Golden Gun’s 40th anniversary: 007′s sacrificial lamb

goldengunposter

Normally, we’d have waited to do a post about The Man With The Golden Gun’s 40th anniversary. But with this week’s passing of co-director of photography Oswald Morris, this is as good a time to examine the ninth James Bond film.

Let’s face it: Golden Gun doesn’t get a lot of love among James Bond fans or even professionals. It’s exhibit A when the subject comes up about 007 film misfires. Too goofy. Too cheap. Too many of the crew members having a bad day.

Over the years, Bond fans have said it has an average John Barry score (though one supposes Picasso had average paintings). It has too many bad gags (Bond watches as two teenage karate students take out a supposedly deadly school of assassins). And, for a number of first-generation 007 film fans, it has Roger Moore playing Bond, which is bad it and of itself.

Golden Gun is a way for fans to establish “street cred” — a way of establishing, “I’m not a fan boy.” The 1974 film is a way for the makers of 007 films to establish they’re really talking candidly, that not every Bond film has been an unqualified success.

The latter point is true enough. Golden Gun’s worldwide box office plunged 40 percent compared with Live And Let Die ($97.6 million versus $161.8 million, according to THE NUMBERS website). Within a few weeks of its December 1974 U.S. release, United Artists hurriedly paired Golden Gun with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which UA released earlier in 1974, to make a double feature.

In terms of long-term importance, Golden Gun was the finale of the Albert R. Broccoli-Harry Saltzman 007 partnership. Saltzman would soon be in financial trouble and have to sell out his share of the franchise to United Artists. In a way, things have never really been the same since.

This is not to argue that Golden Gun is the best offering in the Eon Production series. Rather, in many ways, it’s the runt of the litter that everybody likes to pick on — even among the same people who’d chafe at criticism of their favorite 007 film.

The documentary Inside The Man With The Golden Gun says the movie has all of the 007 “ingredients.” Of course, such a documentary is approved by executives who aren’t exactly demanding candor. But the statement is true. It has not one, but two Oscar winning directors of photography (Morris and Ted Moore); it has a score by a five-time Oscar winner (Barry); it is one of 13 007 movies Richard Maibaum contributed writing.

Then again, movies sometimes are less the sum of their parts. It happens. Not everyone has their best day.

For many, Golden Gun is a convenient piñata. Despite some positives (including a genuinely dangerous driving stunt), it’s never going to get much love in the 007 community.

MI6 Confidential interviews Purvis & Wade

Robert Wade, left, and Neal Purvis.

Robert Wade, left, and Neal Purvis.

MI6 Confidential, the James Bond fan magazine, is out with a new issue that includes an interview with five-time 007 screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade.

In issue 24, the duo “talk candidly about their years with Bond,” according to an MI6 Confidential promo. The writing team’s work on Bond spanned more than a decade, from 1999′s The World Is Not Enough, through 2012′s Skyfall.

Purvis and Wade have now departed the series. Bond 24 is being written by John Logan, who rewrote Purvis and Wade on Skyfall. Logan is also slated to write Bond 25.

As we discussed IN A JAN. 11 POST, four of the five Purvis/Wade movies involved a theme where either Bond isn’t “fully” Bond yet, or he’s lost his mojo and needs to get it back.

Also in issue 24 of MI6 Confidential is a feature on John Glen, director of the five 1980s 007 films, about his career; a story about the casting of the female leads in 1989′s Licence to Kill; a story about Denise Richards; and a story about highlights of John Barry’s scores of Bond movies.

The price is 7 British pounds, $11 or 8.50 euros, plus postage and handling. For more information, CLICK HERE.

Secret Agent Radio: all spies, all the time

John Barry

John Barry

For those who can’t get enough spy soundtrack music, there is now SECRET AGENT RADIO, an Internet “radio station.”

It’s part of the AccuRadio Web site, which provides music offerings of various types.

Secret Agent Radio covers a lot of ground, including soundtracks from Bond films, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, The Prisoner, Danger Man/Secret Agent. It can also veer into related genres, including music from Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn soundtrack.

There’s also Open Channel D, which, despite its name, isn’t exclusively U.N.C.L.E. soundtracks and plays some of the same other selections as Secret Agent Radio. Finally, there’s Channel 007, which specializes in 007 sountracks, featuring music by John Barry and other composers. Based on a sampling, it’s currently playing selections from Thomas Newman’s Skyfall soundtrack fairly often.

There are occasional commercials, but the interruptions don’t seem to occur that often, certainly less often than a commercial radio station.

Funeral in Berlin gets new U.S. DVD release

Len Deighton and Michael Caine

Len Deighton and Michael Caine

Funeral in Berlin, the second Harry Saltzman-produced film based on Len Deighton’s spy novels and starring Michael Caine, is now available in a new DVD release in the U.S. through Warner Bros.’s Warner Archives.

Saltzman, co-founder of Eon Productions, producer of the James Bond film series, had ambitions beyond the 007 movies. At the same time, Saltzman summoned 007 film veterans to work on his Deighton-based films.

With 1966′s Funeral in Berlin, Saltzman hired Guy Hamilton, who helmed Goldfinger, as director. Also on board was Ken Adam as production designer and Peter Murton as art director. Other films in the series employed John Barry, Peter Hunt and Maurice Binder.

Warner Archive specializes in “manufactured on demand” (or MOD); the DVDs are made as they’re ordered and the sets aren’t available in stores. Warner Bros. has used Warner Archive for home video releases of properties in the vast WB library, including THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. and THE FBI television series.

The price for Funeral in Berlin is $18.95 plus shipping and handling. For more information on ordering, CLICK HERE.

For more information, you can view the IMDB.COM pages for:

1965′S THE IPCRESS FILES

1966′s FUNERAL IN BERLIN

1967′s BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN

Happy 80th birthday, David McCallum

mccallum

When you got it, you got it.

There’s a lot this blog could say about the remarkable career of David McCallum. THIS POST LAST YEAR on the eve of his 79th birthday sums it up nicely.

McCallum continues to enjoy a long run as a supporting player on NCIS and he’s still fondly remembered for playing Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

McCallum has had his share of tragedy and triumph in real life. He continues to please audiences and is the embodiment of being a professional.

Happy 80th birthday, Mr. McCallum. Here’s one of his more obscure credits, an appearance on the Juke Box Jury game show with music by John Barry:

From Russia With Love’s 50th anniversary Part II: John Barry

John Barry

John Barry

John Barry wasn’t a happy man after Dr. No came out in 1962.

Barry had arranged and revamped Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme. He thought the piece would only be in Dr. No’s main titles. Instead, it was inserted by editor Peter Hunt throughout much of the movie.

With the second 007 film, From Russia With Love, “John Barry’s irritation at seeing his work all over the film of Dr. No would soon turn to elation,” author Jon Burlingame wrote in his 2012 book, The Music of James Bond. Barry got the job of scoring the new 007 film and, in the process, established the Bond movie music template.

Producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman hired Lionel Bart to write the title song. But Barry would score provided all the dramatic music.

Barry’s impact was evident immediately. Dr. No’s gunbarrel logo utilized electronic noises. Barry instead used an arrangement of Bond theme. The pre-credits sequence, where where assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw) kills a Bond double during a training exercise, was heightened by Barry’s music. In 1977′s The Spy Who Loved Me, composer Marvin Hamlisch did an homage to Barry’s work where Bond (Roger Moore) and Soviet agent Triple-X (Barbara Bach) are searching for Jaws amid Egyptian ruins. (CLICK HERE to see a Stuart Basinger-produced video comparing the two scenes.)

Barry’s work on From Russia With Love was the beginning of the James Bond sound.

“The 007 films demanded music that could be variously romantic, suspenseful, drive the action, even punctuate the humor,” Burlingame said in a 2012 E-MAIL INTERVIEW WITH THE HMSS WEBLOG about his book. “It was a tall order, and John Barry, especially, delivered what was necessary and helped define James Bond in a way that wasn’t possible with the visuals alone.”

Barry also composed what amounted to a second Bond theme, simply titled 007. It was used during two action sequences: A big fight between Bulgarians and gypsies working for MI6 and when Bond snatches a Russian decoding machine out of the Soviet consulate in Istanbul. Barry would end up bringing the 007 theme back in four more movies, the last being 1979′s Moonraker.

For the composer, this was just the beginning. He scored 10 more Bond movies and become one of the most sought-after composers in the movies. Remarkably, his Bond work never got an Oscar nomination. But he won five Oscars for non-007 films starting with 1967′s Born Free and ending with 1990′s Dances With Wolves.

Meanwhile, Barry’s template was something other composers had to keep in mind when they worked on 007 films. In the 1990s, David Arnold, a Barry admirer, produced new takes on classic Barry 007 songs. That helped him to secure work on five Bond films, making him the only composer so far besides Barry to work on more than one 007 film.

NEXT: Desmond Llewelyn’s debut as Q

January 2011 post: JOHN BARRY, AN APPRECIATION

September 2012 post: HMSS TALKS TO JON BURLINGAME ABOUT HIS 007 MUSIC BOOK

REVIEW: The Music of James Bond (2012)

Image of the cover of The Music of James Bond from the book's Amazon.com page

Image of the cover of The Music of James Bond from the book’s Amazon.com page

Music journalist Jon Burlingame is nothing if not persistent. To write The Music of James Bond, he had to reconcile differing accounts and memories of various participants to create a narrative of how 007 film scores were created. This included new interviews as well as drawing upon interviews he had done previously while writing about film and television music for variety.

Perhaps the most daunting task was explaining the creation of The James Bond Theme, composed by Monty Norman but revamped by aggressive orchestrations by John Barry. Short of traveling back in time to watch it first hand, Burlingame’s account is likely to be the most definitive we’re likely to get. Along the way, he provides additional anecdotes, including quoting a 1990 interview about Barry’s shock (and anger) after editor Peter Hunt had put it throughout the finished Dr. No film. Barry had been told it would just be in the main titles.

Along the way, Burlingame provides many other details about 007 scores, including Barry’s own disenchantment with Bond starting in the early 1970s. “It’s a trap, and I don’t know how to get out it, really,” Barry says in a 1971 interview published in the RTS Music Gazette in 1976. Burlingame also interviewed Cary Bates, a one-time scribe for DC Comics who among those who submitted story ideas for The Spy Who Loved Me. Barry had told Bates in 1972. “You know, I’m not doing them anymore.”

John Barry

John Barry

That would prove not to be the case. Barry kept returning, not ending his association with 007 until 1987′s The Living Daylights. Partly, it was out of loyalty to the series that helped launch his career as a movie composer. Partly it was because producer Albert R. Broccoli knew Barry could produce the inevitable tight deadlines that Bond movies made by Eon Productions continually faced. Barry had one last chance to return, for 1997′s Tomorrow Never Dies, but passed.

Some of the tales Burlingame tells are known but he adds nice flourishes. A 2006 U.K. television special detailed how producer Harry Saltzman despised the Barry-Don Black title song for Diamonds Are Forever. Burlingame notes how Broccoli was present after Saltzman stormed out of a meeting with Barry and Black at Barry’s apartment. “Do you have any Jack Daniels?” the veteran producer asked after a few moments of silence.

What’s more, some of the best passages discuss Bond songs that didn’t happen, including a planned Frank Sinatra rendition of a Moonraker title song (for which Paul Williams had written the lyrics). Also, throughout are quotes that go beyond the typical fare. One example was composer Marvin Hamlisch, who scored 1977′s The Spy Who Loved Me on his own frustration he was never asked to do another 007 film. “You can deliver an Oscar nominated song. You can deliver a number-two record, and it still ain’t good enough.”

Personally, I would have liked a bit more commentary on how Barry could get passed over for Oscar nominations for Bond while getting five Oscars for other work. But that’s a quibble. The author tells readers that Broccoli didn’t believe in big Oscar campaigns for Bond films as well as how United Artists actually unsuccessfully promoted a nomination for Clifton James as J.W. Pepper in Live And Let Die.

Music has always been one of the distinctive aspects about the Bond films. It’s about time for a book on the subject, including 1967′s Casino Royale and 1983′s Never Say Never Again, the two non-Eon Bond films. Burlingame delivers. GRADE: A.

SEPTEMBER 2012 POST: HMSS TALKS TO JON BURLINGAME ABOUT HIS 007 MUSIC BOOK.

The Music of James Bond, 293 pages, Oxford University Press.

UPDATE: The September 2012 post referenced a lawsuit related to the song Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. The lawsuit was filed by Shirley Bassey. She recorded her version *after* Dionne Warwick’s rejected main title song for Thunderball. The idea was it might be suitable as the song for the end titles. Jon Burlingame details how this plan went awry.

Live And Let Die’s 40th: the post-Connery era truly begins

Live And Let Die's poster

Live And Let Die’s poster

For the eighth James Bond film, star Sean Connery wasn’t coming back. Three key members of the 007 creative team, screenwriter Richard Maibaum, production designer Ken Adam and composer John Barry, weren’t going to participate. And producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were mostly working separately, with this movie to be overseen primarily by Saltzman.

The result? Live And Let Die, which debuted 40 years ago this year, would prove to be, financially, the highest-grossing movie in the series to date.

Things probably didn’t seem that way for Eon Productions and United Artists as work began. They had no Bond. Broccoli and Saltzman didn’t want Connery back for 1971′s Diamonds Are Forever. The studio didn’t want to take a chance and made the original screen 007 an offer he couldn’t refuse. But that was a one-film deal. Now, Eon and UA were starting from scratch.

Eon and UA had one non-Connery film under their belts, 1969′s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. They had tried the inexperienced George Lazenby, who bolted after one movie. For the second 007 film in the series not to star Connery, Eon and UA opted for a more-experienced choice: Roger Moore, former star of The Saint television series. Older than Connery, Moore would eventually employ a lighter touch.

Behind the camera, Saltzman largely depended on director Guy Hamilton, back for his third turn in the 007 director chair, and writer Tom Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz would be the sole writer from beginning to end, rewriting scenes as necessary during filming. In a commentary on the film’s DVD, Mankiewicz acknowledged it was highly unusual.

Perhaps the biggest creative change was with the film’s music. Barry had composed the scores for six Bond films in a row. George Martin, former producer for the Beatles, would take over. Martin had helped sell Saltzman on using a title song written by Paul and Linda McCartney. The ex-Beatle knew his song would be compared to the 007 classic title songs Barry had helped write. McCartney was determined to make his mark.

Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman pose with their new star, Roger Moore, during filming of Live And Let Die

Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman pose with their new star, Roger Moore, during filming of Live And Let Die


Saltzman liked the song, but inquired whether a woman singer would be more appropriate. Martin, in an interview for a 2006 special on U.K. television, said he informed Saltzman if Eon didn’t accept McCartney as performer, the producer wouldn’t get the song. Saltzman accepted both.

Live And Let Die wasn’t the greatest James Bond film, despite an impressive boat chase sequence that was a highlight. The demise of its villain (Yaphet Kotto) still induces groans among long-time 007 fans as he pops like a balloon via an unimpressive special effect. Sheriff J.W. Pepper, up to that time, was probably the most over-the-top comedic supporting character in the series. (“What are you?! Some kind of doomsday machine, boy?!”)

But Live And Let Die is one of the most important films in the series. As late as 1972, the question was whether James Bond could possibly continue without Sean Connery. With $161.8 million in worldwide ticket sales, it was the first Bond film to exceed the gross for 1965′s Thunderball. In the U.S., its $35.4 million box office take trailed the $43.8 million for Diamonds Are Forever.

Bumpy days still lay ahead for Eon. The Man With the Golden Gun’s box office would tail off and relations between Broccoli and Saltzman would get worse. Still, for the first time, the idea took hold that the cinema 007 could move on from Connery.

Many HMSS editors CRITICIZED THE MOVIE AND ITS STAR in a survey several years ago. But the film has its fans.

“I vividly remember the first time I saw one of the Bond movies, which was Live And Let Die, and the effect it had on me,” Skyfall director Sam Mendes said at a November 2011 news conference. Whatever one’s opinions about the movie, Live And Let Die ensured there’d be 007 employment for the likes of Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig.

FEBRUARY 2012 POST: LIVE AND LET DIE, A REAPPRAISAL

JANUARY 2010 POST: 1973: TIME PROFILES THE NEW JAMES BOND

JANUARY 2010 POST: 1973: TIME CALLS 007 A `RACIST PIG’

Octopussy’s 30th: Battle of the Bonds, round 1

Octopussy poster with a suggestive tagline.

Poster with a suggestive tagline.

Thirty years ago, there was the much-hyped “Battle of the Bonds.” Competing 007 movies, the 13th Eon Productions entry with Roger Moore and a non-Eon film with Sean Connery, were supposed to square off in the summer.

Things didn’t quite work out that way. In June 1983, Eon’s Octopussy debuted while Never Say Never Again got pushed back to the fall.

Producer Albert R. Broccoli was taking no chances. He re-signed Moore, 54 at the start of production in the summer of 1982, for the actor’s sixth turn as Bond. It had seemed Moore might have exited the series after 1981′s For Your Eyes Only. Broccoli had considered American James Brolin, and Brolin’s screen tests surfaced at a 1994 007 fan convention in Los Angeles. But with Never Say Never Again, a competing 007 adventure starring Connery, the original screen Bond, the producer opted to stay with Moore.

Also back was composer John Barry, who been away from the world of 007 since 1979′s Moonraker. Octopussy would be the start of three consecutive 007 scoring assignments, with A View To a Kill and The Living Daylights to follow. The three films would prove to be his final 007 work. Barry opted to use The James Bond Theme more that normal in Octopussy’s score, presumably to remind the audience this was the part of the established film series.

Meanwhile, Broccoli kept in place many members of his team from For Your Eyes Only: production designer Peter Lamont, director John Glen, director of photography Alan Hume and associate producer Tom Pevsner. Even in casting the female lead, Broccoli stayed with the familiar, hiring Maud Adams, who had previously been the second female lead in The Man With the Golden Gun.

Behind the cameras, perhaps the main new face was writer George MacDonald Fraser, who penned the early versions of the script. Fraser’s knowledge of India, where much of the story place, would prove important. Richard Maibaum and Broccoli stepson Michael G. Wilson took over to rewrite. The final credit had all three names, with Fraser getting top billing.

As we’ve WRITTEN BEFORE, scenes set in India have more humor than scenes set in East and West Germany. Some times, the humor is over the top (a Tarzan yell during a sequence where Bond is being hunted in India by villain Kamal Khan). At other times, the movie is serious (the death of “sacrificial lamb” Vijay).

In any event, Octopussy’s ticket sales did better in the U.S. ($67.9 million) compared with For Your Eyes Only’s $54.8 million. Worldwide, Octopussy scored slightly less, $187.5 million compared with Eyes’s $195.3 million. For Broccoli & Co., that was enough to ensure the series stayed in production.

Hype about the Battle of the Bonds would gear back up when Never Say Never premiered a few months later. But the veteran producer, 74 years old at the time of Octopussy’s release, had stood his ground. Now, all he could do was sit back and watch what his former star, Sean Connery, who had heavy say over creative matters, would come up with a few months later.

JUNE 2011 POST: OCTOPUSSY, A REAPPRAISAL.

More HMSS reviews of Skyfall Part IV

Skyfall's poster image

Skyfall’s poster image


Fourth in a series of Skyfall reviews written for a never-published issue of Her Majesty’s Secret Servant.

By Phil Gerrard

When it comes to Bond movies, tradition is treacherous. It’s why we’ve seen You Only Live Twice four times (renamed The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, and Tomorrow Never Dies), Goldfinger twice (the execrable ‘A View to a Kill’) and why anniversaries and landmarks have been celebrated with greatest-hits exercises like Spy Who Loved Me and Die Another Day. So how best to mark the series’ 50th anniversary?

With Skyfall, EON’s answer is to nod respectfully to the past without it becoming dead weight. Most importantly they’ve borne in mind the lesson of ‘Casino Royale’, the first film of the Daniel Craig era, and of Ian Fleming’s novels, that one of the most interesting things that can be done with a recurring character is to find new things to do with (and to) him.

While there’s little in Skyfall’s narrative which owes much to Fleming, there’s everything in the atmosphere, in particular the all-but-unfilmed You Only Live Twice. There are the requisite bangs, crashes, betrayals, seductions, and air-punching moments of pure Bond, but there’s also time to reflect, to allow the narrative to breathe and scenes to play proper length. After the frantic Quantum of Solace, that’s a welcome reminder that relentlessness and forward motion are two very different things.

For some of us, Craig nailed what Fleming always intended during the opening shots of Casino Royale, but for any doubters (rather than haters) left, Skyfall should confirm that he’s the best Bond since Sean Connery. One more film as strong as this might crown him the best 007. His Bond is newly veteran and this suits Craig’s saturnine presence perfectly.

For arguably the first time, EON allow its lead actor free rein to explore Bond’s darker, more self-destructive side. This is a Bond pitched somewhere between the opening chapters of Fleming’s Thunderball and You Only Live Twice novels, rendered unfit for duty by a combination of trauma and inactivity.

Bond’s return from the wilderness and gradual recovery are paced perfectly within the context of the film, and crucially they restore the gut physicality so sadly lacking in the previous Bond film, Quantum of Solace. As in Casino Royale, the derring-do feels like it has a real potential cost: it hurts in a properly Flemingesque manner and again raises the stakes for a series which, on occasion, has been too keen to allow the audience to relax knowing that everything will work out OK.

One thing the Craig movies have lacked so far is a Bond villain of the first rank. Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre in Casino Royale was a fine creation, but like Fleming’s original he lacked a little something by virtue of the fact that the character is a desperate and cornered man with a bigger threat lurking in the shadows behind him. Quantum of Solace threw away a valuable actor, Mathieu Amalric, on a painfully underdeveloped role.

In Javier Bardem’s Silva, the Craig era has produced its first unqualified classic bad guy. A sexually omnivorous, capricious, and pitiful figure with a nice line in exasperated sighs, he’s motivated not by money or ideology but be the loss of any moral compass: he’s a borderline nihilist and all the more dangerous and unpredictable for it. Above all, Bardem’s work is both suitably big and subtly nuanced. He has fun with his villainy (as a Bond villain should) without ever tipping into the kind of pantomime performance which drains a movie of threat.

As the object of his vendetta, Judi Dench is given one of her too-rare opportunities to do something with the character of M. Often in previous films her role extended no further than barking orders and exhibiting clucking, motherly concern.

Skyfall expands on some of the themes established in Casino Royale, most notably the necessity for M to make hard, even harsh, decisions. Skyfall brings these consequences home with a vengeance. M is beset not only by enemies but by supposed allies, and Dench makes full use of the opportunities afforded her: M has never seemed so exposed and vulnerable, nor at times quite so defiant. Dench plays the difficult transitions with aplomb, yet without ever doing the obvious and begging the audience’s pity.

Some early reviews have stressed this is M’s movie, but it isn’t just that. All of the principal characters claim sections of the film as their own, and the movie isall the richer for it. Silva is afforded not one but two show-stopping monologues, one playfully sadistic and the other wracked; the introductory scene for Ben Whishaw’s prissily youthful Q has an extra layer of debate below the smart by-play; Albert Finney, whose screen career exceeds the lifespan even of the Bond films, makes what should have been a cameo both hilarious and poignant; and the excellent Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner registers far more than such an apparently functionary role should.

Even a character like Gareth Mallory, who could have been the standard bureaucratic-obstacle-turned-ally figure we’ve seen so often before, is given a character arc worth having. It’s a credit to the current rude health of the Bond franchise that an actor of Ralph Fiennes’ talent could be enticed to take a role which on the face of it wouldn’t necessarily require a marquee name.

The only actors whose characters don’t feel quite as rounded as they should be are Naomie Harris’s Eve, whose character is kept underdeveloped (I believe) for a specific reason, and Berenice Marlohe, whose affectingly neurotic Severine has, I suspect, ended up being short-changed by the need to keep the film down to a manageable length.

The script, by regulars Neil Purvis and Robert Wade and Bond newcomer John Logan, largely foregrounds character development and themes and leaves the plot quietly to take care of itself. For the most part this works. There are a few slightly too-neat coincidences and points glided over, but it’s hard to think of an action movie, let alone a Bond movie, which avoids these problems with complete success.

More problematic is the deliberate attempt to reintroduce humour to the series. The one-liners which the series had largely abandoned are back. It’s a mixed blessing. Craig handles them supremely well — he’s naturally deadpan and even manages a surprisingly effective bit of Roger-Moore-style physical comedy at one moment. Still, one wishes more work had been put into the gags which don’t quite hit the spot and the rest left aside. Above all, it bespeaks a surprising lack of confidence on EON’s part. The humour was already within the script (for example in the Q scenes). It shouldn’t need mildly crass punchlines to point it up.

These are minor concerns when balanced against the strength of the piece as a whole and the fact that the film’s human drama is so well shaded – something which happens all too rarely in the race to the next explosion or blatant appeal to sentiment which characterises so much modern action movie scripting.

Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Sam Mendes was to direct Skyfall, but he proves yet again that the Bond films do themselves nothing but good by hiring A-list talent. He’s a smart enough director to know when to trust his source material, get out-of-the-way, and allow craft to prevail over tricksiness.

Where Mendes does demonstrate an auteur’s eye, it works in the film’s favour. Having shown us one brutal hand-to-hand fight between Bond and Ola Rapace’s Patrice, he understands that their next encounter has to be something quite other, and the result, silhouetted against an ever-changing neon background, is not just a highlight of the movie but of the series to date. Where ‘Quantum of Solace’ staged one frenetic action sequence after another without giving a great deal of thought to contrast, Skyfall breaks down into acts and discrete sections so perfectly that one can imagine Fleming’s chapter headings as the film progresses.

It’s also the best-looking Bond film in years, particularly when seen in IMAX, thanks largely to Roger Deakins’ cinematography. There’s an immersiveness and depth to the visuals, most in-your-face in the neon jungle of Shanghai, most subtle in the muted tones of the Highlands climax, and a subtle audacity to some of the shots which doesn’t become apparent until one thinks about them later: no straining for effect here, just the kind of quiet visual intelligence which gives a film’s imagery a resonance far longer-lived than that of many action movies. Meanwhile, the hugely welcome return of Daniel Kleinman after MK12′s mundanely generic titles for ‘Quantum of Solace’ makes one wish that imaginative and thematically rich opening sequences weren’t all but a dead art.

One letdown is Thomas Newman’s score. While efficient and by no means poor, it’s very wanting when it comes to the kinds of melodies and counter-melodies at which John Barry was so adept. Where Barry could conjure up depths of mood which the movies frankly sometimes didn’t deserve (You Only Live Twice is a better movie to hear than to watch), Newman’s work seems often too timid.

Of Craig’s three Bond films to date, where does this one rank? It’s very hard to call. Casino Royale certainly scores higher as far as its construction is concerned: it’s far more watertight than Skyfall, which has its fair share of shortcuts and plot holes. Then again, so did many of Fleming’s novels, and it was the famous “Fleming sweep: which propelled the reader past these.

The things that make Skyfall are its emotional heft, its emphasis on character, and its attempts to create a film which is fine in its own right as well as being an excellent addition to the canon. Casino Royale was a welcome step forward for a series which from time to time (most notably during the 1970s and 1990s) seemed to confuse tradition with stasis, and Skyfall continues and expands upon that approach, while at the same time reintroducing and reinventing elements of the past. To have brought that off so successfully is a hell of an achievement by any standards.

There was a sound enough reason for the repetition within some of the Bond films of the 1960s and 1970s, when once they left the cinema they were gone apparently for good. By the time of the Pierce Brosnan movies, it was starting to feel like a comfortable but not especially exciting option. Literal recreations of past movies can be enjoyable but often leave one wondering what the point was (see, for example, Steven Soderbergh’s ‘The Good German’).

Now that the great early Bond films such as From Russia with Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are instantly available, mere imitation seems increasingly futile. With Casino Royale and ‘Skyfall’ EON has embarked on a new phase, mining Fleming for what hasn’t been done yet, paying respect to the past without feeling bound to recreate it, and never mistaking the letter for the spirit.

One hopes that Fleming would have both recognised and approved. GRADE: A.

(C) 2013, Phil Gerrard

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