Sunday, November 23, 2008
A Delicatessen In Stainless Steel
When I stumbled through the door late at night just after seeing QUANTUM OF SOLACE, I did the only thing I could do. I had a drink. A vodka martini, actually, and I know that sounds a little lame but the truth is that I was out of scotch which was what I would have preferred at that moment. Come to think of it, I still am. I really should do something about that. Anyway, while waiting for the vodka to take effect, I then did the other only thing I could do, which was put my DVD of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY into the player. I needed right then to chill out, to remind myself that there was a time when there was a cool, adult Bond movie with expertly done action scenes, a plot that could be followed and didn’t feel the need to POUND EVERY SHOT AND MOMENT into our heads as we watched it. It’s always been a particular favorite of mine, even though I foolishly had little interest in seeing it in the theater when it was new. I did get my Roger Moore fix in the summer of ’81 with THE CANNONBALL RUN, but we don’t need to dwell on that. To me, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY is one of my favorite Bonds as well as Roger Moore’s best outing, even if most people do prefer the entries with the, um, bigger stuff going on.
After one final encounter between James Bond (Roger Moore) and a man who may or may not be Blofeld, a British spy ship equipped with a device known as an ATAC (similar to the Lektor MacGuffin of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE) goes down in the Ionian Sea in the Mediterranean. Marine archeologist Timothy Havelock is contacted to locate the ship and the ATAC but, shortly after his beautiful daughter Melina (Carole Bouquet) arrives, Havelock and his wife are killed by Cuban hitman Hector Gonzales. Bond is assigned to recover the ATAC before it falls into enemy hands and goes after Gonzales to learn who hired him. Bond of course meets up with Melina, intent on exacting her own revenge.
For me, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY remains a hugely satisfying effort, bringing just the right level of seriousness to the material to balance out the places that allow Roger Moore to still be Roger Moore. Some goofy elements remain, like the occasional one-liner, the plot point that comes from a parrot and the entirety of the Lynn-Holly Johnson character but none of these things are deal breakers for me. Even the obligatory Q scene feels more sedate than usual. Right from the opening scene of Bond visiting the grave of late wife Tracy (a pertinent reference to ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE which this film can be favorably compared to) the lead character feels more like an elder-statesman Bond than before and unlike his next two films, much as I may like them, Roger Moore seems perfectly believable as playing Bond at this age. It feels like a mystery why, after the success of MOORAKER, they chose to go so serious with this entry but I’m glad they did. And even in the middle of violence and deadly serious plot points it never feels like this tone is overwhelming the basic material like in LICENCE TO KILL which possibly goes too far in these matters (I’m not even going to bother bringing QUANTUM into all this). For some reason this is the one case where even when Moore’s Bond is making little jokes in the middle of serious scenes (“Love a drive in the country, don’t you?”) isn’t a problem. I always like Bond’s attitude towards Melina and her quest for revenge (“Before setting out on revenge, you first dig two graves.”) in how he doesn’t try too hard to convince her (he knows she’s going to do what she wants know matter what—after all, she’s “half Greek”) but it occurs to me now that as soon as Bond meets her she’s already killed several people, including the one who pulled the trigger on her parents, which would seem to make it all a moot point, but no matter. It also extremely noticable now how relatively little action there is in the film compared to what we get these days—the major setpiece is the ski chase which is awesome (no, seriously, it’s just great) but it comes before the halfway mark and the most memorable sections of the second half, like Bond and Melina held captive and dragged behind the main villain’s yacht and the mountain climbing climax (which has some jaw-dropping stunt work) are more suspense sequences that outright action, but expertly done nevertheless. Still, and I know this may be nitpicking, it’s possible that the film is one great action scene short of being an all-out classic. The next film, OCTOPUSSY, was possibly conscious of this due to how much of its second half is a series of chases. Maybe FOR YOUR EYES ONLY is just one of those examples of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts—there’s no one outstanding showstopper (although the ski chase comes close) but the entire film is a mixture of all the right elements, making for a surprisingly strong narrative. The infamous prologue where Bond finally dispenses with an unnamed Blofeld figure (the SPECTRE rights were owned by Kevin McClory, then ramping up NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN and it has long been assumed that this was a comment on how the real Bond films didn’t need to rely on that stuff) is about as arch as the film ever gets but over all it’s a very impressive sequence and I still love that Bond’s first dialogue in the movie, responding to the priest informing him that his office called with an emergency, is a simple grave, “It usually is.”
The various locations that include Cortina and parts of Greece are a big part of this success (I'm always fond of how the film pauses to have Bond and Melina wander around Corfu for a few minutes) and this is the rare Bond film where it’s not entirely clear who the main villain is until well into the story. The ATAC remains the MacGuffin until the end, never becoming a plot device that leads into a greater world domination plot. Even the underwater stuff never becomes repetitive like it did in THUNDERBALL, no doubt because it’s all allowed to be about the story and not giant battle scenes. Maybe keeping things at this level—which is pretty much what they did again in CASINO ROYALE--is just the way I like my Bond. Rocket bases in volcanos are very enjoyable but I suppose my ideal Bond fantasy world involves luxurious locations, beautiful women and villains whose goals are kept on tangible levels. That’s just me.
Some notes on the ski chase, since I’m such a big fan of it. It’s expertly done in every way from how it’s shot to how it’s paced. There are obviously a few bluescreen shots of Roger Moore sprinkled in there but there are also close-ups of him obviously filmed on location, presumably with some sort of special camera rig, which gives it an added level of realism. Adding to this is how Bond is in genuine danger through much of it (he’s almost more vulnerable here than he is in any other film). Even if he didn’t lose one of his ski poles he’d still be in a lot of trouble and it’s one of the best things throughout the entire movie how Bond is continually forced to use his wits in these situations. The sequence is also helped by the Bill Conti score—obviously any Bond film that doesn’t have John Barry doing the music is in trouble but Conti does a terrific job, helping with the suspense in the first half of the ski section (the piano plunking when he reach the jump point is jarring, but also effective) and when he breaks out the disco for the second half it may be dated but it’s still pretty cool and provides a level of fun to a setpiece that is otherwise pretty serious. It’s hard for me not to burst into applause at the end of it, even when I’m watching the film by myself. The success of Conti’s work is doubly evident when compared to David Arnold’s thuddingly banal scoring of the ski chase in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH or Marvin Hamlisch’s score for THE SPY WHO LOVED ME which had a similar disco feel but, “Nobody Does It Better” aside, has always felt to me like Hamlisch had no idea how to score a Bond film (and he even got nominated for an Oscar). Conti, in comparison, not only nails the tone but also enhances it on occasion and throughout the occasional absence of music at dramatic points is extremely effective as well, particularly when Bond is chasing hitman Locque’s car up what seems like an endless flight of stairs.
The DVD documentary makes a big thing over how Roger Moore objected to the most vicious action Bond takes in the film, involving the death of a secondary bad guy, thinking it went too far. But he does perform the moment in the film and does it without flinching. He seems reenergized by how much more there is to play in this film as opposed to MOONRAKER and it’s the best performance he gave during his run. The gorgeous Carole Bouquet, who had already worked with Bunuel by this point, is ideal as Melina, making her believable as someone unwilling to back down from her goal. She’s not an equal physical match for Bond but it’s not something she cares about—all she knows is that she’s “one woman” as she puts it and as far as she’s concerned that’s enough. Plus, she has those eyes. And that hair. Julian Glover and Topol are both excellent as a few of the key players in the plot but the bad guy side is quietly stolen by Michael Gothard from SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, who never utters a word as one of the very best secondary Bond villains (also silent is Charles Dance in his first film role) In the small role of Contesa Lisl von Schlaf, Cassandra Harris (married to Pierce Brosnan at the time) brings just the right touch of old-school glamour to her scenes and the moment where Bond guesses her secret past is one of the movie’s sweetest. Lynn-Holly Johnson’s character of Bibi is slightly more problematic but Roger Moore correctly plays the scenes as if he is fully aware of this and the whole thing is out of his control. Johnson’s coach Jacoba Brink, “once a world-class skater herself” is played by Jill Bennett, who glares at Bond so much that I always wonder if the actress is playing her role with the added subtext that maybe she had an affair with Bond long ago and that she’s spending the whole movie waiting for him to acknowledge this.
It all boils down to personal taste and what we look for in a Bond movie. As I write this, the sequence where Bond and Melina scuba dive as we hear the gentle instrumental version of the title theme is playing behind me and it makes me think of the romance that needs to be in these movies. It’s the sort of feeling that is enhanced when the filmmakers commit to a tone that aims for pulpy seriousness without forgetting to make a movie with a coherent plot, action, suspense and, yes, some fun as well. It’s not everyone’s kind of Bond. But at least they’ve made a few that are like that and maybe they’ll make another one of these days.