Monday, October 18, 2010

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) & Live and Let Die (1973) & The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) & The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) & Moonraker (1979)

          After scoring in the ’60s on the strength of Sean Connery’s he-man swagger, the James Bond franchise spent the ’70s creeping toward self-parody with a series of gimmicky films that tried to latch onto then-current trends, often with embarrassing results. Luckily, two solid entries appear amid the dreck. Having previously ceded the Bond role to the underrated George Lazenby (the franchise’s only one-time 007), Connery was lured back with a big paycheck for the forgettable Diamonds Are Forever. Also returning to the series was Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton, who helmed Diamonds as well as the next two 007 flicks. Dull and garish, Diamonds features an overused Bond villain (Ernst Blofeld) in one of his least interesting incarnations, a vulgar choice of setting (Las Vegas), and crass flourishes like Bonds showdown with two high-kicking kung fu babes. The movie is also incredibly mean-spirited, right down to the offensive characterizations of two gay hit men who trail Bond across the globe. Even leading lady Jill St. Johns outrageous body, which is on ample display, can only sustain interest for so long. Especially since the previous film in the series, the Lazenby-starring On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), is one of the best-ever 007 flicks, its depressing to watch Connery sleepwalk through an entry as halfhearted as its leading actors performance.
          Then came Roger Moore, the debonair British actor previously known for the Bond-ish TV series The Saint. Moore cut a great figure with his raised eyebrow, tailored wardrobe, and velvety speaking voice, and at least at the beginning of his run he seemed intense enough to wield 007’s license to kill. Unfortunately, along with Moore came a new style largely set by screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who inserted so many verbal and visual winks that Bond started to become more of a joke machine than a killing machine. Moores first Bond outing, Live and Let Die, was designed to piggyback on the blaxploitation craze with a turgid story that begins in drug-infested Harlem and continues down to the voodoo-drenched Caribbean, but the producers hedged their bets by featuring a Caucasian leading lady, Jane Seymour, whose presence in the storyline makes no sense. The combination of a rotten musical score (excepting Paul McCartneys kicky theme song) and stupid puns (Bond visits the “Oh Cult Voodoo Shop”) makes Live and Let Die feel flat, and main villain Yaphet Kotto was miscast as a speechifying mastermind. Worse, the insipid “comedy scenes featuring Clifton James as a redneck sheriff illustrate how far the film deviates from what makes a Bond movie a Bond movie.
          Team 007 got back to basics with the next entry, The Man With the Golden Gun, which flips the usual Bond formula by making 007 the hunted instead of the hunter. Hammer horror stalwart Christopher Lee costars as suave assassin Francisco Scaramanga (whose distinguishing characteristic is a third nipple!) and future Fantasy Island sidekick Hervé Villechaize plays Scaramanga’s diminutive henchman, Nick Nack. When Bond lands on Scaramanga’s hit list, 007 begins an unauthorized investigation, taking place mostly in Hong Kong, to smoke out his would-be killer. Hamilton stages several stylish sequences, notably the bookend scenes in the assassin’s funhouse hideout; the picture features colorful locations including a fortress inside a half-sunken ocean liner; and the focus on a worthy mana-a-mano duel keeps the storyline tight. The movie gets a bit logy during the climax, but Moore plays the material straight (for once) and Lee actually musters enthusiasm during several scenes, a rarity for the generally stoic performer. Best of all, The Man With the Golden Gun eschews the distractions of gadgets and murky subplots, focusing instead on the core elements of death-defying escapes, exciting fight scenes, and smooth seductions. Happily, the reprise of Clifton James redneck character is fleeting.
          When Bond returned to the big screen three years later in The Spy Who Loved Me, producers added tremendous visual opulence in the form of grandiose location photography and cutting-edge special effects. By far the most visually impressive of Moores 007 flicks, Spy has a silly plot and a forgettable villain (something about stolen nuclear submarines and an international extortion scheme), but it boasts one of the best opening sequences in the franchise’s history. That spectacular bit, a ski chase concluding with an amazing skydive, is complemented by a moody foot pursuit through the Egyptian pyramids, as well as an exciting shootout in a submarine bay (at the time the largest set ever constructed for a movie). And then there’s Jaws (Richard Kiel), the towering assassin with the metallic mouth; he’s such a preposterous character that he’s amusing every time he walks onscreen. Spy also features one of the series’ best attempts to match Bond with a woman who equals him in every way. Lovely Barbara Bach, who in real life later became Mrs. Ringo Starr, appears as a Russian agent out to avenge her lover, who died at 007’s hands. Bach isn’t up to the task of portraying the character’s shadings, but it’s still a relief to see a woman in the franchise who is more than a sexual plaything.
          Sadly, everything that went right in Spy went wrong in Moonraker, a pathetic attempt to capitalize on the success of Star Wars by sending Bond into space. Poor Lois Chiles has to play a character named “Holly Goodhead,” and during the climax, extras limply float around the exterior of a space station while shooting laser guns at each other. The highlight, if that's even the right word, is a scene of Moore getting trapped in a G-force simulation chamber, his jowls flapping as his capsule zooms around a circular track at insane speeds; in addition to the way the scene demonstrates the series growing reliance on production values over narrative inspiration, the scenes unflattering closeups illustrate how quickly Moore was aging out of the 007 role. It all got much worse in the ’80s, but Moonraker represented the nadir of the franchise up to that point. Still, Bond’s ’70s adventures are fascinating when screened in sequence, because viewers can see the production team trying to completely rethink the series with each new movie.

Diamonds Are Forever: LAME
Live and Let Die: FUNKY
The Man With the Golden Gun: GROOVY
The Spy Who Loved Me: GROOVY
Moonraker: LAME


Chaarles said...

Agree Diamonds Are Forever is a bit lame, but for me Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun are my two all time fave Bonds. I think they're both dynamite; stylish, intense, tough and imaginative. Just putting in my two penneth worth for these two great movies. The Spy Who Loved Me had its moments but I didn't think it was as good. Moore's later Bonds I thought all had some great sections but were very patchy.

By Peter Hanson said...

All a matter of taste, of course, but for me "Spy Who Loved Me" represents the Moore-era team finally learning how to thread the needle between jokes and spectacle. They never got it right again, unfortunately. "Live and Let Die" and "Golden Gun" would, for me, have worked infinitely better with Connery in the leading role, because he plays the dangerous side of the character so much better than Moore...

Tommy Ross said...

pretty much agree here, Golden Gun is probably my favorite, but really I like all the Roger Moore ones with the exception of Moonraker which is just crap. Another favorite is View To A Kill which of course is from another decade so I'll just shut up now, thank you.

Raider Duck said...

Fun fact about Spy Who Loved Me: The submarine bay was, at the time, the largest indoor set ever used in a motion picture. The cinematographer, whose failing eyesight was still fine for normal moviemaking, couldn't see well enough to light the cavernous area. So, with a promise of absolute secrecy, he called his good friend Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick came in, lit the set, and went home.

Anonymous said...

I thought "Diamonds are Forever" was entertaining along the lines of "Goldfinger". The Bond series had two directions. The films helmed by Terrence Young tend to be fairly realistic. He directed "Dr. No", "From Russia with Love" and "Thunderball". The other direction was to play the movies as camp with a lot of humor. Guy Hamilton introduced it with "Goldfinger" and continued this style with "Diamonds are Forever". Lewis Gilbert also directed "You Only Live Twice" as camp but went over the top in a number of scenes like when Connery slips on a suction cup suit out of no where to climb across the top of the volcano. The later Bond movies with Moore, Daltin and the others also seemed to switch back and forth from being fairly realistic to going for tongue in cheek camp. So it's an uneven series although I like both approaches.

Guy Callaway said...

I think 'Golden Gun' is good effort (the locations are great), but the slide whistle during that stunning car jump...
For all it's demerits (Las Vegas doean't cut it as a Bondian 'glamorous' locale) I have a weakness for 'Diamonds' I can't explain.

Kaejae said...

From Best to Worst

The Spy Who Loved Me - *** 1/2 - Great Action - Sets - Villain and Henchman and Unforgettable Tile Song by Carly Simon

Diamonds are Forever - *** - Great Shirley Bassey Song - 2 Great Henchmen

Live and Let Die - ** 1/2 - Some fun sets - some fun Henchmen - Geoffrey Holder as Voodoo Priest - but very long and the worst Bond Girl of the 70's Jane Seymour

Moonraker and Man with the Golden Gun - ** - Boring - Camp - Horrible Villains - some nice set scenes

Ystafell Gynghori said...

All the 1970's Bond movies are better than what's being made now.