Tuesday, October 25, 2011

It goes on and on: The Spy Who Loved Me and The Duellists

Two men in tight trousers.  I'll explain what this has to do with Bond in a bit.
It's 1977.  We're really in the Seventies now - look, Bond is wearing flares in the opening gunsight.  We already know ("like listening to the Beatles without earmuffs") that Bond is dead to contemporary culture; clearly those flares are a nod to 90s Madchester and the Happy Mondays.  Just like having Ron Weasley's older brother working on a submarine is a far-sighted reference to J K Rowling's speccy-gonk-in-a-posh-boarding-school saga.  Yes, the Brocolli boys didn't just invent a green vegetable, they were scrying far into the future.

They must have been looking so far ahead that they forgot to look back: the awe-inspiring evil scheme of the criminal mastermind this time round is just a rehash of Blofeld's greatest hits: high larceny from You Only Live Twice, and borrowing the oil tanker that you never saw in Diamonds Are Forever.  Maybe they got distracted, congratulating themselves on recycling the plot, and didn't notice that a teletype watch and making M say "Tell him to pull out - immediately" were just a little bit disappointing.

Still, after a 'twist' with Agent XXX that any human being could see from well over the horizon, Bond gets to put on a spectacularly awful yellow ski suit, quite the equal of that magnificently horrible crimson condom that Connery swam around Thunderball in.  The chase looks good - any Bond film set in the snow looks great1 - although the back projection is a bit obvious, and knowing Rick Sylvester almost got killed in the opening stunt makes it even more impressive.  Plus Carly Simon gives us a 'proper' Bond theme. Although when you think about how many awful songs have been Bond themes, maybe we're wrong to complain about Madonna or Jack White or any of the modern stuff - perhaps they're just trying to be authentic.

After the exoticism of teletype watches and Russian women, the proper start of the film is rather prosaic: we go off to a shipyard in Scotland, and Bond gets to see a system for tracking submarines, called, er, the "Submarine Tracking System".  Full marks for imagination for whoever came up with that codename. 

A grumpy man in a hat.  You'll understand why in a bit.
An evil man

Before we can come to grips with this, we get to see an evil man.  We can tell he's evil because we've paid close attention to the clues we're given:
  • he listens to classical music
  • he has a very long table
  • he likes sharks
  • he's never received proper training from his HR department about the correct ways to terminate employees

He's also got two evil henchmen, who don't really have personalities but are a bit more individual than just the jumpsuit-and-helmet brigade.  There's a big fat bloke, and a tall evil bloke with metal teeth.  And with them introduced, off we go to Cairo, where Bond is ... Bond is outside a tent?  Where there are three camels?  Where's the pyramids?  Where are the people?  What the hell is going on -

- Oh.  Bond has popped in to see a mate of his and shag some random bird that is part of his friend's harem. Not quite sure how having captive women prostituted to you is really part of the playboy lifestyle, but this is the Seventies.  It must be like compensated wife-swapping or something.

Having got that out the way, Bond gets to go to Cairo proper, use a woman as a human shield and then have a fight with a big fat bloke.  The big fat bloke, nonetheless.  The fight itself is disappointingly clumsy and slow, but the shot of the dead big fat bloke is a piece of beauty, right up there with some of the framings from Goldfinger.2
Ouchy! At least it looks nice
Then we're off to the pyramids, because we are in Egypt, after all.  Looking back on this from 2011, maybe we're jaded.  The illumination of the pyramids seems like a not-so-good version of Tosca from Quantum of Solace. (So does the "let's throw a bloke off a building" from the last scene, but never mind that now.)  But perhaps back in the 1970s this was still exciting.  After all, Jaws appears in a fairly frightening double-breasted suit, mesmerising his victims before biting their throats out, and Bond himself is terrifying to the people he meets too.  Once we reach the next scene and he dumps an "out of order" on Calver, it's clear Bond is just as nasty a piece of work as he was in Dr No.

Well, sort of.  In the earliest films people didn't just clamber in the back of vans (see Diamonds Are Forever).  While women never get wise to the threat of getting into a vehicle with Bond, the villains have learned: Bond may have thought he was going to ambush Jaws, but Jaws is quite aware of his stowaways.  And again, instead of just murdering Bond, we get some lovely sights in an old statue storage area.

So that's the good.  The bad is here too: Bond does an impression of Prince Philip when he cracks wise about the "Egyptian builders" that have been Jaws' comeuppance, and the whole smashing the van apart scene seems a bit daft, given Jaws could have just opened the door of the van and pulled them out.  Then Bond would have had less chances to be a prick (is it really acceptable to have a sarky "women drivers" comment while agent XXX is doing her best not to get smashed to a pulp by a bloke with metal dentures?), or get caught out with a whiff of knock-out gas.

But this shows that Bond is a bit like us: he passes out on mass transport and wakes up without a clue where he is, just like I used to drink too much beer and find myself marooned on the night bus with a bunch of criminals and nitwits.  Luckily my walk of shame never required me to go visit M - I'd have been sick on his shoes and gone to bed.

We should remember that M's words to Bond, "James, we've been expecting you" are almost identical to Auric Goldfinger's more formal "Ah, Mr Bond, I've been expecting you".  It's clear that the filmmakers are making a point about both sides in this war being simply facets of the same military industrial complex.  Just as Bond and XXX are mirror images of one another, so everyone else is: the bad guy is a matter of interpretation and perspective, and we've all got a monorail somewhere in our basement.

It's a shame that they didn't pursue this more, and turned The Spy Who Loved Me into a commentary on the depiction of good and evil as Manichean opposites, rather than a series of shades of grey.  Well, actually no: you don't go to Bond films for some pretentious undergraduate guffing on about moral philosophy.  But it would have been a change for the norm, especially as the rest of the film seems to have been stuck together from odds and ends from other films: there's a fight on a train that was done right the first time in From Russia With Love, and not very well in Live And Let Die.  

There's a lair, there are some ludicrous bosses, there's a submarine car.  There's a series of battles with a motorcycle, then a car, then a helicopter that seems to predict the ever-increasing severity of boss fights in computer games (that's the Brocolli's Crystal Ball at it again, I guess). There's another chance for Bond to sound like your dad: "Alright Stromberg, you've made your point" and then there's a rather interminable fight inside an oil tanker between the army of the indistinguishable henchmen and the British navy.  There's some pretty awesome explosions, there's the odd homoeroticism implicit in Stromberg's planned "new and beautiful world beneath the sea" (that just happens to not have any women in it), and there's almost a nuclear explosion. 

It's not dreadful like the morass of The Man With The Golden Gun, and it's not as embarrassingly inept as Thunderball, but it's a bit flat.  Which is a strange thing to say about a film where an oil tanker goes around eating submarines, but there you have it.  Perhaps fatigue is setting in...

Meanwhile, also in 1977, Ridley Scott was filming The Duellists, where the Carradine that wasn't going to end up dead in a Bangkok wardrobe was having problems with Harvey Keitel (and with his hair).

Now you can see why he looked so cross near the top.
There's really not much to be said about this film. It is based on a Joseph Conrad story, who I'm named after. Joseph Conrad also wrote Nostromo, which is the name of the spaceship in Alien, which Ridley Scott directed ... which feels like a slightly interminable set of connections. It's rather more pleasant than the inevitable repetition of the eponymous duellists: Carradine and Keitel meet each other, chop bits off one another, wait a few years, meet each other again, and chop more bits off.
I didn't add that.  That is the actual dialogue.

He shouldn't look so pleased with himself either
I chose this film at random because it is meant to be one of the greats of 1977, but in fact it seems more like a satire of the Bond films: one that's been stripped down to as minimal a core as possible: people keep doing the same things, over and over again, first because they mean them, and then later because that's what they do. Just as in the Bond films, to begin with we had cool dialogue and exciting gadgets, and all of a sudden, that's all we had and we didn't understand why it was there. We're left with prancing about like idiots in the name of some undefined concept of honour. Well, we're all watching Bond films with our feet dry while Carradine and Keitel are stuck in a bog somewhere, but it's the same difference, right?.

And that's about that. The Duellists probably has better hats than The Spy Who Loved Me, but The Spy Who Loved Me doesn't have a man in a bath, sneezing and then howling in pain. Both have scenes where a villain is glimpsed as a tiny man in the background of the scene, but only one of them has the immortal line
I've never heard an unkind word said about moss
and it's not the one with Roger Moore in it.

In closing, then, this was 1977.  Either it was brown and cold and had horses in it, or shiny and moden and still unsatisfying.  Next time - SPAAAAACE!

1 Well, we haven't got to Die Another Day yet, have we?
2 Maybe a theory needs to be developed that the directors of Bond films are obsessed with fat blokes, and it's only when one of them hoves into view that they make any effort to really compose the scene in a way that's aesthetically pleasing.  Maybe. Maybe the best Bond movie ever would be called Fat Blokes On Ice!!!


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