Monday, September 16, 2019

Buried Madness

'Sugg from Madness digs up a World War Two tank from a field in Surrey' - that must have been one Hell of a pitch for a TV series.  But it got made, (you can see it on Blaze tonight).  To be absolutely fair, Suggs doesn't spend the entire series, (World War Two Treasure Hunters), digging up a tank - in other episodes he digs up crashed German bombers and other wartime relics.  Of course, it all begs the question of why it is that most people wandering around with metal detectors never manage to dig up more than a few bottle tops and the odd fifty pence piece, while the onetime front man of Madness can apparently find tanks, planes, bombs and the like.  Perhaps there is an episode where he detects and digs up a complete World War Two aircraft carrier, buried sixty miles inland.  Anyway, to get to the point, such as it is, there was a time when, had you described a TV show where a pop singer dug up buried war relics, everyone would have treated it as a joke.  But in today's world of multichannel digital TV, it seems that you can pitch just about any format for a factual programme and, provided that it is cheap to produce, it will get made. 

Channels like Blaze and Quest are full of faux archeological programmes with various unlikely celebrities excavating all manner of things.  Or restoring them.  Or prorammes about people just doing their jobs, be it fishing for tuna, driving trucks in Australia or trains in Alaska.  (Actually, Quest and DMAX - both part of the Discovery group - have quite an obsession with Alaska, between them showing a plethora of shows covering just about every aspect of living there).  But it is the true crime programmes which seem the weirdest to me.  In fact, with their obsession with murder, the more horrible the better, is downright sinister.  The titles are bad enough - Fear Thy Neighbour, for instance.  I suspected that this might be an edgier remake of racist seventies sitcom Love Thy Neighbour, where the Jack Smethurst character goes beyond just being the local bigot to putting a pillowcase on his head and planting blazing crosses on his black neighbour's lawn.  But no, it's a 'factual' show about having murderous next door neighbours.  These show cover every aspect of murder, often approaching it in terms of 'themes' - there's one that documents murders committed at British seaside resorts, for instance.  What next, Vicars that KillHomicidal HousewivesBarbecue MassacresKindergarten Killings?  I'm going to have to start pitching some of these...

(For what it is worth, the tank dug up on the Suggs programme was a Covenantor, a British cruiser tank with so many design flaws that it was only ever used for training and never deployed on active service.  It had been buried, for unknown reasons, on a farm in Surrey which subsequently became a vineyard.  Interestingly, it is the second Covenantor to be dug up from this site, another having been excavated in the seventies, when it was still a farm.  This tank was restored and is now on display at Bovington tank museum.  The Covenantor dug up on the TV show is currently being restored in Manchester.  Apart from a couple of wrecks on a former Army firing range in Norfolk and two examples converted into bridgelayers in Australia, these are the only two Covenantors known to survive).


Friday, September 13, 2019

'Captain Danger Over London'

Another old magazine cover, this time a World War Two pulp.  This edition of Air War is the Winter 1941 edition, which means that it was probably published just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the US into the war.  Of course, regardless of whether or not it involved the US, the war raging in Europe was of huge to the US public and was reflected in American pulps such as this.  War always makes good fodder for pulp stories, so even before the US joined World War Two, magazines such as this were appearing in order to spin colourful and highly unlikely adventures against its background.  I'm guessing that the Battle of Britain in 1940 had caught the imagination of US pulp readers, inspiring magazines of this sort.  Air war stories had another attraction for US pulps in that a significant number of US pilots had elected to defy the country's Neutrality Acts and volunteer for the RAF, eventually being formed into the 'Eagle Squadrons'.  This gave the pulps a domestic angle to sell their magazines to their readers.

A notable feature of the covers of these war pulps was that they depicted the warplanes of the era with surprising accuracy.  This one is no exception, giving us a couple of Junkers JU87 Stukas going down in flames, even as a Messerscmitt Bf109 comes to their assistance.  Most interesting, though, is the flight of RAF fighters attacking them.  These appear to be American built Bell P-39 Airacobras, chosen presumbly, because they give the pulp another US connection to the air war in Europe.  Now, while it is true that the RAF took delivery of a large number of these aircraft, in reality only one squadron ever flew them, as it was rapidly decided that they simply weren't suitable as a pure fighter.  Nor did they excel in the ground attack role and, eventually, they were crated up and sent to the Soviet Union as part of the UK's military aid to Russia following the German invasion.  The P-39 also didn't fare well in USAAF service, with the P-40 and P-38 being preferred, (before they too were superseded by the P-47 and P-51).  By contrast, they were well liked by Soviet pilots and served extensively on the Eastern front in the ground attack role.  All of which makes that cover illustration highly unlikely, (also, the 'three formation' of a leader and two wingmen was, by 1941, being abandoned by the RAF in favour of the Luftwaffe 'Finger Four' formation, with two pairs of leader and wingman).  Of course, with the US' entry into the war, the pulps would finally be able to create stories around their own air forces, meaning that the days of theses RAF-orientated covers were numbered.

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Homicidal (1961)

Another slice of schlock from master showman William Castle, Homicidal is perhaps less well remembered than his other films of the period, like 13 Ghosts, The Tingler or House on Haunted Hill.  The success of the latter apparently inspired Hitchcock to make his own low budget horror movie: Psycho (1960).  In turn, the success of Psycho inspired Castle to make Homicidal as a cash in on the Hitchcock film's success.  While Homicidal is nowhere near as suspenseful or innovative as the Hitchcock film it seeks to imitate, it is still a solid and entertaining B movie.  Like Psycho, it focuses on a psychotic, cross-dressing, killer (there's a spoiler there), but, unlike Norman Bates, there's no doubt as to the killer's identity from the outset.  Or one of their identities, at least.  Homicidal is more interested in unravelling the killer's motivation and complex back story, gradually revealing that the apparently random and bizarre murder that opens the film is actually part of a complex plot involving inheritances and hidden identities.  The film has its share of shock sequences, most notably a severed head, but doesn't attempt anything as audacious as Hitchcock's killing off of the apparent heroine barely a third into the film.  It does, however, culminate in the revelation that two of the characters are, in fact, the same person.

Of course, being a William Castle production, Homicidal has a gimmick.  All Castle films of the era had a promotional gimmick of some kind, ranging from the 'special' glasses which enabled audiences to see the ghosts in 13 Ghosts, or the allegedly wired up cinema seats to allow viewers to share the shocks of The Tingler, to the 'Emergo' process which allowed a tatty cardboard skeleton to supposedly emerge from the screen and fly over the audience's heads in House on Haunted HillHomicidal's  gimmick was somewhat simpler: the 'Fear Break' toward the end of the film, which gave audience members the chance to leave before the 'terrifying' climax.  Except that if they did so, they'd be forced to stand in the 'Coward's Corner' in the theatre foyer until the film ended.  All of which emphasises the fact that Homicidal, like all of Castle's films, was ultimately intended to be fun for paying audiences.  Castle was a showman and his instinct was always to provide cinemagoers with some kind of 'spectacle' with which to sell his films.  Sure, these 'spectacles' were as hokey and low budget as the movies themselves, but they entertained audiences and left them feeling that they had got their money's worth.  Homicidal might not be as ambitious as Psycho, but is, arguably, more entertaining on its own schlocky level.  Like most Castle films of this period, which were usually scripted by Robb White, Homicidal's plot doesn't entirely make sense when subjected to any scrutiny, but it has its own, warped, internal logic - and there lies a large part of their attraction: they draw the viewer into their own distorted universe where different, off kilter, rules and logic  apply.  Not much seen on TV these days, Homicidal is well worth tracking down as a prime example of the wild world of William Castle.


Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Seasonal TV Fatigue

I remember when the advent of Autumn presaged a new season of TV programmes.  The most important season in the TV calendar, in fact.  With the Autumn season covering the run up to Christmas, traditionally the time of stellar viewing figures, the TV channels always thought it important to schedule their top series and debut their strongest new offerings in Autumn, in the hope of building loyal viewing audiences.  Now, however, Autumn seems to herald nothing more than the annual return of Strictly Come Dancing, (which I have never watched and have no intention of watching).  As far as the run up to Christmas is concerned, for some it doesn't seem to exist: today Sony's True Movies channel transformed into the Sony Christmas Movie channel until New Year, showing nothing but festive themed films - all of them crap.  I know that it does this every year, bt I'm sure that it usually waits until at least late October before doing so.  Back in the day, TV seasons were clearly defined, with Autumn the most important, followed by the Winter season, kicking off after New Year, which included fewer debuts, but still had a strong slate of returning favourites to cheer us through the dark days of January and February.  Come the Spring season, more repeats would start to creep in, diluting the new programming, with only shows they weren't sure about debuting.  Summer, of course, was always threadbare, dominated by cheap sports coverage taking up hour after hour of prime time, more and more repeats, second rate imported shows and if anything debuted during Summer, it meant that the channel had decided that it was a stinker.

Things began to change when the BBC, in particular, realised that not everybody spent their Summers outside, enjoying all that sunshine we never got in the UK and that not everybody wanted to watch sports all Summer, either.  Of course, the increasing costs of sports events rights probably helped change their minds, too.  Anyway, they started to experiment with debuting new series in the Summer which weren't crap and, surprise, surprise, found that there was an audience for them.  Other channels followed suit and, gradually, Summer began to look like any other TV season.  Over time, the channels started distributing their output more evenly across the seasons, although Autumn seemed to retain its primacy.  But other developments eroded the old seasonal orthodoxy: soap operas, increasingly providing regular audiences, started to be shown all year round, with no Summer break, while, in recent times, new digital channels have tended to pay scant attention to the seasons, or religious festivals for that matter, running heir schedules without regard for the time of year.  Moreover, streaming services have released their programming all year round, with a similar disregard for seasons.  Add to that the advent of the terrestrial channels catch up services and the whole concept of seasonal programme has, by and large, fallen by the wayside.  Which is a pity - Autumn was always something to look forward to, especially when I was a kid, with the expectation of all that exciting new programming.  But, like Christmas, it seems to have lost its special status in TV terms.  Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the availability of half decent programming all year round, but, out of habit, I always expect things to move up a gear in Autumn and can't help feel somewhat disappointed when it doesn't happen.

Labels: ,

Monday, September 09, 2019

Humanoids From the Deep (1980)

Back when I was a teenager, there were many movies, mainly low budget horror flicks, which seemed to inflame the tabloid press, who happily condemned them while simultaneously devoting copiously illustrated two page spreads to them, in order to show us how horrible they were.  The age of home video had barely dawned - VHS players were still just a dream for most households (mine was only an early adopter thanks to my father working for Radio Rentals and renting one at a staff discount) - so these films could only be seen at the local cinema.  Which, in turn, meant that I was unlikely to see them as they inevitably carried X certificates (the then equivalent to the current 18 certificate), which made me too young to gain admittance.  Consequently, it has taken me years, decades even, to catch up with many of them - usually to find that it really wasn't worth the wait. Anyway, this past weekend I finally watched Humanoids From the Deep (1980).  Or rather I saw Monster!, as the version I saw was a European release print, which carried that title.  I recall that when the film was originally released in the UK, there was quite a furore surrounding it, mainly manufactured by the press.

The supposed controversy focused on the film's sexual content, principally the fact that the title monsters didn't just kill the men folk of a small Californian fishing village, but also raped the women.  But only the young, attractive ones who run around the beach in bikinis, (which, naturally, get ripped off during the assault to expose some naked breasts).  In response, distributors New World pointed to the fact that the film had been directed by a woman - Barbara Peeters, who had already directed a number of low budget exploitation films for Roger Corman -  and actually reflected some kind of female empowerment.  This 'empowerment' was embodied in the form of a tough, intelligent and resourceful female scientist - played by Ann Turkel - as one of the film's leads.  Unfortunately, these claims to the film having some kind of feminist sub-text were seriously undermined, not just by its content, but by the fact that both Peeters and Turkel tried to have their names removed from the finished film.  The source of their anger being the fact that Peeters hadn't actually shot the rape scenes seen in the film, nor had Turkel seen them before the film was completed.  These scenes had, in fact, been shot later by the second unit director and inserted into the film to replace the versions filmed by Peeters.  Her versions of the sequences were, reportedly, far less graphic. with less bare flesh and shrouded in shadows.  Uncredited executive producer Corman felt that, as shot by Peeters, this aspect of the film was simply not exploitable enough and authorised the reshoots.  (Actually, I'm pretty sure that one of the sequences was filmed later in its entirety and inserted into the film, as it doesn't seem to be referenced anywhere else within the movie).

The fact is that, having finally seen Humanoids From the Deep, it is clear that it badly needed the controversy generated by the rape scenes in order to get noticed.  Without them, its is a pretty standard monster movie, a throwback to fifties B-movies like Creature From the Black Lagoon. Indeed, with its meagre production values, ropey looking monsters,small town setting and stock characters, it feels more like a seventies TV movie than a cinema release.  A feeling reinforced by the presence of Doug McClure and Vic Morrow in leading roles.  In fact, every cliche of the 'TV movie of the Week' is present:  the big corporation planning to build a cannery in the town, the conflict between those fishermen who welcome the jobs it will bring and the local Native American population who argue it will infringe upon their traditional hunting lands.  It's all there, including the big corporation's dark secret.  The script is terribly clunky, particularly with regard to the origins of the titular monsters which, according to Turkel in some barely digestible expository dialogue, are the result of the big corporation's experiments to create giant sized salmon.  Sadly, they aren't mutated salmon, but the result of primitive fish like coeleocanths eating hormone-packed salmon which escaped from the corporate fish farms.  The hormones triggered mutations resulting in these scaly humanoid amphibians which, incredibly, are driven to mate with human women in order to advance their evolution!

It doesn't help that the film moves forward in fits and starts, with plot elements and individual scenes apparently inserted arbitrarily, with little regard for any idea of plot development.  It also moves very sluggishly for its first half or so, before decsending into a welter of confusing action with the discovery of the creatures by McClure and Turkel, before the monsters suddenly attack the town's annual salmon festival.  On the plus side, most of Rob Bottin's gore effects are very well done.  Unfortunately, his monsters are pretty dire, their general shabbiness exposed by the fact that we see far too much of them far too soon.  In fact, the first 'reveal' of an entire humanoid is laughable - it is seen as it sexually assaults an unfortunate young woman and gives the impression that she is being pounced on by a man wrapped in a tarpaulin.  While the film relentlessly portrays women as victims for most of its length, there is one sequence, at the film's climax, which does reverse this.   McClure's wife, (a character who, hitherto, has been largely sidelined in favour of Turkel's scientist), finds herself beseiged, with their infant son, in the family home by a pair of creatures, during which, refusing to be victimised, she takes the fight to them and hacks them to death with a big knife.  This, of course, also represents a reversal of the usual scenarios of then popular slasher movies, where women would be menaced and hacked to death by men wielding large knives.  I'd like to think this was one of Peeters' scenes, left unadulterated, hinting at the direction she perhaps wanted to take the film.

As it stands, Humanoids From the Deep remains basically a B-movie, enjoyable in a schlocky way, but frustratingly unsatisfying as a whole.  It all too clearly displays evidence of having been re-shot and re-dited by multiple hands.  (As well as James Sbardeletti, the second unit director, Jimmy Murakami, who had been directing Battle Beyond the Stars for Corman apparently also shot several scenes uncredited).  Seen at this distance in time, the rape sequences which caused all the fuss no longer seem shocking - they are fairly ineptly done are their inclusion is obviously opportunistic, designed to add notoriety to an otherwise routine monster movie.  Undoubtedly, Corman realised that the tide was turning in the world of cheap horror movies, with teen-orientated slasher movies with copious lashings of gore and nudity rapidly becoming the default format.  Old fashioned monster flicks like Humanoids From the Deep just wouldn't cut it with the slasher movie audience unless it could offer some of the same features.  Hence the re-shoots, which clearly borrow from the slasher template.  The film ends with another sequence which seems to have been opportunistically added at the last minute, inspired perhaps by the recently released Alien, showing one of the raped girls in labour, with her monstrous offspring bursting out of her abdomen, thereby threatening a sequel which, thankfully, never came. 


Friday, September 06, 2019

Resigned to Misery

Well, my holiday is drawing to a close, with the deterioration in the weather making the prospect of returning to work even more miserable.  You know, I even had a dream last night where I handed in my notice. Perhaps it is a portent.  Certainly, things can't go on as they are.  A few weeks ago, I drew up one of those pros and cons lists with regard to my job.  The only thing I could think of to put in the pro list was that I got paid for it.  Badly paid, but paid.  (Actually, I hadn't realised how badly until I checked the current National Living Wage - the absolute minimum hourly rate I'd be entitled to - and realised that when calculated as an hourly rate, my wages aren't that far above it).  That was it.  Nothing else.  No job satisfaction, no feeling of achievement, no intellectual challenge, no great workplace.  Nothing.  Whereas in the cons column were such things as 'it makes me ill', 'it exposes me to unnecessary risk' and 'it is utterly pointless'.  Those were just the highlights, there was much, much more.  The key point, though, is that it makes me ill.  Not just the literal stress related illness I experienced last year, which nearly resulted in a stroke and has left me on medication, but also the daily feelings of dread and angst I suffer when working.  It is notable that the stomach upsets I suffer as the result of taking Metformin for my diabetes, have been much less severe for these three weeks that I've been away from work.  I've still experienced upsets, but they've been manageable.  While working, they are sometimes debilitating.  Coincidence?  I think not.

The reality is that, right now, I've put myself in a financial situation where I could walk out without another job to go to immediately.  I have sufficient funds to survive quite happily for several years, if need be.  Moreover, without a mortgage, rent or dependents, I wouldn't have to work full time.  (I'm already down to four days a week and, in a job that paid a decent rate, I'd only need to work three days a week. In fact, if push came to shove, I could even pay the bills and buy the groceries on three days a week of National Living Wage).   Or so I keep telling myself.  But saying it, or, indeed, knowing it on an intellectual level, is a world away from actually taking the step of handing in one's notice.  For someone of my generation, for whom holding a steady and secure job has been indoctrinated, from an early age, as being the 'Holy Grail', the idea of walking away from a job simply because it has become unbearable, still seems somehow wrong.  I still have this feeling that I would be committing some kind of transgression if I were deliberately to make myself unemployed and that my social status and self worth would somehow be damaged.  But it isn't as if I'd be claiming benefits, plus, my current job confers no social status (quite the opposite) and doing it undermines my sense pf self worth.  I just need to convince myself of all this at an emotional level.  I have a feeling that a week back at work will help me do that.  If things haven't improved since I went on leave (and I can guarantee they won't have), then it won't take much to push me into finally resigning.  I just need to be decisive.

Christ, this all pretty depressing, isn't it?  I really need to get back to the schlock and lighter stuff here, don't I?   Hopefully, next week, I'll be in the mood to start doing that.


Thursday, September 05, 2019

Political Strategy or Political Cock Up?

So, is it all part of some cunning plan?  Losing three votes in a row in Commons, losing your majority as a result of withdrawing the whip from several of your longest-serving MPs and behaving like a blustering buffoon during your first Prime Minister's Questions, that is.  Because there is an argument that the events of the past few days are playing out more or less as Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have planned them.  The Commons' passing anti 'No Deal' legislation clearly positions Boris and the Tories as the 'hardline' brexit party, thereby sidelining Farage's rabble, sorry, Brexit Party, while expelling all those Tory rebels effectively purges the party of its Brexit moderates.  The Fixed Term Parliaments Act, cooked by his pal 'Call Me Dave' Cameron, while preventing Boris from calling an election, is also, in effect, keeping him in Number Ten, despite not having a majority, as he knows it unlikely that those ex-Tory MPs will support a Labour 'no confidence' motion (the only other realistic route to a change in government), as that could put Corbyn in Number Ten.  By rejecting a general election through their opposition or abstention during the vote on it, the opposition have left themselves open to charges of 'cowardice', etc.  As for his PMQs performance, well, for a lot Brexiteers and the right-wing press, it is precisely this 'knockabout' political style which they love.

Thus, it could be argued that Boris is where he wants to be in terms of positioning himself and the rump of his party in anticipation of an inevitable election.  The fact is that Brexit itself is neither here nor there, it is merely a means to an end for Johnson.  The real prize is a general election victory which could secure him an overall majority and four years in power.  Indeed, some of us have always believed that 'Brexit' was a 'Trojan Horse' for the extreme right to mobilise around and gain some foothold in popular opinion. To that end, it has been extraordinarily successful, with the Tory party having lurched to the right in dramatic fashion.  Whether Johnson's strategy will work, remains to be seen.  If, indeed, what we are seeing is a strategy and not just a product of his egotistical arrogance.  Which is equally probable.  We just don't know.  Maybe he and Cummings really believed that the threat of expulsion would deter those Tory rebels from voting against the government.  If so, their strategy has spectacularly backfired.  It has also created the possibility of splitting the Tory vote in several otherwise safe Tory seats, if the incumbent now not Tory MPs choose to stand again, as independents.  Anyway, right now, the odds seem to be in favour of another delay to Brexit and a general election in either late October or November.  Which would probably result in another hung parliament, from which God knows what kind of governing coalition might emerge.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

'I Battled a Giant Otter'

I have a weakness for old men's magazine covers from the fifties and sixties and a particular weakness for those depicting animal mayhem of some kind or another.  Many of these involve young women in various states of undress being variously menaced by giant snakes, octopuses, elephants, crocodiles, gorillas and all manner of big cat, while their men folk look on helplessly.  Others depict fearless white hunters blowing away charging rhinos, elephants, wildebeest and big cats.  Especially big cats.  Then there is another sub-category which focuses upon the ordeals suffered by the (invariably male) victims of animal attacks, (the most famous of these being 'Weasels Ripped my Flesh').

The above cover from the December 1953 Men magazine illustrates this last type of story and is a great favourite of mine.  Whereas the protagonists of most of these stories faced killer weasels, vultures, giant land crabs. pirahnas and the like, this poor fellow has to make do with a giant otter.  Now, while I know that there are such a thing as giant otters in South America, which grow up to six feet long and have sharp teeth, I don't think that they are known for savaging humans.  Although, God knows, they'd have good reason to, as they were once hunted to the verge of extinction for their pelts.  But, regardless of their proclivity, or otherwise, for mauling humans, the fact is that otters, giant or otherwise, are just too cute looking to pose any kind of threat.  Which is why I find this cover endlessly amusing.


Monday, September 02, 2019

End of Another Season

We've reached the melancholy part of my annual long Summer break.  The Summer is fast ebbing away, the children have (mainly) gone back to school, the tourists have (mostly) gone home and most people are back at work.  Consequently, I spent part of today on a windy, near deserted, beach, with the sky overcast and the sea pounding the shingle.  It seemed strange to think that the now near deserted car park was, only last week, packed full of cars, in turn packed full of kids, dogs, buckets and spades and inflatable mattresses and the like.  It was the same all down the bit of coast I drove down on my way there: deserted beaches, empty car parks.  Like I said, all very melancholy.  Yet there is something I like about this 'end of season' period: the relative peace and calm, the feeling of still being free while everyone else has gone back to 'normality'.  I used to feel guilty about still being on holiday while everyone else had seemingly gone back to work. Quite irrational, I know - it isn't as if everyone takes the same time off, there were plenty of people still working over the past couple of weeks while I've been off.  It's just that feeling you get during August, that the whole world is on holiday, which abruptly ends with the coming of September.

I can't say that, so far, this holiday has been exactly 'vintage', but it has had its highlights, mainly early on, when the weather was at its best.  There's still the rest of the week to go, though, so who knows what excitements still lie in store?  One thing that has been successful this holiday has been my mission to be anti-social.  I've managed to avoid just about everyone.  Most people don't seem to realise that when I'm on holiday, it isn't just work and the like I'm taking a break from, but people as well.  (Obviously, I make exceptions for visitors like Frank Nora from the Overnightscape, when he and his wife were in London).  So, I've spent the past couple weeks avoiding anybody I know.  I went into the other bar at the pub, for instance, to avoid someone from work I'd seen and I've been ignoring answer phone messages from others, (if asked why I didn't get back to them, I'll just say that I was on holiday, they won't know that I didn't actually go away anywhere).  It's been great.  Increasingly, I find that the one thing I crave when I'm working is simply to be left alone.  So, when I'm on holiday, that's what I do - enjoy my solitude and the freedom it brings me.  Anyway, that's the holiday so far.


Friday, August 30, 2019

The Other Rogue Bond Film

Never Say Never Again (1983) excites almost as much controversy among fans of the series as does the other 'rogue' Bond movie, 1967's Casino Royale.  Although, on the face of it, completely contrasting films in their approach to their source material, both of these non-series entries do share an intent to satirise their genre and the format of the Bond films.  Both are intended as 'correctives' to the way in which the series was developing.  Whereas Casino Royale did this by presenting a broad parody, its episodic structure mirroring the way contemporary Bonds were built around a series of action set-pieces, loosely linked by an overarching plot, its excessively ludicrous climax parodying the way in which the official series had moved from excess to excess between Dr No and You Only Live Twice, Never Say Never Again attempts a somewhat subtler approach. It tries to present a Bond movie which exists in, sort of, the real 1983.  This time around, Connery's Bond has to operate against a background of budget cuts, declining British influence on the world stage and a new management regime focused on 'modernisation', seeing double O agents as outmoded, their unsubtle methods out of step with the modern world.  (Interestingly, it would take the official series nearly fifteen years to try a similar scenario, in Pierce Brosnan's debut, Goldeneye (1997), with aspect emphasised even more in the subsequent Daniel Craig films).  Hence, we have a Q producing cut price gadgets in a damp basement, a new M obsessed with health regimes and clean living and a Bond who complains that he now spends most of his time teaching and training.

All of this, of course, was seen as a corrective to the Eon produced official Bond series which many critics, claimed had, during the then Roger Moore era, had become a flabby shadow of its former self, entirely reliant upon spectacular action set pieces, Roger Moore's charisma and excessive humour.  What better rebuke to this than to bring back the original Bond, Sean Connery, in a back-to-basics Bond film, a film based on a classic era Bond move, Thunderball?  Except that the official series had already started 'correcting' itself.  After the excesses of Moonraker (1979 - James Bond in space - Eon clearly realised that they had taken the series as far as they could in that direction, so decided to follow it up with their own back-to-basics Bond, For Your Eyes Only (1981).  While the official film Never Say Never Again went up against - Octopussy (1983) - wasn't quite as hard edged and stripped down as For Your Eyes Only, it was still a far cry from Moonraker, with a nuclear threat plot which seemed 'ripped from the headlines' and far less humour than earlier Moore entries. Consequently, upon its release, Never Say Never Again didn't seem quite the radical departure its producers were trying to sell it as.

To be fair, for most of its running time, Never Say Never Again is far lower key than the official films, with location shooting even for most of the interiors eliminating the extravagant studio sets of the Eon series and giving the whole film a far more 'realistic' look.  The action sequences are also scaled back, with a very physical fight between Connery and Pat Roach, which wrecks large parts of the Scrublands health clinic a highlight.  Also, instead of the gadget-filled Aston Martins or Lotuses of previous films, Bond's mode of transport in the main automotive chase is a motorcycle.  But toward the end, the gadgets start appearing, from Bond's laser-equipped watch to the submarine launched jet packs used by Bond and Leiter, it starts feeling dangerously like an official Bond film.  The film also manages reasonably well in its attempts to update the Thunderball scenario it is based upon, with hijacked US cruise missiles replacing the hijacked British nuclear bombs from the original.  A surgically faked retina sed to give 'Presidential' authority to arm the missiles with live warheads via a retinal scan device, replacing the original's replacement of a bomber pilot with a surgically created double in order to hijack the plan and its payload.  Another modernising touch sees SPECTRE now using the stolen warheads to threaten Middle Eastern oil fields.

Never Say Never Again has its origins in Kevin McClory's successful 1960s legal action against Ian Fleming, which centred around the fact that Fleming's novel Thunderball was based upon an original and unused screen treatment written by Fleming, McClory and Jack Whittingham as part of an early attempt to bring Bond to the screen.  Fleming failed to acknowledge this in the original editions of his novel and McClory was subsequently awarded the screen rights to the story, allowing him to make movies based on the original script and other materials pertaining to the failed film development (including SPECTRE and the character of Blofeld, although Eon got away with the use of these elements for several years, due to their inclusion in several of the Fleming titles they had rights to).  Which meant that Eon Productions, which had subsequently acquired the rights to all of the Bond novels (except Casino Royale, which had earlier been sold to Rank in a one-off deal), were unable to film Thunderball until an agreement was reached with McClory.  This happened in 1965, with McClory producing the film under Eon's banner.  Unfortunately, he reportedly proved difficult to work with, putting Eon off of further such collaborations, hence the failure to produce a version of Casino Royale under a similar arrangement, resulting in the Charles Feldman produced spoof version.  McClory, of course, retained the rights to Thunderball and spent several years trying to mount a new version.  But with studios and distributors wary of trying to compete with the official series and McClory's reputation for being 'difficult', he was eventually forced to licence an independent producer, Jack Schwarzman, to make a version.  With the participation of Sean Connery, this won backing from Paramunt, with the result being Never Say Never Again.

In the interim, several screen treatments had been prepared, with writers such as Len Deighton and Lorenzo Semple Jr being involved and even Sean Connery himself making contributions.  At various times proposed films based on these treatments, sporting titles such as Warhead and James Bond of the Secret Service, were announced, but never materialised.  Ultimately, the problem faced by any attempt to make a Bond movie based on McClory's rights was that it would inevitably simply be a remake of Thunderball, no matter how many tweaks were made to the original concept, it had to involve weapons theft, nuclear blackmail, Blofeld and SPECTRE.  Even the mechanic of the plot would have to adhere fairly closely to the original in order to avoid legal action by Eon.  The resulting script for Never Say Never Again reflects the fact it has clearly been stitched together from a number of earlier drafts, themselves all firmly tethered to the original McClory-Fleming-Whittingham script.  Which means that, at some points, it doesn't entirely make sense.  The decision, for instance, to move the main action from the Bahamas of the original to the Mediterranean and Middle East, makes sense in terms of modernising the script, but is compromised by the desire to retain the Bahamas setting for the introduction of Largo, his yacht, Fatima Blush and Domino.  It means that Largo's yacht seems to be able to sail half way around he world, from Nassau to the South of France, virtually overnight.

Despite problems with the script, the final version does boast some excellent dialogue and witty one liners, which is only to be expected, as it was the work of Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais.  While Irvin Kershner's direction lacks either the hard edge of official Bond directors like Terence Young, Peter Hunt or John Glen, or the glossy smoothness and spectacle of the likes of Lewis Gilbert or Guy Hamilton, he does move the film along at a decent pace.  Indeed, the fact that his direction gives the film a look and feel unlike regular Bond films is surely the point - this was meant to be the 'different' Bond.  The film's greatest strength is its cast.  Connery looks far more comfortable (and sports a much better hair piece) than he had in his previous Bond comeback movie, Diamonds Are Forever (1971) in the official series. (In fact, Never Say Never Again is a far better film than Diamond Are For Ever, Its script and style better tailored to an older and mellower Connery).  If nothing else, this time around, he actually looks as if he wants to be there.  The rest of the cast, including Edward Fox as a tetchy M, Klaus Maria Branduer as a quietly deranged Largo, Barbera Carrera as the dangerously delusional Fatima Blush and Max von Sydow as a suitably shadowy Blofeld are all outstanding.  For many years I had mixed feelings about Never Say Never Again, but I eventually ead an online review, where the author advised that to enjoy it, you just had to forget that it had any connection to the rest of the films and simply appreciate it on its own terms: as a one off alternative take on the source material.  He was absolutely right.  Seen as a free-standing entity, Never Say Never Again is an enjoyable, if flawed, action film. It has great performances, is stylishly made, has good dialogue and Micheal Legrand's subtle score, if a long way from John Barry, sets the right tone for the film and the theme song, performed by Lani Hall, is suitably catchy.

There have, of course, been subsequent attempts to launch rival Bond films based on McClory's properties, most notably Columbia's attempts to set up a series of films after they acquired the rights to the McClory scripts and Casino Royale, but none succeeded.  With Columbia's parent company, Sony, having bought a stake in MGM, co-producer of the Eon series, the various properties have now been united under the one banner, (which allowed Eon to produce their own Casino Royale in 2006), seemingly ruling out, once and for all, the possibility of any more rogue Bond films.

Labels: ,