Friday, July 20, 2012

BOND-A-THON: For Your Eyes Only

With the proviso that you turn off the DVD at 1:58:22, thereby saving yourself an excruciating scene in which Margaret Thatcher (Janet Brown) conducts a flirtatious telephone conversation with a parrot she believes to be agent 007, ‘For Your Eyes Only’ is the high point of the Roger Moore years with a back-to-basics aesthetic that atones in a most welcome fashion for the excesses and idiocies of ‘Moonraker’. (Parenthetically, John Gardner’s turgid 1989 continuation novel ‘Win, Lose or Die’ has Bond in the role of counter-terrorist, safeguarding Thatcher and George Bush at a summit conference. Which is strange because he usually finds himself pitted against crackpot megalomaniacs hellbent on world domination.)

‘For Your Eyes Only’ marks two notable firsts in the franchise: it’s the first Bond to feature a writing credit for Michael G. Wilson, and the first to be directed by former editor John Glen. Both men would continue in these roles for the next four movies. At what point in pre-production and who banged the drum for it the loudest I can’t say, but the decision was made to back away from the outlandish spectacle of ‘Moonraker’ and take the character (and, to a greater or lesser degree, the series) back to basics. Less gadgetry, tighter action sequences, more focus on narrative. ‘For Your Eyes Only’ strikes the right balance, delivering what is basically a thriller while remembering that Roger Moore is the punster Bond and allowing him to toss off the requisite amount of audience-friendly quips.

The plot is a magnificent piece of MacGuffin deployment, cheekily revisiting the race to recover a gizmo that threatens the safety of British nuclear submarines scenario of ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. Here, the device is still within the wreck of a British naval vessel; a spy-boat of sorts operating in foreign waters and therefore unable to benefit from an official salvage operation. When Sir Timothy Havelock (Jack Hedley), an oceanologist with ties to the government, is murdered in front of his daughter Melina (Carole Bouquet) by a hitman identified as Hector Gonzales (Stefan Kalipha), Bond is sent to intercept Gonzales and find out who he’s working for.

Bond’s briefing is given by MI6 Chief of Staff Bill Tanner (James Villiers) and the Minister of Defence (Geoffrey Keen), during which it’s mentioned the M is “on leave”. It’s a subtle and graceful acknowledgement of Bernard Lee’s passing and I’m glad that they didn’t replace him immediately. Robert Brown would take up the mantle for the rest of the Moore years and during Timothy Dalton’s short-lived tenure, before Dame Judi Dench made the character her own in ‘Goldeneye’.

Bond discovers Gonzales – who, for such an infamous and supposedly deadly hitman, is (a) crap at hiding his identity and (b) really easy to track down – hosting the kind of pool party that wouldn’t be out of place in an Akon video. Before he can brace the pistol-packer (or hit on any of the chicks), Melina pops up with a crossbow and gets some payback. An awesome moment courtesy of an awesome actress. Bouquet is never less than fabulous whatever she’s in. The scene where Melina witnesses her parents’ murder is the best bit of screening acting by anyone in any Bond film, and DoP Alan Hume is wise enough to zoom in on Bouquet’s piercing eyes. The look she projects right into the camera – an expression knife-edge between heartbroken and vengeful – is powerhouse.

Added to this, Melina is easily the best-written Bond girl in the series to date; there’s no simpering, no swooning, no floundering around waiting to be rescued by Bond (in fact she saves his ass at one point, the only Bond girl to do so since Claudine Auger’s Domino in ‘Thunderball’). Nor is she paired up with 007 for the whole movie. During the first half particularly, she drifts in and out of the narrative as Bond flits from Spain to Italy to Corfu, always a striking presence, her cold-blooded agenda giving the film a real edge.

It’s tempting to wrap the review up here and now with a simple reiteration: this movie is a rattling good unpretentious thriller and Carole Bouquet brings her A-game. But that would be to rob a few other luminaries of some well-earned words of praise. Moore delivers in this one; he hinted at it in ‘Live and Let Die’, but here he plays Bond with gravitas. Indeed, he comes as close as he ever would to the brutal Bond of Connery circa ‘From Russia with Love’, particularly when he despatches an assassin who’s garrotted a colleague. The assassin’s Mercedes, its escape route interrupted by Bond’s bullet, teeters on a cliff edge; Bond coldly walks up to it, tosses in the dove pendant (the killer’s calling card) taken from his friend’s body, and lands a hefty kick against Merc, sending it plunging. A Falstaffian Bond he may be in virtually every other film, but in this one scene Roger Moore is badass.

A raised glass to Topol. As Milos Columbo, a former freedom fighter now enjoying life as a smuggler, Topol is evidently having a blast, cracking nuts, packing heat and looking way cooler in a leather jacket than a paunchy middle-aged guy with a grey-haired comb-over has any right to. Topol’s flamboyance contrasts nicely with Julian Glover’s rigidly controlled characterisation of Aris Kristatos. And it’s a change to have a Bond villain who’s not a world domination obsessed sociopath with a penchant for monologues. Here, Kristatos is basically a businessman looking to do what all businessman do – make a fuckton of money, albeit by murderously obtaining an intelligence item which he can sell to the Russians (in the form of M’s opposite number General Gogol, played again by Walter Gotell).

Weak points? The score is pretty horrible (when Sheena Easton’s title song can be said to be the high point musically, then you know something’s wrong), any and all scenes involving Kristatos’s Olympic protégé Bibi (former skating champion Lynn-Holly Johnson) are borderline embarrassing, a snowbound chase scene that runs almost ten minutes gets fairly tedious very early, and there’s another one of those protracted underwater sequences that the Bond movies are so fond of.

But mainly, though, the problem with ‘For Your Eyes Only’ is well … the bookends. It starts with a sequence that I’ve sat through half a dozen times now and which still strikes me as odd in its tone and utterly out of place with the rest of the film. Bond is visiting a churchyard, where he places flowers on a headstone. The inscription reads “Teresa Bond, 1943 – 1969, beloved wife of James Bond. We have all the time in the world.” Thus, ‘For Your Eyes Only’ – one of the few post-‘OHMSS’ entries that acknowledges Bond as a widower – starts on a reflective, slightly melancholy note. A priest hurries over and tells 007 that his office has sent a helicopter for him; some kind of emergency. Bond clambers into the whirlybird, only to see the vicar making the sign of the cross. Soon enough, the pilot’s been electrocuted and the helicopter is being flown remote control by an individual in a wheelchair with a bald head and a white cat on his knee.

This character – who is absolutely not Ernst Stavro Blofeld if a lawyer representing Kevin McClory happens to be present, and who patently is if you’re Albert Broccoli and you’re wanting to make a mono-figured gesture to the aforementioned Mr McClory – has great fun sending the helicopter spiralling and plunging through the sky and Bond struggles to wrest back control of the machine. He eventually does, and turns the tables on his nemesis in memorable fashion. All of which is exciting/suspenseful/attention-grabbing on paper, only it’s staged against an abandoned gasworks so grim in its architecture and emptiness that the high-flying hi-jinks just don’t gel. It’s an anodyne approach to criticise a Bond film for having a pre-credits sequence that has sweet FA to do with the actual plot, but when that selfsame sequence is also so stylistically at odds with the rest of the production, it rankles.

And then there’s the last scene. Which we mentioned earlier and will not be extrapolating any further, other than to say it’s horrible and excruciating and unfunny and makes the Bond-chases-a-midget ending of ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ look like Tarkovsky.

A much more satisfying conclusion – SPOILER ALERT – is after the climactic assault on Kristatos’s mountain-top stronghold, Bond finally recovering the device only to find General Gogol and a machine-gun packing minion ready to take it off him. Bond flings the gizmo out across the precipice. It shatters (to the accompaniment of a crap sound effect) and Bond gives Gogol a sheepish grin. “Détente, comrade,” he declares, “you don’t have it and we don’t have it.” Gogol responds with diffident shrug and grins back as if to say suits me, pal; you went through all that for nothing, I enjoyed a day out of the office. (SPOILERS END) It’s a nice little moment, underplayed and without any of the smugness generally inherent in Moore’s Bond. It’s also one of the rare moments where a Bond film manages to make an actual comment on the nature of espionage, no matter how moribund.


Matthew Kitsell said...

Hi Neil,

Many thanks for this terrific review, as always I very much enjoyed reading it.

For Your Eyes Only has always ranked very highly among the Roger Moore films, which I can understand, owing to its more low-key, realistic feel. While I certainly think it was a wise decision for Eon Productions to take the series in a more down-to-Earth direction, I've always found the resulting film, despite everyone's obvious hard work and the best of intentions all round, to be somewhat dull and unmemorable. As such, for me, it is the one Roger Moore Bond film I find to be actually a little bit overrated.

For sure, I admire John Glen's no-nonsense direction and his determination to put Moore through his paces as a performer. I admire the greater focus on gritty situations and tougher characters. I admire the cast for giving generally sincere and committed performances, especially in comparison to earlier films (Moore, as you say, comes over particularly well in this installment). And yet...

... I don't the film is ever as exciting as it would like to be. The plot has always seemed to me to be a little bit arbitrary, sending Bond off to the Mediterranean as it does after a piece of machinery about which we are told very little. And yes, I also agree, Carole Bouquet is both fiery and gorgeous as Melina - which is why it is so annoying that she is so underused throughout much of the film, ending up as a bit of a bump in the narrative by midway point. And yes, Bond's tango with Locque's Mercedes is one of THE great moments in Bond... but for me, Moore had an even better moment of viciousness in Octopussy, when he coldly and ruthlessly avenges the death of 009, a stellar moment for Moore which tends to get overlooked in a more frivolous film.

So in summary, I admire For Your Eyes Only far more than I can actually enjoy it, for all the above reasons. It just feels to me cold, austere, lacking the exotic feel that the greatest Bonds have all had(From Russia with love had it in spades - and that was genuinely taut and tense). For that reason - and I appreciate that this isn't a fashionable opinion amongst Bond fans - the following Octopussy rates as the superior film for me, getting the right balance between presenting a generally believable cold war ambiance and offering up something far more glamorous, flamboyant, bigger than life. I've always regarded Octopussy in fact to be Roger Moore's second best Bond film, under The Spy Who Loved Me. That said, FYEO is certainly a superior piece of work to Golden Gun, Moonraker and View To A Kill. Many would disagree and I always have fun reading their opinions!

One last thought on FYEO - Michael Gothard! What a great face he had and what a great adversary he made for Bond in this picture. He's one of the best things in the movie.

Sorry if that was a bit long! I guess your review just got me thinking there!

Many thanks once again,


David Pascoe said...

I'm in agreement with Matthew. For Your Eyes Only is horrendously dull for long stretches and in terms of interest, I have it right down there with Quantum of Solace.
Perversely though, it does feature perhaps the tensest and scariest sequence in all Bond movies. Namely Bond's attempt to climb up the mountain to the monastery and the assassin's attempt to knock out the four rings connecting his rope to the rock face. Each fall is recorded in such detail, the rope whizzing through the rings before coming taut that you genuinely go through all of the terror of vertigo in this scene. It must be a stuntman's worst nightmare.

The keelhaul scene is also well done, but it lacks glamour and any Bond film which does that (the aforementioned Quantum of Solace and Licence to Kill among them) is very compromised in terms of audience engagement.

Neil Fulwood said...

Matthew - no need to apologise for leaving such a literate and well thought-out comment. It's great to get feedback, discussion and exchange of ideas in the comments section. Comments like yours make the hour or two I put into the average review time well spent.

Very good points made, and I think I need to hold my hands up and admit that I'm swayed so much my the elements of the film I wholeheartedly love that I've cut it a lot of slack in certain other areas. Yes: it lacks flamboyance, the narrative stutters occasionally and - there's no way around this one - it's bookended by an opening scene that's out of place and a closing one that's just terrible.

I've just watched 'Octopussy' - the first time I've seen it in almost a decade - and it emerged as a much more cohesive film than I'd remembered. Bond's "and that's for 009" moment is definitely up there with his despatch of Locque in 'For Your Eyes Only'.

David - thanks for commenting. The cliff face sequence is definitely tense and really puts the audience through the wringer. I was going to talk about that in the review, throwing in a comparison to Clint Eastwood's 'The Eiger Sanction', but I baulked when the review hit the 1,500 word mark.

The 'Octopussy' review will go live at the weekend. Hope you enjoy reading it.

Matthew Kitsell said...

Thanks, Neil. As I say, I think there's a lot about FYEO that's really, really good. The best moments in the film (the brutal killing of Melina's parents, the memorable Mercedes incident, the very tense climax on the rockface) are I think among the best moments to be found in any of the Bonds. It's just that in between these highlights the film occasionally lacks fizz, I think.

Looking very forward to hearing your thoughts on Octopussy!