Talking Movies

October 31, 2020

RIP Sean Connery

Sean Connery is dead at  age 90, and the world is without its first Bond, James Bond.

Sick Boy lacks moral fibre—Renton
Aye, but he knows a lot about Sean Connery—Mother Superior

Trainspotting (1996)

1962. Connery takes the lead in an underfinanced spy film where the director seems more interested in the wardrobe his star will wear than the performance he will give. Connery brought two sides to James Bond. He was a vicious bastard, true to Fleming’s character, but a faithful adaptation would have resulted in a flop notable only for the unpleasantness of its lead. Connery also brought a roguish charm to the role that was all his own invention. This is what made him a star and allowed Bond to get away with callous cruelty. Terence Young tried to emphasise the spy elements and the realism in the sequel From Russia, With Love. Connery was superbly paired against Robert Shaw and their extremely realistic fight was one of the most vicious then seen and still one of the longest sustained punch-ups in cinema. Guy (The Colditz Story) Hamilton directed Goldfinger as a stylish thriller not a Bond Film. A sensation for its characters, lines and casually brilliant plot twists it trapped Connery. He made the hit romance Woman of Straw, the psychodrama Marnie for Hitchcock and gruelling war drama The Hill for Sidney Lumet to showcase his serious acting abilities and desperately squeezed in A Fine Madness between Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. But the shadow of James Bond was enduring…

“Some age, others mature”.

At 50 he received the Time Bandits script from Terry Gilliam which described Agamemnon as resembling “Sean Connery or someone of equal stature but less expensive”. Connery accepted his age and played the supporting role. He did Bond once last time while he could still pass the action bar (although taking lessons from Steven Seagal he annoyed him so much that Seagal broke Connery’s wrist), reuniting with Irish Thunderball producer Kevin McClory for a remake, probably just to annoy Broccolli who had lost the rights to use SPECTRE or Blofeld to Fleming’s co-creator McClory. Exit Bond, enter everybody’s favourite grouchy uncle. Highlander, The Untouchables and The Name of the Rose saw him showcase this character and pick up a Best Supporting Oscar for crusty Chicago cop Jimmy Malone. 1989’s Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade showed just how good Connery could be in this sort of endearing role. The Hunt for Red October also showed he could still carry a film. He received $250,000 for a thirty second cameo in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as Richard the Lionheart and played King Arthur in First Knight adding wise but warm authority to his no nonsense persona. The Rock was even more jawdropping. Connery doesn’t really play a pensioner James Bond, he plays something more valuable: The 60 something Action Hero, a role he invented and only he could get away with. Compare how ridiculously old for proceedings Roger Moore seemed in 1985’s A View to a Kill against what Connery could do in 1996. Even in misfires like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Entrapment that persona is triumphant. He delivered in ensemble drama Playing By Heart and played a villain in The Avengers where his speech given while wearing a teddy bear outfit was the only minute of the dreadful film worth salvaging. Sadly we don’t know what he thought of the voluble opinions expressed on his career and importance in Trainspotting. While his close friend Michael Caine has continued working into his late 80s, memorably appearing in multiple blockbusters thanks to his friendship with Christopher Nolan, Connery quietly retired after the troubled production of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, passing up the role of Gandalf as well as a reprise of Henry Jones Sr in favour of working on his autobiography in his Bahamas home. Ironically for the bankroller of Scottish Nationalism (and a man who had ‘Scotland Forever’ tattooed on his arm when he was 16) he was awarded a Knighthood.

May 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

If not Lazenby, then who?

Almost anyone. But seriously, folks. There were any number of actors in England in 1968 who could have done a better job of picking up the keys to Sean Connery’s Aston Martin. A typically three-cornered hat discussion with Friedrich Bagel and The Engineer to the music of de Falla produced this shortlist of contenders:

Rod Taylor, Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Oliver Reed, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Terence Stamp, Anthony Hopkins

Patrick McGoohan, Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Lee, Nicol Williamson, David Warner, Edward Fox

Now, not all of these people would have been asked, and some of them would likely have refused had they been asked, (Alan Bates and Nicol Williamson spring to mind), and some of them would likely have refused contemptuously (*Dear EON, Patrick McGoohan has had quite enough of playing spies at this point, thank you very much). The EON producers would never have seriously asked a bona fide film leading man like Caine, in order to keep the budget down. They would have asked a TV star like Roger Moore, sadly tied up with The Saint, or Timothy Dalton, a supporting player in a major film. As indeed they did. But the actual shortlist of undistinguished Bond contenders from whom Lazenby won based on a screen test is the stuff of madness when you consider that all these alternatives were available. The roguishness of Oliver Reed’s 007, the undercurrent of menace of Malcolm McDowell’s Bond, the unpredictability of David Warner’s agent: these are the roads not taken. There seems to be some sort of retrospective attempt to insist they needed to cast an unknown actor, like they had with Sean Connery. But Sean Connery was not unknown when he was cast. Far from it, he had already appeared in Darby O’Gill and the Little People and his supporting role in The Longest Day would have been appreciated by British TV audiences who, between 1959 and 1961, had seen him as Count Vronsky, Hotspur, Macbeth and Alexander the Great. He was not an unknown, he was quite well known to British audiences as a leading man playing historic roles. Lazenby by contrast was quite well known to British audiences for advertising Fry’s chocolate bars.

The critical rehabilitation narrative

I’ve been thinking recently about what we might dub the critical rehabilitation narrative. Nothing seems to please some critics more than to discover neglected masterpieces, to rescue from the discard bin gems that were unappreciated at the time. The only problem is sometimes the critics are very pleased with themselves, their wider critical narrative powers along, and it’s only a minor detail that the film in question is still rubbish. That’s not to say that it is wrong to revisit films and see if they were misjudged; after all Fight Club suffered hugely from being released so soon after Columbine. But sometimes there is much to be said for reading the original reviews and getting a bracing perspective, like disinterring The Cabinet of Dr Caligari from the reverence of generations of film students and discovering in Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture that its own writers disowned the finished film for changes made to its finale which they regarded as dangerously reversing its political message, and doing so at a time that imperilled the nascent republic. Or realising that Matthew Modine saying recently that Full Metal Jacket has aged better than other Vietnam films because it’s finale of urban insurgency could be in Iraq only proves the point of the objections made by critics on release. Because of the WB indulging Kubrick’s power-tripping laziness he had departed from the novel’s jungle war conclusion to instead depict the (easily manufactured in England) ruined city of Hue, because he couldn’t be bothered leaving England. And it would be hard to easily manufacture in England a jungle war. Just as well Vietnam wasn’t noted for being a JUNGLE WAR. Revolution was reviled on release and exiled Pacino to Broadway. But Revolution is an unfocused film of baffling decisions, like shooting it entirely in England and not having Annie Lennox sing, rather than an outright atrocity. Watching its depiction of the start of the American Revolution, the mob bullying, the expropriation, the self-interested and abrasive self-righteousness is oddly reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago’s portrayal of the Bolsheviks. It’s hard not to think that this enraged American critics at the time, who sublimated that rage into attacks from other angles. And yet the final minutes of Revolution feature a truly astonishing tracking shot, a technical marvel and a triumph of production design, that I have never ever heard anyone praise or even mention. If you can’t do the hard work of salvaging the good from amidst the bad then what is the point of critical rehabilitation?

April 14, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXVIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-eighth portmanteau post on matters of course!

Doesn’t suit you, sir

I’m not sure exactly what happened at the end of the 1960s to cause it, but it seems to me that suits suddenly became considerably less sharp. The final post-Mrs Peel seasons of The Avengers see Steed’s suits bend more and more towards the hippy Carnaby Street style pilloried by excess in Austin Powers, but also just become less distinguished somehow. It’s tempting to attribute this to mere ego, that Patrick MacNee was designing his own outfits more and more and displacing Pierre Cardin’s wares. But that doesn’t explain what happened to that less suave spy of the era more or less simultaneously. Watching Diamonds Are Forever with the awareness it is by the director of Goldfinger is a major jolt on several levels, as it lacks the sophistication that comes through so naturally in nearly every aspect of the former. Sean Connery wasn’t attempting to tailor his own look though, so it really does say something about the fashions of the era that the suits in his final Eon outing look very shabby next to his mid-60s outfits.

December 22, 2017

More Moore, Roger Moore!

ITV 4’s recent decision to screen all 7 of Roger Moore’s Bond movies in prime time from Monday to Sunday as a dementedly late in the year tribute has been a fascinating exercise in nostalgia and re-evaluation.

The great paradox is that while Moore is remembered as the supremely nonchalant Bond, the films in which he appeared were themselves supremely lacking in confidence. Live and Let Die tries to cash in on blaxploitation, The Man with the Golden Gun tries to cash in on kung fu, The Spy Who Loved Me desperately tries to remake You Only Live Twice with added megalomania, Moonraker tries to cash in on Star Wars, and A View to a Kill shamelessly recycles the ‘criminal mastermind uses explosion in San Andreas fault line to contrive earthquake’ plot of Superman. And then there’s the music. Coming across Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me on the same Sunday that A View to a Kill aired it was very noticeable that Jay Roach and Mike Myers were plundering John Barry’s 1960s Bond scores for their parodic purposes. Barry sat out a number of Moore’s films, and even when he was there he seems to have been on autopilot.

Watching The Avengers on ITV 4 recently it was hard to miss their plundering of Barry’s 1960s Bond sound to a point where you expected Steed and Mrs Peel to have start fending off Eon process servers. Yet the Moore era witness a weird degeneration from being so confident that other peopled copied you to being so insecure all you do is copy instead. Marvin Hamlisch quoted Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia theme in The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker sees John Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind five tone melody appropriated, and ‘California Girls’ takes over the soundtrack for comedic purposes in A View to a Kill, while the 1970s scores are awash with funky wah-wah music and then disco beats in a desperate attempt to sound like the hit parade. The SPECTRE themes of the 1960s are entirely absent, Barry’s dashing secondary Bond theme only appears in Moonraker, and there is no readily identifiable Moore signature music whereas Connery’s body of work has at least five recognisable suites of music. Indeed when the music improves in Moore’s final outing, it is because Barry has wheeled out a reworking of a 1960s idea with brassier instrumentation than his string-drenched Octopussy compositions.

My mother’s contention that action sequences could be transposed from Moore movie to Moore movie without affecting coherence overly is strengthened when you realise that not only do Moore’s film bring back characters between films simply to observe mayhem and be gobsmacked by it, and begin a tradition of random hopping about the globe compared to the more located Connery films, but also Moonraker is a remake of The Spy Who Loved Me; simply switching out start a nuclear war, kill everyone, and live underwater for bomb the earth from space, kill everyone, and live in space. This becomes funnier and ever more meta when you consider that their shared ur-text You Only Live Twice was itself a self-confessed rehash of Dr No by a desperate Roald Dahl who had little to fill his blank screenplay pages other than the setting of Japan and an instruction to have three Bond girls: a bad one who dies, a good one who dies, and a good one who lives.

 

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