Author Archives: Alex Good

Thunderball (1965)

*. I’ve written quite glowingly (at least by my standards) of the first three Bond films: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger. With Thunderball the franchise was truly off and running, being a property that was one of the most anticipated movies ever made. Its budget was greater than the first three movies combined, and it did the best box office yet.
*. Still, I find it the first real misstep in the series. Not a bomb by any stretch of the imagination, but just not as good. Or, as Pauline Kael put it, I think exactly, in her review: “Not bad, but not quite top-grade Bond. A little too much underwater war-ballet.”
*. Things go wrong right from the start. The pre-credit action sequence features a good fight, but ends in silliness with Bond taking a jet-pack off the roof of a chateau and then spraying bad guys with water cannons from his newly-equipped Aston Martin (the water tanks it must have been carrying are hard to imagine). This struck me as just being pranks and hijinks, and that’s a feeling that was reinforced when the action turned to the spa and Count Lippe dials up the power on Bond’s back table, leading him to lock Lippe into a steam cabinet. Were they really trying to kill each other? Or just playing silly games?
*. Tom Jones put everything he had into trying to sell one of the worst of the Bond theme songs, whose lyrics neither he nor the songwriter knew the meaning of. They’d wanted to use “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” sung by either Shirley Bassey or Dionne Warwick, but to be honest I didn’t like that one any better. They just didn’t turn over any aces for this movie.
*. Terence Young back directing for his third and final round of Bond (Guy Hamilton had taken the reins for Goldfinger). But by now the series belonged to Sean Connery. They give him more killer quips, like parking a murdered Luciana Paluzzi at a table and explaining “She’s just dead,” or shooting a heavy with a speargun and saying “I think he got the point,” but his best bit is silent, when Paluzzi asks him to give her something to put on when she gets out of the tub and he hands her a pair of slippers, then sits down facing her. That’s a great bit of Bond stuff, and really I can’t think of another Bond who could have pulled it off.
*. There’s a fair bit of action but I didn’t think it was that well done. Or, to be fair, while it may be well done a lot of it is underwater (which is what ate up a lot of the budget) and I don’t find underwater action very thrilling. Everything is in slow motion. Even the stirring Bond secondary theme that I raved about in my notes on From Russia With Love has to be slowed down here and still can’t save the final “underwater war-ballet.” As Kael said, there’s just too much of this stuff.
*. Several critics have also complained that it’s hard to tell who the bad guys and the good guys are in the underwater scenes. I don’t understand this. They wear different coloured diving suits so it’s pretty obvious. I don’t like the underwater scenes, but not for that reason.
*. The story wasn’t so much based on Ian Fleming’s novel as an original screenplay that had been written to be the first of the Bond movies and which Fleming later turned into a book. Apparently it took over forty years to sort out the legal disputes. Putting such questions aside, it’s actually a pretty good story, but for the first time in the series I got the sense that the producers were more interested in showing off the beautiful locations than tying them into the plot in any interesting way. Men wanted to dress like Bond, make love like Bond, and now vacation like Bond in Nassau.

*. A quick aside here: When the original double-0 team is assembled and sent off to find the missing nukes Bond is first assigned to Section C, which is Canada. No way, M! Not going to happen! Bond has seen a photo of Domino in a bikini (and her dead brother, who he recognizes) and wants to go to the Bahamas. This made me wonder if Bond ever visited Canada. I don’t believe he did.
*. Another aside: on the DVD commentary John Cork (of the Ian Fleming Foundation) does a nice job pointing out various slip-ups in continuity due to the way the film was shot and edited into a different order. I think most of these are invisible and make sense, but I didn’t understand why he felt the need to say “while many might identify these as continuity problems they are actually skillfully made edits.” No, they are both. If a character’s clothes change between shots then that’s a continuity error, however many days of filming it may have saved.
*. As in earlier instalments the main supporting players — Claudine Auger (Bond girl) and Adolfo Celi (Bond villain) — are dubbed, but it doesn’t matter because they both look the part. I mean, I don’t know why Largo is such a hard out for Bond in the final punch-up, but he does look nasty with his shock of white hair, eye-patch, and black scuba suit. Auger, in the meantime, looks good in a swimsuit but I’m still sad that Raquel Welch never got a shot at being in one of these flicks. She was pursued here but appeared in Fantastic Voyage instead.
*. So what happens to the scientist at the end who releases Domino and gets rid of the bomb trigger? I guess he’s got his ring buoy, even if he can’t swim. He’s sort of like the guy who shuts the bomb off at the end of Goldfinger, just showing up out of nowhere to save the day and then disappearing.
*. The final shot of Bond and Domino being yanked off the raft was too much for me. Wouldn’t they have suffered some pretty major dislocations being picked up like that?
*. Young thought Dr. No the most interesting of the Bond films, From Russia With Love his favourite, and Thunderball . . . the one that did the best box office. That’s not a bad summary. Success would mean the series would keep going, and indeed Thunderball would even be remade in 1983 as Never Say Never Again. That later movie would drag Connery out of retirement, and his lack of interest showed. Here, however, he still seems to be game, though I think his commitment was about to fade.
*. I’m a Bond fan and I’ve seen Thunderball many times. Watching it again certainly didn’t hurt. It’s still a fun movie. But it also marks a gentle falling off in my book. The series had much worse, but also some better, to come.

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

*. Of course given that there was a lot of money in the spy genre in the mid-60s it was inevitable that American International was going to try to cash in. But can we at least say they were making an honest effort with this one?
*. I think we can. In Norman Taurog they got an Oscar-winning direct to take the helm, though admittedly that had been over thirty years earlier for Skippy (and if you’ve even heard of Skippy, much less seen it, you’re an award-winning cinephile yourself). It also had a huge budget, at least for this studio, being the first AIP picture to cost over $1 million to produce.
*. I’m not sure all that money was well spent, but it does show that an attempt was being made to make something good. And, for the most part, I think it succeeds.
*. To a large extent the production was limited by the desire to stick with formulas that AIP knew best. Hence, instead of a true spy parody it’s an even stranger amalgam of one of the Vincent Price Poe confections and a beach-party flick.
*. In the former case, it’s got Price as Dr. Goldfoot, who needs only be a villain scheming of global domination but turns out in the end to be yet another mad inquisitor, one who even wears a cape and has a dungeon full of medieval torture instruments in his basement. In fact, he’s even got a full-scale working model of the pendulum from Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961). Of course it’s the same machine, and they even reuse some of the same longshots. The portraits of Dr. Goldfoot’s ancestors are also depictions of characters that Price played in previous movies.
*. With regard to the beach-party angle, we’ve got Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman as the co-leads (their characters swapping the names they appeared under in Ski Party a year before), along with a bevy of girls in bikinis. Hell, Harvey Lembeck even has a cameo in his biker outfit, and Annette Funicello is a girl in the dungeon.
*. But wait, there’s more! Or at least there was going to be more. The film was originally intended to be a musical as well, and apparently Price was upset that they cut out all the songs. Except for The Supremes singing the theme, which is actually quite a catchy little tune.
*. Given all this, the spy stuff is actually pretty thin. They were mainly trying to ride the coattails of Goldfinger, which had come out the year previously. Avalon’s character works for the spy organization S.I.C. (Secret Intelligence Command), where he has the code name of Double-O-and-a-half. Or at least that’s what his uncle, the Command’s San Francisco office head, calls him. Or Double-O-and-a-quarter if he’s mad at him. What the number means is that he’s not only not licensed to kill but can’t even carry a gun. In the U.S.!
*. I’m not sure what the S.I.C. actually does and like I say this part of the story is very thin. But because Avalon bumps into one of Dr. Goldfoot’s bikini girls by accident he uncovers a mad plot involving the fembots. Or perhaps not so mad. As far as these evil masterminds plotting world domination go, Dr. Goldfoot’s scheme is pretty sensible. He basically programs these gold-digging beauties to seduce the richest men in the world and then have them sign over their fortunes to their new mistresses/brides. I like the old honey trap better than threatening to blow up the planet.
*. The humour isn’t even spy-related, as it would be with most of theother Bond spoofs. Instead it’s broad, Three Stooges stuff. Dr. Goldfoot has an imbecile assistant named Igor that he’s raised from the dead and that he has to slap around a lot. There are old gags like the guy being caught in the Murphy bed and spraying himself in the face with a bottle of seltzer. I guess you can’t go wrong with the classics.
*. I’m not a fan of car chases, especially in comedies. They ironically bring everything to a screeching halt. The one we end up with here is maybe a little better for all of its craziness, not to mention tearing up the streets of San Francisco a few years before Bullitt, but it just feels like they were running out of things to do. Then there’s a coda, leading up to “The End?” I wonder what the first movie was to end with that. This movie came out a couple of years ahead of Spider Baby, which also does it. I don’t know who did it first though.
*. Overall, however, I have to admit I liked this one. It’s silly and kind of sexy, which is a hard combination to pull off. There’d be a follow-up directed by Mario Bava, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, apparently because Bikini Machine did well in Italy. It seems to me it should have played well anywhere. There’s plenty of nonsense here for everyone.

The Ipcress File (1965)

*. Success leads to imitation and parody. In the case of the Cold War spy story in the wake of Bondmania though there was an alternative path, which was correction. Why not make espionage less glamorous, more realistic, grubby, even mundane? Why not add in some darkness and moral ambiguity? Thus was born Bond redux. That Harry Saltzman, who produced the early Bond films, would also produce The Ipcress File was perfectly apt. He would profit from both the disease and its cure.
*. Enter Len Deighton and his tetralogy of spy novels, three of which were made into movies with Michael Caine as the British spy Harry Palmer (a nom de scène; in the books he’s unnamed).
*. I can’t remember who it was that said bad books make good movies, but when considering the spy genre it does have the ring of truth. The thing is, Ian Fleming was a terrible writer. Deighton is much better: funny, clever, intelligent, and even at times a bit adventurous. He uses words like “azoic” and “horrisonous” just for kicks. I’d rather go back and read him than all but one or two of the Bond novels any day. But, for better or for worse, Bond became the franchise hero while Deighton’s protagonist is largely unknown. After a run of successful novels (four) and movies (three) in the 1960s Palmer made one more appearance in the mid ’70s (Spy Story) and a couple of TV movies (not written by Deighton) in the mid ’90s.

*. I think I know what some of the problem was. Deighton wasn’t that great at movie writing. The action scenes in his books don’t play like movie scenarios, and indeed at times they can be hard to follow. The film version of The Ipcress File is a very free adaptation of the book, getting rid of all of the stuff in the South Pacific where the Americans are testing a neutron bomb. Perhaps that seemed too Bondish. What they’ve added, however, are lots of great movie touches. That opening scene of the kidnapping where the different man appears in the train carriage is totally new. There’s nothing like it in the book.
*. Alas, the one thing they couldn’t really change, because it’s so central it gives us the title, is the brainwashing stuff. Too bad. I was trying to think of movies that have done a good job dealing with brainwashing or hypnosis. Of course there’s the tour de force of The Manchurian Candidate, but aside from that I couldn’t come up with anything. I think because all of the action takes place in someone’s head and it’s almost impossible to present this credibly. In this film they take the approach that would go on to become very familiar — the man strapped into a chair while lights and pictures play all around him, a la The Sorcerers, A Clockwork Orange, The Parallax View (there seems to have been some anxiety underlying all this about what television was doing to us) — but even with Michael Caine doing his best, I still wasn’t buying any of it.

*. Michael Caine has been with us for so long, and he’s so familiar, not least for being in so many crumby parts, that it’s easy to forget how good he can be. He’s in top form here as the almost-too-smart-for-his-own-good Palmer. And he’s backed up with some capable supporting players too. Nigel Green is particularly well cast as the eccentric Dalby, complete with Imperial moustache, while Guy Doleman fits the bill as the dour Ross.

*. The atmosphere is a wonderful mix of a conservative (brollies and bowlers) but low-rent London that seems far from swinging. Indeed, it’s a city that’s nearly indistinguishable from the Berlin of next year’s The Quiller Memorandum. Then it’s shaken up with trendy direction from Sidney J. Furie. The compositions are all weird angles (high and low), Dutch tilts, and foregrounds obstructing half or more of the frame. If you’re going to discover a body, why not reveal it by shooting down through a light fixture? Or hide half of Dalby’s face behind a furious red lampshade? This is nutty stuff, but it’s quite a lot of fun. They don’t make movies like this anymore.

*. Caine says the studio wanted the scene of Palmer cooking to be cut because it made him look like a “fag” (their word). In fact Deighton, who wrote two books on cookery as well as a regular newspaper “cookstrip” (recipes with illustrations), quite enjoyed cooking. And those are his hands seen in close-up doing the meal prep. I wonder if Caine knew how to cook. Apparently he didn’t know how to drive.
*. Fun stuff, but it winds up on a low note. There isn’t much of a payoff at all, and since they’ve already revealed what’s going on there’s no real suspense. Up until the final act though it’s good work. Not as entertaining as one of the early Bond vehicles, but fine in its own way.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)

*. The 1960s, being the height of the Cold War, were also the height of the spy movie. Of course the figure who bestrode the cultural landscape like a colossus was James Bond, whose franchise kicked off with Dr. No in 1962. After that the floodgates truly opened, with more Bond movies, then Bond rip-offs, Bond parodies, and also a whole genre of what we might think of as anti-Bond spy movies.
*. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is very much in this latter camp (despite the screenplay being written by Paul Dehn, who was just coming off doing Goldfinger). As Michael Sagrow puts it in his Criterion essay: “Le Carré’s view of espionage as an extension of the ugly, soul-grinding side of Cold War politics was more than a slap at the Bond books’ Byronic derring-do and the movies’ glamour, gimmickry, and jet-setting. It read like an exposé of the spy game’s dirty little secrets, linking the spiritual and emotional calamities of a burned-out fiftysomething British agent to the crises of values that plagued East and West in the mid-twentieth century.” And there’s even Bernard Lee, Bond’s M, showing up as a corner grocer.

*. So, no exotic locations, no over-the-top Ken Adams sets, no bombshell Bond girls. Leamas (Richard Burton) even calls out such fantasies in trying to explain the business to his lover Nancy (Claire Bloom): “What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.”

*. Honest? Maybe. But realistic? Perhaps in terms of its moral tone. But I don’t find the events here very probable. Still, that air of Cold War-noir seems to have been enough for most people, helped along by the stagey ’40s photography. Aside from that . . .
*. Was Richard Burton really all that good? I don’t just mean that I don’t think I’ve really liked him much in anything, but was he that good an actor? He did, after all, win the Golden Turkey Award for the Worst Actor of All Time. Mostly, I think, for his over-emoting. Which was, in turn, his signature style. Did he ever play light?
*. He came from the stage and maybe that deep-voiced presence worked better in theatre. On screen he always seems like he’s playing some variation of the angry drunk (a role that he may have been playing offscreen as well). He was actually Leamas’s age at the time (39), but looks at least ten years older. Though people did age faster in those days. Even movie stars.
*. I didn’t find him all that credible as Leamas. I didn’t find Nancy credible either, but I think that’s the fault of the part, which doesn’t make much sense to me. I did, however, enjoy Oskar Werner as the too-earnest and hapless East German pawn, and Peter van Eyck as an impassive and untouchable force of . . . evil? Well, everyone is compromised.

*. Sure there are nice subtle touches that capture the bureaucratic nightmare everyone is caught up in. I love how each successive figure Leamas meets on the other side humiliates the previous underling. That has the ring of truth even more than the dingy sets.
*. But while there’s a lot to like I still come away unsatisfied from this one. A lot of the dialogue which is supposed to sound cynical now just seems precious (“I’m a man!”, “What about love?”, etc.) I appreciate the low-key atmosphere, but I think it also contributes to my lack of interest in the climaxes. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to think Leamas has actually fallen in love with Nancy or if he only feels a sense of duty toward her at the end. But then I never really bought Burton as a spy, burned out or otherwise. Martin Ritt also presents it all as a drama, with characters playing different roles off against each other in a series of one-on-ones culminating in the trial. Building suspense seems to have never entered his head. So while I’ve praised the photography, which looks great, this just doesn’t feel like a movie.
*. The title has gone on to become famous, even if the movie is less well known. Maybe even less well known than the novel today. I think it’s mostly well done but I just don’t find it that involving.

Goldfinger (1964)

*. I concluded my notes on From Russia With Love by saying how “Cubby” Broccoli thought the formula was set after that film. True in some ways, as it introduced a number of what would become regular features. But that film was also a one-off for the franchise too. Goldfinger, I would argue, is the movie that gave us the complete formula in perhaps its most perfect package. Not coincidentally it also marked the greater expansion of the franchise, with product placement and later marketing tie-ins running wild.
*. So in this movie you get Sean Connery at his most charming, even when first appearing with a seagull stuck to his head, or later dressed in a baby-blue onesie or a three-piece suit (the latter being something I found incongruous, even for a fashionable spy). You get arguably the greatest of all the Bond theme songs, belted out by brassy Shirley Bassey (listen to the demo recording with Anthony Newley doing the vocals to hear what a difference she makes). There’s Bond’s Aston Martin, tricked out with all kinds of gadgets. There’s Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), not as explicitly lesbian as in Ian Fleming’s novel but still submitting to the ultimate straight-maker Bond, who puts her on the path of virtue (I mean, foiling Goldfinger’s plot) after a quick roll in the hay (a swift conversion that would be made fun of in Thunderball). There are set designs by Ken Adam, including the climactic cathedral of gold. There’s another silent henchman in the unforgettable Oddjob (Hawaiian wrestler Harold Sakata).
*. And of course there’s the criminal mastermind Auric Goldfinger. Gert Fröbe provides the physical presence, though his lines are dubbed by Michael Collins. In the “making of” featurette included with the DVD you can watch a screen test by another actor reading for the part of Goldfinger. I can’t imagine getting turned down for a part because the producers wanted someone who couldn’t even speak English. But according to director Guy Hamilton (helming his first of four Bond pictures) they didn’t find out that Fröbe would have to be dubbed until he showed up on set and they started shooting. I find that very hard to believe. Then again, dubbing was ubiquitous at the time. Shirley Eaton is actually dubbed here too. And in Thunderball both Claudine Auger and Adolfo Celli would be dubbed as well.
*. Apparently they’d wanted Orson Welles to play the part but he’d wanted too much money. That would have been fun. But would it have been a better movie? Maybe not.

*. They were in the zone, and with this many things going right they couldn’t miss. The plot is pure fantasy but I don’t think anyone objects. Does it matter that we don’t know who it is who comes in to deactivate the bomb at the end? I mean, who the hell is that guy? Who cares? The countdown ends on 007, that’s all that matters. I was hooked right from the brilliant credit sequence, that gets away with showing many of the film’s highlights in creative ways. The flipping license plates on the Aston Martin superimposed over the model’s lips. The golf ball draining down her cleavage.
*. Guy Hamilton was certainly up to the task. That wonderful opening helicopter shot that takes the man diving from the high platform into the pool and Felix Leiter (Cec Linder) watching through an underwater window is a bravura sequence. Less than a minute of screen time and it lets you know that you can sit back and enjoy things because you’re in good hands.
*. Iconic scenes soon follow. The girl painted gold. Bond’s manhood threatened with a laser (perhaps the first appearance of a laser in a movie; in the novel it had been a saw). There are classic lines. “Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr. Bond. It could be your last.”
*. I mentioned Bond’s hats in From Russia With Love. Here Connery is wearing a toupee. I never noticed. Like I say, they were getting away with everything here.
*. The best Bond movie? As I’ve said, my personal choice is between it and From Russia With Love. This one opens the franchise up a lot more and is more fun. And even today the score can make me tear up, it feels so much a part of me. Mock me if you want. I still love it.

Charade (1963)

*. Charade is a movie pulling in several different directions, indicated by the pot-pourri of genre labels that are cheerfully slapped on it like so many old airline stickers on a piece of luggage. It’s a spy movie, a screwball comedy, a romance, a Hitchcockian thriller . . .
*. Actually, just the name Hitchcock evokes most of the rest. And this is very much a Hitchcock homage. So much so that I found myself wondering what Hitch himself thought of it. The Birds came out this same year, but after that it was Marnie, Torn Curtain, and Topaz. He must have felt envious at Stanley Donen getting such a great script to work with, and Cary Grant too.
*. The movie is fluff, but it’s great fluff, expertly turned out in all departments. Stanley Donen’s bread and butter had been directing musicals in the ’50s, and when musicals went out of style he had to expand his repertoire quite a bit (one of his last films would be Saturn 3). He adapted well, but I think directing in genres is a specialist skill, which is why you don’t see many great directors of horror, or comedy, or musicals, successfully making the career jump. In part because directing is a difficult, demanding job and it’s hard to be a master of more than one set of skills, and in part because genre is like a personal style that goes with one’s own creative tendencies and sensibility. Hitchcock, for example, had a sense of humour, but if he’d made comedies they might have turned out to be just as bad as those of the Coen brothers.
*. I don’t know how far I’d want to take this, but I think what really works in Charade is the energetic pace. You’d be forgiven forgetting Grant’s age (he was on the verge of retirement, and thought he was too old for such parts), and the film’s dated sense of glamour. It’s a lively spy comedy, but mostly it’s a dance with Grant and Hepburn. Really, some big musical numbers are all that’s missing.

*. The screenplay by Peter Stone has as it’s whole raison d’être the production of a series of twists. These are not unexpected or surprising, but are enjoyable nonetheless. There is some light repartee, but nothing too sly or Bondish. Some reviewers were put off by the violence, but certainly by today’s standards it’s all pretty family-friendly. We can even be sure that Regina is going to be made an honest woman by becoming the new Mrs. Thornhill. Or Mrs. Canfield. Or Mrs. Cruikshank.
*. You couldn’t go wrong with these players either. Of course the two leads are right, though I think Grant sometimes plays too broad. And what a supporting cast! James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass as the three nasty stooges looking for their gold. Walter Matthau as rumpled as ever but still cast against type. And even Jacques Marin doing a pretty good Poirot. I wanted more of all of these guys.
*. But what are we to make of Regina (Hepburn)? I like to imagine she’s actually a spy herself and has been playing these men all along. That’s the final twist waiting to be revealed in some post-credit sequence. I mean, doesn’t she seem a little too confident and capable? Isn’t the frightened widow business all an act? Of course she’s the comic naïf, wandering good-naturedly through the minefield of the plot, but I do like to think of her as being secretly in control of the proceedings. And I also like not being told.

From Russia with Love (1963)

*. Starting with Dr. No in 1962 the James Bond movie franchise has been one of the longest continuously-running and most successful series in history. I think only Godzilla has been around longer. And, as with Godzilla, I’ve been a fan of Bond since I was a kid.
*. As you’d expect with such a long-lived series there are endless lists and opinions given over what was the best of the Bond films, who was the best Bond, the best villain, the best Bond girl, and even items like the best Bond car. Because there have been so many Bonds it’s hard to be definitive. Daniel Craig is as appropriate and excellent a Bond for his day as Sean Connery was for his, or Roger Moore for his. It’s hard to pick a greatest-of-all-time.
*. That said, my own pick for best Bond will always be Connery, and for best Bond film I’d say either From Russia with Love or Goldfinger. Why? Here are some of the main reasons.
*. (1) Ian Fleming was not a great writer. Not even a great hack writer. But From Russia With Love was one of the better Bond novels, and the one Fleming personally thought was the best. It’s sharply focused on a single Russian (not SPECTRE) plot to kill Bond, and engages us right away with its set-up. The screenplay makes the necessary big-screen additions (more scenes in Istanbul to make use of various locations, a more thrilling heist of the coding machine, the final two action sequences involving Bond vs. the helicopter and Bond vs. the motorboats), but still has at its heart the same basic storyline, which has Bond going mano a mano against his greatest adversary.

*. (2) Robert Shaw. Enough said. I can’t think of a single movie that I haven’t loved him in. Quint, of course, in Jaws (Spielberg had cast him after seeing him in this movie). Mr. Blue in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. The Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin and Marian (squaring off against Connery again). Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons. Aston in The Caretaker. Claudius (yes, Claudius!) in Hamlet at Elsinore. Lonnegan in The Sting. I can’t think of a more perfect complement to Connery and I can’t get enough of seeing them opposite one another. Even if Shaw had to stand on an apple crate when they were filmed together since he was four inches shorter. This is star power: when you can’t take your eyes off an actor even when they’re not saying anything. And Shaw doesn’t speak until the movie is more than half over!
*. (3) I’ll grant the theme song by Lionel “Oliver!” Bart is drippy. They had to hold the lyrics for the end credits and run an up-tempo mix to go with those jiggly opening credits. But to make up for it John Barry introduces what became known as Bond’s “secondary theme.” That’s the music that plays during the theft of the Lektor device. I can’t praise this bit of music enough. Though it’s not as well known as the main Bond theme I think it’s every bit as good (though for some reason the series seems to have dropped it after Moonraker). This is what an action score can be, and in my opinion it’s one of the top five I’ve ever heard. They don’t write them like that anymore. I don’t think anyone can.

*. (4) Daniela Bianchi’s Tatiana Romanova doesn’t get a lot of love as a Bond girl, but I like her. She had to be completely dubbed, as she was Italian and her English-with-a-Russian accent wasn’t working. (As an aside, dubbing was used a lot in the movies of this period. In Goldfinger, next up, Gert Frobe would be dubbed as well.) She’s one of the more likeable Bond girls. I love her shrug when Bond tells her that “Captain Nash” will be joining them for dinner. Obviously she’s not thrilled by Shaw’s company, but whatever. Then there’s the scene where she licks her finger to hold it up against the wind when she’s on the speedboat. I wonder if that was improvised. It’s adorable.
*. (5) The rest of the supporting cast comes up aces too. Lotte Lenya is unforgettable as Rosa Klebb. Pedro Armendáriz in his last role as the genial but deadly Turkish host Kerim Bey. Walter Gotell in the first of many appearances as a SMERSH thug. Vladek Sheybal as the chess master and master plotter. And Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell back as M and Miss Moneypenny. They could have dubbed the whole lot of them, because how could you go wrong with this bunch of faces? What a line-up.

*. So it’s a great Bond movie. The first great Bond movie, and maybe the best ever. Director Terence Young on the commentary calls it “far and away” the best and apparently it was Connery’s and Maxwell’s favourite. Though there were other good ones, the series peaked early.
*. It’s also a movie of several firsts. The first pre-title teaser sequence for a Bond film. The first appearance of Q (Desmond Llewelyn), a character credited as “Boothroyd.” Q has gadgets, in the form of a briefcase full of goodies for Bond, but they don’t overload the plot yet. In other words, things were really starting to ripen without becoming overripe. “It was with this film that the Bond style and formula were perfected,” according to producer Albert Broccoli. And where do you go from that?

*. The budget was double that of Dr. No but still cheap at $2 million. They really got their money’s worth, though given how big the Bond pictures were about to get it’s amazing looking at this and seeing just how much of a shoestring production it was. The international location shots are mixed in with really crude studio sets for the hotel rooms, and the repetition of shots (of Rosa in the meeting with Blofeld, of Bond being strafed by the helicopter) are Low Budget Film School 101. Not that it doesn’t work. I didn’t even notice how, after the walk-through of the SPECTRE camp they loop back to a different shot of them entering it again. Then there is the cheesiness, like the cat fight (an almost pornographic bit in the novel) and the shots of the train superimposed over the scrolling map.
*. The helicopter chase scene was based on the crop duster sequence from North by Northwest. Less obviously, Young meant the opening scene taking place on the grounds of the big house on SPECTRE island to be an homage to Last Year at Marienbad. Hm. Well, it had just come out a couple of years previously. Still . . .

*. Would anyone be allowed to shoot inside Hagia Sophia today? And could they have thought of a more conspicuous place to make a drop?
*. No, I don’t think Terence Young was a great director. But he was very capable and knew what worked. Look at that scene where Shaw stalks Bond while walking inside the train while Bond is out on the platform. Not a shot that makes you stand up and cheer, but one that absolutely works.
*. Simon Winder: “The Cold War has, weirdly, completely vanished, leaving behind such peculiar debris as From Russia with Love, a book and a film which will appear as strange to future generations as abandoned Kazakhstan rocket silos or fallout shelters.” Well, sure, it was a film of its moment. But I think it’s held up great as entertainment.

*. The line where Grant talks about Bond having to crawl and kiss his (Grant’s) foot isn’t in the book. Was it improvised? Bond is, of course, a gentleman agent (what he’s called in the trailer) and a snobbish member of the upper class. He’s on to Grant as soon as he orders the wrong wine at dinner. In the book though Grant is a psychopathic serial killer triggered by phases of the moon, not someone with much of a class consciousness. He’s only working for the Russians because they let him kill people. Was being a lefty something that made him more villainous?
*. I was admiring how Bond kept his hat on throughout the scene where he jumps from the train, takes out the driver of the truck, and escapes from the helicopter. Then, as soon as he’s on the motorboat, he switches over to a captain’s cap. Back in the day it was important to wear the proper lid. Plus Connery was apparently wearing a hairpiece in the movie anyway.
*. The credits even end with a notice that Bond will be back in Goldfinger. As Broccoli says, from here on out the formula was set. And why? Because it was obviously working so well. Perhaps not one of the greatest movies ever made, but one of my favourites even after more viewings than I can count. And I hope I get to watch it again as many times.

North by Northwest (1959)

*. You have to start somewhere when talking about the classics so why not at the crossroads, with Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) waiting for Godot. A crane shot introduces the slanted grid that’s been with us since the opening credits turned into the glass façade of an office building. A kind of chessboard then, for playing a game.
*. What follows is one of the most famous scenes in film history. And, as David Thomson puts it, “one of the most far-fetched events ever filmed in an alleged drama.” For me it’s a scene — I’m talking about Thornhill being chased by the crop-dusting plane — that represents the best and the worst of Hitchcock. It’s iconic, meticulous, unforgettable. It’s also a very deliberate rude gesture at anyone who cares about story, or what Hitchcock derided as “our friends the plausibilists.”
*. I mean, this is an episode that doesn’t even begin to make sense. Apparently screenwriter Ernest Lehman had thought of it as a way to make killing Thornhill look like an accident, which wasn’t an idea worth entertaining even before the plane started firing its machine guns. Yes, as the fellow waiting for the bus points out, it is odd that there’s a crop duster up there when there are no crops to be dusted. But then there is a lonely stand of corn stalks for Thornhill to run into. The appearance of this corn only further underlines the mystery of the crop duster, since this corn is already due to be harvested. What is a crop duster doing in the fall?
*. But that’s just the way the film operates. Apparently its initial inspiration came from Hitchcock telling Lehman that he’d always wanted to film a chase on Mount Rushmore. There now, get me that. But even while shooting, Lehman, who was making parts of the story up as they went along, had a moment of crisis when he realized he had no idea why the characters would be going to Mount Rushmore.
*. You can play along with all this, saying that Hitchcock somehow “proved” that plausibility didn’t matter in the movies. For me, a card-carrying plausibilist, it’s something I’ve never been able to forgive him. Why? Because of what came after: the way movies turned into circus rides. I don’t praise Hitchcock for this development.
*. Here, for example, is someone who does praise him, John Patterson writing in the Guardian: “When Hollywood went all blockbuster-minded in the 1980s, this was the kind of structure – all thrills, no brains – it came to rate most highly. Sequences in Bond movies and the action movies that came to imitate them – Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Jack Ryan movies and everything since – are as tenuously joined to each other as theme-park rides, separate, intense experiences strung together with the merest soupçon of plot coherence or narrative plausibility, just like North by Northwest‘s famous crop-dusting sequence. A good half of every summer’s blockbusters still adhere to this approach and we’re poorer for it. It’s not Hitchcock’s fault that his imitators are such tools, but it is useful now and then to trace a tiresome phenomenon back to its not-so-tiresome source.”
*. But why is North by Northwest not-so-tiresome? It seems to me that the thrill rides that came after it actually had more brains, and in some cases even better thrills. As many have noted (including Lehman), the immediate inheritor of North by Northwest was the James Bond franchise. Vandammn’s house is a great precursor to the Bond villain’s lair, and the buzzing crop duster would turn into a helicopter in From Russia with Love. But despite upping the ante on the stunts and thrills, Bond made more sense than any of what we get here. There is no story in North by Northwest but just an excuse to have the hero run from one place to another, from one set-piece scenario to the next. Peter Ackroyd: “That is why it seems to leave audiences, after the initial euphoria of a successful entertainment, sometimes uncomfortable and dissatisfied.”

*. On the other side of this debate are those, and they are legion among writers on film, who admit to this emptiness but find in that very quality (the barren crossroads, Thornhill’s null middle initial, the cryptic title) something essential to film. Anthony Lane: “When, a couple of hundred years from now, an alien federation finally pulls in for gas on planet Earth and asks to see one of those things called ‘movies,’ we could do worse than offer it Cary Grant having cocktails on the train, or hanging off a ledge of presidential rock, as an unsurpassed demonstration of what we mean by film — what it’s all about, what it can be made to do, what it is for.” Emphasis in the original.
*. I can’t go along with this. If a ticket on fairground ride were all that movies are about, what they are for, I would have given up on them long ago. To be sure, there’s a time and a place for this kind of filmmaking, and I wouldn’t deny its entertainment value for a moment. But to claim North by Northwest is film in epitome, rather than just the essence of Hitchcock, is going much too far.
*. Of course there’s a lot to like. Bernard Herrmann’s score. The way James Mason says “Games? Must we?” I doubt there’s another actor who could have delivered that line so perfectly. Martin Landau’s icy killer eyes. (A homosexual? According to Lehman “a little hint” of that crept in, to his professed surprise. Landau says it was something he added on his own.) And of course the banter. I don’t think much of Lehman’s script as a story, but the dialogue is fun and surprisingly risky in places. I like how Eve (Eva Marie Saint) says she’s not into the book she’s started. Lehman: “I don’t write dialogue. I write repartee.”
*. Lehman says a couple of things that struck me as odd on the DVD commentary track. In the first place he talks about the amount of research he did, including getting booked for DWI and climbing part of the way down Rushmore. I wondered how this could have possibly made for a better script, since they are both entirely fanciful episodes (and how much of the chase on Mount Rushmore was written anyway?). But he claims this footwork was “absolutely vital to me” and that he “never could have written any of it without doing the research.” Which I think just goes to show that every writer has a different way of working, and takes inspiration in different ways.
*. The other thing Lehman says that I was surprised by comes during the opening scenes in New York. He remarks how little it has changed. It “looks pretty much the same . . . well this is the ’50s, I imagine it’s pretty much the same today.”
*. I found this particularly strange because one of the things that stands out the most for me watching both this movie and Vertigo today is their representation of 1950s America. It seems like I’m watching a series of postcards from the past in their evocation of San Francisco, New York, or various tourist destinations. The sky so blue, the cars so large and shiny. Every vehicle on the street of Manhattan looks like it’s just been polished. Then those hotel lobbies, those clothes, all that mid-century affluence. I can’t think of too many other movies, even of this same period, that have the same glossy quality. It all seems so rich and artificial, a vision of the past that’s still incredibly bright and new. It can’t be nostalgia, for me, but it does remind me of slideshows of my parents’ vacations. Only so much nicer.
*. It’s not a look that’s typical of Hitchcock. It’s really only in a few of his films. But I can’t think of too many other films that have it. This is the 1950s that so many people think they miss.
*. OK, it’s very nicely turned out and put together. And it’s a lark. The talk has actually aged better than many of the action sequences. It’s not a favourite movie of mine, but I like it a lot. I don’t think it’s one of the greatest movies ever made, but it’s iconic and unmissable. It does have a lot to answer for though.

Leprechaun Returns (2018)

*. I (foolishly) went into Leprechaun: Origins with high hopes. After having them shattered by what was probably the worst Leprechaun movie to date (you might want to write it off as LINO, or Leprechaun In Name Only) I adjusted my expectations accordingly for Leprechaun Returns. Sure this wasn’t a WWE Studios production, but Syfy? Was that any better?
*. Well, maybe it’s because my expectations were so low but I really enjoyed Leprechaun Returns. It’s not exactly a sequel or a reboot, as it dismisses all of the previous Leprechaun movies except the first, which it follows up on directly, albeit twenty-five years later.
*. So now we have Lila Redding (Taylor Spreitler) the daughter of Tory Redding, returning to the house the Leprechaun had attacked in the original. As you will have guessed, he’s still down the well he had been sent into at the end of that movie. Just waiting to be revived.
*. Tory Redding had been played by Jennifer Aniston in the first movie. The producers tried to get Aniston to come back for at least a cameo here, but no dice. Warwick Davis also bowed out as the Leprechaun. Instead all they got was Mark Holton to return as Ozzie. Who comes to a messy end but at least has his moments of heroism.
*. Everything here works well enough. Linden Porco does a perfectly adequate job filling in for Davis as the Leprechaun. The comic bits, mostly revolving around Rip Van Winkle-style jokes about waking up twenty-five years later, are funnier than anything in the other movies. There are some good bits about the kids using cell phones to take selfies of themselves with the little guy. The Leprechaun marvels at their phones being both a camera and a Walkman, which leads to one of the kids asking “What’s a Walkman?” Also, as a connoisseur of fine footwear he tosses a pair of Crocs in the garbage, figuring it’s time to kill that fashion trend.
*. So there are some decent jokes. Not belly laughs, but as I’ve said before the series has never been as funny as I think it should have been and here it’s at least amusing. Also an improvement is the gore, including two really enjoyable kills (a postman having his head crushed in a mailbox and a doofus being sliced in two by a solar panel). There’s some stuff making use of a drone that doesn’t work that well, but those scenes are among the few misfires. And by the standards of most of what you see on the Syfy channel (just think of all those ghastly Sharknado movies) it all looks pretty darn good.
*. Even the basic plot is actually OK. A gang of young women are turning the old Redding place into an eco-friendly (and way, way off-campus) sorority house. They are described at one point as the nerdiest sorority ever but quite surprisingly they don’t all play as clichés and their defeat of the Leprechaun doesn’t turn into a tired statement of female empowerment. It’s just fun. In the words of director Steven Kostanski, “a goofy, ridiculous horror romp.”
*. So full credit to Kostanski (who also did The Void), writer Suzanne Keilly, and all the rest of the cast and crew. Sure we’re judging by really low standards, but this is one of the best Leprechaun movies, and one of the best Syfy channel movies I’ve seen. Colour me green, surprised, and entertained.