Book Review – ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1963) by Ian Fleming

ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1963) *****
by Ian Fleming
This paperback edition published by Vintage, 2012, 368pp (339pp)
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1963
© Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., 1963
Introduction by Stella Rimington (7pp)
ISBN: 978-0-099-57697-6
Blurb: Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of the terrorist organization SPECTRE, is holed up in his Alpine base, conducting research into a terrifying biological weapon. 007’s mission is to gain access to Blofeld’s icy retreat and gather information vital to guaranteeing world safety. A new alliance with the troubled daughter of the head of the French mafia offers 007 the chance to bring down his nemesis once and for all – but will Bond be prepared to pay the ultimate price for victory?
Comment: Fleming’s eleventh Bond novel was a landmark for the series. It was the first novel Fleming had published after the release of the first Bond film Dr. No (1962) – indeed the novel has a sly reference when actress Ursula Andress is spotted at Piz Gloria; it made reference to Bond’s childhood and his Scottish/Swiss parentage and gives us much more insight into his character; and it sees Bond find the love of his life in Tracy. It also has the most exciting action sequences in the series with Bond’s escape on skis from Piz Gloria, Blofeld’s alpine base, and the final assault and bob sleigh chase breathlessly conveyed. The opening chapters also have a great deal of introspection on Bond’s part, he even considers resigning from the service, as he becomes knight-errant for the suicidal Tracy. The plot deftly mixes Bond’s relationship with Tracy and her father Marc-Ange Draco, who is head of a crime syndicate, with the tracking down of Blofeld and the uncovering, undercover, of his latest plot involving bacterial terrorism delivered through the hypnosis treatment of ten young female allergy victims. Fleming is at the top of his game as he skilfully weaves the story elements together into a satisfying whole, with its shattering conclusion.

Film Review – BREAKOUT (1975)

BREAKOUT (1975, USA) **
Action, Adventure, Drama
dist. Columbia Pictures (USA), Columbia-Warner Distributors (UK); pr co. Columbia Pictures / Persky-Bright-Vista; d. Tom Gries; w. Howard B. Kreitsek, Marc Norman, Elliott Baker (suggested by a book by Warren Hinckle & William Turner and Eliot Asinof); pr. Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler; ph. Lucien Ballard (Eastmancolor. 35mm. Panavision (anamorphic). 2.39:1); m. Jerry Goldsmith; ed. Bud S. Isaacs; ad. Alfred Sweeney; rel. 7 March 1975 (West Germany), 1 May 1975 (UK), 22 May 1975 (USA); BBFC cert: 15; r/t. 96m.
cast: Charles Bronson (Nick Colton), Robert Duvall (Jay Wagner), Jill Ireland (Ann Wagner), John Huston (Harris Wagner), Randy Quaid (Hawkins), Sheree North (Myrna), Jorge Moreno (Sosa), Emilio Fernández (J.V.), Paul Mantee (Cable), Alan Vint (Harve), Alejandro Rey (Sanchez), William B. White (2nd Officer), Roy Jenson (Spencer), Sidney Clute (Henderson), Chalo González (Border Guard), Antonio Tarruella (1st Prison Guard), Don Norgano Frill (2nd Prison Guard).
Vehicle for Bronson in which he plays a bush pilot hired by Ireland for fifty thousand dollars to go to Mexico to free her husband (Duvall), an innocent prisoner. Saddled with a weak script, Gries fails to find a consistent tone as the film veers uneasily between action drama and comedy. This is not helped by using Bronson in a character more suited to the likes of Burt Reynolds. The story is confusing, and the characters’ motives are never fully explored or explained leaving the audience with little to invest in them. The performances are mixed – Duvall has little to do, and his talent is wasted. There are better performances from Quaid and North, who manage to capture the tonal balance best. Huston has a couple of brief scenes as Duvall’s grandfather determined to keep him behind bars. Technical accomplishments are varied, the editing is often clunky, but there are some genuinely hairy stunts performed. Dan Frazer appears uncredited as a US Customs agent. Apparently the film was inspired by the real 1971 helicopter rescue and breakout of Joel David Kaplan from a Mexican prison.

Film Review – NOMADLAND (2020)

NOMADLAND (2020, USA/Germany) ****
Drama
dist. Searchlight Pictures / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (USA), Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment (UK); pr co. Cor Cordium Productions / Hear-Say Productions / Highwayman Films; d. Chloé Zhao; w. Chloé Zhao (based on the book by Jessica Bruder); pr. Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Chloé Zhao; ph. Joshua James Richards (Colour. D-Cinema. Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), ProRes 4444 (3.2K) (source format). 2.39:1, 1.90:1 (IMAX version)); m. Ludovico Einaudi; ed. Chloé Zhao; pd. Joshua James Richards; ad. Elizabeth Godar, Tom Obed; rel. 11 September 2020 (USA), 16 October 2020 (UK); BBFC cert: 12; r/t. 107m.
cast: Frances McDormand (Fern), Gay DeForest (Gay), Patricia Grier (Patty), Linda May (Linda), Angela Reyes (Angela), Carl R. Hughes (Carl), Douglas G. Soul (Doug), Ryan Aquino (Ryan), Teresa Buchanan (Teresa), Karie Lynn McDermott Wilder (Karie), Brandy Wilber (Brandy), Makenzie Etcheverry (Makenzie), Bob Wells (Bob), Annette Webb (Annette), Rachel Bannon (Rachel), Derrick Janis (Victor), Greg Barber (Greg), Carol Anne Hodge (Carol), Sherita Deni Coker (Deni), Merle Redwing (Merle), Forrest Bault (Forrest), Suanne Carlson (Suanne), Donnie Miller (Donnie), Roxanne Bay (Roxy), Matt Sfaelos (Noodle), Ronald O. Zimmerman (Ron), Derek Endres (Derek), Paige Dean (Paige), Paul Winer (Paul), Derrick Janis (Victor), Greg Barber (Greg), Carol Anne Hodge (Carol), Matthew Stinson (Nurse Matt), Terry Phillip (Terry), Bradford Lee Riza (Brad), Tay Strathairn (James), Cat Clifford (Cat), James R. Taylor Jr. (James), Jeremy Greenman (Jeremy), Ken Greenman (Ken), Melissa Smith (Dolly), Warren Keith (George), Jeff Andrews (Jeff), Paul Cunningham (Paul), Emily Jade Foley (Emily), Mike Sells (Mike), Peter Spears (Peter), Cheryl Davis (Cheri).
In this well-judged drama McDormand plays a woman in her sixties, who after losing everything in the Great Recession, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad. The story is a slow-moving mosaic that manages to embody the frustrations of middle-America as recession hits and the victims are left without support or hope. Zhao’s film captures the beauty of the landscape and contrasts it against the harshness of economic decline and corporate mechanics as ghost towns spring up from the rugged landscape. McDormand gives a wonderfully naturalistic performance as the embodiment of the unsustainable ideals of modern America. The result is an ironic reversion to the pioneer mentality that formed the USA in the first place. The slow-pace and introspection will not be for everyone – and certainly may alienate the modern generation – but for those with longer memories and experiences it proves to be a rewarding and chastening experience.
AA: Best Motion Picture of the Year; Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Frances McDormand); Best Achievement in Directing (Chloé Zhao)
AAN: Best Adapted Screenplay (Chloé Zhao); Best Achievement in Film Editing (Chloé Zhao); Best Achievement in Cinematography (Joshua James Richards)

Book Review – THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1962) by Ian Fleming

THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1962) ***
by Ian Fleming
This paperback edition published by Vintage, 2012, 237pp (212pp)
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1962
© Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., 1962
Introduction by Douglas Kennedy (8pp)
ISBN: 978-0-099-57696-9
Blurb: ‘You take a wrong step, play the wrong card in Fate’s game, and you’re lost in a world you had never imagined, against which you have no weapons. No compass.’ Vivienne Michel is running away – from pain, from rejection, from humiliation. When she stumbles into a criminal plot, her life seems over…until a chance encounter with James Bond turns her world upside down.
Comment: Fleming’s tenth James Bond novel is a bold experiment in that it tells its story entirely from the point of view of a female character. The book is written in the first-person allowing Fleming to relate the experiences of Vivienne Michel and how her life is changed by her meeting James Bond. Split into three parts: the first exploring Viv’s life in England leading up to her job at the remote Dreamy Pines motel in the north eastern corner of the USA; the second introduces the two gangsters who would terrorise Viv as she is left in sole charge of the motel pending an end-of-season handover to the owner; the third part introduces James Bond as her saviour and the man who influences her life pathway choices going forward. Whilst the first part is necessary to let us understand Viv’s character, it feels a tad overlong, but the story picks up considerably with the arrival of Sluggsy and Horror at the motel. Then seeing Bond through another pair of eyes is an  interesting diversion, but adds little to Bond as a character that we don’t already know. As such the novel feels more of a diversion – a short story expanded into a novel. The insurance scam plot is simple and slight and only Viv as a character gets any colour due to the nature of the approach. Sluggsy and Horror are given dialogue that could have come out of any 1930s gangster movie. As a diversion it is and interesting, but flawed, experiment that is an entertaining read. Fleming returned to his more traditional writing format for the rest of the series.

Film Review – THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946)

THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946, USA) ***½
Crime, Drama, Film-Noir, Mystery, Thriller
dist. Paramount Pictures; pr co. Paramount Pictures; d. George Marshall; w. Raymond Chandler; pr. John Houseman ; ph. Lionel Lindon (B&W. 35mm. Spherical. 1.37:1); m. Victor Young; ed. Arthur P. Schmidt; ad. Hans Dreier, Walter H. Tyler; rel. 16 April 1946 (USA), 1 June 1946 (UK); BBFC cert: PG; r/t. 96m.
cast: Alan Ladd (Johnny Morrison), Veronica Lake (Joyce Harwood), William Bendix (Buzz Wanchek), Howard Da Silva (Eddie Harwood), Doris Dowling (Helen Morrison), Tom Powers (Capt. Hendrickson), Hugh Beaumont (George Copeland), Howard Freeman (Corelli), Don Costello (Leo), Will Wright (‘Dad’ Newell), Frank Faylen (Man Recommending a Motel), Walter Sande (Heath).
Ladd stars as a returning vet from WWII with Beaumont and brain-injured Bendix. When Ladd tries to reunite with his wife, Dowling, he discovers her promiscuity and walks out. When Dowling ends up murdered, Ladd is the chief suspect and runs into Lake whilst trying to evade capture and clear his name. A largely effective film noir that has more than its share of melodrama and a resolution that feels overly manufactured. Chandler’s script is a little over-reliant on cliched dialogue and often lacks his verbal spark, whilst the ending was changed against his wishes. There are, though, many wonderful individual scenes and Lake’s confident performance coupled with Ladd’s toughness elevates the material.
AAN: Best Writing, Original Screenplay (Raymond Chandler)

Film Review – THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM (2016)

LIMEHOUSE GOLEM, THE (2016, UK) **
Horror, Thriller
dist. Lionsgate (UK); pr co. New Sparta Films / Number 9 Films; d. Juan Carlos Medina; w. Jane Goldman (based on the novel “Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem” by Peter Ackroyd); pr. Elizabeth Karlsen, Joanna Laurie, Stephen Woolley; ph. Simon Dennis (Colour. D-Cinema. Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Todd-AO 35 (anamorphic) (source format). 2.35:1); m. Johan Söderqvist; ed. Justin Krish; pd. Grant Montgomery; ad. Nick Wilkinson; rel. 10 September 2016 (Canada), 1 September 2017 (UK), 8 September 2017 (USA – internet); BBFC cert: 15; r/t. 109m.
cast: Bill Nighy (John Kildare), Olivia Cooke (Lizzie Cree), Douglas Booth (Dan Leno), Daniel Mays (George Flood), Sam Reid (John Cree), Eddie Marsan (Uncle), María Valverde (Aveline Ortega), Adam Brown (Mr. Gerrard), Morgan Watkins (George Gissing), Damien Thomas (Solomon Weil), Peter Sullivan (Inspector Roberts), Amelia Crouch (Young Lizzie), Mark Tandy (Judge), Siobhán Cullen (Sister Mary), Clive Brunt (Charlie), Louisa-May Parker (Mrs. Gerrard), Nicholas Woodeson (Toby Dosett), Paul Ritter (Augustus Rowley), David Bamber (Mr. Greatorex), Levi Heaton (Sarah Martin).
In Victorian London, a Scotland Yard inspector (Nighy) hunts down the sadistic killer behind a series of gory, Jack the Ripper-Like murders. The story tries to be clever in its use of a non-linear structure, which doesn’t work, and comes across as simultaneously convoluted and obvious. As a result, there is little tension built from Goldman’s smug adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s novel. Medina adds some interesting directorial flourishes in an attempt to enliven the material and there is plenty of period atmosphere created by Montgomery’s production design and Dennis’ gloomy photography. However, the production fails to fully explore the themes it highlights – notably Nighy’s character’s sexuality, which is often referenced but never delved into further. The performances are okay, but the production’s fluctuating tone is also an issue and there are no standouts amongst the cast. The result will likely disappoint genre fans of both horror and mystery with the production’s desire to impress, through its non-traditional approach to the material, taking precedence over telling a coherent and well-structured story.

Film Review – TAKEN 3 (2014)

TAKEN 3 (2014, France/USA/Spain) **
Action, Thriller
dist. Twentieth Century Fox; pr co. EuropaCorp / M6 Films / Taken 3 / Twentieth Century Fox; d. Olivier Megaton; w. Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen (based on characters created by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen); pr. Luc Besson; ph. Eric Kress (Colour. 35 mm (Kodak Vision 2383), D-Cinema. Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Hawk Scope (anamorphic) (source format), Super 35 (source format) (some scenes). 2.35:1); m. Nathaniel Méchaly; ed. Audrey Simonaud, Nicolas Trembasiewicz; pd. Sébastien Inizan; ad. Christophe Couzon, Natacha Hatch, Dominique Moisan, Nanci Roberts; rel. 16 December 2014 (Germany), 7 January 2015 (USA), 8 January 2015 (UK); BBFC cert: 12; r/t. 109m.
cast: Liam Neeson (Bryan Mills), Forest Whitaker (Franck Dotzler), Famke Janssen (Lenore St. John), Maggie Grace (Kim Mills), Dougray Scott (Stuart St. John), Sam Spruell (Oleg Malankov), Don Harvey (Garcia), Dylan Bruno (Smith), Leland Orser (Sam (Gilroy)), David Warshofsky (Bernie (Harris)), Jon Gries ((Mark) Casey), Jonny Weston (Jimy), Andrew Borba (Clarence), Judi Beecher (Claire), Andrew Howard (Maxim).
Liam Neeson returns for his third outing as ex-government operative Bryan Mills, who is accused of a ruthless murder he never committed or witnessed. As he is tracked and pursued, Mills brings out his particular set of skills to find the true killer and clear his name. Like its immediate predecessor, this action vehicle is directed by Megaton, who again employs his staccato editing techniques to the action sequences robbing them of any sense of tension or rhythm. The plot formula is a poor man’s riff on THE FUGITIVE. Whilst Neeson is again watchable in the lead and Whitaker adds an element of intelligence as the pursuing detective, the plot implausibility and its increasingly cartoonish and nonsensical violence suck any heart or emotion from the narrative. The movie goes rapidly downhill toward its inevitably formulaic and over-the-top shootout finale. Extended version runs 115m.

Book Review – THUNDERBALL (1961) by Ian Fleming

THUNDERBALL(1961) ****
by Ian Fleming
This paperback edition published by Vintage, 2012, 372pp
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1961
© Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., 1961
Introduction by MIchael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli (5pp)
ISBN: 978-0-099-57695-2
Blurb: ‘He was one of those men – one meets perhaps only two or three in a lifetime – who seem almost to suck the eyes out of your head. He was their Supreme Commander – almost their god’ SPECTRE is a merciless new enemy – a group of the world’s toughest criminals, headed by the brilliant Ernst Stavro Blofeld. When two NATO atom bombs go missing, Bond must unravel SPECTRE’s intricate plans and prevent a global catastrophe.
Comment: Fleming’s ninth James Bond novel is unique in that it is based on an original screenplay Fleming had developed with Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Ivar Bryce and Ernest Cuneo. It became the subject of a long, drawn-out legal battle when Fleming’s novel appeared without any acknowledgement of the contribution of the others involved. The result was a court ruling that gave story credit to the three main writers, which meant all future publications of the novel carried the following credit: “This story is based on a film treatment by K. McClory, J. Whittingham and Ian Fleming.” McClory would also retain film rights to the subject matter following Fleming’s death in 1964, which resulted in a deal with Eon productions to film the novel for release in 1965 (originally planned as the first Bond movie but held up by the legal wrangle). The legal battle between Eon and McClory re-emerged in the 1970s with McClory claiming copyright ownership of SPECTRE and the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, both introduced in Thunderball. This resulted in McClory’s ill-received remake, Never Say Never Again, in 1983 row which Sean Connery was lured back for one last bow as 007.
Fleming’s novel, meanwhile, is an excellent spy adventure coasting on all the elements that made the series popular. Whilst his use of coincidence (the Shrublands meeting with Count Lippe and his bumping into Domino in the Bahamas) as a story advancement technique, may be questionable, it ensures the plot moves quickly. The Bahamas setting is exotic and the characters are strong. Emilio Largo has a conceit that proves to be his undoing, when he brings his mistress – the feisty Domino Vitali – with him on atomic bomb salvage and extortion operation. The introduction of SPECTRE, a criminal super-organisation, and its leader Blofeld creates an added threat and a chief villain with gravitas and charisma who would return in two further novels. The underwater fight climax is thrillingly written and exciting. The story does seem to wrap up remarkably quickly after this and leaves the reader with a feeling of a lack of closure, with Blofeld and SPECTRE remaining at large, but that was understandable given the options this would give Fleming moving forward. In summary, whilst not quite the peak of Bond’s literary adventures, Thunderball is still enjoyable escapism and an important watershed in the series.

Film Review – TAKEN 2 (2012)

TAKEN 2 (2012, France/USA/Turkey/UK) **½
Action, Crime, Thriller
dist. Twentieth Century Fox; pr co. EuropaCorp / M6 Films / Grive Productions; d. Olivier Megaton; w. Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen (based on characters created by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen); pr. Luc Besson; ph. Romain Lacourbas (Colour. 35 mm (Fuji Eterna-CP 3514DI), D-Cinema. Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Panavision (anamorphic) (source format) (some scenes), Super 35 (3-perf) (source format), . 2.35:1); m. Nathaniel Méchaly; ed. Camille Delamarre, Vincent Tabaillon; pd. Sébastien Inizan; ad. Christophe Couzon, Dominique Moisan, Nanci Roberts, Atilla Yilmaz; rel. 7 September 2012 (France), 4 October 2012 (UK), 5 October 2012 (USA); BBFC cert: 12; r/t. 92m.
cast: Liam Neeson (Bryan Mills), Maggie Grace (Kim), Famke Janssen (Lenore), Leland Orser (Sam), Jon Gries (Casey), D.B. Sweeney (Bernie), Luke Grimes (Jamie), Rade Serbedzija (Murad Krasniqi), Kevork Malikyan (Inspector Durmaz), Alain Figlarz (Suko), Frank Alvarez (Car Wash Attendant), Murat Tuncelli (Custom Officer Albania), Ali Yildirim (Imam), Ergun Kuyucu (Mirko), Cengiz Bozkurt (Border Guard #1), Hakan Karahan (Reception Clerk), Saruhan Sari (Waiter), Naci Adigüzel (Cheikh), Aclan Bates (Cheikh’s Aide), Mehmet Polat (Hotel Driver).
In Istanbul, retired CIA operative Bryan Mills (Neeson) and his wife (Janssen) are taken hostage by the father of a kidnapper Mills killed while rescuing his daughter (Grace). This follow-up to the popular 2008 hit is basically more of the same – only this time the whole family is involved. Neeson picks up where he left off in the first movie, but the script sadly offers little that is new or challenging, leaving us with a greatest hits re-run that remains entertaining despite its implausibility and by-the-numbers approach. Megaton’s kinetic editing, however, more often induces confusion and dizziness rather than create suspense and thrills. Extended version runs 98m. Followed by TAKEN 3 (2015).

The original Shaft movie celebrates its 50th Anniversary

Exactly fifty years ago today (on Wednesday 23 June 1971) SHAFT premiered in Detroit (the Palms Theatre). Reports originally promoted a dual premiere with Chicago (The Roosevelt Theatre), but that opening actually took place one week later on 30 June. The Roosevelt ran showings from 8:45am through to midnight and the film reportedly grossed $108,000 in its first week in that theatre alone.

Detroit Free Press, 9 July 1971.The film premiered on the east coast in Baltimore on Thursday 24 June 1971 and in Los Angeles (amongst other cities) on Friday 25 June at the Fox theatre. Gordon Parks and Richard Roundtree attended the St. Louis premiere on the same day. In New York there was a benefit screening at 8pm on Tuesday 29 June at the DeMille Theatre (in aid of the widows of seven police officers slain during the year) before its opening on 2 July at both the De Mille and the Playhouse. SHAFT became a huge success across the USA as it went into a staggered wider release across 120 cities from 2 July.

Gordon Parks (second left), Gwenn Michell (centre) and Richard Roundtree (third right) at a screening of SHAFT in Atlanta.

Director Gordon Parks witnessed for himself the round-the-block queues on Broadway in New York as he told Roger Ebert back in 1972: “Ghetto kids were coming downtown to see their hero, Shaft, and here was a black man on the screen they didn’t have to be ashamed of. Here they had a chance to spend their $3 on something they wanted to see. We need movies about the history of our people, yes, but we need heroic fantasies about our people, too. We all need a little James Bond now and then.”

Ad in the Evening Standard, 20 November 1971.

It was not until Friday 19 November 1971 that the movie opened in the UK and reportedly broke box office records at the Ritz in Leicester Square, London, having grossed $5,428 in its first three days. By July 1972, the movie had grossed more than $18 million against a budget of $1.1 million and is attributed with saving MGM from bankruptcy.

Whilst by no means perfect, the film (based on Ernest Tidyman’s novel published the previous year) is rightly regarded as a landmark in cinema history. SHAFT opened Hollywood up to black filmmakers, actors and technicians and an explosion of “Blaxpolitation” movies dominated cinema for the next two or three years. Largely unknown male model/actor Richard Roundtree’s, who gave a superb muscular performance as John Shaft, became an overnight star. SHAFT was recognised at the 1972 Academy Awards, with Isaac Hayes’ theme winning the Oscar for Best Song and his soundtrack also nominated. In 2000, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Ad in the Baltimore Sun, 20 June 1971, promoting the east coast premiere attended by Gordon Parks and Richard Roundtree.

The success of SHAFT led to two immediate sequels – SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! (1972) and SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973) as well as a short-lived series of seven TV movies (1973-4). The franchise was revived in 2000 by director John Singleton with Samuel L Jackson playing Roundtree’s nephew – later established, in Tim Story’s misguided 2019 continuation of the series, as his son. Roundtree would reprise his role in both films.

Whilst today the hype around the film’s original release may seem a long way away, recent events have demonstrated that the social and civil issues that inspired the creation of a black hero who was his own man, respected in both white and black communities, remain relevant and therefore so is the character of John Shaft.

Here in the UK, the 50th anniversary is being celebrated by screenings of SHAFT at a number of Everyman theatres across the country on Monday 28 June at 8.45pm.

EDITED ON 28 JUNE: Thanks to Michael Coate for further and some corrective information on premieres and openings. A link to Michael’s article on the 50th Anniversary is given below: