Saturday, March 5, 2016

Why Moonraker is the best James Bond film ever made

Last new James Bond film I saw was Quantum of Solace. I've seen game show hosts less pleased with themselves. It practically walked up to you and asked you to give it a badge.
We don't really need new Bond films, anyway; there are plenty already, in all shapes and sizes, running the gamut from sillier than a hairless Egyptian cat to something close to genuinely good, they're not going to go anywhere, and if the history of ITV teaches us anything it's that there's no limit to the frequency with which we're happy to watch them over and over again.
Watching him in the present day, pretending that it is still James Bond, is too much like hard work for me, even with the sop of frenetic action scenes somewhat akin to glimpsing a succession of James Bond movies passing by the window of a moving train.
It's like these ridiculous updates of Shakespeare - that is to say every production of Shakespeare you are likely to see in any British theatre - designed to stress how relevant and meaningful the plays still are, that come off exactly as relevantly and meaningfully as you’d expect of any play about First World War soldiers or Wall Street traders discussing totally unconnected matters in archaic Elizabethan language. When in truth if you feel the need to start doing this sort of thing, it's time to give up. If you can't make Richard III come alive without making him the car park attendant of a West Midlands leisure complex during the Falklands War then it's a pretty fair bet the party's over.

Does Moonraker (1979) ask you to believe that the biggest threat to world security is the US government acting in concert with a shadowy organisation of scruffy transnational misfits with Absolutely No Agenda Whatsoever?
No, it does not. It gives Bond a foe worthy of him: a multimillionaire weirdo intent on killing everyone in the world with a deadly plague released from space so as to restock the planet with eugenically perfect replacements for reasons even he probably couldn't tell you.

Moonraker is by common consent the silliest Bond film ever made. Everything about it is silly, including its very reason for existence. Watch the end credits of the previous one, The Spy Who Loved Me, and you will see it say that 'James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only'. So what happened?
The answer, embarrassingly enough, is Star Wars. Sci-fi was the in-thing, again, but it takes a kind of visionary perversity on the part of producer Albert Broccoli to assume that therefore its generic staples can be grafted on to those of the Bond series to produce a hybrid satisfying to adherents of either tradition.
Would he have still made the attempt if there didn't just happen to be a Fleming title lying around unused that lent itself to such a crackers idea? (Aside from a villain called Hugo Drax the film has nothing in common with Fleming's excellent source novel.) It's impossible to guess.
And yet, for a film the whole point of which was to get on the George Lucas bandwagon, remarkably little in fact takes place in space. We go to France, Brazil, Venice, America and Guatemala, but it's an hour and a half before the rockets take off. But what cannot be denied, though it is often forgotten, is that's Broccoli's chutzpah paid off: it took $203,000,000 worldwide, and was the highest-grossing Bond film until 1995.

I don't have any trouble rationalising the fact that it is simultaneously my favourite Bond film and the one generally felt to be by far the worst. There is, after all, an obvious distinction to be drawn between one's favourite Bond film and the Bond film one considers the best. Moonraker is merely my favourite. The best, in my opinion, is The Man With The Golden Gun, ably described by authors Lee Pfeiffer and Dave Worrall in the authoritative The Essential Bond as "the weakest of the Bond films to date" and "the series at an artistic nadir". To which I reply: Oh yeah? So which Bond film has got Christopher Lee making a gun out of a lighter, a cigarette case and a pen? Which one has the spooky wax museum? The little feller from Fantasy Island getting imprisoned in a wicker basket? Britt Ekland in a bikini? The car that turns into a plane?
They usually go pretty quiet after that, do Lee Pfeiffer and Dave Worrall.

So here are my reasons for favouring Moonraker over all other Bond films.

Most importantly, perhaps, I'm reasonably certain that it was the first one I ever saw. It was certainly the first one I saw new, in a cinema. My grandparents took me twice, on two consecutive nights, because I fell asleep halfway through the first time. (It's still one of my all-time favourite films for falling asleep to; you know what I mean: when you know you're going to be asleep soon, but you need a comforting film on to help you over the threshold.)
Then for Christmas, 1979, I got this fantastic book: The James Bond 007 Moonraker Special.

("If you've seen Moonraker already you'll know we're not exaggerating when we say it's just terrific! And if you haven't seen it... Well, what are you waiting for?!")
As always with these annuals, it's the padding that delights most.
My favourite is the questionnaire Have You Got What It Takes To Be A Secret Agent? Here, anyone who nurtures the dream of becoming a spy when they grow up can discover that "the only advice you can give" to an agent who contacts you saying he is at risk of capture is "fight until there is no hope and then swallow his poison capsule", as well as learn the correct procedure when faced with the need to "cross an 18-inch deep lake which you suspect has been filled with a strong acid" using only "a very long log, a saw and a long piece of rope", carried with you at all times, presumably, should such an eventuality arise. This was always my favourite:

While abroad, you meet a very attractive girl and become rather attached to her. Then she tells you that she often goes to Russia and other Communist countries for MI5. Would you:
a) immediately suspect she was lying?
b) think she was rather indiscreet to mention it, but decide to ignore it?
c) think she must be very brave?
d) think nothing of it?

You meet a very attractive girl and become rather attached to her... Ah, innocent days.
I'm wallowing in autobiography here mainly to be upfront with you, and to accept, in theory at least, that some of my reasons for considering this my favourite of all Bond films may not necessarily be there for all to see in the movie itself. Nonetheless, when so many other films I saw in my early years are just titles to me now, whole chunks of Moonraker remain in my memory's private screening room, their intoxicating rush instantly revived whenever I watch it again. Which I do. Pretty much all the time if I'm being honest.
There's the fight inside the clock, for instance, lit spectrally blue. The eerie and brilliantly directed scene where Corinne Clery is killed by a pack of dogs running through a forest - look how Lewis Gilbert's camera fails to disguise the odd socks she's wearing all of a sudden to make the run more comfortable - and of course the free-falling pre-credits scene. Shirley Bassey's theme song is an unjustly neglected beauty. Then there's Bond dressed like Clint Eastwood, riding a horse to the theme from The Magnificent Seven, the gondola with inflatable air sacks that can be driven on land, and Jaws biting through a three-inch metal cable.
Jaws, of course, had been the most talked-about innovation in the previous film, a seven-foot assassin with metal teeth played by Richard Kiel. The name, obviously, was a nod to the success of the shark movie, and the point was emphasised by an impudent scene in which he is attacked by, and kills, a shark.
But, though a silly gimmick in essence, Jaws was actually pretty scary: he bit people to death, which is horrible; witness the scene set on the plateau of Gaza at night, where he chases a victim around the Pyramids before cornering him and coming in for the kill, Dracula-style.
He was so popular that an immediate return appearance was ordered, and for a while in Moonraker he's his old scary self (though not above a little slapstick comedy when his plans go awry). In particular there is a sequence set during the Rio carnival, where he is disguised as one of the revellers with a huge, papier-mâché head. We see him break away from the throng and down an alleyway where Bond's latest female assistant is waiting, unawares, as the grotesque figure lumbers slowly towards her... Brilliantly directed and genuinely frightening.
But in between films, Broccoli had been swamped with letters from children saying they liked Jaws, but couldn't he become a goodie and help Bond? And so, halfway through the film, that's just what he does, after falling in love with a pigtailed blonde in glasses who helps him to his feet after he smashes a cable car through a building and gets buried under the rubble. It's utterly ludicrous; Pfeiffer and Worrall call it "one of the most embarrassing sequences in the entire series" and the character - 'Dolly', played by Blanche Ravalec - "the most inappropriate character ever to appear in a Bond film".
Still, just think about what these people chose to do here! I mean, how breathtakingly uncynical! To make a mockery of their own invention purely so as to reassure nervous children. And why not? Popular culture used to be a bit of fun. Imagine the makers of Quantum of Solace being so sweetly, innocently good-natured in their weltanschauung!

Hugo Drax, the plague-happy looney, is my all-time favourite Bond villain (and number 5 in Heckler Spray's list of worst ever Bond villains).
He's desperately cool with his neat little beard, Lugosi hairdo and silky voice. And he has deliberately formulated his plague so that it kills humans only, and is harmless to all other living things - a thoughtful touch that put me firmly on his side the minute I learned of it. I honestly think Bond should have let this one go, actually.
He's played by Michel Lonsdale, the burly French actor who played the detective in Day of the Jackal, and will be familiar to Buñuel fans as the chap in Phantom of Liberty who invites hotel guests to his room to watch him get his bum smacked.
Moonraker also boasts two of my all-time favourite Bond girls: Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead (number 8 in Entertainment Weekly's list of worst ever Bond girls) and Corinne Clery (formerly of The Story of O, who we enjoyed waltzing up a storm on Italian tv's Dancing With the Stars, and number 3 in Entertainment Weekly's list of worst ever Bond girls) as Corinne Dufour. My other favourite Bond girls include Maud Adams (number 10), Britt Ekland (6), Tanya Roberts (2, "totally miscast as a geologist with a vendetta") and Denise Richards (1).
Moonraker's screenwriter, incidentally, is Christopher Wood, writer of Confessions of a Window Cleaner et seq, so you know you're in safe hands.

Believe me, this film has got everything, even a couple of bits you'll swear afterwards you fell asleep and dreamt, like the scene where Bond sees a scantily clad damsel strolling through the jungle, and follows her into a fibre-glass grotto full of hanging plants, water features and other scantily clad damsels, whereupon the bit of rock he's stood on - and he really could have chosen to stand anywhere - rises up on a hinge and tips him into a rock pool, where he gets attacked by a giant underwater rubber snake. Resourcefully, he kills it with a magic pen, whereupon Jaws, who we had just seen a vast distance away plunging over a waterfall in a speedboat, picks him up out of the water by his head.

And still people go on about Sean Connery's films being best.