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Before we go on read this from The Incredible Suit. I reference his Live and Let Die piece a couple of times.
Yet again, for the second consecutive BlogalongaBond assignment, I am technically a month behind. The reasons for my unacceptable tardiness are threefold. Firstly the less than dynamic duo of procrastination and laziness, have repeatedly thwarted my plans. Secondly I have been at least a little bit busy. And finally, as other bloggers have noted, BlogalongaBond is becoming something of a chore, largely due to the depressing arrival of a certain Mr Moore.
For a particular breed of Bond fan, Roger Moore represents all that is disappointing about the character’s cinematic outings. How long has it been since a 007 adventure that lived up to its full potential? How many years and projects have been letdowns because of the identity crisis which Moore’s commercially successful casting only deepened? With Live and Let Die the franchise embraces the formula of silliness established in Diamonds are Forever, so that it begins to feel like a franchise as we know them today, with the perfect salesman to pitch the same old idea to audiences for over a decade.
As the films become more formulaic, so does my writing…
Our great and glorious leader, The Incredible Suit, has already covered Roger’s failures very well and also explained why Lazenby’s legacy meant it wasn’t entirely his fault that James Bond would move further and further away from Fleming’s original creation. He also qualifies his criticisms by saying he likes Roger Moore.
I too like the man and the actor. He was the Bond I grew up with, the Bond endorsed by my parent’s generation. He handles a one liner with the care, professionalism and skill of a grand English butler. His undeniable wit somehow makes lines from Tom Mankiewicz’s script work, such as “Don’t worry darling, it’s just a small hat, belonging to a man of limited means, who lost a fight with a chicken”. But re-watching Live and Let Die this time it was his insufferable Englishness that was also the worst thing about the new Bond. The first Englishman to play him overcompensates by adding “darling” to everything and merely raising an eyebrow in the face of thuggish danger. He is far too fluffy for Bond, even if he can do the humour and the love scenes excellently.
Speaking of love scenes, let’s talk about the girls. Well there’s only really one worth talking about, despite Rosie Carver’s bumbling prominence at points. Jane Seymour’s Solitaire is in many ways one of the most intriguing romantic interests of the series. But in others she is mere eye candy. Seymour’s performance is occasionally so moronic it seems transplanted from a modern
video game and is nevertheless secondary to her stunning looks, which defy
description. She simultaneously convinces as a sexy, all knowing master of the
cards and a recently deflowered, vulnerable virgin but not because of any conscious acting on her part.
Then there’s her character, Solitaire. The interesting thing about her is that her powers for predicting the future through occult, voodoo card reading nonsense are never properly or logically discredited. The script leaves the issue hanging,
thrusting the film further into the blaxploitation genre so popular at the time. Or rather it doesn’t. An explanation is provided. Bond does shatter her gift but not by exposing scientific trickery or her own deception. He simply steals her innocence. And thus Solitaire becomes a fascinating case study and symbol for all the women Bond “encounters” (I mean penetrates). On the one hand he freed her from imprisonment, awakening her adult self to the pleasures of life. On the other, who knows what damage might’ve been done?
Apart from Moore’s nonstop “darlings” the most frustrating thing about Live and Let Die is the terrible waste of an adversary that should have been formidable and refreshing. Initially Mr Big/Kananga and his henchmen are a welcome, realistic change from a succession of Blofelds, ending with Charles Gray’s posh version with a fondness for drag. But again The Incredible Suit insightfully and amusingly points out the fatal flaw of the bad guys here, which is, mainly, their inability to fatally wound our hero. Granted Bond makes it through all his missions looking unfeasibly suave but here the plot is driven by botched assassinations, to such a damaging extent that suspension of disbelief is catastrophically challenged, even for a Bond film, and plenty of fuel is provided for scathing parodies such as Austin Powers in the future.
Of course the other key thing about the villains in Live and Let Die is that they are all black. There’s no doubt that there are elements of the film that would be racist by today’s standards, perhaps including its representation of black murderers and criminals as rather inept and useless. The whole production jumps fully onto the blaxploitation bandwagon to give Bond a new flavour to go with his new face. Despite the fact that I’m bemoaning the film’s lack of grit and menace if it had pushed things further it may have looked far more dated today and been more than borderline racist. So I guess what I’m saying is, every cloud…
Live and Let Die boasts Paul McCartney’s title track, which probably remains the best of the whole series. Its score, even minus John Barry’s brilliance, is also outstanding in places with its echoes of the theme song and distinctive influences from black culture.
Does anyone else now find the boat chase sequence overlong and incredibly dull?
Perhaps the real reason I was reluctant to jump into the BlogalongaBonding saddle again was because however disappointing Moore’s films are, his Bond is not all bad. It isn’t Fleming’s Bond but thankfully it is not a rehash of Connery’s either. Fans that share my view of the series will want to preface every review of a Moore film with a rant about him. Yes they still enjoy parts of his films, yes he is fun but he doesn’t do the character justice and his light hearted years wasted too much time. But for BlogalongaBond we have to get that out of our system here and try to think of something new to say about why the rest of his films baffle, confuse, irritate or, indeed, delight.
I only discovered BlogalongaBond recently. But blimey what an excellent idea. Talking about 007 once a month for two years, and each film in turn; blogging bliss for Bondian fanatics like me.
Then I realised I had just missed the boat for writing about Goldfinger. My first contribution to BlogalongaBond would have to come hot on the heels of a month’s glowing discussion of the world’s most famous franchise’s most iconic entry. How was I going to compete with that? I couldn’t rant and rave about every single classic scene moulded into cliché by endless reference and repetition. As many bloggers said when reviewing Goldfinger, it was THE Bond film and in the eyes of many every one since has aspired to its formula and fallen short of its magical mix.
After watching Thunderball though, I remembered why it’s always been more than the shit part of the National Lottery to me. I loved Thunderball growing up as a boy, and I love it now. For me it is better than Goldfinger. Aside from From Russia With Love, Thunderball is the film that best captures the origins of the character; Ian Fleming’s James Bond transplanted onto the screen.
Thunderball the novel was a return to form for Fleming, who had taken a break after Goldfinger to produce a collection of short stories, For Your Eyes Only. The book introduces the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the first time and provides Bond with an excellent enemy for two other brilliant novels, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice. Of course the films made Blofeld Bond’s ultimate nemesis from the outset, whereas prior to Thunderball, in the literary world of Bond his primary foes had been unorthodox Russian organisation SMERSH. Lampooned in the 60s by Bond spoof Casino Royale, SMERSH sounds unavoidably silly compared to the sinister SPECTRE headed by mysterious Blofeld.
Interestingly the physique of Blofeld in the novels is quite different to that presented in the films. The most memorable portrayal of Blofeld is perhaps Donald Pleasance’s scarred little bald man in You Only Live Twice. In Roger Moore’s time the character is reduced to being dropped down a chimney in a pre titles sequence. Thunderball showcases Blofeld at his best; unknown, all powerful and faceless.
Thunderball also shows off Bond at his best. In a PTS far superior to the aforementioned Roger Moore effort in For Your Eyes Only, we learn everything we need to know about 007. In my view Thunderball’s PTS is also better than Goldfinger’s despite the prevailing view being that Goldfinger’s is the most flawless of the series. As several bloggers pointed out, Bond’s ridiculous duck disguise in Goldfinger spoils the other elements somewhat and to me Thunderball’s PTS is a stronger standalone mini-story, which also ties back to the main adventure.
Steven Spielberg once said that to him, James Bond was a detective, a suave Sherlock Holmes with a gun. For the directing legend Bond was at his best when distilled to this level and he tried to replicate elements of this when creating his Bond equivalent, Indiana Jones. I certainly think that description is a simplification of Bond’s character. But the mighty Spielberg has a point. There’s plenty of sleuthing and relying on Bond’s instincts in Connery’s early films, and particularly Thunderball. It’s something the modern films lost sight of and need to get back to.
Bond is certainly knowing and observational when he unmasks the widow in Thunderball’s PTS as an enemy agent. Connery’s charm, charisma and comedy are turned up to the max and the whole sequence looks stylish. Bond quips and flirts with his female assistant. Then in a brutal, ahead of its time fight scene that the likes of Jason Bourne and the modern 007 are returning to today, Connery kicks his opponent’s ass, savagely strangling him to death with a poker.
The PTS then ends with an outrageous escape via jet pack and gadgets galore on the sleek Aston Martin. These tongue in cheek gizmos aside, the gadgets in Thunderball are at the pitch perfect level. There’s a wonderful scene with Q in which sensible but clever gadgets are introduced that will return to prove vital in the plot. Connery’s sparky dialogue with Desmond Llewelyn is the best in the entire series.
So after the PTS we know who we’re dealing with; James Bond 007, licence to kill, with girls, guns, gadgets and grisly action galore. It’s then that the film introduces the masterly plot that remains durable, relevant, captivating and even slightly plausible today. Goldfinger took Fleming’s immense imagination and made his ideas work better on film than they did in the novel. In Thunderball Fleming’s fantastical schemes once again marvel and delight, and shock and scare, this time sticking closer still to the original story. It’s a testament to the story’s selling power that a major legal tussle over the rights to a remake led to the 1983 unofficial entry starring an aged Connery, Never Say Never Again.
The legacy of the nuclear arms race remains an issue today and the power of rogue atomic weapons to frighten certainly endures. The enormous importance and scale of events adds terrific drama to the story. It’s a drama any Bond film needs and thrives off of; the global significance bearing down on 007’s shoulders as he conquers personal hurdles to unravel it all. Coming up with the perfectly judged plot remains the biggest challenge for those behind new Bond films today because they can’t compete with Fleming.
Thunderball is the first of the films to deal with Fleming’s fascination of the sea and the underwater world. Today it is increasingly difficult to find exotic locations for Bond when holidays can whisk you practically anywhere in a flash. But the colourful realm beneath the waves, glowing in a turquoise tint, remains another mostly inaccessible world. There’s something alien and yet attractive about the monstrous creatures living amongst the sand and sun rays. There’s something dark about anyone who can master this environment and exploit it for his own gain. Something secretive about the tropical depths.
Emilio Largo had a tough act to follow. Auric Goldfinger is the master villain to beat with his distinctive characteristics and fondness for a verbal duel prior to some ghastly fate waiting for our hero. Largo also struggles to impose himself when the magnificent early scene, with one of THE Ken Adam set designs, showing the SPECTRE meeting makes it clear that he is merely a puppet and drone himself. The true power lies elsewhere. This definitely makes him a different kind of villain. He doesn’t compete with Goldfinger but he doesn’t lack menace or do a bad job either.
What about the girls then? For me in Domino and Fiona Volpe we have two of the best Bond girls ever. Pussy Galore, as played by Honour Blackman, is iconic for sure but mainly because of Fleming’s outrageous name. Domino comes across as one of the most beautiful girls that even Bond himself has ever seen in the novel, and Claudine Auger doesn’t do a bad job at all of visually representing this on screen. As for Volpe, she is incredibly sexy and seductive. Her bright red hair set her out as dangerous, but also as red hot. The scene where she is waiting for Bond in the bath and he offers her merely shoes to put on, and the dancing scene at the Kiss Kiss club where she dies, are two of the most memorable in cinematic history for me personally, never mind the Bond series.
During Bond’s scenes with Volpe there are some cracking Bondian quotes from the script and Connery also delivers some of his best lines in the role sparring with Largo: “Do you know a lot about guns?”, “No but a little about women”, for example.
Another reason for Bond’s scenes with Volpe being so memorable for me, particularly the ones at the Mardi Gras, is the film’s score. I think Thunderball is the first time Barry uses the “00 theme” and his variations on the Bond theme itself to provide tense music are catchy and complimentary to the action throughout. Even when the film has aged less well, for example the scene in the health club on the rack and the unintentionally comedic speeded up careering of the boat at the end, the music remains superb. Tom Jones’ title song is no Goldfinger, but it’s undoubtedly addictive and Bondian. And besides I hear poor old Shirley so much that her voice starts to grate.
In the end it’s for those moments in which we see what purists call the “real Bond” that I remember Thunderball. When Connery calmly kills the Professor in Dr.No after he’s had his six shots I knew that was a truly Bondian moment. It marks out the detached killer in Bond’s character so well. He is so used to living his work that he carries it off with a ruthless efficiency that looks effortless and irresistibly cool. There’s another moment like this in Thunderball. When Largo’s chief henchman Vargas is sneaking up on Domino and Bond on the beach, Domino spots him. Bond turns, almost nonchalantly rolling over, to fire a harpoon through his chest. This is the assassin in Bond. The moment’s slightly spoilt by Connery’s quip, “I think he got the point”, but even this dark humour becomes part of the character that fans can love.
Watch Thunderball and you’ve hit the 007 jackpot; never mind the riches of Goldfinger.
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