Sunday, January 07, 2007

 

The First 007 of ’007

Happy newish year, and though the producers of the James Bond films have missed their chance with 2007, I can’t turn down a pun. Especially not on the 007th of January, even when that’s actually the 46th birthday of The Avengers (celebrate with the stunning The House That Jack Built, on BBC4 at 7.10 this Thursday). Despite knowing nothing about music – can’t read, can’t play, can’t identify most instruments – I know that Bond has an instantly recognisable musical style (how many film series can say that?), so I’m going to review the songs as much as the movies.

Having failed to watch all the films in the run-up to Casino Royale last year and review them in depth – largely because arm problems knocked my in-depth reviews on the head – I’ve now been inspired by listening to the Casino Royale soundtrack CD and seeing last week’s repeat of James Bond’s Greatest Hits. This Channel 4 programme gave a countdown to the most popular Bond tune, apparently measured by opinion poll, so I’ll take each in turn and say why they got it wrong (generally) before giving a quick overview of the film from memory.

Simon Guerrier watched all the Bond films and reviewed them last year, but I’m not going to look up what he said for the moment for fear of being influenced. With Millennium having just received the first seven Bond films on DVD special edition, too, we’ll be watching them all again, so this is my last chance for a while to write from half-remembered prejudices rather than informed observation. Hurrah! And, as there are now twenty-one Bond films (plus a couple of off-cuts), taking the first seven in a bundle made sense, with the seven Roger Moore films to follow in a while.

As well as finding a different angle to just doing film reviews, there are other reasons I’ve picked the Bond sound as my starting point, despite my unwise lack of musical qualifications. It encourages me to keep my film reviews short (famous last words) and enables me to write it in little chunks, as I still have problems typing for long stretches, but I’ve found that if I try to write a long piece in several separate bursts I tend to lose my thread even more spectacularly than usual. The main reason, though, is that music is a vital part of the Bond films’ identity – you always know one when you hear them. It isn’t just the weaker songs that have often been saved by those trademark strings and brass beefing them up, but the weaker films, too. Not that most of the first seven needed saving…

Dr. No

Well, the theme from the first film is the big one, isn’t it? The James Bond Theme shoots down a gun barrel to become one of the most instantly recognisable pieces of music in film history, and it runs through the films like the letters in a stick of rock. Like the Doctor Who theme, you can pluck out any of several different elements of it and everyone’ll still know it in a second; you only need to hear a few beats of the bass line, say, in one of the films and you immediately sit up, thinking ‘Bond’s about’. Sinister and spectacular, it even survives first being heard segueing into a half-hearted calypso number. The rest of the film seems sparse in part because there’s far too little music in it, though (hang on ’til the next one and the orchestration’ll get far more lush).

Channel 4’s chart position was 8, incredibly, but it should have been at least number 2. There’s only one that can possibly beat it…

The Film: It’s an impressive prototype, surprisingly brutal though a little dry (albeit with the interplay between Bond, curmudgeonly M and flirtatious Moneypenny so cracking it’s difficult to believe that element’s from the first film). Sean Connery’s good, perhaps looking a little slight as yet but rather nice when stripped; the villain’s suitably aloof and sinister, with a great voice and a memorably horrible end; and Ursula Andress looks great in the sea before her character becomes simply wet. Somehow it doesn’t quite have the verve yet, but once Doctor No himself enters the scene, you glimpse what the series will do best. 7/10

From Russia With Love

In a defining move, the Bond Theme reappears, and this time the gun barrel blasts us into the first pre-titles sequence in the series (and though it’s a mini-adventure, it’s not one of Bond’s). Then there’s a shimmying theme that introduces that other Bond staple, dancing naked women with pictures projected on them. It’s rather fun, but a bit easy-listening – though not as much as Matt Monro’s cheesy slice of 1950s croon. He’s got a lovely voice, but somehow, a love song with a great happy smile suggests they’ve still not quite hit it yet.

Channel 4’s chart position was 4, which frankly astonished me. Maybe it was the ‘granny’ vote for that nice Matt Monro? I’d have placed it around 18, with ‘the shimmy’ version a bit higher at 13ish.

The Film: With a good claim to be the best film in the series, this is a taut international spy thriller, though in some ways it’s one of the least ‘Bondish’. The biggest divergence from the book is also the aspect that’s most ‘Bond movie’, and a twist that makes the films seem far less dated than the Fleming originals: the villains aren’t the Russians, but SPECTRE trying to stir up the Cold War for their own benefit. In fact, none of the films have simple ‘us against them’ plots, with the Cold War tending to be SPECTRE’s cash cow in Mr Connery’s films and a source of ambiguous allies in Mr Moore’s. A great anti-Bond villain (rather like most of the ones later faced by Pierce Brosnan) and an evil lesbian with spiked shoes help, but though the Bond woman here is remarkably pretty, she’s soporific. I prefer women characters who do more than breathe “Oh, James” and be grabbed by the villain. 9/10

Goldfinger

The song. With that tune, that performance by Shirley Bassey and brass that blows your socks off, a song is born so big that every other Bond theme lies in its shadow. Taken with John Barry delivering one of the most thrilling scores in cinema history, Goldfinger creates its own musical genre. There’s a certain sort of hard-edged, swaggering brass, added to lush strings with a sense of longing, that anyone who’s ever seen a Bond film will hear and know where it comes from. Though the production on the actual song is a little sparse, it’s still the ultimate Bond song: not just the sheer confidence in the way that brassy and Bassey demand your attention, but (like many of the best songs) there’s something a little nasty about it, sung about the villain rather than Bond. Unsurprisingly, this got some great moments in Channel 4’s James Bond’s Greatest Hits: former Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman is portrayed as the franchise’s Trotsky, only mentioned to be reviled – yes, this was the song he tried to stop because he thought it was one of the worst he’d heard in his life – but the best line in it came from the writer of one of the other Bond scores, summing up that terrific “Wah wahhh-wah” opening: “If you’re dead, you wake up for that.” Absolutely.

Channel 4’s chart position was number 1, and quite right too.

The Film: And this is where they refine the formula into (forgive me) pure gold, aided by a witty script, that flamboyant score and Ken Adam’s huge, barking sets (and Millennium orders me to mention the car). Almost every other Bond film takes its cue from here, but none have yet bettered it. Bond does a whole film in miniature before even the credits have rolled, and almost everyone is on top form: Sean Connery is outstanding in a performance so perfect you don’t notice he’s barely in the second half; Oddjob’s the first of the really iconic henchmen; but two people steal the film. Gert Frobe (and whoever dubs him) has enormous charisma as Goldfinger, a strangely relaxed but powerful villain with more quotable lines than the rest of the films put together, but even above “This is gold, Mr Bond,” “Except crime!” or “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die,” the most awesome line in the film has to be “My name is Pussy Galore,” and no-one on Earth but Honor Blackman could deliver it with a straight face. Independent, charismatic and with a voice like razor blades in honey, she’s still the ultimate Bond woman. And then there’s the woman covered in gold… Any weaknesses? Some of the early driving around in the Alps goes on a bit, perhaps, but it’s at least 9 and a half out of 10.

Thunderball

Clearly an attempt to do another Goldfinger; though not quite barbed enough, it’s still got a great swagger, and – being sung about Bond, this time, and by a man – can’t avoid a startlingly homoerotic feel. There’s another song associated with the movie, Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which provides much of the melody for the score but, though with its own slinky charms, lacks Tom Jones’ power. The score for the film though, as I remember, relies a bit too heavily on John Barry’s ‘007’ chase theme (you probably remember it best from Little Nellie’s aerial battle in the next film). It’s a good rousing piece, but not every two minutes.

Channel 4’s chart position was 18, but it should have been about 9. Come on. Tom Jones nearly died to make this track (famously, that final high note was so overpowered that he fainted).

The Film: In theory, it’s big: free-market terrorist franchise SPECTRE gets atomic weapons and that big table with the electric chairs, but its pacing’s too slow and too many actors are miscast. There’s another forgettable ‘good’ Bond woman and a less forgettable ‘bad’ one, a grievously misused Guy Doleman (the most languidly English-accented actor in the business, playing someone called ‘Count Lippe’) and the hilariously eyepatched Adolfo Celi as the villain. A good plot, almost worth all those legal challenges, let down by a curiously dull production and simply not being very amusing. 6 and a half out of 10.

You Only Live Twice

An achingly beautiful song, and in its own way Bond’s biggest UK hit, half-taken to number one by Robbie Williams as the strings for Millennium [the single, NOT the more famous ELEPHANT, MM]. Nancy Sinatra’s style is heartbreakingly sweet rather than brassily acid, but the lyrics still seem Bondish, and the volcanoes help. The film has another really terrific John Barry score, too, particularly for the space sequences and a strident arrangement of the title music as Bond takes part in an epic fight across the tops of dockyard buildings, shot from the air in a glorious cinescape.

Channel 4’s chart position was 7, and again I’d say that’s about right.

The Film: For me, the only one that competes with Goldfinger, and the one where they lift off completely from Ian Fleming’s original. It’s fantastic, and as far over the top as they ever go without losing it. This has nothing of the book’s pseudo-medieval sado-masochistic revenge fantasy, instead supplying us with a full-sized rocket base inside a volcano (genius designer Ken Adam at his most gloriously insane) to make the ultimate in the-real-villains-are-the-ones-who-see-the-Cold-War-as-a-business-opportunity plots. Though he only appears late in the film, the mastermind behind this scheme has such presence and such brilliant lines that he commands the whole thing. SPECTRE boss Blofeld is finally revealed as scene-stealing Donald Pleasence, stroking white cat, plunging henchpeople into piranha, creating an irresistibly idiosyncratic pronunciation of the word “annihilated” and sweeping off on his own private monorail with a “Goodbye, Mr Bond!” All this, and ninjas attacking too. This is what you remember all Bond films as like (partly thanks to Austin Powers), though you can try to forget Sean Connery’s improbable Japanese disguise, and you won’t need to try to forget the local woman Bond ‘marries’ (the one who dies half-way through is far stronger). 9/10

‘Casino Royale’

Just a word about this hideous mess of a film, famous as probably the most exorbitant waste of talent in the whole of the ’60s. And think of all the competition! Apparently the producer got the rights to the first book, got jealous of the success of the main franchise, and got it into his head that trying to wreck it by sending it up would be a good idea. Nah. The music I remember for it is that jaunty little ‘James Bond goes to Casino Royale’ number, silly and disposable, but Channel 4 picked out Dusty Springfield’s The Look of Love from the middle of the film. So how did a lovely song by a great singer get to just number 21 in their chart (which you might, after all, have expected to stop at 20)? A gorgeous love song it may be, but I suspect that, in a failed film and with neither the bravado nor the poison of the ‘proper’ Bond style, those polled didn’t even remember any more than I did that it had been a ‘Bond song’ (and I won’t be so unkind as to give the film a mark out of ten). But now back to the real films…

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

John Barry claims to have pulled out all the stops to establish the ‘Bondishness’ of the new lead through his score, and it works. The unusually downbeat ending has one of the series’ most unusual songs, Louis Armstrong’s gentle, elegiac We Have All the Time in the World (a big hit in the ’90s with Guinness), while the title theme (a big hit in the ’90s for the Propellerheads) is bold, driving and utterly magnificent, echoed in the triumphant score for sequences like the extended ski chase. Stunning.

Channel 4’s chart position was 12 for We Have All the Time in the World, but it should have been about 8, and I’d have pushed the glorious main title theme as high as 3.

The Film: The first time they recast the lead, and George Lazenby’s not bad (especially when dubbed by George Baker); though they didn’t intend it to be a one-off, it really works as a new Bond who loses his wife, has a bit of breakdown and has to be replaced again. But more on that theory later. Telly Savalas isn’t bad as Blofeld, though all he beats Donald Pleasance in is height (marvellous the inches they can put on with surgery). A less stylish and extravagant film than the previous one, with a less stylish and extravagant SPECTRE plot (close to the book again), but satisfying. Diana Rigg’s another grown-up Bond woman, which is a relief, though she mostly does ‘suffering’ rather than ‘sassy’. 8/10

Diamonds Are Forever

A gorgeous shimmer of a song, with Ms Bassey being marginally less barbed but much more naughty. Mr Barry claims he told her to think ‘penises’ when she sang ‘diamonds’, but even without that information from Channel 4 and going back to assuming it’s just a song about greed and independence, the innuendos are as striking as the beautiful melody. David McAlmont did a rather fabulously diva-ish cover that got nowhere, too. Oh, and (hilariously) this is another one that Harry ‘Leon’ Saltzman tried to ban. Though, to be fair, he was spot on in spotting how filthy it was.

Channel 4’s chart position was 2 – I’d probably put it at 5ish (only because the others are so good), but it seems churlish to put it down. It’s still great.

The Film: Oh dear. Graceless and brutal, this utterly fails to live up to the classiness of the song. The Bond woman’s at least a little sparky for an innuendo-inspired bimbo, but the plot’s all over the place, and has a catastrophically feeble ending for Blofeld, the series’ biggest villain literally left hanging as if they’d forgotten about him. And speaking of Blofeld, Charles Grey is fabulously camp but insanely miscast: potentially a great Bond villain, but a terrible Blofeld, in no way the same character as the others. I take a certain guilty pleasure in the creepy gay hit-men on occasion, but it’s all pretty crass, as if a US network was doing a cheap Bond knock-off. It’s a Bond TV Movie. 5/10

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