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Archive for December, 2011

A Guy Named Joe

Joe Simon, who created Captain America with then-partner Jack “King” Kirby in 1940, has left us at the age of 98, which in my book is all the cause of death anybody needs (although it was said to be “after a brief illness”). Since I know very little about Simon beyond that, I have nothing in particular to add to the blathering about Cap that I have already done here and at Marvel University. But although I don’t know if Simon saw and/or enjoyed the recent Cap film–which I loved–I think it’s wonderful that he was around to see its success, and salute the life and career of the man who co-created one of comicdom’s most enduring heroes.

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Özone Lair

This past weekend marked our year-end Movie Night festivities in Özone Park (as our host Tom, the world’s biggest Motörhead fan, writes it). Tom recently made some interesting comparisons between the directorial careers of Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, so I figure if he can do that, I can compare the Movie Night Musketeers with my second favorite band, Talking Heads. There were four core members—David, Chris, Tina, and Jerry—that made up the Heads proper, but on certain occasions, most notably the tour documented in Stop Making Sense, they added personnel and became the “Expanded Heads” (love that moniker); similarly, those of us present this time—Tom, Gilbert, and myself—are almost always there, sometimes joined by Joe, Chris and/or Drax.

As usual, the Villa Flynn is an excellent place to take refuge from the vagaries of the real world, and although I committed the cardinal sin of omitting my pre-emptive coffee strike before we got underway, which left me running out of gas earlier than usual, I think I can safely say a fine time was had by all (when conscious). Viewing included Destroy All Monsters, The Vampire Lovers, and documentaries on both Eastwood and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, plus I even inspired the Host with the Most to watch The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Not as much comic-book talk as I’d have liked, since that’s not really Gilbert’s bag and many of the heavy hitters in that department were absent, but the conversation never lagged, and Tom seemed to like the gifts located by Madame BOF, especially the Kansas City Chiefs pillow and hat.

Lately I’ve been telling anybody who would listen that I have felt myself very distinctly moving from a Richard Matheson to a James Bond to a Marvel Comics phase. Which is not to say that I have lost interest in the first two, or ever will, but after spending more than a decade writing and editing several books about Matheson, and almost six months going through Ian Fleming’s entire Bond series on page and screen, I’m ready to surrender to the seduction of the Silver and Bronze Age comics that are never far from my thoughts. So I told Tom and Gil that Friday was a perfect time to celebrate, since I had just achieved closure on both facets of my Bond project: I’d posted the final installment of my series here at BOF, and turned my Blofeld article in to Cinema Retro.

Lo and behold, when I happened to check my e-mail at Tom’s (pursuant to my duties on behalf of Marvel University), I found that Retro’s Lee Pfeiffer—himself an acknowledged 007 expert—had already responded to the article I’d sent him only that morning. I think I can be forgiven if I quote verbatim, and at some length, from Lee’s e-mail: “Matthew—what can I say? We think it’s superb….never expected this much detail. It’s too long for one issue and we don’t want to cut anything…thus we’ll make it a two-parter if that’s okay with you. [Hell, yeah!]….The article really pleased us because we’re sitting on a treasure trove of rare photos we’ve been looking for an excuse to use! Thanks again—and keep those ideas coming. This one is truly outstanding…”

Just to prove that he’s an equal-opportunity mensch, Lee recently gave a nice plug on the Retro website (as he had with my Bond series here) to the latest in Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri’s series of ’60s TV blogs, To the Batpoles! This worthy successor to their sites on Thriller and the original Outer Limits covers the campy Batman show with perhaps more scholarly devotion and wit than it deserves, and with its comic-book roots, it may be regarded as a perfect companion to their Marvel University. I’m now contributing to M.U. on a regular basis, a trend that I expect to accelerate, although I must say I have also been spending a lot of time reading and commenting on Bronze Age Babies, since M.U. is still back in the Silver Age and Bronze is my true favorite.

On a less happy note, the entertainment world has just lost two very distinctive figures, the first being Bill McKinney, who made seven films with Clint, but is best remembered as the mountain man who rapes Ned Beatty in Deliverance (1972). Soon after, I learned of the passing of Harry (aka Henry) Morgan, and since I’d grown up watching him as Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H, that was a more personal loss; his credits include such classics as The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), High Noon (1952), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), and Inherit the Wind (1960), plus a BOF fave, The Big Clock (1948). McKinney’s oeuvre was just as diverse, mixing films for Peckinpah, Huston, Pakula, and Siegel with First Blood (1982), Against All Odds (1984), and The Green Mile (1999).

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Fabergé Dregs, Part II

Concluding our look at Octopussy on page and screen.

Reprinted under the title “Berlin Escape” in Argosy (June 1962), and again in Intrigue Magazine (November 1965), “The Living Daylights” was neither the last Bond adventure Fleming penned (presumably The Man with the Golden Gun), nor the last to be published (“Octopussy”). It is in fact the earliest story in the Octopussy collection, yet due to the structure of this series of posts, it was the last I re-read, and thus I was acutely aware that it would be my literary farewell to 007. I hope that, after systematically revisiting all fourteen books since I blazed through Casino Royale in its entirety on June 25, I may be permitted to wax nostalgic for a moment, especially regarding the story’s setting, where location shooting for Octopussy also took place at Checkpoint Charlie.

At the risk of sounding like a Bond villain, I miss the fictional Cold War intrigue of which Berlin in general and Checkpoint Charlie in particular were Ground Zero, immortalized in key works by my three favorite post-Fleming espionage writers. Although John le Carré had written about his “incongruous spy” George Smiley before, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold—with its heart-wrenching climax atop the Berlin Wall—put him on the map. Its success led my friend Elleston Trevor (who had read only a review, and not the book itself) to create Quiller in The Berlin (aka Quiller) Memorandum, while Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin was one of three novels filmed by Bond producer Harry Saltzman, with Michael Caine as the hitherto unnamed “Harry Palmer.”

Getting back to the subject at hand, Fleming’s premise—which, if I recall correctly, bears some similarity to the second Quiller novel, The Ninth Directive—finds 007’s colleague Number 272 about to cross the frontier, bringing his valuable secrets. Due to a security breach, the KGB has dispatched a sniper, the aptly named Trigger, to take him out, so the reluctant Bond’s mission is to shoot the shooter…but, as usual, things don’t play out that simply. Watching the arrival of a woman’s orchestra that rehearses in the building from which Trigger must fire, 007 is taken with a blonde cellist, only to see when 272 makes his break that she is the sniper; at the last moment, he chooses instead to shoot the rifle out of her hands and “scare the living daylights out of her.”

Even before Octopussy, Roger Moore had expressed his desire to depart the series, and Timothy Dalton was one of those considered to replace him, but Moore was persuaded to return when Eon Productions learned it needed maximum firepower against a resurgent Sean Connery in the same year’s rival 007 production, Never Say Never Again. Moore really did call it quits after one more entry, A View to a Kill, and Dalton—who had made his film debut in The Lion in Winter—finally got his chance. The new Bond was accompanied by a new Miss Moneypenny, as Caroline Bliss replaced Lois Maxwell, the only performer seen in all fifteen prior 007 films; Brown continued as M, and Keen made his last of six appearances as Gray, introduced in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Most of the major crew members of The Living Daylights (e.g., Glen, Maibaum, Wilson, Barry, Binder, production designer Peter Lamont) were carried over from both Octopussy and A View to a Kill, as was Llewelyn. After Duran Duran’s success with “A View to a Kill,” Barry once more teamed up with a current pop group—in this case, Norway’s a-ha—to write the title tune, and if in each instance the lyrics are at times incomprehensible in one or more senses of the word, both songs have a Bondian edge that had been lacking for years. Sadly, The Living Daylights ended Barry’s distinguished quarter-century association with 007, which had begun when he arranged and recorded Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme” for Dr. No; he died in January 2011 at 77.

Until the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale, this was the last Bond film ostensibly based on Fleming, although Maibaum and Wilson actually retain most of the story amid the obligatory set pieces of their largely invented script. “Top KGB mastermind” General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé), who plans to defect in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, is being watched by a KGB sniper, so he personally requests that his contact, Saunders (Thomas Wheatley)—an analog to Fleming’s Sender—summon Bond to protect him. To Saunders’s annoyance, 007 again opts for the non-lethal shot, but here his reasoning is clearer as he quickly concludes that the blonde cellist, Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo), was an amateur who “didn’t know one end of a rifle from the other.”

Bond safely smuggles Koskov into Austria inside a scouring plug sent through an oil pipeline, and during his debriefing, Koskov spins a story that makes M and Gray sit up and take notice. He claims that his superior, General Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies), who replaced Gogol when the latter was promoted, hates détente and has formed an assassination program targeting British and American agents. Knowing Pushkin, Bond is skeptical, but M produces a piece of evidence that reveals the significance of the pre-credit teaser: a tag bearing the program’s code name, smiert spionam (death to spies), that was found after a training exercise with the Double Os in Gibraltar, where 004 was killed by an unknown assassin, whom Bond eliminated in turn.

Bond’s name is on the death list, yet his suspicions mount after Koskov is “kidnapped” back by the KGB, and although ordered to kill Pushkin, he ingratiates himself with Koskov’s girlfriend, Kara, as a way of learning the truth, wooing her on the giant Ferris wheel immortalized in The Third Man. Sure enough, Koskov’s defection was as phony as his allegations against Pushkin, a “good” Soviet in the Gogol mode, and by asking Kara to make the scenario more plausible, the doubly treacherous Koskov was setting her up to be killed by 007. Bond sets up a smokescreen by faking Pushkin’s assassination, and learns that Koskov is involved with an arms dealer, Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), in a complex scheme involving weapons, diamonds, and raw opium.

As the son of a cellist, I am perhaps overly sensitive to the silliness of the scene in which Bond and Kara cross the Austrian border sledding over the snow in her cello case, especially when the instrument is revealed to be a Stradivarius that has now acquired a bullet hole. And in retrospect, I get a somewhat queasy feeling when the third act teams Bond with Kamran Shah (Art Malik), a leader of the mujahedin resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, many of whose members later joined al-Qaeda. But then, we were backing them at the time, and the climax in which 007 battles Koskov’s henchman Necros (Andreas Wisniewski) in—and dangling from—a planeload of opium is spectacular, after which Whitaker’s death and Koskov’s capture are rather a letdown.

Although the ticket-buying public never fully embraced the dour Dalton, who sometimes seemed to overcompensate for Moore’s flippancy, The Living Daylights showed that things were starting to move in the right direction, as demonstrated by his sophomore effort. With its stronger female characters, down-to-earth villains, and action sequences that felt fresh rather than warmed over—including an eye-popping Road Warrior-style tanker-truck climax—Licence to Kill enabled Dalton to end his stint as 007 on a high note (although he was originally contracted for a third film). It was only after years of complex corporate legal battles that Pierce Brosnan and the new creative team, formed by Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, ushered in the post-Fleming era with GoldenEye.

Addendum

Needless to say, I will keep you apprised of the forthcoming publication (ideally in 2012, which will mark 007’s fiftieth anniversary on the big screen) of my Cinema Retro article about Bond’s nemesis, SPECTRE head Ernst Stavro Blofled, which will fill in the blanks with the remainder of those Fleming books and their various adaptations not covered in these posts. Watch this space.

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