Archive | February, 2011

“As long as the collars and cuffs match”, The James Bond blogs- ‘Diamonds are forever’ (1971)

27 Feb

There is an idea that the styles and fashions of the 1960s are of far more lasting influence and of greater cultural importance and good taste than those of the 1970s, by which time society and pop culture had gone through seismic changes. After the initial creative explosion, things started to get lazy. Even though Diamonds are forever was released as early as 1971, it does back up that argument.

In the four years since Sean Connery last played Bond, things have changed.






Diamonds are forever is by far one of the most kitsch and tacky of the Bond films, and the fact that much of the action and location shots are set in Las Vegas, adds to the overall trash aesthetic. If it’s possible to manage the combination of expensive and tacky, then Diamonds are forever is a good example. Diamonds also sets a trend for the more ‘Americanised’ direction the series would take throughout the early to mid seventies. It’s the first in a trilogy of films directed by Guy Hamilton, the man behind Goldfinger, and the emphasis on tongue in cheek style (which epitomises the Roger Moore era) started with this film. So did an apparent obsession with outrageous car stunts, which would feature in all of Guy Hamilton’s Bond films of the early ‘70s. Despite these new variations, the film was originally meant to reunite the team that made Goldfinger, with the intent of making a similar success. This film was originally intended to feature Goldfinger’s brother (again to be played by Gert Frobe) until the existing story was created. In the event, Shirley Bassey returned for the title song, but the similarities between the two films don’t extend too far.

Jill St. John as Tiffany Case- she's about as subtle as this photograph's diamond connection.

The film begins with Bond on the trail of Blofeld, cornering the villain in the middle of a plot to create some ‘clones’ with plastic surgery. The usual assumption is that Bond is out for revenge following his wife’s death. But this is not entirely true. Diamonds are forever seems keen to distance itself from the events in On Her Majesty’s secret service, not least because the film was perceived as a failure due to George Lazenby’s sudden departure and because the man playing Bond was a one off who certainly wasn’t Sean Connery (although OHMSS was still a box office hit). Lazenby’s uncooperative actions had left Broccoli and Saltzman with egg on their face, and they were keen to avoid any further damage to their franchise. Probably because of this fear, Diamonds is a tongue in cheek comedy adventure, and wants us to forget about George Lazenby by offering thrills and spills and the odd laugh. As a result of this light hearted approach it’s by far the weakest Bond film up to the time of its release. And the script isn’t all that fantastic, regardless of what Connery thought of it at the time (he did say it was the best he’d done). American Tom Mankiewicz is brought in to complete Richard Maibaum’s story, and will add his own style to the next few pictures in the series.

Charles Gray as Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Even the cat isn't impressed.

Playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld this time is veteran Charles Grey, who I always remember from The Rocky horror picture show and the Hammer classic The Devil rides out. He also played Henderson in You only live twice. An engaging actor, but his version of Blofeld is too camp and comes across more as a dastardly cad than a menacing adversary. It doesn’t help that he smokes his cigarettes through a holder and is seen disguised in drag at one point! Compared to the version played by Telly Savalas (or even Donald Pleasance) he’s just not in the same league. Infact, occasionally, he’s an embarassment. The Bond girl this time is the first American one and is Tiffany Case, played by Jill St. John. I like her, and found her quite an entertaining female lead. She’s quite brash and isn’t the most demure of the Bond women, but she has a nice chemistry with Connery and looks better in a bikini than I do.

Bernard Lee as 'M'- as dignified as ever, even in this tacky spectacle.

The most memorable of the Diamonds cast are the two gay hit men Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (who actually refer to them selves by those very names). They are exceptionally creepy individuals and Bruce Glover and Putter Smith deserve praise for bringing such original creations to life. One of them looks like Peter Lorre or some extra from a horror film, and the other looks like he’s just come back from an Easy rider audition (what’s with the hair?) You never actually see them on screen with Blofeld, which is even odder, despite the fact they’re working for him. They have some highly amusing exchanges in their usual macabre fashion….“If man had meant us to fly…” “They would have given us wings, Mr. Kidd”, they wisely comment as a helicopter explodes above them, containing one of their unfortunate victims.

Checking if the collars and cuffs match.

Also in the cast is Norman Burton as Felix Leiter. Why they couldn’t keep to the same actor for Felix with every film he’s in, I’ll never know (as with ‘M’, ‘Q’ and Moneypenny). Burton is decent enough in the role, but adds nothing exceptionally new.

Diamonds are forever has a proved a nostalgic favourite with me, as I remember watching it in a B&B in Dover in 1986, when with my parents and Aunty. The two men that have transcended the years of wisdom and cynicism are Sean Connery and John Barry. Connery is quite captivating here, although he plays the role more fatuously than before, and the humour is far more pronounced. He’s also put on a considerable amount of weight since You only live twice and looks far older than in any of his other Bond films; he isn’t the toned looking secret agent he should be. He gets some great lines to deliver though:
“As long as the collars and cuffs match…” (when he questions Tiffany’s change of different coloured wigs), “Right idea…wrong pussy” (as he shoots the wrong Blofeld clone, after following the white cat) and the infamous exchange with buxom casino girl Plenty O’Toole, as played by Lana Wood (“…named after your father, perhaps?”).
Come to think of it, Charles Grey’s Blofeld has some great lines too, all delivered as smarmily as possible. “Such pretty cheeks”, he comments as Tiffany’s bikini clad form is taken away by his guards, “if only they were brains…”
This Bond film still makes me laugh out loud, and I think that’s why I like it more than I probably should. It gives up much pretence to treating anything seriously before the pre-titles sequence. “Making mud pies, 007?”, enquires Blofeld shortly before being dumped into the mud bath himself.

Even the casino scenes aren't as stylish this time round, and there's WAY more flesh on show.

“Welcome to Hell, Blofeld”, says Sean’s Bond, barely managing to hide a grin and looking nothing like a man who’s wife has presumably just been murdered.

John Barry is the other man who comes out of this kitsch car crash of a Bond film with some dignity, and he supplies the film’s music. His Diamonds are forever score is one of my personal favourites. It’s almost lounge music in some parts, but suits the Las Vegas setting very well. It’s quite engaging and suits the “tacky but expensive” tag down to a tee. Shirley Bassey also equips herself very well with one of the more memorable theme songs.

As I mentioned, the film begins the tongue in cheek style, which would colour the Roger Moore years. Bond is almost a parody of himself in places and there’s even a scene where Tiffany shrieks, “Oh my God, you’ve killed James Bond!” This is when the real Bond swaps his I.D. with a certain dead Peter Franks – whose identity Bond has assumed. That Tiffany knows so much about Bond undermines his role as a secret agent, and I think it was quite silly of the writers to go down that route. Diamonds isn’t the only film where this happens, but it’s the first time I recall a ‘civilian’ being so aware of Bond’s reputation. In Thunderball his reputation is taunted by SPECTRE agent Fiona (Lucianna Paluzzi) , but that is acceptable as he is part of their secret world.

You'll want one by the time you finish watching the film.

I mentioned the car chases, and fans of that kind of thing won’t be short changed. There’s a hectic chase across the Nevada desert, which is quite daft but a lot of fun. Bond gets to steal a prototype moon buggy from a space research centre, and is a good excuse for some rampant destruction of walls and other vehicles. The stunt work in Las Vegas is tremendous, with Bond’s red Mustang going over on two wheels to get through a narrow alley. Producer ‘Cubby’ Broccoli’s friendship with elusive Vegas kingpin Howard Hughes meant that the Bond crew had full access to his casinos and even the street outside. That ensures that the film never lacks any Vegas location in which to set the action. So the whole film looks as garish and as neon lit as possible. Speaking of Howard Hughes, he was the inspiration for Willard Whyte- the character played in Diamonds by country singer Jimmy Dean, who’s quite charismatic in his role. But, of course, Blofeld has had him kidnapped and has also taken on his identity (a reoccurring theme in this Bond).

Another great part of Diamonds are forever is Whyte’s concrete house in the desert, which is actually a real building. You can visit it to this very day. Here Bond encounters “Bambi” and “Thumper”, two girls whose only function in the story is to give Bond a good hiding. He ends up getting the better of them in the swimming pool; just before Felix and company arrive on the scene.

All in all, Diamonds are forever is probably the weakest Bond film up to the time of its original release. It did good box office, due in large part to the return of Connery. He would never return to the Eon series after this film, treating Diamonds as a one off comeback, but he would play the role of James Bond again in unofficial release Never say, never again.

But even with Connery, Diamonds are forever is a disappointment for anyone expecting a return to the glories of Goldfinger (as was the original intention). It paved the way for the light hearted Bond adventures of the ‘70s, and at least does something new with the series in that respect. Personally I really like Diamonds are forever, but I can still recognise it as the worst of Sean Connery’s Bond films (with the exception of Never say, never again). Still, it offers more ireverant amusement  than Dr. No or Thunderball, if you want your Bond played for laughs! It’s still an engaging Bond adventure, with a certain charm all of its own. I can understand why it was chosen to be the Christmas day movie on its British TV premiere in 1978; it is rather like a loud Christmas party; a lot of fun but with some bloody awful bits. It’s also a tacky action picture with lots of money behind it, but it doesn’t really pretend to be anything else. It wanted to be Goldfinger but ended up setting its sights considerably lower. Even the villain and Bond girl are not quite in the same league.

Right idea….wrong Pussy.

Connery in 'Diamonds are forever'- fatter, older and not taking it quite as seriously. But we still love him.

“We have all the time in the world”, The James Bond blogs- ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ (1969)

26 Feb

On Her Majesty’s secret service is the Bond film with almost everything to offer everybody. All that made the previous instalments successful is here and has been done arguably better than ever. History’s cruel joke, however, is that the one thing OHMSS does not have is Sean Connery.

For many years I’ve tried to imagine what On Her Majesty’s would be like with Sean’s Bond, but the odd thing is that it’s almost impossible. The reason for this, ironically, is the one reason many people don’t like the film. That reason is George Lazenby, who makes this film his own. Of course, depending on your view, this could be the problem. Lazenby was not an actor, he was a model. He looked good in a suit and could handle the fight scenes, but what about the rest? I personally think George handles himself perfectly well throughout the picture and has the makings of a fine Bond. He’s not great, but he has presence. There’s more to him here than just posing with Bond’s Walther PPK gun. While the pre-credits scene on the beach ends with the girl driving off without him, and his quip of “This never happened to the other fella” seems a bit corny, it’s the prefect way to introduce him. It has an irreverent dig at the change of actor, and gets the obvious out of the way. Once it’s been said, we can get on with the story and George’s version of Bond.

Lazenby- Only Bond to go down on one knee during the gunbarrel sequence, and of course the only time he'd appear in it.

Lazenby aside, On her Majesty’s is as epic as any Bond adventure. It has the women, the glamorous locations, the great villain and the thrilling action scenes. But this film has something else entirely. It has a love story, and it’s for that fact (more than just having a new Bond actor) that OHMSS is rather special.

Peter Hunt stepped forward to direct his one and only Bond film, setting out to create the ‘greatest Bond film ever’. He is obviously proud of the film, and I have to admit that he might have succeeded in his aim. The main idea behind the script was to go back to the roots of James Bond, an approach that would be adopted several times in the film series. After the more futuristic exploits in Thunderball and You only live twice, this probably seemed a natural diversion. What OHMSS does is take Fleming’s novel and give it a faithful and reverent film adaptation, while retaining the best elements of the Eon versions. Go and read the book and it’s a perfect companion to the screen action, as well as being one of Fleming’s best novels.

Forget Dalton or Craig, for some people, this man is the most controversial Bond.

OHMSS deliberately relies upon real life locations where possible, rather than studio sets, to get a sense of reality. This generally works, while retaining the ‘high life’ glamour style that identifies it as a Bond picture. While there’s no doubting the imagination and splendour of Ken Adams’ giant sets, they are not missed here. The setting for Blofeld’s Alpine base is stupendous anyway, and it’s still there today. It’s a mountain top restaurant called “Piz Gloria” (and is named after its title in the film). There are also a lot of flowers in OHMSS, not least at the end of the film, and it’s a nice visual touch. Generally, the direction is very good and the film does come across as more of a ‘labour of love’ than perhaps some Bond films. There are scenes worthy of a Hitchcock picture at some points, and Hunt keeps the suspense intact throughout. With regards to the action, there are some excellent fight scenes, which show Lazenby playing to his strengths. The action scene where Lazenby slides across the ice on his belly, while shooting his rifle, is inspired. It’s a definitive Bond moment. There’s also some astounding ski action, on the icy Alpine slopes. This set the precedent for later Bond adventures like The spy who loved me and The world is not enough. OHMSS did it first, however, and did it better. Ski expert William Bogner and his team are to be praised here, as the film wouldn’t have been the same without them.

Classy, witty, sexy and a red head to boot. There is a God!

Diana Rigg is exceptional as Tracy, the woman who Bond falls in love with and ultimately marries. She is the reason why OHMSS has a heart and is so different to most Bond films. You can totally understand why James Bond falls for a strong and sophisticated woman like her. Telly Savalas is another surprise. Like Rigg he was fairly well known, and his character isn’t new. Blofeld had been the principal villain in the previous film, and had featured in all but two of the films so far. Despite any comparisons, Savalas makes the role his own and offers a tougher Blofeld than previously. In this incarnation, Blofeld is more a man of action who will get the job done himself if necessary. The only time Telly looks a bit uncomfortable in the role is where he has to sit around stroking his white Persian cat. A bit less masculine an activity that he’s used to perhaps! Another newcomer to OHMSS is veteran German actress Ilse Steppatt who plays Blofeld’s henchwoman Irma Brunt, a woman who bears a slight resemblance to Rosa Kleb. She is in charge of Blofeld’s “Angels of death”, a group of ladies who will be used by Blofeld in his dastardly scheme: a germ warfare plot that could kill millions! Interestingly, considering he’s due to get married, Lazenby’s Bond gets to bed a couple of the angels before morning, while in the disguise of Baronet Sir Hilary Bray. Those scenes are hilarious, and show that George could handle the quips and the humour quite well. It’s also worth mentioning the regular cast, who are as reliably good as ever. Bernard Lee displays his usual droll charms as ‘M’, barely batting an eyelid at the change of lead actor, and Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny) and Desmond Llewelyn (‘Q’) also help ease the transition.

Let's be honest, Connery's Bond wouldn't have gone to the trouble...

The romance between Bond and Tracy is nicely handled; both of them seem reluctant lovers who take time to find their bond. Crime boss Draco is played with a likable charm by Gabrielle Ferzetti. Tracy is his daughter, and the original deal between him and 007 involves a trade of information regarding Blofeld, and an offer of marriage. If 007 does this, he gets paid. The fact that he ends up marrying her anyway, for nothing, communicates his genuine feelings. My favourite scenes in this film involve this couple. Never again would Bond seem as much like a real man with a real heart. He has a dangerous job to do, and does it as well as ever, but how can he let Tracy into this world? But she’s always there for him. Witness the scene where our James has been relentlessly pursued through a Swiss town and eventually sits down near an ice rink, exhausted and almost defeated as the net closes around him. Then Tracy appears on skates, and is ready and able to rescue him in her car and get him out of there. Rarely would 007 be given this kind of vulnerability on screen. There’s also another nice scene where she kisses him goodbye, early in their courtship. Of course, nothing brings a smile like Bond’s proposal in a log cabin. “I know I’ll never find another girl like you”, he says. Years later, I think he was probably right. And the montage of scenes, accompanied by Louis Armstrong’s heartfelt song “All the time in the world”, drive home the fact that this is no ordinary James Bond film. Incidentally, the song takes its title from the novel’s final chapter title, and Bond’s final words to Tracy.

Piz Gloria

The song doesn’t appear in the opening titles, as that is a showcase for John Barry’s OHMSS theme. And what a theme! His score for this film is possibly his best ever. Maurice Binder’s titles are quite inspiring, featuring a sand timer and images from past Bond adventures. They aren’t his best, but are still very memorable and certainly one of his most original. The homage to past Bond films crops up in this film several times; probably to ease Lazenby into the role and convince audiences he is the same man. We even get to see Bond’s office where he empties his drawers of memorabilia from the earlier films.

Peter Hunt’s original plan with OHMSS was to have the final scene as James and Tracy’s wedding car driving off into the distance as the crowds wave them off. It’s still in the film, and is a great scene, framed by flowers. It was a lavish and colourful Portuguese wedding and it looks so convincing that the locals joined in the ‘celebrations’! In what would have been the pre-titles sequence of Diamonds are forever the scene would have been reprised and continued. In the finished film, we see what would have ended up in the next film, and it’s a shock. Anyone who has read Fleming’s novel, or seen this before, knows what I mean. If not, I could spoil it for you here.

Blofeld actually has a Christmas tree, and gets to dress it himself. Seriously! I really wish I had a picture of that, but in the absence of it here's a cool one of Savalas and Lazenby.

 Tracy’s death is one of the most emotional scenes in any of the Bond films. The fact that Lazenby, who was not a trained actor, is perfect in this scene is just one reason why his detractors should think again. “We have all the time in the world”, says the stunned Bond, caressing Tracy’s body, as a police sergeant calls for help. Irma Bunt and Blofeld have killed her in a drive by revenge shooting.

Surprisingly little mention is made of Tracy’s death in later films, although two Roger Moore films mention her and her ghost seems to haunt the Bond of the more emotionally considered Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan films.

Small point- but where the hell was Felix? Why's he not the best man?! I thought he was Bond's best mate!

So, all things considered, I love this film. The best James Bond may not have been George Lazenby, but the best James Bond is in On Her majesty’s secret service. It’s not a difficult riddle to solve. This is a quality film and one of the best adventure pictures of the 1960s. Perhaps it comes over as an anomaly in the series, because of the style and the lead actor. Some people could argue it’s not quite like a Bond film at all. I’d say it could well be one of the greatest Bond films of them all.

If you’re not convinced, watch it again and consider it on its own merits. You’ll give it all the time in the world.

George Lazenby- A hell of a lot better than most people would have you believe.

RIP Nicholas Courtney, who played straight man in a most otherworldy double act.

24 Feb

In a world where whole nations are being rocked by earthquakes and other calamities, and great people go to their graves every day, it seems trite to sing the praises of one celebrity, but some people positively touch lives and their passing raises a smile at the idea that they did what they did.

I never met Nicholas Courtney, although I knew who he was from a young age, even though he was no longer a regular in the Tv programme I loved. For reasons aplenty, BBCTV’s science fiction series Doctor Who became my very favourite thing on television from the age of about five, even though it occasionally veered into quite child unfriendly territory (or most likely because it did). In 1977 it was just leaving its much lauded ‘gothic period’ under producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and its tales of Hammer-esque horrors in wood pannelled rooms and dark war rocked bunkers were not your usual kids viewing. But the imagination of these stories kept me riveted, and occasionally a little scared. The series changed its format and style a few times, until 1981 when the biggest change occured- lead actor Tom Baker decided to leave and in his final episode (Logopolis) a collection of old companion flashbacks showed us ‘The Brigadier’. Who was this military man and what was his relationship with the enigmatic Doctor? My questions were answered that autumn when a BBC2 repeat season (“the five faces of Doctor Who”) included The Three Doctors from 1972. Made to celebrate the series’ tenth anniversary, and the previous actors in the role, the serial was made at the zenith of the UNIT years- UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) was the fictional military outfit headed by Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, as played by Courtney, and was the key element of Jon Pertwee’s mainly Earth bound early ’70s incarnation of the role. With The Brig, the renegade alien Doctor fended off alien invasions and subterfuge, rather like The X-Files meets The A-Team, by way of Quatermass. Ten million were regularly watching every Saturday, and they weren’t all kids!

Courtney with Frazer Hines as Jamie and Patrick Troughton as The Doctor in "The Invasion" (1968)

As for the actual character Courtney played: Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart was the occasionally pompous, pragmatic, by the book, grounded military man who was often at complete odds with the anti-establishment maverick that was the alien ‘Doctor’. Where The Doctor tackled all his enemies without violence or a gun, The Brigadier was an army man who often saw violence as a means to an end. When faced with the subterranean reptile people, The Silurians, The Brigadier ordered their base to be bombed, and the moral clash this caused with The Doctor was often typical of their relationship. Yet, a grudging respect for each other developed, which eventually led to a warm yet often exasperating friendship (particularly for the practical, earthy Briagadier, who never understood The Doctor’s scientific waffle or the whys and wherefores of his travels and changing appearance).

In the UNIT laboratory, with Jon Pertwee's Doctor, Jo Grant (Katy Manning) and Sgt. Benton (John Levene)

As played by a lesser actor, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart would have been a pompous ass with no heart, but as played by Courtney he was a rounded ‘real’ character with as many positives as negatives. A huge military row would be followed by an offer of a lift in his jeep, or a mention of his wife, and his sympathetic human fiobles were often very welcome in these tales of the bizarre. In 1971 story The Daemons, after capturing renegade Timelord The Master, and liberating a whole village from pseudo-witchcraft, The Brig wearily announced he was going for a pint in the local. The magic of the character, as brought to life on screen, was that you would be quite happy to have joined him. Some of Courtney’s oneliners as the Brigadier are legendary, particularly as they were usually delivered in that droll, no nonsense, stiff upper lip manner that made him a true British ambassador. No matter how strange and surreal the events  around him became, The Brig always kept practical common sense at hand. His most famous utterance, in the aforementioned The Daemons, was when faced with an animated gargoyle. To his private, he bellowed, “Jenkins! Chap with the wings there; Five rounds rapid!”

"Robot" (1974-75)- the beginning of Tom Baker's reign and the beginning of Nic Courtney's departure from the show, until his '80s revival.

Director Douglas Camfield, a man behind many Who classics of the ’60s and ’70s, was a man with substantial military background, and couldn’t believe Courtney had only risen as far as private himself. Yet, Courtney had the bearing of a military man, and his scenes ordering around the ever reliable Sgt. Benton (John Levene) were never anything but convincing.

Born in Egypt, the son of a British diplomat, Courtney was educated in France, Kenya and Egypt, but his move to England was where his acting career took off. From theatre in Northampton, he moved to London to gain recognition, and any fan of ’60s TV will know his face from many episodes of The Avengers, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and The Champions. In 1982 he starred with Frankie Howard in the wartime comedy series Then Churchill said to me, unfortunatly shelved due to the Falklands crisis. Success continued elsewhere, however, in the likes of French Fields. He never stopped working, particularly in theatre, and as late as 2008 appeared in the film Incediary, opposite Ewan McGregor.

Opposite Peter Davison in “Mawdryn Undead” (1983)

But it is for Doctor Who, that most of us will remember him so fondly, appearing in over 100 episodes (more than many Doctors and companions). although his most ubiquitous period remains 1970-75, taking a break from the show for much of Tom Baker’s run before returning for welcome re-appearances in the ’80s and beyond.  In 2008  he returned to the role of Lethbridge-Stewart, appearing in spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, although in its mother series, David Tennant’s Doctor made a point to mention The Brigadier’s absence in a story featuring UNIT.

It shows how much he was held in high esteem by his profession and by his fans, that the internet was buzzing with news of his passing, with hundreds offering words of condolances to his family and friends. I shall now join them. On the 24th February ‘Nicholas Courtney’ was the fifth most mentioned subject on Twitter. He leaves behind his wife and children, who are sure to be proud of his popularity and creative achievements.

Next to the character of The Doctor himself, and his many enemies, no one was as affiliated with 47 years of Doctor Who as Nicholas Courtney and The Brigadier had been. He was the only character The Doctor took orders from, or even worked for, and the closest the character had to a brother. Infact, their bromance became the heart of the show during the early ’70s and his subsequent appearances with other Doctors always held the weight of expectation and adoration. The girls came and went, but The Brigadier was his best mate.

When asked about his friend, The Brig uttered the immortal line, “Splendid fellows. All of them”, a line Courtney often used in real life, when discussing the show he loved so much. Without it, he admits, his life would have been so much different. An embassador for the series ’til the very end, he was the president of the Doctor Who society and a regular convention guest. Sadly, however, Nic was to succum to the cancer he had fought for some time. In his tribute, Courtney’s friend Tom Baker, who had visited him in hospital just last Friday, spoke fondly of their association: 

“Of all the characters in Doctor Who there is no doubt that he was the most loved by the fans for his wonderful portrayal of the rather pompous Brigadier,” Baker said.
“‘Five rounds rapid’ was the line we all loved, always addressed to Sergeant Benton. Nick’s close friends simply adored him.”
He added: “He was a wonderful companion and his friends would call each other or email to relate the latest little stories of a night out with the Brig… We shall miss him terribly.” 

I suppose the sadness at Nick Courtney’s passing says a lot about many of us. Many of us fans never knew him, although I have one friend who testifies he was a lovely man; a true gentleman. Perhaps the curmudgeonly, stubborn charms of his most famous role say more about us than him. We grudgingly sympathise and like him, because he reminds us of who we are; reminds us of our own relationship with reality. When your best mate is a 900 year old alien with a time machine and two hearts, it’s best to keep two feet on the ground. He was the most human element of a show that has always emphasised our strengths and weaknesses. We probably love The Brig because he is an imperfect character trying to get along in a crazy world. We all have our own Daleks and Zygons to overcome; they might not be alien invaders, but our problems and how we overcome them define us, and a chap like The Brigadier is a fine fellow to have looked up to as a kid.

In his final appearance in the original series, demonic adversary The Destroyer taunts, “Are you the best this pitiful planet has to offer?!”

The Brigadier stands his ground and calls back, “Probably not. I just do the best I can!”

Nicholas Courtney was an accomplished actor who always did the best he could, and was humble in his success, and for that many more people than I expected are smiling at his memory today.


Almost a taboo- female body hair in the early 21st century.

22 Feb

Today’s blog was brought to you by a conversation I’ve had a few times with a colleague, which invariably gets raised when she mentions her love life. Now, I’m fully aware I could have talked to you about my plans to go to the Pimavera festival, or to start painting again, or my futile attempts to sell my sofa, but these current life obsessions are unengaging concerns compared to the subject of what women look like naked. Or to push the envelope a little further, and enter the mailbox marked ‘slightly taboo’, allow me to write about what women look like naked and what their body hair is like.

So, what’s brought this on? Ok, well, my friend and colleague is a lesbian. Now this, you may think, is incidental, but on the subject of female body hair it’s apparently a huge issue on the younger gay ‘scene’. Unless a young woman of gay persuasion is shaved within an inch of puberty, she isn’t seen as attractive. Or at least that’s the theory. Leg and arm pit hair is the work of Satan, and if you really want to become a social pariah you could do no worse than be seen in one of my friend’s favourite bars with hairy arms on show. However, all this is apparantly of small concern compared to what a girl looks like with her clothes off. Now, the idea behind this total hair removal, in the downstairs department in particular, is allegedly to aid oral sex, which I can understand to a point. But isn’t it throwing the baby out with the bath water? Pubic hair is a secondary sexual characteristic and traps pheromones (those intoxicating scents of desire), and ironically help to keep the lady’s private area clean, providing you help it out with the odd bath or shower. Now, maybe some lesbians (and I’m keen to say some) might see no use to it, feeling it aids heterosexual desire…I don’t know, I’m clutching at sexual straws there…and at a distinct disadvantage gender and desire wise. What I do know is that heterosexual women are also removing their body hair in increasing numbers.

By the 1920s female silent film stars never appeared without smooth armpits, but that's where the hair removal ended. Louise Brooks (pictured) remains a style icon to this day.

What is also clear is that in 1915 Gillette launched one of the most successful advertising campaigns the western world has ever seen. They convinced women to shave. Not to say that women had never done this, but in Edwardian Britain the chances of your wife or girlfriend having no underarm hair was practically nil. Did the men of the 1910s mind this state of affairs? Probably not at all- this was what mature sexually active women looked like. The reason Gillette and their pesky razors could pull off such a shearing coup was simple.

Hollywood happened.

The glamorous actresses of early Hollywood films shaved their armpits (as did many performing artistes). I can sort of see why, although it’s hard to articulate. It looks clean and unthreatening, and on stage, or on a stark silent silver screen, removes one more distraction from the facial expressions and costume, and perhaps further distinguished them from their male co-stars. Trends do come and go in this regard, however, and the short haired flappers of the ’20s contrast with the long haired hippies of the ’60s and ’70s, arguably the last time female armpit hair was seen as fashionable, or at least tolerable. Either way, it was to prove a huge influence that women are still feeling 100 years later.

Now, shaving your armpits is one thing, and most men have (for better or worse) grown up believing that’s not a pretty sight on a woman, but removing every hair on your body aside from the head is perhaps a step too far perhaps? Each to their own of course; every woman has the choice to do what she considers best, but to think that this is in danger of becoming the norm is rather strange. Even men are being encouraged to pursue this all over body removal. Some women, not surprisingly, are not amused, ironic as that may be.  But, at least as far as the ladies are concerned, one of the very sexual signals women develop at puberty is totally removed, and a fair majority of men are down right confused or turned off by this development.

Am I one of them? Well, yes, I suppose I am, although like most men, I have a limit. Also, for some reason more bohemian or artistic types seem to say ‘Fuck it’ to the razor, and I’ve known a fair few bohemian and creative types. I’ve had more than one girlfriend who insisted on growing out her armpit hair, and didn’t need my approval one way or another. Now this can be ferelly sexy, but perhaps not when I wimp out and try to acknowledge social conventions. Knowing we both had a friends’ wedding to attend and she was going to be wearing a sleeveless dress tried my alternative leanings; well, that sort of situation can make you realise how many people would baulk at the idea of visible female armpit hair. Then again, some folk just wouldn’t care less. But I found it perhaps hypocritical of me to expect her to shave them for that social setting. She did, as it happens, but I had no say in the matter.

A Yeti, last seen terrorising Tibetan monks in a 1968 "Doctor Who "episode. Not a fan of the razor. Might be a girl or a boy.

I think the pornographic industry has played a role in this sheared look as well, which is disturbing in itself. Are women being made to feel like hairless Dolphin people that exist to look like pre-pubescent girls and entertain the lowest common denominator of sexual lust? Am I being over reactive about that? Yeah, maybe.  After all, can’t mature women be attractive with no body hair? Sure, but why is it suddenly being seen as ‘normal’ by young impressionable women? That’s the worry.

My understanding is that some women enjoy being completely sheared, and feel cleaner. That’s fine as it goes, and I defend their right to look as they want, but in a world were body image is elevated as an important concern, and we also have obesity and other health concerns, isn’t reaching for the scissors, creams and razors maybe getting the priorities wrong?

Women have had pubic hair for millions of years. Some have occasionally shaved it off, most haven’t. Most women in either camp don’t want to resemble a Sasquatch either, although there are no doubt men who go for that look! There are a multitude of female forms, and well there should be. The generic Barbie robot image paraded by the media for the last few decades probably isn’t helping women’s body image either, it’s true. But when we reach a time when the sight of female pubic hair can cause certain people to declare it ugly or dirty or gross…well, that is a sign we have gone too far into ludicrousity and perhaps we now have a whole generation who are being brainwashed into a vision of female body image that ultimately can’t be lived up to, and perhaps really shouldn’t.

Hairy or shaved, fat or thin, black or white…whatever you are and whatever you wish to be is perhaps the only body image you need to feel a desire to be. Whilst this is a man talking, and any women readers are happy to ignore every word I’ve said, I do think it would make the western world a far more interesting place. Both hair or its absence is a mark of individuality after all.

And that certainly needs protecting.

“This organisation does not tolerate failure”, The James Bond blogs- “You only live twice” (1967)

20 Feb

I spent years under the impression that You Only Live Twice was the very best of the Bond films, because I had such vivid memories of its best scenes and hadn’t seen it in some time. Now, I can still say it’s very good, but it’s also the first film where the more fantastic elements are maybe a little too fantastic. In a Bond film you expect a bit of the outrageous, but there is a limit I think. In that respect, Goldfinger and Thunderball got it right, You Only Live Twice doesn’t. On the surface the ideas in Goldfinger don’t seem any the less absurd. But You Only Live Twice knows that we’ve been here before and wants to push things even further. Sometimes it pushes things a bit too far.

It’s still a great adventure yarn though, and takes full advantage of its Japanese setting. The location filming in Tokyo, for one, really captures the feel of the place. In some respects, You Only Live Twice is quite an exotic and unique Bond film due to its visuals, and it helps, as it doesn’t closely resemble the other episodes. There were, however, changes to be made. In the novel, Blofeld’s base is a castle, but the film goes even further into fantasy by having it in the heart of a defunct volcano. An awe inspiring set, by Ken Adam, which cost more to build than the entire of Dr. No cost to make.

Released in the summer of 1967, You Only Live Twice came some time after the previous adventure, Thunderball. Although that film had hit cinemas at the end of ’65, there was no new release in 1966. This film was the first Bond film not to have been released in consecutive years. But even at the time, 5 Bond films in 5 years was a remarkable achievement, especially considering the high quality.

Quote: “I give you very best duck…” Er…sorry, are we still talking about peking duck or something else??

You Only Live Twice is a big adventure and a lot of fun, but it does have a few bad points worth mentioning. If you can get your head around a plot involving spaceships swallowing up other spaceships and a rocket launch pad in an extinct volcano, you might be slightly let down by the effects work. There’s some appalling back projection in You Only Live Twice. I know this is a vintage Bond film, but come on! Easily avoided, surely!

The ‘unmasking’ of Blofeld is a bit of an anti-climax, and I can’t help but feel that it was far more effective to have his face out of view. It added to the mystery. As things are, Donald Pleasance is pretty good but he lacks the heartless chill of Anthony Dawson’s voice in the previous films. But I do like his scream of “Kill Bond! NOW!” A great outburst from a character that you suspect doesn’t lose his cool very often.

Blofeld- Still wouldn’t trust him with MY cat.

On the plus side, the pre-credits sequence (as mentioned) is intriguing with Bond being killed, or so we think. Maurice Binder’s title sequence is still one of his best, an Oriental themed collection of umbrella silhouettes and lava flows. It’s gorgeous. Nancy Sinatra’s theme song is also one of the very best, due in large part to its writers- John Barry and Leslie Bricusse. Barry’s all round score in this film is also up to quality, and is easily one of his best.

You Only Live Twice is a lavish adventure and as mentioned, the Japanese setting makes it a sumptuous watch. Also, with this film, producers Broccoli and Saltzman decided to take a bold step, and hire some new creative talent, instead of relying on the usual names. Lewis Gilbert was hired as the director, a Brit who had already crafted a big hit with Alfie (1966). Children’s writer Roald Dahl is responsible for the script. I have to admit the script isn’t the greatest and I suspect Dahl’s heart wasn’t in the job. It’s difficult to see his trademark dark humour and creative drive in this one, so perhaps it was heavily altered. Also on the negative side are some of the special effects. Although the model work is exceptionally good, things take a less pleasing turn when a full size space rocket replica has to appear in ‘real’ surroundings. Despite the best efforts of Ken Adam, those occasionally unconvincing special effects almost undermine his excellent production design. Still, Gilbert directs with a stylish flair and the whole package ends up looking very attractive, even if the story occasionally borders on the farcical.

Connery would never again look this convincing as Bond.

You Only Live Twice is a film of firsts, and was quite influential on the series. It was the first to use an original story, borrowing only a few elements from Fleming’s original novel such as the characters and location. It was the first to be directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would return ten years later to helm the very similar The Spy who Loved Me. It was the first Bond not to be scripted by Richard Maibaum as well, although he would return for the next film. You can tell they where aiming for something different with this film. In fact, Bond does not drive in this movie, visit a casino in a tuxedo, and nor does he utter his signature line, “Bond… James Bond.”

The futuristic steel encased bases of future Bonds, seen most recently in Spectre, have their blueprint in this one. Yes, I know Dr. No and Goldfinger had them, but this really runs with the scale of the idea. As far as style goes, You Only Live Twice feels like the end of a cycle started by Goldfinger in 1964, and encompassing Thunderball in 1965. They are all big Bond adventures with lashes of excitement and ‘60s style. The next film would still have the usual guns, girls and gadgets but would be significantly different in tone. For Sean Connery’s Bond and the swinging ‘60s, the party was almost over. But what a party to end with. Sean would eventually return as 007, of course, but not until 1971. A new Bond would have to be found after this adventure. Sean Connery is as watchable as ever in You Only Live Twice, but this isn’t his best film, but perhaps that was down to his perceived boredom with the role at this point. There is some good dialogue in this outing, but Twice does action scenes better. The samurai fight in the office is exceptionally powerful and the scene of Bond running across the rooftops, pursued by heavies, is a masterstroke of direction. The climatic battle in the volcano base is grand and well choreographed. The film is quite novel at this point, as it features a ninja battle, long before ninjas were fashionable action staples. There’s also Bond’s “Little Nellie”, a mini-helicopter supplied by the ever-reliable ‘Q’ (Desmond Llewelyn in a wonderfully harassed cameo).

Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama)- I think her picture speaks very well for itself. Mmm.

It’s not all action, of course, and some of the other performances deserve a mention. Tetsuro Tamba is quite good as Japanese intelligence boss Tiger Tanaka. Blofeld’s female agent Helga Brandt (Karin Or) is quite a challenge as well, although she does fall for James’ charms in the end. Alright, so she tries killing him afterwards, but she’s just doing her job after all. The main Bond girl is Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki, and she’s fairly forgettable. There’s nothing wrong with just being pretty, but I expect a bit more from a Bond girl. After all, 007 doesn’t just sit around looking handsome does he? My reaction to her is especially ironic as Aki is seen to be Bond’s secret service aid, and even drives him around her own car, but something doesn’t quite work for me there. Maybe the chemistry between Aki and Bond is a bit flat. The later appearance of Mie Hama as Kissy more than makes up for my disappointment in Aki. I feel Kissy has a bit more personality. On the dialogue side, I love the line “The things I do for England..” and “Japanese saying say ‘bird never make nest in empty tree’” when 007 defends his luxurious chest hair.

Monday nights were always quiet down at Blofeld’s nightclub.

Even when faced with its shortcomings, I will always admit that You Only Live Twice is one of the most beautiful of Bond films. Some parts of the film seem to glow (but maybe that’s the bad back projection with the exploding volcano!) Cinematographer Freddie Young won Oscars for his earlier efforts outside the Bond series, and his talent is obvious here. Other than that it’s business as usual, with nothing really inspired beneath the gloss. Also, the more you question the wafer thin storyline, the more disillusioned with it you might become. The best way to enjoy You Only Live Twice is to disengage your brain and let your eyes take control. If you do that, you won’t miss much and you’ll enjoy it more.

“I think he got the point”, The James Bond blogs- “Thunderball” (1965)

20 Feb

“Look Up! Look down! Look out!”, so scream the film posters to “Thunderball”, the fourth James Bond film, and the one that demands we keep our wits about us. Because it tries to give more of what the previous three films had. Whether more of everything is always a great idea, is a question that comes up from time to time with the Bond series. Such is the nature of the franchise. But I bet the question was first asked about “Thunderball”.

The James Bond films were huge by 1965, and I mean huge in a way that they possibly are not today. Bond is now a popular culture icon, and references to the series are commonplace. The latest films have all done great box office and the series looks set to run and run. But in the mid sixties the series was new and I think that makes a difference. Taking into account the rate of inflation and the actual amount of bums on seats, “Thunderball” is still the biggest Bond of them all. It was one of the biggest cinema hits of the ‘60s.

Because “Goldfinger” had been such a success, the series wanted a similar adventure in an epic vein with elements of total escapism. This would be a big picture. So big, that the plot would involve nothing less than SPECTRE holding the world to ransom by stealing a nuclear weapon. The term ‘Thunderball’ actually refers to the type of explosion that occurs within the mushroom cloud of an activated nuclear bomb. Big explosive ideas were what this entry was all about.

And so “Thunderball” actually made it to the screen, after almost making it as the first film adventure some years previously. Ian Fleming had actually been involved in writing “Thunderball” for the screen, although he sadly never got to see it happen.

SPECTRE team meetings. They give a whole new meaning to the words "You're fired".

I do think Fleming’s more obvious involvement can colour my perceptions a bit. And that’s not all. I’ve always found it difficult to be nasty about “Thunderball” as it’s part of the most revered era of the series history. It was Sean Connery back for a fourth film. Terence Young also back for a third film (after directing “Dr. No” and “From Russia with love”). Another John Barry score. The same elements in other words; but it doesn’t always work as well.

For starters, “Thunderball” drags.

Because these films have been around for so long now, I tend to get the gist of popular opinion. With “Thunderball” I totally agree with the criticism of the film as an occasionally tedious watch. The underwater photography goes on way too long, as good as it is. Tedious scenes are not something you want in a Bond picture, but there are plenty of them in “Thunderball”. Bond spends a significant amount of time underwater in this adventure, but it’s not always as thrilling as his land based exploits. All it needed was perhaps some extra time in the editing suite. On the other hand, a lot of “Thunderball” looks really good, and there are some scenes that are rightfully quite iconic. Blofeld’s address to his subordinates has since been nicely lampooned by the “Austin Powers” series. We only see his hands and his white Persian cat, so the SPECTRE boss is still a rather mysterious character, and that makes him all the more effective. The pre-credits sequence is thrilling; with Bond jet packing to safety and Maurice Binder’s graphics are the best to date. But despite great moments like that, “Thunderball” is perhaps the blandest of the early Bonds because there seems far too much on show to really create the kind of impression you need. Perhaps it’s in the presentation. After all, both Terence Young’s earlier efforts had been quite low key espionage tales that saved the big thrills until a bit later on. Maybe “Thunderball” needed a faster pace. As it stands, it’s a bloated showcase of gadgets and action pieces, and for the first time I get a inkling of where the series started to struggle with the audience expectations.

Fiona Volpe- you'll need to have had your Weetabix first, so think on...

But there’s still a lot of satisfaction and fun to be had with “Thunderball”. Claudia Auger is fine as Bond girl Domino, but she’s over shadowed by Luciana Paluzzi (Fiona). The first instance of the ‘bad Bond girl’, she is a joy to watch and her bedroom scene is one of the sexiest Bond moments ever. A passionate villianess, she’s usually one step ahead of Bond. The big shame here, then, is that the main villain isn’t one of the greats. SPECTRE agent Amilio Largo, played by Adolfo Celini, isn’t one of the more memorable villains, although neither is he that bad. But he fades in comparison to Dr. No or Goldfinger, coming across as more of a privileged thug than a truly great mastermind. The brief appearance of the real mastermind- Blofeld- possibly undermines Largo even more because Blofeld is far more interesting.

Largo- not quite as menacing without his eyepatch I bet...

There are some great bike and car chases (with the Aston Martin DB5 making its second appearance). The scenes on the health farm are quite intriguing, as Bond closes the net on the terrorist scheme. It’s interesting to compare a lot of scenes like that to the ones in “Never say, never again”- a remake of “Thunderball” from 1983. Whatever the differences, “Thunderball” does it all with more style and flair.

And there’s the reason above all others to like “Thunderball”. When it does things well, it does them exceptionally well. The seamless join from live action to the title sequence is sublime. Ken Adams’ underwater craft designs are inspired and John Barry’s score is full and glorious. Tom Jones takes care of the title song as well, with the kind of gusto that seems to suit this outing. Connery was rarely better, taking great delight in patronising the villains and there are some fantastic one-liners. The harpooned heavy who gets the punch line of “He got the point” is one fine example.

It’s just that it sometimes gives us too much for too long and, as with any expensive spread, I can start feeling as if I’ve had enough for one sitting. Clocking in at over 2 hours, “Thunderball” requires a big appetite.

Domino- not quite as exciting as Fiona Volpe, let's be honest.

As a piece of entertainment, “Thunderball” delivers but it’s nowhere near as explosive or exciting as its title suggests. In the company of “Goldfinger” it pales in comparison, but it’s still the product of a series at the height of its power. In the context of the entire series it’s a very good effort indeed.

And it’s got killer sharks in it. That must count for something.

“No, Mister Bond, I expect you to die!”, The James Bond blogs- “Goldfinger” (1964)

19 Feb

Goldfinger is a good example of how to top your previous success without repeating it. If Dr. No and From Russia with Love were an exciting enough package of thrills, then Goldfinger was something else entirely.

It’s a film that I think changed the action film genre forever, and has even had an impact on the visual worlds of science fiction films. Ken Adams’ set design (including the imaginary interior of the gold depository at Fort Knox) is the most obvious blueprint for the look of many later Lucas and Spielberg adventures. Future Bond films would do this kind of epic fantasy espionage bigger, but perhaps not better. With Goldfinger, Saltzman and Broccoli’s screen vision of Fleming’s world had reached near perfection. There were also the beginnings of a formula in place here, which would arguably become tired in later years. It was also the first entry to really showcase an array of exciting gadgets and special effects work. If From Russia with Love had an element of reality, Goldfinger was the first of the Bond science fiction epics.

Of course, having had such an influence since, you’d expect it to have been a big hit. And you’d be right. Thunderball was to top its box office takings a year later, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Goldfinger was a true blockbuster. And it deserved to be.

Goldfinger is a beautiful motion picture for starters. It just looks good from start to finish. We might scoff at the simplicity of Robert Brownjohn’s title graphics, but it’s simplicity that works. They also compare extremely favourably with the work of  Maurice Binder, who designed the majority of the Bond title sequences . The golden girls and teasing film projection are inspired. Everything here is so good that film makers have spent nearly 50 years replicating it to one degree or another, especially the EON series itself. The production design, the effects work, the graphics, and the music- they all work together to enhance the whole. It’s clean and effective, with lots of style and verve servicing a captivating tale.

And that’s Goldfinger all over- it has a great story to tell and gets on with telling it. All the things that would later seem to be added to a Bond plot almost out of necessity are here to serve the story. The gadgets are fantastic and the villain’s plot is preposterous, but it’s all part of the package- of telling a great story. Goldfinger’s diabolical plan doesn’t need any dressing up to adorn the big screen, as Fleming’s novel was a bonkers idea to start with. I’m thinking of the difference between Goldfinger and later outlandish epics like You Only Live Twice or Moonraker (both of which bear little resemblance to the novels of the same name).

So for the bonkers plot, EON were wise to chose Fleming’s seventh 007 novel as the third film. It contrasts with the more down to earth espionage of From Russia with Love and does something quite new. Goldfinger is laughably audacious throughout, but Richard Maibaum’s screenplay doesn’t pretend to be anything other than escapist entertainment. It wants us to have fun and be thrilled by the action and the visuals. Bond describes Auric Goldfinger as “mad”, and Gert Frobe plays him with a conceited arrogance that helps us forget how ludicrous his plan is. Because he is the way he is, we believe he’ll actually try what is almost impossible. This makes him one of the series best villains because there is nothing he won’t do to achieve his goal.

Even with 19 other official Bond pictures after it, the plot is still one of the more outlandish. Yet you can believe it’s a great plan if you’re a mad man with the power to do it. Contaminate Fort Knox with radioactivity via a nuclear device, and temporarily knock out everybody in the vicinity with sleeping gas- beat that as a loony plan! And after convincing us that all that can be done so smoothly, we actually end up believing that Sean Connery is in Fort Knox. I expect there are people all around the world who still think the inside of Fort Knox looks like the set in Goldfinger. It’s that convincing. A ‘cathedral of gold’, with bars stacked everywhere and an elevator to access the many levels. I bet the real thing isn’t half as exciting. The climatic race to defuse the bomb, and fend off Goldfinger’s Korean henchman Oddjob, makes full use of the vast vault Bond finds himself trapped in. Actually, this is a prime time to mention how good Harold Sakata is as Oddjob. Not one word of dialogue, but he oozes menace and a subtle brand of black humour. He doesn’t like Bond and wants to kick his arse. He almost gets the opportunity. Adding to the all round excitement is Honor Blackman, fresh from The Avengers TV series. Pussy Galore is one of the most memorable Bond girls, and it helps that she actually gives Bond a run for his money. She’s cool as a cucumber and less prone to drying up (at least when verbal sparring with 007). Her name alone sets a pre-requisite for suggestive character names.

Goldfinger is often called the quintessential Bond film, as all the elements the series is known for were now in place. But it’s also the quintessential ‘60s spy movie and its clones were many. It’s very much a product of the times, with the emphasis on the shock of the new. The whole film is confidant and full of novelty, and I love its stylish sense of fun. Goldfinger features such radical ideas as a laser weapon and the famous re-jigged Aston Martin DB5.The latter is introduced in the first ‘workshop’ scene with gadget creator “Q”. Desmond Llewellyn is wonderful, but I bet you knew that already.

On the down side there is the problem of having one of the reoccurring characters treaded shoddily. Bond’s best friend in the CID, Felix Leiter, returns. Jack Lord (in Dr. No) is replaced by Cec Linder and he doesn’t make much of an impression with me. And for an all time classic Bond film, Bond spends a large portion of the film as a prisoner and there’s very little of the edge of the seat spy activity that defined Russia.

But Sean Connery gets some fantastic lines. “Shocking. Absolutely shocking”, “…I must be dreaming”, “Do you expect me to talk?!” Most of his best lines are coupled with an even better line from the other characters, such as Gold finger’s famous reply of “No, Mister Bond. I expect you to die!” I bet audiences in 1964 didn’t expect that retort.

Guy Hamilton directed Goldfinger, and he was probably the best man to helm this one, although I find myself wondering what the less ireverant Terence Young might have added to the project. Hamilton wanted to have some fun and create an engaging fantasy. The pre-titles sequence starts as he means to go on with a ‘shocking’ fight scene and a dazzling explosion. By the last time Shirley Bassey has finished belting out one of the best theme songs ever, you know that they knew what they were doing with this film.

It was the end of Goldfinger. But after achieving the Midas touch with his one, it was time for EON to turn their hand to making Thunderball.

Talk like an Australian.

19 Feb

High Rising Terminal. Heard of it? No? Well, if you haven’t heard of the term, don’t worry yourself unduly; it’s not all that well known. What is probably more than likely is that you have actually heard it. God, if you’re especially unfortunate you might be one of those individuals who is actually deliberately using it. Confused? Allow me to explain!

‘High Rising Terminal’ is the official name given to a feature of some English speaking accents. According to a quick internet search it is also known as ‘upspeak’ ‘uptalk’, ‘rising inflection’ or ‘high rising intonation’. Upspeak is a vaguely disturbing term actually, and reminds me of something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four! It’s also been called ‘Australian pronounciation syndrome’ or something similar. This particular speech trend is a natural feature of some Australian and American accents it would seem.

So what’s it all about? I’m obviously building up to something here. Well, this speech feature appears to have filtered its way down (up?) through society to the point were people who had a completely different speech pattern at one time, now insist on ending every other sentence as if it’s a question. There is a distinct high tone of eccentuated syllable at the end of the sentence, as you would stress if making an inquiry. What annoys me the very most, is that most times these individuals are not asking a question, and end up sounding indistinct and unsure. Now, maybe it’s an aspect of accent designed to keep the other person involved in the conversation, as a prompt; I’m not sure. That could be a positive thing, but it often it just smacks of insecurity and cloudy communication, where a definite statement is required. Maybe it’s a depressing sign of the times.

While some accents have a natural leaning to this, it seems to have been adopted by English speakers from nations whose accent does not have this hallmark. What’s it all about? Has years of watching Neighbours finally contaminated the British public? I’m not sure about the Australian influence to be honest. There seems to be a suggestion in the way certain people talk, that this trend is a deliberate attempt to sound sophisticated and intelligent. You can’t fake those things though. What it does for most of us, is take the emphasis away from what the person is saying and the result is a very irritating speech pattern, completely jarring with what is being said. Unless you belong to a social group that all talk like this, presumably. More people under about 25 appear to be talking this way, which is a worry. I work with at least two people who do it, and I often forget the point of what they’re saying. So, is our future one of inappropriate pronounciation and emphasis? After one generation had to make a concerted effort (yes, effort, God help us) to sound like this, will future offspring be raised to speak like this ‘naturally’?!

No one seems to be sure where HRT originated, but it sounds as if it’s here to stay. As young as I may still be, if I was really young, I might have adopted this trend without much question. As it is, I belong to the hopefully majority group who don’t talk this way, because I’d have to had made a deliberate, focused change in my speech to do so. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me? (Haha, see what I did there?…) Jesus, it’s annoying.

Basically, unless you’re from Bristol or East Anglia (apparantly) you have no excuse to be talking this way if you were raised in the UK. I can only comment on my home country; I can’t bear to think what frustration this trend is causing elsewhere.

Frankly, if the revered Family Guy has taken the piss out of it, and a Brit national treasure like Stephen Fry is complaining about it, then no one should really be trying to talk like this at all. High Rising Terminal- it doesn’t make you sound intelligent and cosmopolitan, it just makes you sound confusing and confused, and damn irritating to boot. Unless you’re from Australia or California, possibly.

Or should that be, unless you’re from Australia or California????

“She had her kicks”….The James Bond blogs- “From Russia with love” (1963)

15 Feb


This is the one. This is where that certain magic something really occurred. It was in Dr. No too, but it was like unlit gunpowder. In From Russia with love, EON productions second Bond film, the fire was lit.

Before I tell you what I think of Russia, I have to grudgingly recognise that not everyone will agree with what should (to my mind) be obvious. I remember being mildly shocked when somebody once revealed From Russia with Love to be one of their least favourite Bonds. “Slow”, “boring” and “shite” were three of the imaginative adjectives used. They also called it “low budget”, which isn’t really true, and suggests that to some people a Bond film can’t be any good unless it’s got a space rocket or an fancy car in it.

On the contrary, I (like many others) consider Russia to be one of the series’ best entries. It certainly has one of my favourite Bond music scores, which was John Barry’s first for the series.

It’s Sean Connery’s favourite Bond film as well, didn’t you know?Personally, I like to think of From Russia with love as the Bond connoisseur’s Bond.

Russia has the first use of a pre-title sequence teaser. It’s by far the shortest, with Bond being hunted around the grounds of some large house. Bond is then apparently killed, only to be revealed as a guy in a rubber mask doing a training exercise. Assassin Red Grant (a deliciously ruthless Robert Shaw) is the killer. It’s all a bit corny, I’ll give you that, but its execution (no pun intended) was so damn stylish that you know the rest of the film is going to be good. Either that or you’re going to be really disappointed.

But disappointed I was not! The film is just class all the way and turns out to be a good film by anybody’s standards. Russia has often been compared to a Hitchcock thriller. I get the comparison, but I’ve always seen Russia having more in common with that particular type of fiction called “boys’ own adventures” (or “girls’ own” for that matter). Although the sex and violence give it a new twist. The attack on the gypsy camp and Bond being chased across Europe on the Orient Express seem archaic plot devices in comparison to what was to come in Goldfinger, but they work so well here. There’s a real sense of espionage and intrigue in this one too, perhaps more than any other film in the series. I think Ian Fleming would have been proud.

“I think my mouth is too big…”

Terence Young directs, as had been the case with Dr. No and everything seems to gel together. Young was instrumental in refining the earthy Connery into the suave character of Bond. In many ways, Terence Young was James Bond, except he was the man behind the camera rather than in front of it. Something did pay off there though- Connery is arguably at his best. Charming but very dangerous. His fight with Grant in the train carriage is brilliantly done, with some real nasty dialogue between the two men. Even over 40 years later that fight scene remains one of the most intense and nasty outbursts to hit the screen.

It’s also worth mentioning how radical the story was.

The idea of the Brits and the Russians facing a common enemy was very novel for 1963. The enemy, in the form of terrorist organisation SPECTRE, would be a re-occurring theme throughout the 1960s Bonds. There is also the first appearance (or non-appearance) from the organisation’s charismatic leader- Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The real villain spotlight, however, is shining on Rosa Klebb for this episode (the very talented stage actress Lotte Lenya). A very nasty piece of work, she was a killer lesbian with dagger shoes. Her exit is brief but memorable and gives Connery one of his best quips.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld- I wouldn't trust him with my own cat, if you know what I mean...

Elsewhere Pedro Amederez is wonderfully engaging as Bond’s amiable Turkish contact and gang boss Kerim Bey and Eunice Gayson reprises her role as Sylvia Trench (the first woman to share a scene with Bond in Dr. No). There’s no sign of Bond’s CIA pal Felix Leiter this time though. 

It’s also interesting to see how well the regulars do in this one. The perfectly cast Bernard Lee as Brit intelligence boss “M” and Lois Maxwell as secretary Miss Moneypenny have some really nice scenes in this one. I love the bit where Bond’s tape is being played back and Bond almost reveals a minor discretion on M’s part, much to Moneypenny’s amusement. Quite cheeky.

Russia was definately my favourite Bond when I was growing up. It had a forbidden kind of glamour about it. And Bond films were the only adult films I was allowed to watch at such an early age. It’s no wonder that Bond films shaped my ideas about style and sex, perhaps subliminally. Even though the early Bond films don’t show you much, the point is made. Passion and sex are there almost from the start. I mentioned John Barry’s music earlier, and his lush compositions were part of that intoxicating mix of dangerous passions. He defined the Bond films as much as anybody, and his sounds are the gorgeous punctuation to Bond’s on screen actions.

So, to my nine-year-old eyes, it was fascinating and had lasting impact. There where these people in exciting situations, exciting each others senses in ways I would never see elsewhere at that age. The sparks are certainly there between Connery and Daniela Bianchi who plays Tatiana Ramanova. A far more interesting character than Honey Ryder was, and the romance with Bond seemed quite natural. It’s quite a sexy film when all is said and done. Also, on a more basic level, it was stylish escapism. I also noticed how it had some strong females in there too. It might be a bit naive now to suggest that the gypsy girl fight was anything other than titillation, but it was refreshing to see the ladies having a go for a change.

So, a great Bond film then. With no outlandish plot, no futuristic set designs and clocking in at less than 2 hours (as Dr. No had). Yet it works brilliantly despite a few slow parts in an otherwise well paced narrative. A Bond film you can believe in, a real involving tale of cold war espionage. It drives home how little the later films made of Bond’s secret agent role. In Russia he is a true spy, with passwords and secret liaisons the order of the day. EON wouldn’t really make a Bond film like this again, although they came close on odd occasions. After Russia, the series embraced the futuristic optimism of the ‘60s and gave us spectacle.

Another big hit at the time, Russia ensured the series’ continuation. The time was ready for a Bond film that would be more than just a good adventure film. It would be a spectacular.

Goldfinger was to be the third James Bond film.

“That’s a Smith and Wesson, and you’ve had your six”…The James Bond blogs- “Dr. No” (1962)

15 Feb

Having spared you my thoughts on Valentine’s Day (yesterday, as I type), which astoundingly is my first Valentine’s as a single man since 2006, I thought it an idea to enter the world of escapism. Thinking that this time of year calls for some masculine celebration of the single life, what better than to sacrifice my busy time watching the longest running action adventure franchise in cinema history? Yes, I bet Mr. James Bond never gave a thought to anything other than the single life, whilst in the employment of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

So, let’s talk about James Bond then. Or more specifically, let’s start with Dr. No.

If you find this man waiting for you in your bedroom, you’ll be spending the rest of your night in hospital (if you’re lucky).

It didn’t actually start here of course. It started with Ian Fleming and his 1953 novel Casino Royale (which was also a TV production along the way). But for most of us the Bond saga begins with the 1962 screen debut Dr. No, and it feels a more appropriate place to start as Bond is perhaps now more of a screen hero than a purely literary one. If we think of Bond we think of the films, probably before we think of the original novels, such is the impact they’ve made. So a big “thanks” to producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman for launching a film series like no other before it. A series with impact.

The irony here is I’m not aware of Dr. No having very much impact on me at all when I was growing up. I don’t have a clear memory of when I first saw it, but I remember From Russia With Love and The Spy Who Loved Me quite vividly. There were other lesser Bond memories too, but Dr. No was never in there. Whether this has affected my view of the film over the years, I’m not sure. Because (and I admit this might seem blasphemous in the context of this blog) I didn’t think the first Bond film was really up to much.

You get used to seeing some series in a certain way, and when you have a chance to go back to its genesis some elements can irritate you when you’re young and critical. Why does the opening gun barrel sequence have an odd sound effect over it? Why is there no theme song? Where’s the pre-credits sequence? Never mind that that Maurice Binder’s famous gun barrel and blood sequence was a masterpiece of graphic design! Negative criticism comes first!

Grown men will watch this film on its 265th re-run just to watch this scene again. It’s a fact. They’ve done research and everything…

The fact is that some elements had yet to come. Dr. No adheres very closely to its source novel and the more outlandish parts of the series have yet to be introduced. But the style is there, albeit in it’s infancy. Ken Adams’ production design earned him a job on Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Terence Young’s direction compliment’s Adams’ work so well. Witness the scene where Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) collects the caged tarantula. The room is quasi- futuristic and the camera angle create a cavernous and imposing visual. Those are the touches that make a Bond film visually different, and they were in place here from the beginning, but far more under stated. Consider how much that set cost in comparison to later efforts, yet the direction makes it look far more lavish and impressive than it probably was if you were standing in it.

Still, Dr. No isn’t always as radical as all that. There are times when it comes across as a competent but unexceptional British thriller, no different than many similar films of the period. But that would be a lazy judgement, because as I carry on watching I can see that Dr. No is amazingly edited, in a fast and bold way very few films were back then, and its also full of Carribbean colour and stand out design. There is also the dangerous and suave presence of Sean Connery as Bond; a shark in a dinner suit. Without his central performance all the rest wouldn’t count for as much.

The big differences are the style (as mentioned) and the violent action scenes (as tame as they seem now). This is a film trying for something new. It surprises you just when you think it’s going to carry on doing things a certain way. Also, while the film is very loyal to Fleming’s book, there are scenes that were omitted or altered to suit the more sedate 1962 audience. In the novel the villainous Dr. No has a nice side business in guano trade, and is killed after Bond dumps tonnes of guano on him. Yes, you read that right…. Dr. No meets his maker by having gargantuan amounts of bird shit poured on top of him. Classic. No one could accuse Fleming of having no imagination.

And no, I couldn’t imagine that in the film either.

Perhaps due to the lack of Fleming’s bird shit destruction, I still find parts of Dr. No particularly boring due to the comparitively slower pace. True, it’s a film with many merits, but it still stands as one of my less favourite Connery outings. Yet I’ll let it escape the venom I normally reserve for Never Say Never Again because it was the first. It is far better than it should be, and it’s the original template for what followed. The plot isn’t too complex, but must have had a bit more zest than the usual early ’60s espionage film due to its space rocket hijacks and suggestions of rampant shagging. Plus Sean Connery is superb, and couldn’t look more at home in the role if he tried. He got better as well, damn him. He really did. It also has arguably the best Bond girl in Ursula Andress’ Honey Ryder. Ursula seems such a nice woman in the interviews I’ve seen, that I feel really pleased that she did Dr. No. There’s also the original confrontation with the villain in his liar, and those are my favourite scenes. Joseph Wiseman seems to relish his role as Dr. Julias No. In him, another Bond template is made. I’d even say he was as good as Gert Frobe in Goldfinger, but more about him later.

“You’re nothing but a stupid policeman”, taunts No, and perhaps I was siding with him for many years, when I thought about this film. But I’m more prone to giving Dr. No its dues these days. For it is a good film. I admit it! It’s just that nowadays, it has to live in the shadow of much more polished and lavish companions. But I’ll let it off. After all, its success is one of the big reasons I’m here talking about James Bond.