The James Bond experience
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
I’ve been on a tear with film lately – especially in regards to series of films. Most recently, I watched all the Sean Connery James Bond films, and to my horror I realized just how terrible they were. I never had much use for the Roger Moore versions, preferring him in the role of The Saint. But because I grew up with the earlier films, I had a distorted memory about how good they were, when in reality, they weren’t much to write home about.
I got hooked on the films because I was looking for some of the images Spielberg used in the third Indiana Jones movie – paying tribute to Connery’s most famous role. But once engaged, I was sucked up by nostalgia since these films along with Beatles albums, and a few other icons of the 1960s filled up my young life.
I didn’t catch on to James Bond until the third film, Goldfinger, and then I had to back track to catch up. This also led to my attachment to The Man From Uncle TV show, and, of course, one of my favorite shows of all time, Get Smart.
I was into gadgets then, some of which we even constructed in the garage of my rich kid neighbor. I didn’t look too closely as the quality of the films or story line.
But I did read the books as well, and took note of the significant differences between film and novel, and how the films often gave up the intensity of emotion in order to play up the sensational.
Because Goldfinger had the best gadgets, I liked it best as a film, although later, I liked it because the Beatles decided to parody it with their film Help – taking offense no doubt to Bond’s claim no one should listen to The Beatles without hear muffs. Help not only played the Bond theme, but made fun of some of Goldfinger’s key moments such as the misguided use of a laser beam, gassing of troops, and other elements found in the Bond film. Help even mocked the classic Bond car and its devices.
Once I got over my attachment to gadgets I realized that Goldfinger was hardly the best of the Bond films – partly because it relied on Bond’s lovemaking to resolve the central conflict.
The early Bond films started out as more or less traditional spy thrillers and then gradually grew into spectaculars, full of pyrotechnics and unbelievable stunts. The films also wandered further away from the original stories as they progressed, partly because the author, Ian Flemming, died, and could no longer affect the script.
The Connery films are in order, Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You only live twice, and after a film done by another actor, Diamonds Are Forever. Years later, Connery would remake Thunderball in a film called Never Say Never Again.
Because of its general lack of gadgetry, I dismissed Dr. No early on. The film rose in my estimation after my most recent viewing, partly because of how tight the transitions were and how well it moved. The film doesn’t break down until you get to nearer the end when Bond is inside Dr. No’s compound.
Even before getting over my gadget addiction, I overrated From Russia With Love. It is from this film that Spielberg seems to have drawn a number of images for his Last Crusade. While still perhaps one of the best Bond films, From Russia with Love is slow moving compared to the other Bond films, including Dr. No. It is the film that most resembles old fashioned cold war films of the previous decade such a Third Man. From it, Spielberg took the chase, the underground chambers with rats and other scenes in tribute to Connery.
Time has not been kind to Goldfinger in my mind, even though I still love the opening sequences and the woman painted in gold. Odd Job remains my favorite Bond henchman, and the gadgets – especially the car – are unequalled in any other Bond film. But the fact that Bond manages to undue Goldfinger’s plot simply because he made love to Goldfinger’s girlfriend spoils the film for me these days.
Thunderball blew me away the first time I saw it, and remains even all these years later, the best Bond film of all time – including the latest batch which I also admire greatly.
Thunderball managed to develop a complex plot, a sustainable pace, and still keep the gadgets and gizmos. For a long time, I thought I admired the film most because it was the first film released after Goldfinger, but after years, it still holds up, and seeing it again a during my recent review, I realized it remains my favorite – although a close second would be From Russia With Love.
This love with Thunderball may explain why I disliked You Only Live Twice.
I remember seeing it in the Montauk Theater in Passaic with my best friend Dave. He was impressed. I was disappointed. It seemed so cheesy, and contrived, a desperate attempt to relive the glory days of Thunderball. I suppose the most egregious violation had to do with how much it strayed from the original book – perhaps because Flemming had died, and the movie makers decided to go where they wished.
The books were written with a purpose to show the rise and fall of a 00 agent – much in the way Spielberg’s Munich tried, showing the ethical wear and tear that agents saddled with such responsibilities as a license to kill creates.
Since the movies paid lip service to this aspect and take the books out of order, we lose this important thread. In fact, ironically, The Spy of Love Me, which sets up the emotional impact of You Only Live Twice in the books, comes after You Only Live Twice as a film, and with an actor that is no Connery.
After numerous adventures as a legalized killer, Bond falls in love in the books, marries, and then sees his wife killed as a means of his enemies getting even with him. Violating orders, Bond in the book You Only Live Twice, seeks out the mastermind and kills him in a remote Japanese retreat. But the effort nearly kills him, too, and the book ends with him falling into the sea and into amnesia. This is where the next book, the Man with the Golden Gun picks up. Bond eventually remembers who he is, goes back to England to pick up his life as a spy, and M decides to give him one more assignment to prove himself – kill a notorious Caribbean killer known at The Man with the Golden Gun, which he barely manages and only with the help of his old friend from the CIA.
The most annoying thing about the early films is how the moviemakers kept changing Felix the CIA guy. The first – who went onto become the hero of Hawaii Five O – was the best. But over the years, Felix is an old guy, young guy, even a black guy, and it became annoying.
An aging Connery apparently led to the movie makers to replace him for The Spy Who Loved Me – a film I saw while I was on the run from the law in LA, and which I actually liked because it drifted back to the more simple days of earlier Bond movies, although I missed Connery.
By the time Diamonds Are Forever came out I had outgrown James Bond. I had also had my own brush with Howard Hughes so the film seemed more than a little contrived. I dismissed it and moved on. When Roger Moore took over the franchise, I saw the first two and then became totally unhooked.
At the time, I didn’t completely understand the need to find a new actor to fill the role of Bond. But viewing Diamonds are Forever during my marathon recently, I saw the reason. Connery had aged, losing the spark that had made him so appealing more than a decade earlier. Unlike Harrison Ford, whose remarkable film presence made Crystal Skull bearable, Connery was unable to compensate for the bad writing of the Diamonds film. He was no longer suave. He was no longer Bond.