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Thursday, July 06, 2017

A James Bond Race For Space

When 007 Wanted To Be Star Wars

Comeback success of James Bond with The Spy Who Loved Me opened faucet of spending on the next one, which became the biggest of JB's in terms of gross, but a limp rag, if not insulting, to fans optimistic for future of the series. What tripped Moonraker was 007 again pandering to fads of the moment. This hadn't been an issue when Sean Connery played the agent; was it felt that Roger Moore needed all of help he could get? He'd been buttressed by comic cameos that weighed down from a start: Hillbilly J.W. Pepper smelling up Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun, followed now by lethal Jaws enacting funny business (and with a girlfriend) in Moonraker. What maybe got cheap laughs in 1979 doesn't wear well now, nor is there Bondmaniac regard for sci-fi elements imposed on a format that Star Wars should have been paying homage to.

There was serious attempt to draft James Mason into villainy's role. Of course, he would have helped, most anyone a potential improvement on Michael Lonsdale's listless "Drax." Great actors just couldn't be persuaded to oppose James Bond. Was there understanding and agreement that such work was beneath them? I came away resentful from the dog Moonraker seemed in first-run. It plays better as I've had less emotion vested in the series. Moonraker was the first time a stunt opening (multiple falls from a plane) seemed truly outlandish, but with real people tumbling out as opposed to process or later-to-come CGI, you have to figure it could happen; known tag-line, You Will Believe A Man Can Fly, might have applied better here than to 1978's Superman where it was first used.

Roger Moore had settled into likeable complacency by this time, a room temperature Bond to demonstrate how the character might register had he begun, and remained, on television (where in fact, 007 was introduced, in 1954's tube-adapt of Casino Royale). There's never a point in pitting Bonds against one another. I've liked them all, as each represents nicely the era in which he thrived. Moore may have been a least dynamic, but seldom gave offense, coming across an affable chap, which I'm given to understand was Sir Roger's offscreen posture as well. Of all Bonds, he seemed to have embraced the character best (so far as look-backs), and always with good humor. Is it safe to say that Roger Moore had a happiest personal experience being Bond?


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Moore would have been Bond from the start had not THE SAINT stood in the way. His Bond is what the producers had in mind. He would not have jumped off the ship as Connery did.He was born to be Bond.

6:25 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

MOONRAKER - not a happy experience.

7:08 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Moonraker turned me off to watching any more Bond movies. A few years ago I saw From Russia with Love for the first time, and thought, "Now this is a spy picture!" And the fight scene in the train was better and of course more authentic than anything they do now.

If someone wants to see what seems to be a fairly accurate portrayal of the spy game (in the '60s, anyway), they might want to track down Montgomery Clift's final movie, The Defector. For all its flaws, I'd rather watch that again than any post-Connery Bond movie.

9:00 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dear John:

All right. A lot of what you note is true. But I must shamefacedly admit that I liked MOONRAKER back in 1979, and that I still like it today. I'm not sure whether I can defend that, but there it is.

This is to me the one Bond picture in which the idea of excess (bigger equals better) actually seemed to work to an extent. This is a wow-effect picture. Jaws' precipitous drop into the middle of a pretty good sized European circus, Drax's compound turning out to dwarf Versailles, the impressive cable-car battle, Bond casually driving his boat through the crowded Venice piazza, the elaborate fight in the glass museum, the Brazilian Cape Kennedy-sized launch facility... Audiences gaped and even gasped at these costly, epic, throwaway sight-gags. [There was apparently even gaudier stuff cut out of the final print.] Lewis Gilbert walked a tightrope -- make it tongue-in-cheek but keep it moving and exciting -- and made at least some of this work. The story was, of course, thin -- stop Drax's infernal plans, whatever they were -- but the set-pieces (the movie's loaded with 'em), like musical numbers, propel the movie.

For me, that is.

[I am almost certain that I will be the only Greenbriar commenter to defend and even praise the film.]

I thought Michel Lonsdale -- a wonderful actor -- was very good as the low-key, dry-witted villain. [It would have been sensational to see James Mason in the part, of course, but I thought Lonsdale acquitted himself well.] It is possible that because of certain behind-the-scenes requirements, Drax was almost inevitably going to be played by a French actor; this was an official UK/France co-production, and UA, already spending a fortune here, wasn't going to risk the considerable tax advantages of such a deal. I believe Philippe Noiret was also approached. Corinne Cléry (also French, and likely similarly necessary casting) was so effective and sexy as a Drax cohort who briefly helps (and romances) Bond, I still regret that she didn't have much to do in the film. A pity, because Lois Chiles doesn't bring much to the table as 007's partner and love interest. Ah, if only Gilbert could have called an audible in the midst of shooting and had the actresses switch parts...

One can rightly criticize the movie for its then-opportunistic space theme. Once this was decided, Broccoli and UA were in a quandary; there was no way the many visual effects could be done for a reasonable price, and even if they spent a fortune (which they did), it still wouldn't really compete with (or come close to equaling) the spectacular Lucas and Spielberg stuff. The picture's costly fx aren't terrible -- just ordinary by comparison to the big '77 films. The vast Ken Adam sets are, as always, a plus; the imaginatively designed space station is huge and stylish. The John Barry score is very nice. I even liked the Dan Gouzee posters.

-- Griff

10:01 AM  
Blogger Bill O said...

Having never heard of Lonsdale, I thought maybe he was a friend of the producers. Flat and immobile, didn't even seemingly know what to do with his hands.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

One of the things I most like about this site is that folks can disagree with John, as Griff does here, without getting all fraught up about it. Thankfully there is none of the "you dissed a film I like therefore you stink" hysteria here that permeates the web.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Ha! Well, I gotta admit this is one of the clunkier ones I have revisited in the intervening decades and enjoyed, oh, on more of a guilty-pleasure-ish level. Coming off of a superior entry, leading into two even better episodes this one leans more than ever on Moore's sheer likeability. A female friend once assured me the cliché was true, she might fantasize about being ravished by Connery or Craig but would prefer Moore or Brosnan as dinner companions. I think around this time Sir Roger was already making farewell tour type announcements... they kept saying just one more Moore. Probably hard for producers and star walk away from the box office realities. I'm kinda glad he hung around as long as he did (yes even for that last clinker.)

12:38 PM  
Blogger Brother Herbert said...

MOONRAKER was the first Bond I was old enough to see. Two things stood out for me: Richard Kiel as Jaws, and the scene where Bond is trapped inside that spinning contraption - as someone with lifelong vertigo and balance issues, that scene was terrifying to six-year-old me.

I would've thought the chance to play a Bond villain is what some actors live for. At least that what Robert Davi (Franz Sanchez in LICENCE TO KILL) implied in a TV Guide interview some years ago where various actors spoke of their experiences as Bond movie participants.

2:16 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

It always amuses me that some people (maybe a majority) feel they have to defend their likes and dislikes. You either like something or you don't. It's kinda like saying "I like strawberry ice cream a lot."
"Ah, listen: the most popular flavor of ice cream is vanilla (for obvious reasons). Therefore, you have to like vanilla AND dislike strawberry."
"I do?"
"Yes. Oh, and by the way, that sexual thing you like to do?"
"Nobody else likes it, so cut it out."

3:29 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

STAR WARS had a very direct effect on Bond here. The previous film THE SPY WHO LOVED ME ended with the promise that "James Bond will return in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY." Then came Luke Skywalker and Bond skipped ahead to MOONRAKER.

I didn't much care for MOONRAKER when it was new. Thought it was just too silly, a silly too far. And kind of annoying as well.

For years I considered it one of the lesser Bonds, better than A VIEW TO A KILL and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN but not much else. Then, about 5 years ago I watched all the Bonds, in order, over a few months. That changed my opinion a mite. THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN gun is cheap and not much fun. A VIEW TO A KILL is pretty dumb but kind of stupid fun. But MOONRAKER is just not good at all. I now consider it the absolute worst of the Bonds.

3:40 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dear John:

My appreciation of Lonsdale's performance as Drax is almost certainly informed and influenced by my memory of the actor's brilliant performance as the rumpled, indefatigable deputy commissioner in Zinnemann's movie of THE DAY OF THE JACKAL. That said, my favorite Lonsdale work is his shoe-store owner in Truffaut's STOLEN KISSES... a hilariously rude and utterly insensitive man who hires a detective agency to find out why none of his employees like him. For me, the actor carries a lot of goodwill forward; I find his quiet underplaying very appealing.

-- Griff

4:44 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I can see why stars weren't attracted to Bond movies. The biggest star was the franchise itself; people turned out for the new James Bond, not for the new Roger Moore or Daniel Craig (note that "James Bond" usually got at least equal billing with his portrayer).

Earliest Bond heroines were either "discoveries" or actresses unknown in America. Shirley Eaton had done "Carry On" comedies and Honor Blackman starred on "The Avengers", but here they were exotic new faces. Diana Rigg in OHMSS made a certain amount of sense -- SOMEBODY had to be a known star, and she carried a Bond aura as Mrs. Peel (by now shown in America). But while this adolescent welcomed Jill St. John in anything else, her familiarity just seemed wrong in "Diamonds are Forever". Until that point, Bond girls had, for lack of a better word, a certain virginity. We saw them ONLY as creatures of Bond's world.

Recognizable character actors were okay as villains, but a totally unknown (to us) Gert Forbe was just as effective as familiar Telly Savalas or sort-of familiar Donald Pleasance. James Mason might have been too famous and too good to really fit as a cartoon character in "Moonraker's" cartoonish world (He threw the "Prisoner of Zenda" remake off balance by bringing too much evil weight to a playful rascal). The only time star power really worked for a Bond baddie was "Man With the Golden Gun", when Christopher Lee's horror movie heft was necessary to make something of a supervillain who merely shot people with a fancy pistol.

Would bigger-name heavies have added to the Bonds' box office? The folks at Eon likely thought not; putting more emphasis on a hot act for the theme song.

Eventually bigger and more familiar names did sign on, but by then the Bond franchise had lost its unique status. Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Superman were likewise bigger than the actors in them; all starred comparative unknowns with a smattering of genuine big names; and all offered new worlds were Bond could only pile more whipped cream on the same banana split. The Bond franchise was still bigger than its stars, but it finally had competition and began taking tentative steps away from its once sure-fire formula 60s formula.

Silly trivia point: Avenger Patrick MacNee, a sidekick in "Moonraker", played Watson to Moore's Holmes in the TV movie "Sherlock Holmes in New York". He also played Watson to Christopher Lee in a pair of misfired Sherlock Holmes mini-series.

5:25 PM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

It would have been James Mason but, to save money, the producers decided to film in France. And a stipulation of the contract allowing them to film in France was a French actor had to have a major role in the film. So Mason was out and Lonsdale was in. My choice for Drax & I so wish it would have happened was Peter Cushing. He would have been perfect.

I really hated what they did to Jaws her but overall I like the film.

I had gone to see BEYOND ATLANTIS at a Saturday matinee & the theater was full of kids. A trailer for MOONRAKER was shown & those kids went nuts. I really wish I could have watched MOONRAKER with a theater full of kids. I bet it would have been a riot of fun.

8:43 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Count me as another MOONRAKER guilty pleasure viewer. It does so darn much to entertain and keep things moving, either on Earth or above, that it's simply good fun if the mood fits.

11:08 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer gets the woman's view on James Bond and rakes "Moonraker" over coals:

I shared my comments regarding "Never Say Never Again" with a friend and received her response:

Of course, there was so much absurdity in the Bond films that I only looked upon them as "fun."

Along with the George Lazenby failure and the oh, so serious Timothy Dalton, I never was a fan of Roger Moore. He was too effeminate for me and somewhat of a dilettante, compared to the uber masculine Sean Connery.

I saw Goldfinger when I was young and the shock of the death of the "golden girl" still resonates with me. And "Moonraker" was quite something.

So, there is a distaff perspective, the effeminate, dilettantish Roger Moore against the "uber masculine" Sean Connery, which is pretty much spot on.

But "Moonraker"?

I remember walking past a theater in New York that was giving it a big play on the marquee and in posters and lobby cards, but I didn't see it until much later on television. Given my antipathy towards Roger Moore, you'll appreciate that I didn't particularly care for it, even on its own terms. The sets are large but not very well detailed or functional, and there is a pervasive unreality about the way the machines and rockets perform, as though the laws of physics no longer applied. As with so many of Moore's Bond films, however, its great failing is a lack of any sense of danger and, thus, of any sense of suspense.

At least I hadn't seen "The Spy Who Loved Me" at that point, or I would have been bitterly disappointed at the realization that "Jaws" had not washed up dead on some beach. One of the mysteries of these films was the apparent expectation that the audience would have an affection for this character, who was not at all amiable or engaging, but then, it was the late seventies, which was a very odd time indeed.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

"Having never heard of Lonsdale, I thought maybe he was a friend of the producers. Flat and immobile, didn't even seemingly know what to do with his hands."

You need to see The Day of the Jackal. Lonsdale is fine as the dry as stone investigator.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

^You also should see Ronin-Lonsdale is great as the man who the main characters briefly contact.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I saw 'Moonraker' on its first run, while I was in my teens, and I was then as I am now both a Bond and a sci-fi fan; my Bond fandom had originally been due to my older siblings' enthusiasm for the franchise, in all its forms, but my fondness for the sci-fi stuff I had developed on my own.
When I first saw it, I thought I had just seen the best movie ever made. I remember how shocked I was to find that others did not share my opinion.
Since then, my feelings about this movie have fluctuated. I no longer consider it the best movie ever made, but I still like it, and it consider it fun to watch every few years.

8:56 AM  

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