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Archive for November, 2011

The Music Lover

Director Ken Russell has left us at 84, although oddly enough, I kept thinking for years that he was already dead, no doubt confusing him with Paddy Chayefsky, who passed away less than a year after their only collaboration, Altered States (1980), was released. An Oscar winner for Marty, The Hospital, and Network, Chayefsky adapted Altered States from his sole novel, but was sufficiently dissatisfied with the result that he substituted the pseudonym “Sidney Aaron” for his screenwriting credit, and then shortly expired. The film (William Hurt’s first) has been a favorite of mine for thirty years, yet when I eventually read the novel, I was surprised at how faithful it was, knowing that Chayefsky had disowned it.

Also among Russell’s literary adaptations were D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1969), with its notorious nude wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, and the prequel The Rainbow (1989), whose same-sex component I found decidedly more, uh, stimulating. Two more are on my “to watch” list, waiting for me to re-view them, including The Lair of the White Worm (1988), based on a reputedly awful novel by Bram (Dracula) Stoker. The last of three Len Deighton adaptations from Bond producer Harry Saltzman to which I wanted to introduce my daughter, Billion Dollar Brain (1967) has been gathering dust literally for years while we seek out the second, Guy Hamilton’s Funeral in Berlin (1966).

I associate Russell–a former dancer who made shorts, TV-movies, and documentaries as well as features throughout his career–primarily with bizarre, visually opulent films that feature music and/or well-known composers; sadly, so far they have been those that I was indifferent to (The Music Lovers, 1970), actively disliked (Tommy, 1975), or have yet to see (Mahler, 1974; Lisztomania, 1975). I would lump the biopic Valentino (1977) in with those, but would like to revisit Gothic (1986) someday, and still hope to check out The Devils, The Boy Friend (both 1971), and Crimes of Passion (1984). In the meantime, let us mourn the passing of a filmmaker whose work was, perhaps, not for all tastes, but undeniably distinctive. R.I.P.

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Fabergé Dregs, Part I

Ian Fleming’s last James Bond book was a collection of short stories that was published in 1966, two years after his death, and has had several incarnations. Variously titled simply Octopussy or Octopussy and the Living Daylights, it originally contained the latter two stories, which appeared first in, respectively, Playboy (March and April 1966) and The London Sunday Times (February 4, 1962). Subsequent editions added “The Property of a Lady” (written for the 1963 volume of the annual Sotheby’s publication The Ivory Hammer, and reprinted in the January 1964 issue of Playboy) and “007 in New York” (first published as “Agent 007 in New York” in The New York Herald Tribune in October 1963, and reprinted in the U.S. edition of Fleming’s Thrilling Cities).

Octopussy was the second of five consecutive Bond films directed by erstwhile editor John Glen and co-written by Richard Maibaum and producer Michael G. Wilson; like For Your Eyes Only, it melded the eponymous story with another from the same book, “The Property of a Lady.” The title character in Fleming’s “Octopussy” is an actual cephalopod to which Major Dexter Smythe, an ex-Service officer living in Jamaica on Nazi gold he stole at the end of the war, hopes to feed a deadly scorpionfish in a bizarre experiment. Informing Smythe that the body of the German mountain guide he’d murdered—a friend of Bond’s—has been discovered, 007 leaves him to his presumed suicide, but Smythe, already dying from the sting of the scorpionfish, is drowned by Octopussy.

“The Property of a Lady” is the Emerald Sphere, an “object of vertu” by Carl Fabergé, allegedly inherited by Maria Freudenstein, the KGB double agent whose demise Fleming reported in The Man with the Golden Gun (wherein her name and that of Doctor No’s Honeychile Rider appear erroneously as Freudenstadt and Wilder). Maria is a cipher operator through whom the Service feeds the Soviets disinformation, and the funds realized from the sale of the sphere at Sotheby’s are to be her reward. Bond deduces that the KGB’s Resident Director in London will be there to push up the price as an underbidder, and by attending the auction, 007 is able to identify him so that, “In the grim chess game that is secret service work, the Russians would have lost a queen.”

The film opens on an inauspicious note with a typically irrelevant teaser, as Bond wreaks havoc in an unnamed Latin country, and a generic Maurice Binder title sequence. Even the cinematic purveyors of Pussy Galore were not bold enough to give Octopussy a literal title tune, so John Barry’s theme song was “All Time High,” which—as in Moonraker—paired a perfectly lovely theme that was, perhaps, a little too romantic for a spy thriller with somewhat schmaltzy lyrics, written by Tim Rice (!) and sung by Rita Coolidge. Then begins the story proper, almost wholly invented by Maibaum and Wilson with their collaborator, George MacDonald Fraser, the author of the Flashman novels and the screenwriter of all three of Richard Lester’s Musketeers movies.

The illness and death of Bernard Lee, which made Moonraker his last Bond entry (and eleventh continuous appearance since Dr. No), resulted in a bit of a flurry atop the command structure of the cinematic Secret Service. Out of respect for Lee, the role of M—said to be “on leave”—was not immediately recast in For Your Eyes Only, where his function of assigning 007’s mission is divided among three men: Q (Desmond Llewelyn); M’s boss, Minister of Defence Sir Frederick Gray (Geoffrey Keen); and his Chief of Staff, Bill Tanner (James Villiers). Bond’s best friend in the Service in the books, Tanner had been briefly portrayed, uncredited, by Michael Goodliffe in The Man with the Golden Gun, and would return in the Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig movies.

Octopussy introduced Robert Brown as M, apparently retaining Gray’s presence for continuity, although the filmmakers stretched credulity by having him hanging around for Bond’s briefings in the next two films as well. This mission offers a rare, short-lived look at another member of the Double-O fraternity in the person of 009 (Andy Bradford), who dies bringing a Fabergé egg to the British Ambassador in West Berlin. This turns out to be a forgery, and because the Soviets are thought to be trying to raise funds by selling the original, Bond is assigned to join art expert Jim Fanning (Douglas Wilmer) at the auction, where he substitutes the fake while bidding up the price paid by exiled Afghan Prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) and Magda (Kristina Wayborn).

Following Khan home to India, Bond produces the genuine article when he out-cheats the prince in a backgammon match that rehashes Goldfinger’s golf game, right down to the henchman who crushes Khan’s crooked dice to powder in his fist. Soon Bond is a guest of Khan’s confederate, Octopussy, who heads a criminal sisterhood and is played by beautiful but under-emotive model Maud Adams, previously an ill-fated moll in Golden Gun. Instead of blaming Bond for the death of her father, Smythe (an expert on octopi who, we learn, gave her the nickname that inspired her sisterhood’s distinctive tattoos), she is grateful to 007 for allowing him an honorable alternative to prosecution, and requires only two kisses to melt into her obligatory “Oh, James” submission.

Khan and rogue Soviet General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), who has been stealing objets d’art from the Hermitage, double-cross Octopussy and plant an atomic bomb in her circus, about to perform at a U.S.A.F. base in Germany. When General Gogol (Walter Gotell) gets wind of this, Orlov—who hoped the apparent nuclear accident would lead to NATO disarmament—is shot, and after the sisterhood attacks Khan’s palace, 007 rescues the kidnapped Octopussy from his plane before it crashes. Along the way, we revisit the fauna-head camouflage (Goldfinger), assassin lurking above the bed (You Only Live Twice), car up on two wheels (Diamonds Are Forever), and nuke-disarming (The Spy Who Loved Me), and are subjected to Bond dressed as a gorilla and a clown.

Having stated earlier that Octopussy and its successor, A View to a Kill, vied with Moonraker for the admittedly subjective title of “Worst Bond Movie Ever,” I am now prepared—having studied the entire pre-Brosnan series in detail—to award that dubious distinction to Moonraker. And yet Octopussy has a lot to answer for, e.g., 007’s Indian contact, who poses as a snake charmer and identifies himself by playing “The James Bond Theme”; a double-take by a camel; and a “poison pen” gag that was acknowledged as hoary when used sixteen years earlier in Casino Royale. The usual sophomoric double entendres are matched by what Q dubs Bond’s “adolescent antics,” as he uses a mini-camera to zoom relentlessly into and out of the cleavage of one of Q’s colleagues.

To be continued.

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Assassin of Literature

I’d like to offer this belated word of support for espionage author (Song of Treason) and blogger Jeremy Duns, one of the many who were hoodwinked by Quentin Rowan, a sometime bookseller in my former home of Park Slope (!). Written under the pseudonym of Q.R. Markham, his novel Assassin of Secrets was honorably withdrawn by Little, Brown when it was revealed that he had plagiarized countless books by real writers. Jeremy (whom I presume to call a friend of this site) was chagrined to have blurbed the book, but unless he had read those plagiarized works recently or repeatedly, there is no way he could have been expected to recognize the purloined passages.

That is obviously what Rowan was counting on…although he was clearly deranged to think that nobody would ever stumble on the truth. I imagine the only way one might have been tipped off would be either to sense a certain inconsistency of style, due to the many “voices” Rowan stole, or to deduce that the writing was perhaps beyond the skill of a first-time novelist, taken as it was from the works of so many seasoned pros. At any rate, I sympathize with Jeremy’s unenviable position and applaud his admirable handling of same; the self-pitying Rowan defends himself—after a fashion, and at great length—in the comments section of this post from Jeremy’s website.

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Zuccotti Park

A topical ditty to mark our 300th post…

 

“Zuccotti Park”

(Simon/Garfunkel/Bradley)

 

Are you going to Zuccotti Park?

Protesters come, but can’t pitch a tent

Remember me to those who live there

I think they should soon pay some rent

Liberty Plaza it once was called

(Between Broadway and Trinity Place it is found)

Protesters by Adbusters enthralled

(Privately owned but it’s public as well)

Ground Zero mourners once came here

(Blankets and bedclothes have now been verboten)

Brookfield’s chairman gave it its name

(Ten years ago it was filled with debris)

Tell them to find some realistic demands

(From here you can tweet the 99%)

Protesters come, and vote with their hands

(Ray Kelly could not bar them from there)

General Assembly and Working Group

(The Liberty Square Blueprint evolves)

White men must step back in the stack

Come and spread the message with IMs and e-mail

(Watch out for crystal meth and sexual assault)

Protesters came, and some went to jail

(Bloomberg cleared it out for a good wash)

Pray you don’t live or own a business nearby

(And they fight for a cause they have yet to make clear)

But please don’t pepper-spray the Count

Are you going? Chuck Scarborough’s there

Protesters came, ’twas two months ago

Remember me to those who live there

I wonder if they’ll ever go

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For many reasons–not all of them voluntary–I’ve taken it easy on these alerts while Marvel University was “merely” re-presenting some of my BOF posts, albeit with snazzy visuals, and I was commenting irregularly on their own impressive work, but from now on, I’ll be taking an increasingly active role. Starting today, and for the foreseeable future, I’ll be one of the actual “talking heads” on several of the strips that I’m revisiting in a variety of paperback collections (to which, unlike my actual comic books, I have ready access at the moment), so you’ll be able to see my musings there every Wednesday. If, as planned, M.U. continues past its original 1960s mandate, I will actually take the point by providing synopses for Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-in-One, as well as weighing in on various other books; meanwhile, once Bond is behind me, I hope to write at least three more of my Sunday “Snapshots” as well.

Excelsior!

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Richard Gordon (1925-2011)

British producer Richard Gordon, who died November 1 at 85, occupied a notable place in the cinema of the fantastic by vocation, by avocation, and even by birth, as the younger brother of Alex Gordon, who was a key figure at American International Pictures during the 1950s before going solo. Richard used to write long letters to Filmfax relating his entertaining and informative adventures with the likes of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. I always laugh about the fact that while I was on the dessert line at Fanex long ago, I served Gordon—who didn’t know me from Adam—a piece of pecan pie, but I did get to chat with him a bit when I met him in the company of McFarland mainstay Tom Weaver at a Film Forum screening of the re-re-restored Metropolis.

Gordon helped get Lugosi—then touring in a revival of Dracula—into the drag comedy Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952, aka Vampire over London, also the title of a book about Lugosi’s sojourn in Britain, and My Son the Vampire). He produced films starring Karloff (The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood [both 1958]), Marshall Thompson (Fiend without a Face [1958], First Man into Space [1959]), Bryant Haliday (Devil Doll [1964], Curse of the Voodoo [1965], The Projected Man [1966], Tower of Evil [1972]), and Peter Cushing (Island of Terror [1966]). When we met, Gordon lamented his falling-out with my late screenwriter/author friend George Baxt, which took place after director Jim O’Connolly rewrote George’s script for Tower of Evil.

As an increasingly rare living link to the horror stars of the Golden Age, Gordon will be missed.

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Pistols at Dawn

What I’ve Been Watching: The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).

Who’s Responsible: Guy Hamilton (director), Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz (screenwriters), Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, and Britt Ekland (stars).

Why I Watched It: Research.

Seen It Before? Many times, including on its release.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 10.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 1.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 6.

And? When I sat down to re-read Ian Fleming’s posthumously published (and some say completed) last novel, I realized I remembered virtually nothing about it, a situation due only partially to the intervening decades. In the interim, some of my memories have been supplanted by repeated viewings of the film, which—believe it or not—actually outstrips even Moonraker in throwing Fleming’s plot out the window. Okay, both versions pit 007 (Moore) against hit man Francisco Scaramanga (Lee), who, in fact, has a golden gun, as well as a habit of getting his ashes hauled before plying his deadly trade, and both feature Bond’s colleague Mary Goodnight (Ekland) as his primary inamorata, but that’s about it.

As usual, the differences are attributable in large measure to the novels’ being filmed out of sequence, especially since this one follows directly upon the denouement of Fleming’s You Only Live Twice. There, Bond is suffering from amnesia due to wounds received in the castle of his nemesis, Blofeld, when he stumbles upon a reference to Vladivostok that begins to trigger his memories, and travels to Russia in search of his past. At the start of Golden Gun, he returns to England (having been missing and presumed dead for a year), but after he tries to assassinate his boss, M, it is revealed that he has been brainwashed by the K.G.B.; the deprogrammed 007 is then sent on a suicide mission against Scaramanga.

Fleming passes briskly over the six weeks Bond spends in electroconvulsive therapy, and another six weeks spent trailing the Havana-based Scaramanga around the Caribbean and Central America, before bringing the antagonists together in 007’s old stomping grounds of Jamaica. The novel is a marked contrast to the Grand Guignol style of You Only Live Twice, in which Blofeld, clad in 17th-century Japanese armor, presides over a “garden of death” that entices the residents of Kyushu to suicide. Yet Fleming overcompensates by setting his story at a shabby, unfinished hotel, surrounding Scaramanga (a veteran of the Spangled Mob featured in his earlier Diamonds Are Forever) with garden-variety hoods.

Golden Gun marked the third and last collaboration between Hamilton, who had directed Goldfinger a decade earlier, and Mankiewicz, credited with Maibaum on Diamonds and alone on Live and Let Die; Lewis Gilbert and Christopher Wood, respectively, succeeded the pair on The Spy Who Loved Me and (sans Maibaum) Moonraker. Gun also assembled series regulars such as composer John Barry, lyricist Don Black, ailing cinematographer Ted Moore (then replaced with Oswald Morris), title designer Maurice Binder, and actors Bernard Lee (M), Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny), and Desmond Llewelyn (Q). Performed by Scottish pop star Lulu, the admittedly lively title song is far from Barry’s finest hour.

Undoubtedly the film’s greatest asset is Lee, already an international icon for his long-running Dracula series for England’s Hammer Films, in addition to equally memorable roles in other horror vehicles. Fleming had originally recommended Lee, his stepcousin and sometime golf partner, to play the title role in Dr. No, yet given that villain’s limited screen time he was probably put to better use here, with the screenplay and Lee’s literally towering presence upgrading Scaramanga from Fleming’s rude thug. This casting, along with Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and its sequel, The Four Musketeers (1974), allowed him to show his range, no less villainous but in entirely different milieux.

For a change, the primary villain pops up in the teaser as Scaramanga handily dispatches Rodney (Diamonds alum Marc Lawrence) in his funhouse-style killing ground, located on an island in Red Chinese waters, and then blows the fingers off a mannequin in 007’s image. Soon to play a similar role on Fantasy Island, Paris-born Hervé Villechaize (who starred with Jonathan Frid and Martine Beswick in Oliver Stone’s first feature, the mega-bizarre horror film Seizure, that same year) is Scaramanga’s pint-sized henchman, Nick Nack. It is he who arranges these little entertainments, and we learn that if his boss buys the farm, Nick Nack will inherit his million-dollar-a-hit employer’s considerable wealth.

Binder’s title sequence makes full use of the eponymous firearm’s phallic possibilities, as do Black’s sometimes indecipherable lyrics (e.g., the none-too-subtle double entendre on “bang”). Scaramanga throws down the gauntlet by sending Bond a golden bullet with his number etched on it, and we learn something of his circus background, which, along with his third nipple, was one of the few details retained from the novel. M orders 007 to table his current mission to find Gibson—the inventor of Maibaum’s MacGuffin, a solar cell—until Scaramanga can be dealt with; inevitably, these two plotlines converge, but needless to say, this duel of titans is stripped of all the baggage with which Fleming had loaded it.

An analysis of the dum-dum bullet that took out 002 leads Bond to Scaramanga’s Macau-based Portuguese armourer, Lazar (Hammer regular Marne Maitland), and thence to moll Andrea Anders (Maud Adams). As an actress, the Swedish Adams makes a great model, and how she got promoted to the admittedly undemanding title role in Octopussy after her stint here as Scaramanga’s obligatory have-sex-with-Bond-and-die confederate is beyond me. Following Andrea aboard the Macau-Hong Kong hydrofoil, 007 roughs her up until she informs him that Scaramanga has an appointment at the Bottoms Up Club, and when it turns out to be a hit, Bond is “arrested” at the scene by Lieutenant Hip (Soon-Taik Oh).

This turns out to be a ruse to take Bond to a meeting with M inside the wreckage of the Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong Harbor, where he is informed that the target was Gibson, whose Solex was pocketed by Nick Nack. Bond deduces that Scaramanga was hired by Gibson’s erstwhile employer, wealthy Bangkok businessman Hai Fat (Richard Loo), and that they have never met face to face, so 007 impersonates Scaramanga, equipped with a faux nipple by Q. Inexplicably blaming Bond for Gibson’s dying after his initial contact with Hip (which 007 could scarcely have prevented) and the disappearance of the Solex, M decrees that Goodnight accompany Bond to Thailand as his “efficient liaison officer.”

The literary Goodnight was introduced in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as 007’s new secretary, replacing Loelia “Lil” Ponsonby (first mentioned in Moonraker), who had left the Service to get married. In one of Fleming’s trademark coincidences, Goodnight turns up in Jamaica, assisting Bond with his mission, and although their prior relationship was apparently platonic, 007 is determined to change that. Then divorced from Peter Sellers, her co-star in After the Fox (1966) and The Bobo (1967), fellow Swede Britt Ekland had appeared in the cult classics Get Carter (1971) and—with Lee—The Wicker Man (1973), but sadly sets Gun’s tone by portraying Goodnight as an extra-ditzy blonde Bond bimbo.

007’s imposture fails, yet in a nod to the current kung-fu craze, he escapes from Hai Fat’s martial-arts school with the help of Hip and his nieces. As with Jaws in Moonraker, Eon Productions regrettably brought back a tiresome comedy-relief character: redneck Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), who—in a coincidence worthy of Fleming—just happens to bump into Bond while vacationing half-way around the world from their initial encounter on his home ground of Louisiana in Live and Let Die. Entrusted with the Solex by Hai Fat, Scaramanga then kills both him and Andrea; having actually sent Bond the bullet herself, she agreed to give 007 the Solex if he freed her from Scaramanga, and paid with her life.

Scaramanga bundles Goodnight—now carrying the Solex—into the trunk of his car, and the ensuing chase features Bond’s “Astro-Spiral” canal jump in the Hornet he stole from a showroom with J.W. inside, but his quarry attaches wings to his Matador and takes off. Bond follows Goodnight’s homer signal to his island for their showdown, a far cry from Fleming’s anticlimax, in which Scaramanga was already wounded by 007’s friend Felix Leiter, previously seen on the printed page in Thunderball. Bond wins the mano-a-mano shootout by posing as his own mannequin, rescues Goodnight from Scaramanga’s soon-to-explode solar-energy installation, and subdues Nick Nack in the by-now de rigueur coda.

In this entry, honors for the best gadget go not to Q but to Scaramanga, whose weapon is assembled from a seemingly innocuous fountain pen, cigarette case, lighter, and cufflink, and—as Lee related in his autobiography—missed its spot on The Tonight Show when it was confiscated by customs. Q is compensated with a splendid scene in which he talks shop with another boffin, Calthorpe (James Cossins), about ballistics, yet Moneypenny, and particularly M, appear to be in an unusually bad humor throughout. Doubtless their mood was shared by producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, for The Man with the Golden Gun was among the least profitable Bond pictures, with the lowest U.S. ticket sales ever.

Conflict dogged the production, first planned to shoot with Moore in Cambodia after You Only Live Twice, until the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge forced it to be shelved. It was revived after Live and Let Die, but location scouting in Iran was abandoned when the outbreak of the 1973 Ramadan War plunged the Middle East into turmoil; the second unit was just completing photography in Bangkok as an uprising there led to martial law being declared. Finally, this film marked the end of Broccoli’s contentious partnership with the overextended Harry Saltzman, who was ultimately obliged to sell his shares in Danjaq—the company that holds the rights to the Fleming properties—to distributor United Artists.

Addendum:  I’d be remiss if I didn’t connect one final pair of dots, namely that the erstwhile Mr. Ekland, Peter Sellers, played baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble in the 1967 Bond spoof Casino Royale.

Go to Octopussy.

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