Film Clips

These satisfactions are permanent

1977, UK/USA, Lewis Gilbert

The Spy Who Loved Me is by far the most popular of the Roger Moore Bond movies in terms of fan adoration and critical response. Let me assure you then that it is not without qualms that I confess to finding it somewhat disappointing on repeat viewings. Since Ian Fleming gave strict instructions that his very uncharacteristic novel could not be adapted for the screen, an original plot had to be worked out. The word “original” is probably not quite appropriate in this case, since there are more than a few resemblances to earlier Bond movies - especially You Only Live Twice, also directed by Lewis Gilbert. It’s also the film in which the wry comedy of the previous films begins to turn into outright clowning. In fact, that’s the problem; it’s neither one thing nor the other. If you want a straight Bond film then this seems to be too silly, but if you want outright slapstick fantasy action, then Moonraker is considerably more inventive. While I appreciate that this is very much a minority view, I feel that Spy falls between two stools.

The tenth Eon Bond film, Spy was released in Jubilee year, 1977. So while the Sex Pistols were assuring us that there was no future in England’s dreaming, Bond movies were comfortably on the way to slumberland. In this film, Britain’s pre-eminent position in the world is taken for granted, America is barely mentioned for half the running time, and only Anglo-Soviet co-operation can save the world from total annihilation. Even when the USA makes an appearance, CIA agents are conspicuous by their absence - presumably too busy buggering about in Central America to be concerned with the threat of nuclear armageddon. The excuse for the action set-pieces in this one is the theft of a nuclear submarine tracking system by Karl Stromberg, a sea-loving nutter who wants to destroy corrupt civilisation and start a new world underwater. In order to do this, he’s been stealing Superpower nuclear submarines and stockpiling the missiles. Stromberg is played very colourlessly by Curt Jurgens - webbed fingers being the only concession to flamboyance - so his henchman is, as so often, more interesting. Of course, it’s Jaws (Kiel), not only massive but with teeth made out of steel. He’s also got a natty blue flared suit. Jaws gets everywhere - the pyramids, a vulgar Cairo nightclub, under the sea and he even, somewhat unconvincingly, fits into the wardrobe of a train sleeping compartment.

As you would expect, The Spy Who Loved Me is very glossy and entertaining. Roger Moore is at his most stylish and amusing, having finally settled into the Bond role, and his delivery is good enough to persuade us that the jokes in the script - mostly contributed by Christopher Wood, creator of the Confessions films - might actually be witty. In the disposable role of the requisite Bond girl, Major Anya Amasova of the KGB, Barbara Bach is adequate. It’s supposed to be a triumph of feminism to have a woman as Bond’s KGB colleague, but since she still ends up in a revealing costume screaming, it’s not exactly “The Female Eunuch”. There’s some tedious soul-searching about Bond having killed Anya’s boyfriend in the spectacular pre-credits scene for which Anya wants revenge, but this is as far as character development goes. In the secondary role of one of Stromberg’s henchwomen, Caroline Munroe is, surprisingly, a knockout, with a wonderfully kinky villainy that is over all too soon. Otherwise, the cast perform dutifully, with Bernard Lee and Desmond Llewellyn providing the usual strong base for the film to rest on and welcome appearances from the likes of George Baker, Sidney Tafler and Edmund De Souza.

Lewis Gilbert’s direction is, as ever, competent and uninspired - rarely has a mediocre director been better served by good collaborators such as DP Claude Renoir and composer John Barry - but he loses the plot a little in the final third once the action moves inside Stromberg’s massive tanker, the Liparus. It’s an incredibly impressive set, which involved the building of the massive OO7 stage at Pinewood, at the time the largest interior set ever built. As usual, Ken Adam’s design work is stunning throughout, but the scenes within the set are much too repetitive and people of my generation are likely to be distracted by memories of Chris Kelly’s Clapperboard which seemed to be reporting from the 007 stage every other episode. However, the excellence of the designs is impressive in itself, and the model work by Derek Meddings throughout the film is quite extraordinary. Some of the other set-pieces in the film are considerably more impressive than the big finish, notably the classic scene where the Lotus Esprit turns into a gadget-ridden submersible and a rather wonderful fight in a Cairo building site.

Let’s be fair about this. The Spy Who Loved Me is considerably better than drivel like A View To A Kill but it doesn’t quite work. The violence is surprisingly brutal in places which doesn’t sit well with the slapstick knockabout, and there is at least one climax too many. The similarities to You Only Live Twice are grating as well - there is one moment which is identical to a scene in the earlier film, right down to the camera angle. Although many fans love this film, I don’t think it’s the classic that its reputation suggests.

1981, USA, John Irvin

Adapting a popular book is not a rewarding task. Fans of the book will be lining up to bash the film because it missed out their favourite bits, re-arranged events or just didn’t capture the mood of the text. On the other hand, if a film is too faithful to the book, it may not have any individual life at all - see most of the Merchant-Ivory films for ample evidence of this, particularly their adaptations of Henry James which capture every single letter and absolutely none of the spirit. Sometimes, the film just misses by miles - the best example of this being the adaptation of The Magus which totally missed the point - which is that the point of that epic dissertation on magic and mysticism actually comes down to two people talking on a park bench. As a general rule, the best way to go may be to read the book, take some characters and the bare bones of the plot  and then forget about the book and make a proper film, rather like Kubrick did with The Shining.

Peter Straub’s Ghost Story may not be a great book, but it is a very entertaining horror novel, with much more attention to character and setting than your average popular fiction. It mixes up the nineteenth century ghost story tradition with late twentieth century horror and manages to work in its own right. Straub doesn’t always make the big set-piece scenes as effective as they should be, but his dialogue is crisp and funny, and he is very good at sinister asides. The bleakness of the winter is well evoked too.

The film of Ghost Story should have been good. It doesn’t follow the book very closely, keeping the central theme and losing the incidentals, but it has a good cast, an experienced writer and a promising director. John Irvin made the brilliant BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - like Ghost Story, a piece about ageing men delving into the dark secrets of the past. Yet, something goes wrong with the film and it never recovers.

The story concerns four old men who have met every month for fifty years to tell each other ghost stories. This ritual seems to be protecting some terrible secret of what they did as young men, and by deliberately spooking themselves, they manage to keep the terror of the past in its place. The men are played by four of Hollywood’s finest; Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Of this quartet, Melvyn Douglas comes off best - still working regularly at the time, he had done superb bits in Being There and The Changeling. Astaire tries hard, but seems unnaturally subdued, and let’s face it, he reached his last career peak in 1957 with Silk Stockings. Houseman booms his lines in the way he always did, but never gets near the pompous but sentimental character that Sears James is in the book. Fairbanks has hardly anything to do, which is fortunate since he appears very ill in his short scenes. Still, all four men are professionals, and they manage to keep the interest even when the film is falling apart towards the end.

One of the old men, Edward Wanderley (Fairbanks), has received news that one of his sons has died, falling out of a window in what has been described as an accident. But we know differently, since we saw him before his death, terrified by a woman whose face seems to have turned into a rotting corpse. This corpse image is constantly repeated throughout the film, and has a certain shock value the first couple of times, but eventually becomes ludicrous. Wanderley’s other son,  arrives back to see his father in the small town of Milburn where he grew up, and where the old men are still the elders of the community. He finds his father is in a bad state, but puts it down to the obsession with ghost stories. Both of his sons are played by Craig Wasson, who isn’t exactly a bad actor, but who is devoid of charisma. He doesn’t noticeably differentiate the two brothers, which doesn’t really matter because neither does the script.

Anyway, Edward dies after falling off a bridge, having followed a mysterious woman who he seems to recognise. We see that his accident was caused by his shock at seeing the face turn into a rotting corpse, mirroring his son’sexperience. His surviving son joins the rest of the Chowder Society to try to find out what is going on. It turns out that he had a passionate affair with the same woman who his brother was with at the time of his death. She was claiming to be called “Anna Mobeley”. Meanwhile, this same woman is setting up house in a deserted shack just outside town…

At this point, the novel begins to weave a clever tale around this central woman, who appears to be some sort of feral force of evil, revenging herself on the men who attempted to destroy her. The film, not knowing how to cope with the idea of monstrous evil -  all the more terrifying because it has some justification for its anger - turns its back on the tantalisingly dark sexual connotations inherent in the material and decides instead to turn the woman into a sort of shape-shifting zombie/ghost/witch. This creature has the power to turn into a rotting corpse at a moment’s notice - this idea would have been pretty effective if linked to the old men who are near to becoming corpses themselves, but the film just treats it as an excuse for shock moments. Luckily, she is portrayed by Alice Krige, an excellent actress whose career slid rapidly downhill after this. She is not exactly beautiful, but she is very striking and she has the ambiguity that is necessary to paper over the cracks in the script. Her non-verbal performance has to, in effect, supply the characterisation which is not written for her.

After the story told by Wanderley’s son, we get a very effective scene of escalating terror, as Douglas meets his death. Following a frightening dream, he wakes up to find that the horror of his dream has leaked into reality. He attacks his housekeeper, thinking her to be the demon that is obsessing him, but wakes up just in time to avoid killing her. This is all familiar stuff, but it’s very well edited, and Douglas gives a moving and convincing performance of panic and blind terror. The demonic woman has come to visit him, and he dies of shock. It is at this point that the film, finally starting to get some momentum, falls apart. It has already left the book behind - the stories we hear from the society are trivial stuff indeed, especially when compared to the pastiches of nineteenth century ghost stories in the book, and the character of Gregory Bate, a ghoul who returns to haunt Sears James, is thrown away as a thug from central casting.

We then get a long, long flashback, which explains the plot. Fifty years ago, we discover, the four men were obsessed by a woman called Eva Galli. She played games with them, taunting their emerging masculine ego and making pretty strong suggestions that she would be up for a bit of four on one action. The men, unable to cope with the open sexuality of this strong woman, kill her  - possibly by accident, but the film is vague as to the intention - and load her body into a car. They push the car into the river, but as it goes under, they see Eva screaming and clawing at the back window, apparently still alive. Anna Mobeley, it transpires, is Eva Galli’s vengeful spirit, determined to pay the men back for the crime they committed. All of this is powerful and suggestive material that is thrown away since it is so tediously paced that the viewer is more likely to nod off than nod with renewed understanding.

Rarely can there have been a more wasted opportunity. Straub’s original material is not only full of ideas, it is also vividly cinematic. The book contains a wonderful moment when two characters fight in front of a screen showing Night of the Living Dead, and a brilliant scene of the woods becoming a nightmarish fantasy for one of the old men. None of this material is used, and the characterisation is rudimentary. The older actors are used for their faces and never get much of a chance to show any personality beyond their traditional personas. Krige would be brilliant in a decent adaptation, but isn’t given much to do. Craig Wasson is, as usual, a drag on the film. He was a drag in Body Double too, but at least that had some bravura DePalma business to keep the eye occupied. This is so arbitrarily slung together that it looks like a cut-down TV series. Irvin has made decent films since this - although only Hamburger Hill is memorable - and I suspect he was at the mercy of his producer for much of the time, but that doesn’t excuse creating a film which is so, well, nothing.

The pacing is off - the first half is quite enjoyable, but it gets bogged down in the flashback scenes - and there is no imagination in the cliched horror set-ups. Jack Cardiff is a great cinematographer - he made Rambo a memorable visual experience even while the brain died for lack of nourishment - but this gives him little chance to shine, although the late twenties flashback has a nice “Gatsby” sheen to it. The music is awful - I misread the credit as “Pino Donaggio”, but was mistaken. Donaggio is self-parodic, but at least he has some style. Philippe Sarde did this score, presumably jotting it down on the back of a bus ticket.

All of which begs the question - can Straub be successfully adapted to the screen ? Full Circle, based on The Haunting Of Julia, had some nice moments, but was disappointing. None of his other books have been made into films - although Shadow Land is very cinematic, and The Throat was one of the best thrillers of the nineties…

1980, USA, William Peter Blatty

Sometimes you see a film which is completely unique. The Ninth Configuration is one of those films, which is both its strength and its weakness. It’s based on the novel Twinkle Twinkle ‘Killer’ Kane by William Peter Blatty, which, despite his rather stodgy prose, is very interesting.

The plot of the film revolves around a private asylum, run by the US military, which serves as a rest-home for insane soldiers. The government is unconvinced of their mental state, and a psychiatrist, Colonel Hudson Kane is hired to judge whether the men are really mad, or simply faking it. Among the inmates are Cutshaw, an astronaut who flipped out during  the countdown and now refuses to go to the moon; Spoor, who is adapting the works of  Shakespeare for a cast of dogs; Bemish, who spends his time trying to walk through a wall; and Fromme, who imagines he is a doctor.

In print, this sounds very silly, and it is indicative of Blatty’s achievement that, in the film, it is completely believable. The performance by Scott Wilson, as Cutshaw, goes beyond being simply good; he inhabits the character completely, and forces the audience to   recognise the desperation which hides behind Cutshaw’s irrational behaviour. In particular, he has one speech, when he explains his reasons for refusing to go to the moon, that ranks as one of the most deeply moving of screen moments. In the pivotal role of Kane, Stacy Keach demonstrates once again that he is an actor of great skill. Without spoiling  the film for people who haven’t seen it - and as it is pretty obscure, there are a lot of  those - Keach has to achieve a character change that is essential to the plot, and, to be honest, not entirely unexpected. This character change occurs during a stunning set-piece fight in a roadside bar, which is very brutal and rivetingly well choreographed. Blatty is a master of timing; events build slowly, but the climaxes give extraordinary value.

The whole cast are excellent; it’s particularly entertaining to see Jason Miller in a humorous role, well away from the angst of Fr Karras. Ed Flanders, another of Blatty’s favourite  actors, is impressive in the - mostly reactive - role of the asylum doctor, who plays a key part in the climactic revelations. The climax contains the main problem of the film - the key revelation is just too much to accept. It doesn’t sound like a practical step for the army to take at all, and also makes certain earlier events nonsensical. Given the truth, would Colonel Kane be allowed to take Cutshaw off the base and to church, completely unguarded ? However, the climax also triumphs on a metaphysical level. Blatty demands a major act of faith on the part of the audience, and manages to reward it convincingly.  Interesting to compare his success with Nic Roeg’s Cold Heaven which asks the audience for a similar act of faith, but fails to justify it. Here, Blatty isn’t dealing with small issues - he’s gone for the big ones. The film is all about the possibility of God existing in a world that is filled with indications that he doesn’t. There is also a lengthy, and rather touching, debate about the possibility of life after death, which culminates in the very moving final scene.

This isn’t a film for everyone. Some people complain that it is too talky, that the plot is merely an excuse for philosophical discussions and that the “twist” is simply idiotic. But, as in Exorcist 3, Blatty asks the audience to go along with him for awhile, to give him some space to develop his ideas. In The Ninth Configuration, despite faltering occasionally, he is triumphant. That we never got to see his cut of Exorcist 3 is a tragedy.

1969, UK/USA, Peter Hunt

It is with some caution that I admit that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is my favourite Bond film, one which I have seen and enjoyed more times than I care to mention. It’s been shockingly underrated for the simple reason of casting, and its merits took time to become apparent. In terms of set-pieces, characterisation and tension, it is certainly up there with the very best Connery films, and the final third of the film is so good that it transcends genre and shows how action can become an art in itself. I suppose we should get this over with sooner rather than later. I like George Lazenby as Bond and I can’t agree with the antagonism towards him. Certainly, his delivery of the dialogue is slightly wooden in places, revealing the fact that he wasn’t trained as an actor, but his physical presence is fine and he throws himself into the violent action with a convincing relish that matches, and maybe outdoes, Sean Connery in From Russia With Love. Lazenby seems to relax into the character, and he is genuinely effective in the incredibly difficult final scene, which more experienced actors might have found difficult to execute with as much poignancy. It’s a shame that he didn’t make another Bond film as he would certainly have been more impressive having more experience in film acting - and judging by Connery’s lazy non-performance in Diamonds Are Forever, it might have been better if Lazenby had done it instead. Perhaps I could put it best by saying that it’s refreshing to have a Bond who is Bond and not the actor playing him - something which hadn’t happened since Dr No and rarely happened again.

However, leaving the casting of Bond aside, the film is a triumph. The plot is carefully developed and mad enough to be entertaining without leaving the realms of possibility. Blofeld (Savalas), head of SPECTRE, has retired to his mountain top complex in Switzerland - following the failure of his plan to start World War Three - and has developed an obsession with how he will be judged by history. He develops a scheme to render the human race sterile. His price ? That he should be recognised as being of genuine noble blood and that he should receive a pardon for all his past crimes. All this is, to my mind, much more interesting and convincing than the usual “world domination” plot, and rounds out Blofeld’s character to satisfying effect. Telly Savalas’s urbane and slightly sinister performance is just right for this reading of the character. Bond penetrates Blofeld’s domain in disguise and discovers that the plan involves the use of twelve beautiful girls who have been hypnotised to obey Blofeld’s wishes. Meanwhile, our hero falls in love with Tracy Di Vicenzo (Rigg), a gangster’s daughter. These two plots come together rather well around the middle of the film, and the result is one of the most downbeat endings ever to adorn a Bond movie.

The pace of the film is leisurely for the first ninety minutes or so, due to Peter Hunt’s interesting decision to develop the characters rather than diving straight into action. There are some good fist fights and a scene of excellent spycraft, but the focus is on character. This allows Diana Rigg to create a heroine who is genuinely three dimensional; rich, spoilt and capricious, but also vulnerable and needy. Bond is also developed rather more than in the previous two films - the scene where he confronts “M” with his resignation is a small gem, suggesting that being the world’s greatest secret agent must result in a considerable expansion of the ego. There’s some good, quiet scenes in the film, something rare in the series. I like the subtle flashback on the window as Bond stares out after Tracy has been captured by SPECTRE. There’s also a lovely moment towards the end, when Bond tosses his hat at Moneypenny as if it were a bride’s bouquet. As for the final moments, which I won’t reveal, they represent a real chance to deepen Bond’s character - a chance which was thrown away by the producers who went on to turn him back into a comic strip superhero in the simplistic, sadistically camp Diamonds Are Forever.

However, enjoyable as the first two thirds of the film are, they merely raise the curtain for the blazing action of the final forty five minutes which represents the peak of the Bond series and the zenith of Sixties action cinema; incredible ski action, much repeated but never bettered; a pulse-pounding stock car sequence; more skiing action; a cracking set of explosions; and finally, best of all, the knuckle-whitening bobsleigh chase which is my personal nomination for the finest action scene in the entire series. The fantastic look of these scenes is a tribute to the second unit, especially the work of Johnny Jordan who filmed while dangling from a helicopter. All of the action seems tougher than in the other Bond movies, partly because the punches have been overdubbed to give them more impact , and partly because the editing is deliberately faster than usual.

The film looks stunning from start to finish, thanks to the work of the cinematographer Michael Reed - that shot of the helicopters against the sunrise is glorious. It has a more realistic feel than other films in the series, largely due to the lack of Ken Adam’s grandiose designs, and partly because there’s a distinct absence of gadgets. I rather like this in context - just as I like the abundance of silly gadgets in the very different context of Moonraker - and it helps the film to have a grounding in everyday life which is important for the plot and for this different depiction of Bond. John Barry also rises to the occasion with a gritty and versatile music score. In fact, it’s the moments where the film tries to be self-consciously clever that work least well. Notoriously, that opening scene of Bond on the beach would be fine if it weren’t for the final line where Lazenby addresses the audience with “This never happened to the other fellow”. That’s just plain wrong, because as far as the plot is concerned he _is_ the other fellow, and it just draws attention to the artificiality of the film. In another Bond film, this would work, but OHMSS tries strenuously to be emotionally grounded in reality and therefore can’t carry off this sort of camp effect. Interestingly, an attempt is then made to link to the past films directly, with a fantastic Maurice Binder title sequence which incorporates images of an hour glass and a clock going backwards along with scenes from the previous Bond films.

Overall, however, I think the film is excellent. It is as close to the spirit of original novels as the series has ever managed and deserves the reappraisal that it has begun to receive. Lazenby isn’t always ideal, but nor is he as bad as has been claimed, and he’s surrounded by top-class professionalism which covers over any cracks in the central performance.

1962, UK, Basil Dearden

Now here’s a fascinating oddity; a British science fiction film from the early 1960s which not only reflects the contemporary scientific and political interests of the time but also points forward to the later work of its star, Dirk Bogarde. Like Victim, it’s a production by Basil Dearden and Michael Relph, and it gives Bogarde a very similar chance to stretch his Rank Charm School image. Concerning itself with brain washing and the use of isolation tanks - which was common in American universities at the time - it is paced in a rather stately fashion but the set-up is quite fascinating, if rather charmingly, dated. Some people have compared it negatively with The Manchurian Candidate but it’s about as different from the wit and political sophistication of Frankenheimer’s film as Carry On Nurse is from Some Like It Hot. 

It takes a while for things to come to the boil but once Bogarde’s character has been in an isolation tank, the plot clicks into gear. In order to test the possibilities for brain washing the subject of an isolation experiment, government agent John Clements and scientist Michael Bryant decide to tell Bogarde that his wife (Mary Ure) is unfaithful and that their marriage is a sham. Six months later, they go to see Bogarde and discover that he has turned into an aggressively misogynistic bully. Bogarde’s performance in these scenes is impressively chilling and suggests the heart of darkness that hides behind the surface charm. It’s a clear prediction of his later triumphs in The Servant and Accident and would be worth seeing for this alone - although it has to be said that Bogarde is ill-served by the final ten minutes which are deeply disappointing.

There are, however, other things to catch your eye. The chilly black and white photography by Denys Coop is suitably noiresque, complemented by some extraordinary imagery within the isolation tank, and the production design is superb throughout.  The supporting cast includes strong contributions from Clements and Bryant along with Mary Ure, Wendy Craig and, in a brief but memorable cameo, the great Roger Delgado.

Optimum’s DVD of this interesting oddity offers us a decent anamorphic transfer and crisp monophonic sound. There are no extras.

1967, USA/UK, Lewis Gilbert

The huge financial success of Thunderball meant that the James Bond franchise had to go some if it was to keep the initiative. Several imitation series were now appearing, such as the Matt Helm and Flint films, and Bond was no longer the novelty that he was back in the first half of the decade. You Only Live Twice is obviously a conscious effort to outdo the imitators in terms of sheer scale. The trend of the settings and gadgets becoming more important than the plot was also continued, with the storyline being little more than a peg upon which to hang some great set-pieces. Sean Connery returns for his fifth appearance as Bond, and seems to be merely going through the motions without showing much commitment to the character. It is well known that he disliked having to do the films by this point in his career, and after finishing this one he decided to drop out of the follow-up, only returning in 1971 in return for a sizeable fee.

You Only Live Twice shares little with the Ian Fleming novel apart from the basic setting and the ultimate confrontation with Blofeld. Instead of the rather downbeat travelogue of the original novel, we have a classic pseudo-SF setup of the arch villain and chief of SPECTRE, Blofeld, stealing space craft from the major powers in order to provoke a third world war. Why he’s doing this remains a little vague, something about his organisation’s desire for chaos, although it’s fair to assume that his Japanese backers have some interest in dominating what’s left of the world once the US and USSR have blown each other to pieces. Why they would decide to co-operate with Blofeld, who has hardly proved himself to be a model of loyalty, is another matter entirely.

Bond is apparently killed in Japan in the opening pre-credits scene, following a splendid bit of totally unconvincing model work in outer space, so that he can discover the truth behind the disappearance of superpower space vehicles. He doesn’t go out of his way to be discreet, but eventually teams up with “Tiger” Tanaka (Tamba), head of the Japanese secret service and his loyal woman agent, Aki (Wakabayashi). They discover that the huge Osata company is involved in the mystery, and that a large extinct volcano is somehow connected to the disappearances.

There are some great moments in You Only Live Twice, enough to divert attention from the fact that not a great deal of consequence happens for the first hour. There’s lots of sound and fury, but precious little significance, with set-pieces wildly extended until its time for Bond to go somewhere else, get attacked and see off his opponents while discovering a vital bit of information that tells him where to go next. Luckily, the set-pieces are often very exciting, and well handled - the Little Nelly gyrocopter chase is a classic of the action genre, and the shipyard fight is pretty good as well. I can’t help thinking, though, that the fight between Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love was just as exciting and had a gritty authenticity that is miles away from the elegant choreography on view here.

What really does take the breath away, however, is the awesome finale set in the extinct volcano. It’s not so much the action, good as that is, but the scale and ambition of Ken Adam’s set. At the time, it was claimed that it was the largest set ever built, and even by the high standards of Adam’s work on the Bond series, it really does look marvellous; a great work of art in itself. Admittedly, nothing very surprising happens within the set, apart from some fairly conventional confinement/escape set-ups and a rather good Ninja raid at the end, but it’s still makes the film far more interesting than it might be otherwise. Freddie Young’s lighting is also brilliant, here and throughout the movie.

As I said earlier, Connery looks rather bored and plays the whole “Bond goes Japanese” scene for unsuitably broad comedy. But the Japanese cast is splendid - Tetsuro Tamba is one of the best sidekicks that Bond has ever had, and Akiko Wakabayashi looks irresistable throughout - and once Donald Pleasance arrives he lifts the whole film. First seen stroking the inevitable cat, we finally get to see Blofeld’s face, complete with scar and mad, staring eyes. Pleasance is brilliant, playing the role for all he’s worth, and the image of Blofeld created here has become iconic - and also served as the inspiration for the wonderful Dr Evil in the Austin Powers films.

The script by Roald Dahl is generally fine and sometimes inspired. He writes great, offbeat dialogue, and manages to keep the film going from one event to the next without making the lack of structure too obvious. Lewis Gilbert, making his first Bond movie, seems a little uncertain in places, and obviously relies very heavily on the second unit work of Peter Hunt. His work on 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me is obviously more confident and relaxed, possibly because that film simply repeats most of the plot of YOLT. Technically, the film is impeccable, and John Barry provides another of his excellent music scores. This is one of his best scores for the Bond series, in my opinion, and is only flawed by the theme song, which I don’t like very much.

You Only Live Twice is not the best in the Bond series, although some fans have claimed otherwise, and it pales in comparison to From Russia With Love or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But it is well mounted and enjoyable, and has plenty to recommend it. 

 

1998, Canada, David Cronenberg 

eXistenZ - the spelling is important - occupies a similar place in David Cronenberg’s career as Raising Cain does in Brian De Palma’s. Both films are playfully self-reflexive, acting as compendiums of the personal obsessions of their respective directors. The key difference is that while De Palma’s film is little more than an elaborate sick joke with the audience, Cronenberg’s eXistenZ is full of the provocative sexual imagery and uncomfortable intensity that characterise his films. Indeed, eXistenZ is a full-blooded, committed example of Cronenberg’s unique talents. The world of eXistenZ is indeterminately futuristic. It is set at a time when, in order to play complex virtual reality role-playing games, people are voluntarily fitted with “Bioports”, small devices which are connected to the spinal cord. Into these devices are plugged “game pods”, strangely organic control pads which look like mutated breasts and are manipulated by a nipple which acts as a sort of joystick. These pods are connected to the bioports through long, fleshy wires which resemble umbilical cords. The game world is then downloaded straight into the consciousness of the player. “eXistenZ” is an elaborate software package created by the reclusive games designer Allegra Gellar (Leigh).

As the film begins, Gellar is about to download her new creation into a focus group who have been assembled to test it. However, before this can be completed, a man stands up, screams “Death to the demoness Allegra Gellar” and shoots her with a strange gun, seemingly made out of bones. Allegra is wounded but manages to escape with PR trainee Ted Pikul (Law), explaining to him that they cannot trust anybody. Things begin to turn decidedly strange when Pikul digs a tooth out of Allegra’s gunshot wound. Allegra fears that her master game pod, on which the only copy of the whole of “eXistenZ” is kept, has been damaged and she needs to test it by playing with someone friendly. The game pods, made from amphibian organs, are in danger of decay and infection. Ted is unable to help, however, as he is one of the few people not fitted with a bioport due to his intense feat of bodily penetration. The film then moves into high gear, as Ted is fitted with a bioport by the ambiguous mechanic Gas (Dafoe). He seems to be friendly, but is there something sinister behind that open smile ? What will happen when Allegra and Ted begin to play the game - and will they be able to tell what is real and what is simply part of the world of eXistenZ ?

Cronenberg relishes the game of reality versus illusion, and we are not quite sure, once the plot gets going, whether we are in the real world or the domain of “eXistenZ”. Cronenberg is very astute at knowing when to pull the rug of certainty out from under us. As usual with Cronenberg’s films, the best approach is to sit back and let him lead you through the avenues and alleyways of his mind - which is his own extraordinary vision combined with bits of Philip K.Dick and William Burroughs. No other contemporary director is this imaginative or this daring. He is a master of context, giving us a bizarre image, such as the “gristle gun”, and then making us accept it as a natural part of the storyline. There’s nothing in the film quite as brilliantly provocative as the scene in Videodrome where James Woods grows a slit in his stomach which accepts videocassetes, but the consolation is that eXistenZ is better structured and more controlled than Cronenberg’s early work. All his obsessions are there, as he acknowledges in the commentary. Most notably there are constant sexual undertones throughout the film, from the look of the game pods and the distinctly anal bioports, to Pikul’s fear of being penetrated and the erotic excitement felt by Allegra when she enters her game world. On his commentary track, Cronenberg describes the film as “metaphorically obscene”, acknowledging the erotic/fetishistic undercurrents in the film. But there’s also a powerful emotional intensity to the film, something which Cronenberg has constantly developed since The Brood back in 1979. This comes out most revealingly in the relationship between Allegra and “eXistenZ”, the world she has created and which she must protect and defend. The small scene where she becomes distraught at the thought of the pod, her baby - “she” - becoming infected is a striking example of the passionate link between creator and created. There are many layers to the film, and it’s the sort of work that becomes more interesting on subsequent viewings. The twisting plot is quite effective despite a certain predictability. I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure that the ending works, and it will probably lead to some interesting after-film debates.

The film is technically superb, with stunning work from Peter Suschitzky, the cinematographer, and Jim Isaac, the effects designer. The organic look of the technology is a particular masterstroke, linking back to similar images in previous Cronenberg films. Howard Shore provides another of his beautiful music scores, showing that he and Cronenberg remain a fine example of the important creative relationship between the director and the composer. The performances are impressive, especially as some of the actors are under certain restrictions due to events in the plot which I will not reveal. Leigh and Law work together with delightful fluency and it’s nice to see Willem Dafoe and Ian Holm having fun in small supporting roles. But the film belongs to Cronenberg. The way in which he works in issues such as the moral culpability of the artist is deft and undogmatic, and he shows an admirable lightness of touch in this film which suggests that he’s having a wickedly good time.

1965, USA/UK, Terence Young

Thunderball marks a significant turning-point for the Bond films. Building on the larger-than-life style of Goldfinger, the film is less a spy thriller than a lavish action movie in which the plot is a secondary consideration. It is, therefore, surprising that so much of this fourth Bond film is concerned with setting up the relatively simple storyline when the raison d’etre of the whole narrative is obviously the lengthy underwater footage which dominates the second half. The genesis of the film is well known by now. In 1958, Ian Fleming worked with producer Kevin McClory and writer Jack Whittingham on a screenplay for a proposed big-screen Bond story. This didn’t come off, for a number of reasons. Ian Fleming turned the concept of the screenplay into his novel Thunderball, Harry Salzman bought the rights to Bond and the rest is history. However, McClory went to the High Court when he heard that Salzman and his partner Broccoli were intending to film Thunderball and it was agreed that he owned the rights to the story. Hence his producer credit on the film. However, in the seventies, McClory made several announcements of a rival Bond movie to the “official” Eon series, which would be a remake of Thunderball called “Warhead”, scripted by Len Deighton. Legal action by Eon brought the plan to a standstill, but McClory managed to block Eon from ever using the names SPECTRE or Blofeld in their films. Ultimately, of course, the rival Bond movie was made - 1983’s Never Say Never Again, with Sean Connery - and it seems that McClory still has plans to make another version of the same story.

Anyway, Thunderball, regardless of its origins, has a classic Bond plot, in which our hero attempts to foil a dastardly SPECTRE plot to hold the West to ransom by threatening to destroy a major city with two purloined atomic weapons. Much of the first hour is focused around the theft of the missiles, co-ordinated from Shrublands Health Farm in Surrey, where Bond is conveniently staying - surely one of the most outrageous coincidences in the entire series. The trail leads Bond to Nassau in the Bahamas, where he matches wits against SPECTRE’s Number Two, Emil Largo (Celi), who has hidden the bombs underneath his luxury yacht. OO7’s path is crossed by numerous black cats, notably the utterly delicious Fiona Volpe (Paluzzi) and the standard one-size-fits-all henchman, Vargas (Philip Locke).

There are some exceptional scenes in Thunderball, including one of the finest bits of pre-credits silliness, in which Bond unmasks a villain at a funeral and escapes using a portable rocket pack. This is a lovely three minute set-piece, beautifully edited and played by Connery with just the right edge of flip bravado. The main narrative also offers the famous traction table scene, later borrowed by Lewis Gilbert for the centrifuge trap in Moonraker. After Tom Jones has finished thrusting out the campy title song - if Shirley Bassey belts, then Tom Jones thrusts - we get the quintessential SPECTRE scene. Since From Russia With Love business has obviously improved for everybody’s favourite international crime syndicate, since Number One has upgraded from a small office to a whopping Ken Adam number, all steel and sharp angles. Wonderful stuff this, and it was later mercilessly parodied in the Austin Powers movies. Adolfo Celi is visually striking as Largo, his white hair and eye patch making him look like a cross between Jon Pertwee and Long John Silver - a shame then that his performance, via re-voicing, is rather stilted. Much better in the baddie stakes is Luciana Paluzzi as the flame-haired, motorbike straddling Fiona Volpe. Erotically charged to the last inch, she brings a real sexual frisson to the proceedings, and the scene where she removes her helmet to reveal that torrent of red is a truly iconic moment.

The problems with the film only really begin in the second half, once Bond has arrived in Nassau. Largo seems to be somehow sidelined in favour of Vargas, a henchman who is just a brutish thug. Compared to Harold Sakata’s wonderful Odd Job, he’s a colourless creation. Added to this is the more serious difficulty of Claudine Auger’s performance as Largo’s niece, Domino. Her relationships with Largo and Bond seem to pass her by, since she keeps the same vacant expression throughout them both. This hobbles the emotional side of the film, since we don’t care about what happens to her one way or the other, and her putative passion for the world’s greatest secret agent is never remotely believable. Auger looks fabulous in a swimsuit, but there’s nothing underneath in more ways than one. I also have my doubts about Sean Connery’s performance. He’s fine in the pre-credits scene, but he seems to be going through the motions for a lot of the time and his boredom with the character that is impossible to miss in You Only Live Twice is already starting to creep in here.

As for the much criticised length and pacing of the underwater scenes, I am in two minds. Yes, they do go on for too long and it is not always sufficiently clear which character is which and who is doing what to whom. But the visual effect is wonderfully elegant and these scenes do give Thunderball a quite unique feel among the Bond movies.

On a technical level, the film is first class. Terence Young, returning for his third and last Bond entry, adds his characteristically stylish edge and Peter Hunt’s then revolutionary editing style keeps the pace going and adds a tough quality to the fight scenes. The script is not all that well constructed, and not as witty as the screenplay for Goldfinger, but there are a respectable number of throwaway one-liners and appalling schoolboy jokes. Whether one likes the underwater scenes, it has to be said that they are brilliantly achieved. Ricou Browning - otherwise best known as the Creature From The Black Lagoon - has caught something magical in the dreamy pace of aquatic movement, and the visuals are unexpected and slightly other-worldly. It helps, in these scenes, that John Barry is on great form, with his music score always setting just the right tone.

One interesting aspect of the film which is worth mentioning in passing is the brutality of the action scenes. There is a certain edge of cruelty which leaves a slightly nasty aftertaste, and points forward to the very distinctive camped-up sadism of Diamonds Are Forever. It’s also the film in which Bond’s treatment of women is at its most blatantly patronising - which will either delight or infuriate, depending on your point of view.

1980, USA, Barbara Peeters
When this Corman flick was shown in UK cinemas, it was called Monster, a suspiciously generic title. That is entirely appropriate, though, for this energetic, entertainingly daft movie, which is flawed only by some political pretensions, and by the fact that Piranha, made two years earlier, is much, much better monster movie, while being equally cheap.

Fans of seventies monster movies will find the plot familiar. Strange things are happening in Noyo, a small fishing town. Boats are exploding, fishermen are vanishing, and dogs are being slaughtered. Could it have anything to do with the huge conglomerate who are  opening a cannery a few miles up from the town and are conducting experiments to increase the size and number of salmon ? Difficult one that. Our hero, Doug McClure, is suspicious, while fans of the cannery, headed by the great Vic Morrow, want the incidents hushed up, in case the conglomerate decide it’s all too much trouble and move to another area. But wait, what’s this ? A message ? Indeed, as the cannery have been messing about with Native American habitats - all these simple people want to do is protect the environment. Surprise, surprise. Lovers of Prophecy, if such creatures exist, will now be wondering whether their film is being ripped off. Which, of course, it is.

What’s happened, as we discover, is that the experiments have spawned giant humanoids, which are marine-dwellers, but which can walk on the land. They look very much like people in rubber suits, but that adds to their cut-price charm. They are horny little bastards as well, getting their kicks from jumping on young women, removing their bathing suits and rolling around on top of them in an R rated type of way. At least one victim seems less than distressed, since her screams looked to me suspiciously like hysterical laughter. Doug, however, squares his jaw as only Doug can do, and rescues one young woman from the monsters’ lair. She is feeling funny following her experience and turns out, in an unsurprising twist, to be pregnant. Hmmm … so do you think someone might have been watching Alien?

While this question is being pondered, the monsters do some more damage, terrorising some campers in their tent. The loss of these campers is no great tragedy, since the man is an irritating ventriloquist whose idea of getting wood before lovemaking is not what you might think. Doug has teamed up with the scientist who worked for the cannery, and who is responsible for these nasty creatures, but not even they can save the town, which is having its big carnival night. As you might expect, the carnival is invaded by the monsters who do some energetic and rather graphic killing and some desultory raping and pillaging. Clever Doug gets rid of them in a variety of ways. culminating into emptying several of gallons of petrol into the water and lighting it, roasting the monsters to a crisp. What the environmentalist Indians might think of this pollution is not addressed.

In a twist ending, which the audience has seen coming from several miles off, the pregnant girl does an impression of Kane in Alien as a baby monster erupts from her stomach. It’s not all that visible though, vanishing quickly before we get to look at it too closely. Whereas Piranha tarted up its cliches with witty dialogue and quirky characters, Humanoids From The Deep plays it straight, and by and large, succeeds in creating a disposable monster movie that is neither boring nor all that interesting. The gore effects aren’t bad, and the monsters, while looking very stupid, are rather endearing. The credit for Rob Bottin is slightly disappointing, since he proved in his next film The Howling that he could do much better.  It is, of course, grossly sexist - the director, Barbara Peeters claims that the nude shots were added later - but it could be argued that it’s only making explicit what other monster movies have implied; that what the monster really wants is sex with the scantily clad beauties. The fun is, in fact, only marred by the deeply dull political messages which crop up every ten minutes - aren’t capitalists horrid!!! - and start to spoil the otherwise astute pacing.

As the great Forry Ackerman used to say, “Hooray For Horrorwood!” Mindful of the coming season of witches, ghouls, goblins and other things that go bump in the night, I have devoted this week’s Hollywood Ten to movies that send a chill down my spine. Sometimes it’s a pleasurable frisson and occasionally it’s a full scale can’t-watch-the-screen moment. The earliest film on the list dates from 1932 and the latest is from 2009 - Hollywood has been scaring the pants off us for eight decades and more. Worth celebrating, no?

The Old Dark House (1932, USA, James Whale)

Easily my favourite of the classic Universal horrors and probably the only one which is still genuinely creepy. Much as I love James Whale’s work in the genre, the comedy or pathos frequently overwhelms the horror. In The Old Dark House, the balance is absolutely perfect between giggles and genuinely sinister chills. Much of it has to do with the atmosphere of the eponymous house which is so weird it verges on the surreal. Add to this the deliciously dark monochrome cinematography and some almost hysterical performances and you have one of the stangest, funniest and most baroque horror films ever made.

Isle Of The Dead (1945, USA, Mark Robson)

An odd one this. It’s not the most popular of Val Lewton’s films for RKO and I have to admit that the very thin storyline tends to plod at the pace of an elephant with lumbago. However, I keep coming back to it for the utterly horrible atmosphere which is established from the opening scenes and gradually starts to drift off the screen and into your mind so that it suggests all manner of unpleasant things which aren’t even hinted at in the film . It’s also notable for featuring Boris Karloff intoning his dialogue with sonorous intensity.

Psycho (1960, USA, Alfred Hitchcock)

Hitchcock’s classic comes up brand new with every viewing, offering something new - a camera angle you hadn’t noticed, a grace note in performance, a thrown-away line which suddenly seems significant. Newcomers should stick with the slow pace, comfortable in the knowledge that the payoffs are spectacularly good. Best of all, it still chills me to the bone even after all these years.

The Exorcist (1973, USA, William Friedkin)

Completely serious, not to say humourless, American horror films are relatively rare and The Exorcist uses its documentary realism to the very best advantage in convincing us that a demon really is present in a small room in 1970s Washington. It’s one of the great examples of audience manipulation; lulling them into a false sense of security with a slow start and then delivering on the promise of horror at breakneck speed. Just as disturbing as the famous special effects is the sheer emotional intensity of the film; the demon’s taunting of Karras’s failure as a son being particularly troubling. I must also mention the extraordinarily creepy prologue set in Iraq which explodes with unforgettable imagery.

Carrie (1976, USA, Brian De Palma)

Perhaps not Brian De Palma’s best film but certainly his most effective foray into the world of horror which works on a multitude of levels: a portrayal of the emotional torment of bullying; a study of mothers and daughters; a high-school comedy; a character portrait of a disturbed teenager; and as a balls-out horror flick with a deliciously escalating series of climaxes, each more satisfying than the last. De Palma’s technique is dazzling and the performances of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie shimmer with truth and passion.

The Fog (1980, USA, John Carpenter)

Halloween wouldn’t be the same without a cracking good ghost story and The Fog is one of the most entertaining of the past thirty years.  It’s still my favourite John Carpenter film since it’s so perfectly controlled with every moment contributing towards the final effect of quiet and sustained menace. Admittedly, some scenes don’t make much sense and it’s hard not to snigger at DJ Stevie Wayne’s choice of music but the sense of impending horror is remarkably potent and the climax is very effective. Also worthy of mention is Dean Cundey’s gorgeous Panavision cinematography.

The Shining (1980, USA, Stanley Kubrick)

Another great ghost story, this time from the legendary Stanley Kubrick.  It’s perhaps not as scary as it seemed back when I first watched it but it retains its power owing to the perfectly managed atmospherics, the inspired and often surreal images, the occasional set-pieces of terror - All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy - and the astonishing central performance by Jack Nicholson who goes over the top and back down the other side in his efforts to entertain us.

Halloween 3: Season Of The Witch (1982, USA, Tommy Lee Wallace) 

“It was the start of the year in our old Celtic lands where we’d be waiting… In our houses of wattles and clay… The barriers would be down, you see. Between the real and the unreal. And the dead might be looking in, to sit by our fires of turf… Halloween. The festival of Samhain. The last great one took place 3,000 years ago and the hills ran red… With the blood of animals and children.”

If that isn’t the work of Nigel Kneale, then I don’t know what is. This sequel is often criticised for the absence of Michael Myers. However, since it features lots of extra added Dan O’Herlihy, I don’t see the problem. And that song is impossible to get out of your head.

A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984, USA, Wes Craven)

The original and the best. Accept no substitutes, sequels or remakes. One..two..Freddy’s comin’ for you…

Drag Me To Hell (2009, USA, Sam Raimi)

One of the biggest treats of the year; a full-blown horror comic which restores Raimi’s reputation as an entertainer after all those tedious Spiderman movies. Fast, scary and funny, it’s got a great central performance from Alison Lohman, a thoroughly frightening monster and a twist in the tail which sends you out of the film fully satisfied. Undoubtedly, a cult in the making.

However you choose to celebrate, have a very happy Halloween and please, whatever you do, stay scared!

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