Saturday, February 12, 2011

Watching The Defective Detectives: From Russia With Love and The Pink Panther

Obligatory shot of Kronsteen with terrible pun

From Russia With Love and The Pink Panther were both released in 1963, both are 115 minutes long. I toyed with watching them simultaneously, waiting for some strange Wizard of Oz / Dark Side Of The Moon syncronicity to become apparent.1 No such luck. In the end, to prevent myself from going mad or being stuck with a fork in the side of my head by my fiancee for subjecting her to such a din, I watched them sequentially, rather than concurrently.

For a supposed action hero, Sean Connery spends a lot of From Russia With Love looking more like a startled rabbit, caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Or being bashed on the head.

James Bond, terrified rabbit/trained killer

In Dr No, when James Bond is just a "policeman" in the words of everyone's favourite metal-handed nutter, (or at least something of a novice as a double-0 agent) that would be somewhat more acceptable. But by the second film his status is on the up. Spectre have a big Aryan lunk practicing killing Bond look-a-likes on Spectre Island, as if a man who can disrupt a bauxite-mining-and-rocket-toppling wheeze is suddenly the biggest threat to their operations. Clearly Spectre need to call in the big guns - a chess-playing sociopath and a woman with a bad dye job.

(In the books and in the films, every villain has a defining disability: but because Fleming was a grumpy old Little Englander, Grant's disability was Being Irish, which is never mentioned in the film. Kleb, on the other hand, has the disability of appearing to be dubbed whenever she speaks ("Take ... me-to-the-lake!" one beautiful yet probably unintentional combination of being a psychotic Russian and rhyming), and Kronsteen looks a bit like a fish surprised to realise that it has a French accent.)

What do you know?  Another lamentable chess-based pun for fishy old Kronsteen

Spectre Island is possibly a reference to Thunderbirds (although that didn't come until 2 years later) and the film is worryingly filled with anachronisms or callbacks to events that have yet to occur. Take the super-realistic Sean Connery facemask from the start. Isn't that really just a knowing reference to the disguise Schwarzenegger uses in the Mars space port in Total Recall? And isn't that included precisely to show how mendacious it was to base True Lies on the Bond movie structure at a time when the archetype was itself played out? With evidence like this, doesn't it start to seem plausible that Cubby Broccoli had a time machine, and was looking to answer the criticisms of 1980s Bond in advance? You say paranoid delusions, I say potato, let's call the whole thing off.

If you thought the preceding paragraph a touch hard to swallow, I don't know what you'd make of Spectre's training academy, which consists of a bloke with a flamethrower trying to set men on fire while they shoot at him with live ammunition, and some other guys do karate next to them. Hardly the most efficient way of turning out top notch Evil Henchmen, unless it's fine to have them slightly bruised, crispy at the edges and with a few holes in them. Strangely, it looks more like a bunch of schoolboys mucking about near the cricket nets of some second-class public school - combined with a vicious bully with a knuckle duster who wallops you in the gut for no good reason:
Top day at school, mama.  Whizzo idea to go jumping past a flamethrower, double spotted dick for dinner!>

Honestly, I wouldn't have been surprised if Kleb's assessment of Grant had also included giving him a Chinese burn and a dead leg, but now I'm getting off the point.

This is the second film, and as such it begins to evolve closer to the mature Bond film structure: now we have a pre-credit sequence, credits that have half-naked women! Boobs! With words projected on them! and a song with the same title as the film.3 When we finally get to see Bond, he's copping off with a bint in a punt, who turns out to be Sylvia Trench, and still concerned about golf. This is significant, as it's one of the few times a Bond girl will reappear in a later film, rather than retiring from the scene after Bond has had his way with her in a vehicle of some sort. (Honey Ryder in a boat, this one in a train...). Possibly because he got off with Sylvia at his flat rather than in a boat, she had more permanence in his life, but sex in a car or a boat is the cinematic kiss of death - we won't see Ms Trench again.

Back at the office, Moneypenny has the world's least interesting product placement behind her desk (an Imperial Typewriter calendar) and Bond channels the spirit of Alan Partridge when asked about Kleb - "She's mental!" Then it's off on a plane we go.

Now there are people who think that the Connery Bond films were gritty and exciting, and the Roger Moore era saw a decline into silliness. And then there are people who have watched From Russia With Love, which has parts as camp as Christmas. There's a submarine periscope in the basement of the Russian embassy. There's a gypsy encampment complete with what looks like Mr Toad's caravan from The Wind In The Willows! There's a sleazy Turkish bloke, only saved from death-by-limpet-mine by his raging libido. And men! In leather waistcoats! I realised about then that I had seen this film before, but because it had been so camp, in my memory I'd recast it as a Roger Moore effort and couldn't understand why it was appearing so early.

All through this Bond is quite calm, apart from when the hotel give him a bed that's too small. And it is a ridiculously sized bed, unless you're a six year old. Why, as I saw Bond stride into the room, I said to myself "what a small bed". Well, Bond is not as cross as he was in Dr No, but I think this is either jet-lag or he's shitfaced on raki throughout, looking like he's going to fall asleep from boredom while two gypsy women have an impromptu wrestling match before him.

There are a lot of boats in this film; I mentioned before Bond's transportation-and-seduction technique, but he also gets on a speedboat, a rowboat through the sewers of Istanbul, a ferry and a gondola. None of these are as impressive as the Smersh yacht, which is huge and contains a man with Lethal Shoes. But on the ferry we do get to see Bond's fabled chat-up technique in action:
"Where is the encryption machine?"
That's it, gents. All you need to make exotic Russian birds come flocking is to ask them about office equipment, over and over again, until they're gagging for it, the little minxes.

From Minsk.

Ahem. It seems even the sexless M is embarrassed by Bond's lame duck technique, sending Moneypenny out of the room while the chaps review the tape. Or maybe I'm interpreting this wrong: they're all incredibly turned on by a Scots voice saying "Where is the encryption machine?" and are going to crack one off once the lady's out of the room. Like dogging, but with an eight-track recorder instead of a Ford Mondeo.

Hey, I'm not the pervert here. That's probably Kleb, feeling up her subordinate while being badly dubbed, and then recording her on video in Bond's bridal suite.

Of course, it only gets more confusing later on for everyone: when Bond is getting jiggy on a train (because he gave an enormous blue nightie to the Russian lady) we cut to a train going along a track, when as any fule noe, it should be a train going into a tunnel. Grant reappears, looking like a malign Thunderbird puppet, who doesn't realise fish doesn't go with red wine, and that faux pas enrages Bond so much that they have a fight which resembles two schoolboys having a spat, not a pair of deadly agents having at it.

Although given Spectre Island's training facilities and Bond having got soused on raki, would we expect anything more?

The problem is, once we've staged Murders On The Orient Express, complete with Sean standing there like a dumbstruck dimwit as Grant explains the plot, there's not anywhere else for the film to go, and yet it plods on for another twenty minutes, possibly because they hadn't exceeded their boat budget yet, or because the film crew wanted a few days out in Scotland.

Sorry, Eastern Europe. Not Scotland. That definitely is not Scotland that Bond is running around in, pursued by a couple of gormless idiots in a helicopter and then by the Spectre Sea Scouts and their comedy mortar bombs. No, not Scotland at all. Ahem, and once again, ahem.

But anyway, it needs some conclusion, so the movie lumbers over to Venice so dear old Rosa Kleb can attempt Death By Room Service and be defeated by a chair, which sounds embarrassing but is nothing as bad as the book, where Bond gets kicked in the shins and stuffed in a wicker laundry basket. Matt Munro sings his song, and we're done.

But we're not done yet. Don't forget, in the same year as From Russia With Love, The Pink Panther was released.5 This includes the milky-eyed David Niven, who would of course appear in That Film We Must Not Speak Of6, and a facsimile of Catherine Zeta Jones, plus Peter Sellers, who doesn't have much to do apart from walk into doors and burn his hands on things.7 Now it becomes clear why Bond was talking incessantly about encryption machines; all the good seduction dialogue for 1963 had been earmarked for The Pink Panther.
"They call you the virgin queen."
"Well, I'm not a queen."
There, that's how you write decent material. If Niven's conman could only think to ask about the details of the solder on the princess's necklace, again and again, he wouldn't have got very far.

Both films are languid by today's pace. Only The Pink Panther includes a chase scene with not one, but two cars piloted by men in gorilla suits, but both have iconic theme music and a scene before the credits begin to start everything off. They also both have men in hats, but there are few similarities after that.

Except perhaps with vehicles. All vehicles in The Pink Panther signify disaster: the carefree gorillas zipping through Italian piazzas will end up in a major traffic accident, taking charge of a sleigh leads inevitably to being run over by your nephew on his skis, and Clouseau will be taken to jail in the back of a gloomy Citreon.

In comparison, Bond's vehicles are often apparently transports of delight, but as previously mentioned, they also signify The End; if you're a lady and Bond has got you in the back of a boat or a car, we're unlikely to see you ever again. Is it really plausible that these spurned lovers just get on with their lives afterwards, or isn't it much more likely that Bond is actively disappearing them, feeling as any sociopathic secret agent would that another corpse is preferable to a paternity claim?

Mind you, it's unlikely that the light-hearted adventures of a lothario who has to get the ladies in the back of his car and then murder them would have much commercial viability. Except in Japan, where they could just call it Kiss Kiss Vroom Vroom Bang Bang.

So what lessons does From Russia With Love teach us?

Russians in the Sixties were very proud of their timekeeping devices - "Russian clocks are always correct" - but should have paid more attention to what building contractors were doing (hint: check for men installing naval periscopes in the corners of your meeting rooms)
Russian women like big nightdresses, knuckle dusters and dangerous shoes.
They don't get turned on by endless questions about encryption machines like old British gentlemen do. (If you want a classy seduction, you need David Niven, not some upstart Scottish bodybuilder.)
Avoid any mode of transport that involves James Bond8
Cubby Brocolli may have owned a time machine, or was a clairvoyant, and is sending us messages you'll see if you just wear this tin foil hat.

1 this is called "syncmovies". There are websites dedicated to this, frequented by suggestible loons who are impressed that if you start Transformers The Movie (the original 1986 cartoon, you philistines) playing at the same time as you start drinking Ernst & Julio Gallo, you'll start crying just as Optimus Prime dies.2
2 Whoops. Does that constitute a spoiler, as we're still in 1963? Or an oh so subtle reference to a wine-advertisement voice actor/sometime film director?
3 Although it's Matt Munro sleepwalking his way through it, when the Natascha Atlas version would be infinitely preferable, even if it did appear about thirty years too late4. See what I mean when I was talking about Cubby's time machine?
4 The first time I was involved in a major traffic accident, I was listening to David Arnold's Shaken Not Stirred album of Bond song reworkings, which I lost, along with the car, to a malign Czech lorry. For shame. When I got another car to drive, the first thing I did was buy another copy of the CD. And then, to my chagrin, I did run over a rabbit, although I swear it didn't look like Sean in From Russia With Love.
5 OK, it was released in most countries in 1964, but Finland and West Germany got it in 1963, so my point stands. Just.
6 Casino Roy-kof kof kof kof - yet still probably not as bad as Die Another Day
7 Which is an example of the Arthur Daley effect: a bit part comes to define the whole series. Arthur Daley should have been minor comic relief to Dennis Waterman's eponymous Minder, and Inspector Clouseau is just a bumbling cuckold in The Pink Panther, not a central character. Identifying the Pink Panther with Sellers is almost as though we'd remember the Bond films solely because of, and centred around, Sylvia Trench.
8 And this will only get worse in the George Lazenby era, I fear.

Maybe you've come here from: If you liked this, go there and look for other things in the same vein. If you didn't like it, go there and look for something different...


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