James Bond Begins!: Sean Connery as 007 in DR. NO (United Artists 1962)


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Ian Fleming’s secret agent 007, James Bond, was introduced in the 1953 novel Casino Royale, and was a smashing success, leading to a long-running series of books starring MI-6’s “licensed to kill” super spy. No less than President John F. Kennedy was a huge fan of Fleming’s books, and since the early 60’s were all about “Camelot”, producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman decided to cash in and bring James Bond to the big screen (the character had appeared in the person of Barry Nelson in an adaptation of CASINO ROYALE for a 1954 episode of TV’s CLIMAX!, with Peter Lorre as the villain Le Chiffre).

DR. NO was the first Bond movie, and the producers wanted Patrick McGoohan, star of the British TV series SECRET AGENT, to play the suave, ruthless Bond. McGoohan declined, and Richard Johnson was considered. He also turned them down, leading Broccoli and Saltzman…

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Embracing The Melodrama Part III #6: The Betsy (dir by Daniel Petrie)


“Wheeeeeeee!”

— Loren Hardeman Sr. (Sir Laurence Olivier) in The Betsy (1978)

Here’s a little thought experiment:

Imagine if The Godfather had starred Laurence Olivier and Tommy Lee Jones.

That may sound strange but it actually could have happened.  When Francis Ford Coppola first started his search for the perfect actor to play Don Vito Corleone, he announced that he could only imagine two actors pulling off the role.  One was Marlon Brando and the other was Laurence Olivier.

As for Tommy Lee Jones, he was among the many actors who auditioned for the role of Michael Corleone.  At the time, Jones was 26 years old and had only recently made his film debut in Love Story.  As odd as it may be to imagine the quintessentially Texan Tommy Lee Jones in the role, Coppola always said that he was looking for a brooder as Michael and that’s definitely a good description of Jones.

Of course, as we all know, neither Olivier nor Jones were ever cast in The Godfather.  Marlon Brando played Don Vito and Al Pacino was cast as Michael.  However, a few years later, Olivier and Jones would co-star in another family saga that combined history, organized crime, and melodrama.  That film was 1978’s The Betsy and, interestingly enough, it even co-starred an actor who actually did appear in The Godfather, Robert Duvall.

Of course, now would probably be a good time to point out that The Godfather is perhaps the greatest American film of all time.  And The Betsy … well, The Betsy most definitely is not.

The film’s German poster even gives off a Godfather vibe

Based on a novel by Harold Robbins, The Betsy exposes the secrets of Detroit.  Decades ago, Loren Hardeman founded Hardeman Motors and started to build his considerable fortune.  Sure, Loren had to break a few rules.  He cut corners.  He acted unethically.  He had an affair with his daughter-in-law and then drove his gay son to suicide.  Loren never said that he was perfect.  Now in his 80s, Loren has a vision of the future and that vision is a new car.  This car will be called the Betsy (named after his great-granddaughter) and it will be the most fuel-efficient car ever made.

Since the film appropriates the flashback structure used in The Godfather Part II, we get to see Loren Hardeman as both an elderly man and a middle-aged titan of industry.  Elderly Loren is played by Laurence Olivier.  Elderly Loren spends most of the film in a wheelchair and he speaks with a bizarre accent, one that I think was meant to be Southern despite the fact that the film takes place in Michigan.  Elderly Loren gets really excited about building his new car and, at one point, shouts out “Wheeeeeee!”

Middle-aged Loren is played by … Laurence Olivier!  That’s right.  Olivier, who was 71 years old at the time, also plays Loren as a younger man.  This means that Olivier wears a hairpiece and so much makeup that he looks a bit like a wax figure come to life.  Strangely, Middle-aged Loren doesn’t have a strange accent and never says “wheeeee.”

To build his car, Loren recruits race car driver Angelo Perino (Tommy Lee Jones).  Angelo’s father was an old friend of Loren’s.  When Angelo agrees, he discovers that the Hardeman family is full of drama and secrets.  Not only is great-granddaughter Betsy (Kathleen Beller) in love with him but so is Lady Bobby Ayers (Lesley-Anne Down), who is the mistress of Loren’s grandson, Loren the 3rd (Robert Duvall).

Because he blames his grandfather for the death of his father, Loren the 3rd has no intention of building Loren the 1st’s car.  Loren the 3rd wants to continue to make cars that pollute the environment.  “Over my dead boy!” Loren the 1st replies.  “As you wish, grandfather,” Loren the 3rd replies with a smile.

But we’re not done yet!  I haven’t even talked about the Mafia and the union organizers and the automotive journalist who ends up getting murdered.  From the minute the movie starts, it’s nonstop drama.  That said, most of the drama is so overdone that it’s actually more humorous than anything else.  As soon as Laurence Olivier shouts out, “Wheeeee!,” The Betsy falls into the trap of self-parody and it never quite escapes.  There’s a lot going on in the movie and one could imagine a more imaginative director turning the trashy script into a critique of capitalism and technology.  However, Daniel Petrie directs in a style that basically seems to be saying, “Let’s just get this over with.”

The cast is full of interesting people, all of whom are let down by a superficial script.  Nothing brings out the eccentricity in talented performers quicker than a line of shallow dialogue.  Jane Alexander, who plays Duvall’s wife, delivers all of her lines in an arch, upper class accent.  Edward Herrmann, playing a lawyer, smirks every time the camera is pointed at him.  Katharine Ross, as Olivier’s mistress and Duvall’s mother, stares at Olivier like she’s trying to make his head explode.  Tommy Lee Jones is even more laconic than usual while Duvall always seems to be struggling not to start laughing.

And then there’s Olivier.  For better or worse, Olivier is the most entertaining thing about The Betsy.  He doesn’t give a good performance but he does give a memorably weird one.  Everything, from the incomprehensible accent to a few scenes where he literally seems to bounce up and down, suggests a great actor who is desperately trying to bring a spark of life to an otherwise doomed project.  It’s a performance so strange that it simply has to be seen to be believed.

Tomorrow, we take a look at another melodrama featuring Robert Duvall, True Confessions!

 

A Movie A Day #238: Lawman (1971, directed by Michael Winner)


In the 1880s, Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster) is the marshal of the town of Bannock.  After a night of drinking and carousing leads to the accidental shooting of an old man, warrants are issued for the arrest of six ranch hands.  Maddox is determined to execute the arrest warrants but the problem is that the six men live in Sabbath, another town.  They all work for a wealthy rancher (Lee J. Cobb) and the marshal of Sabbath, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), does not see the point in causing trouble when all of the men are likely to be acquitted anyway.  Maddox doesn’t care.  The law is the law and he does not intend to leave Sabbath until he has the six men.

Lawman starts out like a standard western, with a stranger riding into town, but then it quickly turns the western traditions on their head by portraying Marshal Maddox as being a rigid fanatic and the wealthy rancher as a morally conflicted man who does not want to resort to violence and who continually tries and fails to convince Maddox to leave.  In the tradition of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, there are no real heroes to be found in Lawman and, even when Maddox starts to reconsider his strict adherence to the law and refusal to compromise, it is too late to prevent the movie from ending in a bloody massacre.  Since Lawman was made in 1971, I initially assumed it was meant to be an allegory about the Vietnam War but then I saw that it was directed by Michael Winner, a director who specialized in tricking audiences into believing that his violent movie were deeper than they actually were.

Even if Lawman never reaches the heights of a revisionist western classic like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, it is still pretty good, with old pros Lancaster, Ryan, Cobb, and Albert Salmi all giving excellent performances.  The cast is full of familiar faces, with everyone from Robert Duvall to Richard Jordan to Ralph Waite to Joseph Wiseman to John Beck showing up in small roles.  In America, Winner is best remembered for his frequent collaborations with Charles Bronson.  Chuck is not in Lawman, though it seems like he should have been and Lee J. Cobb’s rancher is named Vincent Bronson.  Winner would not make his first film with Charles Bronson until a year later, when he directed him in Chato’s Land.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: The Silver Chalice (dir by Victor Saville)


If you ever needed proof that everyone has to start somewhere, look no further than the 1954 biblical epic, The Silver Chalice.

The Silver Chalice features the film debut of Paul Newman, who later proved himself to be a legitimately great actor.  It’s true that, unlike a lot of actors, Newman made his debut in a starring role.  He never had to humiliate himself with any one-line roles or walk-on bits.  No, Paul got to humiliate himself with a starring role.

Paul Newman was 29 years old when he played Basil, a former slave turned sculptor.  Not only did Newman bear a disconcerting resemblance to Ben Savage (of Boy Meets World fame) but he gave a performance that was so bad that it’s kind of a shock that he ever worked again.  Basil is a passionate artist, one who survived being betrayed by his adopted family and slavery.  Newman comes across like a nice, young man from Iowa.  Usually, Newman looks miserable but occasionally, he flashes a somewhat weak smile.  When Basil gets mad, Newman speaks in a squeaky voice.  When Basil is feeling reverent, Newman furrows his brow like a hungover Russell Brand staring straight into the sun.

“But me and Topanga are soul mates…”

Then again, I’m not sure that any actor could have given a good performance as Basil.  The Silver Chalice has a terrible script, one that was written by Lesser Samuels.  (I’ll avoid the obvious joke about whether or not The Silver Chalice would have been better if written by Greater Samuels.)  Apparently, before Newman was cast, the producers pursued James Dean for the role.  I’m sure we all would have enjoyed seeing Dean slouch his way through the film but I doubt that even he could have done much with The Silver Chalice.

The Silver Chalice is based on a novel, which perhaps explains why there’s so many characters and so many unnecessary subplots.  Basil follows a path that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a 1950s biblical epic.  He’s a young Greek who is adopted into a noble Roman family.  When his kindly stepfather dies, Basil’s stepsiblings sell him into slavery.  It’s not an easy life but Basil is a talented sculptor so Joseph of Arimathea commissions him to make a silver chalice for the Holy Grail.  Basil goes from poor to rich to poor again to rich again to ultimately saved by grace.  He even gets to do the same walking towards Heaven thing that Richard Burton did at the end of The Robe.

Meanwhile, Simon Magus (Jack Palance) is wowing the citizenry with his magic tricks and claiming to be the risen Messiah.  Simon’s assistant just happens to be Helena, who knew Basil when he was younger.  Young Helena is played by dark-haired Natalie Wood.  Grown-up Helena is played by blonde Virgina Mayo.  They were both good actresses but there’s seriously no way that Natalie Wood would have ever grown up to be Virginia Mayo.

Jack Palance pretty much steals the movie, mostly because he gets to wear the silliest costumes:

Poor Paul Newman has to settle for a tunic and a miniskirt, while Jack Palance gets to wear this:

Personally, I’ve always enjoyed the story of Simon Magus.  He tried to show off by flying over the Roman Forum so St. Peter said a prayer and Simon promptly plunged to his death.  Take that, you Gnostic!

Another interesting thing about The Silver Chalice is that the sets are very deliberately fake.  I don’t mean that they look cheap.  I mean, much as in the style of German Expressionism, the sets are specifically designed to remind you that you’re watching a movie.

For instance, look at the wall behind Palance:

Look at this pleasure palace:

Look at Rome at night:

The sets are extremely dream-like and yet everything else about the film is extremely slow and conventional.  One wonders if director Victor Saville was trying to make an art film, though there’s nothing else in his long filmography that would suggest that Saville was anything other than a workmanlike director.  In fact, most biblical epics of the time took a lot of pride in looking as expensive and “accurate” as possible.  Major studios in the 1950s were not known for artistic experimentation, especially when it came to Biblical epics.  It’s hard to know what to make of The Silver Chalice‘s artistic flourishes, which is why it’s easier to just focus on what a terrible performance Paul Newman gives.

That’s certainly what Paul did!  In 1966, when The Silver Chalice finally premiered on TV, Newman took out a newspaper ad in which he apologized for his performance and then asked people not watch.  Apparently, he also used to show the movie during parties on the condition that his guests mock the film while watching it.

I don’t really blame him.  It’s an amazingly dull film and Newman looks absolutely miserable in nearly every other scene.  However, because it did star Paul Newman, The Silver Chalice will always have a life on TCM.

Speaking of TCM, they last broadcast this film on February 24th as part of their 31 Days of Oscar.  (It was nominated for both its sets and its score.)  That is when I recorded it.  And, after watching it yesterday, I was more than happy to erase it.

A Movie A Day #23: The Valachi Papers (1972, directed by Terrence Young)


The best thing about The Valachi Papers is this:

valachi-0

That is Charles Bronson, playing real-life mob informant Joe Valachi and making a gesture that expresses the way many people feel about the world right now.  Valachi, in both the film and real life, was a bit player in the Cosa Nostra, a driver and an occasional hitman who was lucky enough to marry the daughter (played by Bronson’s real-life wife, Jill Ireland) of one of the bosses.  In prison for smuggling heroin, Valachi runs into one of those bosses, Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura).  Genovese, convinced that Valachi has broken the code of omerta, gives Valachi the kiss of death.  Valachi kisses him right back and then becomes a rat.

Valachi’s 1963 testimony to the U.S. Senate was the public’s first glimpse into life in the Mafia.  Many of the cliches that have since appeared in every mob movie or television show were the result of Valachi’s testimony and Peter Maas’s subsequent book, The Valachi Papers.  (In the “Test Dream” episode of The Sopranos, Tony can be seen holding a copy of The Valachi Papers.)

Over the years, doubts have been raised about both the validity of Valachi’s testimony and his claim that he only turned rat because Genovese put a contract on his life.  The film version of The Valachi Papers takes Valachi’s claims at face value, telling Valachi’s story in a series of flashbacks.

The Valachi Papers is often compared to another mob movie that came out in 1972, The Godfather, though there’s really not much of a comparison to be made.  Whereas The Godfather was a family saga, The Valachi Papers is much more concerned with the day-to-day operations of the Mafia.  It never comes close to matching The Godfather‘s epic feel and the cheap production values don’t help.  (Keep an eye out for the twin towers of the World Trade Center, anachronistically towering over depression-era New York City.)

Storywise, The Valachi Papers actually has more in common with Goodfellas than with The Godfather.  Like Henry Hill, Joe Valachi is not a major player.  He’s just a working man whose employer happens to be the Mafia.  Stylistically, of course, The Valachi Papers has nothing in common with Goodfellas.  If not for the violence and some the language, it would be easy to mistake The Valachi Papers for an old made-for-TV movie.

The best thing about The Valachi Papers is Charles Bronson as Joe Valachi.  When The Valachi Papers was made, Bronson was a huge draw in Europe but was still largely unknown in the United States.  It was not until Death Wish came out, two years later, that Bronson became a star.  He does a good job as Joe Valachi.  In a way, it’s the perfect role for Bronson, who was a genuine tough guy who, like Valachi, spent decades working in the trenches before eventually becoming a household name.

I don’t think Charles Bronson ever would have turned informant, though.

Not our Chuck.

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Horror on TV: Twilight Zone 3.17 “One More Pallbearer”


TheTwilightZoneLogo

In this episode of The Twilight Zone, bitter millionaire Paul (Joseph Wiseman, who also played the title character in Dr. No around the same time that this episode as shot) offers three people safety from a nuclear war on one condition. They must apologize to him for insults that are both real and imagined.

This episode originally aired on January 12th, 1962.

James Bond Film Review: Dr. No (dir. by Terrence Young)


Hi there!  As you may already know, in the days leading up to the release of Skyfall, we’re going to be looking at the previous films in the James Bond franchise.  Today, we take a quick look at the first of the “official” James Bond films — 1962’s Dr. No.

Dr. No is a film of many firsts.  It was the first film to be adapted from one of Ian Fleming’s original novels.  (Though it was not the first adaptation, that honor going to the 1954 made-for-tv version of Casino Royale). It was, of course, the first Bond film to be produced by the legendary team of Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli.  It featured the first true Bond girl, with Ursula Andress playing Honey Rider and spending the entire film in an iconic white bikini.  Dr. No featured the first appearance of both M and Miss Moneypenny (played, respectively, by Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell).  That iconic theme music made its first appearance in Dr. No as well.  However, most importantly, Dr. No featured the first appearance by Sean Connery in the role of James Bond.  Even more than Andress’ white bikini, Connery is the reason why Dr. No proved to be the rather unlikely launching pad for one of the most succesful film franchises in cinematic history.

Dr. No, in fact, is a film that contains so many historic firsts that, often, it seems like reviewers tend to neglect the film itself and, instead, chose to concentrate on the film’s legacy.  And indeed, 50 years after it was first released, it’s difficult to watch Dr. No without viewing everything about it in relation to what the James Bond franchise would eventually become.  Instead of evaluating the film on its own individual merits, the tendency is to watch Dr. No and to spend a lot of time thinking things like: That’s the first time the world ever heard Sean Connery say, “Bond, James Bond.”  We tend to forget that, when Connery and director Terrence Young actually made Dr. No, they had no way of knowing that 22 sequels would follow.  They didn’t know that they were making film history.

Dr. No begins with a shooting in Jamaica.  John Strangeways, the British Intelligence station chief, is ambushed and gunned down by three assassins.  Shortly afterward, in a surprisingly brutal scene, his secretary is also assassinated.  In response, James Bond is summoned to the offices of MI6.  When he receives the summons, Bond is busy gambling and seducing Sylvia Trench (Eunice Grayson).  Sylvia, incidentally, was originally meant to be a character who would pop up in all of the subsequent Bond films.  Basically, she would have functioned as Bond’s girlfriend, the loyal woman who waited at home while Bond went to exotic countries and slept with every other woman in the world.  Perhaps wisely, this idea was abandoned after just two movies but still, Bond’s initial meeting with Sylvia (and the audience) is such an iconic moment that words simply won’t do it justice.  Here it is, for your viewing pleasure:

This scene has to rank as one of the best intro scenes in film history.  In just a few brief minutes, this scene tells us everything that we need to know about both James Bond and, even more importantly, Sean Connery’s interpretation of the character.  In this scene, Connery’s Bond is the epitome of narcissistic charm, giving just a hint of the determined cruelty lurking right underneath the surface.  It’s especially interesting to compare Connery’s Bond here to Daniel Craig’s interpretation of the character.  Whereas Craig’s Bond often seems to be on the verge of having a nervous breakdown, Connery is established in his first scene as being a cool and calm professional.  Craig may be the ideal Bond for our troubled reality but Connery will always be the Bond of our dreams and fantasies.

Bond is sent to Jamaica, where he teams up with CIA agent Felix Leiter (played by Jack Lord).  Again, it’s interesting to compare this version of Felix Leiter with Jeffrey Wright’s more-recent interpretation of Felix.  Whereas Jack Lord’s Felix Leiter is a cool, calm professional (a bit like an asexual version of Connery’s Bond, to be honest), Jeffrey Wright’s Felix often seems to be mired in self-loathing.  Both interpretations are perfectly legitimate (and Felix is usually such a superfluous character that just about any interpretation will do).  Instead, they’re interesting largely because of the way that each one of them epitomizes the decade in which each film was made.

With the help of Leiter, Bond quickly figures out that Strangeways’ death is linked to the mysterious, Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), who has his own private island near Jamaica.  The natives claim that a dragon guards the island but Bond, never one to let something like that stop him (especially when it’s always his allies — like the unfortunate Quarrel — who get killed in these films, as opposed to him) sneaks onto the island.  It’s here that he first spies Honey Rider (Ursula Andress) walking along the beach.  Again, Honey’s introduction is such an iconic scene that, rather than try to describe it, it’s better just to show it:

For all the talk of how the Bond girls were often sexist stereotypes, I would have loved to have been an old school Bond girl.  Seriously, they got to be all sexy, they got to make love to James Bond, and occasionally, they got to help save the world.  Seriously, what fun!

I’ve spent so much time talking about James Bond and Honey Rider that I haven’t left much room for Dr. No.  But that’s okay because, to be honest, Dr. No is not really that interesting of a villain.  As opposed to future Bond villains, Dr. No is something of a bland character.  Joseph Wiseman plays him with a lot of menace and he has a few over the top moments but it doesn’t matter because there’s really nothing to distinguish Dr. No from any other megalomaniac that’s ever shown up in a low budget spy movie.  He’s a perfectly acceptable villain but he’s not an extremely memorable one.  (Perhaps if Christopher Lee had accepted the role when it was offered to him, Dr. No would have been a bit more of an effective character.)  Rest assured that Dr. No does have an impressive secret headquarters and, that once he does capture Bond and Honey, he takes his time to explain all of his evil plans as opposed to doing something sensible like killing them.

So, how does Dr. No hold up 50 years after first being released?

Surprisingly well.

Despite having a weak villain, Dr. No is still a lot of fun.  As opposed to future Bond films, Dr. No was a low-budget affair and, at it’s best, it comes across as an appealing B-movie.  Ultimately, the film is best known for introducing audiences to Sean Connery in the role of James Bond and perhaps that is for the best because Connery truly is the best thing in Dr. No.  Five decades later, you can still see why the world was so intrigued with both the actor and the character.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at one of my personal favorite films of all time — From Russia With Love!