Archive for December, 2008

The 199 Club: Godzilla (1998)

It’s a comfort to us DVD buyers that in this credit crunchworthy world, retailers are making their wares available for next to nothing. ‘The 199 Club’ covers movies I bought for £1.99 or less. Some of them are great, others considerably less so and in many cases I haven’t even seen the film before purchasing it. After all, two quid isn’t much of a gamble, is it? I’m about to embark on my annual attempt to stop smoking, and it humbles me to think that I could buy nearly three bargain basement movies for the price of a single 20-pack of Lucky Strike.

Eye eye! Poster for the movieStill, that’s the mess up that is modern economics for you, and let’s kick off with a flick that I actually picked up as a stocking filler for mine son, one that was entirely overlooked in the wave of excitement that came with unwrapping a Nintendo Wii. Quite understandable too, particularly when you imagine that even a nine-year old has enough good taste to avoid a stinker like Godzilla, the disastrous disaster movie helmed by Roland Emmerich and released in 1998. Thinking about it, 1998 wasn’t a great year for blockbusters in general. We went to the pictures quite frequently in those pre-parenthood days, which means we got to take in the full horror of Lost in Space, the ‘when’s the meteor going to hit?’ tedium of Deep Impact, and the slightly underwhelming experience that came with seeing a movie spin-off of the ace X-Files. I don’t think it matters how affectionately you remember the general craziness of Michael Bay’s ear-splittingly loud Armageddon; nothing changes the fact that it simply isn’t a very good film. And it was one of the better ones, certainly in the eyes of cinema audiences who made it the second highest grosser of the year.

Flopping in apologetically at ninth is Godzilla, now reduced to a £1.99 purchase from play.com and virtually forgotten. The $136m gross it took at US theatres just about covered its lavish production expenses. It did precious little for the careers of anyone involved and turned off both critics and audiences. Roger Ebert, lampooned in the movie after slating some of Emmerich’s previous works, called it ‘a sterile exercise’ and it’s hard to disagree. At whom is Godzilla aimed? Fans of the Japanese kaiju were alienated entirely. Kids struggled to make out the 300-foot monster amidst the inky, rain-soaked Manhattan cityscape and no doubt everyone else just felt like they had been patronised by a film that has virtually no sense of style and makes little attempt to crank up the tension. Godzilla turns up, fights some toy soldiers, lays some eggs and gets offed. And that’s it. There’s a romantic sub-plot that isn’t developed enough to make it interesting. Jean Reno shows up as a French secret service agent and knocks several points off his own kudos by putting on a terrible impression of Elvis. According to the IMDb trivia pages, Godzilla is laced with in-jokes, homages and subtle gags, but it’s as though all the creative work has gone into these, the main plot going through the most predictable of motions as it lurches towards a conclusion that can be predicted by any viewer with a passing knowledge of movie monster mythology. And yes, I include in that remark the bit with the egg just before the credits.

Get me out of this mess!Two years previously, Emmerich directed the critically unloved but commercially successful Independence Day, indeed it was the millions raked in by his alien invasion movie that greenlit the twenty-story high budget for Godzilla and gave him the freedom to do what he wanted with the concept. Like many others, I enjoyed Independence Day as a bit of sci-fi trash, cringed over some of the intentionally hopeless dialogue and marvelled at the special effects work. But garbage it was, saved as it might have been by the unlikely pairing of Jeff Goldblum’s nerdy scientist and Will Smith playing the Fresh Prince in military get-up. Godzilla has no such luck. Matthew Broderick takes the lead role of Dr Niko ‘Nick’ Tatopoulus, leading to moments of ‘hilarity’ as character after character gets his name wrong. Brilliant in Ferris Bueller’s Day off and excellent in the more offbeat Election, Broderick is nevertheless lost here. It isn’t really his fault, more his character has the thankless job of finding out what Godzilla is all about and therefore progressing the narrative. To give him something else to do, the writers shoehorn in a shallow bit of plotting that involves him getting back in touch with his childhood sweetheart, Audrey (Maria Pitillo). Now a struggling news researcher, Audrey is working for a terrible, mysogynyst boss and sees Nick as her way towards getting a scoop. Helping her cause is happy go lucky cameraman, Animal (Hank Azaria), who is actually far better value than either of the bland leads but is still forced to come out with some horrible dialogue - ‘Cool, threesome’ - for which he was presumably well paid.

And then there’s Reno, who frankly leaves all his credibility at the door. When not complaining about the state of American food and coffee, he somehow realises something that all the experts have conveniently overlooked - that Nick knows more than anyone else about what’s going on - and kidnaps him in order to set up the encounter with Godzilla’s brood in the guts of Madison Square Garden. Reno leaves no cliche about the French unturned in his toe-curling depiction, again not so much his fault as that of the script, but you hope he was well paid.

The silly plot - Godzilla is the result of French nuclear testing in the Pacific; fully grown at 300 feet (I think), he travels to Manhattan island to lay his eggs (where else would you go, after all?) - is in thrall to the only reason you would have gone to the cinema to see the movie in the first place. Independence Day featured some awesome visual effects, and Godzilla is no different in this respect. The permanent nightscape of a Manhattan in which it’s always raining might have been cited by critics as an excuse to cover up for the fact that any amount of CGI can’t make the lizard look real, and perhaps there’s something in that, though the overall effect is impressive. Even better rendered are the ‘Godzookies’ who show up later in the film, though by this stage the similarities in dinosaur encounters between this and the altogether superior Jurassic Park can’t be avoided. Godzilla’s babies are clearly the velociraptors; the main man doubles for T-Rex even if he’s a far cleverer beast than Spielberg’s monster. One of the keys to Jurassic Park working so well was that the dinosaurs, for all their otherworldly scariness, behaved like animals. The Tyrannosaur’s memorable attack on the kids’ car was frightening because you could imagine it happening exactly like that. Far from this stab at realism is Godzilla, who can use the labyrinth of skyscrapers in New York to fox pursuing helicopters, and knows enough about heat-seeking missiles to guide one straight into the path of a submarine. Had they frozen the movie at one stage in order for Graham Chapman’s major to enter the foreground, wielding his baton at the screen and demanding ‘Stop that, it’s silly!’ I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised.

That's another fine mess, etcAll this makes worse the death of Godzilla. Having shot at the poor bugger for the duration of the picture, once he actually croaks the rest of the cast remember their King Kong and start feeling sorry for him. There seems to be no reason for this than the fact it happened in King Kong and there’s a chance that audiences’ sympathies may lie with the lizard. The scene is a rare stab at pathos, one in which we are invited to share thanks to engineers cranking up the sound of the rain and sparing us David Arnold’s overblown score for a moment.

Elsewhere, Godzilla plays for laughs.Whereas Independence Day kept its tongue in its cheek whilst telling its story more or less as straight, in this one everybody involved seems to be fully aware that none of it should be taken the least bit seriously. The consequence is a complete lack of any real threat whilst Godzilla trashes Manhattan, because why should anybody watching be bothered when the characters plainly aren’t? Indeed, even when half their city lies in ruins it appears most New Yorkers would come out with a cheeky quip rather than get upset, something that oddly enough wasn’t the case when a real-life devastating incident rocked it several years later. Now, where do I go to get my £1.99 back?

Posted on 30th December 2008
Under: Bobbins, 199 Club | 1 Comment »

From out of Space - a Warning and an Ultimatum

I am yet to see the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, which by all accounts is an insipid affair and further proof that great films don’t emerge from throwing lashings of CGI onto the screen. Critics have pointed out the obvious - the 1951 original is a genuine classic, a play on Cold War American paranoia that didn’t need to be remade. Simply swapping the theme of war with one of environmental concerns just isn’t enough. Though the subject matter of TDTESS is flexible enough to lend itself to a fresh perspective, it really needs more than Keanu Reeves looking blank-faced alongside computer rendered visions of an apocalyptic Earth. A pity. I quite fancied seeing it, particularly on IMAX. Now it looks like I’ll be waiting for the DVD.

The Day the Earth Stood Still posterThat isn’t to say the film from fifty seven years ago is poorer as a result. It’s not, and I was lucky enough to pick up a copy for under a fiver during some Christmas presents purchasing bonanza (you all know how it is, I’m sure). I would definitely recommend owning this one. The Region 2, 20th Century Fox ‘Studio Classics’ edition comes with an original 1951 poster on the front cover, a rather schlocky affair depicting a scene that doesn’t actually take place in the film but no doubt dragged them in off the streets. I sort of wish I’d made the greater outlay for a two-disc ‘Cinema Reserve’ copy, but no matter. The restoration is a thing of beauty, rendering into sharp focus the use of light and shadow that Robert Wise employed to near perfection.

It’s no surprise to learn that Wise served as editor on such classics as Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. His work with Orson Welles must have offered him the perfect grounding in cinematography, in using the limited space on the screen to create great visual shots. His direction here transforms what should perhaps have been a pulp, third rate science fiction cheapie into something thought-provoking, technically excellent and with real depth. Check out, for example, the scene where Klaatu first visits Helen Benson’s boarding house. As the residents watch the news on their no doubt recently bought television set, they’re bathed in its light, whilst the alien newcomer is enveloped in the shadow of the darkened hallway. Another memorable moment comes as Klaatu and Helen share an elevator, only to find it’s become their prison thanks to his plan to switch off the world’s electricity for thirty minutes. He sees it as an opportunity to reveal himself to her, but her initial reaction is of being trapped, and the camera reflects this by turning the silhouette of the elevator car grid into prison bars.

Of course, it isn’t scenes like these for which the film is remembered. Rather the primitive special effects work that has Klaatu’s flying saucer landing in Washington DC is recalled scornfully, as is the costume covering Lock Martin as Gort, Klaatu’s robotic accomplice. Certainly, the lumbering, often inert Gort isn’t a being to strike terror into the hearts of 21st century audiences. As a killing mchine, it isn’t a patch on the Terminator. Yet it’s part of a minor plot twist that makes its role much fuller than that of a mere mechanical moron, and it’s consistent also. Writers Edmund H North and Harry Bates don’t cop out by giving it emotions or a mind of its own, which makes its automaton presence all the more sinister.

TDTESS is certainly of its era. A tale of American sensibilities at the height of the Cold War (one onlooker even hints that Klaatu’s saucer might have been sent by the other side of the Curtain), it wisely doesn’t lay on its message too thick, instead weaving its yarn in an almost impassive, documentary style, indeed much of the exposition comes from the mouths of radio and television people who commentate on the action. Elsewhere, Wise points the camera at his characters and lets them go about their business, as though we’re spectators also, albeit ones on the inside track. We follow Klaatu as he decides to immerse himself in human life before delivering his message to the world, better to understand the beings he is dealing with. Fortunately, he spends much of his time with Helen’s child, Bobby, who takes him to signficant places like the Lincoln memorial, all so our friend from another world might intone about meeting great people.

Gort does his Cylon thingAs we follow Klaatu’s progress, the Christ parallels become more obvious. Taking the assumed identity of ‘Mr Carpenter’ (do you see?), he doesn’t have any great difficulty in winning the trust of the Bensons. As Klaatu the alien, however, he is treated with suspicion and occasional revulsion. Twice he is shot without posing a threat, the first time by a nervous, trigger happy soldier as he approaches. Before he can meet his ‘disciples’ within the scientific community, he is again shot and this time apparently dies, though Gort and some nifty technology on the saucer resurrect him. This gives Klaatu an opportunity to deliver his message, a seemingly predictable polemic about the need for peace but with an undertone of threat.

The allegories are indeed there if you look for them; otherwise TDTESS is just a great slice of entertainment. Further mastery comes with the casting, and it’s here we get a perfect example of why the recent release might have failed. Bradford born actor Michael Rennie was offered the role of Klaatu after the producer, Daryl F Zanuck, watched him on the stage in London. Though he had already appeared in numerous British films, Rennie was largely unknown to American audiences, and Zanuck felt the character might have more credibility if the actor playing him wasn’t already a star. He was proved right. Rennie underplays his role, imbuing Klaatu with a kind of studied curiousity about the world he’s flown to and there’s something exactly right about that. It’s easy to see why Keanu Reeves was considered right for the remake, yet everyone’s knowledge of the star’s limited range seems to have given critics an all too easy stick. Sam Jaffe is excellent in the relatively minor part of Professor Barnhardt, the scientist whose lifelong work is solved instantly by the spaceman. And Billy Gray overturns the usual theory about child actors by playing Bobby exactly as a real child. For much of the film, the boy trusts and admires Mr Carpenter, only to run home scared once he learns the identity of his new friend, all prior loyalties forgotten.

Patricia Neal, who plays Helen, confessed that she spent her time on set trying to overcome her giggles. The actress thought she was starring in a low budget potboiler and struggled to take any of it seriously. However far we can view the film as an enduring classic, the fact remains it was cheaply made and very little appeared to differentiate it from other trash flicks of time. Though the movie tries to insinuate a planet threatened, it achieves this merely by the cinematic staple of people using different languages whilst talking into microphones in order to hint at the world’s press. The actors playing Klaatu and Bobby didn’t really visit the Lincoln memorial and Arlington Cemetery; they never left the studio and simply acted their scenes in front of background screens. Klaatu’s flying saucer, which was supposed to be made from an impervious metal, was in fact a prop cobbled together using wood and plaster of paris. Lock Martin’s Gort costume had a zipper in the back for scenes where he was shot from the front, and vice versa when filming from behind.

There has to be an easier way to get FiveLittle wonder that Neal considered the production to be more than a little silly. And maybe in different hands that’s exactly how it might have turned out. Instead, with Wise as director it happened to have one of the country’s up and coming film makers at the helm. He would go on to win Academy Awards for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, two superbly staged musicals that didn’t let the songs get in the way of riveting storylines. TDTESS came long before these films and carries all the trappings of greatness. At a shade under ninety minutes in running time, it’s taut and never gets dull, covering vast swathes of plot and somehow not getting bogged down in its own story or mythology. Another significant contribution to the crew was Bernard Herrmann, like Wise a veteran of Welles’s halcyon era and here hired to provide the film’s memorably otherworldly score. Herrmann hit upon the idea of using two theremins to create the high pitched effect that is now considered a staple of science fiction movie music, and won a Golden Globe for his pioneering work.

Aspects of TDTESS certainly come across as dated to our eyes, and that isn’t a further weary stab at the special effects. I was stunned at the scene in which Helen quite happily foists her child for the day on Klaatu despite him being more or less a perfect stranger, and a quietly spoken one at that. The effects of the electricity outage are revealed in some loveably quaint vignettes; my favourite showed a farmer trying irritatedly to milk his cows. It’s moments like these that suggest why a modern update was seen to be justified, even if the results were not.

The 1951 vintage is simply a great movie. Its influence on later films can be seen very clearly, as it can on TV (notably The Twilight Zone, which ran a variety of similar tales), not to mention the countless homages and references that have popped up in other works. Does this make it one of the greatest science fiction films of all time? The American Film Institute ranked it fifth, slotting it between Blade Runner and A Clockwork Orange. However you look at it, that isn’t bad going for a 1950s Cold War thriller.

Posted on 21st December 2008
Under: Classics | 5 Comments »

‘Shaken, not Stirred’ - Goldfinger (1964)

‘You’re a woman of many parts, Pussy’.

Goldfinger posterDuring Goldfinger, James Bond (Sean Connery) spends much of his time in custody. A guest/prisoner of the eponymous villain, Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), 007 alternates his stay by being in a cell, sharing quips with his nemesis and getting involved with Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). In the meantime, Goldfinger puts his plan of blowing up Fort Knox into action, dispatching those who are present to help and hinder him with equal abandon whilst rather inexplicably keeping alive the one person who can possibly stop him. Rarely have I felt so much like echoing the words of Scott Evil and crying ‘Why don’t you just kill him?’

Goldfinger was the Bond outing that truly defined the series. Dr. No offered an introduction to the adventures of a glamorous secret agent and From Russia with Love embellished it, yet it’s only with his third entry that we get the template for the next two decades’ output. That is both its blessing and its curse. Goldfinger is of course really god fun. Connery makes for an agreeable and charismatic lead, whilst Fröbe’s playing of Goldfinger sets the tone for all megalomaniac, ever so slightly unhinged villains to follow. The action rarely lets up even though it becomes obvious early in the film that Bond is going to walk away with barely a scratch. He’s hardly a spy by now and more like a superhero, seemingly impervious to bullets, aware of every pitfall before him and armed with a ready supply of quips to sum up all happenings in a pithy one liner. Speaking of arms, Q (Desmond Llewellyn) is now fully formed and a regular member of MI6. Already irritated by 007 thanks to the agent’s offhand way of losing and breaking his gadgets, he nevertheless creates for him a souped up Aston Martin that contains a dazzling array of gizmoes. So many of these are there that the film doesn’t even have enough time to show them all off. We are left to imagine just what else Bond’s car can actually do - fly? Make him an espresso? Give him a short back and sides?

The hard-bitten 007 of the first two films has gone. Here, he’s fighting someone who is rich enough to retire from his life of crime yet aims to bring the west to financial ruin all the same. The reason, presumably, is just because he can and it’s at this point that it doesn’t do to think about what’s happening in Goldfinger too hard. Once you do, the plot collapses like the fantasy it so clearly is. As possible as it was to understand the motives of SPECTRE in the first two movies, why Goldfinger bothers putting together an elaborate plot is less easy to fathom, as are his reasons for keeping Bond alive once he’s in his grip. I lost track of the number of occasions when 007 was at his mercy, beginning with the early scene where Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) is suffocated by having her entire body covered in gold paint whilst our hero is simply knocked unconscious. I can only guess that Goldfinger likes to play dangerously, that it pleases him to dangle Bond until he’s had enough, or possibly that he just needs to impress someone with expansive plans that few people will ever hear about.

What tanning salon do you use?At the bad guy’s side is the first in a series of larger than life henchmen. Oddjob (Harold Sakata) is Goldfinger’s mute, Korean bodyguard, a figure of incredible strength who tops off his prowess with a steel-rimmed hat that he can throw with deadly accuracy, as Tilly Masterson (Tania Mallet) learns to her doom. Behind Oddjob is a small Korean army of servants, the sort that can be offed with some ease and keep coming back for more. Finally, there’s Pussy and her circus of formation pilots who also double as glamour models. I think they were last seen dropping millions of footballs onto London as part of an advertising campaign for The Sun.

John Barry is on hand once more to provide the score, one of the better known in the Bond canon thanks to its fantastic signature tune, which is belted out by Shirley Bassey. That it lacks any of the subtlety of From Russia with Love kind of suits the extravaganza unfolding on the screen. The film is directed by Guy Hamilton, supposedly with a tongue lodged firmly in his cheek. Hamilton would go on to direct three more Bond epics, along with Funeral in Berlin once the Harry Palmer series took a turn for the sillier. This is his best work. He’s more than capable of shooting large-scale action sequences and maintaining a blistering pace. The slow burning tension that marked Bond’s relationship with Red Grant is a thing of the past. Instead, we get 007 and Goldfinger exchanging memorable quips and beneath the ideological differences actually appearing to admire each other, indeed it’s possible to imagine a slightly less Alpha Male Bond ditching Pussy for a life of amused antagonism with the villain. Besides, there’s little chemistry between him and Ms Galore. Maybe this is why she doesn’t appear until the movie’s halfway point, which gives viewers time to forget his brief yet far steamier affair with the lovely, tragic Jill.

Someone foolishly mentions Gert's links with the Nazi party againPerhaps the absurdity of Goldfinger is best illustrated in a single scene. Having assembled the cream of America’s crime world in his lair, Auric outlines his plans for detonating Fort Knox. However, instead of using an overhead projector for his presentation, the mastermind has a scale model of the base located beneath the floor of his games room, accessible via some switches on a console that happens to be on the underside of a pool table. Clearly this was the pre-PowerPoint era, though it seems an overly decadent means of explaining his scheme and particularly to a group of men that he has every intention of killing. The film teases us by letting the one mobster who doesn’t want any part of Goldfinger’s plan walk out alive whilst the remaining audience is gassed. But this doesn’t last very long. The appropriately named Solo (Martin Benson) is driven towards the airport by Oddjob who then shoots him and leaves him in a car that is finally crushed into a cube.

It’s all done with elan, affection and a sheer willingness to entertain. At no point does Goldfinger even attempt to suggest that the world of an agent is really like this; nor should it. Cinemagoers loved Goldfinger and even now the film is seen routinely as the definitive Bond adventure. But its success carried a sting in the tail. Saltzman and Broccoli naturally saw the film’s massive box office as the direction the franchise needed to take, leading to a succession of copycat follow-ups that recycled its composite parts, grew more fantastical and grandiose in their efforts to outdo previous movies, and ultimately bored Sean Connery into quitting.

Posted on 6th December 2008
Under: 007 | 1 Comment »

‘Shaken, not Stirred’ - From Russia with Love (1963)

Original From Russia with Love posterHidden in with all the other reasons for Albert R Broccoli and Harry Saltzman choosing From Russia with Love as their next James Bond adaptation (apart from the fact it’s one of Ian Fleming’s best novels) is the fact that it was a favourite read of one John F Kennedy. By tragic irony, it is also credited as the last movie the President watched before his assassination. In a nod to Kennedy’s averting of the Cuban missile crisis and thawing of the Cold War, the villains in the story were amended. Fleming’s version has Bond battling covert Sovet organisation, SMERSH, whilst in the film both 007 and the Russians turn out to be pawns in the plans of international terrorism ring, SPECTRE. Indeed, such were the renewed feelings of warmth towards the USSR that in the movie it’s best represented by glamorous defector, Tatiana ‘Tanya’ Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), possibly the most adorable Bond girl of the lot thanks to being given enough screen time to work her charms both on Bond and the audience.

FRWL underwent a fraught production process. Costs rose ridiculously, expensive stunts were botched and director Terence Young relied more and more on the creative editing of Peter Hunt to pull the shambolic movie into a cohesive whole. Its problems were encapsulated by Pedro Armendàriz, who was hired for the pivotal role of Bond’s Turkish liaison, Ali Kerim Bey. It’s widely accepted that Armendàriz gives a charismatic, winning performance, yet in reality the actor discovered halfway through shooting that his previously undiagnosed cancer was already in its advanced stages. Refusing to give in to the disease whilst simultaneously getting weaker by the day, Armendàriz’s scenes were brought forward in the shooting schedule. At times, he had to be propped up as he delivered his lines. Within two weeks of completing his work on the film, Armendàriz was dead, shooting himself rather than allowing his body to waste away. The loss was felt by the entire cast and crew, though it’s impossible to see any of the actor’s suffering within his memorable playing on the final piece. A dedicated professional who carried out his duties through sheer force of personality, Armendàriz is indeed one of the best things about the movie.

And what a movie! Though Goldfinger is considered to be perhaps the definitive Bond, FRWL is the franchise at its finest. Despite the problems everyone experienced in making it, the finished product is a treat, not just a fantastic 007 film but excellent also as a single body of work. Part of this no doubt has to do with everyone involved having experienced Dr. No and being more comfortable in their roles, whilst having the drive and ambition to make something even better. Fortunately, ‘better’ did not necessarily mean bigger in this instance. Though Q’s gadgetry makes its introduction here, what Bond receives isn’t some impossible toy straight out of the realms of science fiction but rather a briefcase featuring a few subtle refinements. The villain isn’t based in an incredible underwater lair and, as in Dr. No, 007 needs to rely on his own skills to prevail.

Can't tell what he sees in her personallyIt’s fair to suggest that as his tensure progressed, Sean Connery’s boredom with the role of Bond was beginning to show. But that was later. Here, Connery was comfortable in the shoes of his secret agent protagonist and thriving. There are many moments in FRWL where he is compromised or uncertain of himself. His is a 007 who could fail or die and that enriches his character, as does the disappointment glimpsed on his face when he learns someone is betraying him. He is nearly matched by the richy played pair of baddies. Lotte Lenya plays Rosa Klebbe, SPECTRE Number Three whose advances towards Tanya hint at the sort of character depth that’s unusual for the franchise.

And then there’s Red Grant (Robert Shaw), the assassin who tracks Bond through Istanbul. For the majority of the film, he is 007’s silent shadow, a malevolent presence who leaves a trail of corpses whilst never quite keeping the agent out of his sight. As we learn in the teasing opener, Grant is a fearsome killer and more than a match for Bond, who clearly knows it also. The scenes between the pair on the Orient Express are charged, Bond coming across Grant as a friend and then slowly finding out that he isn’t at all what he appears. Grant leaves clues for his foe, ordering red wine with fish, which pricks at 007’s gentlemanly sensibilities almost as much as being irritatingly referred to as ‘old man.’ When the pair inevitably fight in a confined train carriage, it’s a visceral, ‘to the death’ affair. Had it been filmed now, it would no doubt have featured the jump cuts that speed up the action to confusing dimensions in an effort to be more grittily realistic. But Young keeps everything coherent and spares us not one single blow.

Perhaps even more sizzling than the fight is the banter between Bond and Grant. Cornered and vulnerable, 007 tries every trick in the book to buy time for himself and it’s only when he offers Grant money that we find a chink in the assassin’s armour. When it comes down to it, for all the relentless tracking he’s done the killer is a petty criminal at heart who risks it all for a belt of sovereigns. Before this point, he seems utterly unstoppable, indeed he goes down as one of the scariest Bond villains. Silent until his meeting with the agent, his face more or less an impassive mask, he cuts a sinister foe, never more so than when Bond is pacing outside the Orient Express waiting for his contact to arrive whilst on the train Grant follows him, the spectre of death floating from window to window and never taking his eyes off his prey.

Connery, Istanbul, hatThe scenes containing Grant are so electric that his exit leaves a vacuum, one the film tries to fill with the kind of expensive, set-piece action sequences that 007 would become so famous for. It works, largely because of the previous lack of excess. Bond and Tanya are pursued by a SPECTRE helicopter as they flee through the Croatian countryside (Argyll substitutes for a part of the world that was behind the Iron Curtain), whilst a later attempt by the agent to sail to Venice leads to an ambush on the Adriatic. This is good exciting stuff, if slightly undermining the slow burning narrative developments that took place beforehand. It also gives a hint of the direction the series would take. Whereas one might have hoped for further labyrinthine plots as served up here, what we got were elaborate stunts, grand explosions and the suggestion that money was being thrown at the screen instead of relying on imaginative scripting and giving the performers time and space to act.

But that, of course, is what makes this instalment so special. According to the DVD’s ‘Making Of’ documentary the producers were concerned viewers would be put off by the dense plotting that underpinned the movie, the ‘cat and mouse’ game SPECTRE plays with both Bond and the Soviets. They needn’t have worried. FRWL is all the better for its intelligent story and for making its star look at times like a human being capable of feeling and even the occasional sign of vulnerability. It’s the closest Bond will ever get to being a ’spy’ movie, with all the espionage and undercover machinations this implies. The next episode, Goldfinger, would take the series down an entirely new route, that of the action hero, a point from which it would never quite return. FRWL is simply as good as it gets and even contains some of the most memorable music that John Barry contributed to the franchise.

Posted on 2nd December 2008
Under: 007 | 6 Comments »

Login     Film Journal Home     Support Forums           Journal Rating: 4/5 (10)