The James Bond Challenge – Live and Let Die (1973)

Live-And-Let-Die-posterIn which James Bond is sent to eliminate ruthless Caribbean dictator and heroin supremo Dr Kananga (aka Mr Big), in an escapade involving voodoo, tarot, crocodiles, snakes and sharks. Will our hero prevent Kananga flooding the heroin market with two tons of free product so that he becomes the world’s only supplier? Of course he will!

Roger MooreProducers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli were desperate to sign Sean Connery up to play Bond for the seventh time, but not even a pay cheque of $5.5 million would tempt him. Instead, they considered many other actors, including Julian Glover, John Gavin, Jeremy Brett, Simon Oates, John Ronane, and William Gaunt. They favoured Michael Billington, who was best known for his appearances in TV’s The Onedin Line, but when Roger Moore became available, his star status was too much of a draw for them to ignore.

Paul McCartney in 1973Ted Moore returned as Cinematographer again, for the first time since Thunderball, with editors Bert Bates (who had worked on Diamonds are Forever), Raymond Poulton (who would also return for The Man with the Golden Gun) and John Shirley. Guy Hamilton returned for the third time as Director; regular composer John Barry was unavailable and Paul McCartney, who had written the title track, was too expensive, so the producers chose George Martin – who was, of course, The Beatles’ producer – to compose the score. Design was by Syd Cain, who had designed From Russia with Love, and the screenplay was by Tom Mankiewicz, who had played a major part in revising the original script of Diamonds are Forever, and would go on to contribute to three later Bond movies. Live and Let Die, however, would be the only film for which he received sole credit for writing the screenplay.

Live and Let Die novelLive and Let Die was published in 1954 and was the second book in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels. Fleming had actually finished writing it before the first book, Casino Royale, was published. It was written at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica, and was originally intended to have a more serious tone than its predecessor. Its original title, The Undertaker’s Wind, describes one of Jamaica’s winds that, allegedly, blows all the bad air out of the island. Many of Fleming’s own experiences were incorporated into the story. Scuba diving with Jacques Cousteau inspired the description of swimming out to Mr Big’s boat; his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book The Traveller’s Tree, which had also been partly written at Goldeneye, is full of information and insights about voodoo. Even the character of Solitaire took her name from the local Jamaican rufous-throated solitaire bird.

Diamonds are ForeverThe previous film, Diamonds are Forever, was the last James Bond film that I saw with my schoolfriend John at the cinema sometime in the mid-1970s. After then, I did not see another James Bond film until I saw Skyfall when it came out. So until I watched the film for the first time recently, I had never seen Roger Moore in the role. More of him later!

New YorkThere are some similarities between the film and the book; but there are more areas in which the two completely diverge. In both the film and the book M sends Bond to New York to investigate Mr Big, although in the book he is suspected of selling gold coins and in the film he is dealing in heroin. In both the film and the book Bond is assisted by his old friend and CIA agent Felix Leiter, although in the book Leiter suffers considerable injuries en route and the film he largely gets off scot-free. The character of Solitaire plays a similar role in both film and book, but the voodoo element is played up a lot in the film. Because of altering the sequence of adaptations in the film series, Quarrel in the book becomes Quarrel Jr in the film, as we have already encountered the former (and seen him die) in Dr No. In the book Mr Big is a member of SMERSH, whereas in the film he’s the alter-ego of the dictator of the fictitious island of San Monique, Dr Kananga. The characters of Rosie Carver, Tee Hee, Adam, Whisper and Sheriff Pepper were all created for the film only. Samedi is an established figure in Voodoo, but also did not appear in the book.

Ian FlemingFor the most part, the book received very good reviews. The Times Literary Supplement observed that Fleming was “without doubt the most interesting recent recruit among thriller-writers” and that Live and Let Die “fully maintains the promise of … Casino Royale.” The Daily Telegraph felt that “the book is continually exciting, whether it takes us into the heart of Harlem or describes an underwater swim in shark-infested waters; and it is more entertaining because Mr Fleming does not take it all too seriously himself”. The Times thought that “this is an ingenious affair, full of recondite knowledge and horrific spills and thrills—of slightly sadistic excitements also—though without the simple and bold design of its predecessor”. However, reviews for the film weren’t always quite so positive. The reviewer for Time Magazine described the film as “the most vulgar addition to a series that has long since outlived its brief historical moment — if not, alas, its profitability.” He also criticized the action sequences as excessive, but noted that “aside an all right speedboat spectacular over land and water, the film is both perfunctory and predictable—leaving the mind free to wander into the question of its overall taste. Or lack of it.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times stated that Moore “has the superficial attributes for the job: The urbanity, the quizzically raised eyebrow, the calm under fire and in bed”. However, he felt that Moore wasn’t satisfactory in living up to the legacy left by Sean Connery in the preceding films. He rated the villains “a little banal”, adding that the film “doesn’t have a Bond villain worthy of the Goldfingers, Dr. Nos and Oddjobs of the past”.

Opening CreditsAs usual, the opening credits begin, with Maurice Binder’s iconic glimpse of Bond walking across the screen whilst being captured by the barrel of a gun, only for him to turn around, see us, and shoot; and then for the blood to start filling up the screen. Where we’re used to seeing Sean Connery, Bond is now noticeably Roger Moore, a slightly more elegant and poised presence than Connery, a characterisation that continues throughout the film.

Jazz FuneralWe’re taken to the UN building in New York, where the delegates are listening intently, if languidly, to a dull speech from the Hungarian delegate. However, an interloper replaces the feed from the translator to the British delegate with some kind of electric charge and kills him stone dead. Then we move to a New Orleans jazz funeral march, another British spy gets killed – knifed whilst watching the march, and then we move to the fictitious island of San Monique, where a Voodoo snake ceremony is taking place. As a consequence, a third British agent is fanged to death.  Three deaths so early!

Image from Opening CreditAnd now the credits really start with Paul McCartney and Wings’ performance of Live and Let Die, an iconic track that’s still much loved all these years on. Binder’s title sequence calls for a view after view of fire and fireworks, plus some very cheesy use of an oversized optic fibre lamp, which after a short while becomes slightly less than interesting. Luckily, there are a few shots of barely hidden bosoms to perk the credits up. But I would suggest this is possibly the least creative title sequence in the series so far.

HarlemAnd the locations? As already described, we start off in New York – from then, the action takes place in New Orleans and Louisiana, and the fictitious island of San Monique; scenes there were filmed in Jamaica. Whilst in New York, the producers were reportedly required to pay protection money to a local Harlem gang to ensure the crew’s safety. When the cash ran out, they were “encouraged” to leave.

Moore as BondBond, James Bond. This was Roger Moore’s debut in the role – so how did he make out? Well, being Bond, he made out quite a lot. Aged 45 at the time of filming, Moore is very suave, very posh, very sophisticated; but to me, his performance felt quite forced. Guy Hamilton gave him the affectation of the cigar, which makes him look even more lascivious and creepy than he already behaves. His first words are not simply “Bond, James Bond”, which is rather a shame, considering in The Saint, he was “Templar, Simon Templar”. In fact, his first words are those of disappointment at an unnecessarily early visit from M – “not married by any chance, are you?” And when he does eventually formally reveal his identity to us, saying the familiar line “My name’s Bond, James Bond”, it’s not until we’re 23 minutes into the film, when he introduces himself to Solitaire for the first time. Sometimes Roger Moore’s trademark underacting doesn’t work for me. I think Bond should be a bit more animated!

Mrs BellBoo-boos. Here are some, I am sure there are more. When making the coffee for M, Bond puts the milk in the coffee and then puts the steam into the coffee, demonstrating that neither he nor anyone involved in the scene had the faintest idea how to use the machine; added to which, the coffee grinder is alternately empty/full between shots. When Bond gives Mrs. Bell her “flying” lesson, the wings are torn off the plane. Yet when he asks her “Same time tomorrow?”, the reaction shot of Mrs. Bell shows an intact left wing – it’s the same ‘reaction’ shot as when he climbed into the plane. There are two scenes of funeral marches in New Orleans; one at the very beginning, and one in the middle of the film. They were both obviously shot at the same time: the sun and shadows are the same, the marchers and dancers are wearing the exact same clothes, and the extras hanging around a doorway across the street are identical. The whole crew and spectators are reflected in the cab’s window when Bond leaves the Voodoo shop.

Miss CarusoThe Bond Girl. As usual, the producers and scriptwriter bowl us a couple of curved balls early on in the film to fool us as to who The Bond Girl is in this adventure. First candidate is Miss Caruso, the Italian agent with whom Bond is sharing intimate moments when M comes awkwardly to call. She is played by Madeline Smith, originally a model and then a starlet in grisly Hammer horror films, before becoming one of those bit-part actresses seen in numerous light entertainment and comedy roles on TV and in films. She was recommended for the role by Roger Moore himself, who had worked with her in an episode of his TV series The Persuaders. Her career wound down in the 1980s when she had a daughter, but she’s still going strong to this day.

Rosie CarverNext candidate for Bond Girl is the apparently ditzy and careless Rosie Carver, played by Gloria Hendry. Rosie is an inexpert CIA agent who adds some nice touches of comedy to the film with her clumsy gadget-handling and useless spy skills. However, as Bond quickly comes to realise, this is all a bluff and she’s double-crossing the CIA by working for Kananga. Her employer realises she can’t be trusted and has her killed. Rosie and Bond’s affair is a brief, double-crossing fling which ends the hard way. Gloria Hendry was originally a Playboy Bunny but then gained a couple of acting jobs and her appearance in Live and Let Die was significant as being the first African American woman to become romantically linked with James Bond! She’s had a varied career in movies since then, and has also written an autobiography. When the film was shown in South Africa her sex scenes with Bond were removed because of the Apartheid laws.

SolitaireHowever, the Bond Girl in this film is undoubtedly Solitaire, played by Jane Seymour. Solitaire is used by Kananga for her tarot, psychic and occult skills and is icy at first but soon warms up after Bond breaks down her resistance (so to speak). As a result, she loses those skills and is of no use to Kananga, and he orders his voodoo henchmen to assassinate her – but Bond has other ideas. Jane Seymour, who was not the first choice for the role – that was Diana Ross, has had a long and highly successful movie career from her first appearance in 1969’s Oh What a Lovely War right to the present day. She has earned an Emmy Award, two Golden Globe Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, not to mention her OBE in 2000.

Solitaire againWhat Bond Girls Are Like. Apart from the Japanese heritage that sets You Only Live Twice’s Kissy apart from the rest of the Girls, our currently agreed list of attributes common to the Bond Girls is: sexy, exotic, unpredictable, as equally likely to attack Bond as to support him, strong and self-reliant up to a point, sometimes tragic, professional, scary, vengeful, bossy – but with a vulnerable side. How well does Solitaire conform to the role? Well, she’s not that typical. She works for the other side, and her past has been pure until she meets Bond – and not a lot of his conquests can boast that.

KanangaThe Villain.  Meet Kananga – or Mr Big, as he is the same person; when he is acting as Mr Big he wears a facial prosthetic which gets removed to quite spooky effect.  In many respects, Kananga’s a typical Bond villain – outwardly sophisticated and genteel, concealing a ruthlessness and cruelty to take your breath away. He was given the name Kananga – he’s only Mr Big in the book – by Tom Mankiewicz in honour of Ross Kananga, the charismatic owner of the crocodile farm used to shoot the scene where Bond leaps over the backs of several crocs to escape. Kananga suffers the highly improbable and deliciously disgusting fate of swallowing a compressed-gas pellet used in shark guns, causing his body to inflate up in the air and explode into tiny bits. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. Kananga was played by Yaphet Kotto, who had a long and successful movie career, including playing President Idi Amin in the film Raid on Entebbe. Despite evidence to the contrary, Kotto has claimed descendance from the Crown Prince of Cameroon and Queen Victoria – a fact dismissed by Buckingham Palace. He was apparently quite unhappy with Tom Mankiewicz’s cartoon-style blaxploitative script; he summed his feelings up as “The entire experience was not as rewarding as I wanted it to be”.

LeiterOther memorable characters? In addition to those already mentioned, we welcome back CIA agent and Bond ally Felix Leiter for the fifth time, on this occasion played by David Hedison, another actor recommended to the role by Roger Moore – they were old friends. Hedison enjoyed some charismatic roles, including the title character in the original version of The Fly, and Captain Lee Crane in the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Although Leiter isn’t given that much to do in this film, his on-screen chemistry with Moore worked very well – and he would return to the role many years later in Licence to Kill.

Quarrel JnrThere’s a good performance from Roy Stewart as Quarrel Jr, the local agent who is always on hand to lend help with a boat. Stewart had a fascinating career, not only as an actor and stuntman, but also as the owner of a gym in Kensington (where the late Dave Prowse trained as a weightlifter) and the owner of a Caribbean restaurant, The Globe, that ran from the 1960s until his death in 2008 – and in fact, the restaurant continues to this day. Apparently, it’s where Jimi Hendrix spent his last evening alive.

Tee HeeEvery good Bond villain has to have a chief henchman, and in Live and Let Die it’s Tee Hee Johnson, played by Julius Harris. Tee Hee is an elegant and smiling man – but definitely not to be trusted, with a hook for a hand like a Fleming version of a Peter Pan’s nemesis. It’s a great performance, with Mr Harris perfectly cast as this apparently upright, jovial chap but with a heart of complete stone. Julius Harris appeared in many notable TV programmes and films, including The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Super Fly, even Cagney and Lacey and Murder She Wrote. He died in 2004 at the age of 81.

Sheriff PepperPerhaps the most notable character is that of Sheriff J. W. Pepper, a creation of Mankiewicz, brought in to provide some light relief. This pompous, loutish cop would return in The Man with the Golden Gun. He was played by Clifton James, a man with a career in movies that lasted a full fifty years, and who died in 2017 at the age of 96. It’s an arresting (no pun intended) performance that certainly breaks up the intensity of the speedboat chases. However, personally, I found the character incredibly tedious!

MAs usual, Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell reprise their roles as M and Moneypenny, both just for the one scene. Q, usually played by Desmond Llewellyn, is absent from this film due to his commitments to the TV series Follyfoot, although the writers of that show left him out of three episodes of that series to give him time to play Q as well. When Q was written out of this movie, because the producers wanted to give less emphasis to the gadgets, apparently Llewellyn was furious.  Fans demanded Llewelyn’s return, and he appeared in eleven more Bond movies from 1974 to 1999.

B J ArnauAnd what about the music? As always, the film starts with the main James Bond Theme, in a light, crisp guitar and string arrangement, written by Monty Norman; and then, once the opening credits start to roll, we’re straight into Paul McCartney and Wings’ Live and Let Die. A hit for the band, reaching No 9 in the UK charts but No 2 in the US Billboard Hot 100, plus No 2 in Canada and Norway, and 5 in Australia, it didn’t appear on a Wings album, which is odd as it would have fitted perfectly, stylistically, in Band on the Run. It was also successfully covered by Guns ‘n’ Roses. After that, there’s no John Barry, but George Martin, including Martin’s arrangement of both the Norman theme and the McCartney theme, primarily that chaotic and exciting Middle-8 sequence. It was the first time that McCartney and Martin had worked together since the Beatles’ Abbey Road.  Most of the music was performed by an orchestra under George Martin’s directorship; two notable exceptions are B J Arnau’s soul version of the title track and the New Orleans Olympia Brass Band under the leadership of Harold “Duke” Dejan, who play the funeral march (twice) where spies get knifed. The actor playing the baby-faced killer was actually band trumpeter Alvin Alcorn.

SpeedboatsCar chases.  Not much in the way of car chases as such; there’s a sequence with James Bond leaving the airport in New York to meet up with Leiter, but with his driver having been killed without Bond realising; cue some hair-raising stunt collisions. Another car chase follows, where Bond in a taxi is followed by one of Kananga’s henchmen. Apart from those, there’s a brief helicopter chase, where Bond and Solitaire try to hide from the pilot, a scene where three cops chase Bond driving a bus (which gets decapitated as it goes under a bridge), the plane that Mrs Bell has her flying lesson in (chased by henchmen), and the extensive speedboat chase, which crosses roads, bridges, wedding receptions, garden parties and much more.

Bond and CoffeeCocktails and Casinos. As if to make a clean break with the Connery style-Bond, there are no casinos in this film, and cocktails are kept to the minimum. Rather than have a cocktail shaken not stirred, Bond creates that noisy and arduous Cappuccino in the opening scenes. Otherwise, Moore’s Bond drinks Bourbon with no ice – although Leiter changes his order at the club to two Sazeracs.

Bond and brushGadgets. With Q absent, there aren’t as many gadgets this time round; however, those that did make it into the movie are pretty impressive. Bond’s magnetic watch starts by grabbing M’s coffee spoon from his saucer, remotely unzips Miss Caruso’s dress, but also turns into a circular saw and thus ends up both saving his life and helping end that of Kananga. There’s a hairbrush that doubles up as a cassette recorder (how charming), together with a device for locating bugs (the recording, listening-in type, rather than creepy crawlies). Rather quaintly, the hairbrush also sends and picks up morse code, which seems rather retro. Bond also has a shaving foam spray can that doubles up as a flame thrower – alas poor intrusive snake who lets himself into Bond’s bathroom. And Strutter’s car has a microphone in the lighter. The enemy also have some good gadgets; for example, the lethal dart thrower that is sent from Whisper’s wing mirror, and a ghastly recorder with a microphone attached. The actor makes an awful noise with it, even worse than a child playing it.

In MemoriamIn Memoriam. In a running count of death counts in Bond movies, Dr No had the lightest number of fatalities at around 11; Thunderball is looking pretty heavy at around 50 people; but Diamonds are Forever is lethal at around 70. How does Live and Let Die compare? Let’s briefly look back at those who gave their lives so that Bond can rescue Solitaire from the wrath of the voodoo:

  • First UN agent, electrocuted through his earphone
  • Second UN agent, knifed by a passer-by
  • Third UN agent, bitten by an asp
  • Charlie the driver, harpooned in the head by a miniature dart aimed through the window by the henchman Whisper, driving an overtaking car
  • 2 henchmen in the Harlem wasteland (although maybe not, it didn’t take much to kill them, just a kick or two)
  • Rosie
  • Henchman kicked over by Bond dangling from hang glider
  • Strutter, knifed on a New Orleans street corner just like death #2)
  • Billy Bob, thwacked on the back of the head by Adam (maybe?)
  • Adam, doused in petrol by Bond and flambéd in the speedboat
  • Dambala and another man in voodoo scene
  • 3rd man in snake coffin – Samedi, or is he?
  • Whisper – confined into a torpedo
  • Kananga blown to smithereens (internally)
  • Tee Hee, disarmed and ejected through the train window

Approximately 15? Maybe that’s not too many after all.

Kananga DeathHumour to offset the death count. In previous films, Bond’s classic asides are normally delivered whenever someone dies. Live and Let Die continues the tradition of applying Bond’s wry sense of humour to all sorts of occasions. Is it me, or in this film he is particularly cheesy?

It all starts in his first scene, when he’s caught in flagrante delicto with the Italian spy Miss Caruso. When he uses the magnetic watch to unzip her dress and she admires his magic touch, he replies, “sheer magnetism, darling.”

When Felix Leiter listens into the conversation between Bond and the CIA agent Strutter, courtesy of a microphone in the cigarette lighter, Bond comments, “A genuine Felix Lighter – illuminating!”

When Rosie says she’s going to be of no use to Bond, he replies, “oh well I’m sure we can soon lick you into shape.”

Solitaire suggests a quickie before they go and capture Kananga. “Is there time before we leave for Lesson Number 3?” “Absolutely” replies Bond. “There’s no sense in going off half-cocked.”

When Leiter queries why Bond decides against the table by the wall at the New Orleans club, he replies “I once had a nasty turn in a booth”.

When Bond and Solitaire have been roped together in Kananga’s lair, Leiter tells the worrying Quarrel, “relax, he must have got tied up somewhere”.

And when Kananga cuts Bond’s arm to release blood to alert the sharks, 007 quips “perhaps we could try something in a simpler vein.”

After Kananga has been exploded into tiny bits: “he always did have an inflated opinion of himself.”

And as Bond tosses Tee Hee’s arm out of the window, after he’s been flung from the train: “Just being disarming, darling.”

Taxi DriverAny less frothy elements? So once again it’s time to consider if there are any outstanding themes or elements that don’t sit well with today’s audience. In this film, latent (and not so latent) sexism tends to give way to racism, with the blaxploitation theme. It’s said that the racial overtones in this book make it Fleming’s most difficult novel to accept nowadays (I’ve not read it myself); and the creative team were very concerned about this being the first Bond film where all the villains are black. The driver of the taxi (who’s obviously in the employ of Mr Big) taking him into Harlem tells Bond that for a big tip he’d take them to a Ku Klux Klan hideout – that doesn’t sit very comfortably. One of the other guys radios in: “you’ve got a Honky on your tail”; and “you can’t miss him, it’s like following a cue ball”. It’s not the only use of the H word, and that also doesn’t sit very comfortably! Then Strutter refers to all the tarot cards as “spades” – with all its racist overtones.

Rosie CarverRosie Carver is another problematic character; the CIA agent who appears to be totally useless, and screams at the sight of the dead snake and the “warning” feather hat on the bed, feigns confidence but basically swoons into his arms at the merest suggestion of how’s-your-father. When Bond draws a gun on her as her duplicitousness is revealed, she says “you couldn’t, you wouldn’t, not after what we’ve just done”, and his response is “I certainly wouldn’t have killed you before”. To be fair, it’s probably no more or less sexist than his interaction with any other woman in any other Bond film.

Bizarre other stuff that occurred to me and a few observations.

Croc FarmOwner of the crocodile farm Ross Kananga was paid $60,000 to do the “jumping-on-the-back-of-the-crocs” stunt. Sadly, he died at the age of 32 from a cardiac arrest, two years after being attacked by his pet leopard, Satan.

BainesDenis Edwards, who played the third British agent (Baines) in the opening sequence, was terrified of snakes and wasn’t aware that he would be confronted by one, face-to-fang. He passed out. All that and he didn’t even get a credit.

Trailing WiresWhilst the team were filming in the apparently disused tenement blocks of Harlem, associate art director Peter Lamont wanted to include some of the trailing wires that were hanging loose from some of the buildings. To make it more obvious in shot, he arranged for the wires to be cut so that they hung in the right place for the shot. Later that day, the telephone engineers arrived as they had had several reports that the phone lines were down – red faces from the art design team!

SamediGeoffrey Holder, who played Baron Samedi, was primarily a dancer and choreographer – in the 1950s he was a principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York. He had also once met Ian Fleming at his home Goldeneye in Jamaica. He was also terrified of snakes. One wonders how cruel the casting team really were! He appears in the very final scene at the front of the train, because originally the producers had thought of bringing him back for the next film.

Voodoo sex showThe “little musical extravaganza” that entertains the guests at Bond’s hotel has overtones of rather a grotesque sex show, heavy on the Voodoo. Maybe tastes have changed since 1973.

Flying LessonThe amusing flying lesson with the terrifying and terrified Mrs Bell. Not much to say about it, but it has to be mentioned!

ButterhookBond refers to Tee Hee as “Butterhook” when the actor Julius Harris fumbled a scene where he had to remove Bond’s watch with his hook; it was an off-the-cuff quip, but it stayed in the script, and subsequently became Moore’s nickname for Harris.

Underacting MooreIn the scene where Jane Seymour is about to be nibbled to death by a snake, Roger Moore crouches in the distance, watching, and his face conveys all the horror of being slightly late for tea. Talk about underacting!

Central TVThe film holds the record for the most viewed broadcast film on television in the United Kingdom by attracting 23.5 million viewers when premiered on ITV on 20 January 1980.

OscarAwards: Paul and Linda McCartney were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song – they missed out to Marvin Hamlisch’s title track for The Way We Were.  They were also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, where they lost out to Neil Diamond and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Guy Hamilton did, however, win the Evening Standard award for Best Film.

Man with the Golden GunTo sum up: I was a little disappointed in this movie. I thought it was rather slow, rather coarse, lacking in finesse, and a little too easy. Solitaire is a rather ineffective and drippy Bond Girl, and Kananga lacks the brutal streak of a Blofeld. But mainly, I wasn’t over impressed with Roger Moore in the role and could see how either Connery or Lazenby would have nailed it much better. That said, having watched it three times over the course of writing this blog, the film and Moore have both started to appeal a little more, so I’m going to upgrade it by one sparkle. Nevertheless, I’m hoping for an improvement in his next offering, which was The Man with the Golden Gun. Fingers crossed!

My rating: 3 Sparkles

4 Sparkles4 Sparkles4 Sparkles

 

 

 

All photos from the film of course belong to their various copyright holders.

The James Bond Challenge – Diamonds are Forever (1971)

Diamonds are ForeverIn which James Bond is charged with infiltrating a diamond smuggling operation, which leads him to meet stylish criminal Tiffany Case – but she is only a small cog in a giant wheel turned by that Master of Malice, Blofeld (who hasn’t been killed in the opening scenes, as we all suspected.) Blofeld wants the diamonds to pay for the creation of a laser satellite that he will use to obliterate the weapons held by the superpowers and therefore in a position of supreme global power. Will James Bond let him get away with that? Of course not!

Willard WhyteAfter George Lazenby refused to honour his contract to play James Bond again, the script that Richard Maibaum had almost finished for the next film had to be rewritten. For one thing, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman weren’t particularly impressed with it, and secondly, it had been planned as a revenge film, with Bond avenging the death of his beloved Tracy; with a change of cast, that just wouldn’t have worked. As luck would have it, Broccoli had a dream where his friend Howard Hughes was replaced by an impostor; and that’s how the character of Willard Whyte was born. The producers recruited American screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz to amend Maibaum’s original script, which resulted in the two writers sharing the writing credits.

Bond James BondThe producers also had to look further afield to find their new 007. After toying with the ideas of John Gavin (of Spartacus, Psycho and Thoroughly Modern Millie fame), Burt Reynolds, Adam West (the original Batman) and Michael (Dumbledore) Gambon, they realised they needed the box-office guarantee of enticing Sean Connery back to the role. Connery demanded $1.25 million, using the money to establish his Scottish International Education Trust. This was a huge increase on Lazenby’s $100,000 and even Connery’s previous fee of $800,000.

Guy HamiltonAlthough Production Designer Ken Adam had been replaced for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – primarily for reasons of finance – he was welcomed back for Diamonds are Forever. Nevertheless, special effects were toned down as a result of Connery’s increased salary. Ted Moore returned as Cinematographer for the first time since Thunderball, with Bert Bates and John Holmes as Editors. For the big job, Guy Hamilton was recruited as Director for what would be his second of four Bond films, and of course, the music was once again in the capable hands of John Barry.

Diamonds are ForeverDiamonds are Forever was published in 1956 and was the fourth book in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels. It was inspired by a Sunday Times account of diamond smuggling in Sierra Leone. Using contacts, he met Sir Percy Sillitoe, the ex-head of MI5, who was working in security for De Beers, the famous diamond-trading company. The material he garnered not only provided the basis for Diamonds are Forever but also for a non-fiction book, The Diamond Smugglers, that he published the following year. Fleming wrote Diamonds are Forever at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica, taking the title from an advertisement in Vogue Magazine, “A Diamond is Forever.”

Odeon AylesburyI’m fairly sure that I saw this film with my schoolfriend John in a double bill with From Russia with Love at the Odeon in Aylesbury sometime in the mid-1970s. Chronologically, this was the last (i.e. the most recent) James Bond film that I saw either in the cinema or on TV until Skyfall – a gap of ignorance that made me want to do this James Bond Challenge in the first place.

Peter FranksWhilst the book and the film share many similar themes and plotlines, they also diverge in many areas. Like the film, the book deals with a diamond smuggler by name of Peter Franks, whom Bond impersonates to infiltrate the smuggling gang. He meets Tiffany Case, who is part of the smuggling chain; she leads Bond/Franks to the smugglers HQ; Shady Tree, another smuggler, also appears in both book and film. However, in the book, the mastermind behind the smuggling gang is the Spangled Mob, run by the ruthless brothers Jack and Seraffimo Spang. In the film, the Spangs have been replaced by Blofeld; whether he’s working independently of SPECTRE or not is uncertain. In the book, the Spangs’ henchmen Mr Wint and Mr Kidd carry out – or attempt to carry out – a few personal atrocities, whereas in the film, they perform most of the gangland murders even though they are never directly associated with Blofeld.

Wint and KiddThe book received largely – though not exclusively – good reviews. The Times Literary Supplement said it was Fleming’s “weakest book, a heavily padded story about diamond smuggling”, and the Sunday Times described it as: “about the nicest piece of book-making in this type of literature which I have seen for a long time”. The New York Times praised “Mr. Fleming’s handling of American and Americans”, although he felt that “the narrative is loose-jointed and weakly resolved”. The film also scored mixed reviews, with virtually all commentators approving the exciting car chase scenes, but with criticism of the performances of Jill St John (“one of the least effective Bond girls – beautiful, but shrill and helpless” according to Filmcritic.com) and Putter Smith and Bruce Glover (“looking and acting like a couple of pseudo-country bumpkins, [they] seem to have wandered by accident from the adjoining sound stage into the filming of this movie” according to Steve Rhodes.) Wint and Kidd, and Bambi and Thumper have been called the worst and second worst Bond villains of all time. The Guardian, however, described it as “oddly brilliant, the best of the bunch: the perfect bleary Bond film for an imperfect bleary western world”.

Opening CreditsIt’ll come as no surprise that the opening credits begin, with Maurice Binder’s iconic glimpse of Bond walking across the screen whilst being captured by the barrel of a gun, only for him to turn around, see us, and shoot; and then for the blood to start filling up the screen. Last time it was George Lazenby of course, and this time it’s back to Sean Connery – and the background white colour has now become blue. Fortunately, there’s a new arrangement for the James Bond Theme, using an electric guitar, and not that disappointingly easy listening version used in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Strangled with your own braWe start off with something of a world tour. We begin in Japan, where Bond threatens an unnamed henchman with some proper violence unless he tells him where Blofeld is – answer, Cairo; then we visit a casino in Cairo, where the same question is asked of a befezzed gambler – answer, ask Marie. For those first two scenes, you don’t see Bond’s face – so is it Connery or Lazenby? Then Connery appears, meeting a pretty girl (presumably Marie) on a beach somewhere else and makes to strangle her with her bra unless she spills the beans on Blofeld. Finally, Bond tracks down Blofeld in a laboratory where they are creating a second version of the evil mastermind. There’s a fight and a struggle and Blofeld gets swallowed up in a mudpool and left to drown. Or does he……?

Blofeld's CatCut to Blofeld’s cat, looking most peeved at the apparent death of his master. Here’s an interesting fact you won’t find anywhere else. The lady who owned that cat – and indeed she was a worldwide cat expert who judged on major cat shows throughout the world over several decades – was admitted to the same dementia care home as my mother. You heard it here first.

Opening sequenceAnyway, back to the film. And it’s the credits, and Shirley Bassey’s performance of Diamonds are Forever, wisely using the title of the film and book as the title of the film, something that wasn’t an option with OHMSS. Like Thunderball, the lyrics to Diamonds are Forever were written by Don Black. Binder’s title sequence calls for a view after view of dripping diamonds, which after a short while becomes slightly less than interesting. Luckily, there are a few shots of barely hidden bosoms to perk the credits up. But I would suggest this is possibly the least creative title sequence in the series so far.

AmsterdamAnd the locations? The first location of any interest is Amsterdam – with plenty of typical tourist views which reminded me of the opening sequences of Van der Valk. The scene then shifts to Nevada, and Las Vegas, primarily designed to appeal to the American audience. Many of the Las Vegas scenes take place in Circus Circus, a larger than life setting for a large than life character and story. There are also a few glimpses of Dover; Blofeld’s oil rig home was off the coast of California, and the attractive lift in which Bond and Franks fight as filmed at 107 Fleet Street, London, now a suite of serviced offices. And the garden scene where Bond gives Tiffany a thwack across the chops was filmed in the Palm Springs house belonging to the late Kirk Douglas.

Bond on the MoonBond, James Bond. Once again, those are Bond’s first words in this film (well, almost: “My name is Bond, James Bond”) – spoken in the credits sequence.  If it seems like James Bond looks considerably more mature in this film than the previous time we saw Connery in the role, remember it has been four years since You Only Live Twice. In that period Sean Connery had appeared in several other movies and had aged from 37 to 41 and I think it shows. Mind you, he did say he hardly got to sleep when they were filming in Las Vegas – he played golf every day, saw all the shows every evening and did all the filming during the wee small hours of the morning. That would be enough to tax the strength of Superman.

Alleyway chaseBoo-boos. One of the best boo-boos comes in one of the film’s most celebrated scenes – when the Ford Mustang rolls through the alleyway on two wheels. Unfortunately for continuity, the two wheels that it enters the alleyway on are not the same two wheels it’s using on its exit! Also, all the people standing outside the Golden Nugget Saloon whilst the car chase is proceeding are clearly just standing there and watching what’s going on rather than going about their daily lives – and a minute or two later, there’s hardly anyone on the streets. When Tiffany comes out of her flat to observe the fight between Bond and Franks, she comes a couple of feet forward to see what’s going on but in the next shot she’s back in the doorframe – without enough time to have got back there. When Bond approaches Tiffany in the Whyte House hotel room apparently naked, the camera just manages to catch the top of his flesh coloured undies.

PlentyThe Bond Girl. At one stage, I thought Plenty O’Toole would turn out to be the Bond Girl in this movie. But no, she just appears for a couple of short scenes, where she shows herself to be completely eaten up by a lust for money which soon leads to her death. Maybe the fact that, during the filming, Sean Connery and Lana Wood, who plays Plenty, were having a relationship, adds to their brief, but distinct, on camera chemistry. Lana Wood, the sister of Natalie Wood, has been married six times, the longest being to Husband Number Five which lasted four years. She was already an established actress at the time of filming, with a long run in TV’s Peyton Place under her belt. TV and film work dried up in the mid-1980s, with just a few roles since then. Much of her life has been devoted to clearing up the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death.

TiffanyBut the title of Bond Girl for this film definitely goes to Tiffany Case, played by Jill St John, the first American to take this title. Tiffany is possibly the most actively criminal of the Bond Girls so far, but that doesn’t seem to stop either of them from getting it on. She’s elegant, reckless, daring; but also, when it comes to replacing the lethal cassette tape that makes or breaks Blofeld’s wicked schemes, a bit ham-fisted and stupid. Possibly because she was also dating Sean Connery, and also because later she married Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood’s widower, she has carried out a longstanding public feud with her co-Bond Girl, Lana Wood. Whilst Jill St John had a successful Hollywood career, she largely gave it all up in 1972 to concentrate on her homelife.

Lift fightWhat Bond Girls Are Like. Apart from the Japanese heritage that sets You Only Live Twice’s Kissy apart from the rest of the Girls, our currently agreed list of attributes common to the Bond Girls is: sexy, exotic, unpredictable, as equally likely to attack Bond as to support him, strong and self-reliant up to a point, sometimes tragic, professional, scary, vengeful and bossy. How well does Tiffany conform to the role? Fairly well on the whole, although perhaps she’s a little more human than most, as she is prone to getting things wrong from time to time, and seems genuinely alarmed when Bond and Franks fight in the lift.

BlofeldThe Villain.  Once again Blofeld is back, this time seemingly without the backing of SPECTRE, but no less lethal as a result. In fact, there are several Blofelds as part of the plot was to create lookalike Blofelds to make it even more difficult to assassinate the real one – and at least two of the false Blofelds die in this film. He’s played by Charles Gray, who, interestingly, had played Dikko Henderson in You Only Live Twice – changing sides from the goodies to the baddies. Gray had enjoyed a long and successful film career from the late 1950s up to his death in 2000. Writer Tom Mankiewicz described his performance as a much more “fussy” Blofeld than the other actors to perform the role – and it’s a very interesting characterisation. Blofeld actually only appears in three of the Fleming novels – Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice; and, apart from in the pre-credits for For Your Eyes Only, this would be his last appearance in a James Bond movie.

WintOther memorable characters? By far the most intriguing among the rest of the cast is the weird and wilful double act of Mr Wint and Mr Kidd, played by Bruce Glover and Putter Smith. Hinting at a homosexual relationship between the two, they’re always together as each other’s right-hand man, so to speak. If someone needs bumping off, or if something needs stealing, they’re the men for the job, One assumes that they’re working for Blofeld, but it’s never made absolutely clear; maybe that’s because, as far as the plot is concerned, they are remnants of the Spangled Mob plotline, which was removed for the purposes of the film. As a result, their position in the crime family tree of this film is always undefined. Whilst some critics (see earlier) didn’t rate their performances, personally I find them very unsettlingly creepy. Mankiewicz described them as “vicious, but funny vicious”.

KiddBruce Glover also had a very long and successful career as a movie actor over five decades; now aged 87, he has carried on working right up to the last few years. Putter Smith was better known as a jazz musician; in fact, he was playing with Thelonious Monk at a club in Los Angeles when he was spotted by Guy Hamilton and approached to play the role. He’s worked with all the Greats; and in the pop world, he’s been a session musician with The Beach Boys, The Righteous Brothers and Sonny and Cher. He’s still going strong at the age of 79. There is a story that Sean Connery believed both actors were gay, as per their roles, and they did nothing to disabuse him of this assumption, until one day Connery met Glover on a flight and observed Glover chatting up all the air hostesses – that’s when he realised he’d been had.

LeiterFriendly CIA Agent Felix Leiter makes a return to the world of Bond, this time acted by Norman Burton, who had a long film career working from the 50s to the 90s. As the name suggests, this version of Leiter feels a little lighter than other incarnations, providing a few humorous moments (“I’ve got 30 agents down there, a mouse with sneakers couldn’t get through”) whilst supporting Bond’s work. Norman Burton died in 2003.

Shady TreeOther interesting characters include the tetchy Dr Metz, a top scientist working for Blofeld, played by Joseph Furst, an Austrian who emigrated to Australia in the 1970s and ended up acting in soap operas there; Morton Slumber, the slimy undertaker who’s part of the smuggling gang, played by David Bauer, an American who emigrated to Britain because of McCarthyism and who died rather young in 1973; and Shady Tree, the stand-up comedian working in Whyte’s Las Vegas club who’s also part of the smuggling gang, played by Leonard Barr, who was indeed a stand-up comic as well as an actor and who was Dean Martin’s uncle. Not mentioned in the credits is a young David Healy, as the rocket launch director, whose accomplishments ranged from voicing Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, through comedy appearances with Dick Emery and Kenny Everett, to a show-stopping performance as Nicely Nicely Johnson in the National Theatre’s award-winning 1980s revival of Guys and Dolls. And, of course, there’s Bambi and Thumper, two Bond-girl wannabes who just end up trying to kill our hero. They were played by Lola Larson and Trina Parks. Whilst Lola Larson hasn’t done much acting since, Trina Parks, primarily a dancer, has been in a number of movies, and holds the accolade of being the first African-American female in a Bond film.

MoneypennyAs usual, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewelyn reprise their roles as M, Moneypenny and Q. Moneypenny only appears in one, brief, scene at Dover Customs; apparently Lois Maxwell had dyed her hair for another role, hence she wears a cap to disguise it. Initially she wasn’t written into the film at all, as she was asking for more money and the producers weren’t keen – but in the end that was resolved. M gives Bond his task for this film – but then, unusually, we never go back to him. Normally, at some point in a Bond film, 007 would report back to him, or we would hear that M is either satisfied or dissatisfied with Bond’s performance – but not this time. Instead, we meet Q a few times, out in the field, including a very funny scene where he empties all the one-arm bandits in the casino due to an amazing gadget. What a clever chap he is.

Bond and TiffanyAnd what about the music? As always, the film starts with the main James Bond Theme, in a nice, crisp guitar arrangement, written by Monty Norman; after that, it’s mainly all John Barry, apart from a brass version of the Norman theme when the Hovercraft leaves Dover, and when we see Bond and Tiffany relaxing on the liner at the end, when the Norman theme returns. In addition to the iconic performance by Shirley Bassey of the title track, there’s a luscious loungey arrangement of the tune when Bond first encounters Tiffany in her flat – entitled Diamonds are Forever (Source Instrumental) on the soundtrack album. There’s also a very cutesy arrangement of Monty Norman’s theme for the scene where Bond encounters Bambi and Thumper. All in all, it’s not a bad soundtrack, although you probably wouldn’t spend an evening unwinding to it.

Shirley BasseyShirley Bassey’s recording of Diamonds are Forever reached 38 in the UK chart in 1972, although she was never really a singles recording artist. According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, John Barry told her to imagine that she was singing about a penis when she recorded the song. Make of that what you will.

BondCar chases.  You have to wait a while before the film enters car chase mode, but once there it doesn’t let up until you’re thoroughly entertained. Basically there are two scenes – one, where a green security car, plus security officers on quad bikes, chase around what appears to be the surface of the moon – at the Tectonics research laboratory; and one where cops chase Bond and Tiffany around the centre of Las Vegas and the Mint Hotel parking lot – which includes the famous two-wheeled alleyway roll.  The producers entered into an arrangement with Ford to use their cars as so many would get destroyed during the making of the film. Their only stipulation was that Sean Connery was to drive the iconic Ford Mustang that in the film belonged to Tiffany. The reason? It had just entered the market and there could be no greater advertising endorsement than that of James Bond!

Casino sceneCocktails and Casinos. Part of the opening credits includes a quick casino scene in Cairo, where a man in a fez is attacked by Bond looking for Blofeld; then there are two more Las Vegas casino scenes, the first where Bond goes to see Shady Tree’s show, and one situated inside Circus Circus, where Tiffany goes hunting for diamonds. No cocktails are poured in this film; although Bond does appreciate the sherry with Sir Magnus based on an 1851 vintage. It’s a Chateau Mouton Rothschild that contributes to the death of Mr Kidd at the end of the movie.

Q on the pokiesGadgets. Q’s on good form in this film. He’s already furnished Bond with a kind of mousetrap contraption that fits inside his jacket pocket and punishes anyone looking in there for something; and he’s provided Bond with a Franks’ fingerprints on a sticky piece of film that goes over his own fingerprints. He really does think of everything. Then there’s the gun that shoots cable – invaluable for scaling the outside of buildings, the speech gadget that makes Bond sound like Saxby (after all, Blofeld has a gadget – made by those nice people at Tectronics – that makes him sound like Whyte) and a cunning corkscrew. And, of course, Q’s favourite invention, an electromagnetic RPM controller – the widget that allows him to make a fortune on the fruit machines in the casino.

In MemoriamIn Memoriam. Time for a quick countback. Dr No had a death count of approximately 11 as well as all those who go up in smoke in his lair at the end; From Russia with Love notched up at least 40 stiffs; Goldfinger came in at a more modest 23-ish, plus everyone who died at Fort Knox; Thunderball hit a peak of around 50 people; You Only Live Twice was going really well until a mass murder spree towards the end took about 40 lives, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service took out about 20 people only, including the longest wait until someone dies. But what about Diamonds are Forever’s death count? Let’s briefly remember those who gave their lives so that Bond and Tiffany can enjoy the last days of their leisure cruise:

  • Henchman in the grass outside Blofeld’s claying laboratory (presumably killed by Bond so that he could gain entrance)
  • Clayed person in the vat
  • Henchman, killed by Bond throwing knives at him
  • Someone pretending to be Blofeld
  • Dentist, killed by a scorpion down the neck
  • Helicopter pilot given a bomb to take on board by Wint and Kidd
  • Miss Whistler
  • A guard (in absentia) killed by Peter Franks so that he could escape
  • Peter Franks, whopped over the head by a fire extinguisher so he toppled over a balustrade to his death (covered in fire extinguisher foam)
  • Shady Tree
  • Plenty O’Toole, drowned in the swimming pool
  • Another person pretending to be Blofeld, shot by Bond when he identifies the “wrong pussy”.
  • Saxby
  • An untold number of people at the missile area in North Dakota
  • An untold number of people on the submarine
  • Lots of Chinese people
  • 2 of Blofeld’s henchmen
  • Four people in another helicopter
  • 2 more of the henchmen
  • And the crew of another helicopter
  • Four on a bridge
  • Everyone on the platform
  • Blofeld (one presumes)
  • Wint and Kidd, flambéd, bombed and drowned.

That’s probably in the region of 70-100 people? That could be the highest toll in a Bond movie so far. Plenty of work for Mr Slumber’s funeral parlour if he’s looking for business.

Tiffany and BondHumour to offset the death count. In previous films, Bond’s classic asides are normally delivered whenever someone dies. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service started the trend towards funny lines in other circumstances too, and this continues in Diamonds are Forever. In fact, the funny lines in this film mainly involve sexual encounters. Here are some of his best bon mots:

To Marie, in the opening credits, where he whips off her bra: “there’s something I’d like you to get off your chest”.

To Leiter, explaining where the diamonds are stored in Franks’s body: “Alimentary, my dear Leiter”.

Tiffany, eyeing up the naked Bond: “there’s a lot more to you than I expected”.

Later when the naked Bond rolls over on top of the naked Tiffany, he quips, “relax, darling, I’m on top of the situation”.  And when Tiffany assures Leiter that she is “co-operating”, Bond confirms, “I can vouch for that.”

When Bond kicks Blofeld’s cat and it leaps into the arms of its owner, Bond sees that as the definition of the correct Blofeld to kill. But no. “Right idea, Mr Bond”. “But wrong pussy”.

When Bond tucks the C90 cassette into Tiffany’s bikini panties: “Your problems are all behind you now”.

When Bond ties the bomb to the back of Mr Wint’s trousers: “He certainly left with his tail between his legs”.

Bambi and ThumperAny less frothy elements? So once again it’s time to consider if there are any outstanding themes or elements that don’t sit well with today’s audience. And to be fair, there’s nothing like the usual amount of sexism. Perhaps that’s because Bond doesn’t take advantage of the female characters as much as in other films – and in many respects, they take advantage of him. It’s quite interesting to watch the battle of the sexes more evened up than usual.

Bizarre other stuff that occurred to me and a few observations.

Circus CircusBond on the Moon? In 1971 the US (and indeed the world) was still rocket-crazy with Apollo missions happening left right and centre, so Bond driving a Moon Buggy very much tapped into the Zeitgeist. Those people who thought the moon landings were staged thought that the site where this was filmed was the site where the landings were faked. So you could say that the whole buggy scene is something of a satirical nod to that conspiracy theory.

HovercraftHow lovely to see a hovercraft in action again! In 1971 they were (literally) a hot ticket and a very popular method of travel from the UK to mainland Europe. Such a shame that they are no longer commercially used. Such a great invention. I wonder if they’ll ever come back. It would be great if we were to discover that they’re more environmentally friendly.

CassetteAs in OHMSS, it’s hilarious to see the future of the world relying on a C90 cassette.

Apparently, Sammy Davis Jr filmed a cameo role in a casino but the scene was deleted. Shame!

Mad scientistThe man who plays the mad scientist who coverts the girl into a gorilla was in fact the owner of Circus Circus – he told the producers they could use his venue provided he was in the movie!

JImmy DeanJimmy Dean, who played Willard Whyte, was a Country and Western singer who had a major international hit in 1961 with Big Bad John.

BAFTA_awardAwards: Sound engineers Gordon K. McCallum, John W. Mitchell and Alfred J. Overton were nominated for Best Sound at the Academy Awards – they lost to Fiddler on the Roof.

Live-And-Let-Die-posterTo sum up: A thoroughly enjoyable James Bond film, filled with interesting characters, a good solid story, some terrific car chases, a top theme title and lots of fun. What’s not to like? This would be the last time Sean Connery played Bond for Broccoli and Saltzman, and he would return only once more, in Never Say Never Again, but for a different production company. Diamonds are Forever was the last Bond movie I saw until Skyfall – so I’m looking forward to catching the next film, Live and Let Die, so I can finally discover what Roger Moore was like in the role!

My rating: 5 Sparkles

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All photos from the film of course belong to their various copyright holders.

Review – The Personal History of David Copperfield, Northampton Filmhouse, 9th February 2020

DC PosterWhen I saw the trailer for this film a couple of weeks ago, my eyes turned away with horror. What on Earth were they doing with my beloved David Copperfield? It’s one of my all-time favourite books; and a TV dramatisation in the early 1970s was pivotal in my growing-up process. When the recently widowed Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle turned to the 12 year old me and asked if I’d mind if she ever remarried, my mind went to thoughts of Mr Murdstone (as I presumed all stepfathers are wicked like him) and I asked her please not to. As a consequence, she remained on her own for the rest of her life and I think never really forgave me for that. I was only 12 goddammit!!

Dev PatelI digress, as I so often do. But I felt like challenging myself into watching what was obviously not going to be a traditional, faithful re-telling of Dickens’ novel. How much of a purist would I be, when it comes to David Copperfield? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Armando Iannucci has picked up a copy of the book, ripped some of the pages out, sellotaped some of them back in the wrong order, drawn a few cartoons in the side margins, given it a good shake up and then made a film of it.

Anna Maxwell Martin, Dev PatelA deliberately quirky film at that. At first, I found I was really enjoying its freshness and unstuffiness. Then it occurred to me that I was actively hating it, with its comic-strip silliness, grotesque characterisations, omission of characters and storylines, and rather self-conscious cleverness. Then, towards the end, when I started to understand (I think) what the film was trying to do (I believe) it started to grow on me, and I ended up having a grudging admiration for it. That’s a pretty exhausting two hours for an audience member.

Dev Patel addressing the theatreThe film starts with Copperfield addressing an audience in a theatre; he’s clearly going to tell them his life story. The novel starts with the same words – the adult Copperfield introducing an account of his life and adventures to his readership. So, a few liberties taken there, but acceptable. However, when the adult Copperfield suddenly appears at the side of his new-born baby self, you know you’re going to have to widen your imaginations to take this all in. And sometimes it’s worth it, and sometimes it isn’t.

Paul Whitehouse and Anthony WelshMy sympathy with the film ran out with the development of the character of Mr Murdstone, played by Darren Boyd. As you’ll appreciate from my opening paragraph, I have a very firm understanding of what Murdstone is all about. He’s a cruel, ruthless, vindictive, utter swine of a man. However, whilst Darren Boyd’s Murdstone was comfortable with handing out the punishment and assuming control over the household – he was played like a pantomime villain. More Abanazar than a Bastard. Horrible? Yes. But a seriously evil, despicable specimen of toxic masculinity? Naaah. Or, Oh no he wasn’t, in pantomime terms. I couldn’t take the performance seriously because he didn’t.

Tilda SwintonI also wasn’t impressed (although I appreciate I am a lone voice here) with Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of Betsey Trotwood. Again, it was too cartoon-like; a grotesquerisation (I just invented that word) of a character who has her foibles but is essentially kind. You had to look very hard to find much in the way of kindness in Tilda Swinton’s performance. I sense the decision was made to accentuate the slightly unbalanced comedy of the character. But you don’t need Betsey Trotwood to be slightly unbalanced when you have Mr Dick by her side, who is unbalanced enough for both of them. By contrast, I thought Hugh Laurie’s Mr Dick was pretty much the best performance in the film, expressing his good-natured puzzlement at the way his brain worked, and his childish delight at the simple pleasures of life.

Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Dev PatelSimilarly, Peter Capaldi’s Micawber was purely played for laughs; you didn’t get a sense of his and his wife’s kindness or generosity with what little they had, but just that he was a money-centric reprobate who was only interested in Copperfield for what they could get out of him. As for Ben Whishaw’s Uriah Heep, he simply changed from ‘umble servant to embezzling boss without any sense of how or why he got there.

Dev Patel, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh LaurieThere was no Tommy Traddles; no Dan Peggotty or Barkis, willin’ or otherwise; Rosa Dartle was concatenated into the character of Mrs Steerforth. Creakle and Tungay have been moved from Salem House school to running the wine bottle factory. In a Bowdlerised quest to eliminate the darker sides of the book, Dora doesn’t die – she just asks Copperfield to write her out of the book, her father doesn’t die from a heart attack in his carriage, and Ham doesn’t die in his rescue attempt at sea. There’s many a missed opportunity to dig just a little deeper into Dickens’ text – but that’s not the point of the film, quite the reverse.

Hugh Laurie, Dev Patel, Tilda SwintonThe point of the film – as I see it – is Copperfield’s re-imagining and re-living his own experiences in a way that he wants to remember them, which isn’t necessarily how they actually happened. He doesn’t want to dwell on people’s deaths. He doesn’t want to wallow in the misery of the wine bottle factory. He doesn’t want to explore the motivations of people who don’t particularly interest him. On the other hand he does want to emphasise how lovely Agnes is (one of the better performances and characterisations in the film from Rosalind Eleazar), he does want to stress the heroism of Ham, he does want to reflect on his own friendship with Peggotty (presumably that’s why he’s not sharing her with Barkis). This makes Copperfield the essential egotist – and I can have some sympathy with that characterisation.

At home with the HeepsThere are some nice moments; the Trotwood household trying to keep Mr Wickfield away from the drinks cabinet, Micawber’s creditors trying to steal his rug from underneath the door frame, Mrs Heep’s heavy cake. There are some delightful cameos from Anna Maxwell Martin as Mrs Strong, Rosaleen Linehan as the hideous but helpless Mrs Gummidge, and a superb performance from Jairaj Varsani as the young David Copperfield. The one scene where the device of having the adult Copperfield intruding on his younger days really worked was in that very moving moment where Adult David tells Young David not to worry – everything will be alright. Which of us hasn’t at some point imagined what we would say to our younger selves with the benefit of retrospect? And then of course there is the central performance by Dev Patel – engaging, humorous, decent (on the whole) – everything in fact that you’d expect from a performance by Dev Patel.

Ben WhishawDefinitely a challenge for the purist – but it’s good to be challenged. A re-imagining of David Copperfield for today’s busy, instant return on investment, generation. You can imagine the creative team’s vision for the film. “Cut 950 pages to the quick and give me the bare bones, and none of that slow-building, motivation-observing nonsense. No sorrow, no guilt, just give me donkeys. I want to laugh at Dickensian characters and I want it now.” Well, I think they achieved that.

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – 1917, Northampton Filmhouse, 16th January 2020

1917 posterOdd, perhaps, to start a review about a film by talking about another film, but do you remember Peter Weir’s Gallipoli? I saw it with my dear old university friend Jeff, now sadly no longer with us; with nothing to do on a Friday night, we’d been out for a few pints then, charged with bonhomie, decided to catch a movie – and we settled on Gallipoli. As the ghastly inevitability of the carnage of war grew stronger and stronger through the film, by the end we were stunned into a sad silence. Walking back to our student digs, all Jeff could say was “well that’s one way to ruin an evening.”

-Big Spoiler Alert –

it all starts here1917 reminded me of Gallipoli because both films examined a strong bond between two soldiers, and, when one of them dies, you get a big wallop of teardrop in your eyes and wonder how mankind can do this to each other. Answer: if we’re still doing it today after millennia of war, why would we ever stop? The two films also share similar climaxes – Will Mel Gibson’s Frank Dunne get his message to the frontline in time to stop the final wave of troops going over the top (and thus save the life of his friend)? And will George Mackay’s Lance Corporal Schofield get his message to Colonel Mackenzie in time to prevent the 2nd Devons being wiped out in an equally pointless charge? You probably already know the outcome.

ErinmoreSam Mendes’ 1917 is, on the face of it, a magnificently impressive film. Giving the appearance of being filmed in one shot – although, for practical purposes, you can actually see the joins, and it was probably done in four or five – its exciting, pacey sweep follows Schofield and his pal Blake as they risk everything in pursuit of getting a message from General Erinmore to Colonel Mackenzie on the other side of No Man’s Land. Technically, one can only marvel at the detailed rehearsal and choreography that must have preceded those long shots, the faultless delivery of every line by a large cast, the planned positioning of the camera equipment in amongst the men in the trenches, and even the expectation that a well-placed rat will do the right thing. The “one shot” look adds enormous suspense, urgency and a real sense on the part of the audience of actually being there. Truly an extraordinary achievement.

Schofield and BlakeThe story itself – apparently inspired by a tale that Sam Mendes’ grandfather told him – takes a back seat in comparison with the style and the realism. Two men are on a mission to deliver a message – will they make it? Apart from tidying up some loose ends with the brother of one of the men, that’s about it, although it does also makes some very clear points about the hierarchy of life in the trenches and how the class system dictated what kind of position you held in the army. However, the excitement and the suspense of the action mean you forgive any holes in the storyline.

in the German dugoutYou do have to suspend some disbelief from time to time; there’s a scene where Schofield is running around some ruins, being shot at by Germany’s least efficient sniper; he really ought to have got him with at least one of those bullets. That scene also takes on an air of games console – for a few minutes war has become a game rather than a horror. Look at this still, for example – it’s pure X-Box. Schofield in the ruinsThe occasional use of powerfully surging music, that swells up to fill the cinema with heroic passion, means that at times you feel the film is glorifying war. Maybe that’s inevitable – it’s been years since I’ve seen a war film, so I’ve not much with which to compare it. For my own part, I much preferred the scenes inside the trenches, where you saw the everyday tedium of war mixed with fear and disgust. That’s where the film totally succeeds, in my opinion.

MackenzieI’m not sure there’s meant to be any element of fun in this film for the audience, but I have to admit I enjoyed the star-spotting moments; a wealth of famous, top quality actors who were hired to deliver one line, or share the screen for about ten seconds. Starting with Colin Firth’s bluff Erinmore and ending with Benedict Cumberbatch’s arrogant Mackenzie, blink in the trenches and you’ll miss Jamie Parker, and Adrian Scarborough briefly lending Schofield a scrap of comfort. Richard McCabe never gets out of his jeep or even faces the camera as the grumpy Colonel Collins, Nabhaan Rizwan has two tiny scenes as a comradely Sepoy, and Bodyguard’s Richard Madden has almost five minutes at the end as Blake’s brother in a very smartly performed, emotional-though-stiff-upper-lip performance.

Let him throughBut the film completely revolves around the two central performances of Dean-Charles Chapman as the brave and ultra-keen Blake, and George Mackay as the more cynical but ultimately heroic Schofield. The two never put a foot wrong with two technically perfect performances that may well stay with you long past the final reel. It’s not a perfect film but I’d be very hard hearted not to give it anything other than five Sparkles.

4 Sparkles4 Sparkles4 Sparkles4 Sparkles4 Sparkles

Review – Knives Out, Northampton Filmhouse, 19th December 2019

KO PosterRegular readers (bless you!) of my blog will know that I am an Agatha Christie fan and am currently re-working my way through her oeuvre on my Agatha Christie Challenge. So it was a no-brainer that I would want to see Rian Johnson’s homage to her style, Knives Out. And, in the best tradition of not telling you whodunit, I promise I won’t! Mr Johnson made us promise at the beginning of the film anyway, and I’m not going to be the one who told you that the policeman did it. (Damn!!!)

A very grim familyIt may be an homage to Christie but the first few scenes are pure Sleuth, mixed with a spot of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. The walls of the Thrombey family mansion are crammed with posters celebrating the works of the great writer and patriarch Harlan Thrombey, and there’s even one of those laughing sailor dolls lurking around, which made me think this was going to become a psychological two-hander. But, no – the doll is mere window dressing, and there’s precious little that’s psychological about the plot – the motive is much more basic than that. Poirot would actually be really disappointed.

HarlanSo, who killed Harlan Thrombey? That’s not a spoiler – he’s revealed with his throat slit within the first minute of action. At least it’s one of those thrillers that starts with the crime and works backwards, which is much more likely to arrest your attention than when you get all the clues and motives first and then the crime happens about an hour later. And there’s indeed a host of suspects, brought to life by a star-strangled cast, each one outperforming the others in terms of their suspiciousness and lack of likeability.

A grim familyAnd that’s a major problem with the film as I see it. The suspects are all (bar one) varying degrees of unpleasant, and heavily caricatured – Rian Johnson has said that the hokey cult 1970s musical Something’s Afoot, which was a Christie spoof populated by stereotypes, was an influence on this film, and I think it works to its detriment. There’s only one sympathetic suspect – and it very much turns into her story – but the rest of them are so vile that they deserve everything coming to them. It was this lack of interest in the characters’ outcomes that decided Mrs Chrisparkle to give in and go to sleep after hanging on for the first 90 minutes.

Blanc and MartaYes, there are some wonderfully quirky moments. I enjoyed Detective Blanc’s rendition of Losing My Mind from Sondheim’s Follies whilst waiting in the car; these cops obviously enjoy their musical theatre as there’s also a fleeting reference to Hamilton. There’s a comic moment in the heat of the final denouement which is very nicely done (although completely predictable). A suspect deliberately stomping through the mud to obliterate footprints is very funny. But, on the whole, the film comes across as overwhelmingly dark – not dark as in film noir, but dark as in why doesn’t someone open the curtains – and what’s meant to suggest suspense and eeriness just ends up being gloomy. It lacks light and shade, as though its dial is firmly set to murky.

JoniAs Detective Blanc, Daniel Craig has adopted a vocal drawl unlike any other known to man – kudos to him for keeping it up for over two hours. It’s an engaging performance nonetheless, although at times he feels a little more like Clouseau than Poirot. More entertaining vocal tics come from the constricted cords of Toni Collette, as Joni the Insta Influencer, and it was a pleasure to see Frank Oz in the cameo role of the Thrombey family lawyer. But it’s Ana de Armas as Marta who makes the film watchable as the only character with whom we can really connect, and her marvellous performance smashes the movie into the realms of 3 stars from me.

CopsAs for the solution to this heinous crime – well, as a Facebook relationship status might confess, it’s complicated, and I challenge anyone to answer successfully the question that Mrs C put to me on the way home – so, whodunit? – in full. I had to re-read the synopsis online twice in order to be certain that I fully understood exactly who was guilty of what. Gimme the ballAnd, believe me, I was paying attention. It must have been the accents.

Backbeat, the word on the street says this could be the first in a series of films featuring Detective Blanc. They may have to consider subtitles.

Review – The Good Liar, Northampton Filmhouse, 3rd December 2019

The Good LiarSometimes it’s easy to talk about a film or a play without giving away too many spoilers. However, in the case of The Good Liar, it’s virtually impossible. Roy and Betty meet over dinner, having been chatting on a dating website; he seems in frail health so, a few nights later, Betty allows him to stay over in her house rather than walking all the way up the stairs to his own apartment. But, actually,he’s in perfect health and appears to be part of a gang – or at least a partnership – of swindlers, defrauding greedy but stupid investors of their hard earned cash. OK – that’s not too much of an opening spoiler.

on the platformThere is, however, a basic twist to the story – and let’s face it, it wouldn’t be much of a thriller if there wasn’t, so that in itself isn’t a spoiler. However, if you have any inkling of this twist in advance, it will completely ruin it for you. So, if you want a quick spoiler-free review, all I’ll say is that it’s enjoyable, well-performed, although with some unnecessary gore and unexpectedly bad language from Sir Ian, and, frankly, in some respects rather an unpleasant film. If you like the sound of a dramatic pairing between Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren, then you’ll love it. And who wouldn’t fancy that? Now, if you want no more spoilers, bookmark this page, go and see the film and then come back. In the meantime, the rest of us will get on with dissecting it….

back home… I think they’ve gone. Phew! Now I can tell you what I really think. SPOILER ALERT!!! (Just in case) The strength and weakness of this film is in the casting. Sir Ian and Dame Helen are a powerful combo, and there are many exciting, tense, witty and dramatic scenes between the two. But do you really think an actor like Dame Helen would have taken a role as an elderly woman defrauded of her assets, made to look stupid and weak? Naaaa. Now, if it had been Dame Judi, she might have built up an emotional image of noble fragility and crumbled beautifully in front of us all as a downtrodden old dear. But this is Dame Helen. From the Janis Joplin-like Maggie in David Hare’s Teeth ‘n’ Smiles to D.I. Jane Tennison and many roles before or after, she’s always the spunky, spiky, unpredictable, gritty strong woman. And if anyone’s going to outsmart Sir Ian’s Roy, it’s her Betty. I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought right from the start of the film that her character has her own agenda.

Mirren and McKellenRevenge is a dish best served cold, they say, and that’s proved without a doubt in this finely-detailed plot to put right a wrong over half a century old. No wonder it’s set in 2009; if it had been set in 2019, the past would probably be too distant for them to do anything about it. When you discover the elaborateness of the pre-planning, before the substance of the film gets underway, you feel both wow, that’s clever and wow, that’s far-fetched in about 50-50 measure. Nevertheless, the film does weave an enjoyably intricate web of deceit that is entertaining to observe, and, despite the occasional horror and gore, there is something delightfully British afternoon-tea about the whole thing. At times it feels like an episode of Midsomer Murders as directed by Quentin Tarantino.

THE GOOD LIARSir Ian and Dame Helen dominate the film throughout, and with acting of their quality, that’s no surprise. A very small cast adds to a sense of claustrophobia. Personally, I find it hard to watch Jim Carter and not see Mr Carson from Downton Abbey; here he plays Roy’s partner-in-crime Vincent, like a spiv Mr Carson, hair bouffoned up and with a constant eye for a cash deal. Russell Tovey plays Russell Tovey playing Stephen, Betty’s grandson, a suspicious lad with an unexpected grasp of Nazi history, who spends most of the film acting as Roy’s chauffeur with bad grace. There’s a nice performance from Mark Lewis Jones as Bryn, the hapless investor who bumbles his way through a deal and is sacrificed for his pains. But there’s no doubt the film belongs to its two big stars.

Helen MirrenMrs Chrisparkle was finding it a very unhappy film until the twist started to reveal itself; clearly she was empathising with Betty just a wee bit too much, and it’s just a bit too unimaginative to base a plot on a ruthless old git manipulating an innocent old girl. But Dame Helen isn’t an innocent old girl, never has been, never will be. Very watchable and enjoyable, a couple of moments when my dislike of violence made my stomach retch slightly, and an ending where one plot to deceive fails catastrophically and another plot succeeds miraculously. Recommended, but primarily for the acting.

Review – Toy Story 4, Northampton Filmhouse, 2nd July 2019

Toy Story Poster“Can you remember what happened at the end of Toy Story 3”, I asked Mrs Chrisparkle as we walked to the cinema last night. “Nope,” she replied, “but I’m sure there’ll be some kind of catch up at the beginning”. And sure enough, the film opens with “Nine years ago….”; and you sit there and think, was it really that long since we last saw Woody and his toy pals in a series of manic episodes of mild peril? Yes it was! And, because I know you’re trying to remember the date, the first film came out in 1995. Some of those ten-year olds who saw the first movie in that year are probably grandparents by now. Well, not quite, but you get my drift.

Woody and ForkyWoody, now handed over to Bonnie by Andy, is no longer her favourite toy although he still commands some respect in the toy community. Bonnie’s off to kindergarten, and she’s scared (who wouldn’t be?) Woody sneaks into her backpack to give her some support on the orientation day. But things start to brighten up for her when she makes a toy from a spork, some pipe cleaners and a lolly stick, rescued from the bin by Woody; welcome to the world, Forky. Bonnie is much attached to Forky, but Forky doesn’t want to be a toy; his low self-esteem makes him feel he’s only suited to the trash can. Bonnie’s parents take her on a mini road-trip to soften her up for returning to kindergarten; but Forky’s existential crisis causes him to hurl himself from the campervan, and, naturally, Woody takes it on himself to rescue him.

Bo to the rescueThus separated from the rest of the family, Woody now has to track them down at the funfair site where they have parked; but, en route, he bumps into Bo-Peep, to whom he said goodbye years ago… and that complicates matters. Things always get messy when there’s a whiff of romance in the air. Will Woody and Forky reunite with Bonnie? Will Bo-Peep continue her strong solo woman lifestyle? And what about the voiceless doll Gabby Gabby, who wants to steal Woody’s voicebox so that she becomes desirable again? I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to watch the film to find out!

Bonnie and the birth of ForkyIf you’ve seen the previous films (of course you have) then you’ll be itching to know what becomes of Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the rest of the gang. And I can tell you that you won’t be remotely disappointed, it’s everything you hope to get from a Toy Story movie and probably more. There’s a level of reflection, introspection even, in this film which, if it was evident in the previous incarnations, receives greater emphasis here.

BuzzIn a lovely reversal of the human experience of this situation, the social stigma of being a childless toy is so overwhelming in this film’s universe that if you’re not childless, you have to whisper it so as not to upset the others. Attachment to a kid is the ultimate in existence. If you don’t have a kid, you’re not really a toy – discuss. The concept of listening to and acting on your inner voice is also brought to the forefront, with Woody’s highly developed sense of responsibility leaving the others frequently nonplussed as to his recklessness. Buzz tries to get a grip on the inner voice concept, and relates it to the random automated announcements that he emits whenever he presses his belt buttons. Gabby’s inner voice is silenced and the only way she can expect a happy future is to deprive another toy of his own voicebox.

GabbyTechnically, of course, it’s superb. The animation is a constant delight, with the vivid funfair, the dusty old antique shop, the torrential rain, for example, all being totally convincing. Did Woody and Buzz always have the identical pointy nose? The action is fast and furious, the script is funny, the characterisations are spot on, and the emotions are, definitely, real.

Bunny and DuckyNo expense was spared in recruiting the finest actors for bringing these toys to life, and they all do a brilliant job. Most of the old favourites are there; Slinky the dog, Mr Pricklepants the luvvie actor hedgehog, the Potato Heads (despite his death in 2017, Don Rickles is still the voice of Mr Potato Head, using unused audio recordings from the previous films), Rex the hyper-anxious dinosaur, and Hamm the cynical piggybank.

Duke CaboomIn addition to Forky and Gabby, New Toys on the Block include the streetwise compact police officer Giggles McDimples, carnival toys Bunny and Ducky, nightmare henchmen the Bensons, and, my favourite, wannabe macho poseur stunt rider Duke Caboom, who fails to live up to his advert’s hype as far as adventurousness is concerned, but loves to strike a pose on his bike – with hilarious but totally believable voicing from Keanu Reeves.

Gabby and the BensonsMemorably enjoyable moments include the farcical sat nav instructions from Mrs Potato Head and Buttercup the hardnosed unicorn, the intimidating presence of the ventriloquist dummy Bensons, the unpredictable antics of Bo-Peep’s sheep, and the repulsive regurgitation of Giggles when she’s spat out like a furball.

Woody and BoThe resolution to the story was not at all what I expected; it breaks the rules as to how a toy should behave – and is really endearing as a result. However, despite the emotional content, it didn’t create any activity in the tear duct department, unlike my friend the Squire of Sidcup who saw it with his dad and it reduced both of them to blubbering messes. However, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film – at 100 minutes it’s the perfect length – and a more than worthy successor to its three prequels. If you’ve got any old toys hanging around from your childhood – go give them a hug. They need it.

The James Bond Challenge – You Only Live Twice (1967)

you_only_live_twice_-_uk_cinema_posterIn which SPECTRE mastermind a plot to kidnap both American and Soviet astronauts in space, in the hope that Cold War enmity would spark off a war between the two superpowers – thus enabling a new world power to emerge and take control. Even though everyone thinks that James Bond died in a gun attack in a Hong Kong bedroom, his death was faked and M has sent Bond to Tokyo to follow a trail that takes him into Blofeld’s lair – but will he and his pals prevent a world war? Yeah, of course!

Roald_DahlIt had been two years since the previous James Bond film, Thunderball, (if we ignore the spoof Casino Royale), and its budget of $10.3 million was perhaps only a modest increase in comparison with Thunderball’s $9 million; and its box office take of $111.6 million was almost $30 million down on the previous movie. Still, it’s not a bad profit. The budget to create SPECTRE’s volcano lair was almost the same as the entire budget for Dr No! Originally, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was due to be the next in the series, but the need to find mountainous and snowy locations to shoot, coupled with the Bond films’ enormous box office success in Japan, meant that the producers, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, decided to go with the mainly-Tokyo based You Only Live Twice instead. Usual screenwriter Richard Maibaum was working on the producers’ non-Bond movie of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, so the producers offered the job to Harold Jack Bloom. They liked his story work, but not his script; so the writing credits went to Roald Dahl, who was a close friend of Ian Fleming. This was Dahl’s first attempt at writing a screenplay, and Harold Jack Bloom was credited as providing additional story material.

lewis gilbertWith previous director Terence Young now working in Europe and Guy Hamilton still needing a break from Bond, the directors approached Lewis Gilbert, who had recently directed the hugely successful Alfie with Michael Caine. Cinematography was by Freddie Young, of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago fame, editing by James Bond stalwart Peter Hunt, and production design by Ken Adam. John Barry was, of course, again responsible for the music, all apart from Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme. During the filming, Aerial Unit Cameraman John Jordan was leaning out of a helicopter to get a better shot, when another helicopter was caught in a gust of wind and was blown closer. The rotor blade cut his leg which had to be amputated.

YOLT novelYou Only Live Twice was published in 1964 and was the twelfth book in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels. Its title comes from a haiku that Bond wrote in the style of the famous Japanese poet, Basho: “You only live twice/Once when you are born/And once when you look death in the face”. It was the last book to be published in Fleming’s lifetime. Because there is a high travelogue content to the book, and it’s a more introvert story as we see Bond coping (or otherwise) with the death of his wife in the previous book, there isn’t a lot of content that could be adapted easily for an action adventure movie. Writer Roald Dahl therefore had to use a lot of imagination and collaboration with Lewis Gilbert to come up with a workable screenplay.

VladivostokIn the book, a tired, drunk and wasted Bond is given one last chance to turn his spy career around – convincing the Japanese secret service to share information they have about the Soviet Union. The Japanese ask Bond to kill Blofeld and Irma Bunt, who were responsible for the death of Bond’s wife – so he is happy to oblige. Bond is trained as a Japanese coal miner and meets former film star Kissy Suzuki as he infiltrates Blofeld’s garden of death. Bond kills Blofeld, gets Kissy pregnant – and then leaves for Vladivostok. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll realise there are a very few overlapping points between book and film; for example, the whole space-race and spaceship hijack elements were written purely for the film.

Odeon AylesburyI’m pretty sure I saw You Only Live Twice in a double-bill at the Odeon Aylesbury with my schoolfriend John in the mid-1970s; probably with Goldfinger. I am also certain this would have been one of those occasions when the cinema manager had to come in and stop us from chatting and giggling all the way through. To those denizens of 1970s Aylesbury, I can only humbly apologise. John made me do it.

Japan bookAlthough pre-sales for the book were very high, it received only mixed reviews. The Times wrote: “as a moderate to middling travelogue what follows will just about do … the plot with its concomitant sadism does not really get going until more than half way through”; The Listener noted: “if interest flags, as it may do, the book can be treated as a tourist guide to some of the more interesting parts of Japan”; and the Guardian complained: “of the 260 pages of You Only Live Twice … only 60 are concerned with the actual business of a thriller”. The film fared better, with Entertainment Weekly saying it “pushes the series to the outer edge of coolness”, Filmcritic calling it one of James Bond’s most memorable adventures, but finding the plot “protracting and quite confusing”, and Rotten Tomatoes concluding that: “with exotic locales, impressive special effects, and a worthy central villain, You Only Live Twice overcomes a messy and implausible story to deliver another memorable early Bond flick.” My own opinion is that this was possibly the most entertaining of the Bond movies at the time; I found the combination of action, villainy and humour just about right.

Connery as BondThe opening credits begin, as usual, with Maurice Binder’s iconic glimpse of Bond walking across the screen whilst being captured by the barrel of a gun, only for him to turn around, see us, and shoot; and then for the blood to start filling up the screen. As in Thunderball, Bond is now clearly Sean Connery – in the first three films it was stunt man Bob Simmons. However, the music – if my ears do not deceive me – has been re-recorded; it’s a slightly different arrangement, more “stereo” sounding and maybe just a hint slower.

Astronaut cut offWe’re in outer space. NASA spacecraft Jupiter 16 is calmly and successfully achieving its mission. As one of the astronauts – Chris – emerges from the craft for a spacewalk exercise, a security control in Hawaii reports an unidentified object closing fast on Jupiter 16. As it gets closer, its head opens up as though it were some hungry shark with gaping teeth – and it swallows up the NASA craft. And, as it closes its pincers, it cuts off the cable that’s been linking Astronaut Chris to the main body of the craft – and he’s left to float around in space for eternity. Gruesome!

Bond in Hong KongBack on earth, a summit conference is held where the Americans accuse the Russians of having stolen their spacecraft – a fact which the Russians deny, affirming that they are a peaceful nation. Another American spaceship will be launched in twenty days’ time, and the Americans confirm that any interference by the Russians will be looked on as an act of war. The British attempt to intercede, querying why the Russians would wish to capture an American spaceship. As British intelligence indicates that the spaceship came down in the Sea of Japan area, Her Majesty’s Government intends to investigate this event in and around Japan. “In fact,” says the security adviser, “our man in Hong Kong is working on it now” – a cue for the camera to cut to James Bond, in flagrante delicto with Ling, a Chinese lady. They have a rather saucy conversation – “darling, I give you very best duck” – and then she presses a button which makes the fold-down bed fold back up into the wall, with Bond trapped inside. She opens the door to her room and a couple of heavies with machine guns open fire on the wall, with Bond just behind the surface. When the police arrive, and draw back the bed, a lifeless Bond is still trapped between the blood-soaked sheets. “We’re too late,” says one policeman to his colleague. “Well, at least he died on the job” comes the knowing reply; “he’d have wanted it this way” says the other.

Opening CreditsAnd then we’re into the credits, and the superb title theme, sung by Nancy Sinatra. Apparently, it was originally offered to father Frank, but he turned it down in favour of his daughter. She was the first non-British performer to sing a James Bond movie theme. Surprisingly, for an artist of her abilities, she was so nervous about recording the song that it took twenty-five different takes to complete it. As she said in an interview, she was intimidated by the fact that this was strong, serious singing as opposed to the funny and light-hearted recordings for which she had become famous. In the end, the final song version used in the film was made up of the best parts from each of those twenty-five recordings – a true patchwork. The song reached No 11 in the UK charts, but only 44 in the US. I’d contend that it’s one of the best three Bond themes ever – but you might not agree!

Opening CreditsVisually, the opening credits are very appealing and intriguing. An abstract Japanese chrysanthemum design is used to suggest not only the traditions of Japan, but also the iris of an eye, or a parasol; interspersed with these images are the faces and bodies of sultry Japanese girls and the hot fiery spurting lava of a volcano. You can read whatever symbolism you like into all of this.

Welcome to TokyoAnd the locations? This is an unusual Bond film in that it almost entirely takes place in one country – Japan. Only the opening sequence, of Bond’s faked death, takes place in Hong Kong. The majority of the filming took place in Japan too. The exceptions to this were the outside view of the summit conference being filmed in Alaska, Bond’s burial at sea on board the HMS Tenby was shot off Gibraltar, while his rescue from the sea bed was filmed in the Bahamas; and a few internal scenes were shot at Pinewood. The Osato Chemicals building was in fact the New Otani Hotel in Tokyo, and SPECTRE’s volcano lair was Mount Shinmoedake.

Ninja CastleWhile scouting locations in Japan, the chief production team narrowly escaped death. On March 5, 1966, Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman, Lewis Gilbert, Freddie Young, and Ken Adam were booked to leave Japan on BOAC flight 911 departing Tokyo for Hong Kong and London. Two hours before their Boeing 707 flight departed, the team were invited to an unexpected ninja demonstration, and so missed their plane. Their flight took off as scheduled, but twenty-five minutes after take-off, the plane disintegrated over Mt. Fuji, killing everyone on board. The title You Only Live Twice must never have seemed so sinister.

007Bond, James Bond. Again Connery doesn’t get to utter that iconic sentence in this film. In fact, on a personal level, this was a very unhappy film. Connery had been lured back to play the role again despite being tired of Bond and fearing being typecast. So, in addition to earning $800,000 as a fee, he also received 25% of the net merchandise royalty, which must have been one helluva lotta wonga. By all accounts he was his usual professional and generous performer on set. But he disliked all the media attention in Japan, where the films were more important to people than even their own families, and where he was constantly being papped. He was even photographed in a toilet, which displeased him significantly. He was also displeased by the marketing phrase “Sean Connery IS James Bond”, and offended the locals by stating in an interview that Japanese women weren’t attractive. During filming, Connery announced that this would be his last ever Bond film; however, Broccoli and Saltzman had other ideas. Nevertheless, it is said that the relationship between star and producers had broken down so badly that he refused to act if they were on the set.

Helicopter landingBoo-boos. There are some continuity errors and mistakes as always – let’s have a look at some of them! When Bond’s apparently dead body is brought on board the submarine, from the depths of the ocean, the packaging that encloses it is surprisingly dry! When Osato and Brandt land on the helicopter landing pad to meet Bond (masquerading as Mr. Fischer), the helicopter lands across the top of the “H” on the pad, near the edge of the circle, and it is facing slightly to the left of the camera. However, in the next scene it has moved further inside the circle, facing in a different direction, alongside the H. Clever stuff! When Bond undertakes his transformation to become Japanese, he has his chest hair all shaved off. But when he and Kissy are in the life raft at the end of the movie, magically it has all returned. He’s not 007 for nothing!

Bond and Hans fightWhen Bond is fighting Blofeld’s henchman Hans, Bond gets knocked over near the fireplace, and you can hear the sound of glass breaking. However, there are no glass objects anywhere him! When Aki is driving Bond to see Henderson, she’s sitting on the right side. As they approach Henderson’s residence, she’s on the left, but when the camera cuts to a close-up, she is back on the right again. Before Bond (disguised as a SPECTRE astronaut) is brought before Blofeld in the command room, the ‘Blofeld’ sitting in his chair has hair which can be seen briefly from the rear of the chair. However, when he introduces himself to Bond a moment later he is clearly bald – an error caused by using film of both actors playing Blofeld.

Marrying KissyThe Bond Girl. It’s become something of a familiar challenge that it’s not obvious from the start who exactly is The Bond Girl in any of the films. The Bond Girl in Thunderball is the fourth girl with whom he has some kind of encounter; and it’s the same here. James Bond’s lucky number sure is four!

LingFirst we see him with Ling, with whom he starts to say that “We’ve had some interesting times together Ling, I’ll be sorry to go” before she pushes the button and uprights the bed into the wall, with him in it. It’s impossible to say whilst you’re watching the film whether she’s an agent working against him (almost getting him murdered) or working with him (enabling the faking of his death) – the latter is in fact true. Whatever, their time together is all too short and sweet. Ling was played by Chinese born Tsai Chin, whose career spanned many decades and appearances as wide range as in The World of Suzie Wong, Flower Drum Song, The Virgin Soldiers, and a wide range of other television appearances. It is said that her popularity was such in the 60s that she had a leopard at London Zoo named after her! She was already friends with director Lewis Gilbert and his wife before the film was shot – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, it’s who you know. She would return to the world of James Bond in the 2006 production of Casino Royale, where she played Madame Wu, a poker player. She’s been based in Hollywood for many years and is still working at the age of 85.

HelgaNext contender for the title of Bond Girl is Helga Brandt – ostensibly Osato’s secretary but really Number 11 in SPECTRE, so as she’s working for the other side, she could never be a Bond Girl, could she? She’s a ruthless mass of raw sexuality, with her strong auburn hair, dominatrix expression and sultry fashion sense. The things I do for England, says Bond, as he snips the straps on her evening dress with a surgeon’s knife. But she’s not quite mistress of her game, and Blofeld only accepts perfection, so she’s fiendishly eliminated, and the hungry piranhas are grateful. She was played by Karin Dor, who appeared in dozens of films, mainly in German, and lived partly in Munich and partly in the United States. She died in 2017 at the age of 79.

AkiThen there’s Aki. Aki really should have been the Bond Girl because she’s gutsy but so sweet. She’s there at the Sumo, ready to introduce Bond to Henderson. She’s there to rescue Bond when he has to flee the Osato Building. She’s there to help him get advice from Tanaka and drive him to the Kobe docks. And she’s there in his bed whenever he wants. She even – albeit accidentally – provides him the ultimate service by ingesting the poison that was meant for him. Who could do more? Aki was played by Akiko Wakabayashi, who specifically asked if the character’s name could be changed to Aki (in other words, her own name) rather than Suki, as originally intended. She appeared in a number of Japanese films in the late 50s and early 60s, but only one more after You Only Live Twice, when she retired to have a family. She’s now 77 and still living in Japan.

Kissy and BondBut I guess the accolade of Bond Girl in this film must go to Kissy Suzuki, played by Mie Hama. Kissy is a Ninja Agent, working for Bond’s Japanese colleague Tanaka; she marries Bond in order to create for him a convincing Japanese cover. But when it comes to honeymoon night, she confirms that the relationship is strictly business and he has to sleep in a corner. However, she dutifully assists Bond in his attack on SPECTRE’s lair, and, of course, it’s she who is rescued with him in a life-raft in what appears to be the same closing scene of almost every Bond movie. Mie Hama was working as a bus conductor when she was discovered by film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, most famous for having created Godzilla. She had already appeared in about sixty Japanese movies by the time she worked on You Only Live Twice. Originally she was hired to play Aki (or, rather, Suki) but she had difficulty with the English words and so the two actresses swapped roles – as Kissy had fewer lines than Aki. Mie Hama retired from films in 1989 and since has had a varied career as a writer, TV and radio host, and art connoisseur. She’s 75 now and still going strong.

KissyWhat Bond Girls Are Like. From the first four films, our list of attributes common to the Bond Girls was: sexy, exotic, unpredictable, as equally likely to attack Bond as to support him, strong and self-reliant up to a point, sometimes tragic, professional, scary and vengeful. Kissy doesn’t really comply with many of these attributes; the Japanese tradition makes her a more demure, graceful and moral person. Mie Hama, however, was perhaps less demure when she appeared in Playboy in a 1967 nude pictorial “007’s Oriental Eyefuls” as the first Asian woman to appear in the magazine.

BlofeldThe Villain. You Only Live Twice is our first opportunity finally to meet the one and only Blofeld. Disfigured and measured of speech, he disarmingly strokes his pussy whilst ordering the death both of his enemies and those working for him who have let him down. Blofeld survives at the end of the film – he’s the first Bond villain to do so – and he will go on to make five more appearances in subsequent Bond films. But this is the only film in which he is played by Donald Pleasence. Originally, he was to have been played by Czech actor Jan Werich, who does appear in the film with his back to the audience – his tufts of hair appearing to the camera, whilst Donald Pleasence’s Blofeld is totally bald. But Werich’s characterisation of Blofeld was considered insufficiently menacing. Pleasence was said to have found the make-up for Blofeld incredibly uncomfortable, but, then, you have to suffer for your art. He was one of our finest film actors, having made more than a hundred movies, and he died in 1995 at the age of 75.

HendersonOther memorable characters
? Australian Intelligence agent Dikko Henderson – played by Charles Gray – is not exactly a memorable character, because he doesn’t hang around long enough for us to get interested in him. He does, however, have a very memorable death; stabbed in the back whilst standing in front of one of those Japanese paper-thin screen walls. Charles Gray would go on to play Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever, as well as many other notable film and TV roles.

Kill himTeru Shimada gives an excellent, understated, performance as Osato, the industrialist who’s secretly a SPECTRE agent; suitably inscrutable, on the surface dignified and urbane, whilst underneath, happy to be an assassin. Osato’s simple instruction “kill him” as Bond is leaving his offices is amusingly terse! Teru Shimada was a Japanese-American actor who first appeared in films in the early 1930s and carried on working until 1975. He died in Los Angeles in 1988, aged 82.

TanakaTiger Tanaka is the head of the Japanese Secret Service, living secretly underground in Tokyo, with his own train network, his own team of ninjas, and he plays a very active part in assisting Bond in the attack on the SPECTRE volcano lair. He is supremely authoritative – and you’d say was one of the most powerful people in the country. He was played by Tetsuro Tamba, who appeared in around a hundred films between 1952 and his death in 2006 at the age of 84. His voice was dubbed by Robert Rietti, who had also dubbed Adolfo Celi’s voice as Emilio Largo in Thunderball.

M & MoneypennyNo Felix Leiter this time – he’ll return in Diamonds are Forever – but Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewelyn reprise their usual roles as M, Moneypenny and Q. This time, M and Moneypenny aren’t in their London office but on board one of Her Majesty’s submarines; but M is his usual, no-nonsense self, and Moneypenny is only too happy to prevent Bond’s lingering romance with Kissy from taking hold. The relationship between Q and Bond continues to be fractious, although Q’s latest gadgets for use on the autogyro certainly save Bond’s life.

nancy-sinatra-you-only-live-twice-reprise-4And what about the music? The film starts, as usual, with the main James Bond Theme, written by Monty Norman; after that, it’s all John Barry, although the lyrics to the title song, You Only Live Twice are by John Barry and Leslie Bricusse. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a cracker of a song, and its legacy lives on in such examples as Robbie Williams’ Millennium. An earlier version was sung by Julie Rogers, who expected it to be used in the film, but the producers said it was just a demo – much to Ms Rogers’ disappointment, no doubt.

Marriage sceneParts of the soundtrack that I particularly enjoyed included the classic, percussion-heavy theme that always accompanies a car chase; this time we also hear it when Little Nellie goes up. There’s an excellent, fast, brassy version of You Only Live Twice whilst they’re capering around Kobe Docks. Early in the film when Bond arrives in Tokyo, there’s a charming variation on the You Only Live Twice theme, softly played with some gently twanging guitars in the background. And there’s the gentle, romantic accompaniment to the wedding scene.

On the roadCar chases. There’s just the one car chase; when Aki rescues Bond from being shot by Osato’s henchmen, driving her Toyota 2000GT and they are chased by the wannabe killers. Unusually, Bond doesn’t drive a car in this film. Amusingly, nor does Aki; Akiko Wakabayashi hadn’t learned how to drive, so six stuntmen created the illusion of her driving, by attaching a cable, and pulling it from outside of the frame. Stuntmen also substituted for her in long camera shots by wearing black wigs.

Henderson mixing drinksCocktails and Casinos. Henderson says to Bond when offering a drink “Stirred, not shaken. That was right, wasn’t it?” Bond then replies: “Perfect”, and you can just hear a tinge of disappointment in his voice. Of course, Bond usually drinks his Vodka Martinis shaken, not stirred, so this was an error. But Lewis Gilbert decided to keep it in; and it shows Bond’s generosity of spirit when someone he meets for the first time gets it wrong, but he wants to be on good terms with him. Apart from that, Bond grimaces at the taste of Siamese vodka, delights at sake if it’s served at 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit and allows himself to be won over by the offer of a Dom Perignon ’59. Casinos don’t feature in this Bond movie.

Little NellieGadgets. Bond uses a cute little safe-breaker when he’s stealing the papers from the Osato offices; apart from that Tanaka is proud to show him the cigarette gun, which is a nifty little wheeze, and Q reveals the additional extras that have been fitted on to Little Nellie, the autogyro; two machine guns, rocket launchers and heat seeking air to air missiles, two flame guns and smoke ejectors, aerial mines and a cine camera in the helmet. I think that sums it up! Other than that, there are perhaps somewhat fewer gadgets in this film than we’ve been spoilt with on previous occasions? Does Q need to go back to college?

In MemoriamIn Memoriam. Dr No had a death count of approximately 11 as well as all those who go up in smoke in his lair at the end; From Russia with Love notched up at least 40; Goldfinger came in at a more modest 23-ish, plus everyone who died at Fort Knox; and Thunderball offers up around 50 people – plus a shark. How about You Only Live Twice? Let’s briefly remember those who gave their lives so that Bond and Kissy can get nudged into safety by the surprise appearance of a submarine:

1) Dikko Henderson – stabbed, like Polonius, through the arras

2) Henderson’s killer, knifed by Bond

3) Henchman who drove Bond to the Osato office – brained by an ancient Japanese sculpture in a fight with Bond

4) Guard in the Osato carpark, shot by Bond

5) The woman who took the photo of the Ning-Po ship (even though we never met her, RIP)

6) 4 henchmen in a car that gets lifted off the road surface by a helicopter with a huge magnet and then gets dropped into the sea – presumably all four drown

7) Somewhere between 3 and 6 men attacked at Kobe Docks

8) 4 helicopter pilots, individually killed by Bond in the autogyro, using the various gadgets that Q had supplied.

9) Helga – dipped into the piranha pool by Blofeld.

10) The poisoner who kills Aki – shot by Bond

11) Aki – killed by the poisoner.

12) The ninja who tries to bayonet Bond – bayonetted by Bond.

13) The girl in the boat that Kissy sees before and after death (again RIP in absentia)

14) The man in red working in SPECTRE’s lair.

15) Everyone else who dies in the crater.

16) Osato

17) One last henchman.

That’s maybe something in the region of 40 people.

Piranha timeHumour to off-set the death count
. Following Bond’s classic asides whenever someone dies in the previous movies, here are some more gems to accompany those bereft of life to the great yonder:

After the four car-bound henchmen are drowned at sea, Bond quips “A drop in the ocean.”

Of the four helicopter pilots who try to gun down Bond and Little Nellie, he says: “Four big shots made improper advances towards her but she defended her honour with great success.”

When henchman Hans gets piranha’d he adds “Bon appetit.”

sexismAny less frothy elements? So once again it’s time to consider if there are any outstanding themes or elements that don’t sit well with today’s audience. As usual, I couldn’t perceive any obvious homophobic elements, but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Bond changing his appearance to look Japanese. If that had happened on Broadway or the West End today we would call it “yellowface”. However, in those days, I don’t think the same sensibilities applied, and it’s not as though Bond is doing it in any way to make fun of or discriminate against his Japanese colleagues – it’s purely to make it easier to infiltrate the volcano lair.

However, as usual, when it comes to sexism, where do you start? Let’s check that definition of sexism again, so that we know where we’re at. Sexism is: “(Behaviour, language, etc, reflecting) the assumption that one sex, esp. the female, is inferior to the other; prejudice or discrimination, esp. against women, on the grounds of sex; insistence on (esp. a woman’s) conformity to a sexually stereotyped social role.”

Bond’s first line in the film is “why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?” which caused a big intake of breath in our household when we watched it again recently. I can’t quite put my finger on why this line made us feel so uneasy, but it did. Another line, that is distinctly sexist, is Tanaka’s decree that “in Japan, men always come first; women come second”. He and Bond then use four girls for massage and whatever else they might like, without the girls having any say in the matter. They are purely a commodity; and they spend the entire time sitting around in – not even bikinis – but bra and panties.

As does poor Kissy Suzuki, who has to clamber up and down a volcano edge in just her underwear. It’s purely for titillation, purely to show which gender calls all the shots and which gender abides by those rules. No wonder things have changed nowadays. However, Japan in the 1960s was not a liberated environment for women, and, although today this treatment of women feels very uncomfortable, for the time this was a fairly accurate assessment of women’s role in Japanese society.

When Osato criticises Bond for smoking, saying it is unhealthy for the chest, Helga passes him the drink with the line “Mr Osato believes in a healthy chest” – to which Bond simply replies, “really?”

Bizarre other stuff that occurred to me and a few observations.

Dr EvilAlthough Thunderball’s plot is satirised in Austin Powers, Donald Pleasence is definitely the inspiration for Dr. Evil.

This is the first Bond film where I have really noticed the beautiful cinematography. There are some amazing sunsets, and the overwhelming sense of natural Japanese tranquillity comes through strongly in many scenes. There’s also the wonderful aerial shot of Bond on the roof of the docks building, punching his way through a number of pursuing henchmen. It’s a very arresting shot.

With all that CCTV going on, how come Blofeld and the gang don’t realise that Bond, Tanaka and Kissy are clambering about on their roof?

Inevitably, I guess, much of the content of this film is very much in the spirit of the time. Space travel was so cool in those days, so exciting; everyone was a mini-expert on spaceships; many TV series were based in space or had the possibility of “other life” as a subject. This was before any moon landings had actually taken place, so the competition between America and the Soviet Union to be the first was red hot. When the Americans say they’ve got another spacecraft going up in twenty days’ time, you realise that, in those days, spaceships were almost like buses. Miss one, another will be along shortly.

Look how terrified the poor cat is, whilst bombs are going off all round! Apparently, it went missing for two days and would never go on a film set again. Verging on animal cruelty, I’d say.

Awards: Ken Adam was nominated for the BAFTA for Best British Art Direction (Colour), but the award went to John Box for his work on A Man for All Seasons.

OHMSS posterTo sum up. Perhaps surprisingly, this was the first time that the box office takings for a Bond movie were less than for the previous film – so from that perspective, you might consider it failed, albeit slightly. However, in my humble opinion, this is the most entertaining James Bond film so far in the canon. The evilest villain, all kinds of Bond Girls, some witty one-liners, and a lot of engrossing (rather than tedious) action. I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions of You Only Live Twice – and whether you agree with me! Next up is the first Bond film that I saw at the cinema, when I was a nipper – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; and a change of Bond, as George Lazenby takes the stage.

My rating: 5 Sparkles

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All photos from the film of course belong to their various copyright holders.

Review – Rocketman, Northampton Filmhouse, 9th June 2019

Rocketman posterMrs Chrisparkle wasn’t keen on seeing this, but I heard great things, so I took the opportunity to nip into the Northampton Filmhouse by myself whilst she was slaying business dragons in America. I wouldn’t describe myself as an Elton John fan, exactly, but I have a very soft spot for a number of his songs, and I was intrigued to see what they do with all this potent raw material – a life of excess and a musical back catalogue that’s probably sold billions rather than millions.

Taron Egerton and Jamie BellRocketman is, on one hand, a stereotypical biopic taking us through the life of Elton John from his early boyhood up to the time when he crashed into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting bursting with crises. We see his suburban-comfortable but emotionally starved early days, with a distant military father who cannot cope with emotion and a vacuous mother whose only love is for herself – thank heavens for his kindly nan, Ivy, who was the only one to take any interest in young Reggie. We see him taking his first steps at the Royal Academy of Music, then breaking into the music business, getting signed to Dick James Music, starting a writing partnership with Bernie Taupin, making and selling records and – pretty much instantly – hitting America on tour. And whilst his commercial success escalates, his personal life deteriorates; the only constant in his life being Taupin, with whom he famously has never had an argument through fifty years of collaboration – that’s some achievement.

Taron Egerton rockingOn the other hand, the film is a fantasy musical, with much in common with other jukebox musicals, using songs from an artist’s repertoire to complement the various stages of their life. But the first musical number reminded me more of how La-La-Land starts (in other words, brilliantly, then never regaining that opening buzz) with a big song-and-dance extravaganza in the street. Then the rest of the songs are woven into Elton John’s story, some as concert material, but many in a more stylised, almost ethereal manner; and not only sung by John. In fact, one of the most emotionally powerful moments is Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, performed by Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin; one of those brilliant cover versions that completely rewrites the original.

Taron Egerton about to fallThe fact that the songs don’t appear chronologically disturbed me a little at first. Your Song (1970), for example, his first hit, is the seventh number to be performed during the film, whilst the first song in the film, The Bitch is Back, wasn’t released until 1974. Of course, that doesn’t matter with a show like Mamma Mia, where there is an invented story around which the Abba songs snugly fit; but that’s not the case for Rocketman, ostensibly a chronological biopic. However, it’s all performed so beautifully well, and the songs fit the various moods of the film so perfectly, that I had to tell myself to stop being so anal about it.

Taron EgertonWhat impressed me most of all about this film was the sheer quality of the attention to detail and its absolute verisimilitude throughout. The three actors who play Elton John at various stages of his life look and sing so very similarly to the real person; they even capture his smile – teeth slightly exposed, top lip lifted up – you don’t realise that’s how EJ smiles until you see the actors do it. The costumes throughout are a perfect mimic of his concert gear; the film’s finale is an (I believe) 100% correct recreation of the promotional video for his 1983 hit I’m Still Standing. That’s all incredibly impressive.

Richard Madden and Taron EgertonAs we know, Sir Elton has led a life of excess; we see the alcohol, we see the drugs. But what of the sex? In interview, Elton John said he had a lot of sex, but the film – despite its regrettable censorship in Russia to remove all traces of gayness – implies otherwise. It would appear that it’s not until he’s the recipient of a surprise kiss by one of the musicians on his first American tour that there’s any uncertainty over his sexuality; and any such doubts are put to bed (if you’ll pardon the expression) when he meets John Reid and, as a result, leaves DJM and takes Reid as his new manager/lover. But that’s all we know of his sex life; you might have thought he was completely celibate outside that relationship, and I have a sense that the film misrepresents his life in this department somewhat. In fact, the only other relationships we see him involved in are with Bernie Taupin’s landlady – that didn’t work, obvs – and the loveless, sterile few weeks of his good publicity marriage to Renate. His long-term relationship with David Furnish takes place long after the timespan of the film has ended. At the end of the day, the film shows that all Elton John ever really wanted was someone to love him, which was something everyone in his life was unable to provide except for Taupin and his nan.

Taron Egerton and Richard MaddenThe performances are delightfully strong throughout. It’s now too late to say of Taron Egerton that a star is born because of his Kingsman roles, but it’s definitely a star performance, with his huge on-screen presence, tremendous voice and just that magic je ne sais quoi. Please read my P. S. below to see how he wouldn’t have got where he is today if it wasn’t for me (I know, I’m so influential). He just exudes quality and authority; he “gets” Elton’s charisma even when he’s portraying him at his most down-and-out. Absolutely first class.

 Jamie Bell and Taron EgertonJamie Bell is superb as Taupin, that ever-reliable presence, a very open and honest guy who’s always the most supportive figure in EJ’s life. You really get the sense of the two of them together as being great mates, getting into a few scrapes but always there for each other – it’s a very heart-warming portrayal. Richard Madden plays Reid as though he’s auditioning for the next Bond movie; terse, arrogant, dynamic and highly convincing. You could really see how he could use sex as a weapon in the war of manipulation.

Steven MackintoshBryce Dallas Howard is also excellent as EJ’s deeply unpleasant mother Sheila, and there’s another mini star turn from Steven Mackintosh as his father; regimented, stiff-upper-lip, finding it impossible to conceal his total distaste for his son’s artistic interests. There’s a truly emotional scene when the successful Elton pays a visit to his estranged father and meets his two sons from his subsequent re-marriage – so, his own new half-brothers – and there’s no attempt to bridge any emotional gap between them, even though we can see how close his father is to his new progeny. You’d be devastated if it happened to you.

Matthew IlsleyBig mentions for Kit Connor and especially Matthew Ilsley as the young Reggies (older and younger) who make those opening scenes of the film such a joy. There are also some fantastic cameos from actors you’d queue to see at the theatre, like Sharon D Clarke as the counsellor, Harriet Walter as the Royal Academy of Music tutor, Ophelia Lovibond as Arabella, Celine Schoenmaker as Renate and Jason Pennycooke as Wilson. Blink and you’ll miss Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’s Layton Williams as an American band member. And it’s lovely to see The Duchess of Duke Street herself, Gemma Jones, bringing warmth and character to the role of Ivy.

Bryce Dallas HowardThere’s a point in the film where the pace of the storytelling slows down, roughly coinciding with EJ’s descent into addiction and his increased antisocial behaviour; and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I felt the film sagged a little during those scenes. Otherwise, it’s an eloquent account of the first two-thirds of Sir Elton’s amazing life (what’s that you say? Leaving room for a sequel bringing us up to date if the film were a success?) and musically and visually it’s astounding entertainment. Plenty of Oscars and BAFTAs up for grabs here I expect. And why not?

the familyP. S. So, Taron Egerton’s first stage role was in The Last of the Haussmans at the National Theatre in 2012, the year he graduated from RADA. If I may quote myself, “in the smaller roles I thought Taron Egerton, in his first professional stage engagement, shows good promise”. High praise indeed; you heard it here first. None of the newspaper critics commented on his performance. #justsaying

Review – Red Joan, Northampton Filmhouse, 27th April 2019

Red JoanIs there nothing that Dame Judi Dench can’t do? From starring in Cabaret in those early days to being Bond’s head of MI6, now she’s accused of espionage, selling atomic bomb secrets to the Russians. What on earth would M say?!

Judi Dench as JoanRed Joan is based on the real-life story of Melita Norwood, the so-called “granny spy” who supplied information to the KGB over a period of forty years, but was never prosecuted. The film tells her story in flashbacks. In 2001, it starts with Joan’s unexpected arrest at her suburban home, and then shows her police interviews where she slowly reveals her involvement in espionage, much to the shock of her solicitor – also her son – who is hearing it all for the first time. Shown alongside the police investigations, we see undergraduate Joan starting at Cambridge, how she meets the very charismatic Stalinists Sonya and Leo, and her subsequent employment at a Government Laboratory and romantic involvement with her married boss. Whilst she’s excited to be doing such ground-breaking work, she’s horrified when the atomic bomb that she’s helped develop is used by the Americans in Japan. And that becomes her motivation for ensuring that the Russians know how to make the bomb too – working on the theory that if both sides have it, neither side will use it. And, as she says in her defence, so far, she’s been proved right.

Tom Hughes and Sophie CooksonWe’d seen that this film had generally received poor reviews, so were a little concerned at the prospect of watching it. All I can say is, those reviewers must have been watching a different film. Beautifully shot, with lovely lingering views of Cambridge; charming attention to period detail; strong performances from Tereza Srbova and Tom Hughes as the left-wing activists (and conduits to the KGB) Sony and Leo and from Sophie Cookson as young Joan; and Dame Judi on fine form, with the camera ruthlessly up close capturing those wrinkles of warmth and experience. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were completely caught up in its fascinating tale.

Sophie Cookson as Young JoanTwo additional aspects of note: firstly, the astonishment of the younger generation at the achievements and/or activities of the older generation when they were younger. One of the rules of life is that we cannot know or remember our parents when they were young; and if they don’t tell us what they got up to, it’s impossible for us to second-guess. Joan’s son is outraged when he discovers the truth about his mother; and his only question is, to what extent was his father complicit in keeping it a secret too? (Quite a lot, as it turns out.)

Sophie Cookson and Stephen Campbell MooreThe film also showed the absolute sexism of the age, with the assumption that a mere woman couldn’t possibly be a scientist, wouldn’t she much prefer to be operating the new tumble dryer? It’s only when boss Max stands up for her, and praises her brilliant brain in front of those who otherwise would patronise her, that she’s allowed to take her place at the forefront of the research. Men, eh, what are we like?

Ben Miles, Laurence Spellman and Judi DenchComing it a decent 101 minutes, it doesn’t prolong the story beyond our attention span, and, whilst it’s fair to say that you could always do with a little more Dame Judi, the balance between the concurrent stories of her arrest and the development of her spy career works very well. OK, it’s not the paciest of films, but, imho, this is an engrossing and enjoyable film. If you suspect you might enjoy it, then I think you will!