Hitting 50: Thunderball

tball-posterWith the latest Bond film, Spectre, in theaters, and considering I’ve been writing about 50-year-old things this year, it’s a good time to take a look at 007’s battles with SPECTRE a half-century ago in a film billed as “The Biggest Bond of All.”

Hitting US theater screens in December, 1965, Thunderball certainly would go on to be the biggest money-maker in the franchise’s history up to that point, and held that distinction for more than a decade, vindicating Eon Productions’ strategy of making each new entry bigger, flashier, louder and more expensive than the last. To paraphrase the old saying, “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

On the other hand, Thunderball was also where we first started seeing the negative effects of the “bigger is better” approach, as the film is bogged down by long, lingering shots of its opulent Bahamian locations and protracted underwater sequences, as well as a piled-on plethora of gadgets both big and small.  There’s an epic scale to the film that wasn’t found in its three predecessors, but on the human level, there’s not much to sink your teeth into; human beings — including Bond himself — tend to get dwarfed by the spectacle.

The pre-credits sequence sets the mood, as Bond assassinates an enemy agent (who’s in drag, because why not) and escapes from the upper floor of a sprawling mansion via jetpack (the Bell Rocket Belt in its most famous screen appearance).  The real-life jetpack pilot who performed the stunt insisted on the un-Bondian precaution of a safety helmet, so Connery has to don one as well for the sake of continuity, but at least Q-branch has gone the extra mile and painted it to complement Bond’s bespoke suit.

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Here we have in microcosm the whole spirit of “Classic Bond,” which is both ridiculous and awesome at the same time.  In the moment, the scene works, and in 1965 it was probably fairly astounding.  In terms of logic, however, it doesn’t really hold up: How did Bond get the jetpack up to the top floor?  If he’d flown in on it, someone would’ve heard it (it’s VERY loud).  If he’d carried it in the front (or rear) door and lugged it upstairs, one imagines that would’ve attracted some attention, as well.  Here’s where we’re really getting into the “Don’t think, just have fun” approach that will characterize the series for years to come.

Anyway, cue Tom Jones and his over-the-top rendition of the theme song (legend has it he fainted after hitting the last, extended note) and then it’s off to a secret meeting of that organization of global evil, SPECTRE.  In Dr No, it only got a name check. In From Russia With Love, we just saw a small office and a mysterious guy with a white cat with a handful of flunkies.  This time SPECTRE gets a massive Ken Adam set in all its stainless steel glory, with a large assemblage of no-goodniks plotting deviltry across the globe.  As in FRWL, bossman Ernst Stavro Blofeld browbeats a subordinate with threats of punishment before — surprise! — killing the co-worker next to him, instead.  But where in the earlier film death is dealt by a kick from a poison-toed shoe, this time the victim is rather more spectacularly electrocuted, his chair then lowered into the floor to return scorched and smoking.  And the meeting moves on to the next order of business…

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The Plot Du Jour involves the theft of atomic bombs, which SPECTRE manages by hi-jacking a British bomber and crashing it in the ocean, then removing the bombs via submersibles and a force of frog men.  The easily spotted wires holding up the model bomber don’t detract (much) from the wonderful audacity of the sequence, both on the part of SPECTRE and the movie-makers.  The various underwater sleds invented just for the film are impressive, though soon enough we’ll tire of aquatic sequences.

Moving to London, the spirit of visual one-upmanship continues as, instead of the customary one-on-one briefing in M’s office, Bond attends a much larger meeting in a massive mansion with giant paintings concealing equally huge maps and diagrams.  Here we get a rare (indeed to date, unique) glimpse of the entire Double-0 section.  Late as always, Bond takes the seventh seat from our left, suggesting we’re looking at agents 001 through 009, in order.  Interestingly for 1965 and the frankly chauvanistic Bond series, one of the Double-O’s is a woman.

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Soon enough Bond is off to the Bahamas to meet the Bond Girl and Bond Villain.  This is one area where it’s already become difficult to out-do what’s come before, but Thunderball takes a stab by giving one of them an eye patch.  In retrospect, it might’ve been more memorable if it had been the girl.

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Claudine Auger as “good girl” Domino Derval is a looker (rumor has it she and Connery had an affair during filming), but for my money the standout is Luciana Paluzzi as the evil Fiona Volpe, Bond’s equal when it comes to separating sex from sentiment.  In a nod to Pussy Galore’s “conversion” from bad girl to good girl in Goldfinger, Fiona delivers a fun speech on how a mere roll in the hay with Bond isn’t enough to change her stripes.  Fair enough.  It just means she ends up dead in the next scene.

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So then lots of other stuff happens, way too much of it underwater.  In fairness, though, the final battle between two armies of frogmen is pretty impressive, despite playing out in something close to slow motion thanks to the pesky laws of physics.

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As if to compensate, the showdown between Bond and Largo unreels in near-superspeed, with portions shot “undercranked” like a Keystone Kops comedy short.  I have no idea what they were going for here, but it always feels like the producers said, “Yikes, all those underwater scenes put us 20 minutes over our time!  You’ve got 30 seconds to wrap this thing up!”

 

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Anyway, virtue triumphs and, with the bombs retrieved and the world once more safe for democracy, Bond is allowed some relaxing downtime with the lovely Domino as they float in a raft, waiting to eventually be picked up by boat.  Just kidding; a big plane zooms overhead and jerks them into the clouds via “skyhook” extraction.  Bigger and better, remember? Subtlety is for suckers.

And so we reach the end of Thunderball, great big gaudy Christmas present plopped down in US movie theaters on December 22, 1965 amid a marketing frenzy that would serve as a blueprint for blockbuster franchises to this day.

Yes, the end, but James Bond will return. And if you think this one was over the top, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

 

 

 

Hitting 50: Help!

Help!, the Beatles’ second motion picture, arrived in American theaters fifty years ago this month.  Like its predecessor A Hard Day’s Night, it was directed by Richard Lester and featured a number of new songs, a frantic pace and screwball humor, with the Fab Four playing a fictionalized version of themselves.  But where the first film was filmed in black and white, lending an almost documentary feel to the proceedings, Help! made the transition to living color and full-blown fantasy.

In fact color very much defines the look of the film, as the previous film’s city-bound and overcast “all England” locations give way to the blue skies and wide open locations in the Austrian Alps and the sunny Bahamas, and interior shots feature sets with brightly painted walls and lit with color gels.   Under cinematographer David Watkins, color practically becomes another character in the film.

 
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The plot, such as it is, centers on a ring that’s being sought both by members of an Indian cult and a pair of British mad scientists, but which is currently stuck on the finger of our favorite drummer, Ringo.  Beyond that basic notion, it’s mostly just an hour and a half of musical performances, slapstick comedy and pretty locations, strung together in just-short-of-random fashion.

The lads continue to demonstrate a flair for comedy, even if their accents and rapid-fire delivery can sometimes make the dialog a challenge for these American ears to follow.  Ringo probably fares best, especially in a scene where he explains to an incredulous police inspector that the cultists want to paint him red so he be sacrificed to their god.  “It’s a different religion from ours,” he says.  “I think.”

Just in case anyone’s still taking things seriously, at one point Paul is accidentally shrunk down to do doll size and has an “adventure on the floor.”  And hang on, girls: when he shrinks, his clothes are left behind!

 

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Cannily, the gag-a-minute approach only requires the stars to remember a few lines at a time, with the lion’s share of the work falling to the editors and post-production wizards to make it all somehow gel as a film.  And that’s a good thing, as all four of the Beatles later admitted they were usually too stoned to focus on much of anything during production, and even the shortest scene could take all day to capture between giggle fits.  Anyway, the genius of making the whole thing a madcap lark is that it almost renders criticism impossible.  “But it’s all so illogical!”  Yes, that’s what we were going for.  “Nothing makes any sense!”  Yep, that’s the idea.  And admittedly, it does kind of work. Films built around pop stars always involve ridiculous detours into the fantastic as characters suddenly break into song with mysterious instrumental accompaniment wafting in magically from somewhere off-camera (Heaven?) .  But whereas in the Elvis movies that just felt like a bizarre, almost supernatural interlude in an otherwise conventional romance or adventure, here launching into a spontaneous performance on electric instruments in the middle of a pasture, on a ski slope or on a beach is no more or less insane than anything else that happens.

 

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In about a year’s time, the Monkees would borrow this approach of stitching together short, comedic scenes shot in multiple locations with “concept” musical performances and build a TV show around it, becoming something of a popular sensation and earning more fan mail than any performers on the tube (though Mr Spock and Ilya Kuryakin gave them a run for their money).  Also in its no-holds barred use of garish color, Help!‘s inspiration is seen in shows like Batman, also a year away at this point.

There are three sequences that always stick out for me. One is our first look at the Beatles’ London flat(s).  In this fictionalized version of their lives, they all live happily together in a giant space that’s part swingin’ bachelor pad and part carnival funhouse (and which they’re able to casually enter and exit without being mobbed by throngs of screaming girls).

In a neat touch, the music stand on the electric organ is filled not with sheet music but with vintage issues of Action, Jimmy Olsen and Superman comics (I look at exactly which ones here).

The next wild scene comes when the lads try to travel incognito to the Bahamas, arriving at the airport in disguises designed to look ridiculously over-the-top but which, amazingly, end up closely mirroring the looks the Beatles will grow into in just a few years time.  Well, at least in the case of John, George and Ringo, anyway.    Paul just looks like he’s impersonating Eric Idle.

 

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The other amazing scene comes in the Bahamas, when George rides on the back of the villains’ car in what strikes me as a fairly dangerous stunt.  In the Beatles Anthology book, George notes in surprised hindsight that the Fab Four were plopped onto skiis for the Austrian scenes and simply told to perform, despite having no experience whatever on skiis.  His point was that no one seemed overly concerned at the prospect of one or more of the films’ stars ending up seriously injured.  If anything, the car stunt is even more outrageous; from what I can tell that’s really George on the trunk as the car careens down a mountain road at a not inconsiderable rate of speed.

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George doesn’t mention this stunt in Anthology, but he does note that the film provided his first introduction to Indian culture, a development that would have a huge influence in his life and music, and eventually, if briefly, lead all four Beatles to explore transcendental meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Also interesting for me as a 007 fan is the influence of the Bond films, starting with composer Ken Thorne’s homage to the famous Bond theme (tacked on to the start of the title song, at least on the “Red Album”).  Goldfinger had exploded onto pop culture just a year earlier and was likely still in release as Help! was being filmed.  In one scene where the femme fatale tries to remove the ring from the finger of a slumbering Ringo, the accompanying music is clearly inspired by John Barry’s Goldfinger score, specifically the scene where Bond finds the late Jill Masterson covered in gold paint.   And in a “blink and you’ll miss it” gag, one of the villains doffs his headgear and throws it at someone, adding his own “swisshhh!” sound effect to mimic Oddjob’s deadly bowler.  However, as the “headgear” in this case is a turban, it merely unravels en route and falls to the floor.

As a film, I have to agree with the consensus that Help! is inferior to A Hard Day’s Night, and the first time I saw it, it didn’t really hold my attention to the end.  But as time goes on and 1965 slips further into antiquity, I think it takes on a greater value as a sort of filmic time capsule.  It’s got a lot of great footage of the young Beatles near the end of their “moptop” phase, the groovy fashions, interior designs and vehicles of the mid-60s, a few really clever gags and, of course, plenty of awesome music.  Also, taken in the context of the times, it takes a fairly ingenious approach to the old problem of how to make a movie starring non-actors.  Probably its greatest charm is that it presents the Beatles not quite as they were, but as we liked to imagine them; witty and carefree, shuttling around the world from one romp to the next, all living happily together in one groovy flat and prone to breaking spontaneously into song.

Verdict: Still looking Fab at 50

 

At the Movies with Captain America

capamericaI don’t get out to the movies very often these days.  Partly that’s thanks to the logistics involved in finding a sitter for the kids, but mostly it’s due to my own indifference.  Going to the theater is frankly a drag at this point, what with 20-minute commercial “pre-shows” advertising everything from TV shows (?) to body spray (???), “digital sound” that mostly amounts to just more volume, fellow audience members who never learned how to behave in public and of course ticket prices that are flat-out ridiculous.  I don’t even have a tricked-out “home theater” and it’s still more satisfying for me to keep up via NetFlix than to go to the theater.  Factor in all the people who DO have home theaters with big screens and surround sound and so on, and it’s a wonder they sell any tickets at all.

But that’s another rant (or three).  The point is, Laura and I did get out to see Captain America: The First Avenger last week and I loved it.  First of all, it was terrifically cast; I’ve heard arguments for and against Chris Evans’ performance, but I thought he was great.  I love what Robert Downey, Jr does in the Iron Man films, but if you think about it, it’s got be a lot harder to pull off “earnest virtue” than it is to do “cocky irreverence.”  Evans manages to portray old-school, nice guy heroism here without looking like a schmuck, or wooden, which is getting to be a lost art.  Hayley Atwell is wonderful as Peggy Carter and looks very much like a film star of the story’s 1940s setting.  Certainly she’s more endearing and fully realized than Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster character from Thor.  Tommy Lee Jones is predictably great, if shockingly old-looking, and Hugo Weaving makes a perfect Red Skull.

The film looks amazing; despite all the sci-fi elements, the technology looks like it belongs in the 40s, or at least in a 40s sci-fi film.  There’s a control room central to Cap’s origin that’s huge and impressive and full of gee-gaws, but when you get up close, it’s all old-school dials and toggles and levers, which is awesome.  I’m so over touch-panels and holographic “head-up” displays: bring back the low-tech hi-tech!  Also the lighting and cinematography all look appropriate to the era, which is probably a big reason they picked director Joe Johnston, who’s been here before with The Rocketeer (another favorite of mine).

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There’s tons of Easter eggs for comic fans, but if you’re not one, they don’t get in the way at all.  All in all, it’s easily the best superhero film I’ve seen since the first Iron Man, but honestly I’m not sure I’ll enjoy any sequels as much if they’re set in the present day.

I’ve noticed I tend to like movies based on Marvel characters more than the ones based on DC heroes, and that’s not just because they’re technically better films (though they are).  It’s also because I don’t have much of an emotional investment in the characters.  I know who the Marvel guys are, and have an idea of their histories in broad strokes, but I’m not so mired in the minutea of their continuities that I get bent out of shape when the movies take liberties.  I knew, for instance, that the first X-Men film mixed and matched team members from various time periods, and that Mary Jane Watson was not Peter Parker’s first great love, but so what?  On the other hand, even at 14 I couldn’t get past the “crystal cathedral” Fortress of Solitude in the Superman films, or the fact that Jor-El was a white-haired, chubby AARP candidate.

Out of the Marvel roster of heroes, Captain America has always been near the top of my list, just by virtue of being closer to the traditional “hero” ideal than the average conflicted, neurotic Marvel protagonist, and that element is certainly played up in the new film.  In fact, I’ve seen it treated as a handicap by some reviewers, who say Cap is the “dullest” and “least psychologically complex” of Marvel’s characters.  One man’s meat is another man’s poison, I guess.  The thing is Cap’s the reverse of the standard Marvel hero.  Most of them are guys who gain powers first and learn to be heroes only afterwards; Spider-Man to atone for a colossal failure of character and the tragedy that results, Tony Stark (at least in the movies) to at last do something positive with a life up til now wasted on hedonism and debauchery.  Even Thor is an overgrown  kid who has to be taught a lesson in humility by his pop.  Steve Rogers is the opposite; on the inside, he’s a hero from the start; he just lacks the power to do anything about it.  The Super Soldier Serum enables his heroism, but it doesn’t create it.  The film understands all this and gets it dead right, in my book.   Stanley Tucchi’s Dr Erskine character explains the formula only magnifies a person’s true nature; it can make a good man great, but it would make a bad one only worse.

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The only real negative for me is that annoying subtitle, “The First Avenger.”  I gather there are at least three reasons for its use.  First is doubtless to differentiate this film from the “Captain America” film made in 1990, a film so infamously awful it went straight to video and is still held up as a sort of “Heaven’s Gate” of superhero flics.  The second reason is to allow the character’s name to be dropped from the title entirely in countries where “America” is a bad word (like we care; they’re all run by Red Skulls anyway).  But the biggest reason is to hype the movie everyone seems really focused on, 2012’s The Avengers.

In fact, for all intents and purposes, that one appears the ONLY big movie from Marvel’s standpoint, with the Hulk, Cap, Iron Man and Thor franchises merely lead-in’s to what’s being hyped as the greatest cinematic triumph since Edison invented the motion picture. This grates on me for lots of reasons; for one thing, it seems like the ultimate surrender of artistic integrity to treat an entire film as a two-hour commercial for another film.  It a tacit admission that the bean-counters have finally and completely won out over the artists. (Apparently it’s precisely this issue that led Jon Favreau to abandon the Iron Man franchise).  But it also seems like a stupid game plan, telling people, in essence, “Come see the movie that’s out now if you want, but let’s face it, the one that’s really worth watching won’t come out ’til 2012.”  I mean, would it make sense to say, “Come get our new double-cheeseburger.  It’s not nearly as awesome as the one we’re bringing out next summer, but hey, you’ve got to eat something in the meantime, right?”

Of course if The Avengers does turn out to be fantastic, everyone’s happy.  But if it stinks, Marvel’s going to have a lot of very disappointed fanboys out there, considering the marketing campaign’s been rolling along for like six years now.  And let’s face it, so far the model has been that the more super-powered characters you cram into a film, the more it stinks, as borne out by the Batman and Spider-Man franchises.  The Avengers will have, what, six super-beings just on the side of the good guys, let alone whatever villains they toss in.  If they can cram all that into two hours and make it work, I’ll be impressed, but I’m doubtful.

With Captain America, though, even Marvel’s “this is a shared universe, so get used to it” attitude isn’t too grating as most of the film happens 70 years in the past, so I only have to put up with the obligatory cameo by Sam Jackson as Nick Fury at the very end of the film, plus a few in-joke references to other characters and themes that don’t get too intrusive.

As always, your mileage may vary, but I got the same feeling from watching this film that I imagine Cap’s legions of young fans had reading Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s comics in the 1940s.  In fact, if they still offered “Sentinel of Liberty” pins, I’d order one right now.

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Happy Flynn-Centennial

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One hundred years ago today in Hobart Tasmania, legendary film star, author, adventurer and all-around trouble magnet Errol Flynn was born.

I first took notice of Flynn in 1991 with a late-night showing of Desperate Journey on TBS.  There I was channel surfing when who should appear but a young Ronald Reagan, climbing from the wreckage of a downed allied bomber deep in Nazi Germany.  With him was a dashing fellow with a pencil-thin mustache, and Chief Executive or no Chief Executive, it quickly became obvious who was the real star of the show.

I managed to stay up to the end of the film despite the constant commercial breaks, and was rewarded with a high-octane adventure in which Flynn, Reagan, Arthur Kennedy and Alan Hale repeatedly outsmarted Nazi general Raymond Massey, destroying roughly half of Germany on their way back to England.  (Not content with this contribution to the war effort, they fly off at the end of the film saying, “Now for Australia and a crack at those Japs!” ) As a war film, it was about as realistic as Indiana Jones, or maybe “Daffy The Commando“, but there was no denying the fun factor, and suddenly I had a new hero.

Thus began my own “desperate journey” to see Flynn in all his great roles; from noble outlaw Robin Hood to sea-going swashbucklers Peter Blood and Geoffrey Thorpe to Western heroes Wade Hatton and George Custer to the rakish, libidinous and suspiciously autobiographical Don Juan.  In each role, Flynn projected all those qualities we fans of heroic fiction so admire; courage, resourcefulness, wit, style, a graceful athleticism and that certain indefinable quality we call leadership. And of course it didn’t hurt that he was impossibly good-looking.

Off-screen, Flynn was a lot more complicated; a rogue, a womanizer and something of a con man, his real-life escapades became almost as legendary as his on-screen adventures, if not nearly so noble.  But if the real Flynn was decidedly less valorous than his on-screen alter egos, he was no less fascinating and larger-than-life.  He was an accomplished boxer who did his own fighting in Gentleman Jim and a real-life sailor who logged countless miles at sea.  Under the tutelage of master archer Howard Hill, he mastered the bow and arrow, and he handled a sword with such elan that most people never realized he wasn’t really a fencer (one nobable exception being Basil Rathbone, who grudingly had to “lose” to Flynn on screen despite his superior skill in real life).  Who can say how many generations of little boys were inspired to stage their own backyard swordfights after witnessing amazing fare such as this from 1948’s The Adventures of Don Juan:

Personally, I consider Don Juan the closest we ever came to seeing the real Flynn in a Hollywood production.   Like the title character, Flynn at this point in his life is still handsome, still charming, still up to the action,  but with a few more lines on the face, a few more pounds on the frame and a few seconds cut off the once lightning-like reflexes.  He is a Frankenstein monster of his own creation, enjoying fame and celebrity wherever he goes, but owing that fame (or infamy) to the scandalous reputation he earned as a young man and now finds impossible to move beyond.  Women expect romance from him, men a display of swordplay.  Weary of it all, but ever willing to please, he obliges gamely.  In quieter moments we see he’s realized the pointlessness of his lifestyle, but at the same time he’s having too much fun to ever really give it up.  At one point in the film, caught in the act of seducing a powerful man’s wife, Juan is tossed into a jail cell with his faithful companion Leporello (Alan Hale), who notes, “Surely there must be something more important in life than the pursuit of women?”  To which Juan replies thoughtfully, “Yes, there must be….But WHAT?”

The film ends with the hero a bit wiser but still unrepentant, still treating life as a party that need never end.  Flynn, however, was made of flesh and blood, not celluloid, and thus bound by physical laws; for him the party would only last another ten years.  He passed on in 1959, just 50 years old but looking much older thanks to years of booze and drugs and a list of physical ailments longer than his filmography.

Ultimately, though, Flynn lives on, and will as long as there are audiences who appreciate a rousing adventure, a daring hero, a thrilling swordfight and a storybook romance. Just pop in a DVD and he’s back among us as Robin Hood, openly defying Prince John in his own palace (“You speak treason!” “Fluently.”); as Wade Hatton, bringing law and order to Dodge City; as Peter Blood, leading his fellow slaves to freedom on the high seas, and in a half-dozen alternate lives in as many historical eras meeting and falling in love with the heart-breakingly sweet and beautiful Olivia DeHavilland (still around and gorgeous as ever, God bless her) in one of the greatest screen pairings of all time.

Flynn may not have had a lot of years on this world, but he lived every minute of what he had to the fullest, and as he saw fit.  And regardless of what condition he was in for his final bow, we fans will always remember him as The Perfect Specimen he was in his heyday.  As his old boss Jack Warner said, “To all the Walter Mittys of the world he was all the heroes in one magnificent, sexy, animal package.”

So in honor of Flynn’s centennial, go out and seize the day. Scare up an adventure.  Kiss your girl.  Share a laugh with your buddies.  And remember to laugh like a man: