You Only Live Twice (1967)

You Only Live Twice

Bad news from outer space. When an American space capsule is supposedly swallowed by a Russian spaceship it’s an international incident. James Bond has apparently been killed in Hong Kong but he is ‘resurrected’ following his own funeral and sent undercover to Japan to find out who is behind the political aggression and the owner of the mysterious spacecraft. However while Russia and the US blame each other and Japan is under suspiion, he discovers with the assistance of his Japanese opposite number Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tanba) that SPECTRE is responsible for this attempt to start World War III and uncovers a trail that leads to the mysterious Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) whose evil empire is run from the centre of a volcano … Now that you’re dead our old friends will perhaps pay a little less attention to you than before. The one where Bond turns Japanese and trains as a ninja. A carnival of implausibilities that has the benefit of some gorgeous Japanese locations, stylish direction by Lewis Gilbert and introducing cat-loving megalomaniac Blofeld in the form of Pleasence, who we only glimpse over his shoulder as he strokes his pussycat before the big reveal. What an amazing villain! And how ripe for parody! Roald Dahl’s screenplay may throw out most of Ian Fleming’s novel (there is ‘additional story material’ by Harold Jack Bloom) but he does something clever – he takes the title seriously and has the second half begin exactly as the first, replacing a US with a Soviet rocket and doing a Screenplay 101 with the differing outcome second time around. The Cold War/space race theme might remind you of a certain Dr Strangelove. There are some good media jibes – If you’re going to force me to watch television I’m going to need a smoke, says James before aiming his cigarette at the enemy; astonishing production design by Ken Adam; and very resourceful sidekicks in Aki (Akika Wakabayashi) and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama); as well as the series’ first German Bond girl, Karin Dor, aka Miss Crime, due to the number of thrillers she starred in. Sadly it doesn’t save her here. This is gorgeously shot by Freddie Young and the restoration is impeccable. The John Barry and Leslie Bricusse theme song is performed by Nancy Sinatra. For a European you are very cultivated! 

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

The Spy Who Loved Me

Why don’t you lie down and let me look at it. When a British and a Soviet nuclear submarine disappear off the radar, MI6’s top agent James Bond (Roger Moore) is ordered to find out what has happened. He escapes an ambush by Soviet agents in Austria and goes to Egypt where he might acquire an advanced surveillance system. He meets Major Anya Amasova ie Agent XXX (Barbara Bach) whose lover he unwittingly killed in Austria. They are rivals to recover microfilm and are obliged to deal with hitman Jaws (Richard Kiel) as they travel across the country. Forced to work together by their respective bosses, they identify the person responsible for the thefts as the shipping tycoon and scientist Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens) who is consumed with the idea of developing an underwater civilisation …. There is beauty. There is ugliness. And there is death! Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum’s screenplay may take the title from Ian Fleming’s tenth book in the series but little else. With a son et lumiére show at Giza, a shark tank in the villain’s lair, an MI6 office shared with the Russians inside a pyramid, an astonishing hit man in the form of giant Kiel with his mouth full of metal teeth, a fun relationship between Bond and his Russian opposite number, the wonder was it was made at all, beset as it was by rights issues and production troubles. This includes the replacing of Blofeld as arch nemesis – hence the inventing of Karl Stromberg, a nuke-obsessed Nemo tribute act. Getting a director was another issue, with Lewis Gilbert ultimately taking on the project, returning to the fray ten years after You Only Live Twice, whose plot it mimics somewhat. Gilbert’s influence on the form the film took was profound, notably on Moore’s characterisation in Wood’s draft of the screenplay, which was a return to the humour and tone of the original books, despite the legal issues preventing much of the actual story material being used (and you’ll be hard pressed to see Fleming in the credits). Apparently former Bond scribe Tom Mankiewicz was also brought in for uncredited rewrites on the final draft. Like Connery before him and Craig more recently, Roger Moore’s third foray into MI6 territory would be the most successful with the public, keeping his end up for England. Then there’s the showstopping title sequence with the greatest ski jump ever filmed (performed by Richard Sylvester) with a Union Jack parachute payoff; plus a barnstorming theme song performed by Carly Simon, with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager and composed by Marvin Hamlisch (and the first title song not to be named for the film) who does a minor pastiching of the Lawrence of Arabia theme, making this a home run among Bond freaks. Brit flick fans will get a kick out of seeing Caroline Munro (dubbed, as Stromberg’s sidekick Naomi), the director’s brother-in-law Sydney Tafler (as a Russian ship’s captain) and Hammer Horror vet Valerie Leon (as a hotel receptionist). And that’s without even mentioning the awesome production design by Ken Adam, the Lotus Esprit that turns into a submarine and a Jaws vs Jaws swimoff! A perfect blend of action, thrills, sex, great gadgets, sly wit, astonishing stunts, explosions and pithy banter. It’s lavish, but I call it Bond. James Bond. How does that grab you?

The Greengage Summer (1961)

The Greengage Summer

Aka The Loss of Innocence. Tinker tailor soldier sailor rich man poor man beggar man thief.  Left alone because of their mother’s sudden hospitalisation at the start of a family holiday in France, four British children have to fend for themselves. They stay at an elegant hotel booked by their mother in advance, where, despite the reticence of owner Madame Zisi (Danielle Darrieux), they are befriended by her English lover, the mysterious Eliot (Kenneth More).  Sixteen-year old Joss (Susannah York), the eldest of the children, runs afoul of Madame Zisi, who thinks Eliot is spending too much time with her and causes a scene. Thirteen-year old Hester (Jane Asher) is shocked when Eliot reacts violently as she attempts to take his photo while he takes them sightseeing.  He is forced to abandon early their trip to the caves at Champagne when France’s best policeman M. Renard (Raymond Jérome) shows up. As Joss deals with her burgeoning attraction to Eliot, handyman Paul (David Saire) becomes attracted to her. When Zisi lashes out at young Joss, whom she believes Eliot loves, Paul takes advantage of the situation and gets Joss drunk and the aftermath unleashes her own jealousy …  If this is how grown ups feel they’re worse pigs than I thought Sensitively adapted by Howard Koch from Rumer Godden’s novel, this is a lovely portrait of adolescence, with the gorgeous young York very convincing and blossoming as an actress right before our eyes in a nicely mounted production whose sole flaw is rather fatal – the miscasting of More, nobody’s idea of a romantic enigma, still less a jewel thief of some renown. This is such an interesting story typical of Godden’s work – of the different worlds occupied by children and adults, of jealousy, of misunderstandings:  when Paul tries to explain to Hester that hotel manager Madame Corbet (Claude Nollier) is also jealous of Eliot’s relationship with Zisi he realises she does not understand Lesbianism;  Joss deeply resents Eliot calling her a child and it is that which triggers the disastrous conclusion;  the final shots, which imply that even now, after her sudden transition into womanhood, Joss doesn’t fully comprehend what she has done.  Everyone seemed to agree that the role of Eliot should really have been played by Dirk Bogarde, but it wasn’t and More wanted it desperately and he’s all wrong. His scenes with York are uncomfortable. Still, there are other pleasures to be had in this atmospheric depiction of a heavy summer, not least seeing Bessie Love, the great silent star, in a small role as an American tourist. Directed by Lewis Gilbert.

There Is Another Sun (1951)

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Aka Wall of Death. Lillian, a stranded chorus-girl (Susan Shaw) meets reckless motorcycle stunt rider ‘Racer’ (Maxwell Reed) and promising young boxer Maguire (Laurence Harvey) and joins up with them at a travelling funfair. Maguire looks to Racer as a kind of daredevil mentor and as Lillian comes between them they put aside their rivalry to steal from their boss …  Lewis Gilbert directed from a screenplay by Guy Morgan and it admirably sustains an atmosphere of seediness and danger that we have come to expect from carny films like Nightmare Alley. Harvey and Reed don’t offer their best performances but they are indicative of nascent British film acting at the time and such a physical contrast – Harvey with his pulchritudinous blond brow and Reed with a kind of saturnine viciousness – that their relationship is the story’s anchor psychologically and performance-wise. Shaw makes nice as the decent girl and Harvey’s offscreen love interest Hermione Baddeley does a good turn as a fortune teller. You don’t need her to tell you that with that Wall of Death things won’t end well.

You Only Live Twice (1967)

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Place yourself entirely in their hands, my dear Bond-san. Rule number one: is never do anything yourself – when someone else can do it for you. During the Cold War, American and Russian spacecrafts go missing, leaving each superpower believing the other is to blame. As the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war, British intelligence learns that one of the crafts has landed in the Sea of Japan. After faking his own death, secret agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is sent to investigate, resurfacing (literally) in Japan where he’s aided by Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) and the beautiful Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), who help him uncover a sinister global conspiracy which appears to implicate SPECTRE and Red China but it means training as a ninja and disguising himself as a local fisherman … The Japanese volcano Mount Shinmoedake which serves as the centre of this film’s action erupted yesterday, just in time to whet my appetite for this fifth James Bond spy adventure. It’s the one that Roald Dahl wrote, jettisoning most of Ian Fleming’s 1964 novel with a storyline by Harold Jack Bloom and becoming nigh-on nonsensical in the process. Nonetheless there are certain pleasures to be had: it looks superb courtesy of Ken Adam’s design and Freddie Young’s cinematography; we finally see Blofeld in the personage of Donald Pleasence (a much-parodied performance); and there’s the spectacle of Connery and his hard-working toupée turning Japanese and watching Sumo wrestlers and getting his very own ninja on. It’s hardly surprising given the way the series was going that Connery took a hiatus (announced mid-production) but he returned four years later in Diamonds Are Forever, which has Charles Gray as Blofeld – he plays Henderson here In between of course we got what might be the greatest Bond movie of them all, OHMSS. This however is directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would go on to make The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker and he has fun with the location shoot creating some really well-paced scenes in beautiful settings. And there’s that song, with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and performed by Nancy Sinatra.

Lewis Gilbert 03/06/1920-02/23/2018

 

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Veteran British director Lewis Gilbert has shuffled off this mortal coil at the grand old age of 97. His is a career marked not merely by longevity or versatility but by the power of making films that speak to generation after generation not least my own James Bond years because he directed the first of that series that I was allowed to go see at the cinema, Moonraker. It might not have been one of the best Bonds – or even one of his best Bonds – because he had already made The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice – but for a kid it had tremendous value, hopping up the cartoon-like aspects and the ingenious potential of the effects. The impression you get is that he likes the characters whose stories he is shaping (even Alfie!) – and then you learn he was a child actor, born to music hall performers, which explains his generosity towards them. This goes some way toward why he was as much at ease doing war films with Kenneth More as he was female-centric dramas with Julie Walters. The realisation that he was responsible for so many of those war movies broadcast on Sunday afternoons in my childhood (and how I adored the Seventies iteration, Operation Daybreak) and other youth-oriented and equally affecting films is a testament to his own taste as much the material that might have been on the table – Susannah York in The Greengage Summer is an adolescent favourite and remains a wonderfully made drama;  later Free Love stories like Paul and Michelle offer more contemporary takes on the concept of youthful relationships and the negotiating required to attain maturity.  He would make films that found massive audiences in the Eighties with two projects adapted from Willy Russell’s plays about middle-aged lower class women getting their mojo back, Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine. He played a small role in The Divorce of Lady X opposite Laurence Olivier and made such an impression on mogul Alexander Korda he offered to sponsor him at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Gilbert instead opted to study directing and assisted Alfred Hitchcock on Jamaica Inn. He acquired technical knowledge during his wartime service with the American Air Corps film unit where he was seconded to the director William Keighley and after making a handful of short documentaries for Gaumont British put it to excellent use in those brilliantly crafted post-war British films that still tell us so much about the mindset that combated WW2 and dealt with the tricky (cinematic) aftermath. He married Hylda Tafler, sister of the actor Sydney, and it was she who found the property Alfie while visiting the hairdresser one day, seated beside an actress who was appearing in the Bill Naughton play. It was the standout of his career because it was the culmination of his studies of working class people who were finally being dramatised in complete narratives but it was also a theatrical style of filmmaking which broke the fourth wall. He often said his worst experience was working with Orson Welles on Ferry to Hong Kong and his biggest mistake was turning down Oliver! Lewis Gilbert, truly a professional man for all seasons and showman who was an excellent and amusing interviewee and recorded his memoirs in All My Flashbacks. Rest in peace.

The Good Die Young (1954)

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All the good boys died in the war. Or should have done. Four men are sitting in a car – about to carry out a heist. Flashback to each of their journeys to this point: Mike (Stanley Baker) is a boxer who has had to give up the fight and needs to find a job. He injures himself and is discovered to have been fighting with a broken hand which is amputated. He discovers his wife Angela (Rene Ray) has given away the thousands he’s saved to start a shop – to the police on behalf of her brother who skipped bail so the money Mike won in the worst circumstances possible is gone and he is now crippled.  Joe (Richard Basehart) is a former GI married to Mary (Joan Collins) who’s desperate to return to NYC to get work but his wife is under the cosh of her bullying mother (Freda Jackson) who stages a fake suicide attempt just as they’re boarding at Heathrow. Eddie (John Ireland) is an American flyer gone AWOL whose actress wife Denise (Gloria Grahame) is carrying on with yet another affair. ‘Rave’ Ravenscourt (Laurence Harvey) is an aristocrat and a scoundrel with massive gambling debts, an older and mostly tolerant wife Eve (Margaret Leighton) and a father (Robert Morley) who despises him. He’s the charismatic lure who preys on the others’ desperation and corrupts them into carrying out a Post Office robbery and the aftermath is tense, bloody and awful …  Featuring a superlative performance as a psycho by the great Harvey, some terrific acting by the women, Richard Macauley’s novel of the same name was adapted by Vernon Harris and director Lewis Gilbert and transposed to London where the post-war smog and gloom contribute untold amounts in a tale of some crime but mostly punishment. Quite riveting Brit noir, directed with a great eye by Gilbert.

Alfie (1966)

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What’s it all about, Alfie? What an extraordinary tour de force performance is delivered here by Michael Caine. He’s the cockney lad about town who lives like a fox in the proverbial hen house full of women. Bill Naughton adapted his own play and it works so well onscreen, directed by Lewis Gilbert. Alfie breaks the fourth wall in his frequent monologues and as he messes up more and more women’s lives (Jane Asher, Shelley Winters, Julia Foster) we learn that this apparently carefree unaware immature selfish womanizer is suffering himself. It’s an extraordinary film in so many ways – not least because it’s a picture of the working classes whose presence in cinema until that point was principally as sideshow. It made Caine a superstar and he spent three months in Hollywood on its release (along with that of The Ipcress File) and had the opportunities that our hero had – because, as he said in his memoirs, he was one of the very few straight single actors there. Plus ca change