Archive for the ‘Books’ Category


What I’ve Been Watching: Three Days of the Condor (1975).

Who’s Responsible: Sydney Pollack (director), Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel (screenwriters), Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, and Cliff Robertson (stars).

Why I Watched It: I like to revisit it periodically.

Seen It Before? Yes, several times.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 8.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 2.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 7.

And? Joe Turner (Redford) is a mild-mannered CIA analyst who returns from buying lunch for his colleagues at the Manhattan brownstone housing their front, the American Literary Historical Society, only to find that they have been brutally gunned down during his brief absence. For years, I have argued that those who considered Redford too much of a pretty boy to be taken seriously as an actor would do well to study his reactions here, as they escalate from shock and horror to fear for his own life and the grim determination that he is not going to be next. This sequence is a tour de force in many ways, but for me at least, the film falls into the unusual trap of never living up to those first twenty minutes.

Turner’s job is to read omnivorously, sifting through novels and articles and feeding them into a computer in search of security leaks or new ideas, and he has recently run across a mystery novel with a very curious publication history. It’s now clear that his dismissed report struck a nerve somewhere in Langley, having unwittingly uncovered something worth wiping out the ALHS, and Turner—code-named Condor—is instantly suspicious when he speaks with Deputy Director Higgins (Robertson). These suspicions are in no way allayed when his last surviving colleague, who called in sick, is killed in his home, and an attempt to bring Condor in from the cold, via a rendezvous with his section chief and an old friend, goes south in the worst way, with Turner framed for his friend’s death.

A lethal game of cat and mouse ensues as Turner, unable to trust anyone he knows, forces himself into the company of a total stranger, Kathy Hale (Dunaway), first to take refuge in her home and then, as they establish a gradual rapport, to enlist her active assistance. The very fact that Turner is an analyst rather than a field agent gives him an unexpected advantage, both because of the arcane knowledge he has assimilated over the years and because his status as an amateur makes his moves unpredictable. With Kathy’s help, he moves back and forth between New York and Washington, D.C., as he tries to get to the bottom of the mystery and avoid getting killed by Joubert (the great Max Von Sydow), a freelance assassin and sometime Company employee who oversaw the hit on the ALHS.

Although I have qualified admiration for this film, I damn it with faint praise by saying that it’s my favorite among the seven that Redford made with Pollack, ranging from the classic Out of Africa (1985) to the soporific Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and the unbearable The Way We Were (1973). If you said that their joint filmography did not augur well for a spy thriller, you’d be right, and my primary objection to the opening sequence is that the main-title theme by Dave Grusin (a lightweight if ever there was one) is too upbeat for the mayhem to follow. Likewise, by the time he shot Condor, Owen Roizman was already the cinematic poet laureate of ’70s New York for The French Connection (1971) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), yet this Manhattan lacks their edge.

It’s interesting to note that the screenplay tries to amp up the tension by halving the time-frame in James Grady’s 1974 source novel, Six Days of the Condor, and the filmmakers were clearly going for a Hitchcock vibe with that whole “an innocent man running for his life must earn the trust, and the heart, of a random woman” thing. But sadly, my lifelong antipathy for Dunaway—whose films such as The Three and Four Musketeers (1973 and 1974), Chinatown (1974), and Network (1976) I loved in spite of, rather than because of, her—blinds me to any chemistry they might have achieved. By the way, I wrote my very first press release for Grady’s 1985 novel Hard Bargains, and he was very kind to a wet-behind-the-ears publicity assistant at his first real job (at Macmillan) in the big, bad city.

Overall, I found the film a little too slick for its gritty subject matter, which is perhaps not surprising coming from impresario Dino De Laurentiis, but Von Sydow predictably tries to make the most of his limited role, and I suppose that Robertson, who always seemed a little sketchy to me, is well cast as a guy who may or may not be trustworthy, interacting nicely with boss John Houseman. This is certainly one of the better efforts from Semple, whose work oscillated from the height of the superior political thriller The Parallax View (1974) to the depths of Flash Gordon (1980) and Never Say Never Again (1983); Rayfiel worked on the Elmore Leonard adaptation Valdez Is Coming (1971). Someday, I’ll have to compare this with Grady’s book and check out his 1978 sequel, Shadow of the Condor.

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Hat Trick

Lord knows, I don’t have time to do this justice tonight, but the way things are going lately, I’d rather get at least a provisional word out while it’s fresh in my mind, and then build on that later if and when the opportunity arises.  I’ve just become aware of a wonderful blog, Tipping My Fedora, whose author, Sergio, describes it as “Enjoying mystery, crime and suspense in all media,” which—needless to say—I do, too.  I became aware of it in the nicest possible way when Sergio, who was reviewing the early Hammer film Wings of Danger, was kind enough to direct his readers to my series of posts on the late, great Elleston Trevor, who co-wrote the novel upon which the film was based.

Now, I appreciate a good plug as much as the next guy, but when I started to dip into the blog, I discovered that we have an astonishing array of interests in common, not least of which is a certain Mr. Matheson, who seems to be quite ubiquitous on Sergio’s site.  Just looking through his most recent posts, I see such familiar names and topics as Agatha Christie, Terence Fisher, Quiller, Dying Room Only, Fredric Brown, Sidney Lumet, Robert Culp, Vertigo, Evan Hunter, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Ray Bradbury, John Frankenheimer, No Way Out, James Bond…well, that’s plenty.  On top of that, he’s a big fan of John Dickson Carr, whose Dr. Gideon Fell mysteries I have loved since I was a kid, so start clicking!

And, speaking of plugs, check out my main man Gilbert Colon’s awesome piece on Person of Interest and the Dark Knight Trilogy at SF Signal.

Up next, when time permits, some thoughts on the passing of Herbert Lom.

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It’s Always About Mimi

I’m reading an excellent book by my Marvel University colleague Jack Seabrook entitled Martians and Misplaced Clues: The Life & Work of Fredric Brown (1993), despite the fact that I am as yet familiar with Brown’s work only through the occasional adaptation; his story “Arena” (Astounding Science Fiction, June 1944) was the basis for both the Star Trek episode of the same name and, arguably, the Outer Limits entry “Fun and Games.” Many of his mystery stories also appeared on television, most notably as episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The Cream of the Jest,” “The Night the World Ended,” “The Dangerous People,” “Human Interest Story“) and Thriller (“Knock Three-One-Two“). Relatively few of Brown’s thirty novels have been filmed, but one exception is The Screaming Mimi (1949), adapted in 1958 by future “Fun and Games” director Gerd Oswald and largely undistinguished horror/SF screenwriter Robert Blees.

One of the reasons I own a copy of the novel, and will one day do a comparison between page and screen, is that it is often said to be the uncredited basis for Dario Argento’s directorial debut, the seminal giallo film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). I’m not a particular fan of either Argento or gialli, but I certainly recognize their importance in the horror genre, and have long noted (not that I’m the only one to do so) that although Argento gets the lion’s share of the credit for popularizing the subgenre, he was in many ways simply following and elaborating upon the template established by Mario Bava—of whom I AM particular fan—in films like The Girl Who Knew Too Much (aka The Evil Eye, 1962) and Blood and Black Lace (1964). What’s especially intriguing in this case is that The Girl Who Knew Too Much, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and many of Argento’s subsequent films all rely on a plot mechanism that Brown used in The Screaming Mimi.

Several of Brown’s mysteries hinge upon what Jack calls “the misplaced clue,” in which the “investigation centers on the vicinity of the murders until a point late in the novel, where [the protagonist] must travel out of town or out of state to discover something from the past that provides the missing link needed to solve the puzzle.” In The Screaming Mimi, on the other hand, protagonist Sweeney witnesses the aftermath of an attack on a beautiful blonde dancer by a serial killer known as the Ripper, only to learn later on (without giving away anything for those unfamiliar with the story) that what took place was far different from what he thought he saw. Not only Bird but also Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)—whose hero, like Sweeney, has a friend named “God”—Deep Red (1975), Suspiria (1977), Trauma (1993), and others utilize what might be referred to as “the misinterpreted/misremembered/forgotten clue.”

Jack’s book doesn’t mention the Argento connection, of which I first learned from my original 1990 edition of Fangoria contributor Maitland McDonagh’s since-updated Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, autographed by Maitland and Argento himself at a Film Forum appearance. But this essay by David Jacobs from S. Michael Wilson’s 2008 anthology Monster Rally, “Argento’s Big Rip-Off: Stealing Screaming Mimi,” documents it quite damningly; if the Google Books link doesn’t take you right to it, it’s on pages 217-225. The net result, of course, is that Argento—a former screenwriter who denied the aging Brown (1906-1972) proper credit or remuneration for the blatant use of his work—turns out to be even more derivative with his gialli than by merely ripping off Bava or, later (and endlessly), himself.

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Court of First Resort

You should all be so lucky to have a friend like Gilbert Colon.  In addition to being one of my biggest cheerleaders, he is—to quote his official bio—“a County Clerk’s Office employee,” in which capacity he first set out to promote my magnum opus, Richard Matheson on Screen, by interviewing me for the court newsletter Just Us.  Then, ever seeking a bigger venue, he beefed up the New York references we’d taken pains to include and arranged for the piece to be printed in The New York Review of Science Fiction, wherein I’d also published some Matheson reviews.

Fast-forward a few months to February, by which time Gil had taken up his cudgels on behalf of no lesser light than Douglas Trumbull, and written an impassioned article lamenting the fact that Trumbull had been passed over for an Oscar nomination for The Tree of Life, which he placed on the SF Signal site.  Lo and behold, less than three weeks later, he got them to run our interview, presumably ensuring its biggest exposure…so far.  If my ego really were as big as I profess it to be, I’d suspect he wrote the whole Trumbull piece just to establish a beachhead for Yours Truly.

Thanks, partner.

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Part of my “day job” as Copy Specialist for the PCS Stamps & Coins division of MBI, Inc. is to license images for use on our various collector panels and other products, so I had occasion today to contact the New York Public Library in that capacity for the first time. Lo and behold, the guy whose own day job is Manager of Rights & Permissions for the NYPL, Tom Lisanti, is not only a fellow McFarland author (e.g., Fantasy Femmes of Sixties Cinema: Interviews with 20 Actresses from Biker, Beach and Elvis Movies; Film Fatales: Women in Espionage Films & TV 1962-1973), but also a fellow contributor to Cinema Retro whom I met in Manhattan at a delightful get-together for Retro writers hosted by our own “Dear Leader,” Lee Pfeiffer, at the Players Club (founded by 19th-century Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes) a couple of years back. Tom is a capital fellow who helped me with some advice while I was writing Richard Matheson on Screen, and duly appears in my acknowledgments. Those interested in the skull-splintering output of quintessential shlockmeister Larry Buchanan–and who isn’t?–will enjoy this article on Creature of Destruction from his website. Great to renew your acquaintance, Tom!

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Tailor Made

I had a lot of good food when the two Mrs. Bradleys and I visited my daughter in Washington, D.C., over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, where our whirlwind itinerary—with which the senior Mrs. B was hard pressed to keep up!—included the Washington, Lincoln, WW II, Korea, Vietnam, and MLK monuments, plus one building of the National Gallery. Some of said food was prepared by Alexandra herself, at the apartment Madame BOF found for her and boyfriend Thomas on Connecticut Avenue, with which they’ve done wonders during their relatively brief time there so far, and where she finally introduced the Moms to one of her favorite films, Moulin Rouge! But the best meal I had was a delicious helping of crow called Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

I’ve long called the 1979 miniseries based on John le Carré’s novel one of the best adaptations of anything, anywhere, ever, inspiring me to read the book, one of my Top 10, and most of his other adventures of “incongruous spy” George Smiley. I’ve watched Alec Guinness as Smiley in both the miniseries and its 1982 sequel, Smiley’s People, countless times, and despite running times of more than five hours apiece, I found them utterly riveting, to say nothing of flawlessly capturing le Carré’s characters and plots. So when I heard that this satisfyingly complex Cold War thriller was being boiled down into a two-hour feature—even one starring the formidable Gary Oldman and directed by Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson, of Let the Right One In fame—I was utterly aghast.

But then I heard about some of the other casting (John Hurt as Smiley’s erstwhile boss, Control, and Colin Firth as Bill Haydon), and I got a little encouraged, and then I read some of those rave reviews, and I started to wonder if they could really pull it off. So, is it as good or as rich as the miniseries? No. Does Oldman incarnate Smiley-as-flesh the way Guinness did, so successfully that le Carré said he could no longer write him without seeing Guinness in his mind? No. Did a superb cast and crew—including Oldman—bring to life a script (by a couple of which the wife, sadly, died before its release) that manages to distill the essence of le Carré’s epic of espionage, in the process creating a breathtakingly excellent film that is top-notch on all levels? Hell yeah.

Here’s the set-up: Control sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Budapest to meet a Hungarian defector who will reveal the identity of a mole, or double agent, in the highest echelon of British intelligence (aka the Circus). The suspects are Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Haydon, and Control’s right-hand man, Smiley. When the report comes in that Prideaux has been shot dead, Control and Smiley are tossed out in favor of Alleline’s gang of four, but after Control dies and AWOL Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) resurfaces with a story about a mole, the reluctant Smiley is brought out of retirement by bureaucrat Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), who oversees the Circus, to pick up the trail where Control left off.

Smiley recruits Tarr’s boss, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), a protégé of George’s whom the Alleline regime had shunted off to a backwater division called the Scalphunters, and Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack), a retired Special Branch man he’d met on an earlier case. He calls upon the memories of similarly disfavored Circus vets Jerry Westerby (Stephen Graham)—an amalgam of the eponymous character and le Carré’s Sam Collins—and research expert Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke) to help him sift through the facts and lies. Among the casualties of the shorter format are George’s serial-adulterer wife, Ann (Katrina Vasilieva), and nemesis, Karla, neither of whom we see in full, although in general, the screenwriters preserve that which is most essential to the tale.

Those in our party who had seen the miniseries felt that the film might actually appeal more to viewers already familiar with the story, who would appreciate the foreshadowings and nuances, but of course it’s impossible for us to see it through virgin eyes. And, aside from the inevitable compression, it was interesting to see the choices they made, with this version depicting or even creating some things the original did not; I only noticed two notable instances of stuff that I don’t remember from either the book or the miniseries, but won’t reveal them here. As with the show, there were many unfamiliar names and/or faces in the cast, though I recognized Jones as the guy who played Arnim Zola in Captain America, mostly because he looks like a Jack Kirby creation!

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Thirty Little Indians

Thinking—as we often do—of our friend Maria Towers, Madame BOF and I recently unwound after a hectic evening with the 1965 version of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, produced by Maria’s late husband, Harry Alan Towers. Next to the Fu Manchu movies with Christopher Lee, this was Harry’s most durable property, which he remade in 1974, and again in 1989. Variously published as Ten Little Niggers and And Then There Were None, the title under which it was first adapted by René Clair in 1945, this ingeniously constructed 1939 whodunit is essentially bullet-proof, so that if you have a decent script (supplied in this case by Harry, under his Peter Welbeck nom d’écran, and Peter Yeldham), a good cast, and a competent crew, you can hardly go wrong.

That was certainly so here and in Peter Collinson’s ’74 version with Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer, Richard Attenborough, Charles Aznavour, Herbert Lom, former Bond villains Adolfo Celi and Gert Fröbe, and Maria herself. I can’t vouch for the widely panned 1989 version, shot in Africa by Alan Birkinshaw—who made two low-rent Edgar Allan Poe films during the same period—with its limited star power provided by Lom (in a different role this time) and Donald Pleasence. Interestingly, according to the IMDb, the ’89 version was originally supposed to have utilized the ending of the novel, which is downbeat but intellectually satisfying, yet ultimately opted, as did all earlier films, for the happier outcome Christie herself had devised for her 1943 stage version.

’65 director George Pollock was certainly no stranger to this territory, having helmed all four of the films in which Margaret Rutherford played Christie’s Miss Marple. Television vet Yeldham was a frequent collaborator of Harry’s, as was cinematographer Ernest Steward, who worked on the first two Fu Manchu films, as well as the cult favorite The Avengers and innumerable entries in the “Doctor” and “Carry On” comedy series. The jaunty score by Malcolm Lockyer—another Towers regular, who also contributed to Peter Cushing’s Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965), Island of Terror (1966), and Island of the Burning Damned (1967)—takes a very different tack than the tingling 1974 music by Ennio Morricone protégé Bruno Nicolai, keeping things light and breezy.

Soon-to-be love interests Hugh O’Brian and Shirley Eaton arrive at an Austrian house accessible only by cable car—subbing for Christie’s remote island, inaccessibility being essential—with six other guests and married housekeepers Mario Adorf and Marianne Hoppe. We learn that none of them have met their host/employer, “U.N. Owen” (get it?), and most were lured there under false pretenses, also largely strangers to one another. An audiotape in the uncredited but unmistakable voice of Towers mainstay Lee (succeeded by Orson Welles in ’74) accuses each one of causing a death that is beyond the reach of the law, and it soon becomes clear that the elusive “Mr. Owen” has brought them there to administer his own brand of justice by executing them for their crimes.

In each guest’s room is a copy of the titular nursery rhyme (“Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; one choked his little self and then there were nine,” etc.), forming a template for the m.o. of each killing, after which another Indian figurine is removed from the centerpiece on the dining-room table. The cable car is wrecked, taking the fleeing Hoppe with it, which renders escape or rescue impossible for the moment, and forces the guests to fall back on their own devices. When a search of the house proves fruitless, the survivors are obliged to conclude that Mr. Owen is one of them, and various stratagems are attempted to identify him (or her) while the guests weigh the veracity of the accusations against them, and the possibility that ’fessing up may save their lives.

Of the likable leads, O’Brian was television’s Wyatt Earp, later starring in Richard Matheson’s Alfred Hitchcock Hour adaptation of his novel Ride the Nightmare, and the gorgeous Eaton, best known as the iconic “golden girl” from Goldfinger (1964), was reunited with Towers to play Su-Muru (like Fu Manchu a creation of Sax Rohmer). Fabian stretched himself to play a teen idol, while the exotic Daliah Lavi looms large in the BOF universe for Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body (1963), the Matt Helm film The Silencers (1966), and the Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967). Also featured were Stanley Holloway and Wilfrid Hyde-White, both of My Fair Lady (1964); the latter appeared in multiple Towers productions, as did Leo Genn and Dennis Price.

As usual, Christie’s Swiss-watch plotting is as much the star as any member of that name cast, even with the upbeat ending, and I won’t spoil the fun by either enumerating the various deaths or revealing the solution. Although it was not included in the print recently shown by TCM, the film originally included a device similar to the “Fright Break” from William Castle’s Homicidal (1961) or the “Werewolf Break” from The Beast Must Die (1974), in which the story pauses at the climax and a clock appears on the screen, ticking away to give the audience one last chance to guess the killer’s identity. But this well-produced mystery needs no such gimmick to make it work, succeeding on the merits of its premise and ensemble to offer a fine evening’s entertainment.

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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.


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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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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