Connery said, “Never Say Never Again.”
But the discs are in some way beside the point, despite the disposable income pored into them over the last 20 years. (A Bond bailout might be nice. If you’re keeping score, which I tried not to till I wrote a bit on this on my blog, this is 21 films, many of which I have bought at least four times.). I’ve committed most of them to the disk drive of my memory bank. And so, in brief, I will share from my dossier.
Dr. No (1962). A confident debut, with Connery fully formed in the part, if nearly upstaged by the mermaid charms of Ursula Andress. The style wasn’t quite there yet, and I get impatient with the pacing. It picks up when the title villain shows his hand, a classic performance by Joseph Wiseman. When I saw the now 90-year-old actor onstage a few Broadway seasons back in Judgment at Nuremberg, all I could think about was his slice of film history. I bet that wearies him as much as it tickles him.
From Russia with Love (1963). One of the greats, Hitchcock-smooth in the telling (it sticks pretty close to the book, as I recall; I read them, too). Lotte Lenya’s shoe-knife and Robert Shaw fighting with Connery in close Orient Express confines are indelible. The Bond I recommend to people who don’t like them. Shame about the jump cut (“What a performance!” is the missing line) that smudges the very end of the risquÃ© picture.
Goldfinger (1964). Three-for-three. When I need to get up and go, I put on John Barry’s soundtrack. From Shirley Bassey’s song on, it’s great motivating music that matches the film’s fanciful streak. Gert Frobe and Harold “Oddjob” Sakata are perfectly matched as instigator and henchman. Best golf game, ever. A movie in perfect balance.
Thunderball (1965). Where the problems start. The gimmicks take over, the bad guy’s a bore, the storyline drags. It’s hard to tell anyone apart in the big scuba battle that climaxes the film. I do like Tom Jones’ chesty rendition of the theme. Boxoffice-wise, still the biggest of the Bonds, adjusted for inflation.
You Only Live Twice (1967). Influential: The Flintstones parodied it, Mike Myers got Dr. Evil from Donald Pleasance’s performance, the basic plot was borrowed a few times for subsequent Bonds. And I always fall asleep before the volcano-lair-with-ninjas climax. A triumph for Ken Adam, an expensive snooze for everyone else.
Casino Royale (1967). About the only thing I remember from this spoof is the bouncy Burt Bacharach and Herb Alpert theme, and “The Look of Love.” And Peter Sellers saying, “I’m Bond. James Bond.” That’s all I care to remember.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). One-shot George Lazenby is a ruffled shirt as Bond. But Connery must have wept into his vodka martini when he saw it (I hope not on ABC). It’s a near-perfect return to From Russia with Love territory, with a Bond woman, as opposed to girl (Diana Rigg), a plot that builds to a heart-breaking emotional crescendo, thrilling ski stunts, and a magnificent Barry score. The cult Bond, venerated by fans, ignored by the hoi polloi.
Diamonds are Forever (1971). See above. Also notable for bad guy Charles Gray’s white cat. The actor’s New York Times obituary was really stuck on that cat, which I assume did not get its own obit.
Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Roger Moore’s opening entries are as low on inspiration as they are conscious of budget. The “blacksploitation Bond” of Let Die is faintly embarrassing today, even if bad guys Yaphet Kotto and Geoffrey Holder are living it up. Golden Gun is a notch better—any movie is uplifted by Christopher Lee, not to mention Herve Villechaize, and Lulu’s title theme is wack. Plus “Red China” was simulated in Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay, so entrancingly I vowed to go there someday. And I did. “James Bond Island,” as it’s called, is still a beauty, and it made it through the 2004 tsunami largely intact.
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). With Saltzman gone, Broccoli rebooted the series to better match Moore’s pageant host personality—and came up a big winner. Spy is one of the most pleasurably entertaining films of its period, and I liked it better than Star Wars that summer. (The charms of Barbara Bach helped; Ringo lucked out.) An enormous undertaking, with Adam sets so big production visitor Stanley Kubrick pitched in to light them, the money is on the screen. It’s voluptuous. A major hit, basically remade as the Star Wars-inspired Moonraker, which doesn’t defy gravity near as much.
For Your Eyes Only (1981). Toughening up Roger Moore was like putting nunchaks on a priest. It wants to be From Russia with Love but never gets past a confused who’s-got-the-decoder plot and cutesy ice skater Lynn Holly Johnson as a Bond girl. The actor (wonderfully self-deprecating when he played himself as the guest star of the Broadway comedy The Play What I Wrote) was happier playing host to Indian locations in Octopussy (1983).
Never Say Never Again (1983). A remake of Thunderball could never amount to much. Less gray than he was in Diamonds, Connery deftly goes through the paces, till the movie gets waterlogged again for underwater action. Klaus Maria Brandauer restored a sliver of elegance to the villainy, something that had gone missing from the “official” series.
A View to a Kill (1985). The bottom, recycling worn-out world domination ideas and adding zilch (a zeppelin?). Slow-moving Moore is less in his swan song. (His first and last entries are my least favorite.) The only nimble element is Duran Duran’s theme.
The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1989). Timothy Dalton’s feral Bond is underrated. Daylights is another patchwork Moore script uneasily grafted to his steely temper. Kill is more like it—a pretty ferocious picture, once past a miserably long Gladys Knight theme I shuffled off my iPod, competing with Lethal Weapon and Die Hard (featuring two of the latter’s actors for good luck), yet losing in an American market that never adjusted to its star. (Benicio Del Toro makes a watch-this-guy impression as an icy killer, offed in a particularly horrible way.) Dalton was a missed opportunity—and the series, rudderless without the elder Broccoli and entangled in litigation, went away for a full six years.
GoldenEye (1995), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The World is Not Enough (1999), Die Another Day (2002). The Brosnan years are a shapeless blur to me. After that long deep freeze they got off to a promising start, had some winning elements (Michelle Yeoh in Dies was a standout) but mostly blend together. All I can say is that if I’m in a Bond mood I rarely go there.
Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace. The unlikely Daniel Craig supplied the something missing that made the Brosnan epoch so indistinct; a sense of danger and unpredictability. (A more incisive script, with a credible romantic element, was an asset.) For now, I can say that Craig made my wife something of a series fan, maybe more for his Andress-like appearance in a swimsuit than anything else. But that’s what you do with these pop cultural obsessions; you immerse yourself in them, and if you’re fortunate to find someone to share them with, you pass them on.
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