Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What If....Disney Had Originally Made STAR WARS??

The big news on the internet today is the announcement that the Disney Company bought Lucasfilm.

Everybody's wondering what Disney might do with the Star Wars franchise in the future...but I wonder, what if Disney had started it in the 70s? I think the cast list would have been something like this:

Luke Skywalker..........Kurt Russell
Han Solo..........Dean Jones
Princess Leia..........Hayley Mills
Obi Wan-Kenobi..........Brian Keith
Darth Vader..........Keenan Wynn
Grand Moff Tarkin..........Joe Flynn
C-3PO..........Don Knotts
R2-D2..........Tim Conway
Chewbacca..........Meadowlark Lemon
Uncle Owen..........Fred MacMurray
Aunt Beru..........Angela Lansbury

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Peter Cushing--Greatest Hits

My five favorite Peter Cushing horror film performances:

1. THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960): Peter's first go-round as vampire hunter Van Helsing was in Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA, but BRIDES is the character's best showcase. Earlier cinematic monster fighters were usually older academic types paired with a younger leading man. Cushing is a combination of the two--he's smart enough to know all the lore and legend about any supernatural creature, but physical enough to take on any creature in combat. Cushing's Van Helsing was as much a game changer as Christopher Lee's Dracula. The movie motif of the "Fearless Vampire Killer" really comes from Peter Cushing. Whenever you see someone in a film or TV show fashion a cross from various items, or walk around at night with a satchel looking for vampires, they are channeling Cushing. But no one else can bring the authority or determination to monster hunting as Cushing did. He is, hands down, the screen's greatest monster fighter of all time.

2. FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969): This was Cushing's fifth time in the role of Baron Victor Frankenstein--but the Baron was never as cold or cruel as he is here. By the sheer force of his personality, Cushing overpowers everyone else in this film. Nattily attired and icily correct in manner and speech, the Baron is a monster without any make-up. Most actors would have to resort to violent acts or yelling and screaming to put over true evil. Cushing can do it with just a stare or a slight gesture. A truly brilliant portrayal.

3. THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959): Hammer Films' version of Conan Doyle's most famous Sherlock Holmes tale isn't really a horror film, but it counts here. Peter would go on to play Holmes a couple more times, but this is his definitive Holmes performance. One has to remember that there had not been a Sherlock Holmes on the big screen since Basil Rathbone. Cushing's Holmes was far different than Rathbone's--and a lot of people at the time didn't really appreciate it. Many critics give credit to Jeremy Brett for creating a eccentric, complex, "real" Holmes--but Peter Cushing was really the first to do it. Peter's Holmes is all the over the place. He has more energy than Van Helsing and Baron Frankenstein combined--Cushing's way of showing that Holmes' mind is so great he simply can't stay still. Some have said Cushing was too short to play the great detective--but in this film Peter uses that as a plus. He stands right next to the much taller Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) and stares right up at him, almost challenging the man with his intellect. How many other actors could take a defect and use it to make their performance better?

4. NIGHT CREATURES aka CAPTAIN CLEGG (1962): Once again, not really a true horror film--it's more of a bizarre adventure (a lot of the so-called "Hammer Horrors" were really just bizarre adventures). Cushing kind of plays a dual role--he poses as the kindly Reverend Dr. Blyss, when he is actually the legendary smuggler Captain Clegg. Clegg/Blyss uses his "parish" of Dymchurch to continue his smuggling activities. Cushing gets a chance to play a swashbuckling anti-hero, and he's fantastic. Peter gives this role a ambiguous quality--as Dr. Blyss, he serves as the village vicar and he seems to genuinely care about his flock. But when the Captain has to take care of business, Cushing's whole attitude changes. Watching Cushing go back and forth between his "roles" is a lesson in screen acting. NIGHT CREATURES is a film which is not as well-known as Peter's other Hammer appearances, but it should be.

5. TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972): This is one of the many anthology films from Amicus that Peter appeared in during the late 60s--early 70s. In this one he plays Arthur Grimsdyke in the story "Poetic Justice". The problem with anthology films is that because the stories have relatively little screen time, the characterizations have to be somewhat basic. Cushing is still able to make Grimsdyke a fully real person despite the limitations of the anthology format. It's one of the few times that Cushing plays a working class man (and one of the few times Cushing doesn't sport a snappy wardrobe). It's also one of the few times Cushing had to wear "monster" make-up. The role of Grimsdyke could have easily been nothing more than a throwaway--poor old man is driven to death by snobbish neighbors, comes back from the grave to get revenge--but Peter makes Grimsdyke much more than just the set-up to a horror punch-line. Moving and poignant, Arthur Grimsdyke is one of Cushing's finest creations.

Peter Cushing is my favorite actor of all time. In the book "Cult Movie Stars", author Danny Peary called Cushing "The most important and beloved figure of the British horror-fantasy film." There's no doubt about that. When I attended G Fest this year in Rosemont, IL, I wore my Peter Cushing t-shirt. There were people literally walking up to me and shaking my hand--that's how much love and respect Peter Cushing has among horror and science-fiction film fans worldwide.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sir Christopher Lee--Greatest Hits

My five favorite Christopher Lee horror film performances:

1. HORROR OF DRACULA (1958): Lee's first outing as the Count was a game changer. There hadn't been a movie monster like him until then--one can only imagine the effect this had on late 50s film audiences. Lee's Dracula is still scary even now. No CGI enhanced image can match the power of Lee's feral intensity. He's only in the movie for a few moments, but every single one of them has an impact. It's a cliche' to say that Lee has a "commanding presence", but he does, and it enabled him to inhabit this role like no one before or since (other than Lugosi). Lee went on to play the Count several times, but never again in a production with the overall quality of HORROR OF DRACULA.
Whether Lee likes it or not, Dracula is his signature role.

2. THE MUMMY (1959): The greatest movie mummy of all time? With respect to Boris Karloff, it has to be Sir Chris. His Mummy is not some shambling, slow-moving wreck--it's powerful, quick, and cunning. The old joke about how all you have to do to defeat the Mummy is to outrun him doesn't apply here. This Kharis is one you could believe is dangerous. But it's not just the physical aspect of the role that Lee brings over. Swathed in wrappings and bereft of speech, Lee is still able to show every emotion Kharis is feeling. Just look at Lee's eyes and his body language when Kharis sees what he thinks is his long lost love--no "mainstream" actor could have done any better. A powerful and moving performance--more proof that it's the human, not the make-up or the FX, that makes the monster.

3. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968): Lee is on the good side here, playing the Duc de Richleau. This film is based on British author Dennis Wheatley's novel, a book Lee admired and had in fact suggested that Hammer make into a movie. Even though Lee is the "good guy", he still gives the Duc the same intensity and absolute seriousness he would to a macabre part. Lee's de Richleau is involved in fighting a satanic cult, and we buy into the story because of Lee's focus and attitude. Lee's rigid determination to take all his horror and science-fiction roles seriously, no matter how bad the circumstances, is why he is beloved by so many fans. This film proves that Lee would have made just as great a monster fighter as his close friend Peter Cushing.

4. THE WICKER MAN (1973): Lee plays Lord Summerisle, the head of a pagan community located on an offshore Scottish island. In a way Summerisle is more terrifying than any of Lee's supernatural creations, because Summerisle could really exist (and probably does, somewhere). This is an unusual and disturbing film, not for all tastes. Lee plays the role totally against the grain--and he keeps the audience off their guard the whole time. THE WICKER MAN shows that Lee could do much more than just stand around and look menacing.

5. CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958): This is more a historical melodrama than a straight horror film, but Lee steals the show in a supporting part. He plays the sinister Resurrection Joe, a body snatcher who gets involved with Boris Karloff's Dr. Bolton. Dressed in a shabby frock coat & top hat, and at times sporting a Cheshire Cat smile, Lee makes huge impression. He gives Joe a soft-spoken Cockney accent and a quietly dangerous attitude. It's one of those "commanding presence" roles that Lee was (in)famous for, but nobody else could play that type of role better than him.

No other actor has had a career like Sir Christopher Lee, and no one ever will. Can anyone else say that they have been directed by Raoul Walsh, John Huston, Michael Powell, Nicholas Ray, Terence Fisher, Mario Bava, Michael Reeves, Jess Franco, Billy Wilder, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, and Martin Scorsese?  Can anyone else say they have been appearing in theatrical films for more than 65 years? Lee has been accused of being a stiff and boring actor, but as a performer he is far more complex and talented than his critics give him credit for. The man is a true legend.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Special Anniversary

On this day seven years ago, the Chicago White Sox won the 2005 MLB World Series.

What does this have to do with motion pictures?

Absolutely nothing.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Vincent Price--Greatest Hits

My five favorite Vincent Price horror film performances:

1. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971): One of the most bizarre & unique films ever made, and a perfect showcase for Price. The horribly burned Dr. Anton Phibes seeks revenge for the death of his beloved wife. Scientist, theologian, and musician, Phibes is a combination of just about every horror role Price played--but the end result goes way beyond all the other roles. Because Phibes is so disfigured, Price is not able to speak his lines normally. Even though we hear Phibes' recreated voice, Vincent has to play the role silent--and he does it magnificently. Take away Phibes' "lines" and we would still know exactly what he is thinking. Making an audience accept the improbable or impossible is a feat every performer in any horror or science-fiction film strives for. It's a feat that is taken for granted if done well--which is why Price still never gets enough credit for what he had to go through to play Phibes.
PHIBES is somewhat campy, and it does have some of the elements that figure into the "Uncle Vincent" persona that made Price a huge public figure in the 70s. But despite all the outre aspects of PHIBES, Price is still able to bring a touch of sadness and righteous anger to the character. In my more than humble opinion. Vincent Price's greatest screen performance.

2. HOUSE OF USHER (1960): There's very little doubt that Vincent Price was the only actor who could properly personify the spirit of the work of Edgar Allan Poe. USHER was Price's first foray into Poe territory, and his first teaming with director Roger Corman and American-International Pictures. Price, Corman, and AIP would go on to make horror film history. White-haired, clean-shaven, and ghostly pale, Roderick Usher is almost a negative image of Price. You feel as if Roderick is made of porcelain--he might crack at any minute. Vincent was made for this role, just as Lugosi was for Dracula and Karloff for the Monster. Price obviously knew how important this role would be for him. His Roderick is light-years away from his work with William Castle. This film made Price into an icon.

3. THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961): AIP's follow up to USHER. Price & Corman out-do themselves to an extent (USHER is ranked higher because it was the first of Price's Poe outings). Vincent's Nicholas Medina is a LOT more emotional than Roderick Usher, but with all the stuff he has to go through, you can't blame him. The last ten minutes are Price at the top of his game. Great to see Vincent together with Barbara Steele.

4. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964): Yes, another Price-Corman-AIP-Poe film. But let's face it, this series represents just about everything people think of when Vincent Price is mentioned. Prince Prospero is probably Price's most evil role (some would choose Matthew Hopkins in WITCHFINDER GENERAL). By this time, Corman and AIP were trying to change the Poe formula. MASQUE was made in England, with a better supporting cast than was usual in the Poe films. Price still dominates--only he could play Prospero. There have been a number of other Poe adaptions over the years, but without Vincent Price, they haven't amounted to much.

5. THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1963): Many people have accused Price of being campy. He really wasn't most of the time, but it's part of his persona. Actually Price was a very underrated light comic actor (try watching HIS KIND OF WOMAN sometime). In COMEDY OF TERRORS, Vincent gets to show what would have happened if he had worked for Hal Roach or Mack Sennett. Vincent plays Waldo Trumbull, a mediocre 19th Century undertaker. Things are so bad off that Trumbull decides to try and kill the richest man in town (Basil Rathbone) so he can clean up by holding a huge funeral. Unfortunately Trumbull is saddled with a dimwit assistant (Peter Lorre), a senile father-in-law (Boris Karloff) and an annoying wife (Joyce Jameson). Price gets to run the gamut of comic acting here--slapstick, double-takes, slow burns--and he even gets some "drunk" scenes. Price & Lorre are almost a Gothic Laurel & Hardy. Vincent's comic timing is perfect, and he's not being campy....he is genuinely funny.

Vincent Price was somewhat fortunate to wind up involved in the Gothic horror film revival of the late 50s-early 60s. If Price had remained nothing more than a well-respected character actor, he certainly wouldn't have been anywhere near the legend he became. Although accused of being "campy", Price had the talent to make the outlandish real. Very few performers could pull off what Vincent Price accomplished on the screen.

I originally posted this last year, and I decided to contribute it to The Vincent Price Blogathon, currently being hosted by The Nitrate Diva (http://nitratediva.wordpress.com/). If you are a Vincent Price fan, keep an eye on my blog...in the near future I will be writing a post on the new Vincent Price Collection Blu-ray set.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Bela Lugosi--Greatest Hits

My five favorite Bela Lugosi horror film performances:

1. WHITE ZOMBIE (1932): No, Dracula isn't on the top of this list. Bela is actually given a lot more to do here, and he's sensational as Zombie master Murder Legendre. Every movement and every gesture by Lugosi has some malevolent meaning. He gets some great lines in this movie, including the classic "For you, my friend, they are the Angels of Death." Lugosi could take just about any line and make it sound as if it had some portent of doom.
By the way, forget about all the public domain DVDs of this film. Try to find the Roan Company DVD, or wait until January when Kino releases this on Blu-ray.

2. THE RAVEN (1935): Nothing against the Count, but this is full-tilt Bela...Bela to the power of 11, so to speak. Bela's Dr. Richard Vollin is just a bit obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. Vollin tries to kill off the rest of the cast using torture devices from Poe's stories. He also blackmails a wanted criminal (Boris Karloff) to help in the plot by disfiguring him. In most of the Karloff-Lugosi teamings, Boris is usually the one with the meatier role, but this is Bela's show all the way. And what a show it is. Bela pulls out all the stops, and Dr. Vollin is his wildest part.

3. DRACULA (1931): And here we are. One of the seminal performances in film history. Bela (and the film) has taken a lot of critical drubbing in recent years, but his Dracula still holds up. Show any little kid a picture of Lugosi and that kid will say, "Dracula". There's nothing more trending than that. Bela Lugosi must still be considered THE ultimate screen vampire.

4. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939): For those who think Lugosi was just a hack actor, think about this: he's surrounded by Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, and Lionel Atwill....and Bela steals the film. His Ygor is another one of those seminal classic horror film creations. One of the many myths about Lugosi is that he did not know the English language very well. The next time you watch SON notice Bela's dialogue scenes. His timing is perfect, and he gives Ygor's lines the right amount of sarcasm and double meaning. Bela should have received the Best Supporting Actor Award for this role.

5. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932): Another fine example of the "wild & wooly" Bela. As female lead Sidney Fox exclaims after getting her first look at him, "He's a show in himself!" Lugosi's Dr. Mirakle, decked out in frock coat and pilgrim hat, does make a lasting impression. Mirakle tries to find the right woman for his ape so he can prove his theories on evolution. Bela gets a great speech in a sideshow tent which is the best thing in the film. Unfortunately Mirakle isn't around for the climax. If MURDERS had more Bela, it might have joined the ranks of the top-tier Universal Monster Classics.

Bela Lugosi, like Dracula, will never die. He may have been hammy, or over-the-top, but he was unique.....something that is very rare in today's world of entertainment.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Karloff The Uncanny--Greatest Hits

My five favorite Boris Karloff horror film performances:

1. FRANKENSTEIN (1931): Kinda obvious, but it has to be. Karloff's portrayal as the Monster isn't just a great horror performance, it's one of the greatest in the history of film. The Monster isn't evil; he's a creature that has been thrust into a world he doesn't understand, by a "father" who only sees him as an experiment. The Monster is actually more human than just about anyone else in the cast. He's the ultimate outsider--which is why a hundred years from now, audiences will still be moved by what Karloff achieved.

2. THE BODY SNATCHER (1945): This isn't really a horror film--it's more of a historical melodrama. Karloff plays John Gray, an early 19th Century Scottish graverobber. Gray is more of a real "monster" than most of the supposed ones Karloff played, but Boris makes him more interesting than just a mere bad guy. Charismatic and street-smart, Gray blackmails his best "customer", Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). The sly Gray enjoys dominating the upper-class Doctor, and the dialogue scenes between Karloff and Daniell are an example of classic screen acting. This film was the last time Boris and Bela Lugosi would work together, and they get to share a creepy farewell.
Brilliant work here by Karloff. He may have been inspired by producer Val Lewton, especially after all the potboilers Boris had done throughout most of the forties.

3. THE WALKING DEAD (1936): No, this isn't some TV show on basic cable. Karloff plays John Elman, an ex-con set up by the mob for murder. Elman is given the chair, and brought back to life by scientist Edmund Gwenn. This is basically a contemporary version of the Frankenstein story--but Karloff turns it in to something much more. Elman literally scares to death the men responsible for his plight. Elman doesn't use threats or aggressive action. All he does is give the bad guys a look at his sad, haunted visage. Karloff can say more with a gaze than most actors can with ten pages of dialogue. Watch Boris in this film and you will believe that Elman has experienced more pain than any human being imaginable. John Elman is the most poignant and spiritual role of Karloff's career.

4. THE MUMMY (1932): Karloff actually gives three performances here: Egyptian High Priest Im-Ho-Tep, a mummy, and Ardath Bey. Three stages in the "life" of a man who is the most romantic of the Universal Monsters. Im-Ho-Tep/Bey wants nothing more than to be reunited with his lost love. Despite a make-up job that restricts his facial movements, Karloff brings out Im-Ho-Tep's longing for his beloved, and his fury at being opposed in his quest. Karloff doesn't rant or rave here; he barely talks above a whisper, and his movements are subtle and compact. Yet one gets the impression that Im-Ho-Tep is someone you don't want to mess with. No matter how outlandish the idea of an ancient mummy coming back to life might be, Karloff makes you believe not by what Im-Ho-Tep does, but by what he doesn't do. Another actor would have done more--Karloff does less. Boris at his creepiest.

5. CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958): Not exactly a famous film in the Karloff canon, but a personal favorite. Karloff is Thomas Bolton, a 19th Century British Doctor searching for a viable anaesthetic. Of course, things go wrong. Like THE BODY SNATCHER, this isn't really a true horror film, but it gives Karloff a great late-career highlight. Even though Bolton is the typical well-meaning scientist who goes awry, Boris makes the doctor more than just a cliche. The fact that Karloff was about 70 when he played the role adds to the viewer's sympathy for Bolton. Karloff runs the gamut here--from petty anger at being laughed at by his fellow doctors to suffering from drug addiction. An actor half Karloff's age probably couldn't have handled what Bolton goes through.

There are many, many other films starring Karloff I could have mentioned. I could have put 20 entries in this list. Suffice to say that Boris Karloff is the greatest actor in the history of horror/science-fiction cinema.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Since Halloween is near, it's time for a blog about a classic horror film--one that not many people have even seen.

The Gothic horror film revival of the late 1950s-early 1960s didn't just involve English-speaking productions--countries around the world joined in as well. Mexico was responsible for a number of chillers. Most of these were shown on American television in badly dubbed and edited versions. They are remembered today for being unintentionally funny more than anything else.

THE BLACK PIT OF DR. M (original title MISTERIOS DE ULTRAUMBA) is an exception to the usual Mexican lot of Aztec Mummies and monster-fighting masked wrestlers. It's dark and atmospheric, with a inventive screenplay. It has enough mist and expressionistic black & white cinematography to satisfy any monster-movie buff.

The story concerns the activities of Dr. Mazali, who convinces his dying associate Dr. Aldama to try to contact him from the afterlife and show him the secrets of the beyond. Dr. M apparently never heard of the phrase "be careful what you wish for". Being that this is a horror film, one can guess how things will turn out.

This film features two night-time burials (each accompanied by a torchlit procession), a sanitarium filled with violent lunatics, a ghost who pops in and out constantly, and a reanimated corpse clawing its way out of a grave. The latter sequence pre-dates a more famous one in Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY. And, of course, there is a hot-looking female who gets carried off by a monster at the climax of the film (Dr. Aldama's daughter).

The real scene-stealer here is one of Dr. M's orderlies, Elmer. Poor Elmer gets his face scarred by acid (a very good and gruesome makeup job), and he figures prominently in the resolution. Elmer is played by Carlos Ancira, and he comes off like a Mexican Peter Lorre.

THE BLACK PIT OF DR. M is available on DVD from Casa Negra, who have released a number of fine Mexican horror films to the American market. The DVD has the original Spanish soundtrack with English subtitles. The picture quality is fantastic, giving justice to the fine photography by Victor Herrera.

For those who think that most Mexican horror films are just silly nonsense, THE BLACK PIT OF DR. M will be a revelation. It's just as good as any other Gothic thriller from England or America in the same time period. If DR. M had been made with an English-speaking cast, it would have a far greater reputation. If you are a fan of classic horror films and you have not seen THE BLACK PIT OF DR. M, you really need to seek it out.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Timothy Dalton As James Bond--Part Two

Timothy Dalton's next James Bond film, LICENCE TO KILL(1989), was supposed to be more in line with Dalton's tougher, more serious Bond. The story is straight out of a 1980's action movie playbook: Bond's best friend Felix Leiter has been mutilated by an evil drug lord, and Bond seeks revenge.

The title was originally LICENCE REVOKED, to play up on the fact that Bond goes "rogue" in his quest to get even. The change to a more generic title is just one example of how this film doesn't quite hit the mark.

LICENCE TO KILL has a bit more violence than most Bond movies, but it's still rated PG-13. At this time in the late 80s, action heroes like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Seagal were becoming popular. Their films had a level of violence and outrageous action that the Bond films weren't getting to. LICENCE tries to be one of those bloody revenge-laden flicks, but it winds up pulling it's punches.

The idea of Bond going rogue and using his skills for a personal vendetta is a great one. LICENCE doesn't really develop this idea enough. Bond may be breaking the rules by going off on his own and disobeying orders, but he's just killing a bunch of drug dealers. The film never puts Bond in a position to where the audience might object to what he is doing. Gadget master "Q" even shows up to help Bond out--it's as if MI6 sent Q to show their approval of Bond's actions. At the end of the film, Bond seems to suffer no consequences for being on his own.

One big problem is the reason for Bond's revenge. All those who have read the Ian Fleming Bond novels know how important the character of Felix Leiter is to Bond. In the books, CIA agent Leiter is the closest thing to a real friend that Bond has.
In the Bond movies, however, Leiter was always played by a different actor, and the role was never very important. There are probably a number of people who have seen every Bond movie who couldn't even tell you who Felix Leiter is. Because the movie Leiter was never made an interesting character, the emotional impact of what happens to him is diluted. David Hedison (who had played Leiter in LIVE AND LET DIE) was brought in again to try to make Leiter more familiar, but most viewers wouldn't have remembered him.

Drug lord Sanchez is played by Robert Davi. He's good, but no matter how powerful or evil he may be, he's still just a drug lord. James Bond should be fighting bigger villains than drug lords. Sanchez's girlfriend, who winds up helping Bond, is played by Talisa Soto. Carey Lowell plays Pam Bouvier, an associate of Leiter's who helps Bond in his plan to take down Sanchez. Both women are okay, but they are not up to the great Bond girls of the past.

LICENCE is very well made, and has some exciting scenes (especially the tanker-truck chase at the end). But it feels like a big-budget "Miami Vice" episode instead of a James Bond film.

LICENCE TO KILL was made by the now usual team of director John Glen and screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson (Albert Broccoli's stepson). If Broccoli and EON Productions really wanted Dalton's Bond to be more like Fleming's creation, they would have gotten different directors and writers for the films. EON Productions still wanted to make Bond films the regular way, and because of that, the series suffered. LICENCE TO KILL didn't do well at the box office. The summer of 1989 saw a number of huge big-time releases: BATMAN, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, THE ABYSS, STAR TREK V, etc. LICENCE couldn't compete with these films. It took five years until the next Bond film was made because the series was bogged down in a dispute over which studio owned the rights to the franchise. It probably was the best thing that could have happened. The Bond series was becoming old-fashioned. Having a multi-year gap made film goers miss Bond, and the series was revitalized in 1995 with GOLDENEYE and Pierce Brosnan.

But what about Timothy Dalton?

It's hard to really determine how good Dalton was as Bond. He only appeared in two films, and he never was in a great Bond film. Dalton tried to play Bond as he was in the books, but he wasn't helped by how EON Productions made the Bond films. The movies needed to go in a totally different direction, and this wouldn't happen until 2006's CASINO ROYALE (a film that would have been perfect for a young Timothy Dalton).

Dalton also had to compete with someone who had never even played Bond--Pierce Brosnan. The spectre of Brosnan always hung over Dalton's Bond. Dalton was never really accepted in the role, especially by American audiences.

The general audience never seemed to buy into the idea of Timothy Dalton as James Bond. It has to be said that Dalton may have contributed to this. Dalton is a better actor than Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. But Moore and Brosnan have more screen presence than Dalton. The best way to put it is this--when you see Moore and Brosnan, you believe that they ARE James Bond. Dalton comes off as someone who is PLAYING James Bond.

Dalton also never seemed comfortable in the role. His Bond was humorless, and even when given a one-liner, he wasn't good at delivering it. Out of all the cinematic Bonds, Dalton's gets the least amount of female action. When he does have a love scene, Dalton doesn't appear all that excited about it.

Most Bond film fans have never read an Ian Fleming novel in their lives. They have certain expectations for an actor playing the role. The actor has to be tough and cool, but he also has to have a sardonic wit and be a ladies man. The actor playing Bond also has to be likable to the general public. (Daniel Craig is the exception--his Bond is a prick--but that's a post for another day.) Dalton may have been close to the Fleming James Bond, but that did not make him a successful cinematic James Bond.

The final verdict on Timothy Dalton is that he played James Bond 20 years too early. Unlike George Lazenby, Dalton does not have a great Bond film to allow his interpretation of the character to be re-assessed.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Timothy Dalton As James Bond--Part One

After 1985's A VIEW TO A KILL, it was pretty obvious that Roger Moore's time as James Bond needed to come to an end. Moore was getting too old to play the part, and his version of Bond didn't seem to work anymore. Albert Broccoli and his EON Productions made the decision to cast a new actor in the role.

For the next Bond film Broccoli had wanted to cast Pierce Brosnan, who at the time was known for the American TV series REMINGTON STEELE. The show was going to be canceled, which would have allowed Brosnan to take the role. But suddenly NBC renewed the program for one more year, and Brosnan was contractually obligated to star in it. Albert Broccoli did not want a James Bond who was also doing a TV series, so Welsh actor Timothy Dalton was hired instead.

Timothy Dalton had spent most of his career on the stage, and was virtually unknown to American audiences. He had supporting roles in such films as AGATHA and FLASH GORDON but he certainly wasn't a major leading man. The media played up on the fact that Pierce Brosnan had been "cheated" out of the role, and made it seem like Dalton didn't deserve to be James Bond. Because of this, Dalton's career as 007 was hurt before it even began.

Dalton's approach to the role of Bond was far different than Roger Moore's. Dalton actually read Ian Fleming's books, and he wanted to play Bond in a serious, realistic manner. His debut film, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, made a decent amount of money at the box office--but it really wasn't suited to what Dalton wanted his Bond to be.

The problem with the Bond films in the 80s was that they didn't just need a new Bond actor--they needed to have a new creative team as well. Albert Broccoli and his family had of course produced all the Bond films to date. Director John Glen had helmed every Bond film since FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. Screenwriter Richard Maibaum had worked on just about all the films. The James Bond films were complicated productions, and using the same behind-the-scenes talent certainly helped in making them, but it also caused them to be stuck in a rut. By the mid-80s, the Bond series was looking kind of stale next to all the summer blockbusters coming out year after year. Hard-core Bond fans were hoping that Dalton's casting would totally change things.

THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS is an okay film, and Dalton is a lot tougher and more serious than Roger Moore, but it's still your basic "James Bond movie". The action scenes are great (Dalton tried to do most of his own stunts), but the story is confusing. The main villain is Russian General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe), who is trying to set up the KGB. He's one of the weakest Bond villains. Koskov's partner Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), is an arms dealer who likes dressing up as a army general and playing soldier. Whitaker seems to belong in a 70s Bond movie.

The Bond Girl this time out is Kara Milovy (Maryam d'Abo), Koskov's girlfriend. She's one of the most demure of the Bond Girls. Her relationship with Bond is almost like big brother-little sister. Bond doesn't get much female action this time (Dalton's lack of romance as Bond will be more explored in Part Two of this blog).

One thing that needs to be mentioned about THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS: it has the worst Bond title song EVER, performed by one-hit-wonders a-ha. What the lyrics are, and what they mean, are anyone's guess.

If THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS had been a total series re-boot, more along the lines of 2006's CASINO ROYALE, Dalton's portrayal might be considered one of the best ever. Dalton seems out of place in this film. DAYLIGHTS tries in some ways to be harder than the Moore films, but it doesn't quite get there. Despite having a new, younger, tougher Bond who could have made the series way better, EON Productions still wanted to make the Bond films the same old way.

Timothy Dalton's biggest problem as Bond was that no matter what he did, he was always compared with Pierce Brosnan. The media never let it go, and the general public didn't either. Timothy Dalton was seen as "the other guy"--he still is today.

THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS may not have been the perfect vehicle for Timothy Dalton's James Bond, but his next outing, LICENCE TO KILL, was supposed to be specifically tailored to Dalton's persona. In Part Two, we'll examine the results.

Monday, October 1, 2012


This week marks the 50th anniversary of the debut of the very first James Bond film, DR. NO. Because of this, I have decided to write some Bond blogs--featuring the two least-appreciated 007s, George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton.

It's hard to imagine what it must have been like to have to replace Sean Connery as James Bond back in 1968. At that point in time, Connery was the only actor to have ever played the role in a "official" James Bond movie. James Bond in the 1960s was THE biggest character in all of popular culture. Just consider if say, Daniel Radcliffe had quit playing Harry Potter in the middle of the series. That's what producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had to deal with in trying to fill Connery's shoes.

Their choice was a bit unusual, to say the least. Australian George Lazenby wasn't just an unknown actor--he wasn't an actor at all. Lazenby had done some modeling and some commercials, but he had never played a role in any movie whatsoever. He apparently showed enough in his screen tests (especially during the fight scenes) to get the role. What was probably the biggest show business break in history didn't turn out the way Lazenby might have thought it would. Today most people think of Lazenby as a punchline, or a failure. ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (OHMSS) is considered by some to be one of the worst of the Bond series, mostly due to Lazenby.

But in recent years, OHMSS' reputation has gone up, especially among hard-core Bond fans (in other words, those who have actually read the Ian Fleming novels). George Lazenby has also started to get some credit. What the regular public tend to think is one of the worst Bond movies is in reality one of the best.

OHMSS was one of the last Bond films to be closely adapted from an Ian Fleming novel (that is until 2006's CASINO ROYALE). Just about everything in the book is in the movie--even Bond's romance, and marriage, to Countess Tracy. The usual far-fetched elements of a Bond film are a bit toned down here. There's still plenty of action and stunts (some of the best in the series, in fact). But the over-the-top wildness of the previous YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE is not much in evidence. Even Blofeld's grand scheme to subject various plants and animals to infertility is believable enough.

The film starts out with the typical Bond pre-credits sequence, which introduces us to Lazneby, and gives him the now-classic line, "This never happened to the other fellow." It's here that Bond first encounters Teresa (Tracy) di Vicenzo, played by Diana Rigg.

Tracy is a woman who has "issues". Tracy's father, a European crime boss, thinks Bond is the perfect man to set his daughter straight. Tracy's father agrees to give Bond information on super-villain Ernst Blofeld (Telly Savalas) if Bond romances his daughter.

A major problem some people have with OHMSS is that James Bond really does fall in love. Considering that it's Diana Rigg, you can't blame him. But it works here, because it's LAZENBY playing Bond. If Sean Connery had been in OHMSS, it wouldn't have worked.

I know that sounds like heresy, but let me explain. George Lazenby, of course, is not Sean Connery. Lazenby's Bond doesn't have the arrogance, or the swagger, that Connery's Bond did. Lazenby certainly looks the part, and he's great in the action scenes--but he's kind of...normal. He doesn't have the screen presence that Connery had. When Lazenby's Bond falls for Tracy, you buy into it. Because Lazenby seems more of a "normal" person (if any actor playing James Bond can come off as being "normal") it makes sense that Lazenby would really care for this woman.

Connery's Bond, on the other hand, would never get married (except in the line of duty, as in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE). Connery would have certainly bedded Tracy, and he would have certainly used her to get information on Blofeld, but then he would have gotten away from her as fast as possible. There's also the fact that if Connery had been in OHMSS, the plot idea of Tracy playing hard-to-get would have looked silly. No woman, even one as screwed up as Tracy, would have been able to hold off Connery.

Another advantage that Lazenby has over Connery is that Lazenby's Bond is one that does not seem indestructible. This makes the action scenes more thrilling. When Lazenby is in a fight scene or being chased, he seems as if he's really in danger. The audience doesn't know this Bond as well as Connery's, so one can't take it for granted that Bond will come out without a scratch. The fight scenes are really where Lazenby comes off best.

There are several other reasons why OHMSS is a great Bond film. The various ski-chases around Blofeld's Swiss Alps compound still hold up today. They've been reworked in several Bond films since. Even though he's bald and he has a pet cat, Telly Savalas is a lot different than the previous Blofeld, Donald Pleasence. Savalas, I think, makes a great Bond villian. Composer John Barry's score is one of the best in the whole Bond series. There isn't a title song, but Barry's OHMSS theme is perfect. Just try listening to it while driving down the highway.

Diana Rigg gives what may be the best female acting performance in any Bond film. Her Tracy is one of those women you just know are going to cause you trouble, but you go after her anyway. Rigg had just reached stardom from her role in the 60s TV hit "The Avengers", and she was probably hired to give the inexperienced Lazenby a strong leading lady. A number of books on the Bond films say that Rigg and Lazenby didn't get along, but they make a very good screen couple. The Bonds of Connery and Roger Moore wouldn't have had the patience to deal with someone like Tracy, but Rigg gives the character enough vulnerability to attract Lazenby's Bond.

Peter Hunt, who directed OHMSS, deserves some praise. Hunt had been an editor on earlier Bond films and he was "promoted" to the director's chair. Obviously, his best work is in the action scenes, but the Tracy-Bond relationship is handled very well. It's unfortunate that Hunt didn't get a chance to direct other Bond films.

OHMSS was not a hit when it was released in 1969. Of course most of the blame was put on George Lazenby's shoulders. Lazenby didn't help matters by announcing he wasn't going to play the role again (the urban legend is that he was fired--he wasn't). If Lazenby had continued playing Bond, he might have grown into the role and been fairly successful at it. He wouldn't have made people forget about Sean Connery, but he could have had a good run as Bond, just like Roger Moore did.

In a way Broccoli & Saltzman put Lazenby in a terrible position. No matter what Lazenby did (and he actually did pretty well under the circumstances), he was never going to out-do Sean Connery. To this day a number of people think of him as a joke. Lazenby continued on as an actor but he never got anywhere near major stardom.

In a way OHMSS shares the same fate as George Lazenby. Even though it's one of the best Bond films, most of the general public see it as a bomb. Hard-core James Bond fans and film buffs know better. ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE may be the last truly great James Bond film.

NEXT: Timothy Dalton's career as James Bond.