Watching Bond… James Bond, Part 1

This year’s release of Skyfall marks the Bond franchise’s 23th. film and 50th. anniversary.  To commemorate this remarkable feat, MGM has put out a fantastic, and incredibly comprehensive, collection of all 22 films in the EON productions canon (Never Say Never Again and the ridiculous versions of Casino Royale are not included in this set) of Ian Fleming’s super-spy, James Bond, in Blu-ray for the first time.  After Mrs. Blahg and I took our kids to see Skyfall, their exuberance over the film meant that I felt compelled to educate my children on the great film history of my favorite British agent, 007.

When the Blu-ray set, Bond 50: The Complete 22 Film Collection, was announced earlier in the year, I was all set to pre-order the collection.  At a list price of $300, and going for $180, I thought it was quite the deal… but I held out.  After seeing Skyfall and being made clear of my duty to my family, I quickly checked that price again and found that it had dropped to $13o (that’s ~$5.91 a film).  I still held out, waiting for the Thanksgiving weekend to snatch up, what I was sure would be, a deal and a bargain.  Long story short… the cost shot up to $350 and hasn’t dropped since Thanksgiving… there went any plans I had to purchase the set… until I went to a local retailer, and lo and behold… on sale for $130!  I snatched it up on that Saturday after Thanksgiving… and thus began my children’s education on the finer points of being Bond.

My daughters are currently seven and ten years of age… I was seven when my dad took me to see Moonraker, so although I realize that much of the oeuvre is somewhat inappropriate for young kids, I am also aware that many of the double entendres and punny names go right over a child’s head (I certainly didn’t pick up on the meaning of Dr. Holly Goodhead)… whereas the action sequences and gadgets are pure fodder for enjoyment.  I believe the beauty in starting someone early with films such as these is that they will enjoy them over time on multiple levels… first they will see the iconic scenes that pop up in everyday culture and have a context to now put them in… they will enjoy the gadgets, the fights, the great set pieces, the over-the-top villains and henchmen… eventually they will get the sexual jokes and innuendos… and perhaps over time they will come to appreciate the continuity of culture that Bond represents, the long arm of time stretching back 50 years and giving us multiple glimpses of our past… glimpses of what was considered “cool” at any given moment… not to mention film techniques, styles, and quality… and how these have evolved over time and how the very culture in which Bond exists has changed over the course of the last 50 years.

Bond 50

The set itself, which is a beautiful collection of two “books” containing the first twelve films in the first, and the last 10 films, a space for Skyfall, and a disc of bonus features in the second, is gorgeous.  Each opposite page from the discs has a few pictures of the particular Bond for those films in addition to a few photos of the films themselves… the discs are placed in a sleeve designated for each film by year and Bond girl and unfortunately have the potential to get scratched over time if you removed them carelessly or repeatedly.  The weight of the set has fantastic heft… the design is as flawless as one of 007’s Seville Row suits… but it’s what’s inside that counts… the movies themselves.

When I came home with the collection, the first question I asked my ten year old, the daughter who is more of the budding cinephile, whether we should watch the best films first, or start from the beginning.  She succinctly answered, “From the beginning!”  I could not have been more proud.

I realized that I now have a golden opportunity… I can write up, not necessarily reviews of the films, bur more my take away from each film from my perspective and the perspective of my daughters… how does a modern 21st. century kid relate to older films with such an incredible through-line such as the Bond franchise offers up?  What will work for a modern audience… what doesn’t?  Which elements fell antiquated… which fell timeless?

So, beginning with this post, I will report back on each movie… I want to see how my daughter responds to some of the classic films… and how she responds to the clunkers… I am especially curious as to how different I will see these films in HD and in widescreen presentations.  I believe that I have only seen the majority of these movies in pan and scan format on my TV… how will the improved formatting affect my experience.  The best example of what a difference widescreen can make is Jaws (the movie, not the henchman).  When I saw that in it’s proper aspect ratio, I was floored as to how much of the film had been lost in translation to the small screen.  How will Bond fare in this department?

Without further ado… I begin my little journey with 1962’s Dr. No

Honey Ryder

Dr. No – 1962

As an introduction to the James Bond franchise, you couldn’t do much better than Dr. No.  Although many of the Bond elements that come into favor later down the road aren’t in evidence here… many are.  The first thing you will notice is that guitar riff… the classic John Barry orchestration of the James Bond theme kicks the film off with the always familiar scene of Bond in the scope as he turns to fire his gun.  Unfortunately, this seems to be one of three songs that keep being played throughout the whole film.  There is very little score to speak of, and the “action” that this song keeps introducing are great scenes of Bond entering a hotel room… Bond walking across a lobby… not quite befitting the tune.

We are greeted with many pieces of the Bond puzzle right off the bat; Miss Moneypenny, M, the Walther PPK, SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) in the form of an agent named Dr. No, Felix Leiter, the CIA agent, this time portrayed by the one and only Jack Lord, wearing the most badass cateye sunglasses ever, and of course… the Bond girl!  In one of the first, most lasting, and arguably most alluring of iconic images, we are introduced to Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) as she rises out of the sea like the sexiest leviathan of all time in her tiny white bikini and giant knife at her side.  A generation of boys became men the day this film was released… and the power of that image continues to this day.

Of course, how could I forget the man himself… James Bond!  We first meet him as he sits at a table playing baccarat and naturally flirting with the beautiful woman sitting across from him.  Sean Connery, fresh off of winning the Mr. Universe competition in 1960, yeah… that’s right… Connery was a bodybuilder, fills Mr. Bond’s tuxedo in every way possible.  He is stylish, debonair, handsome, and deadly.  Although the humor and one line quips aren’t in evidence much here… the smirks and side long glances are already in evidence.

Although engaged early on with the film, my girls grew a little weary after an hour or so.  The pacing of this film is certainly slower than what they would recognize as an “action” genre movie.  The scene of Bond freaking out over having a tarantula on him was greeted with laughter, especially in light of the poor quality of the special effects.  Plus, even my kids scoffed at the notion of this white guy playing Dr. No, a Chinese man.  It may not be a bad as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but it’s bad.  However, for days after watching, my older daughter was humming the theme song… and it only took three days for her to ask to watch the second film in the series, From Russia With Love.

Before I jump to that, I have to comment on the picture quality… holy crap, what a gorgeous transfer.  There were moments in Jamaica where the water looked so clear and warm that I felt I could reach into my screen and go for a swim.  The colors were amazing and clear… the sound was perfection.  If I had any doubt as to justify the upgrade to Blu-ray, this film sorted that out immediately.

Tatiana Romanov

From Russia with Love – 1963

From Russia with Love is the first film in the franchise to give us the cold open before the theme song, this time showcasing one of the first henchmen, Red Grant, an impressively blond and frightening Robert Shaw.  From that moment on, we are beginning to get into familiar territory… the classic Bond structure was emerging.  From Russia with Love holds the distinct position of being the film considered closest to Ian Fleming’s novelization, as well as being both Connery’s and Daniel Craig’s favorite of the films.

This is also the first time we meet, at least the back of his head, Blofeld, SPECTRE’s Number 1, as he strokes his white cat.  We are also introduced to Number 3, Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), the former KGB agent turned defector who will become a thorn in Bond’s side throughout the movie.  One thing I noticed during this viewing that I had never noticed before, and I don’t know if the reason for this is the widescreen format, but every time we are seeing Numbers 3 and 5 from the perspective of Blofeld, the camera is rocking back and forth as though you were on a boat.  I’m going to assume this was a deliberate technique used to convey discomfort… I honestly felt a bit motion sick during those scenes and confirmed this camera behavior during every scene with Blofeld.

I realize mentioning the fact that Bond is a bit of a macho pig is like saying the sky is blue… and of course these are essentially historical documents of a bygone era… but I am fascinated by just how rough Bond really is with women, and how his technique for getting a woman seems to border on rape.  It’s difficult seeing someone we see as a noble hero in so many respects hitting women and forcing himself on them sexually.  It’s not so much in evidence with this film (although it is there), it certainly comes up very significantly in Goldfinger… but that is for the next post.

Interestingly enough, Bond’s role in From Russia with Love is almost a passive one.  He becomes embroiled in a plot devised by SPECTRE to lure him, and ultimately play Britain against the Soviet Union, into a plan involving a Lektor decoding machine and a beautiful woman who, according to the SPECTRE story, fell in love with Bond while looking through the Soviet’s file on him and wishes to defect… but only into the arms of 007.  She, Tatiana Romanov, believes she is working undercover for the motherland and has no idea of how she is also being used by Klebb.

The story largely takes place in Istanbul, which was quite a boon for my kids… after playing Assassin’s Creed: Revelations which takes place in Constantinople and hearing They Might be Giants’ Istanbul (not Constantinople), they were quite thrilled to actually see footage of the city itself, and eventually, on a train bound for Italy.  Being able to see these exotic locales as they existed fifty years ago is a wonderful treat… something about the world before the computer age shrunk everything up still holds that romantic torch for me.  And something about all scenes in a car of a boat with crappy film footage rolling behind the actors that pulled my girls out of the story.  I recall always hating that stupid “special effect” as a kid and am pleased that my displeasure of that technique still exists and looks even worse now.  They will appreciate the spoofs of this in Airplane! eventually.

Another new introduction to the Bond canon this film delivers is Q… MI6’s quartermaster… the man behind the gadgets, and this time, the gadget is firmly placed in reality.  A briefcase containing 50 gold coins, a knife that will pop out of the side, and most notably, a tear gas canister inside that will go off if not opened correctly.  Watching Q make Bond perform the “action” of turning the latches horizontally, and explaining it to him like a child, was, I believe, intentionally hilarious.  It’s quite obvious that Q sees Bond as a bit of a dolt… and a wonderfully contentious relationship is born.

Again, the picture is incredible… and the scene where Bond is invited to the gypsy camp and sits back to enjoy some belly dancing and a crazy gypsy cat fight was like something out of a Russ Meyer film… pure sexploitation.  In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Daniel Craig referred to James Bond films as “white man porn”.  After seeing this scene, I couldn’t agree more.

From Russia with Love is the second Bond film directed by Terence Howard.  He would also go on to direct Thunderball, but it’s in these first two films where the groundwork for what’s to come (for the next 50 years!) is laid out.  Although there are fewer jokes, and the action was at times a bit plodding and dull (comparatively), Dr. No and From Russia with Love lay out everything you need to know about James Bond… he is strong, intelligent, unflappable, witty, and quite the ladies man… an incredible introduction to what will become a franchise half a century old and still going strong.

I and Mr. Bond will return with a look at Goldfinger and Thunderball… two amazing Bond classics.

Look out behind you Red, is that a shark?
Cornelius J. Blahg 

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