Countdown to Skyfall: 50th Anniversary of 007 Part 6

 With a little over a week to go, I am closing out my reviews of the James Bond films by actor playing the role, by featuring the first James Bond. Technically, since I have been counting up based on the number of times an actor played Bond in the films, Connery would have been in the previous post. He only made the six EON 007 films. Because of unusual lawsuit, writer’s credit and a determined screwball, we got a seventh James Bond adventure featuring Connery and allowing me to finish with the ultimate Bond performer.

 I have nothing against “You Only Live Twice”, the truth is there is not a Bond film that I won’t watch (or watch again).  This adventure has the advantage of an exotic setting that was new to the franchise and it featured a set that became the standard by which spy films would be parodied for ever after. Who doesn’t think the idea of hiding the villain’s secret base inside of a volcano is funtastic? The gadgets in the movie, especially “Little Nellie” are a kick. The opening of the movie features the second death of Bond in the pre-title sequences and it makes the title make some sense since the haiku game Bond plays with Tiger Tanaka while getting plastered on sake has been eliminated. 

The reason this film ends up at the bottom of Connery’s 007 films is that he seems a little bored with the part here. He is required to undergo a disguise, for one of the very few times in the whole series and it is not a very convincing disguise. When he gets identified by Blofeld as not a real astronaut because he tries to hand his oxygen tank into the space capsule, it ignores the fact that he is also twice as big as the other astronauts. The background characters start the trend of repeating ideas orally that are being shown on the screen. “Closing Blast Doors”, “Astronauts ascending vehicle” and the countdown all are irritating and they all really start with this movie. Neither of the Bond girls seems very interesting and once one has been killed it makes no sense to continue the disguise. Donal Pleasance would have been a good Blofeld for the whole series, but in retrospect, the scar and the distinctive vocal mannerism would be a hindrance in other episode.  The theme song is beautiful and I remember where it was I first saw the film (AMC Rosemead 4). It does have the distinction of being the only Bond film my father ever took me to. I think he was nostalgic for Japan where he served as part of the occupying forces after WW2, as far as I know I don’t have a half brother in Japan but stranger things have happened.

Second from the bottom of the Connery pile is “Diamonds are Forever”, Connery’s return to the role after a one picture hiatus.  I remember seeing the movie “Patton” at the Garfield Theater in Alhambra. In the outdoor foyer, right next to the box office window, was the poster for this film. It looked dazzling with Bond standing aloft a moon buggy and girls draped over him and the diamonds in the reflector of the satellite behind him. How cool it was. When I saw the movie I thought the same thing. However, additional viewings over the years have been less than kind. Connery looks bored, the story is full of odd holes, and the villain is left hanging and we don’t get to see for sure that Blofeld is finally eliminated.

As a young man this was one of the first times I had been exposed to gay characters on the screen. That same year there were some mincing hitchhikers in “Vanishing Point” and Clint Eastwood disses one in the park right before meeting Scorpio. Wint and Kidd were deviate killers who were also comic relief. Today, they would never have made it to the screen. Times have changed and so have attitudes toward homosexuals. The fey killers who hold hands and get a sexual thrill by having their hands lifted between their legs from behind, are part of a legacy of sexual mores long put behind us. Their stupidity in being unable to eliminate Bond a half dozen times however should be the issue that people complain about, not the swishing portrayal by musician Putter Smith and Crispin Glover’s Dad Bruce. The whole Howard Hughes angle is pretty solid and there is a terrific theme song from Shirley Bassey. I did like the sexual innuendo in the film from Bond toward the women
 James Bond: Weren’t you a blonde when I came in?
Tiffany Case: Could be.
James Bond: I tend to notice little things like that – whether a girl is a blonde or a brunette.
Tiffany Case: Which do you prefer?
James Bond: Well, as long as the collar and cuffs match
“As long as the collars and cuffs match”, I had to be a little older to figure that one out. “Named after your father perhaps”, that one I got right away. I also noticed that the Mustang switched sides when rolling through the alley, there was a funny continuity error.

While not an official part of the Eon/Danjaq catalog, this film can’t really be ignored the same way the 1967 Casino Royale can be. This is a straight 007 adventure, a remake of Thunderball and it stars the guy who originally played Bond. After parting ways with Eon, Connery left with bad feelings concerning his compensation for playing the part. He donated his salary from Diamonds are Forever to A Scottish Political group, but always felt shortchanged by Saltzman and Broccoli. This may have been a poke in the eye as a way of saying so. This film exists because Fleming had been foolish enough to work on a series of scripts using Bond as a potential television series. Nothing came of that and he used some of the material from those scripts in writing the novel Thunderball. Unfortunately he had a collaborator on some of that material. He tried to launch his own series of Bond films, and ultimately worked with the regular producers to make the original Thunderball film. His negotiated agreement gave him the remake rights after a ten year period and he went forward with this production. This film was released the same year as “Octopussy and did about 60 to 70 percent of the business the official release had done.

There are several things about this film that I like quite well. Barbara Carrera played Fatima Blush, and she is so over the top fun, she actually got a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Supporting Actress. I love the way she dances down the stairs when she thinks she is going to get to kill Bond. Klaus Maria Brandauer plays Largo, and he has so much more personality in the part than the actor from the original Thunderball, it makes the earlier performance noticeably weak by comparison. Watch the way he blows on his fingers after getting shocked in the video game he plays against Bond, it is a moment of delightful madness. You can see in his manner and eyes the sort of insanity that would be required to attempt the crime he is perpetrating. Max Von Sydow should have been Blofeld in other Bond films, he was very well cast but severely underused here. Kim Basinger is a pretty nonentity in an early role. I have no idea why Mr. Bean is in the movie, and Edward Fox as M is such a prig that it besmirches the memory of Admiral Messervy. Throw in the lack of real Bond music and some weak support from Bernie Casey, and you end up with a shadow of the original.

The original “Thunderball” was one of the biggest blockbusters of the 1960s. When adjusted for inflation it stands as the most financially successful of all the Bond movies. The audacity of Goldfinger was multiplied by a bigger canvas for the story telling. More exotic locations and bigger set pieces are put into place. As a kid I wanted the 007 lunchbox with all the frogmen fighting underwater. It was an image that sold all of us on the adventure we had coming. As far as I know, this is the first story to exploit the idea of nuclear terrorism. It was not of course the last. Here was SPECTRE as a real organization, with a board of directors and a chairman presiding over crime and doling out death as a punishment for failing the company. In a way, with all of the numbers, and secret locations and passwords or codes, it is the mirror image of MI6, and the bureaucracy that Bond actually represents.

There are great sequences in the picture and some real imaginative gizmos in the story. The jet-pack is just so outlandish that it gives the ejector seat a run for it’s money as the most over the top toys of 007 in the early films. The miniature breathing apparatus looks like it could be practical for emergencies. Bond gets taken for a ride in an early Mustang, he has an underwater version of the jet-pack, and he gets yanked into the sky forty years before Batman uses the same technology in “The Dark Knight”. The problems with the film have to do with pacing. A slog through the stuff at Shrublands, hide and seek in the Mardi Gras like parade in Jamaica, and the underwater battle looks cool but needed some editing. “Thunderball” is like one of those great Thanksgiving meals with so many choices, that are so rich and you want to try them all. When you do, you feel a little sick afterwards. “Thunderball” doesn’t exactly make me sick, but my blood sugar is usually a little high after I watch it. I should get up and go for a walk, but I usually just fall asleep contentedly. Another blogger El Santo, did a fantastic piece on the music from “Thunderball’, that goes way beyond the theme song. I hope he is OK with my linking it here, you should read and listen.

The first James Bond film introduces us to the character and to Sean Connery at the same time. The two will be inseparable for all time. I hope Connery knows how much his playing the part did for all of the fans of the books and the movies. Actors get identified with roles and sometimes it is a burden. Here it is a crown. Connery is the Best James Bond ever and the first three movies prove it every time someone watches one of them.

Connery is handsome and dangerous in this initial outing. We get a sense of the coming insouciance with the early dispatch of the fake driver who picks him up at the airport.[Bond pulls up to the front of Government House with a dead man sitting up in the backseat]
James Bond: Sergeant, make sure he doesn’t get away.

 From then on, Bond is both funny and heartless. He can be moved by the right woman and has no compunction about betraying the wrong one. Assassins come in all forms, blind trigger-men, duplicitous geology professors, and creepy crawlies in the middle of the night.  He defeats them all but not always with ease and sometime brutally. Bond has had hundreds of great lines, but one that espablishes his character comes from this movie.

[Professor Dent tries to kill Bond, but his gun is out of bullets]
James Bond: That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six.
[shoots Dent twice]
You don’t screw around with Bond and expect to get away with it. This movie introduces the Bond theme, the idea of the Bond girl, and a long line of imaginative villains, lined up tp take advantage of the world but finding 007 standing in their path. I don’t know exactly why it is only the third greatest of Sean Connery’s Bond adventures, except that it lacks some of the gadgets and the conclusion of the movie seemed a bit quick. The first three 007 films are the triple crown winners of the greatest James Bond sweepstakes. Dr. No is the jewel on the left.

My favorite Bond novel was “From Russia with Love”, my favorite Bond adversary is Donald “Red” Grant. My favorite Bond girl is Tatiana Romanova. Once upon a time the movie of “From Russia with Love” was my favorite Bond film.There is so much about this film that works it just amazes me. The cold war intrigue was great, the fact that the two sides were being played against each other was brilliant, and the hidden face and disembodied voice of Blofeld was perfect. I love the vocal of Matt Monroe doing the theme. It does not actually appear at the beginning of the movie, but it is featured on the radio when Bond is out punting with Sylvia his London girlfriend, and it plays over the end credits.  Monroe had a smooth silky Sinatra type voice and gave the tune a rich romanticism that the plot called for.

I fell in love with Tatiana when I first saw her as a kid of ten years old. I did not need to wait for puberty to be sufficiently moved by the image of a beautiful woman wearing only a black ribbon around her neck as a nightgown. If ever there were a defining moment as to ones sexual identity, this pretty much put me on the hetro team. The fight between Bond and Grant is legendary. I need to travel on the Orient Express just to walk in the footsteps of 007. Kerim Bey was maybe the most enjoyable ally Bond ever had in the movies. Connery was getting ever more comfortable in his role. At some point Bond stopped wearing hats, but this early 60s time capsule showed that it was still possible to be a sex symbol while wearing a fedora.

That leaves us with the best of Connery’s interpretation of the greatest gentleman spy of all fiction. It should come as no surprise because everyone know that it is not just Connery’s best, it is the best Bond film ever. “Goldfinger” is the movie that made Bond an eternal character. Other movies had had sequels before. Many film series had had several follow ups, but this was the first time that a third film in a series, raised the stakes like this. Other series simply tried to milk the character for what it was worth before disposing of him. This movie made the character more, made us want more, and delivered more than we had any right to expect. After this, we always expected Bond to be bigger and better than he was before. Even when he did not succeed at doing so, he usually tried and if he failed, he went big doing so.

This film also features the greatest of the James Bond Theme songs.

I hope you took the 2:49 seconds necessary to enjoy a piece of pop perfection. Shirley Bassey did three Bond themes, all of them were beautiful but this one slays us. Listen again to the horns, they sound incredible but they can’t compete at the end with the bellicose howl of this amazing chanteuse

Goldfinger had Odd Job, the greatest henchman of all time. It had the Aston Martin with an ejector seat, the greatest gimmick of all time. It had Auric Goldfinger, the best and most completely realized 
villain of the series. This movie even made golf interesting to watch. The images and names and plot of this film set the standard for all Bond films to follow. Maybe Skyfall will challenge some of these films for position on the list of great Bond films. I hope so, but I don’t know how anyone can come close to this piece of 20th century cinema perfection.

Countdown to Skyfall Part 1
Countdown to Skyfall Part 2
Countdown to Skyfall Part 3
Countdown to Skyfall Part 4
Countdown to Skyfall Part 5

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