“TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” (1979) Review

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“TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” (1979) Review

I would have never thought about watching the BBC’s television adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel if I had not seen the 2011 movie version. Never. For some reason, I have never been that inclined to read his novels or watch any movie or television adaptations of his work. But after seeing Tomas Alfredson’s movie, I had to see this version that starred Alec Guinness. 

Unlike the 2011 movie, this “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” was set around the time the miniseries aired, since the Cold War was still in full swing. You know the story. The head of SIS (MI-6 in real life), Control, sends agent Jim Prideaux to Czechoslovakia to meet a Czech general who claims to have information identifying a deep-cover Soviet spy planted in the highest echelons of “Circus” (the nickname for the SIS headquarters). “Operation Testify” proves to be a trap when Prideaux is shot and captured by the Soviets. Due to the mission’s failure, both Control and his right-hand man, George Smiley, are forced to retire.

But when Ricky Tarr, a British agent gone missing in Portugal, turns up in England with new evidence backing up Control’s mole theory, Smiley is recalled to find the mole. He learns from Oliver Lacon, who oversees the country’s intelligence services, that Control had four suspects occupying high positions in SIS – Percy Alleline (who assumed the position as the Circus’ new head), Toby Esterhase, Bill Haydon and Roy Bland. Smiley, with the help of Peter Twiliam (who happens to be Tarr’s immediate supervisor), instigates a secret investigation of Operation Testify to learn the name of the mole, nicknamed “Gerald”.

To compare a seven-part television miniseries with a motion picture with a running time just barely over two hours seems just a bit too ridiculous to me. Instead, I will merely talk about the former. And what can I say about “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY”? It was a first-rate production that deserved all of the accolades it had received three-three to thirty-four years ago. Instead of the usual action-dominated spy stories that have spilled out of Hollywood and the British film industries since the first James Bond movies, “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” felt like an well-paced Cold War mystery that featured a good deal of excellent acting, dramatic moments and perhaps the occasional action scene or two on the side.

Too many flashbacks can be deadly to a story or a production. But when said production is basically a mystery, flashbacks can be effectively used. Director John Irvin and screenwriter Arthur Hopcraft certainly used the miniseries’ flashbacks with great dramatic effect – aside from one particular flashback. The most effective flashback – at least for me – proved to be the back story regarding of Ricky Tarr’s affair with Irina, the wife of a Moscow Center intelligence official, in Portugal. This affair leads to Tarr’s discovery of new evidence supporting Control’s theory of a high-ranking Soviet mole in the Circus. Another flashback that I found interesting proved to be Sam Collins’ recollection of the night when news of Jim Prideaux’s capture reached the Circus.

The single flashback that failed to resonate with me proved to be Smiley’s recollection of his brief meeting with his nemesis, KGB operative-turned-official Karla, during the 1950s. Although the scene featured an excellent performance from Alec Guinness as Smiley and a strong screen presence in the form of a smoldering Patrick Stewart as Karla, the brief scene nearly put me to sleep. I would have been satisfied with a verbal recollection from Smiley. And there were two sequences that I found either unnecessary or disappointing. I found the sequence featuring Prideaux’s trip to Czechoslovakia. I realize that both Irvin and Hopcraft’s script tried to convey this entire sequence as intriguing action scene. It did not work for me. Considering that most of the sequence was shot at night, I found it rather dull. And it came as a relief when the miniseries moved on to Smiley’s recruitment into Operation Testify. Smiley’s capture of “Gerald” in the last episode struck me as unsatisfying and anti-climatic. And while watching the miniseries, I realized that one needs a great deal of patience to watch it. I had no problem with its length, but I did find Irvin’s pacing rather slow at times.

The performances featured in “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLIDER, SPY” struck me as outstanding. I have already commented on Patrick Stewart’s brief, yet strong silent presence as Karla in one scene. Siân Phillips’ portrayal of Smiley’s unfaithful wife, Ann, proved to be equally brief. Although the character was discussed in numerous scenes, Phillips did not appear long enough for me to be impressed by her performance. Terence Rigby’s portrayal of one of the “Gerald” suspects – Roy Bland – seemed like a waste of time to me. Although Rigby gave a first-rate performance in one scene in which his character is interviewed by Smiley, he spent most of the production as a background character. I found this rather odd, considering his role as one of the major suspects. I also enjoyed the performances of John Standing, Joss Ackland, Alexander Knox and Michael Aldridge, who proved to be effectively smug as the new head of the Circus, Percy Alleline.

Ian Richardson was the last person I could imagine portraying the charming, yet acid-tongue womanizer, Bill Haydon. Yet, he really did a fabulous job in the role and it seemed a pity that he never portrayed similar characters, later in his career. I really enjoyed Ian Bannen’s performance as disgraced agent, Jim Prideaux. But I must admit there were times when I found it a bit hammy . . . especially in those scenes in his new profession as a schoolmaster. Beryl Reid struck me as perfect in the role of former Circus intelligence analyst, Connie Sachs. She not only conveyed the character’s intelligence, but also the latter’s joie de vivre that had sadly dampened with time and a surprising job termination. Bernard Hepton’s portrayal of mole suspect, Toby Esterhase, struck me as the most unusual role I have ever seen him portray. He was marvelous and slightly eccentric as the Hungarian immigrant who rose to the top echelon of the Circus by toadying to others. Hywel Bennett did a great job in his performance as field agent, Ricki Tarr, projecting both the character’s emotions and trapped situation. Michael Jayston’s portrayal of Smiley’s protégé, Peter Guilliam, struck me as equally emotional. In fact, I found his performance so effective that there were times I found myself wondering if the character was suited for intelligence work. The top prize for best performance definitely belonged to Alec Guinness, for his portrayal of intelligence officer, George Smiley. With delicious subtlety, he did a superb job of conveying every aspect of Smiley’s personality. To my knowledge, only five actors have portrayed Smiley either in the movies or on television. I believe that Guinness’ portrayal is probably one of the two best interpretations I have come across.

“TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” is not perfect. I believe it has a few flaws that included an unnecessary flashback, an unnecessary action sequence and some very slow pacing. But its virtues – an excellent story, first-rate use of flashbacks and some superb characters portrayed by a cast led by the legendary Alec Guinness – outweighed the flaws considerably. In my opinion, the 1979 miniseries might be one of the best television productions from the 1970s and 80s.

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“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

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“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

Several years ago, I read an article in which Steven Spielberg had expressed a desire to direct a James Bond movie. It has been over a decade since the director had made this comment. And as far as I know, he has only directed two movies that had anything to do with spies – the 2005 movie “MUNICH”, which co-starred the current Bond actor, and his latest film, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”

Like “MUNICH”“BRIDGE OF SPIES” is a spy tale with a strong historical background. Based upon Giles Whittell’s 2010 book, “Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War”, the movie centered around the 1960 U-2 Incident and the efforts of attorney James B. Donovan to negotiate the exchange of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for the captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel – whom Donovan had unsuccessfully defended from charges of espionage against the United States. Although Whittell’s book focused upon a larger cast of characters involved in the U-2 incident and the famous spy exchange, the screenwriters – Matt Charman, along with Joel and Ethan Coen – and Spielberg tightened their focus upon Donovan’s role in the incident.

It occurred to me that in the past fifteen years, I can only think of five Steven Spielberg-directed movies that I have truly liked. Five out of eleven movies. Hmmmm . . . I do not know if that is good or bad. Fortunately, one of those movies that I managed to embrace was this latest effort, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”. I enjoyed it very much. I would not rank it at the same level as “MUNICH” or “LINCOLN”. But I thought it was a pretty solid movie for a director of Spielberg’s caliber. The latter and the movie’s screenwriters made the intelligent choice to focus on one particular person involved in the entire incident – James B. Donovan. If they had attempted to cover every aspect of Whittell’s book, Spielberg would have been forced to release this production as a television miniseries.

Yet, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” still managed to cover a great deal of the events surrounding the shooting of Powers’ U-2 spy plane and the exchange that followed. This is due to the screenwriters’ decision to start the movie with the arrest of Rudolf Abel in 1957. More importantly, the narrative went into details over the arrest, the U.S. decision to put Abel on trial, their choice of Donovan as his attorney and the trial itself. In fact, the movie covered all of this before Powers was even shot down over the Soviet Union. The screenwriters and Spielberg also went out of their way to cover the circumstances of the arrest and incarceration of American graduate student Frederic Pryor, who was vising his East Berlin girlfriend, when he was arrested. And that is because the writers had the good sense to realize – like Whittell before them – that the incidents surrounding the arrests of both Abel and Pryor were just as important as Powers being shot down by the Soviets.

What I best liked about “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was its ambiguous portrayal of the nations involved in the entire matter – the United States, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). No country was spared. Both the United States and the Soviet Union seemed bent upon not only projecting some image of a wounded nation to the world. Both engaged in sham trials for Abel and Powers that left a bad taste in my mouth. And the movie portrayed East Germany as some petulant child pouting over the fact that neither of the other two countries were taking it seriously. Which would account for that country’s vindictive treatment toward Pryor. And neither the U.S. or the Soviets seemed that concerned over Pryor’s fate – especially the U.S. Watching the movie finally made me realize how the Cold War now strikes me as irrelevant and a waste of time.

As much as I enjoyed “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, the movie seemed to lack a sense of urgency that struck me as odd for this kind of movie. And I have to blame Spielberg. His direction seemed a bit . . . well, a bit too relaxed for a topic about the Cold War at its most dangerous. Many might point out that “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is basically a historic drama in which anyone familiar with the U-2 incident would know how it ends. Yet Both “MUNICH” and “LINCOLN”, along with Ron Howard’s “APOLLO 13” and Roger Donaldson’s 2000 film, “THIRTEEN DAYS”, seemed to possess that particular sharp urgency, despite being historic dramas. But for “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, Spielberg’s direction seemed just a tad too relaxed – with the exception of a few scenes. One last problem I had with “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was the ending. Remember . . . this is Steven Spielberg, a director notorious for dumping a surprising layer of saccharine on an otherwise complex tale. This saccharine was on full display in the movie’s finale sequence that featured Donovan’s return to the United States . . . especially the scene in which he is riding an El train to his home in the Bronx and his family’s discovery of his activities in Eastern Europe. It was enough saccharine to make me heave an exasperated sigh.

Speaking of Donovan’s El Train ride back to his neighborhood, there was one aspect of it that I found impressive. I must admit how cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a longtime collaborator of Spielberg’s since the early 1990s, allowed the camera to slowly sweep over Donovan’s Bronx neighborhood from an elevated position. I found the view rather rich and detailed. In fact, Kamiński provided a similar sweeping bird eye’s view of the Berlin Wall and the two “enclaves” that bordered it. Another aspect of the movie’s production values that impressed me were Adam Stockhausen’s production designs. I thought he did an outstanding job in re-creating both New York City and Berlin of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And his work was ably assisted by Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich’s set decorations; along with the art direction team of Marco Bittner Rosser, Scott Dougan, Kim Jennings and Anja Müller.

The performances featured in “BRIDGE OF SPIES” struck me as pretty solid. I thought Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemmons, Michael Gaston, Will Rogers and Austin Stowell did great work. But for my money, the best performances came from lead Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Dakin Matthews and Sebastian Koch. Dakin Matthews has always been a favorite character actor of mine. I have always found his performances rather colorful. However, I would have to say that his portrayal of Federal Judge Byers, who seemed exasperated by Donovan’s attempt to give Abel a fair trial, struck me as a lot more subtle and effective than many of his past roles. Sebastian Koch gave a very interesting performance as East German attorney Wolfgang Vogel, who seemed intensely determined that his country play a major role in the spy swap and not be cast aside. Superficially, Tom Hanks’ role as James Donovan seemed like the typical “boy scout” role he had especially became known for back in the 1990s. And in some ways, it is. But I really enjoyed how the actor conveyed Donovan’s increasing disbelief over his country’s questionable handling of Abel’s trial and his sense that he is a fish-out-of-water in a divided Berlin. However, I feel that the best performance came from Mark Rylance, who gave a deliciously subtle, yet entertaining portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. What I liked about Rylance’s performance is that he did not portray Abel as some kind of stock KGB agent, but a subtle and intelligent man, who seemed clearly aware of the more unpleasant side of both American and Soviet justice.

I might as well be frank. I do not think I would ever regard “BRIDGE OF SPIES” as one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies. I thought the movie lacked a sense of urgency and sharpness that nearly robbed the film of any suspension . . . despite it being a historical drama. But, I still believe it was a first-rate film. I also thought that Spielberg and the movie’s screenwriters did a great job in conveying as many details as possible regarding the U-2 incident and what led to it. The movie also featured a first-rate cast led by the always incomparable Tom Hanks. Overall, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” proved that Spielberg has yet to lose his touch.

“THIRTEEN DAYS” (2000) Review

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“THIRTEEN DAYS” (2000) Review

In 1991, Kevin Costner starred in “J.F.K.”, Oliver Stone’s Oscar nominated film that explored the death of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Nine years later, Kevin Costner returned to the land of this country’s own “Camelot”, in this docudrama about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 from the viewpoint of President Kennedy and the men who served his Administration. 

“THIRTEEN DAYS” got its title from Robert F. Kennedy’s 1969 posthumous memoirs about the incident. Yet, David Self’s screenplay is actually based upon Philip D. Zelikow’s 1997 book, “The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis”“THIRTEEN DAYS” began in early October 1962, when the Kennedy Administration receive U-2 surveillance photos revealing nuclear missiles in Cuba that were placed by the Soviet Union. Because these missiles have the capability to wipe out most of the Eastern and Southern United States if operational, President John F. Kennedy and his advisers are forced to find a way to prevent their operational status. Also, Kennedy’s authority is challenged by top civilian and military advisers like Chief of Staff U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who wanted the President to display more obvious signs of military strength in order to scare the Soviets in to removing the missiles. Most of the interactions between Kennedy and his men are witnessed by Kenneth O’Donnell, a presidential adviser and close school friend of Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

There have been complaints that “THIRTEEN DAYS” is not a completely accurate portrayal of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And that the Kenny O”Donnell character, portrayed by star Kevin Costner, was unnecessarily prominent in this film. I do not know if the last complaint is relevant. After all, O’Donnell was one of Kennedy’s advisers during the crisis. But since Costner was the star of the movie and one of the producers, perhaps there is some minor cause for complaint. As for any historical inaccuracy . . . this is a movie adaptation of history. People should realize that complete historical accuracy is extremely rare in fictional adaptations – not only in Hollywood movies and television, but also in productions outside of the country, novels, plays and even paintings.

Were there any aspects of “THIRTEEN DAYS” that I found . . . uh, annoying or off putting? Well, Kevin Costner’s attempt at a Boston accent was pretty terrible. And if I must be frank, there was nothing exceptional about Roger Donaldson’s direction. I am not stating that he did a poor job directing the film. On the contrary, he did a solid job. But there were moments when I felt I was watching a TV movie-of-the-week, instead of a major motion picture – especially in one of the final shots that revealed the President’s advisers discussing policy in Vietnam, while Kennedy prepared to compose a letter to the relatives of a downed U-2 pilot.

Other than Costner’s Boston accent and Donaldson’s less than spectacular direction, I have no real complaints about the movie. In fact, I enjoyed it very much when I first saw it, twelve years ago. And I still enjoyed it very much when I recently viewed my DVD copy of it. “THIRTEEN DAYS” is a solid, yet tense and fascinating look into the Missile Crisis from the viewpoints of President Kennedy and his advisers. Before I first saw this film, I had no idea that Kennedy faced so much trouble from the military elite and the more conservative advisers of his administration. I was especially surprised by the latter, considering that the President himself was not only a borderline conservative, but also harbored hawkish views against Communism.

Although I would never view Donaldson as one of the finest directors around, I must admit that I was more than impressed by his ability to energized a story that could have easily been bogged down by a series of scenes featuring nothing but discussions and meetings. Instead, both Donaldson and Self energized “THIRTEEN DAYS” with a good number of scenes that featured tension between characters, emotional confrontations and two action sequences that featured military flights over Cuba. Among my favorite scenes are Kennedy’s confrontation with Curtis Le May, his angry outburst over Le May’s decision to engage in nuclear testing as a scare tactic against the Soviets; the flight of two U.S. Navy pilots over Cuban airspace; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s confrontation with U.S. Navy Admiral George Anderson; and especially U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson’s confrontation with the Soviet U.N. Ambassador Valerian Zorin.

However, Donaldson’s direction and Self’s script were not the only aspects of “THIRTEEN DAYS” that prevented the movie from becoming a dull history lesson. The cast, led by Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp, provided some superb performances that helped keep the story alive. I am not going to deny that I found Costner’s Boston accent cringe worthy. One would have to be deaf not to notice. But a bad accent does not mean a bad performance. And Costner proved to be a very lively and intense Kenny O’Donnell, whose close relationship and loyalty to the Kennedys allowed him to be brutally frank to them, when others could not get away with such frankness. Steven Culp was equally intense as Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who seemed to inject energy into every scene in which he appeared. But the one performance that really impressed me came from Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of the 35th President of the United States. Instead of portraying Kennedy as some one-note political icon or womanizing bad boy, Greenwood portrayed Kennedy as a intelligent, multi-faceted politician struggling to prevent the outbreak of a third world war, while keeping his high-ranking military officers in check. Personally, I feel that Greenwood may have given the best portrayal of Kennedy I have yet to see on either the movie or television screen. The movie also featured some first-rate and memorable supporting performances from the likes of Dylan Baker (as Robert McNamara), Michael Fairman (as Adlai Stevenson), Lucinda Jenney (as Helen O’Donnell), Kevin Conway (as Curtis LeMay), Madison Mason (as Admiral Anderson), Len Cariou (as Dean Acheson), Bill Smitrovich (as General Maxwell Taylor), and especially Karen Ludwig and Christopher Lawson as the sharp-tongued White House operator Margaret and the sardonic U.S. Navy pilot Commander William Ecker.

I want to say something about the film’s production designs and setting. If there is one aspect of “THIRTEEN DAYS” that I truly appreciated how J. Dennis Washington’s production designs re-created the year 1962. And he did so without any over-the-top attempt at early 1960s style. Unlike some productions set during this period, “THIRTEEN DAYS” did not scream “THIS IS THE SIXTIES!”. Washington’s production designs, along with Denise Pizzini’s set decorations and Isis Mussenden’s costume designs presented the early 1960s with an elegance and accuracy I found very satisfying. Their work was ably assisted by Andrzej Bartkowiak’s photography. Bartkowiak’s work also supported Conrad Buff IV’s excellent editing, which prevented the film from becoming a dull period piece.

I do not know what else I could say about “THIRTEEN DAYS”. I do not claim that it is a perfect film. I found Roger Donaldson’s direction excellent, but not particularly dazzling or outstanding. And yes, Kevin Costner’s otherwise first-rate performance was marred by a bad Boston accent. But he, along with an excellent Steven Culp, a superb Bruce Greenwood, a solid cast and a satisfying script by David Self made “THIRTEEN DAYS” an interesting and well made account of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

 

“YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” (1967) Review

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“YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” (1967) Review

In recent years, EON Production’s 1967 movie, “YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” has not been highly regarded by many Bond fans. In a way, I can understand why, judging by Sean Connery’s performance in his fifth consecutive turn as James Bond and the movie’s plot. 

The plot begins with the abduction of an American space capsule in space by a mysterious craft. The U.S. government blames the Soviet government, but the British government, who has tracked the mysterious craft to Japan, where James Bond is sent to investigate. With the help of Tiger Tanaka and Japan’s SIS agency, Bond eventually links the mysterious craft to SPECTRE, who is being paid by the People’s Republic of China to start a war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. As one can see, the movie’s plot, written by Roald Dahl, bears very little resemblance to the novel under the same name. Characters like Kissy Suzuki, Tiger Tanaka, Ernst Blofeld and Dikko Henderson are in both the movie and the novel. But the latter dealt with a Bond (depressed over the death of his wife, Tracy) given one last chance by MI6 to get direct access from the Japanese to Magic 44, the project revealing all Soviet radio transmissions. The mission, which eventually involves Blofeld and a place called “Castle of Death”, seems like a far cry from the movie’s plot.

Not only is the movie’s plot bears very little or no resemblance to the novel (a first in the Bond franchise), there are some moments in the story that seem to defy logic. I never understood why Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) failed to mention that she worked for Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) and the Japanese SIS when she first met Bond. Why would Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) go through all of that trouble in allowing Bond to “convince her” to betray Osato (Teru Shimada) before finally attempting to kill him? If she did it for sex with the British agent, then she had deserved to be consumed by the piranha fish. I never could figure out on which side was the wheel placed on Aki’s white Toyota sports car – the left or the right. What exactly did Bond plan to do once he joined the escaped American astronauts impersonating SPECTRE astronauts? Especially since he had sent Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama) to summon Tiger and his Ninja warriors? And why in the hell did Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) shoot Osato and then force Bond to another spot before attempting to kill him? Why was it necessary for him to force Bond to move to a different spot, in the first place?

Most of the performances in the movie were satisfying. especially Akiko Wakabayashi, who memorably played the charming and very competent Aki. In fact, I would say that she practically gave one of two gem performances in the movie. It seemed a shame that she had failed to survive the movie. The other gem turned out to be the performance of Tetsuro Tambo, who played the charismatic head of Japan’s SIS, Tiger Tanaka. Teru Shimada was properly menacing as SPECTRE middleman, Mr. Osato. Charles Gray made a nice appearance as MI6 agent, Dikko Henderson, four years before his stint as Ernst Blofeld. 

Speaking of Blofeld, Pleasance was not bad, but his Middle European accent seemed a little unconvincing and the scar on his cheek seemed a little over-the-top. Karin Dor seemed like an obvious attempt on EON Production’s part to cash in on Luciana Paluzzi’s popular performance in “THUNDERBALL” . . . and it failed. Her appearance seemed like a waste of time. Mie Hama, although charming and beautiful, turned out to be one of the most boring Bond leading ladies of all time. I could not detect anything interesting about her character, Japanese SIS agent and diving girl, Kissy Suzuki. Many have commented on Sean Connery’s less than spectacular performance in this movie. And I must agree with their opinion. Granted, he had some good moments with Wakabayashi and Tambo, but overall, he seemed to be walking through the performance. And this is not surprising, since it had been reported that Connery was pretty much weary of the Bond role, by this time. But at least he did not seemed to be spoofing his role, as he did in “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER”.

“YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” did have high water marks, other than Wakabayashi and Tambo’s performances. The movie can boast beautiful shots of Japan, thanks to cinematographer, Freddie Young; and a lovely John Barry score, topped by a beautiful and lilting theme song, performed by Nancy Sinatra. “YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” might not be considered the best of Bond films or those made during the Connery era, but it still turned out to be very entertaining. 

“GOLDFINGER” (1964) Review

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“GOLDFINGER” (1964) Review”

Ever since its release in 1964, the James Bond movie, “GOLDFINGER” has been regarded as one of the best ever in the franchise. In fact, it is considered by many Bond fans as the franchise’s definitive film, considering that it more or less created what is known as “the Bond formula”.

The 1959 Ian Fleming novel, upon which the movie is based, is also highly regarded by some fans. However, others believe that the movie is an improvement on the literary version. While I agree that the movie, “GOLDFINGER” is an improvement over the novel, I have a rather low opinion of both the novel and the cinematic adaptation. However, I am here to comment on the movie and not the novel.

The plot for “GOLDFINGER” begins with MI-6 agent James Bond sabotaging a Latin American drug laboratory. Following this assignment, Bond rests at an exclusive Miami Beach hotel, where he receives instructions from his superior “M” – via C.I.A. operative Felix Leiter – to observe a bullion dealer name Auric Goldfinger. Bond discovers that Goldfinger is cheating at gin rummy with the help of employee Jill Masterson. Bond distracts Jill and blackmails Goldfinger into losing the game. While enjoying sex with Jill inside his hotel room, Goldfinger’s Korean (or Japanese) manservant Oddjob knocks Bond unconscious. The agent regains consciousness and finds Jill’s dead body covered in gold paint.

After “M” censures Bond for screwing up his assignment in Miami Beach, he orders the agent to discover how Goldfinger is smuggling gold out of Europe. Bond engages in a golf match with the villain, before following him to Switzerland. There, the agent meets Jill’s sister, Tilly, who seeks revenge against Goldfinger for her sister’s death. Eventually, Bond and Tilly form a short-lived alliance before the latter is killed by Oddjob and the former becomes Goldfinger’s prisoner. Fearful that the British agent might know the details of his new operation in the United States, Goldfinger keeps Bond a prisoner, instead of killing him.

As I had earlier stated, “GOLDFINGER” is without a doubt one of my least favorite Bond movies of all time. And there are many reasons why I harbor such a low opinion of it. Some of the the film’s problems stemmed from some poor characterizations. James Bond spent most of the movie either behaving like an oversexed adolescent or an idiot schoolboy. This characterization merely hampered Sean Connery’s performance in the movie and led me to consider it one of his worst. The movie also featured one-dimensional portrayals in characters such as Auric Goldfinger’s henchman, Oddjob, which allowed actor Harold Sakata spend most of the movie wearing a menacing smile; the thuggish Mafia bosses who visit Goldfinger’s Kentucky farm; and a very weak Felix Leiter, as portrayed by Canadian actor Cec Linder, who spent most of the movie behaving like a sidekick, instead of an ally from the C.I.A.

“GOLDFINGER” also featured some incredibly bad plotholes that make me wonder why this film is so highly regarded. For instance, I understood why Goldfinger had ordered Oddjob to kill Jill Masterson for her betrayal. Why did he not order Oddjob to kill Bond, who had compromised Jill and caused him to lose the card game? Goldfinger decides to keep Bond a prisoner, instead of making more of an effort to learn what Bond knew about his current scheme, “Operation Grand Slam”. I think drugs would have been a good deal more helpful than a gold laser threatening the agent’s nether regions. The method Bond used to convince Pussy Galore, Goldfinger’s personal pilot, to betray her boss disgusted me. It disgusted me that screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn allowed Bond wrestle Pussy to the barn floor and use sex to get her to betray Goldfinger. It disgusted me that the entire scene reeked of attempted rape. Why not have Bond convince her that Golfinger was simply a nutcase? I guess Maibaum and Dehn, or the producers, wanted an excuse for Bond to use his “magic penis” on the leading lady.

The movie’s most perplexing plot line involved the Mafia bosses’ visit to Goldfinger’s farm. It featured one of the most ridiculous and unnecessary plot turns in the movie franchise’s history. The sequence began with the gangsters’ arrival and demand for Goldfinger’s presence and the money he owed them. And while Bond eavesdropped on the conversation, Golfinger revealed his Fort Knox plan. Then he murdered them. Many Bond fans have claimed that the reason Goldfinger revealed his plan to the Mafia bosses before murdering them, was because he wanted bask in the enjoyment of letting someone know about his plans. If that was the case, why not have Goldfinger tell Bond earlier in the film before before attempting to kill the agent or leave him for dead? Why save this moment for a bunch of one-dimensional gangsters in the first place? What makes this scenario even more ridiculous is that when one of the gangsters, Mr. Solo, decided that he wants nothing of the Fort Knox plan, Goldfinger sent him on his way with a gold bar . . . before Oddjob killed the man and crushed him inside a car. Goldfinger could have simply killed Solo and the other gangsters at the same time . . . without this ludicrous revelation of his Fort Knox plan?

Were there any positive aspects about “GOLDFINGER”? Well . . . yes, or else I would consider this entry in the franchise to be the worst. Thankfully, the movie’s cast included Gert Fröbe as Auric Goldfinger. Although my opinion of Goldfinger’s intelligence has diminished over the years, I remain impressed by Frobe’s commanding presence and excellent performance. The movie also featured the talented and classy Honor Blackman (who was already famous in Great Britain for her role in the TV series, “THE AVENGERS”), playing the tough and intelligent Pussy Galore. I enjoyed Ms. Blackman’s performance so much that it seemed a shame that her character was ruined in that Galore/Bond wrestling match inside the barn at Goldfinger’s Kentucky farm. Shirley Easton made the most of her brief appearance as one of the doomed Masterson sisters, Jill. And one might as well face it, I doubt no one will ever forget that last image of her gold-painted body spread out upon the bed inside Bond’s Miami hotel room:

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“GOLDFINGER” also benefited from Ted Moore’s photography of Britain, Switzerland and Kentucky; which featured beautiful and sharp color. I was also impressed by Peter R. Hunt’s editing, which seemed most effective in the car chase around Goldfinger’s Switzerland plant, the showdown at Fort Knox and the fight aboard Goldfinger’s plane. Last by not least, I have to mention the music featured in the film. Between John Barry’s score and theme song performed by the talented Shirley Bassey, I must admit that the film’s music is one thing in “GOLDFINGER” that rose above everything else. After all, the move’s theme song is considered one of the best in the Bond movie franchise. And that is an opinion I do share.

Despite some of the movie’s positive aspects – some of the performances, the photography and the music – I have always harbored ambiguous feelings about “GOLDFINGER” for years. In the past, I tried to accept the prevalent feeling that it was probably one of the best Bond movies. But after watching it the last time . . . well let me put it this way, whether or not it was responsible for creating the Bond formula, I finally realized how much I truly dislike it.

“FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” (1963) Review

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“FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” (1963) Review

Have you ever heard the song, “What a Difference a Day Makes”? Well, the song’s title kept going through my head, while viewing 1963’s “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE”, which was based upon Ian Flemnig’s 1957 novel. It seemed such a difference from the very inferior “DR. NO” (and would prove to be quite a difference in my eyes to 1964’s “GOLDFINGER”).

Not only do I consider “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” to be one of the finest Bond films in the franchise, I also view it as Connery’s best. In fact, as with 1965’s “THUNDERBALL”, his acting was superb in this film. James Bond not only seemed mature, but . . . [gasp] human. All one has to do is examine his interactions with leading lady Daniela Bianchi to notice this. Connery has never been so human as he was in this movie. And sadly, he was never this human again.

Connery was supported by a first-class supporting cast. Italian-born actress Daniela Bianchi portrayed the Soviet cipher clerk assigned to seduce him, Tatiana Romanova. What started as an assignment for Tania, ended up as full-blown love affair. Although, Bianchi had her dialogue dubbed by Zena Marshall (from “DR. NO”), she did an excellent job in projecting Tania’s wide range of emotions – including her disgust at ex-Soviet turned SPECTRE agent, Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya).

Speaking of Lenya . . . my goodness, I am speechless! What can I say? The woman was superb! I found her creepy in her scenes with Bianchi and Walter Gotell, yet fearful in the scenes featuring SPECTRE’s leader, Ernst Stavos Blofeld. In fact, she gave one of the best performances by any actor or actress portraying a Bond villain/villainess. And I must say the same for the highly revered Robert Shaw. Not only did his Donovan Grant turned out to be the template for many Bond henchmen to come (with only Andreas Wisniewski from “THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS” coming close), Shaw and Connery provided one of the best dramatic moments and fight sequences in the entire franchise.

Hollywood character actor, Pedro Armendariz, portrayed Bond’s Turkish contact, Kerim Bey. Sadly, the role of Bey would prove to be Armendariz’s last one. After finishing his scenes, he committed suicide, rather than suffer any longer from cancer. But fortunately for many Bond fans, Kerim Bey would prove to be his greatest role. Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell were competent as usual. And the movie would serve as the debut of Desmond Llewellyn as MI-6’s Quartermaster.

The plot for “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” centered around SPECTRE’s scheme to lure James Bond into stealing a valuable Soviet decoding machine, and unknowingly deliver it into their hands. In the process, Agent 007 is to suffer a disgraceful death, in revenge for the death of Dr. No. The movie not only had the good luck to be based upon one of Ian Fleming’s few well-written novels, the screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood, did an excellent job of translating it to the screen. Rich with atmosphere and mystery, “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” almost seemed like the perfect spy thriller – a far cry from the schizophrenic and inferior “DR. NO”. A few changes had been made, but overall they seemed to serve the story very well.

Did I find “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” perfect? No. I have a few complaints. One of my complaints happened to be the Bond-Grant confrontation aboard the westbound Orient Express. From a dramatic viewpoint, it gave Connery and Shaw to exercise their acting chops. From a storytelling viewpoint, it made no sense. It just did not make any sense to me that Grant would take his time preparing to kill Bond, once he got the drop on the British agent. While Grant was busy searching through the unconscious Bond’s jacket and putting on his gloves, I found myself screaming at my TV screen – “What in the hell are you waiting for? Kill him!” I also found the two action sequences that preceded Bond and Tania’s arrival in Venice a bit too much. I had the feeling that the writers added an extra action sequence in order to fill in the movie’s running time. I could have done with either the helicopter sequence or the Adriatic Sea boat chase.

But you know what? Not even these flaws could deter my love for “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE”. It is one of the few James Bond films that do not adhere to the franchise’s rather silly formula. The movie also possessed a first-rate espionage thriller seeped in Cold War politics. And it featured excellent direction from Terence Young, memorable performances from a talented supporting cast and Sean Connery’s best performance as James Bond.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1970s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s: 

FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1970s

1 - American Gangster

1. American Gangster (2007) – Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe starred in this biopic about former Harlem drug kingpin, Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the Newark police detective who finally caught him. Ridley Scott directed this energetic tale.

 

2 - Munich

2. Munich (2005) – Steven Spielberg directed this tense drama about Israel’s retaliation against the men who committed the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds starred.

 

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3. Rush (2013) – Ron Howard directed this account of the sports rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula One auto racing season. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl starred.

 

4 - Casino

4. Casino (1995) – Martin Scorsese directed this crime drama about rise and downfall of a gambler and enforcer sent West to run a Mob-owned Las Vegas casino. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone starred.

 

5 - Super 8

5. Super 8 (2011) – J.J. Abrams directed this science-fiction thriller about a group of young teens who stumble across a dangerous presence in their town, after witnessing a train accident, while shooting their own 8mm film. Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler starred.

 

6 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) – Gary Oldman starred as George Smiley in this recent adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole in MI-6. Tomas Alfredson directed.

 

7 - Apollo 13

7. Apollo 13(1995) – Ron Howard directed this dramatic account about the failed Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon starred.

 

8 - Nixon

8. Nixon (1995) – Oliver Stone directed this biopic about President Richard M. Nixon. The movie starred Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen.

 

9 - Starsky and Hutch

9. Starsky and Hutch (2004) – Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson starred in this comedic movie adaptation of the 70s television series about two street cops hunting down a drug kingpin. Directed by Todd Phillips, the movie also starred Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg.

 

10 - Frost-Nixon

10. Frost/Nixon (2008) – Ron Howard directed this adaptation of the stage play about David Frost’s interviews with former President Richard Nixon in 1977. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen starred.