Monday, November 20, 2017

The Swinging Bonds of 1967 - Too much (in common) for one James Bond!

The “Swinging London” waves threw barrels of color to the grey streets and society 50 years ago, in 1967. During that year, as Pink Floyd, Jimmy Hendrix and The Beatles were heard loud in music stores and Twiggy was photographed everywhere, the regular moviegoer had not only James Bond film offered to him, but two.

For the first time –sixteen years prior to 1983’s “Battle of Bonds”– two different adaptation of Ian Fleming’s character would face each other, both bearing big discrepancies but a few things in common.

On June 12, You Only Live Twice was released. For the first time in the official 007 series produced by Albert R Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, a great departure has been made between the script and Fleming’s original novel, consisting in a dark and dramatic story where a depressed Bond was out of revenge for the death of his wife against Ernst Stavro Blofeld, leader of SPECTRE. In the 1964 book, the secret agent follows the lead to one Dr. Shatterhand, owner of a suicide garden in Japan. The doctor is revealed as Blofeld in the last chapters, and his plan doesn’t go beyond attracting “dishonoured” Japanese citizens to commit suicide.

Two months before this film, Columbia Pictures released Casino Royale, an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel. American producer Charles K Feldman acquired the rights of this novel some time before Broccoli and Saltzman. Since the duo refused to join forces to produce the movie, Feldman went solo and opted to satirize the contents of the novel. The 1953 book was a dramatic story that included a horrid torture scene and a tragic ending, where the girl whom the protagonist falls for reveals to be an enemy agent and commits suicide afterwards.

You Only Live Twice poster artwork by Frank McCarthy, depicting 007 walking upside down the villain's lair inside a volcano. A image that promises limitless andventures and thrills.

As the Space Race was at its height, with astronaut Ed White performing the first US spacewalk in the Gemini 4 mission, You Only Live Twice screenwriters Roald Dahl and Harold Jack Bloom oriented Blofeld’s plan to a blackmail that included the hijacking of space rockets in order to “inaugurate a little war” between the US and the Soviet Union, both powers challenging each other for the Space Race since the late 1950s.

Dahl was known for his children stories like Matilda or Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, Bloom for TV series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Bonanza. Scribes with this kind of background lightened the story in a significant way, providing the SPECTRE organization with an enormous lair hidden in a volcano (it costed one million dollars, the budget of the first Bond film Dr. No), explosive action sequences, and lots of humoristic situations for Sean Connery’s Bond.

Casino Royale poster artwork by Robert McGinnis. The
psychodelic tatooed lady invited the audience to a
world of extravagant action and beautiful ladies
The usual quota of beautiful women was also exploited with three main female characters (the good girl who dies, the bad girl who also dies, and the one that remains with the hero, according to Dahl’s formula) opposing the romantic Kissy Suzuki from the book, who tries to retain Bond in the last chapter when he loses his memory after a fiery battle with the villain.

Unlike the Lewis Gilbert film, whose only big problem was Sean Connery getting tired of the James Bond image and the Japanese fans and reporters stalking him even in the bathroom (literally), the production of Casino Royale was far more complicated.
Five directors helmed the film: John Houston, Val Guest, Robert Parrish, Ken Hughes and Joe McGrath. None of them knew what the other was shooting. The stars had a volatile relationship with each other, namely Peter Sellers who refused to work with Orson Welles, kept making a change after another in his scenes, and had some arguments with his co-star and fiction lover Ursula Andress.

All the dramatism of Ian Fleming’s novel was of course left aside to make a spy spoof. The story, written by Wolf Mankowitz, had the retired Sir James Bond played by David Niven (one of Fleming’s favourite actors for the role of his creation) visited by the head of the world’s biggest intelligence services, begging him to return to active field after a mysterious enemy has killed most of their agents. The fun starts as Sir James differentiates himself and criticizes “the bounder” who got his name and number and complains of the overuse of gadgets in the service. This is of course an indirect to Connery’s official Bond, who is “an impostor” in this world.

David Niven as Sir James Bond in Charles K Feldman's
Casino Royale. Niven was Ian Fleming's idea of an
onscreen Bond, but this clearily wasn't the version
he expected.
Suddenly, Sir James’ house is blown away and M dies on the attack (actually, it was M’s plan to blow James house away, to force him to return). After meeting M’s widow Lady Fiona and a number of teenage girls trying to seduce him –whom, unlike what the official Bond would have done, he rejects– he plans to train a number of male and female agents and name them all “James Bond 007”, to distract the enemy. The big threat was none other than Sir James’ nephew Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen), plotting to kill all men over 1.60 mt and make all women beautiful with a bacillus he created.

Only the name of a few characters and the card game (held between Le Chiffre and Evelyn Tremble, a baccarat expert recruited by Sir James) remain from the book. Instead, Casino Royale preferred to take full advantage of the colourful era with its ravishing cinematography, over developed costumes and bombastic music by Burt Bacharach, all in a film made with the spirit of the Pink Panther saga and almost following the structure of What’s New Pussycat, a prior Feldman production also starring Sellers and Andress.

Casino Royale should be remembered more as the testimony of a funny 1960s film than a James Bond film, but You Only Live Twice stands out as a solid James Bond movie as produced by EON and tied up to the official franchise. The difference is very clear in that aspect, with only reading a plot summary of both flicks.

However, the Lewis Gilbert movie also stands out in comparison of the first four official Bond films. Far from the simplicity of Dr No and From Russia with Love, closer to Goldfinger’s escapism and taking one step ahead of Thunderball’s lavishness, this movie broke new ground as the fantastic comic book-like situations in the series (three girls, action scenes, gadgets, villain and henchmen in underground lair) began to soar from this film on in the series.

"The things I do for England!" - Bond is seduced by the deadly SPECTRE agent Number 11 aka Helga Brandt (played by the late Karin Dor). Following Robert Dalh's Bond scripting formula, she was "the bad girl who dies".

This production would also be the template for other Bond stories as The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979), both also directed by Lewis Gilbert. Even another cinematic secret agent, Harry Palmer, would have a more extravagant movie in 1967’s Billion Dollar Brain, opposed to the rather urbane-looking films The Ipcress File (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966).

Freddy Young’s lens captured the neon lights of Tokyo and the orange sunsets of Kyushu Bay, while John Barry added some oriental sounds to his fifth Bond soundtrack, besides his grandiloquent percussion that included interpolations of Nancy Sinatra’s title theme.

These two –rogue and official– Bond productions meet each other as representative of the time they were released. Artist Robert McGinnis worked in the poster campaign of both movies delivering extravagant and colourful designs: Casino Royale got a lady with her body tattooed with scenes of the film, while You Only Live Twice presented our hero walking upside down Blofeld’s volcano in an impeccable black tuxedo (in a poster variation done by artist Frank McCarthy) or smiling as he piloted his Little Nellie autogyro. None of them could beat the other in terms of visual style, the cinematography being very innovative and sharp in both productions. And the two provided a large amount of extravagant fight, chases and explosions.

Everything in 1967 seemed to be extravagant, colourful, surrealist and bombastic. James Bond wasn’t going to be an exception.

Nicolas Suszczyk

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