Archive for James Bond

Cox’s Orange Pippins: The Pink Desert

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2022 by dcairns

IF YOU MEET SARTANA, PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH (Gianfranco Parolini [Frank Kramer] 1968)

I like colour-coded genres: the American noir, the Japanese pinku and the Italian giallo. I think all genres ought to be colour-coded, in which case the Italian western would be the arancia, or orange. I think that sounds pretty good, and avoids the cultural sneering involved in using pasta as a put-down.

So, after Klaus Kinski and his henchmen have killed off a nice old couple in a carriage, Sartana shows up, as a hero for the first time. Gianni Garko had played someone called “General Sartana Liston” in $1000 ON THE BLACK in 1966, but that Sartana was a baddie. This one is a death-dealing “hero” in the spaghetti tradition. Speaking about the genre on TV, Alex Cox rather exaggerated when he said the Italian western hero wasn’t interested in honour, justice, women or money, just killing. He CAN be vaguely interested in all of those things, especially money, but it’s mainly a pretext to motivate the killing. Burt Kennedy astonished John Ford by telling him the Italians made westerns, but mischaracterised them as “No story, no scenes, just killing.” In fact, with their multiple betrayals, Italian westerns often deliver more plot than many American ones, but one can understand Kennedy getting distracted by all the mayhem. When Cronenberg’s CRASH was accused of being just a bunch of sex scenes, Cronenberg asked, reasonably, why you couldn’t tell a story composed that way. So with the Italian western: the best ones often seem like compendiums of set-pieces, all killer no thriller.

Anyway, Sartana: “You look just like a scarecrow!” sneers a henchman after the black-clad gunslinger shows up, in the middle of nowhere (an Italian quarry, faded to a strange pink hue) without anyone seeing him coming. “I am your pallbearer,” he replies, and kills them all (save Kinski). He does it a couple of ways: with a gimmick tiny pistol (of the kind Sabato would also enjoy) and with a shotgun. But he never bears their palls, that was just a figure of speech I guess. These guys’ bones are gonna bleach in the sun.

The pithy quip in the western does have some antecedents in John Wayne (“That’ll be the day!” “Fill your hand you sunnovabitch!”) but it becomes a thing in Italian westerns via Leone’s transposition of the “Cooper, prepare three coffins,” bit in YOJIMBO from Mifune to Eastwood in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. At the same time or slightly earlier actually, Sean Connery’s James Bond had started quipping after a kill (“Shocking!”). The Italians led the world in cheap Bond knock-offs, many of them made by people who also made westerns — Michele Lupo, Sergio Sollima, Duccio Tessri, Gianfranco Parolini (who gives us Sartana, here, and then Sabata), Mario Bava, and writers like Ernesto Gastaldi, Sergio Donati, Fernando Di Leo… It seems to be a matter of temperament whether you went from gladiator movies to spy films or to westerns or to Gothic horror or to gialli or to polizioteschi or soft porn. With only Bava having a go at virtually every genre on the list, sometimes two at a time.

Gianfranco Parolini, directing under the name “Frank Kramer,” plays a small supporting role in this, credited under an anglicised version of his name — it comes out as “J. Francis Littlewords,” which is the most darling thing ever. Like a lovable donkey in a child’s storybook.

Sartana’s gadgetry is another import from the Bond films. Alex Cox heartily dislikes these “circus westerns” (anything with a lot of gadgets, comedy and acrobatics) and dislikes Parolini’s playfulness. “Sergio Leone wasn’t playful,” he protests, and here I have to disagree. Leone cuts from his villain laighing maniacally to a wanted poster of the same villain, also laughing maniacally (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE); he has his credits dodge bullets or get blown up by cannonfire, appear letter by letter when the telegraph chatters, or descend like a level crossing in front of a train (at the same time imitating the action of a clapperboard); he has James Coburn turn into a poster with a glowing banner over his head as Rod Steiger looks at him — an appropriation of cartoon grammar. Leone is absolutely playful. I think I responded to spaghetti westerns as a kid, far more than I did to regular westerns, because they were black comedies with a lot of slapstick.

Speaking of slapstick, along with genre icons Garko, Kinski, William Berger and Fernando Sancho, this movie features Sydney Chaplin. Charlie’s son, not his half-brother, though the cannibal rapist in the family would arguably have fit neatly into an Italian western, especially one by Fulci (whose only spy films were comedies with gormless double act Franco & Ciccio). So I had to watch this one — can’t resist two of my series joining up, more or less.

What about Bond villains? They’re always criminal masterminds, sometimes though not usually attached to a world government. Often they’re businessmen — as with the spaghettis. Well, you need someone who can afford an inexhaustible stream of henchmen for the hero to effortlessly off. Chaplin here plays such a businessman, ludicrously named “Jeff Stewal.” It’s a tribute to the hierarchical, departmentalized nature of film production that Chaplin couldn’t or anyway didn’t get them to give him a name that makes some kind of linguistic sense, rather than a collection of vaguely anglo-saxon sounds.

But the businessmen in these films are not REAL men — the syphilitic Morton in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST typifies the breed. Lack of a pistol equals emasculation. Chaplin is humiliated and extorted by his own hired gun.

William Berger, an Austrian Dan Duryea, snorts from a snuffbox and also rubs the contents on his gums, which suggests to me it might not be snuff. Lanky of figure and lank of hair, orange dye-jobbed Berger is almost as visually arresting as Kinski, and as blue-eyed. He’s irretrievably associated with this genre, never really fitting in elsewhere, which imposed an unfortunately short shelf-life on his stardom.

Title sequences: well, the Lardini company had a set of acid-pop art techniques they would apply to any film, regardless of genre, but their colour washes and (very) limited animation was applied to oaters and espionage with explosive abandon. But only Leone seemed able to get the images to match the music, rhythmically. In the average western, they’re all over the place.

The inter-genre connections seem so strong it’s odd to me that Parolini’s spy films are humourless dogshit and his westerns are fun.

The biggest difference, besides locations and design, between the Italian western and spy film seems to me to be sex, which is largely downplayed/absent in the westerns. Clint’s strangely asexual protagonists lead the way in this: shooting men seems to take the place of coition. Instead of lingering on women’s live bodies, the cameras of Leone, Corbucci and their followers lavish attention on male corpses, usually with perforated foreheads.

The plot in this SARTANA revolves around stolen gold, as usual. This MacGuffin motivates three massacres within the first ten minutes. What’smore impressive is that the film manages to introduce a bunch of characters who are NOT summarily slaughtered.

Piero Piccioni provides music inhabiting the space between “jaunty” and “wildly disoriented.” The musical watch from FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is shamelessly pilfered in both non-diegetic and diegetic ways (stolen both from Leone and from characters in the film).

Bond-spaghetti confluence… I’d say there are musical connections — influenced presumably by Masaru Satô’s jaunty jazz score for YOJIMBO, Ennio Morricone abandoned the traditional approach (orchestra with a few olde west stylings and the occasional ballad) for a pop/experimental madness. After FISTFUL, you get a lot of straight rip-offs of the whistling theme and twangy guitars, but you also get all kinds of inventive craziness. I feel like the twangy guitars and vamping horns of John Barry’s Bond scores are an influence.

Everybody in SARTANA sounds like they recorded their lines at the bottom of a bloody well, along with Piccioni’s piano.

Despite his lethal array of dad jokes, Bond’s catchphrase is just a lame introductory statement: “The name’s Bond. James Bond.” And likewise the spaghettis seem obsessed with naming their heroes: MY NAME IS NOBODY, THEY CALL ME TRINITY, MY NAME IS PECOS, MY NAME IS SHANGHAI JOE, MY NAME IS MALLORY… M MEANS DEATH!, THEY CALL ME HALLELUJAH, I AM SARTANA YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH and, a bit desperately, TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME. Plus numerous Joes, Johnnies, people with Colt or the name of a state in their name…

The Bond films, though, were directed by British traditionalists who shot things in fairly staid ways, but then had Peter Hunt pick the pace right up in the cutting. No crash zooms, zip pans, bizarro POV shots or gratuitous camera movements for Eon Productions. It took Sid Furie’s compositional eccentricity on THE IPCRESS FILE to bring the spy flick closer to Leone’s exuberance.

While in the Gothic spaghettis, the main character comes and goes like a ghost, and in regular ones this occasionally happens with really cool characters (Eastwood vanishing from a noose in TGTB&TU), here, everyone defeats spacetime, turning up in the middle of the desert without being seen, running into a building and then appearing outside it to shoot some dynamite and blow it up, or watching from a high promontory, on horseback, in plain view, without being spotted.

There’s a lack of scale in this one — Parolini has no enthusiasm for Leone-style giant ECUs where pancake-clogged pores become tangerine moonscapes, and he can’t shoot epic wide shots because his quarry location only extends so far. He keeps things moving with pans and zooms but doesn’t have the wild skill with tracking shots that so many of his countrymen displayed.

There’s more business with sexy saloon girls than usual (the same occurs in SABATA) — a little teasing is allowed, but Sartana keeps his black duds on and only retires to the boudoir to trap a couple of assassins. The girl mockingly tells him that Chaplin’s fat business partner (played by Parolini fave Gianni Rizzo, his character ironically named “Alman”) pays her to talk, and doesn’t “do” anything — but Sartana is the same — having spent a couple of bullets, he tosses her out.

His real flirtation is reserved for Berger and Kinski. He could, it seems, kill the bad guys at any point, but he likes to draw things out. If psychology were in play at all here, that would make him a man with a death wish, which could be interesting, but Parolini and his writers aren’t concerned with anything but plot mechanics and shoot-em-ups. (Have I mentioned how Bava’s ROY COLT & WINCHESTER JACK dispenses with pretence and has the two heroes express their homosexual passion via punch-ups?)

The action is frequent but repetitive. Garko plays hide-and-seek with Kinski in the barn-like undertakers, a routine repeated in one of Parolini’s SABATA films (I forget which). Kinski wears little bells on his spurs — dainty! — and clogs them with shaving foam when he wants to get stealthy. In YOJIMBO and then FISTFUL and also DJANGO, the supercool hero is exposed, caught, and severely beaten, a vital moment to raise the stakes. It’s boring watching a cool hero win all the time.

Here, it’s Berger who gets the elaborate drubbing at the one-hour mark, so Garko can stay clean and ublemished. This, along with Sartana humiliating him at every turn, robs Berger of dramatic menace, and Fernando Sancho, who administers the beat-down, is a fat caricature Mexican, an unsuitable replacement as head honcho or Sancho. There ought to be somebody set up as deadly with a gun, since, like a John Woo hero, Sartana can effortlessly execute normal gunmen in any number. So the question of who will be the final boss is the main active one, but it’s rather uninvolving. There’s also a femme fatale, Heidi Fischer, which is nice to see. For all the genre’s misogyny, there are maybe more strong female characters than in America westerns, even if they’re villainesses.

Cox complains that the film looks cheap compared to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, made the same year, an unusually naive statement from a filmmaker. Obviously, the film IS cheap, especially compared to Leone’s super-epic. Parolini has some minor Euro-stars and he has some big sets, but spacious rooms are not all that costly if you have the studio space and flats.

The bad guys’ HQ is no Ken Adam control room but appropriately enough, Mussolini’s Villa Carpena, a frequent Italian western location and one also recycled for the SABATA series. That architectural resonance is as close as the film gets to political consciousness.

Cox likes James Bond films, because they (in his view) dispensed with the retrograde good-versus-evil paradigm and merely showcased a can-do Brit doing his job with fancy toys. Why he can’t get behind Sartana, then, is mysterious. Both Bond and Sartana are cool but kind of boring. Alan Moore summarised their ubermensch appeal by invoking a Leonard Cohen poem: “When I am with you / I want to be / The perfect man who kills.” Again, this inherently sinister aspect is something Parolini can’t be bothered exploring. His problem isn’t that he’s playful, it’s that his toys don’t seem to stand for anything richer.

Plenty of Time to Die

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2022 by dcairns

So, we actually LIKED the new Bond, NO TIME TO DIE. Probably enjoyed it more than any of this series since GOLDENEYE (but haven’t seen them all), the first Brosnan, which didn’t hold up particularly well over time but seemed like a great gain in confidence/competence back then.

The new one is by a proper director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who made a fine film of JANE EYRE and helmed the first season of True Detective. So I was expecting an impressive long take, and was not disappointed.

Of course, the epic running time and delusions of seriousness and meaningfulness are a drawback. But the moviemakers have remembered to have some fun, too. The middle of the film gets lighter, and there’s an adorable turn by Ana de Armas as a novice CIA agent which really lifts the movie. Bond needs real people around him if he’s to seem human at all, and Lea Seydoux, the marvellous Jeffrey Wright (I want to see him given more starring roles), little Lisa-Dorah Sonnet, and Billy Magnussen all help enormously. Daniel Craig is a gifted actor, but I think he made a mistake, essentially, in starting his Bond off so dour way back in CASINO ROYALE. As the filmmakers’ pile trauma upon trauma, he seemed to have nowhere to go but down, into some masklike inexpressive roboticism… Giving him a proper, sort-of convincing relationship helps some.

The attempts to get some fun into it come with one hitch: Craig is given more quips than before. For whatever reason, this gifted thesp cannot sell a quip, not in character. There aren’t any good ones, they’re all dreadful dad jokes, but you never feel that this version of Bond would even attempt them.

The real humour comes from believable-ish (we’re always modifying our expectations according to this genre and franchise) professional banter from Killing Zoe’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I mean, I’m assuming she’s the author of the biological warfare lab gags, they totally sound like her. What’s amusing is that nearly all the film’s byplay is bitchy, feminine — and Craig does this well, along with everyone else. It’s only when he’s paired off against Ralph Fiennes as M that the dialogue becomes hypermasculine, in a rather hilarious way, like a certain Fry & Laurie sketch…

I mean, this is how men talk, right?

Anyway, the whole thing looks spectacular and beautiful. Maximum scenic value extracted from a range of locations, including my native land… I think it was probably a mistake to use a forbidden island for the climax, too much like that Sam Mendes one, whichever it was.

The other big flaw I think was in the baddies. David Dencik is a very enjoyable creep. But Christoph Waltz as Blofeld and Rami Malek as “Lyutsifer Safin” (pwahahaha) should have coordinated, to prevent them from giving the same rather flat perf. Neither can touch Donald Pleaasence’s unblinking, low-affect turn in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, which he did on short notice in just a day or two of filming. And the writer’s haven’t thought nearly enough about Safin’s motivation. The villain’s motivation in these kind of things is far more important than the hero’s — Bond just wants to do his job, maybe protect a loved one or two — Safin is out for revenge, but not after anyone in particular, it seems. Even in the very first sequence (the pre-pre-credit sequence, since according to this movie’s bloat we need two before the usual dreary song and overblown CGI titles), he’s a bit swithery. Can’t stick to his purpose. He talks a lot but he seems vague about why he’s doing what he’s doing. A good supervillain can have a plan that makes no sense, like Thanos, but if we believe it makes sense TO HIM the movie can just about get away with it. What does the Penguin actually WANT in BATMAN RETURNS? Something different in every scene, it feels like. That won’t do at all.

The movie walks into some hilarious cliches without flinching — there’s the megadeath weapon intended for peaceful purposes —

Thanks to regular Shadowplayer Simon Kane for nailing that one in advance.

And there are the weird quips, which don’t work with the new grim-visaged Bond —

Since nobody’s asked, here’s my advice for how they should tackle the next Bond:

They could call it 007. Why not? Instant brand recognition. The poster could say INSERT NAME HERE *IS* 007.

The character should start out lighter. You need someone compellingly tough to do the lightness well, the way Connery did. The quips could be black humour, a man dealing with an unpleasant situation, the way cops and paramedics use unpleasant gags to deal with the strain. As your series goes on and Bond gets abused and traumatised more, the quips can become grimmer, the character crueller. The efforts to extend a one-note character like Bond, giving him some kind of ARC, that extends through five looong films, has really been a strain. It might, actually, be nice to give up on the idea of an arc for Bond. Keep him consistent, let everyone else change (mostly by killing them, obvs).

The only successful Bond arc was Lazenby’s, and he only played the bastard once.

Connery’s arc was putting on weight and a toupee. He was definitely the best Bond though, for his first three or four outings: his machismo and grit gave an interesting underpinning to the flippancy. With Roger Moore you get ONLY flippancy, with Craig you get ONLY machismo (yet there are moments of physical humour in his performance this time… interesting). The series is never going to top GOLDFINGER. Partly because of the obsession with applying a character arc to such a one-note cartoon figure and universe.

Alex Cox used to express an interest in doing a Bond film, saying that the series was refreshingly free of the tiresome good-versus-evil paradigm. Bond is just a ruthless soldier, using technology and muscle and nerve against official national enemies. The movies can try to make the bad guys seem bad, but the hero is a professional killer… Then, they can have the villain claim that he and Bond are much alike (this goes back to GOLDEN GUN, and Roger Moore’s retort to Chris Lee, “When I kill it’s on the orders of my government…” is pretty thin as moral arguments go.

Actual line from the novel Goldfinger: “Bond had never liked going up against the Chinese. There were too many of them.” This is not great art.

I really hope Fukunaga doesn’t make another one — he’s proven he can do it. I hope this gives him the clout to make his own things. (He’s a writer on this one, though, so it’s not purely a job-for-hire.) I want to see what he wants to make next.

NO TIME TO DIE stars Benoit Blanc; Charlotte LaPadite; Freddie Mercury; Maria Rambeau; Lord Voldemort; Paddington Bear; Frances Barrison / Shriek; Lord Lucan; Roebuck Wright; Col. Hans Landa; Marta Cabrera; and Dr. Mabuse.

Route of all evil

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2022 by dcairns

Following Danger Man back to the native land of Bond, we discover Richard Johnson, who would play Bulldog Drummond in a couple of passable spy romps, working in a much more sombre and hard-edged thriller, DANGER ROUTE. Forgettable, generic title, and nearly a forgettable film, but it has moments.

It has a proper filmmaker in the director’s chair, too, though one in decline. Seth Holt would die during the shooting of his next production, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB — an amusingly persistent case of hiccups turned out to presage a massive coronary. He’s on intermittently good form here — the inconsistent MUMMY movie is more persistently engaging, but he brings his talent fully to bear on the movie’s bitter climax.

The film is pitched somewhere between the brutality of Bond and the morose Le Carre worldview. Not so seedy, but grey and downbeat. Our anti-hero is a government assassin, and the first scene depicts two spymasters planning his final mission in a cinema (on the screen is the director’s previous film, STATION SIX SAHARA, an amusing in-joke though not as pointedly meta as the moment in CAPRICE where Doris Day hides from enemy agents in a cinema showing… CAPRICE), and the make it clear that if agent “Jonas Wilde” survives the job, a female agent has been put in position to destroy him afterwards.

There’s a distinct lack of glamorous locations — the Channel Islands are the height of escapism in this film, and the production values, courtesy of Amicus, are on the thin side, with unconvincing dioramas ob view through every window. Harry THE THIRD MAN Waxman is cinematographer, and the shots are sometimes expressive in a subtle way, but it’s no thrill-ride. A single Deutsch tilt, on a cross-channel ferry. The plot moves forward with some bold elisions, which helps a bit.

“A mountain of evil,” was Bette Davis’ summation of Holt on THE NANNY (probably his best film), which seems to have baffled his friends on the crew. There’s an intriguing comment also from his widow, who said that when Holt worked as producer on THE LADYKILLERS, rather than calming one another down, which is what both needed, they would tend to hype each other into a frenzy. Possibly that was good for the film?

A better script would help this one: good actors make a limited impression with thick eared, hackneyed dialogue. It’s not overtly clumsy but nobody comes to life. Johnson seems at home being glum and angry, but hits that same note too hard and often; Carol Lynley is seductive and sweet; Barbara Bouchet effective when mysterious, but when the mask comes off, what’s underneath is unconvincing; Sylvia Sims, Diana Dors, are as professional as ever, same for Harry Andrews, Maurice Denham and Gordon Jackson.

MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT

The final betrayal comes with a slick reversal — Johnson, a creature of habit, has fixed himself a Bacardi. He’s told by his girlfriend, Carol Lynley, that the ice cubes were poisoned — he’ll start to notice the creeping paralysis now.

He replies that the ice cubes are in the goldfish tank — he’s anticipated the betrayal.

His assassin looks to the tank, where the fish are floating lifeless — a school of substitute Johnsons. And Holt shows the next action — Johnson slaying his lover with one mighty chop — only in the shadow on the glass.

DANGER ROUTE stars Dr. John Markway; Ann Lake; Moneypenny; the Queen Mother; Frau Poppendick; Lord Lucan; Filipenko; MacDonald ‘Intelligence’; Professor Henry Harrington; Mime; and Kreacher.