FOTB at the Oscars!

This year I made an effort to see every film nominated for Best Picture before the Oscars ceremony took place. I failed, taking in each title apart from Moonlight, which of course means it will claim everything and leave me wondering. There’s an argument I could make that this is the fault of my local multiplex, its unwillingness to offer a single screening to many of the nominees when there are endless showings of cartoons about singing koalas to accommodate, but in truth I had my chance and missed it. I could have travelled. I didn’t.

Of the rest, the impression I’m left with is that of the Academy so fearing the #OscarsSoWhite mania it ensured race was at the forefront of this year’s agenda. There’s the aforementioned Moonlight, also Hidden Figures and Fences that overtly place issues of race in the limelight. The former I felt was a slight effort with some good performances and an achingly endearing insight into more innocent times. What I took from it was not the personal battles fought by its African-American heroines, more the challenges NASA faced in achieving its goal of sending people into space. The maths involved look mind boggling, the resources available so primitive that I was left wondering how on earth they managed anything. Of the main performers Olivia Spencer is clearly the best; she carries a sort of wounded dignity through the picture that is never less than affecting. Kevin Costner is really good at this kind of thing, and I admit to enjoying Jim Parsons playing basically the same character he always plays, possibly a distant ancestor of The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper.

As for Fences, I was very impressed. The film’s stage roots can’t be denied and are instead embraced, much of the action taking place in the Maxsons’ back yard, banter and arguments taking precedence over the titular fence that stubbornly refuses to be constructed. Denzel Washington has made a career habit of playing bastards and Troy Maxson is a real gem, a monster of a man whose own motivations are teased out over the course of the picture. While Troy rages, his wife – a superb, quietly devastating Viola Davis – suffers, mostly in stoic silence, and if both actors walk away with Oscars tonight then I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Fences has been criticised for playing too much like a filmed stage performance, an issue I don’t fully understand. If the material’s good enough then it’s good enough, and one thing Fences remains is good enough. A triumph, albeit one that’s likely to fade from public consciousness once the awards season dies down.

The main challenger to Washington in the acting stakes is Casey Affleck, who puts in an entirely convincing lead turn in Manchester by the Sea. It’s been suggested that Affleck’s alleged ‘sex pest’ history ought to bar him from winning anything, which has set up an unfortunate sideshow to what is a riveting and compelling job of work in the movie. He plays a man reeling from a past tragedy, one so gross that it’s made him pretty much shut down on the pleasures of life. He lives in a flat that’s as close to a cell as it gets and does menial janitorial work, all to endlessly punish himself for one terrible mistake. When he’s made to return to Manchester (the film was shot in the actual Massachusetts town, and a lovely location it is), his proximity to those past events forces the bitter memories to resurface, which in turn makes him withdraw. His character’s given numerous opportunities to start enjoying life again. He can’t. The most affecting element of Affleck’s performance is his achievement of showing all the pain going on beneath the surface, slumped shoulders and wandering eyes, while he presents a shell to the world, devoid of humanity and any sense of hope. It’s heartbreaking.

Almost as gut wrenching is Garth Davis’s Lion, the true story of a young Indian man who resolves to find the family he was involuntarily separated from years earlier. This shouldn’t work. It’s basically an advert for Google Earth – Saroo, played by the brilliant Sunny Pawar as a little boy and then Dev Patel when he reaches adulthood, uses the software to try to piece together the location of his hometown, a painstaking process as India is such a massive, sprawling country and he only has his childhood memories to work from. It helps that Patel doesn’t play Saroo as a tortured hero; he’s self-absorbed and hits out at those he loves, though you’re with him all the way. Pawar is wide eyed, adorable and five years old when he falls asleep on a train, which then carries him halfway across the country and deposits him in Calcutta. Left to fend for himself in a big city where mean things clearly happen, that he makes it out at all in one piece is reason enough to carry on cheering for the character as he ages. I was very moved, and if there’s one slip in judgement on the movie’s part then it was to promote Patel and Nicole Kidman over Sunny Pawar. The older actors are absolutely fine, especially Kidman in one of her mature, quietly devastating roles, but the film’s heart belongs with that little lost boy.

Hell or High Water is perhaps the surprise entry amongst the nominations. It’s an independent picture, a modern Western that takes place now, and it’s completely absorbing. The film has something to say about difficult times prompting desperate measures, a withering comment on contemporary America being an uncaring country that has no time for its losers, but it can also be viewed more simply as a tale of two brothers who resort to robbing Texas banks in order to save their ranch. They’re played by Ben Foster and Chris Pine, both delivering career best performances and for me effortlessly over-shadowing Jeff Bridges, an Oscar darling who these days seems to specialise in out-mumbling his previous turns. What the film has is effortless tension, not only the law steadily catching up on our anti-heroes but the increasingly erratic behaviour of one of the brothers, clearly losing it as he resorts to spiralling levels of brutality. It’s also beautifully filmed, New Mexico shot as empty expanses of flat wasteland and endless vistas. The sparseness of the location adds to the film’s bleak and unsparing tone. I don’t expect it to win. It was released months before the usual window for Oscar hopefuls, suggesting a surprise hit that entered the Academy’s minds from left field, but it deserves its place and the recognition that comes with being nominated.

Mel Gibson has undergone a kind of cultural rehabilitation that has culminated in nominations both for his latest film, Hacksaw Ridge, and for himself as best director. In truth, I consider this one to be far from his best work. I think it’s a toss-up between The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, both made when Gibson was a pariah and his antics were adding an unfortunate sheen to their worthiness as movies, and yet they’re a pair of visceral glories that deserve to be seen rather than ignored as sideshows to the man’s personal controversies. There’s nothing much wrong with Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of a man who refuses to wield a gun when he enters the armed services, only receiving recognition when he shows undue bravery while serving as a medic in the Pacific theatre. Andrew Garfield is fine as the film’s likeable hero, and once the action moves to the Okinawa ridge it lets Gibson do what he does best, which is to show the horrors of war at their most violent and immediate. But it takes a long time in getting there and the amount of setting up to reach this stage is unnecessarily long and insufficiently captivating. All the same, the war scenes are impressively staged and do all but serve up the heat and sticky aroma in giving us an authentic experience.

Arrival is probably the entry that has most divided my circle of friends. Some think it’s a masterpiece; others have damned it as overly pretentious and pointless, and I can see what they mean. I was happy enough to go along with it, seeing its science fiction plotline as a feint for what turned out to be a very personal and human drama, but even taken on its SF merits there’s a lot to enjoy, not least the decision to try and do something fresh and original with the genre rather than the traditional and rather tired invasion rhetoric. Whether you think Arrival is good or not, surely there’s no comparison between this and Independence Day: Resurgence, released the same year and nullifying me to point of actually falling asleep in the cinema while it played. Sure, there are big holes in Arrival’s plot, and the whole deal of super intelligent visitors from another world turning up on ours without bothering to first learn the lingo is somewhat baffling, but accept this and the film becomes a smart and affecting piece of work. It’s bizarre to me that Amy Adams was missed off the list of nominations, while Arrival has gone on to feature in eight categories otherwise. She’s terrific and pulls off the tricky feat of being the focal point in a film featuring enormous alien vessels.

The most likely winner remains La La Land, despite a simmering of backlash that the film hardly deserves. Sure, it’s less weighty than many of this year’s offerings. It’s unapologetically old fashioned, and the musical aspects seem loaded to win approval from an Academy that has notably favoured these films in the past, but I’ll confess to having a big smile on my face as soon as the freeway scene exploded into a boisterous song and dance number. That smile, or at least a feeling of intense goodwill towards the picture, never left, and if it goes on to achieve glory at the ceremony then I won’t be the least bit disappointed. A movie that’s both a musical and about Hollywood comes with a sense of cynicism, a glimmer of the production team noting down what does well in the Oscars and coming up with something that ticks all the boxes. When the end result is as good-natured and appealing as this, however, such concerns begin to lose any traction. It’s a smashing entry, and several of the numbers have stayed with me weeks after seeing the film.

If I was in charge, I would probably hand my little gold man over to Manchester by the Sea, which stood out for me as the most heartfelt and affecting of this year’s offerings. On the whole though, I’ve been impressed with nearly all the films included and in every instance entertained. Of those not featuring on the list, I would like to have seen a little more love for Silence, which while hard work at times is a gorgeously mounted picture that covers a difficult subject very convincingly. Michael Shannon has been nominated for his supporting role in Nocturnal Animals, but the lack of recognition for his and everyone else’s work in Midnight Special strikes me as a shame. The Lobster features solely in the screenplay category; it deserves better than that, a very bleak and funny piece of work. I should also like to have seen I, Daniel Blake figure – film rarely does something as powerful as this, a little story about a little man trying to survive within a big system that is not allowed to show any human empathy. That said, I can imagine the Academy looking at the politically outspoken Ken Loach as though throwing an angry hand grenade into the Dolby Theatre and deciding it needs not the hassle. That’s to fatally misunderstand Loach, of course, but it’s hardly the first time the Oscars stand accused of playing it safe.

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Holiday Rambling

Without wanting to sound like part of the generation that was allegedly ruined by spending hours in front of the goggle box, a childhood Christmas for me would involve watching television. What I saw would be outlined a couple of weeks’ beforehand by noting items listed in the Radio Times and TV Times, and then I followed the route of pre-circled programmes, planning entire days around the treats that had been scheduled for the Yuletide fortnight. I grew up in the Tyne-Tees region, which to me seemed like the most boring and unimaginative of broadcasters that made up the ITV network – Sunday afternoons were the worst, when those lucky enough to live in Granada-land got to enjoy Fireball XL5 reruns, which we did not get in England’s north-east, a preserve of dull manly northernliness, Rugby League and Bullseye. At Christmas all that changed. Tyne Tees’ declaration towards tedium melted away as they embraced the spirit of the season and showed us some good stuff. Christmas Day was the best. You got a big premiere in mid-afternoon, back at a time when the only time you got to see it previously was at the cinema, and that meant at least a three year gap between viewings of The Black Hole or Superman the Movie. And there was Bond. There was always a slice of 007 to go with your York Fruits and Terry’s Chocolate Orange, traditionally a hyperbolic Roger Moore caper that seemed entirely at home with the general sense of unreality you experienced on 25 December.

I mention this because these days I barely follow the schedules at all. I might still pick up a bumper, two-week Radio Times out of sheer loyalty and for the picture quiz, but now the holidays involve working through DVDs. There’s no shortage of movies hosted on the networks, yet the big hitters are invariably those kid-friendly CGI animations that hold little interest for me, the classics I really want shuffled to the hinterland of the schedules. Several years ago, BBC4 treated us to The RKO Story. It was subtitled ‘Tales from Hollywood’ and that’s exactly what we got, a genuinely absorbing six hours of golden age storytelling about a long dead studio, its origins and downfall, its stars, directors, moguls, and the genres it focused on that neatly divided the episodes. One chapter was all about the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Another discussed the chillers produced by Val Lewton, and a further instalment went into the studio’s Noir output, linked as it was with the career of Robert Mitchum. Better still, each episode was followed by a related movie – I remember well being goggle-eyed at my first screening of Swing Time, on another night enjoying a double bill of Lewton horrors. All gems in their own way, never quite lost to time because there’s a hardcore of viewers who will always love this stuff and such a shame that there was nothing similar shown this time around.

Instead, it’s to discs I turn for the welters of classic Hollywood that really represent Christmas television to me, and while something is lost by being able to enjoy these films whenever I want to I can’t complain really. Not when such entertainment comes in the form of Grand Hotel, MGM’s 1932 entry that claimed the Best Picture Oscar and is clearly the sort of film they can – and will – never make again. They have tried, but it’s a forlorn effort because nothing can quite match the magical blend of opulence and innocence that made it such a fine two hours’ entertainment. Made during the Depression Era, it tapped into the popular need for cinema providing escapism from harsh reality by being set in the ravishing, art deco eponymous hotel, a place where we’re told ‘nothing ever happens’ and then of course it does. There’s one trick shot of the building taken from the top of its central atrium; otherwise the entire film takes place in either individual rooms or the reception, something of a revolution for the time as it was a 360-degree set. It’s about the little human dramas that happen constantly, from the penniless but heart-of-gold Baron resorting to theft through to the man who has little time left to live and so resolves to spend the last of his days in luxury. The parts of these characters are played by the Barrymore brothers, John and Lionel, a sign of the no expense spared approach MGM took to making Grand Hotel. The real pleasure is to be had from watching Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford star in the same film. The two women never appear together, a conscious decision that was made to not make one outshine the other, but it’s fascinating to see their characters have so many parallels with the actors’ situations at the time. Garbo plays an established star, someone so used to the trappings of fame that it tires her completely; this is the one that carries her famous declaration about wanting to be left alone. Crawford is a stenographer with ambitions to achieve fame, a canny reflection of her rising status within the studio. Who comes out on top is up to the individual viewer to decide; neither is short-changed by the script or direction. For me, those lamplight eyes and bawdy, knowing sense of humour make Joan Crawford unbeatable…

Amid the slew of Christmas movies, the one I enjoyed the most was The Bishop’s Wife, a title I had unforgivably never seen beforehand. It’s impossible to watch without thinking of It’s a Wonderful Life, which has risen through the ranks to become the number one film of the season and the two share cast members and have a similar stream of fantasy coursing through them. The tragedies that befall James Stewart aren’t replicated in The Bishop’s Wife, in which the central dilemma is David Niven’s young Bishop and the relationship problems he’s having with his wife, played by Loretta Young. Niven wants to find the funding to build a cathedral, an all-encompassing dream that has overtaken everything – his marriage, his purity of purpose in allowing the new church to become an edifice to its main benefactor, the film’s ‘villain’ Gladys Cooper. Enter Cary Grant as an angel, sent to answer Niven’s prayers, though they are not necessarily what he thinks they are. Grant starts going around spreading cheer, to Elsa Lanchester’s housemaid, to Cooper, to Monty Woolley’s History professor who’s been attempting to write a book about Ancient Rome for years, but mostly to Young. The twist is that Grant begins falling for this earthly lady – in one of the film’s very best scenes, he takes her ice skating, along with the taxi driver who’s driving them home, and they all have a whale of a time on the rink, a gorgeous sequence all about innocent joy and casting troubles aside. Who could dislike that? It ends well of course, and the film’s central message – that everything will be all right in the end – is one we could do with hearing more often.

Both these titles represent a lost time in the cinema, an ‘ethereal’ and misty eyed quality that no longer exists, though the behind the scenes stories were no less lurid than we have these days. I also caught Network, Sidney Lumet’s 1976 epic about broadcasting and all-encompassing cynicism that feels like it could only have been made in the seventies. The film’s a surprising amount of fun. When Peter Finch goes as mad as hell live on the news (a delightful, scenery chewing role for which he won the Academy Award, though – in one of those little ironies that his character might have viewed as entirely appropriate – he was dead from a heart attack before he could receive it) the viewer is invited to share in the years of despair and being messed around that have culminated in his outburst, only for the film to pull the rug from beneath us. Faye Dunaway’s moral vacuum of a producer learns that Finch’s moment of madness has led to a spike in audience figures, which prompts her to give him a daily ‘mad prophet’ slot, meaning his spontaneous rant has been repackaged as a choreographed and promoted slot of a news show that now bears little resemblance to responsible broadcasting. So many echoes to today’s media world in Network, though in reality its world weary view represented nothing new when it was originally made and if we happen to see the time before this period as a less jaded and altogether lovelier era, then I tend to think that’s because it’s how it was marketed and carried down. Real life was harsher, if anything.

Finally, in a complete break with the above I finally saw A Man Escaped, Robert Bresson’s intimate picture in which a French Resistance fighter finds a way to break out of his wartime prison. Mrs Mike bought me a copy of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die for Christmas, an irresponsible purchase because she knows I will instantly start planning a fresh slew of DVD purchases in order to catch as many titles as possible. This one was in there, of course, and it is undoubtedly one to see. Watching it, I found that everything I thought I knew about prison escape movies was wrong and this was instantly the best one. Bresson just got everything right, refusing to focus on Fontaine’s emotional story and instead following his practical planning, knowing that the tension of his efforts would kick in automatically as every anonymous footstep outside his cell could be the guard who figures out what’s happening, all those knowing looks from a fellow prisoner might be the man who rats him out… Famously, Bresson never used professional actors, sensing that a performer would automatically give a performance and therefore remove some of the film’s authenticity, and the decision works. Francois Leterrier is never required to ‘act’. He just ‘does’, and it’s in his narration and a flick of his eyes towards the cell door that carry everything we need to know about his deadly predicament.

It all makes me think about the future of this blog. 2017 marks the fifth year of its existence, granted one that has taken long hiatuses at times and perhaps it’s time to change its purpose. When I started it, the idea of discussing films about to be screened on television seemed quite smart, yet by now that limited scope and the narrow scheduling forces me outside the original remit more and more. I am tempted to follow the ‘1001 Movies’ route and chronicle my adventures in viewing here. An ongoing issue is the refusal of Freeview television to show more than a bare minimum of non-English language pictures, or silents, indeed its lack of recognition for much celluloid that was issued before World War Two, and as we know that’s a denial of what many perceive to be the Golden Age of cinema. It’s definitely something I need to think about. For long swathes of 2016 I let non-blogging commitments take over, principally work as my public sector job seemed to become much harder, demanded longer hours and left me an exhausted husk much of the time. To an extent that’s fair enough. We all need to put the bread on the table, after all. But giving myself up to a decent yet unloved job isn’t doing my life any justice, and without wanting to make a resolution of it I would like to commit to more frequent updates here. We’ll have to see how it all pans out.

If you are still reading at this point (I would not blame you if you weren’t!) then I’d like to end by thanking you for following the updates on these pages, and to wish you all the best for the new year. 2016 will not go down as a great one. Too much turbulence in the world; so many public people we have all loved gone. We can only hope that 2017 has better in store for us…

Everything or Nothing: 007 from Worst to Best

Ranking the Bond movies is naturally a hazardous and completely subjective process. Some entries that I see as terrible are other viewers’ catnip, and vice versa. There are various articles on the web that involve some lucky dude eating fifty hours’ of their life working through the lot and feeding back, and the lists are never the same, which of course is a good thing. If we all felt the same, etc. But just to offer some context to this list, the aspects influencing my decision were:

1. Datedness
Cinematic 007 has a history stretching back more than fifty years, with literary traditions covering a further decade. 1953, the year Casino Royale was published, was a very different time to ours, featuring attitudes that we would rightly view as belonging with the dinosaurs, and some of this translated to Bond’s earlier cinematic outings. I’m not talking here about effects work. Most often, though notably not always, the technical craft behind even the earliest entries is top notch and deserves to be celebrated, and I feel a sense of affection for moments that perhaps show their age now. More problematic is the misogyny, racism and outright homophobia that raise their head – the idea, posited in Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever, that gay people are evil unless they can somehow be ‘converted’ to the light side by Bond’s administrations, is very worrying. The treatment of women, particularly during the long Moore years, reaches uncomfortable levels that bely any affection one might feel for the series. To some, all this may come across as a charming anachronism – it’s of its time, don’t let political correctness go mad, etc. Sorry, I don’t agree. I watch these films to be entertained, not to squirm.

2. Fantasy versus Spycraft
That these films often leave any credibility behind and lurch into entertaining tripe is a given; personally, I don’t think there’s any point in tackling this project if you judge these films on their realism, because often there isn’t any – that Smiley’s People set is for you. Goldfinger established Connery’s 007 as more or less a superhero, emerging from perils that would crush 99.9% of the viewers with a smile on his face and the toupee in beautiful order, and I think you need to accept the number of liberties these movies take, otherwise it just collapses. Some of the loopier episodes – You Only Live Twice being a prime example – have emerged as guilty favourites because their internal logic embraces the fantasy from the start and takes you along with it. That aside, it’s surely impossible to hate a film that is filmed so lovingly, which serves up shots dripping with Far Eastern loveliness to go with one of the more luscious John Barry scores (which is really saying something). Where I do quail, however, is in those films that attempt a certain level of realism only to take left turns on a whim. One or the other, guys. Don’t mess us around and while you’re at it, there’s never a point when gondolas that convert into a hydrofoil is okay!

3. Gadgetry
The concoctions of Q Branch are a celebratory part of the Bond series. The idea that Desmond Llewellyn heads a department creating impossible things – items that often enough come with a staggering foreshadowing of helping Bond out at the optimum moment – is part of the fun and I’m fine with that. I personally prefer films where 007 relies on his skills, but I can accept part of that skill-set is the resourcefulness of knowing when to use his special toys. Where I have a greater problem is when there’s no need for Bond to be talented because his reliance on the gadgets is complete, their status as a Deus Ex Machina overriding his abilities. The other thing is that whilst I can accept a lot in terms of what Q produces, when the gizmos begin jumping the shark I start to feel insulted. Cars that come equipped with missiles and protective shields = more or less okay. Cars with the capacity to turn invisible = stupid. Let’s face it, when you can produce items of this calibre then what need do you have for 007 at all?

I hold an affection for these movies that lingers long beyond their actual worth as cinematic art. They’re a lot of fun on the whole, and the effort to maintain a certain level of production quality is praiseworthy. Bond films were never made on the cheap. Even the more economical entries came with high values, meaning the poverty row funding that blighted certain other franchises was never an issue. There’s an earnestness when it comes to pleasing the viewers that I find rather adorable, and it only ever started to fail when trends within the industry and audience preferences for certain other tropes influenced its direction. I think the Bond brand is its own special thing, quite apart from whatever else is going on in the celluloid industry, and so an increased level of hard-edged violence that seemed a reaction to the success of Die Hard in the 1980s, or a 1970s entry that riffed on the wave of popularity for Blaxpolitation cinema, or the infamous cash-in on the Star Wars craze, sits uneasily with me. Sure, don’t be left behind. The more recent elements creeping into the series, for instance the episodic continuity that makes each of the Daniel Craig films flow into each other, with recurring characters and Bond affected by past events, is welcome. At the same time, they’re sitting on a rich tradition that’s entirely self-perpetuated. It’s for 007 to set the trend, not follow it, and when the latter happens I automatically lose interest.

In order to keep the word count to a reasonable level, I’m only including ‘canon’ movies here – no 1967 Casino Royale, which is no great loss to me, nor any reference to 1983’s Never Say Never Again, apart from in passing. I rather like the Connery starring remake of Thunderball, despite some of its more dated elements, but it isn’t part of the official series therefore out it goes.

And so, with a dry martini in hand and licence revoked (because I know what the word bloody means!), it’s time to pay attention, attempt re-entry and aim for poor Miss Moneypenny’s ever hopeful hatstand…

24. Die Another Day
Year: 2002
Star (his age): Pierce Brosnan (49)
Lass (her age): Halle Berry (36)
Evil Doer: Toby Stephens
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $544m (13)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘I think I broke her heart’
Title Song Performer: Madonna
Glamorous Locale: Iceland, Andalucia (doubling as Cuba)
Gadget: Invisible Aston Martin, glass shattering ring

I have been known to keep my tip up

Bond films live or die depending on each viewer’s willingness to accept the levels of fantasy on display. If, for instance, you can’t square the sight of Bond performing some incredible stunt in public while simultaneously operating as a secret agent, then most of these films aren’t realistically for you. Where do you draw the line? Little Nellie? The gondola-hovercraft gliding across a crowded St Mark’s Square? The frankly ludicrous Xenia Onatopp? 007 in space? How about the sheer number of special skills Bond possesses – you can swallow him being a great skier, even enough of an extreme sports enthusiast to be capable of handling high dives, bungee jumps, etc. And yet his instant capability when handling any vehicle he commandeers is asking a lot; people train to be fighter pilots for years, but he can prevail in aerial combat like a master. Seriously? And then there are films like Die Another Day, which transform our hero into such an indestructible superhero that any whiff of credibility is gone. I think you can take certain liberties with Bond viewers, but once you have him surfing a CGI tsunami you’re simply taking the piss out of them.

It’s for this, for the invisible car, for the look of lust a nurse sends Bond’s way after he has assaulted her workmates, for various other elements, that make this the series nadir. Die Another Day is an expensive film. Production quality levels are high and by this point Pierce Brosnan is in his fourth outing, surely as at ease as he’s ever going to be and neither looking as decrepit as Roger Moore or jaded like Sean Connery became. Everything should be fine. The film even has the cheek to start really well, when Bond is imprisoned and tortured for fourteen months, adrift in North Korea and with no hope of escape. We are shown images of what he goes through – water torture, being stung by scorpions and then kept alive by receiving the anti-toxins, gaolers who seem to take pleasure in hurting him again and again. His hair and beard grow. His clothes become rags. Bond suffers, clearly broken by the treatment by the time he’s traded, and you get a glimpse of the movie this might have been – a fatally damaged, mentally compromised Bond, bent on vengeance and plagued by memories of what’s been done to him. There’s even a scene when M castigates him because she believes he must have cracked under pressure, hardly the hero’s welcome he might have expected. Instead it takes a left swerve, our hero getting over his privations and M’s distrust within seconds to go after the villains, apparently undamaged and ready for a couple of hours’ spectacle. Okay…

To provide the ultimate Bond girl they produce Halle Berry, fresh from Oscar winning glory and playing an American agent who’s Bond’s equal and with whom he teams up. And that’s the character. Like 007 himself there’s no development, no emotional depth. At one point her character drowns before Bond revives her (because of course he does), and there’s no sense of PTSD, just getting back into the groove. The villain is played by Toby Stephens. His character, Gustav Graves, is actually a North Korean terrorist who’s genetically altered himself into an Englishman in order to realise his plans for destroying the West. Stephens sneers his way through the film, at one point telling 007 he looks this way as a parody of Bond himself, because that’s how he perceives him. The potential for some great character development is there, the withering view of Western decadence, the suggestion that Graves has nailed the underlying pomposity of Bond and his type – does he even have a point? But its forgotten because (i) Bond’s the hero (ii) the film is seen to be needing another high concept action scene so enough with the socio-political philosophising.

The film’s best bit comes when Bond fights Graves with swords. Despite costing thousands of pounds’ damage to the club they casually destroy during their duel, the scene has real weight and teases out the growing personal dislike between combatants; it already exists within Graves, whereas Bond realises he’s up against someone who’s out to get him and therefore has to fight for his life. It isn’t even ruined by the fencing instructor, performed by Madonna in the kind of poorly acted, grandstanding cameo that might as well have a bubble on the screen declaring ‘Look kids! Madonna!’ to drill home the point. Elsewhere, take your pick of set pieces – the car chase/fight between Bond and Rick Yune’s villainous Zao, both vehicles rigged with a ridiculous array of gadgets and weapons; Bond being pursued by a laser beam that is powered by the sun’s rays; escaping from a crashing plane in a helicopter; the whole hovercraft sequence. 007’s Aston Martin can be rendered invisible, and even remembering that in the past he’s been given cars capable of doing all manner of crazy things it’s a step into the utter bizarre. And did I mention that Bond can now surf his way out of danger, riding a massive wave, all of it rendered using CGI that even at the time didn’t measure up and now just looks cheap and tacky?

Some further notes – Samantha Bonds’ Moneypenny (up to this point, a decent and disparaging replacement for Lois Maxwell) using Q’s virtual reality machine for shagging 007 is a mighty ruination of her entire character and the years of friendly flirtation between them for the sake of a stilted and not very funny moment. Q, now played by John Cleese, is an inflated arse, written and performed as though wanting viewers to miss Desmond Llewelyn. There’s an evil henchman who’s actually called Mr Kill. Berry gets some of the most terrible dialogue ever committed within the series. Madonna not only appears in the film, she provides the title song as well, and it’s awful and especially poor is the ‘stuttered editing’ on her vocals that was fashionable for a mercifully brief time back then.

Die Another Day was the sixth highest grossing picture of 2002, and in a year that contained Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter movies that’s no mean feat. And yet, like Moonraker in 1979, the sense that the line had been crossed is impossible to ignore. Where do you go from this? Back to basics is where, indeed the recasting of Bond as Daniel Craig gave EON the opportunity to reboot their franchise, return to the pages of Fleming and tell of 007’s origins. This remains a complete mess of a film, virtually a joke entry, difficult not to laugh at and so ludicrous that it actually becomes quite tiresome long before the close. Given this was Brosnan’s last appearance it would be easy to blame him, but it isn’t his fault. He deserved better in the role, capable of providing depth and dramatic heft in those rare moments when it was demanded of him. Berry’s made her fair share of stinkers, but again this isn’t her responsibility, while the co-starring role offered to a young Rosamund Pike remains one of the series’ more blatant wastes of talent. Everyone involved just dropped the ball this time, not least the script writers for inserting awful puns at every opportunity, as though they had previously watched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s endless ice-related quips in Batman and Robin and thought that was the right direction to take.

23. A View to a Kill
Year: 1985
Star (his age): Roger Moore (57)
Lass (her age): Tanya Roberts (29)
Evil Doer: Christopher Walken
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $321m (23)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Anyone else want to drop out?’
Title Song Performer: Duran Duran
Glamorous Locale: Paris, San Francisco
Gadget: Submarine disguised as an iceberg, bug-finder posing as an electric razor, x-ray sunglasses, ring camera, ‘Q Dog’

I’ve been known to dabble

The 1980s were a difficult time for James Bond. Audiences were mainly looking elsewhere or waiting for the film to release on video, leading to the bottom four entries in 007’s box office figures coming from this decade. Star Roger Moore was patently too old by the time he made A View to a Kill, the credibility of him playing a man of action stretched to breaking point when he discovered he was older than his co-star’s – Tanya Roberts – mother. Like the main man, there’s an air of exhaustion about the picture. No one seems to know how to breathe anything fresh into the franchise so they don’t even try. The plot of Goldfinger is rehashed, even down to the villain discussing his scheme to destroy a major American financial hub with the use of an expensive visual display. Lots of it makes little sense. Why, for instance, does Bond steal a fire engine to escape the police and then spend time during the pursuit farting around the rig? Surely for a better reason than the possibility it might have made for a fun scene… Roberts is a terrible Bond girl; she plays a damsel in distress, the sort of screeching moll who makes viewers miss the days of Anya Amasova and Holly Goodhead, capable women who were easily Bond’s equal. It’s also a surprisingly boring film, and that’s something 007 – even at its most fantastical – should never allow to happen. Once the ‘action’ moves to Zorin’s stables it stays there for a very long time and slows down horribly.

That it isn’t a total dead loss is mainly down to the presence of Christopher Walken as the movie’s psychotic villain, Max Zorin. He seems to know he has to rescue the film and so dials up the eccentricity of his performance to magnificent levels, killing with glee even when firing on his own men. He’s great value, in Top Trumps the magic card in terms of outright madness levels. Grace Jones, a performer who could only have emerged from the eighties, makes for a unique sidekick to Zorin – no one looks like her, and no one could have as effectively combined hard-edged beauty with muscular action like she does here. Between them, Walken and Jones make a brave stab at saving A View to a Kill, but it’s tired stuff elsewhere, never more so than in the shape of its star, nearly 60 and looking it. Moore’s age adds an unwished for sleazy quality to his trysts with Roberts, signifying that something had to change. And it did.

22. Octopussy
Year: 1983
Star (his age): Roger Moore (55)
Lass (her age): Maud Adams (38)
Evil Doer: Louis Jourdan, Steven Berkoff
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $426m (21)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Game, set and match’
Title Song Performer: Rita Coolidge
Glamorous Locale: India, Germany
Gadget: Acrostar Micro-jet, Acid pen, Homing device within watch, Alligator boat

Sounds like a load of bull

Of all the classic (i.e. pre-Brosnan) Bonds, Octopussy is by some distance the one I’ve watched the fewest times. The reason, simply enough, is that I don’t like it very much, and whilst I’ve discovered positives about many of the other ‘lesser’ titles during this re-watch my opinion of this one hasn’t changed. It feels like a film lacking in confidence, one emblematic of a business that was running scared because at the time it had an ‘unofficial’ rival in the box office – Never Say Never Again – that forced it to play safe and go back to the tried and tested winning recipe they had successfully pulled back from with For Your Eyes Only. Whereas Roger Moore’s previous outing suggested a new and more realistic direction for the gentleman spy, Octopussy returned by and large to high concept thrills, a fantastical extravaganza, albeit with certain elements present to show what it might have been. In the end, it did enough to win the battle of the Bonds, despite the draw of Sean Connery in Warners’ retread of Thunderball (Connery’s pretty good but the film is nothing special, proof if you like that the world wasn’t desperate to see Thunderball again, and that’s understandable), but in relative terms audiences were looking elsewhere and the film falls well short of 007 at his best.

A visible ageing Moore (returning to the role after other actors, notably James Brolin, were screen-tested before EON decided a sense of continuity was required) gets to show glimpses of the harder-boiled Bond he’d played in For Your Eyes Only. He displays real anger to Steven Berkoff’s warmongering Russian general, a nice moment of the film showing its sensibilities during a period when the real Cold War was regaining some of its 1950s tension, albeit against the backdrop of a world tired of hostilities, represented by Walter Gotell’s far more reasonable and realistic Soviet high-ranker. Racing against time to defuse a bomb that will go off and reignite East-West military action, Bond rushes across West Germany only to come across problems – cars refusing to stop and give him a lift, stealing a vehicle and being pursued by the police – that create some much needed tension. There’s some fine acting from Moore, a sense of desperation and harshness that the character would show in these moments. Elsewhere, the early appearance of a slain 009 shows that MI6 secret agents can in fact die in the field, teasing at the peril to come.

But these are snatches of the picture Octopussy might have been. The Cold War plotline fights for space amidst a tale set mainly in India, involving Faberge eggs, a harem of women and Louis Jourdan’s smooth villain. Jourdan effortlessly out-suaves Moore and has a delicious way of enunciating the word ‘Octopussy’, but he’s an under-cooked bad guy who’s solely present because the film needs to have one. A key scene in which he leads a great hunt against the escaped Bond should have suspense levels reminiscent of The Most Dangerous Game, but it’s spoiled because it’s played for comedy – 007 pulls a ‘Barbara Woodhouse’ and orders a tiger to sit (it does), barks ‘hiss off!’ at a snake and then swings through the trees, pulling a Tarzan cry presumably to… no, I can’t think of a single reason for it. A chase through the crowded streets of India should be thrilling but is far too high concept, twisting on the presence of tennis pro Vijay Amritraj who at one point uses his handy racket, a joke that could only work with people who knew what his day job was.

Churls are welcome to argue that it’s just meant to be entertainment, that the sight of Bond turning up to the villain’s headquarters in a hot air balloon emblazoned with an enormous Union Jack is nothing more than the daft, knockabout fun they were aiming for. For me, it isn’t quite at the bottom of the barrel but it’s close, that lack of any real credibility undermining the moments intended to ratchet up the tension.

21. The Man with the Golden Gun
Year: 1974
Star (his age): Roger Moore (47)
Lass (her age): Britt Ekland (32), Maud Adams (29)
Evil Doer: Christopher Lee
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $448m (19)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Flat on his coup de grâce’
Title Song Performer: Lulu
Glamorous Locale: Hong Kong, Thailand
Gadget: Next to nothing for Bond, but Scaramanga’s car-plane takes some beating

You’re that Secret Agent! That English secret agent! From England!

Christopher Lee must have been the most off-the-shelf Bond villain imaginable. Related to Ian Fleming, it was speculated that Lee might even have played 007 himself, but it was only when Jack Palance turned down the role of Scaramanga that he was approached to play Bond’s arch-enemy in The Man with the Golden Gun. On paper, it’s a mouth-watering part. Francisco Scaramanga is the world’s best assassin, taking jobs at a cost of $1 million per hit. No one knows his face, and he lives in seclusion on a paradise island. The prospects for a tale in which he and Bond face each other is tantalising indeed, the stuff of a splendidly taut two hours.

Instead, the opportunity is squandered within a weak and rushed entry, an attempt to cash in on the success of Live and Let Die by dashing it out. The production values are typically high, so the shortfall comes in the scripting, a lazy mish-mash of tropes that are present because they’re what people expect to see. Car chase? Tick. Beddable women? Two of ’em. Extended scene in which the villain explains his plan in exhaustive detail to Bond? Of course there is, a boring several minutes of twaddle involving a solar something-or-other, when what we really want to get to is the duel between the pair. Lee is walking charisma, but his character – with all the potential that comes with playing a cold-hearted killer – is soft-boiled and gadget-dependent, which dilutes the personal threat level he ought to possess.

Maud Adams in a femme fatale role is pretty good, hard as it is to believe that after Bond tortures her for information she later falls effortlessly for him. The other female presence, Britt Ekland, is horrifically short changed, eclipsing even Jill St John for incompetence. The script’s aim for Ekland appears to stop at getting her to run around in a bikini; she inevitably ends up in bed with Bond, in spite of the fact she knows his reputation, is trapped in a wardrobe while he shags Maud Adams, and is shown nothing but scorn by him for much of the picture. The reason? ‘I’m weak,’ she tells 007; weakly scripted, more like. Other moments of potential brilliance are casually wasted or cheapened. A fine stunt depicting a car doing a 360 degree spin over a broken bridge is shot for laughs by playing a slide whistle over the action, and it’s made considerably worse by shoehorning Clifton James’s pot-bellied, racist Sheriff into the car alongside Bond. There’s no reason for this, save for heavy-handed comic effect. And don’t get me started on Herve Villechaize, Scaramanga’s midget sidekick whose deadliness is no match for an open suitcase.

All told a real misfire; even within Roger Moore’s aegis it’s an entry best forgotten, which is a shame. I’m not a fan of Lulu’s title track, but John Barry’s score drips with loveliness. Much of the photography, particularly the climax at Ao Phang-Nga National Park, is glorious. An inspired little touch comes when Bond enters MI6’s Hong Kong headquarters, based within the wreck of the RMS Queen Elizabeth, corridors and offices set amidst odd-angled walls. These are glimpses of a much better film, but glimpses are all we get.

20. The World is Not Enough
Year: 1999
Star (his age): Pierce Brosnan (46)
Lass (her age): Sophie Marceau (33), Denise Richards (28)
Evil Doer: Robert Carlyle
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $492m (16)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘See you back at the lodge’
Title Song Performer: Garbage
Glamorous Locale: Turkey
Gadget: Q Boat, Visa card disguising a lock pick, ski jacket, x-ray glasses

I thought Christmas only comes once a year

The World is Not Enough is an apt title for this entry given that it wants everything – dramatic weight, character development, the usual spectacle and thrills. The result is a very mixed bag; a convoluted plot that is far more labyrinthine than it needs to be, stunts that are present for the sake of showing them. The speedboat chase along the Thames showcases the series’ increasing reliance on CGI, belongs firmly in the realm of fantasy and leads to nothing. It’s present because there hasn’t been an action scene for a bit. Similarly with the set-piece on skis; no real reason for it. There’s little weight because it’s obvious Bond will emerge unscathed. One of the characters, Denise Richards playing the unlikeliest nuclear physicist imaginable, is completely unnecessary to the main sweep of the plot. Richards favours the standard scientific uniform of dressing like Lara Croft (Tomb Raider was big at the time) and is called Christmas Jones, for no better reason than to produce the film’s lascivious closing pun.

And it looked so promising too. The narrative has Bond protecting Elektra King (Marceau) against her former captor, Renard (Carlyle). But there’s a twist! Elektra and Renard are lovers. He’s going to help her oil pipeline to monopolise supplies by blowing up Istanbul, and while 007 – who of course is already courting her by this point – suspects a trap, his suspicions are ignored by M (Judi Dench) who was close friends with Elektra’s father and is blind to her treachery. Good, hard-boiled stuff, almost approaching Noir territory as Bond comes to realise he’s been duped along with everyone else, his face hardening with the revelation, Pierce Brosnan having to act his character’s feelings of betrayal. It helps that Marceau is good at conveying the reasons why everyone is suckered in by her act, and Carlyle does his best at playing a man who feels nothing and yet does it all for love.

The plotting is strictly by the numbers stuff, following expositional moments with action, giving Bond x-ray specs so that he can do the obvious with them, spoiling the last, genuinely poignant appearance of Desmond Llewelyn’s Q by replacing him with a buffoonish John Cleese, making a strangely weak villain of Robert Carlyle, giving us helicopters armed with giant chainsaws for the hell of it, and worst of all turning out to be a bit boring. At least Dench gets more to do as M, as though director Michael Apted scrabbled around for ideas and suddenly realised they had one of the most gifted actors of her generation to work with. Forgettable, and it shouldn’t have been.

19. Diamonds are Forever
Year: 1971
Star (his age): Sean Connery (41)
Lass (her age): Jill St John (31)
Evil Doer: Charles Gray
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $649m (10)
(Not) Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Your problems are all behind you now’
Title Song Performer: Shirley Bassey (second appearance)
Glamorous Locale: Amsterdam, Nevada
Gadget: Fake fingerprint, voice algorithm recorder, water transport ball

As long as the collar and cuffs match

At one stage it was felt that Diamonds are Forever would be an immediate sequel to On her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond, devastated over the slaying of Tracy and out for vengeance, would become a killing machine as he ruthlessly fought his way to the upper echelons of SPECTRE and ultimately Blofeld himself. George Lazenby was once again slated to star, before he resigned and the figures for his single episode were not as fulsome as was hoped. It wasn’t a financial failure, but neither was it a blockbuster hit in the region of previous entries and something had to change. Thoughts then turned to rehashing Goldfinger, a defining instalment in the series, with Gert Frobe sounded out about playing his character’s own brother. Bond himself was to be Americanised, John Gavin signing up for the part and in the end being paid off for doing no work when United Artists offered a king’s ransom to coax Sean Connery back for one more spin as 007. Connery’s return meant that the ambitious new directions being dreamed up for Bond could be shelved, the departure already witnessed in Lazenby’s film quietly pushed into the background.

The results are mixed. After a glimpse of what 007 could have been, Diamonds are Forever returns to the realm of Bond as superhero, breezing through the action, by happy chance stumbling on the villain’s diabolical schemes and much of it played for laughs. This is definitely one of the series’ bawdier entries. Tom Mankiewicz’s script conjures dialogue that borders on the obscene, while Blofeld is reimagined as a highly camp bad guy, Charles Gray at one point appearing in drag (impossible to believe the shadowy SPECTRE head from the earlier movies allowing this to happen). Despite the usual generous budget, there’s something oddly cheap looking about this one, and a definite tiredness and lack of dynamism creeps in, as though everyone’s given up and is simply going through the motions – thank you, here’s the product, now give us your money please.

All the same, there’s a fair amount to enjoy. Gray’s Blofeld aside, the main villains are henchmen Mr Kidd and Mr Wynt, played by Putter Smith and Bruce Glover as gay lovers who are also assassins. Allowing for the traditional worries over homosexuality doubling as evil-doing, they’re good value, treating their work lightly and coming up with imaginative ways to dispatch Bond, albeit unsuccessfully (the bit where they aim to do away with him by leaving him in a pipe beggars belief – just shoot him!). Even a Connery in his fifth decade, the midriff thickening and toupee more and more obvious, is still Connery playing James Bond (incidentally looking a lot like Cary Grant, the actor originally considered for the role), which translates into instant charisma and action man heroics. Director Guy Hamilton shoots a fistfight between 007 and Peter Franks (Joe Hamilton) in a cramped Amsterdam elevator, the claustrophobic confines and two 6′ 2″ men trading blows making for a thrilling and surprisingly brutal bout to the death. A shame they didn’t do Jill St John’s character any favours. She starts as an assiduous diamond smuggler and ends a hapless damsel waiting around to be rescued. Maybe that’s how Bond likes his women, but it doesn’t play well.

18. Moonraker
Year: 1979
Star (his age): Roger Moore (51)
Lass (her age): Lois Chiles (32)
Evil Doer: Michael Lonsdale
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $656m (9)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Play it again, Sam’
Title Song Performer: Shirley Bassey (third appearance)
Glamorous Locale: Venice, Brazil, Argentina
Gadget: Wrist dart gun (standard issue!), 007 camera, ridiculously souped-up gondola, watch containing explosives

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season

Where to begin with Moonraker? Over the years it’s become the Bond film it’s okay to loathe, for many the moment the series truly lurched into self-parody, indulgence and outright silliness. Famously, the aim was to follow The Spy Who Loved Me with For Your Eyes Only, but then Star Wars happened and science fiction cinema became catnip for audiences, prompting Cubby Broccoli to order 007 in space. Belying its subsequent reactions, Moonraker was respectfully reviewed upon its release and did great business with viewers, but are there problems? Undoubtedly yes. The movie makes next to no attempt to be a credible spy thriller. Roger Moore’s Bond has become a figure of fantasy, reliant on a succession of improbable toys whilst also as indestructible is Richard Kiel’s Jaws, who inexplicably defies endless horrible deaths to remain in constant – and increasingly incompetent – pursuit, prior to (draws breath before typing) turning good when he finds love.

Strangely enough, the central storyline that pits Bond into the heavens (one that at no point appears in Fleming’s novel) makes the most narrative sense. It’s hokum, depicting technology that nearly forty years since its release still does not exist in reality, but the idea of Michael Lonsdale’s Drax killing all human life on Earth in order to restart the species from space is a fascinating and chillingly realised one. Try and forget that it’s a virtual retread of Stromberg’s megalomaniac scheme in The Spy Who Loved Me. Lonsdale plays a terrific villain, figuring more heavily in the plot than Jurgens’s arch-enemy, and issuing orders to kill with cold psychopathic finality. His dispatching of Corinne Dufour is the stuff of nightmares, as she’s hunted down and eaten by dogs. The madness of Drax’s vision is beautifully brought out by Ken Adam’s grandiose set designs, notably his control centre, all screens and black lines assembled in crazily angled towers.

An enormous budget was thrown at the film in order to make it as lavishly realised as possible. Ignore low-key. The action moves breathlessly from its French base to scenes set in Venice, Rio de Janeiro and the Igazu National Park, all eye-catchingly shot and coming before the space-based finale upon which Moonraker was sold. The stunt work is simply stunning. The film opens with a fight over control of a parachute by men in free fall, thrillingly filmed, a naked attempt to one-up the set-piece filmed at the start of The Spy Who Loved Me, and it’s a testament to the daring and craft of the crew and performers involved that it somehow all works and looks great. But here the problems start. The sequence is ultimately played for laughs; Jaws’s parachute fails and leaves him attempting to flap his arms while dropping to the earth. A chase scene that takes place along the canals of Venice spins on Bond’s gondola having a motor, and if that wasn’t daft enough it then converts into a hydrofoil so that he can mount the streets and escape his pursuers. Again this is supposed to be funny. As 007 laughs in the face of his character’s own clandestine status by floating across a packed St Mark’s Square, we see a pigeon do a double-take and Victor Tourjansky glance worriedly at his wine bottle.

These moments come with zany musical cues to advise viewers of their comic value. Later, Bond dons a poncho and goes on a horse ride while the theme from The Magnificent Seven plays, for no other reason than heavy-handed entertainment. In contrast, Bond’s fight to the death against Toshira Suga’s henchman comes across as surprisingly vicious and authentic, even if it causes the destruction of numerous priceless Venetian glass artefacts. The scene features some of Moore’s best acting, the look of hatred on his face as he trades blows appearing heartfelt and real. This is more than can be said for his relationship with Lois Chiles, the love interest developed as a reprisal of the winning ‘love among equals’ affair built with Anya Amasova in The Spy Who Loved Me. Chiles isn’t terrible and there’s always something to be said for the Bond girl being more than a simpering female, but their romance lacks the edge of Agent Triple X’s dilemma over whether to kill or kiss Bond and appears to happen purely because he can, and she can, and that’s enough. Also, it’s at this stage the age differential between Moore and his female co-stars begins to tell.

To an extent it’s fine innocent fun, and I don’t think Moonraker was intended to be viewed in any other spirit. But the shark was well and truly vaulted, and it’s easy to see the reasons for its high concept thrills being reined in for the series’ subsequent entry. The silliness is juxtaposed with some of finest work John Barry committed to his collaboration with 007, special effects for the space sequences painstakingly realised if primitive to modern screenings. The sight of Drax’s space station emerging in the face of the rising sun counts amongst the best money shots ever seen in Bond, the cast and music both suitably awestruck at the sheer ambition being displayed.

17. Tomorrow Never Dies
Year: 1997
Star (his age): Pierce Brosnan (44)
Lass (her age): Michelle Yeoh (35), Teri Hatcher (33)
Evil Doer: Jonathan Pryce
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $479m (18)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘They’ll print anything these days’
Title Song Performer: Sheryl Crow
Glamorous Locale: Hamburg, Bangkok
Gadget: Remote controlled BMW, cell phone that doubles as a remote control

Another Carver building. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he developed an edifice complex

With certain entries in the series my feelings about them adjust with every viewing. Such is Tomorrow Never Dies, a film I reviewed rather harshly on these pages a couple of years ago, but which I enjoyed this time around. Perhaps it’s within the context of watching Bond after Bond in order and knowing there are worse movies. I would never argue that it’s very good, that it is in fact anything more than an entertaining watch, one pockmarked with flaws and the problems inherent of the Brosnan era – complete invulnerability, ceaseless self-referencing, naked product placement – present and correct. There’s a nagging sense of it going through the motions, never really attempting anything new for fear of upsetting the all-important demographic, but ultimately it’s 007 and that signifies an intent to please.

The problem seems to be Brosnan himself. Not that there’s anything wrong with the actor, surely born for this role, but rather what he’s given to do. Despite being the main character the focus is rarely on him – we get lots of Michelle Yeoh’s martial arts heroine, Wai Lin, and much is made of Q’s latest gizmo, a BMW that can be driven by remote control. In contrast Brosnan recedes into the background, as much a part of the scenery as the delights of Thailand, there because it’s titularly about him, though the interest is never in him. At moments, Brosnan gets to act. Teri Hatcher plays a former flame who briefly reignites before being killed, and Bond is visibly upset over her death. It’s effective; for a few seconds, you see the consequence of the sort of life he leads, the feeling that he can’t form attachments because they are destined never to last. But then it’s over as another high concept action scene kicks in and dramatically the film returns to the ‘light as air’ weight that is its preferred modus operandi. It’s a great pity that we don’t see more of that side of 007, an aspect of his personality teased out to greater effect in the Dalton and Craig years.

tnd2

Despite that flaw, and it’s rather a fatal one really, Tomorrow Never Dies is two hours of explosive fun. Yeoh brings fantastic energy to her breakout role in cinema beyond China, almost balletic in her fighting skills and pitched as the equal to Bond. When working together the pair have some great scenes, notably the motorbike chase along the packed streets of Bangkok where they are handcuffed together and she has to keep changing positions while they’re hurtling down narrow paths. There’s a nice juxtaposition in the pair’s fighting styles, Bond becoming a blunt instrument against her graceful combat work. Against them, Jonathan Pryce’s media mogul villain is a considerable step down from the personal nemesis represented by Sean Bean in GoldenEye. While the idea of a Rupert Murdoch figure being the film’s bad guy is a fascinating one, Pryce generating international crises in order to get the scoop on them, he turns out to be a bit of a non-entity, present because the film needs a dastardly enemy and responding with a comic book performance. Gotz Otto as the inevitable henchman, Stamper, is similarly wasted. Both characters’ demises are strictly ‘by the numbers’ stuff. They happen because they have to, within the movie’s last ten minutes, and no better reason than that is ever offered.

tnd3

By all accounts, Tomorrow Never Dies had considerable problems in production and perhaps it’s for this reason that the end result has such an uneven and, in places, a ‘forced’ feel about it. That it isn’t terrible is something to be thankful for, but given the money spent on it, a cool $110 million, a grateful insistence on stunts being performed rather than digitally inserted in post-production, and a frankly superb Bond girl, it could and perhaps should have been a lot better.

16. Thunderball
Year: 1965
Star (his age): Sean Connery (35)
Lass (her age): Claudine Auger (24)
Evil Doer: Adolfo Celi
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $1,015m (2)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘I think he got the point’
Title Song Performer: Tom Jones
Glamorous Locale: Bahamas
Gadget: Underwater camera, Geiger counter disguised as a wristwatch, breathing apparatus

My dear girl, don’t flatter yourself. What I did this evening was for Queen and country. You don’t think it gave me any pleasure, do you?

Imagine a celluloid world before Marvel, before Star Wars, before all those franchises that dominate today’s cinema were conceived, and you have mid-1960s 007, at the absolute height of its success, where every new picture was an event in itself, when the actual movie was almost an afterthought within an ever spiralling cash cow of merchandising and publicity. The original idea was to make one film per year. You can picture a situation similar to that surrounding the Lord of the Rings films in the last decade, when each release picked up the momentum left by the previous entry. Watching the early Bonds now, fifty-plus years later and all that hype consigned to history, and we really only have the movies to consider; in reality they were part of the endless marketing machine surrounding Sean Connery’s gentleman spy.

Credit to the producers that they didn’t just churn out any old rubbish. Whatever you think of Thunderball, you have to agree the quality controls were set to high and the film retains an eagerness to produce spectacle, and not just that but actively seek new backdrops for the action. Production returned to the Caribbean, the agreeable setting for Dr No that made the film look as though it all took place in paradise, yet everything important happens beneath the waves. Considerable investment went into underwater filming, developing the lighting for a clear image, and the results work. Thunderball looks excellent. Terence Young from the first two films returned to direct this one so of course it’s beautifully done, but there was a commitment to technical finery also and it pays off.

Thunderball went on to slay the box office and remains the series’ second highest grosser of all time, but seen now and much of it is a snorer. It breaks the two hour barrier and feels longer, the biggest culprit being the aqua-action because it moves as slowly as scenes filmed underwater obviously would, but the film perseveres and it goes on and on. I was bored two-thirds of the way through, and I shouldn’t have been. This is 007, after all! Connery is showing his first signs of being long in the tooth, the tedium that would punctuate his later appearances as the lead. The ravishing Claudine Auger makes for a weak leading lady; better value comes from Luciana Paluzzi’s enemy assassin, who has the sex appeal to match her deadliness. In contrast watching Auger at 24 in an early English speaking role is like listening to Coldplay – pretty enough, but completely without substance. Worse still, Adolfo Celi’s nemesis, SPECTRE’s number two no less, is just plain dull. Bond goes on this mission at the head of a team. Rik Van Nutter appears as Felix Leiter and the always interesting Martine Beswick is peripheral as 007’s assistant, Paula. I would have liked to see more of them, to find how Bond operated as the boss of other agents. It doesn’t happen.

15. GoldenEye
Year: 1995
Star (his age): Pierce Brosnan (42)
Lass (her age): Izabella Scorupco (25)
Evil Doer: Sean Bean
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $530m (14)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘She always did enjoy a good squeeze’
Title Song Performer: Tina Turner
Glamorous Locale: Saint Petersburg, Puerto Rico
Gadget: Laser equipped wristwatch, explosive pen

What’s the matter, James? No glib remark? No pithy comeback?

After a six year hiatus, GoldenEye marked several changes in the series. Cubby Broccoli had handed production duties over to his daughter, Barbara, who in partnership with Michael G Wilson would produce every subsequent release to date. There was a new Bond, Pierce Brosnan, and in a sign of Hollywood bowing to equal rights his bosses no longer represented a boys club. Bernard Lee passed away after Moonraker, but M remained male until Judi Dench took over for this one and made the Lee tenure appear a cosy pushover by comparison. Even Moneypenny stopped longing for 007’s attentions and began pulling him up for his attitude. As for the action, in the 1990s post-Glasnost world much of GoldenEye was shot in Russia, with emphasis placed on the uneasily optimistic climate, iconography from the Communist past stored in a statues’ graveyard and Bond himself wrestling with the realities of being a Cold Warrior and a potential relic.

The Timothy Dalton era led to some of the lowest box office returns of the series and it was probably logical that GoldenEye would hark back to the fantastical spectacles of earlier. This is both good and bad. Brosnan seems an ideal fit for the lead role, famously almost taking it a decade earlier but looking instantly at ease ordering a vodka martini. The plot pits him against Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), a onetime Double-Oh operative who emerges as a megalomaniac villain and represents an enemy with exactly the same skill set as Bond himself. Trevelyan is assisted by Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp, an outright psychopath who climaxes through violence and has the ability to literally kill using her thighs. Go with it… The film moves at a lightning quick pace, contains a number of blistering, sometimes logic-defying action set-pieces and Brosnan plays 007 as though he’s having the time of his life. It’s a lot of fun. There isn’t a lot about it to dislike, especially where established fans are concerned.

On the downside, GoldenEye marks the beginning of Bond done as pastiche, as a homage and send-up of its previous glories. In its writing, there’s a sense of elements being included by checklist, because they’ve always been there and the public want to see them. You can almost imagine the process – scene where Bond banters with Q: check… Villain’s base is an elaborate and costly hideaway: tick… Obligatory casino scene: done, etc. The tank chase through the streets of Saint Petersburg is thrilling and brilliantly mounted, but stop and think about it and it makes very little sense. It’s there for the sake of it, and that’s fine because it’s being done in the name of exciting film making and yet narratively it’s just bizarre. Similarly, this is one of those entries where absolutely everyone apart from 007 is a completely inept shot – you can only have so many scenes where he survives a hail of bullets before it loses any credibility. Eric Serra’s score, the only one he contributed to the series, is largely terrible. Viewers can’t be blamed for counting down to the hiring of David Arnold and music made to replicate the spirit of John Barry.

Still, it’s a highly entertaining couple of hours, and it comes dramatically to life whenever Brosnan and Bean share the screen, such moments when it seems too small for the pair of them.

14. Live and Let Die
Year: 1973
Star (his age): Roger Moore (45)
Lass (her age): Jane Seymour (22)
Evil Doer: Yaphet Kotto
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $825m (5)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘He always did have an inflated opinion of himself’
Title Song Performer: Paul McCartney and Wings
Glamorous Locale: Jamaica, Louisiana, New York
Gadget: Trinket-heavy wristwatch

Names is for tombstones, baby! Y’all take this honky out and waste him! Now!

There’s a dated quality about Live and Let Die that’s difficult to shake off. Made during the Blaxploitation craze, it’s stuffed with references and comments that are tough to watch now, and it’s at this point I wonder whether to ignore my twenty first century sensibilities and just enjoy the movie for what it is. As an introduction to the Roger Moore years, it shows just about everything that was good and bad about his time in the role – the ironically cocked eyebrow, the age difference between ‘Rog’ and his female co-star (he was twice the age of Jane Seymour), the distaste for killing, the way he had only to look at a lady for her clothes to fall off… You either love this stuff or hate it. In truth, Moore brought subtle differences to the character owned by Sean Connery – changing Bond’s dress sense, his favourite tipple, even the weapon he uses. I like his approach to violence, that unlike Connery he didn’t especially like resorting to it, though when pushed he could be deadly, and it’s at these brief moments that he shows the ‘other side’ of 007, the easy charm that slips away to reveal the killing machine lurking beneath.

The other gap in the picture is a John Barry shaped one. The usual composer was unavailable for this one, so in a film for Bond’s new era they instead called on Paul McCartney to write the theme tune, as it turns out an especially good rock song. In a cost saving measure (Macca was expensive) Beatles producer George Martin wrote the rest of the score, one that riffs ceaselessly on the title track.

Live and Let Die was a constant highlight on TV when I was young. I loved it, and though recent viewings have shown up its weaknesses I confess I was riveted when watching it again for this write-up. It might be miles away from the low key thrills of From Russia with Love, but it never slows down and refuses point-blank to be boring. Yaphet Kotto is a fantastic villain with an equally lurid cast of henchmen, including the memorable Julius Harris’s steel-armed Tee Hee. Seymour does an excellent job of conveying her character’s blend of sexuality and virginal purity, and she was just a knock-out. It’s a great looking film too. Bond’s appearance in Harlem, standing out garishly in his smart suit and not caring about it for a moment, is very funny, but once the action moves to the Caribbean and later the Bayou it’s all shot rather gorgeously. It’s so much fun that the fact barely any of it makes sense never really matters. Why represent Louisiana’s finest with a pot-bellied redneck, played expansively by Clifton James? How is it that the voodoo scene features Bond shooting a dude, only to find it’s a clay model that he’s fired upon? Why does Geoffrey Holder meet his end in a coffin filled with snakes, but then appears again at the film’s close? Who knows? And for that matter who cares, when the film moves at roller-coaster speed and piles thrill upon thrill in the name of sheer entertainment?

13. Quantum of Solace
Year: 2008
Star (his age): Daniel Craig (40)
Lass (her age): Olga Kurylenko (28), Gemma Arterton (22)
Evil Doer: Mathieu Almaric
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $622m (11)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Got pulled into a meeting’
Title Song Performer: Jack White and Alicia Keys
Glamorous Locale: Austria, Italy, Chile
Gadget: Too tough for gadgets

It’d be a pretty cold bastard who didn’t want revenge for the death of someone he loved

I now have three confirmed viewings of Quantum of Solace and I think I get now. Daniel Craig’s second outing has always divided people, from viewers who think it stinks to those who believe it’s misunderstood. There are problems within it, sure, and I have an issue with any film that takes several goes before it works, but I am now in the latter camp.

Any Bond flick starring Craig is worth something because the actor brings so much to the part and is never dull. In Quantum of Solace, it’s possible to see the character he’s trying to essay, the tortured hero aiming to do a professional job while beneath the surface his boiling personal vendetta and rage against the world continues. This is best brought out in his scenes with M (Judi Dench). You can tell from her questions and the way she regards Bond that she knows exactly what’s going on with him, and he knows that she knows, but they have enough respect for each other to let the story play out. It’s great acting from the pair and no doubt led to the decision to give them significantly more time together in Skyfall. The film’s a direct sequel to Casino Royale, a first for the series in which the stories are normally self-contained, yet it’s faithful to Ian Fleming’s narrative in which actions most definitely had consequences for future instalments. That realisation leads to the fascinating premise that Craig’s spy is the same man who was so recently betrayed by Vesper Lind, and so goes on a spree of vengeance beginning with the capture of the mysterious Mr White (Jesper Christiansen). However, as teased in the previous film and made more explicit here, there’s the steady uncovering of some large and shadowy criminal organisation to deal with, one that had Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre terrified for his life and for which Mr White works also. Seasoned Bond viewers will know where this is leading to and may also be aware that the rights for making it explicit were not yet EON’s so for the time being we have this slow reveal, which makes the film one link within a longer chain. Thought of like that, and the actions of Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) make a lot more sense. Even Greene, whose scheme is to monopolise – and potentially withhold – Bolivia’s water supply, is only a middle man, a cog within a bigger picture.

The main problem with Quantum of Solace lies in its script, which fell victim to the writers strike. Craig and director Marc Forster were issuing rewrites during the shoot, and what we’re left with is certainly under-cooked and just about coherent. There’s a suggestion that the film is little more than a bare-bones plot stringing together the action scenes, and unfortunately it’s hard to deny that entirely, though in part that’s because Forster directs the set pieces so frenetically and with such an expert hand that the rest tends to pale. Forster goes for the flash cutting, snap editing style that came in for a lot of criticism at the time, complaints that it was too fast to follow what was going on. For my part, car chases taking place at such impossible speeds should be shot this way; because everything’s happening so quickly the sense of near-chaos ought to be present in the editing. And in truth the film’s at its best in other moments. The Tosca scene is gorgeous, the opera taking place on a surreal set designed on a grand scale, members of the Quantum organisation present in order to communicate as the audience’s focus is on the stage, while Bond watches from a vantage point and eventually intervenes. When he and Greene confront each other, the subsequent action scene, with its shower of bullets, is cut from the soundtrack and the music takes over, making the chase almost balletic. It’s really well done.

Forster wanted to make a tighter, less bloated Bond film, and Quantum of Solace is by some distance the series’ most expedient entry, well short of the usual running time that was routine by this stage. Perhaps it’s for this reason that everything feels a bit compressed, as though some of its key plot points fall victim to the desire to wrap it up. This might also do for Almaric, who stands as one of the franchise’s weaker villains and too easy to defeat, although thought of in the context as a ‘middle man’ (which isn’t made clear when watching the film, but becomes so with subsequent entries) he’s a more credible operator. Other traditions fall by the wayside. There are no gadgets for Bond to use, which is hardly a bad thing given how ubiquitous and ‘Deus Ex’ they could be at times. Romance is in short supply. Gemma Arterton’s Agent Fields is present to play an innocent consumed by the dangerous game in which Bond is involved, but her appearance is all too brief. More screen time is given to Olga Kurylenko, playing a Bolivian agent with her own reasons for investigating Quantum. It’s a fine, ballsy part, but the spark between her and Bond never really lights and it’s with the unrequited kiss he gives her at the close that you find neither of them are really interested in each other beyond getting the job done, while the shadow of Vesper continues to loom large.

If the film’s a failure, then it isn’t because it’s boring. Missing something, certainly, and not without its issues, but it’s hardly car crash cinema and watched within the context of a wider narrative there’s much to enjoy here. Not least is David Arnold’s score, a wonderfully epic piece of work. The title song, initially intended to be performed by Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse before legal issues denied that possibility (can you imagine a better ‘Bondian’ vocal than that of Miss Winehouse? What a pity), from a collaboration by Jack White and Alicia Keys, is rather less satisfying, something of a muddle of the two talents played over the decidedly strange animated mess of a credits sequence. Bring back Maurice Binder’s leaping ladies…

12. For Your Eyes Only
Year: 1981
Star (his age): Roger Moore (53)
Lass (her age): Carole Bouquet (23)
Evil Doer: *Spoiler – it’s a twist!*
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $487m (17)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘He had no head for heights’
Title Song Performer: Sheena Easton
Glamorous Locale: Greece
Gadget: Q’s Identograph, with its Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy graphics

You get your clothes on, and I’ll buy you an ice cream

For Your Eyes Only is a good but flawed film. Its origins lay in the decision over where to take 007 after the excesses of Moonraker. They could have gone for a further extravaganza and counted the cash, and it’s to EON’s credit that they understood there was nowhere beyond space and called for a stripped-back spy story, back to basics, back to the pages of Fleming, from which this one was culled. It was the first to be directed by John Glen, who would go on to helm Bond’s run throughout the 1980s. Roger Moore stayed on, no doubt relishing the chance to play a more mature title character that for once depended on his abilities as an actor.

Far from world dominating megalomaniacs, the story concerns Bond’s efforts to retrieve a lost nuclear decoder before it’s stolen by smugglers and sold to Soviet Russia. The pre-credits sequence begins with 007 laying flowers at the grave of Tracy Bond, the kind of sombre attempt at continuity that shows the film’s serious intentions. Later, the flash Lotus is destroyed so that the film’s key car chase involves Bond hurtling along hairpin Greek roads at the wheel of a Citroen 2CV, and there’s no reliance on gadgetry (beyond Q’s Identograph), just our hero’s abilities and smarts. His relationship with the vengeance obsessed Melina (Carole Bouquet) has a developing, organic quality, the sense they take the time to get to know each other and understand the mutual benefits of their partnership. The plot even has that most unusual of narrative devices in 007’s world – a twist! It’s at the point that Julian Glover and Topol’s characters aren’t what they appear to be you realise just what a treat this is; normally a villain is introduced and it’s clear from the beginning that’s what he is. Not the case here. Both actors are fantastic, indeed there’s a fine array of players on show, from Michael Gothard’s professional killer (and amongst his team a cameo for a young Charles Dance), through to Walter Gotell reprising his role as a humanistic Russian general and Cassandra Harris’s sexy, doomed Countess.

The action scenes are perfectly fine – the ski chase is blisteringly paced and well shot, and the scaling of a sheer rock face to reach the villains’ lair takes the time to illustrate the moment’s sense of sheer peril. In previous entries you can picture Bond using some improbable device to help him get to the top in seconds, but here you just have the man and his climbing abilities, the danger exacerbated by Moore’s palpable fear of heights. A water torture scene, lifted straight from the pages of the novel Live and Let Die, is so nicely put together that it seems a crime they didn’t use it for that movie. Elsewhere, Lynn-Holly Johnson’s ingenue skating champ is inserted into the plot mainly to emphasise 007’s newfound sense of maturity. A spirited teenager who latches onto him, Bond rejects her advances, offering to buy her an ice-cream when she turns up naked in his bed, only to discover she intends him to be nothing more than a conquest – good, subversive stuff for a series that had tended to show the ageing agent as irresistible.

However, it is flawed. Too many moments played for cheap laughs indicate a picture that is never fully confident in the story and mood it’s attempting to convey. An appearance by Janet Brown as Mrs Thatcher is cloying. The bit where Bond’s defeat of some menacing ice hockey players to the musical cues of the scoreboard feels strained and unnecessary. And the early defeat of a familiar, bald, cat-toting figure is cheap, the scene put together as a two-fingered salute to SPECTRE rights owner Kevin McClory. None of this is enough to ruin For Your Eyes Only, which is a bold and fine introduction to Bond’s eighties tenure, but it does show the unease with which this new direction was ushered in.

11. Spectre
Year: 2015
Star (his age): Daniel Craig (47)
Lass (her age): Monica Bellucci (51), Lea Seydoux (30)
Evil Doer: Christoph Waltz
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $881m (4)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘What do we do now?’
Title Song Performer: Sam Smith
Glamorous Locale: Mexico, Italy, Austria, Morocco
Gadget: Wristwatch containing built-in explosive

You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr Bond

Spectre is the first of the rebooted Bonds to tell a classic 007 story, a high concept epic of megalomaniac villains, deadly henchmen, far fetched action scenes and beautiful women for our hero to jump along the way. After the more realistic, hard-edged approach of the previous Daniel Craig entries, there’s an argument for suggesting it’s all a bit of a climb-down, that those films are locked in the past and cinema has moved on, so why return to them? Throw in some much-publicised ennui from the star, a sense of the boredom that crept into and finally undid Sean Connery’s tenure, and the impression you’re left with is of a franchise reaching crisis point once again.

That’s one take, certainly. It isn’t mine, at least not entirely. While I don’t think it quite reaches the heights of Skyfall, let alone Casino Royale, I find Spectre to be a blast. There’s the bravura opening scene, smartly filmed as though one long take that tracks Bond wearing a skull mask from the streets of Mexico City, where the Festival of the Dead takes place, to the roof of his hotel and an assassination attempt. It’s wonderfully done, with its 1,500 extras, pulsating drum-heavy score, Craig and girlfriend moving smoothly through the action as though simultaneously part of it and following their own contrasting plotline. The sequence screams of excess; it’s filmed the way it is at the behest of director Sam Mendes, following a vogue for long take cinema and opening the movie with one just because he can, because it’s possible and finally because it’s so good for generating suspense. Most importantly, it sets the tone for everything that follows, an effort from all concerned to transform Spectre into the kind of thrill ride that underpinned some of the best in the series. It proves there is life still in this old dog.

Talking of whom, Craig continues to provide a muscular Bond, hard acting with a refusal to simply go through the motions. While the film insists on shoehorning references to the previous stories in, to make Spectre something of a culmination, even including Skyfall (Silva was in on it, apparently), 007 carries less of the emotional baggage that punctuated his earlier appearances. By now that makes some sense, not quite resetting the character in the mode of ‘classic Bond’ but realigning him as fresh and ready for dealing with the episode’s challenges. The tension with his paymasters remains intact. Ralph Fiennes’s newly installed M is irritated with his loose cannon tendencies, and for once it’s nice to see why he gives a hard time to this man who dispatches Enemy Number One time after time. There’s affection between the pair also. M trusts Bond implicitly when it comes to the pair having to deal with an enemy within, Andrew Scott’s oily C who is on a mission to replace the ’00’ programme with a global data sharing network. The mention of C getting such a top job as a consequence of judicious contacts within the government is a lovely reference to Conservative cronyism, a slap in the face to the likes of M and Bond who have got to where they are through merit and battle scars. This storyline also gives Q and Moneypenny things to do, far more than the cameo appearances they used to enjoy and developing a sense of teamwork between the characters.

The narrative contrives to pitch Bond on his own against the machinations of Blofeld, here played by current rentabaddie of choice, Christoph Waltz. Almost born for the role, Waltz has the just the right mixture of charisma, playful dialogue and the sense it’s all a grand game to make for an absorbing arch-villain. The briefly discussed plot point of Blofeld and Bond sharing some family history adds to the intrigue, though blink and you’ll miss it, and in reality there’s a feeling of simply winding Waltz up and letting him go off on his trademark schtick. His first appearance – heavily prominent in the film’s trailers – is the best, Blofeld cast as the shadowy, all-powerful head of a cabal of global villainy, capable of dealing out death and judgement with a whispered word to his aides. Once his relationship with Bond becomes more personal and the pair share time together, his inscrutable headship of SPECTRE begins to lose some of its impact, and considering the build-up he’s far too easily dealt with. For all that, the torture scene that depicts Blofeld literally boring into Bond’s head is a gruelling nightmare, less visceral than Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre’s old school methods perhaps, but in line with the character’s sophistication levels. You can imagine him spending hours on coming up with a device that will really hurt Bond, creating the machine that will do the job, and the glee with which he wields it is all too palpable.

Old problems that pockmarked the series are visible in Spectre. Dave Bautista plays Blofeld’s wrecking ball henchman; he has a fight scene with Bond that destroys half a train, losing some of From Russia with Love‘s claustrophobia by simply having the characters crash through furniture that should confine them, and after such an experience our hero emerges without a scratch. Really? All right, so Roger Moore was never shown to be battered and bruised as a consequence of his adventures, but surely we’re past that by now… Lea Seydoux as the heroine is a return to the ‘damsel in distress’ Bond girl, existing to be captured and then saved. This is buried beneath character development, which at least gives Seydoux some emotional range, but it’s there and the key bargain between Bond and her that compels the former to spare Blofeld’s life never really suggests this will be anything more than her one appearance in the series. A nice try at creating a love interest to at last replace Vesper and let 007 move on, yet lacking much of the dramatic weight you’d expect from the Craig era.

The feeling that the producers have given up on all the careful restart of the series to give us a more human and credible hero for the sake of telling an old-fashioned Bond story is difficult to avoid. It undermines Spectre, even though we’re a long way from the grotesque excesses of Die Another Day and it’s all played with more respect for its audience, and itself for that matter. Flawed, yes, but worth it? Spectre gets away with it in the end. It’s very well made and crucially is its own thing rather than following trends set by other movies, something that too often blighted the series in the past. The worry is that the retooled franchise is already running out of steam, and that’s a problem.

10. The Spy Who Loved Me
Year: 1977
Star (his age): Roger Moore (49)
Lass (her age): Barbara Bach (29)
Evil Doer: Curd Jurgens
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $693m (7)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘All those feathers and he still can’t fly’
Title Song Performer: Carly Simon
Glamorous Locale: Egypt, Sardinia
Gadget: Lotus Esprit possessing submarine facilities and underwater weaponry, wristwatch with ticker tape, ‘Wet Nellie’ (water motorcycle that can be assembled, presumably in the same family as Little Nellie – see You Only Live Twice)

In our business, Anya, people get killed. We both know that. So did he. It was either him or me. The answer to the question is yes. I did kill him

The mid-1970s found 007 in crisis. The Man with the Golden Gun had been a (relative) box office failure. Harry Saltzman’s financial problems led to a dissolvement of the Broccoli-Saltzman production partnership that had fuelled the series to this point. Kevin McClory remained a spectral (do you see?) presence on the periphery, forever threatening legal action over what he considered to be his intellectual property. The Spy Who Loved Me was the riposte, a big budget, no-holds barred extravaganza that would hark back to what was already perceived to be a golden age. After going initially with Guy Hamilton and then considering a young Steven Spielberg, they eventually chose Lewis Gilbert to direct, a decision that perhaps makes this one the closest to You Only Live Twice, his previous instalment at the helm, though in truth the film feels like a Greatest Hits of the 1960s entries with elements from Dr No, Goldfinger and Thunderball all discernible.

The movie’s wild card is the insertion of Anya Asamova aka Agent Triple X, a Russian spy played by Barbara Bach. It’s as much Asamova’s story as it is Bond’s, the pair teaming up in the spirit of Detente to foil Curd Jurgen’s megalomaniac, but with the added edge that she becomes aware he previously killed her lover in the line of duty, meaning once the mission is over she has vowed to do for him. For the most part she is entirely Bond’s equal, getting the better of him several times and certainly taking advantage of his way with the ladies, which is shown up to be as much about perception as reality. The team works, especially as they have to take on Jaws (Richard Kiel), the towering henchman whose best scene is when he battles the pair in a railway carriage, the cramped surroundings playing to his size advantage. Jaws is a lot of fun and rightly the focus is on his constant tussles with the agents, which places Jurgens’s Stromberg in the background. Blofeld in all but name (legal issues again), Stromberg’s scheme is to destroy the world and reset the human race beneath the sea. A wacky, high concept villainous scheme that involves the capture of nuclear submarines and triggering their missiles at the usual major cities, and all the better because there’s no ransom involved and therefore no reasoning with the man.

A silly story no doubt, but it’s breathlessly told in the finest tradition. The shoot takes advantage of the naturally beautiful locations of Egypt and Sardinia to produce some breathtaking imagery, the former knowingly riffing on Lawrence of Arabia, so transparently in fact that I had to check whether Freddie Young had been recruited to reprise some of his award winning cinematography from that film. Christopher Wood’s script realigned Bond to be less like Connery, and more the smooth English gentleman spy that would define Roger Moore’s approach. Criticisms of Bach’s acting abilities seem a little churlish. She’s fine, composed and regal, and almost impossibly gorgeous; the issue is more that by the film’s close the character reverts to ‘damsel in distress’ status, which short-changes the highly capable agent she has been carefully developed into up to this point. Ken Adam’s cavernous submarine hangar is another design classic, and the crew pulled a great trick in building a 65-foot scale model of Stromberg’s tanker, all so they could reproduce the sea wake that would add to the prop’s authenticity. The first use of IT in 007 finds Bond sitting down at a computer console and referring to the instruction manual in intercepting the rogue submarines; this could only have been made better had he first retrieved his ‘readers’.

The Spy Who Loved Me isn’t without its problems, notably Marvin Hamlisch’s disco-influenced score that automatically dates the film. Bond’s Lotus Esprit, a prototype vehicle that converts into a miniature submarine, is perhaps a step too far into the realm of fantasy. The car helps him to evade a pursuing helicopter piloted by Caroline Munro, but the moment it emerges from the sea onto a crowded beach makes you wonder where he was when the ‘secret’ part of secret agent training took place, especially as he casually opens his window to toss a fish out. Pass the wine bottle, Victor. Then again, considering this film as anything other than broad entertainment is folly. The tone is set as early as the opening scene, where Bond skis off the side of Mount Asgard on Baffin Island, free falls for what seems like ages and then unfurls a Union Jack parachute at the last moment. This stunt was filmed for real, a winning act of daring and craft that would doubtlessly be done using CGI now. Little wonder that it earned applause in theatres, and helped the film to become a favourite with the public.

9. Licence to Kill
Year: 1989
Star (his age): Timothy Dalton (43)
Lass (her age): Cary Lowell (28), Talisa Soto (22)
Evil Doer: Robert Davi
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $285m (24)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Looks like he came to a dead end’
Title Song Performer: Gladys Knight
Glamorous Locale: Florida, Mexico
Gadget: Signature gun

Watch the birdy, you bastard

In terms of money, Licence to Kill is the least successful of all the Bonds, a white elephant that very nearly killed the series off altogether. It was the first to earn a ‘PG-13/15’ certificate, the comic book violence of previous entries giving way to some real gore in places, the influence of Die Hard creeping in to what could be shown. It turned out, EON found, that what audiences wanted was the likeable fantasy of the Roger Moore years, not the harder-edged killer represented by Timothy Dalton’s tenure, and as a consequence it did for the lead actor, took Bond off the screen for six years and reverted back to type when it eventually returned. Years later and able to enjoy the film on its own merits, there’s a reason why many viewers see it as in fact one of the best.

After a conventional opening, Licence to Kill sails into uncharted territory when Bond is compelled to ‘go rogue’, refusing to serve when he isn’t allowed to pursue his personal vendetta against Robert Davi’s drugs baron, Frank Sanchez. The possibilities of where this takes the agent are compelling. Suddenly, this highly capable and dangerous man is off the leash, free to pursue the villain in his own way, and Licence to Kill is at its most interesting when 007 infiltrates his way into Sanchez’s operation, effectively retelling Yojimbo with Bond implying treachery where it doesn’t necessarily exist. Dalton takes the character into new territory, visibly angry over the assault on his friend, giving a real sense of consequence to Bond, while emerging battered and bruised from confrontations in a way that didn’t happen to the other fellows. A scene of him in bed, his upper body criss-crossed with scars and bullet wounds, shows the effects of a life spent in deadly game playing, all those experiences shaping Bond into the living weapon he has been honed and sharpened into.

The film is a refreshing change from type, the endless recycling of the same basic plot that Bond had followed over the years. Dalton makes for a credible hero and isn’t especially likeable, while Sanchez’s motivation – to make as much money as possible from drugs – feels contemporary and believable. No attempts at world domination; it’s all about the green, and it roots Sanchez as a wholly 1980s villain. Some of the stunt work is breathtaking. It culminates with an extended set piece involving a fleet of tankers driving along dangerous Mexican roads (so dangerous, in fact, that the roads had been closed to the public by this point) and it’s incredible, high octane stuff that is up there with some of the series’ best work, particularly because – unlike, for instance, some of the more fantastical skiing sequences – it all looks so real.

Licence to Kill includes a most welcome extended supporting part for Desmond Llewellyn’s Q. The female co-stars are uneven. Cary Lowell’s gutsy CIA operative who allies with Bond is good fun, but Talisa Soto as Sanchez’s moll suffers from some ‘all over the place’ plotting and is frankly not well performed. Davi is great and effortlessly charismatic as Sanchez however; it probably isn’t an accident that he emerges as a more enjoyable character than Bond. There’s also an early appearance for Benicio Del Toro as one of his henchmen. Overall a fine entry, wholly undeserving of its ‘black sheep’ status within the Bond family, and the possibility of what might have happened to the franchise had it been a success was sadly never realised.

8. You Only Live Twice
Year: 1967
Star (his age): Sean Connery (36)
Lass (her age): Akiko Wakabayashi (25)
Evil Doer: Donald Pleasence
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $757m (6)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Just a drop in the ocean’
Title Song Performer: Nancy Sinatra
Glamorous Locale: Japan
Gadget: Little Nellie, the flat-pack helicopter

Darling, I give you very best duck

Bond films walk a tightrope between serious-minded spy thrillers (From Russia with Love, The Living Daylights) and light-hearted fantasy romps (the majority of the Moore and Brosnan eras). My feeling is that either is fine as long as that’s what it purports to be – the only problem is when a film made for fun starts taking itself seriously, a problem that turned Thunderball into a plodder. You Only Live Twice is every step a daft fantasy – it aims to do nothing more than entertain, to punch the viewer in the arm and laugh over what a great lark all this nonsense is. Once it transpires the villains have constructed their secret base from a hollowed out, extinct volcano, not only doing this in total secrecy but also sending their own satellites, undetected by anybody, into space for the purposes of ‘eating’ American and Russian spacecraft, then you realise Bond has finally jumped a shark the size of Megadon and kissed goodbye to any semblance of credibility. If you are prepared to accept that from your 007 then the film works wonderfully. For me, it’s a wholehearted guilty pleasure, the sort of picture that offers a complete escape from reality. Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Not that it’s a perfect film. You Only Live Twice underwent a difficult production process, in particular Sean Connery’s declaration that this would be his last outing as Bond. In hindsight a rash thing to come out with, but it sent the franchise into a tailspin, suggesting at one stage that without its star there could be no more 007. The lethargy that Connery started showing in Thunderball develops into full-on boredom here and, in fairness, there’s just about enough spectacle in virtually every cell that it nullifies seeing the main man sleepwalking through his performance. Little of Fleming’s novel remains, and for that matter you only know the screenplay was by Roald Dahl because it’s credited to him. There are various continuity problems and other bits that make no sense, even within this film’s loose grasp on logic e.g. the car being picked up by a helicopter wielding an enormous magnet is a fun, throwaway scene, dreamed up during production, but Bond watches the action on a little screen, despite no one being present to actually film it for him. An aerial cameraman lost his foot during a grisly accident while shooting the chopper fight, and then Japanese authorities refused to let the crew fire rockets over its volcanic terrain, meaning these scenes were moved to Spain. There are mixed reactions to Donald Pleasance’s appearance as Blofeld (a late casting change, scenes featuring the original actor already in the can, which led to costly re-shoots), the first time we see SPECTRE’s chief – personally, I think he’s a weak villain. And at the end of it all, this is the Bond that remains most open to parody, the Austin Powers movies and Team America sharing out bits of the picture to poke fun at.

For all that, there’s really very little to dislike. The piss-takers have a certain redundancy because You Only Live Twice is pretty much a parody of itself to begin with. There’s a point with the volcanic base when you just need to go with it; if nothing else then admire the human effort that went into designing and constructing the enormous set, which of course was physically put together, has actual helicopters taking off from inside it, and those are real stuntmen abseiling down from its ceiling. Ken Adam’s creation cost more than the entire production of Dr No and at the time there was nothing quite like it. I defy anyone to despise Little Nellie, the pint sized chopper Bond pilots to scout locations for SPECTRE’s lair, the fact it comes flat-packed in suitcases and carries the kind of weaponry that can see off a squad of pursuers. The apparently unreconstructed attitudes in Japan – where, we’re told ‘men come first’, women come second‘ – are so bizarre as to add to the sense of unreality, let alone the frequent bastardisations of the Japanese language and the frankly surreal scene where Bond is made to look like a local, which he doesn’t and the point of all this never emerges. You might as well criticise Dr Seuss for his books’ lack of reality – there isn’t any and the film tells us it doesn’t matter.

And besides, it’s stands as one of the most beautifully shot and scored movies in the series. Freddie Young, the Oscar winning cinematographer lent his talents to turning Japan into a place of almost alien gorgeousness – all sunset vistas, Tokyo lit by neon, and countryside that looks like the surface of the moon but with vegetation. John Barry submitted another ravishing musical accompaniment, tinged with Oriental influences, while the title song, featuring the vocal talents of Nancy Sinatra, remains one of my favourites. Lewis Gilbert, in the first of his directorial assignments, made some really interesting choices, notably the rooftop fight scene, filmed from a distance to remove the moment’s visceral qualities (fights in Bond films were always shot in close-up) and therefore any feeling that real damage was being done.

7. The Living Daylights
Year: 1987
Star (his age): Timothy Dalton (41)
Lass (her age): Maryam d’Abo (26)
Evil Doer: Jeroen Krabbe, Joe Don Baker
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $381m (22)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘He met his Waterloo’
Title Song Performer: A-Ha
Glamorous Locale: Vienna, Morocco
Gadget: Keyring with many special features, Aston Martin with ‘a few optional extras installed’

Tell M what you want. If he fires me, I’ll thank him for it.

You wonder whether Timothy Dalton views Daniel Craig’s success in the role of James Bond with disdain, after all the agent in his current guise is close to the character he essayed back in the late 1980s. Too soon? The world didn’t seem ready for a take on 007 that aligned him with the source material and added a harder edge that had become entirely absent during the Roger Moore years. Critics honed in on the lack of humour, the grumpiness, the expunging of the fun factor. Dalton himself added to the problem by refusing to play along with the bandwagon, demanding the sort of privacy that was routinely denied the man who would be Bond.

A pity. The Living Daylights is a terrific movie, a vital injection of energy and a serious minded central character who breathed life into this tired franchise. Dalton came with a stronger acting pedigree than any of his forebears in the role and it shows. Tiny glimpses, the look of shame when he pulls his gun on a terrified child, the rush of irritation when Kara (Maryam d’Abo) wants to return to her flat for the cello, the set jaw when he resolves to go after the assassin in the film’s prologue, offer ample evidence of an actor not merely reading his lines in a manly way but constantly questioning Bond’s motivation. He’s the heart of the picture and he’s riveting to watch.

The Living Daylights is the last opportunity the series had to cover the world of the Cold War, and it’s probably the best section of the movie. This is the other side of the Iron Curtain, the one from a hundred spy thrillers, all muted colours and suspicious eyes, and strangely enough it’s the one in which Bond seems most at ease, light-hearted in his dealings with the nervous Saunders (Thomas Wheatley) and confident in his defection plan. It shows 007 as a consummate Cold Warrior, rather less sure of himself back in Britain where the perceived lack of danger leaves him restless.

The villains aren’t great, though Andreas Wisniewski as the strongman, at one stage wielding grenades disguised as milk bottles, is good value. D’Abo as the Bond girl gets some decent characterisation and has fine chemistry with Dalton that is allowed to build organically. Best of all perhaps is the score, John Barry’s last for the series and a really enjoyable piece of work. I think that sums up the film, like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service an underrated entry that deserves a kinder retrospective.

6. Goldfinger
Year: 1964
Star (his age): Sean Connery (34)
Lass (her age): Honor Blackman (39)
Evil Doer: Gert Frobe
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $912m (3)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘He blew a fuse’
Title Song Performer: Shirley Bassey
Glamorous Locale: Swiss Alps
Gadget: Aston Martin DB5

You’re a woman of many parts, Pussy

After two movies that established James Bond and introduced his world, Goldfinger defined the series’ direction by ditching the more serious, earthy aspects and focusing on high concept thrills. With a box office return that intimated overwhelmingly this is exactly what people wanted, the die was cast, 007 reimagined as a virtually indomitable superhero, showing few of the vulnerabilities his character underwent previously in favour of swapping playful barbs with the villain. There’s something innately pleasing about the fantasy. Bond drives along hairpin Alpine roads in a beautiful car rigged with special ‘modifications’ courtesy of Q Branch, living a life that no viewer could ever come close to experiencing, one that pays lip service to real world problems because there’s some improbable megalomaniac to deal with and gorgeous women to seduce. It’s impossible to dislike, and Goldfinger does this better than subsequent entries because Sean Connery was in his prime, still interested in his work, effortlessly charismatic, looking as though he’s having as much fun as the people watching him on the screen. Gert Frobe makes for a fine bad guy, ruled by a love of gold to the extent his first name is a play on the Latin word for the precious metal, while Olympic wrestler Harold Sakata is the last word in memorable henchmen thanks to a steel rimed bowler hat, brute strength and virtually mute performance.

The movie has shortcomings that only become really apparent after several viewings because it’s film making as a thrill ride – you’re having too much fun to care that (i) Goldfinger lavishes millions on a playroom that converts into schematics of his plan to destroy Fort Knox, and then he wastes the men for whom he designed the room in the first place (ii) he keeps Bond alive and under capture for reasons that never truly matter, naturally allowing the one man who can foil his schemes to stick around (iii) Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore, the first in a long line of euphemistically named females, is a (strongly implied) lesbian and a villain, who is made good after Bond beds her and presumably shows her what she’s been missing in her life i.e. a good man. The latter point aside, a worrying note of intolerance that would endure in the series, these elements are all part of the roller coaster experience this film happens to be. It clearly had a lot of money spent on it (ignoring the back projected Miami scenes that show up all the more obviously when watched in HD) and it’s wonderfully shot, particularly in the film’s Alpine scenes. Barry’s score is amongst his most iconic, the arrangement for the title track lingering long after Goldfinger’s closing credits have rolled. The sets are beginning to show their large scale glory that Ken Adams would become renowned for. Most notable is the interior of Fort Knox, an imagined chamber of hoarded gold and steel floors. It’s here the thrilling denouement takes place, Bond shackled to a ticking (ticking!) atomic bomb and having to deal with Sakata’s lumbering death machine. If what happens appears hackneyed, then it’s worth remembering Goldfinger did this first and it’s been copied many times, not least by the people who produced it and returned again and again to the winning formula.

5. Skyfall
Year: 2012
Star (his age): Daniel Craig (44)
Lass (her age): Judi Dench (77), Naomie Harris (36), Berenice Marlohe (33)
Evil Doer: Javier Bardem
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $1,109m (1)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Last rat standing’
Title Song Performer: Adele
Glamorous Locale: Turkey, London, Scotland
Gadget: Radio tracker

I always did hate this house

To celebrate 40 years of Bond movies they gave us Die Another Day. Thanks for that. For the 50th anniversary we got Skyfall, a vastly improved product from a studio with much to prove after the loss of momentum that came with Quantum of Solace. A lot of money was spent on it. An Oscar winning British director, Sam Mendes, was recruited, and with him came top cinematographer, Roger Deakins. The multi-nominated Thomas Newman became the ninth composer hired for the score. Adele, possibly the biggest name they could recruit, performed the title track. Marquee names like Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney and Naomie Harris were added to an already strong cast list of regulars. Little was left to chance, and audiences responded by transforming it into the series’ biggest financial success, while the critical reaction was broadly very positive.

A triumph then, and it isn’t hard to see why when Skyfall pulls off the tricky balancing act of blending Daniel Craig’s battle scarred, enigmatic hero with a plot more rooted in traditional Bondage. Q’s back, played by Ben Whishaw as a wet behind the ears IT expert. Moneypenny also makes a return, albeit via an unusual route. In a story that stands alone rather than playing as part of a wider arc, Bond’s mission puts him into contact with Javier Bardem’s rogue MI6 agent, another instance of 007 fighting someone who’s virtually his equal, albeit with the extravagant flourish of classic franchise villains. Best of all, everyone finally realises that having Judi Dench on contract means that an expanded role for M is a good idea, and the Dame more or less becomes the film’s Bond girl as the story harries both she and Craig to an explosive climax at the agent’s ancestral home in the Scottish Highlands.

With Deakins on board, Skyfall is possibly the best looking Bond picture since You Only Live Twice, a gloriously shot extravaganza whether photographing the rooftops of Istanbul, rain-soaked London or a misty, rural Scotland locked in some endless yesteryear. Under Mendes’s guidance, the action scenes are edited less frantically than in Quantum of Solace, and there are relatively few of them, the film having enough confidence to spend time settling in with its characters and expanding their personalities. This suits Craig’s Bond, who is shot and lost for dead in the exciting prologue and lies low for a time, losing weight and taking on a pinched, wolfish look, haunted by just about every demon imaginable. When he returns to the fold, it’s clear that he’s older, not necessarily wiser, physically unfit for duty and only recommissioned by M out of a deep-rooted sense of trust. It sets him up for a great clash with Bardem’s Silva, harbouring similar feelings of resentment to his former masters and hoping to find in 007 a kindred spirit. Bardem’s entrance is one of the best in just about any film, shot in a single long take as he monologues to Bond, moving steadily and gracefully into the frame’s foreground. Then he seems to try it on, though his orientation is never made clear and more likely is his inclination to provoke, to see where his advances take him. It all serves to add nuance and depth.

Skyfall is far from the perfect Bond experience. Silva has too many opportunities to take M out for her longevity to have anything besides plotting convenience going for it. The finale at ‘Skyfall’ makes little sense, again ending up there because the story wants it to rather than via narrative logic, though there’s much to enjoy in the action that takes place there. The contrivances stand out a little more here than in other entries, perhaps because so much of Skyfall screams of its own quality and so the weaknesses are starker. The question is whether the film has built enough goodwill with its viewers to let these things go, and the answer should be a resounding yes. It’s a cracking episode, if a long one, and if it falls short of the series’ absolute heights then it still wins in so many areas. I love Newman’s music, Adele’s song, Deakin’s photography, the performances, the sense of celebration surrounding the film that is present but never writ large, allowing audiences to enjoy Skyfall on its own merits.

4. Dr No
Year: 1962
Star (his age): Sean Connery (32)
Lass (her age): Ursula Andress (26)
Evil Doer: Joseph Wiseman
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $441m (20)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘I think they were on their way to a funeral’
Title Song Performer: Monty Norman, performing Under the Mango Tree
Glamorous Locale: Jamaica
Gadget: His wits, dear boy!

That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six

Watching Dr No now is fascinating. All the series elements aren’t yet in place (the title song doesn’t play over the opening credits, there’s no Q, therefore no gadgetry) and the plot sometimes runs parallel to Fleming’s novel whereas most veer off spectacularly, retaining little more than the title. The penchant for investing heavily in moving the production to glamorous places is present and correct however – you can imagine contemporary audiences falling for the delights of Jamaica easily enough. And at the centre of it all is Sean Connery, in his first starring role and quickly establishing himself as a living, breathing gentleman spy. Handsome, groomed, spry, pithy – picture this film with Cary Grant in the leading role (he was considered) and you get a Cary Grant movie. Instead, Connery is Bond, carrying no preconceptions of what you expect from a Connery picture. It’s a great job of work from the Scot, at ease in the part and enjoying a love affair with the camera that makes scenes as superfluous as 007 checking his hotel room for bugs attractive and watchable.

The film’s lack of gadgets and souped up cars turns into one of its biggest strengths. Without his ‘Deus Ex Machina’ props, Bond has to rely on his wits and talents. Not only does this lend credibility to the character, it also leads to moments when he has to be vulnerable and out of his depth. The invulnerable superhero he would become in later entries isn’t yet here and that’s a positive. Despite this, we’re clearly watching a fun fantasy flick without serious nods to the world of spycraft. Henchmen who appear periodically to offer moments of action and die just as quickly are here. Joseph Wiseman’s megalomaniac villain, complete with a lavishly appointed and staffed lair, turns up for the climax. The beautiful Bond girl (Ursula Andress, her Swiss vocals dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl) is an impossibly gorgeous creature, emerging from the waves wearing a white bikini in the film’s iconic shot. It’s a heady mix of stylised violence, photographed in places of real beauty that would be inaccessible to the average viewer, all costing a hefty amount to bring to the screen and looking it too. Dr No found instant favour with audiences and guaranteed further episodes. As the kick-off for a franchise that would run and run, it’s a fine entry and in Connery introduced a star who would endure as its finest exponent.

3. Casino Royale
Year: 2006
Star (his age): Daniel Craig (38)
Lass (her age): Eva Green (26)
Evil Doer: Mads Mikkelsen
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $670m (8)
(Almost) Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘That last hand nearly killed me’
Title Song Performer: Chris Cornell
Glamorous Locale: Bahamas, Italy, Czech Republic
Gadget: Aston Martin containing a field medical kit

I’ve got a little itch, down there. Would you mind?

Looking back it’s probably difficult to imagine the risk they were taking with Casino Royale. A new actor as Bond, one who had already been dismissed by many disgruntled and web savvy critics. The series rebooted, taking the character back to his roots, to the early days of his Double-Oh status. A return to the source novels with a fairly straight retelling of Ian Fleming’s first Bond yarn. And most critically, a conscious decision to reprise the mood and tone of the Timothy Dalton movies, recasting the hero as a dangerous weapon, shorn of the winning charm some of his previous guises had exhibited, memories of films that were the series’ least profitable no doubt writ large in the producers’ minds.

Of course, the celluloid world in the mid-2000s was a very different place from the eighties. Matt Damon’s adventures as Jason Bourne were both critically acclaimed and adored by audiences, suggesting it was possible for the protagonist to be an inscrutable killing machine and people would still love him. Bourne’s shadow looms over Casino Royale. Daniel Craig’s take on Bond reveals little of his past, peels away his emotional layers deliberately and leaves us with a man of action, a deadly and blunt instrument, the last person with whom you’d want to pick a fight. In the role, Craig is toughness personified. The accent, posture, fine tailoring, appreciation for a good vintage – they’re all present, but the Bond he essays gives the impression of being schooled in these elements and in fact the actor he most resembles is Robert Shaw’s Red Grant in From Russia with Love, low-born and dirty, handy in a scrap, happy to get his hands dirty. That he makes Bond an empathetic character is little short of a miracle. I think it’s because Craig performs the character well and is given the time and space to do so. Alongside Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, he shows tenderness and caring. There isn’t the necessity to jump her bones within two minutes of meeting her; Moore would have had her in the sack with one raised eyebrow, but here the relationship develops organically and when ‘love’ blossoms between them it’s as a consequence of their shared experiences.

Director Martin Campbell deserves a lot of credit for eking suspense from a card game. What could have been tedious turns out to make for some of the film’s most tense scenes, all those meaningful glances between Bond and Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre, Vesper staring disapprovingly on. The action, of which there is surprisingly little, is electrically filmed, in particular the free running chase that juxtaposes the pursuant’s graceful parkour with 007’s bull in a china shop. Mikkelsen is a fine villain, a less ambitious character than the standard megalomaniac and all the better because he’s given some motivation, a desperation to win the card game as his life is on the line. Once Bond triumphs, he resorts to violent measures and the visceral ‘chair scene’, strong stuff for a 12/PG-13 release and surprisingly for the series one that has visible consequences as our hero needs time to convalesce. Perhaps best of all, at this point there’d traditionally be a fade, 007 having won and got the girl, only it keeps going and you know that it can’t be for reasons that will end happily. Getting to that stage is gut wrenching, Bond apparently finding peace only for a final, tragic twist to unfold. The film’s aim is to establish why he becomes the man he is, and it succeeds.

Casino Royale is a muscular and confident entry, successfully resetting the series, giving us a hero for modern times and closing the curtain on the increasing anachronism he had been turning into before that point. Is there really anyone who still thinks Daniel Craig is not Bond?

2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Year: 1969
Star (his age): George Lazenby (30)
Lass (her age): Diana Rigg (31)
Evil Doer: Telly Savalas
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $506m (15)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘He had a lot of guts’
Title Song Performer: None (Louis Armstrong performing We Have All The Time In The World takes place during the film, not over the titles)
Glamorous Locale: Switzerland
Gadget: Just what’s underneath the kilt

It’s all right. It’s quite all right, really. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry, you see. We have all the time in the world

For two thirds of its running time, On her Majesty’s Secret Service is that strangest of things within the Bond series – a low-key spy thriller. With Sean Connery’s departure, the producers made a conscious decision to return to the spirit of Ian Fleming’s secret agent – out went the gadgets, the high concept action, the thrills and spills. In came a 007 who carefully infiltrates the villain’s lair using an assumed identity, pieces together his opponent’s plan via clues and the things he discovers, even gives us glimpses into his private life, in which he meets a girl and – gasp! – falls in love with her. It’s a different Bond for a franchise that must have felt it was pushing the limits of what the character could do before leaving any semblance of reality in its wake. Audiences responded positively on the whole. The film turned a healthy profit, though the returns weren’t as staggering as they had been and that pretty much did for its reputation. For years, On her Majesty’s Secret Service became the curio of the series, an oddity that almost neatly bisected the Connery and Moore years.

For sure, there’s a Connery-sized hole in there. George Lazenby, the Australian model who through a combination of bluff and looks won a single bite at the cherry, is still seen by many as a weak Bond – not tough enough, can’t act especially well, a vacuum where the charisma normally goes. Once it became clear he was only going to star in one film Lazenby became a vilified figure – stories of his inflated ego on the set abounded, tales in which the ‘discovery’ pissed everyone off. In reality, he plays a different character to what came before. Connery’s Bond could never feature in the film because it wasn’t made for him. It called for a more sensitive portrayal, more human, less certain of himself at every turn. There’s a bit in the film where Bond just sits down, defeated, his enemies closing in and he’s run out of ways to foil them. That wouldn’t happen to ‘the other fellow’ and it adds layers of humanity to the character that suddenly make him seem more empathetic, more the reaction you or I would have under similar circumstances.

As such, it helps to make this one of the best entries in the series, and even if you aren’t convinced by Lazenby there’s so much else to enjoy. The film has a sizzling Alpine setting, the Piz Gloria Revolving Restaurant at the summit of the Schilthorn doubling as Blofeld’s headquarters making for the most dramatic of locations. It leads to some thrilling ski-based action sequences, wonderfully shot by professional skier Willy Bogner. Telly Savalas excels as a more dynamic and charming arch-villain, while Diana Rigg plays the love interest to fine effect, a neurotic death-lover who’s saved by Bond just as she gives him roots. John Barry produces some of his best work for this one, a score so finely tuned that its title track plays over the credits without a singing accompaniment, though his love song ‘We have all the time in the world’ appears during the film, performed with emotional resonance by Louis Armstrong. The revisionists have it right. On her Majesty’s Secret Service is top drawer Bondage.

A note on continuity, which I raise because in the film Bond and Blofeld meet each other as though for the first time, despite having traded barbs previously in You Only Live Twice. There is a feeling of the series being rebooted for On her Majesty’s Secret Service, long before ‘rebooting’ became a Hollywood staple, though it’s worth pointing out that this film was considered ‘the next one’ since Goldfinger was in the can – Thunderball eventually came next due to rights issues and then seasonal shooting schedules put You Only Live Twice on the agenda for Bond’s fifth outing. The fan theory, which has developed over time, goes that ‘James Bond’ – as much as 007 – is a label rather than the character’s actual name. Bond becomes the moniker given to whoever is promoted to the position, which allows for the different actors taking the role on. Perhaps that explains why Bond happily drops his name to all and sundry, despite being a supposedly secret agent. Theory, speculation, or a grain of truth? The decision is up to the individual viewer.

1. From Russia with Love
Year: 1963
Star (his age): Sean Connery (33)
Lass (her age): Daniela Bianchi (21)
Evil Doer: Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $576m (12)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘She had her kicks’
Title Song Performer: Matt Monro
Glamorous Locale: Istanbul
Gadget: Gizmo-laden briefcase

You may know the right wines, but you’re the one on your knees

From Russia with Love is set mainly in Istanbul, that gorgeous Bosphorean capital where ruins and memories of the Byzantine Empire linger on every corner and the streets reek of centuries old history. It was on the front line of the Cold War, a strange atmosphere of agents on both side of the Curtain trailing each other, almost through duty and with a sense of near affection creeping in to their activities. In this post-Cuba climate, hostilities between America and the USSR had thawed to such an extent that the latter are never portrayed as villains. That status is reserved for SPECTRE, the criminal organisation that aims to play both sides off against each other as a pre-cursor to assuming world domination. Bond is targeted to get embroiled in a tangled plot that will lead to his demise at the hands of Red Grant (Shaw), a onetime petty thief who under SPECTRE’s tutelage has been transformed into a deadly assassin, in many ways 007’s equal.

We’re still in the brief age of Bond before Goldfinger, before the hero as ‘superhero’ was established. While Connery’s agent is highly capable and moves with an almost catlike grace, in this film he’s far from impervious and at certain stages, notably when his friend, Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz), has been killed and he’s on his own, works on a palpable nervous tension. It’s great acting from Connery, who by now was comfortable in the role and relished playing the sense of vulnerability that would rub off on audiences, especially as we’re well aware that he’s being tracked, every step of the way, by Grant. The confrontation between the pair is nicely filmed in a train compartment, lending a claustrophobic element to their tussle, Bond only getting an upper hand after minutes of desperately appealing to Grant and finally offering him money. Lenya plays Rosa Klebb, a Soviet officer secretly in SPECTRE’s service, and there’s a great cameo from Vladek Sheybal as a Chess grandmaster who’s tasked with using his strategic talents to formulate the organisation’s labyrinthine plan.

Despite the complicated plot, the film’s a beautifully scripted winner. Istanbul looks glorious. Daniela Bianchi is one of the more memorable Bond girls because she’s intrinsically involved in the narrative and spends some quality time with Bond, winning us over with her sheer adorable qualities. The action moves quickly, is driven by Bond’s adventures rather than stringing together the set pieces, and John Barry’s score is just smashing, sparking a love affair between the series and his music that made the two synonymous. It’s such virtuous and gripping stuff that the fixing of the template that took place in the following film seems a real shame.

“You should have stayed away”

Disappointed with myself for intending to upload a piece on Roy Ward Baker’s splendid prisoner of war film, The One That Got Away, last week and not finishing it in time, I decided my punishment was to be a visit to the cinema in order to catch Timur Bekmambetov’s rebooted Ben-Hur. Thanks to Odeon Limitless, any notion of quality control over what we see these days has more or less vacated the building. Mrs Mike and I can decide the worth of a movie by just seeing it for ourselves and so that’s pretty much what we do. As a consequence we have watched some pleasantly surprising gems – Midnight Special, The Jungle Book – but also the occasional outright stinker, like Sausage Party (awful, thumbs down emoji, etc). We’ve had further opportunities to be dismayed at the Odeon’s general inability/unwillingness/can’t be botheredness to deal with problem patrons, let alone the fact their picture houses are in dire need of some TLC, but that’s another story. The other week, I went by myself to see Morgan. I think there were two other people in the entire theatre, and a malaise hung over the entire experience. The show started late, and when the film eventually arrived I detected a slight flicker on the screen, mostly when the image was supposed to be white. I didn’t even know if it was my tired eyes or a problem with the projector, until the three of us left at the end and were confronted by the manager who confirmed there was indeed an issue with the equipment, they’d been in two minds over whether to screen the film at all, and would we like some free guest passes? As though we had any use for them, being Limitless subscribers, but what the hell, right? Not a bad film, as it happens, like a schlockier take on the storytelling possibilities introduced by last year’s Ex Machina

So anyway, Ben-Hur, a film I was dying to see because (i) I’m an irredeemable sucker for this stuff (ii) I retain a kernel of faith in the future of epic cinema. In truth, the genre’s been dead for years, hasn’t it? Okay, so Gladiator entered peoples’ hearts and minds, but that film is getting on for twenty years old now and the projects green-lit on the back of its success have barely been worth the trouble. Ridley Scott’s subsequent entries in the ‘epic’ tradition are more miss than hit. I liked the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven, but by then the damage was done. There were some interesting ideas in Exodus: Gods and Kings, yet it remains at best a pale imitation of The Ten Commandments, albeit with some ravishing visuals. As good an actor as Christian Bale is, even having that elusive capacity to command the screen in a way Kingdom’s Orlando Bloom rather fatally did not, he did nothing to supplant Charlton Heston as the definitive Moses. And let’s face it, even revisiting Gladiator is a disappointing experience. Scott’s visual flair, liberal amounts of gore, Russell Crowe’s larger than life presence and the piece’s sheer loudness can’t hide its obvious direction and ham-fisted plotting. I admit upon first watching it that I was dazzled, not to mention delighted by the return of an extinct tradition of film making, but now I don’t think it comes close to the movie – The Fall of the Roman Empire – from which it ripped the broad stokes of its narrative. As for Crowe, I think I now prefer him in the eponymous Noah, which if nothing else embraced its sheer loopiness for a truly unique cinematic experience.

How does the new take on Ben-Hur stack up? William Wyler’s 1959 version was by no means the first attempt to film General Lew Wallace’s allegorical saga, but I think I’m being fair in suggesting it remains a special film. There’s the weight of Oscar glory, the film’s length and scope, its straight-faced lashings of religious storytelling. While not I’d argue a perfect picture, it gives every impression of being the definitive screen adaptation of Wallace’s text and the task of redoing it seems an awesome undertaking. Besides, the world doesn’t appear to have been crying out for this film to be released. The trailers and other promotional material have met with a collective sigh, a sense of ‘really, why would you?’ from viewers who either have fond memories of Wyler’s film, simply couldn’t care less, or regularly bemoan the fact that its special effects would be computer generated and therefore weightless. I’m not going to ramble on about CGI, which I’ve already done exhaustively elsewhere and, in fairness, I thought was used quite well here on the whole. Some of the things that happen to horses in this picture could not have been filmed in the past without ending the lives of the poor beasts in a cruel and unnecessary fashion, so it’s all good with me to know the producers harmed pixels instead.

Ben-Hur 2016 hasn’t done great business and critically it’s taken a mauling, with enough caveats to suggest individual viewers could form differing impressions. For my part, it was pretty much what I was expecting. It’s a little over half the length of the 1959 film, which means some of the earlier work’s statelier elements either fly past or are exhumed entirely, but also the sheer epicry gets dialled down. Judah’s fall from grace, leading to his time served as a galley slave, is one of the story’s more powerful moments. In 1959, this was given the full grand sweep. The privations experienced by Judah and his fellow rowers were conveyed really well, the years he spent there made palpably clear. This is important because Judah emerges from the horrors of slavery a vengeance machine; the depth of his anger fuels the film’s second half and you can see why he feels that way. The new version includes the rowing period, but truncates it. Judah takes to his oar and then we’re told that five years have passed and we can tell because he now has long hair and a funky hipster beard. Admittedly, the sea battle he’s involved in looks pretty cool, something that the 1959 film falls short upon as the camera pans over Wyler’s toy boats, but nowhere do you get to experience Judah’s years of torture on the ship, the will to survive, his festering resentment. It just sort of happens and then the story moves on, a mere notch on the hero’s journey towards his inevitable showdown with Messala.

One of the more interesting aspects of this update for me was how they would treat its Christian overtones; after all Ben-Hur is a story of the Christ, and Jesus looms large over it. I didn’t expect to see anything like the 1959 film’s Nativity scene, which is in truth a few minutes of utter beauty, told entirely without words, the pictures and Miklos Rozsa’s score doing all the work because it’s one of the western world’s best known stories and doesn’t need to be narrated, indeed as I remember Jesus goes on to feature prominently without a single line of dialogue escaping his lips. Famously, Wyler opted never to show Christ’s face; we see him from behind and it’s left to the reactions of other characters to him to make it clear who he is. Inspired direction really, transforming Jesus into an otherworldly and very special character who it appears the film never feels worthy in showing fully. No such luck here. Jesus, played by Rodrigo Santoro (who I last recall seeing in Zack Snyder’s insane 300 as an enemy king with almost spider-like elongated arms and legs), is just another dude living and working in Jerusalem, spouting what would become Christian wisdom to anyone who cares to hear him but not especially noteworthy. I could go with that, actually; if Bekmambetov wished to cast Jesus as a commoner whose views long outlived him, then there’s some logic in that. Only the film wants to have its cake and eat it, as shown in the scene where Judah’s on his journey to the galley and collapses, Jesus defying the guards to give him water and the Romans unable to do a thing to stop him. So what is he then – preacher with a revolutionary message of universal love, or indefinably more than that? It’s confusing, and it makes the film’s climactic moment – when Judah has his moment of epiphany at the foot of the cross – so much less meaningful. The ‘moment’ happens, but we’re supposed to accept the crucifixion’s impact on Ben-Hur because of it being a major world event that we all know about, not as a consequence of great build-up and storytelling. The film’s lack of internal logic is a real issue.

Finally, the element I was really looking forward to, which was the clash between Judah and Messala. In my most recent viewing of the 1959 film, which I wrote about on these pages here, the personalities of the two main characters, one Jewish and the other Roman, became its decisive point. It was helped by the performances – Heston we all know about, but Stephen Boyd’s Messala was an outright revelation. Both seemed capable of calling on depths of bile that gave their mutual enmity such heft and lent enormous gravitas to their personal battle in the chariot arena. With all that emotional weight, the already spectacularly mounted race became one of the screen’s most exhilarating spectacles. How could the modern retelling stack up? The film opens with the prelude to the race, before tracking back to show how these two ‘brothers’ became enemies in the first place. Messala is played by Toby Kebell, best known for motion capture performances for films like Warcraft and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Far removed from Boyd’s pent up rage, Kebell’s acting makes him look in permanent pain, with none of the ‘be on top at all costs’ motivation that made Boyd’s Messala such a menacing figure. Jack Huston, an actor I haven’t seen in many things, or at least not enough to sit up and take notice, makes for a low key Judah, which is the worst thing he can be. The 1959 film was carried on Heston’s broiling sense of resentment, his anger at the world washing off the screen in great waves, but you get none of that from Huston, who seems an all-round nicer guy but whose cause it’s almost impossible to get behind. That leads to the movie’s biggest misunderstanding, that having action and carnage during the chariot race is all well and good, quite impressively filmed and trying to add fresh elements to a simple retelling of what came beforehand, but that’s all it ever is. I didn’t really care who won. Rather, I was more impressed with the video (linked below) that let me faff around on the chariot as it hurtles around the track. Very pretty and a bit of fun, yet there’s no weight, no emotion invested, as though the film can get by on visual splendours alone. It can’t.

In all, the 2016 retelling makes me think kindlier of the Wyler film, to appreciate it all the more, which I don’t suppose was ever the intention. Perhaps it’s the case that these kinds of movies have simply had their day and should be left back in the past, dusted off for Bank Holiday TV screenings and, if you’re lucky, the occasional big screen exhibition. I don’t agree with that personally. Good stories are good stories, so why not keep telling them? And some of the best ones come out of antiquity, whether they’re fictional ones like Ben-Hur that run alongside real-life events or the account of Cleopatra, the Empire defining tale that was most recently brought to life on HBO’s typically expensive series, Rome. But it isn’t here, and it’s nothing to do with CGI but instead the reliance on spectacle over old-fashioned elements like character and plot development. In the film’s notes, much is made of the race being shot using clever camera work, stuntmen (and animals) and practical effects over the whole thing being computerised. Fine, the sequence is very nicely done, a good showpiece. A shame they didn’t dedicate the same amount of time and effort on all the other things.

Getting Hitched!

No, I haven’t died and I’m most definitely still watching movies. The reality is that I took a promotion at work a couple of months ago and as a result I’m putting in much longer hours currently (I’d like to say that my pay rose to reflect the twelve hour days I’m often doing at the moment, but still). Something’s got to give, and at the moment it’s the scouring of TV schedules and putting comments together for these pages that’s losing out. It’s my choice and I don’t regret it, but in all truth I’m generally coming home from the job ready for nothing more than something to eat and some sleep, and FOTB is simply at the back of my mind.

All the same, as a fun side project and ‘to keep my hand in’, as it were, I’m working steadily on another ‘Best to Worst’ article for the site, this time on the directorial adventures of Alfred Hitchcock. I would argue that over the years of film viewing Hitch has become my favourite auteur of them all and so it’s quite a pleasure to plough through his extensive back catalogue. I own copies of just about every film of his that’s available (on DVD; there will come a time when I update the lot to HD format but that sounds like an exhausting assignment), and at the time of writing I’m up to the late 1930s, a very rich period for Alfred and featuring some brilliant movies. Similarly, to help I’m referring often to several books about him, including the terrific The Art of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto, and Charles Barr’s English Hitchcock. Both volumes contain extensive critiques of his films, often going into exhaustive detail about pictures where I’m confining myself to around 500 words apiece.

Despite the risk of nullifying my poor family into endless boredom with Hitchaphenalia, I’m enjoying this project immensely. Clearly, producing an actual ranking is going to be very difficult. Even the great man’s duds aren’t poor works by most people’s standards. Generally derided entries, like Number Seventeen and Waltzes from Vienna, have something to recommend them, whether it’s the former’s crazy chase scene (featuring some lovely model work), or the bravura debut performance of Blue Danube by Strauss Jr. Neither film is going to come close to troubling the higher spots, and God knows how I’m going to work that out (personal preference is as good a guide as any ultimately), but we’re talking about some very serious talent here. Luckily it’s a nice dilemma to have to deal with.

As I write this I’m listening to a Bernard Herrmann playlist on Apple Music. Herrmann isn’t even close to entering Hitchcock’s orbit on my viewing schedule yet, however the number of documentaries about him that I’ve seen recently are all daubed liberally with the great composer’s scores, and let’s face it there’s no chore in hearing his music, is there? Despite his close association to Hitchcock, I confess the main joys right now are coming from his soundtracks for Ray Harryhausen movies. If there’s a better fun work than that he did for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, then I’m yet to hear it.

In the meantime, it’s always worth checking out the poll of Hitchcock’s movies that Sergio compiled over at Tipping my Fedora. I don’t agree with the entire top ten produced by this public vote, yet that just shows the sheer variety and richness on offer. Not a sign, in the upper echelons, of entries like I Confess and Rebecca, both of which I love, nor Dial M for Murder, Frenzy, Sabotage, Young and Innocent or Foreign Correspondent… Similarly, the trilogy of lengthy podcasts done by The Secret History of Hollywood covering Hitchcock’s life and work can’t be recommended highly enough.

Again, please forgive the hiatus taking place on these pages. And with that, I’m off to watch The Lady Vanishes

Becket – the Sequel

Apologies for this post’s misleading title. There isn’t of course a sequel to the excellent Becket – how could there be? What did happen, however, in one of those lovely, neat bits of timing was a trip to Canterbury I made with my family this week. We went because it was raining on Wednesday morning, another wet day on our one week off together before July, and we agreed to give up the splish-splash north-west and pilgrim our way across and down the country in order to visit the seat of the Church of England.

Needless to say it wasn’t raining in Kent, and Canterbury emerged as a rather lovely place, only really shoehorned into this century thanks to being a University town. The focus of our brief stay was obviously the Cathedral, which you really can’t miss even though we were stopped from visiting on the first night as they were filming a Hollywood production there (no idea what, unfortunately, and if you ask me rather inconsiderate of them not to advise me before I went).

I’ll confess here and now that I’m an inveterate Cathedral visitor, something about those mighty structures that were constructed at a time when buildings so enormous shouldn’t have been possible, and trying to imagine myself in medieval times, awed into submission by their sheer scale when nothing similar existed. Canterbury is of course a special place, given its position and the sheer length of time that a place of worship has been present on its site. From what I can gather, more or less as long as Christianity has existed in England there’s been a church here, which means you’re walking on 1,500 years of significant history. And it’s a fine building, perhaps second only to Ely in my chart of English Cathedrals and wholly capable of inspiring the appropriate dropping of one’s jaw. Even with bits grafted on to the structure over the centuries it’s impressive.

Inside, the main focal point is naturally the bits that involve Thomas Becket. There was something stirring about walking where he no doubt once did, exploring the exact spot in the church where he was martyred, viewing the roll of Archbishops and seeing his name on the list. For good measure there were the tombs of King Henry IV (buried deliberately adjacent to Becket in the Cathedral as the cult around the Saint was at its peak) and Edward the Black Prince here also, but nothing really compares to the Thomas stuff, and the humbling feeling of being somewhere that had paid witness to the same events I had been exploring for this site mere days earlier. Given our journey, it’s almost impossible to picture what people went through to get here in times gone by. I can get some impression from the topography alone, the way we crested a small hill before having our first sight of the place, but England in 2016 is nothing like the forested land it was back then and imagining the trek pilgrims made sounds like a special kind of ardour.

Very much a worthwhile expedition, despite the long journey and the failure of other road users to show any more care for the Highway Code than a ‘screw you, I’m going here’ attitude. Sadly, I didn’t quite have my own Dennis Price moment a la A Canterbury Tale, but I am pleased to have been at last.

In the meantime, this site might be a little quiet over the next few weeks. I’m just taking a bit of a break from it all, though I reserve the right to drop in at any time I please and place a stealth write-up on these pages.

Steven Spielberg – from Worst to Best

Inspired by a post on Buzzfeed (or basically just copying it) and thinking about possibly the most important director of my lifetime, I thought it might be nice as a ‘special feature’ to work through the films of Steven Spielberg and rank them. When I was young, Spielberg’s releases were always special occasions. The first I remember seeing at the cinema was Raiders of the Lost Ark, a classic event movie, which meant his subsequent directorial efforts were invariably must-see affairs. It must have been around the same time that Jaws was screened on network television, the first opportunity my mates and I had to catch it – and this was back in the days when everyone watched a film like Jaws as it appeared on the box – and it was of course utterly riveting, the subject of fevered cloakroom (they didn’t have water coolers in my school) conversation. With the likes of ET turning up on the big screen alongside Close Encounters of the Third Kind making the TV schedules, it seemed the man could do no wrong. Every film was sprinkled with gold dust. They were little pockets of magic, turned out often with younger viewers in mind, optimistic in outlook and almost effortlessly entertaining.

It wasn’t long after those days of hit following hit that Spielberg turned his hand to more serious efforts. The Color PurpleEmpire of the Sun… Both worthy offerings, but without the fun factor that had punctuated the films of our formative years, and then things took an altogether darker turn with some of the topics he broached in the 1990s, the years that brought him critical acclaim along with the assured populist touch that had perhaps made him less Academy worthy beforehand. But still, Spielberg could make popcorn flicks like no one else. His output in the first decade of this century saw him return to films designed to entertain the masses, often to glorious effect. More recently, the circle has turned once again with the likes of Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, and without wishing to spoil what follows below, I have to say I found these to be astonishingly mature pieces of work, a world removed from his critic-pleasers of the 1980s.

I suppose it boils down to Spielberg being the most prominent American film maker during the time I’ve been watching movies. There might be better directors over the same period, but I haven’t followed anyone more slavishly, making sure I catch his most recent work just because, hey, it’s Steven Spielberg. Which isn’t to say I’m not occasionally disappointed. Though I don’t believe he’s capable of making an outright bad picture there have been misses along the way, which brings me around to the point of this piece.

The plan was to watch every film Spielberg directed, in order of their production, and having done that to rank them in order of what I consider to be the poorest through to the very finest. Each one has been scored on IMDb (the score appears at the end of each write-up), and I’ve used my scores to inform the overall list. It’s taken a while and been a lot of fun, and I’m prepared to come across a lot of disagreement as everyone has their own tastes. Researching these movies, reading peoples’ comments and listening to many podcasts, the diverse opinions out there indicate there’s simply no common thread when it comes to working out Spielberg’s best and worst. One person’s masterpiece is someone else’s clunker, with some titles seriously dividing audience’s views. Just be kind to me – it’s only a point of view. Bear in mind also that this only includes the films he’s officially directed; that means all those upon which he’s held different duties aren’t there, even titles that he’s rumoured to have had more of a hand in than the role for which he’s credited, such as Poltergeist. The list would just be too long! Similarly, whilst I would love to have included everything, I simply couldn’t get hold of copies of two early TV movies, Something Evil and Savages, and so by necessity have not added them, though you’ll find Duel is present and correct.

And finally, please accept my wish for a Happy New Year!

29. 1941 (1979)

I know there are some people for whom 1941 is a misunderstood treat. Judged a flop upon its initial release (which it wasn’t, incidentally; rather it was less wildly profitable than Jaws and Close Encounters) and viewed as a waste of the massive talents involved in it, my view goes with the general consensus that it’s a bit of a mess. There are some saving graces. Technically, it’s all rather wonderful. The special effects are top notch, the action scenes filmed with breathtaking élan – I love the aerial fight along the streets of Santa Monica that rips off the Death Star trench battles from Star Wars. The dance-off in which two characters fighting for the same girl chase each other around the hall is filmed in long takes, featuring some brilliant stunts and choreography.

But these are glimpses amidst one dog’s dinner of a movie. Characters shout at each other a lot. The Americans are depicted as skirt chasing buffoons, the Japanese as Hollywood (‘Horrywood!’) obsessed thickoes, with Christopher Lee’s Nazi observer pompously dictating orders to no one. Actors repeat their performances from other, better movies. Despite the fact Animal House is set twenty years later, Tim Matheson’s character appears to have stepped straight out of Delta House and into this – he plays exactly the same person. John Belushi’s fighter pilot does little that doesn’t involve bellowing some incoherent nonsense. I have no idea what the point of John Candy’s character was. Slim Pickens is rather good fun though. The same actress who was Jaw’s first victim reprises what she does in that film, stripping all her clothes off for an ocean skinny dip, only here she is caught by a surfacing submarine rather than the teeth of a shark, and this bit of self-referencing is one of the film’s best gags. 1941 runs for nearly two hours, which makes it too long. Apparently an even lengthier cut exists, which was put together for screening on American television, but thankfully my DVD contains the original edit. It’s not good that I see that as a bonus. 4/10

28. Hook (1991)

Over the years, Hook has gained an unlikely cult status, perhaps for kids of the nineties who have seen in it something of The Goonies for those my age. In my opinion, The Goonies (which incidentally Spielberg was involved with as Executive Producer) is almost interminably poor, unfathomably popular, and I certainly don’t look back to it fondly when remembering the films of my own childhood. And so with Hook, as far as I’m concerned the sort of film that the world wouldn’t be a worse place for it never having been made. I don’t even think it’s a good idea. There’s a reason why there have been two Peter Pan films, based on Barrie’s book, since this one. The original story has imagination to spare. This one doesn’t. It makes no sense.

There’s something strangely inspired about casting the late Robin Williams as a middle aged Peter Pan, reduced – in the sort of Hollywood contrived hypocrisy it never tires of – to earning his money as a corporate raider. In other words, as the film makes clear time and time again, he’s become a pirate, and if we didn’t get it then Maggie Smith’s aged Wendy tells him that to his face. Over the course of the film, Williams turns back into ‘Pan’, losing the beer gut and swapping his suit for green rags, and he takes a long, long time to make this inevitable transition. Dustin Hoffman is given licence to ham as Captain Hook, and gets too many scenes in which to do it, though I rather like Bob Hoskins’s Smee. Most criminal and wasteful is the appearance of Julie Roberts as Tinkerbell. The character has pretty much nothing to work with, suggesting she’s there for no reason other than to fit a beautiful actress into a costume that shows off her legs. Peter’s kids, for whom he returns to Neverland, are both terrible. There’s the brattish one and the other one who can’t – but does! – sing, but they too have lots of screen time, which gives the impression this was a film made firmly for children by someone who wished to honour his own childhood. Hook really wasn’t the way to do it. 5/10

27. Always (1989)

I first saw Always at the University cinema back during my student days, some twenty five years ago, and then forgot all about it. No surprise really. Rewatching it for this write-up, the film’s light as air lack of substance stayed with me much longer than its really very good acting performances, especially from Holly Hunter. I don’t suppose I’ll feel the need to catch it again any time soon. It’s a remake of the 1943 wartime drama, A Guy Named Joe, in which a reckless bomber pilot is killed in action and then has to come to terms with his former girlfriend falling in love with the man he’s been sent back to inspire. Fluffy, romantic stuff, by no means the kind of film you’d picture anyone updating, but Spielberg was a big fan of A Guy Named Joe, and so was Richard Dreyfuss. During the Jaws shoot, the pair would fire lines from the film at each other, and eventually committed themselves to an updated version. In Always, Joe has become Pete (Dreyfuss), the risk taking pilot of a reconditioned World War Two bomber that now helps to put out forest fires. When he dies during his last mission, Pete leaves Dorinda (Hunter) behind, heartbroken. As a spirit, wandering the ruins of a fire-devastated woodland, he comes across Hap (Audrey Hepburn), who tells him he’s to act as a sort of guide for rookie pilot Ted (Brad Johnson), who inevitably in turn falls for Dorinda. Pete now has to turn Ted into a great flyer and get over his own unfinished love story and let the younger man take over.

As a character drama, Always is perfectly serviceable. All the players are in good form, with the exception of Johnson, who’s lightweight and eclipsed utterly by his fellows, and that includes John Goodman, then best known for Roseanne but here doing a lovely job of balancing his grief over Pete with some good natured comedy. Hunter is just lovely as Dorinda, all those conflicted emotions plain to see in her performance, and obviously it’s great to see Hepburn in her last performance. But it’s all totally unnecessary. While bringing the story into a contemporary setting, Always still plays like a minor 1940s effort, sentiment dripping from the screen and the story failing to offer anything you can’t see coming from a mile away. When the denouement arrives, it’s with an exasperated ‘FINALLY!’ from any viewer who has managed to sit through it all. And it’s so forgettable, and that’s one thing Spielberg films should never be. 6/10

26. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has gone down in infamy as a complete failure, almost a betrayal of all the good work done in developing the Indiana Jones legend during the 1980s and becoming an unnecessary appendage to the story. It’s worth highlighting that 78% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, suggesting a much better film than its reputation dictates, and many years after its release, when the opprobrium has died down amidst a murky sea of Star Wars prequels and the like, the reality is that isn’t a bad effort at all.

I had a lot of fun watching it again for this article, a long time after I last did and when I admit I shared the disappointment of others that Spielberg, Ford and Lucas hadn’t achieved another instant classic. It’s not that good, but neither is it terrible. If you can ignore several instances of dramatic improbability – the fridge scene, Mutt discovering he’s a jungle rope swinging expert – and the lashings of CGI – ugh, gophers – there’s an awful lot to like, starting and ending with Harrison Ford’s grizzled Indy. Dragged into the story while presumably enjoying a period of semi-retirement from his life as an adventurer, he’s unwillingly co-opted into helping Soviet incursionists lift a mysterious crystal skull from the Area 51 archives, and his bad temper worsens when he finds himself in the middle of a nuclear blast site. Later, he helps Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), and the pair discover they’re actually father and son, leading to some very nice parallels with 1989’s Last Crusade, with Indy taking on the Sean Connery role. Their link is Marion, featuring a return to the series for Karen Allen who brings back much of the spunk she showed in the original Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The film’s at its best when it reprises some of the joie de vivre stuntcraft from the series; a chase through the streets surrounding Havard, ending in the university library, is great stuff, some of the finest work ever produced for the long running story. It starts to unravel in the jungles of Peru, when great business involving the group of heroes tangling with the Russians is undermined by things like the jungle rope set piece and digital ants, but it’s breathlessly done and all committed in the name of swashbuckling fun. LaBeouf isn’t bad as a character designed to irritate Indy, though Ray Winstone’s duplicitous agent comes off less well and John Hurt as an ageing explorer is just underused. Cate Blanchett as the lead Soviet is, well, Cate Blanchett as the lead Soviet. Fine really, though the role could have been played by virtually anybody. The climax, which involves alien visitors, was seen as one step too far fetched for a series that, lest we forget, previously featured the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail as its MacGuffins, and perhaps it does put one foot into the puddle of outright silliness, but getting there is a blistering experience. 7/10

25. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

This sequel to the mega-hit, Jurassic Park, feels ill-judged, though you can’t really blame Spielberg for making a go of it. The possibilities of further dinosaur action are just about endless, so it’s a pity that much of The Lost World is little more than a retread of the original, reintroducing the Tyrannosaurus Rex and nightmarish Velociraptors in neat order, just like the first time around the block. No Sam Neill this time either; Jeff Goldblum steps up to the plate as the star, shorn of his amazing laugh but adding a nice degree of someone who’s seen it all before and has no real desire to go through it again. The film drops a considerable ball in depicting its dinosaurs as monsters, whereas in Jurassic Park they were animals first, predators second. This time, they’re on screen to chase, harass and eat the human characters, in ways that often reach levels of grisliness that strain at the film’s PG certificate. Even when the camera pulls away from an act of killing, it’s only to focus on the aftermath – screams off-camera, water mixed with blood – to force home the point of what’s happening. It’s certainly effective, in a B-movie way, but this was a production carrying a hefty $73 million budget and you’re quite correct in expecting better.

Still, it’s never really a bad picture. As usual there’s lots going on, loads of sub-plots containing varying degrees of interest. I like Pete Postlethwaite’s world weary safari hunter, mainly because Postlethwaite’s a good enough actor to shine amidst all the CGI creatures and demented plotting; the narrative involving Goldblum’s daughter is less engaging, with suspicions that it was inserted to nakedly curry favour with younger viewers. At times Spielberg’s old skills of drawing suspense out of any moment come to the fore, never more than in the genuinely nail-biting scene where Julianne Moore is on the window of a trailer that’s been half-tipped over the edge of a cliff and the glass is slowly cracking beneath her. When the action moves to San Diego, the obviously badly considered idea of bringing a Tyrannosaur to the American mainland going belly up when it escapes and takes to the streets, The Lost World finally climbs up the backside of its own conceit, and yet it’s a fun sequence that refuses to lapse into King Kong levels of cliché. 7/10

24. The Terminal (2004)

The Terminal isn’t a title I’ve returned to frequently. Despite the massive technical effort that went into recreating the lobby of JFK Airport in a studio, the performance of Tom Hanks and the bizarre real life story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, a refugee who lived in Charles de Gaulle airport for eighteen years that inspired the project, it felt slight and sentimental, and lacked much in terms of weight.

Years later, with the stories behind its production in the past, I enjoyed it considerably more. The astonishing set design becomes so because it’s very cleverly used; unlike the apartment courtyard that was recreated in a soundstage for Rear Window, there’s no sense of artifice here and it looks for all the world like a busy terminal. Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, an immigrant from a fictional Eastern European country that just happens to have been overthrown in a military coup while he was on his flight. He’s unable to have his Visa approved and he can’t be returned home, so the stranded Viktor has no choice but to loiter around the airport, for him an international limbo, with his limited English, thick Slavic accent and sense of good natured bemusement. He’s there for ages, possibly years, as life goes on around him and he becomes an irritant for Stanley Tucci’s Customs Director. Over time, he starts making friends with terminal employees, all of them misfits in their own way, and sparks an unlikely romance with Catherine Zeta Jones’s flight attendant. The latter element is the film’s weakest, a saccharine plot development that feels contrived and at no point improves the story. Otherwise, it’s a nice yarn, with Hanks in strong form as the likeable Viktor, a man whose predicament doesn’t impinge on his essentially sunny outlook. But that’s all it is, a light romantic work that improves on the previous Always but it doesn’t remain long in the memory. 7/10

23. The Color Purple (1985)

It’s been some time since I last watched The Color Purple and I wasn’t especially looking forward to revisiting it. My memories were of a long film, one loaded with drippings of heavy sentimentality and telegraphed consequences that would take ages in the reaching. It doesn’t help that my DVD copy of it is a flipper, almost neatly bisecting the story episodically into one side covering the abuse and the second its outcomes. And to be honest my impressions of it remain largely intact. Spielberg made a brave attempt to subvert audiences’ expectations of his work by adapting a gritty tale of downtrodden black women in early twentieth century America, completely without the use of special effects or fantasy elements. It carried a naked objective to gain the critical recognition that would go with his darling status at the box office, and largely it worked with eleven Oscar nominations for the film, not to mention a healthy profit from viewers expressing sheer goodwill towards the director.

And yet, years down the line, with many better ‘serious’ efforts from Spielberg to showcase the blossoming of his credentials as a maker of dramatic cinema, the shortcomings of The Color Purple become all the more transparent. It’s as though every button is pressed in order to make you squirt a few, from the sustained mistreatment of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) through to the story arcs of friends she comes across; it’s very cynical. The effort to elicit feelings from the viewer is made with a bludgeon, again and again, without any subtlety or depth of characterisation. I don’t know if it’s like this in the novel; I’ve never read it, but I confess I was largely unmoved. In its favour are some terrific performances. Who could have known that Goldberg, ordinary a brash, loud-mouthed comedian who I find on the whole annoying, was capable of such a redemptive turn? Danny Glover is just as fantastic, bringing out all the cruelty of his horrible patriarch whilst also displaying his vulnerability. But the one who steals it for me is Oprah Winfrey, another surprise, and the one who holds my interest throughout. 7/10

22. Amistad (1997)

Following Spielberg’s success with Schindler’s List, the same approach was taken for the subject of human slavery in Amistad, covering the real life story of African slaves who overcame their masters on the eponymous Spanish slave trading vessel before showing up on the shores of the United States in 1839. Lengthy legal proceedings followed to determine whether the Africans had been born in captivity or as free people, a process that was churned up in Martin van Buren’s efforts to be re-elected as President and attempting to curry favour with the slave-owning southern states. It’s a good tale, containing lots for the director to pick over and at its heart is the story of Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), an undoubtedly harrowing segment that depicts the horrifying conditions the slaves experienced as human livestock. That the episode was a watershed in America’s attitude to slavery is also writ large, the fate of these Africans seen as pivotal in the country’s future direction. Hounsou is brilliant as the noble Cinque, spending much of the film in chains. All his pain and glimmers of hope are there on the screen in a performance of rare and noble magnificence.

Unfortunately, Amistad gets caught up too often in the legal aspects of the tale, the showpiece of former president John Adams (Anthony Hopkins) appealing the slaves’ plight to the Supreme Court, transforming the case into a succession of bigger issues (the largest of which, naturally, was the upcoming American Civil War), which turns out to be rather dull. A rather dry affair all told, with Matthew McConaughey’s bright young lawyer existing as not much more than our conduit to Cinque, and Morgan Freeman, who was first billed, having very little to do apart from embodying the contrast between himself and the Africans. Despite the stakes, the legal side of the story is somewhat less than thrilling, though credit will always be due for attempting a true depiction of what these people went through in scenes that are close to heartbreaking. 7/10

21. The Sugarland Express (1974)

This is the one Spielberg I hadn’t seen before writing this piece, and it isn’t hard to recognise why. The film lacks many of the fantastical and suspenseful elements for which he would become famous, and I’ve never been much of a Goldie Hawn fan. I read somewhere recently that she’s a ‘Marmite actress’ and I think I agree with that, not buying into the adorable tag and yet failing to recognise that she was a formidable presence during the early years of her career. The Sugarland Express is a surprisingly good entry. It’s the true story of a young Texan mother whose child has been taken into care when she goes to jail. Now free, she breaks her husband (William Atherton) out of the minimum security facility he’s currently held in and together they set off for Sugarland to retrieve their son. Neither felon is the brightest spark however, and in their botched escape attempt they wind up kidnapping a policeman (Michael Sacks) and force him at gunpoint to drive them to their destination, as they are pursued by an increasingly long convoy of Texas’s finest.

Hawn is every bit as loveable and unpolished as you want her to be, whilst Atherton – better known in later years as the weasely presence in such films as Die Hard and Ghostbusters – is just as much of a rough diamond, chatting with Sacks at one point about his chances of becoming a state trooper just as his crimes are becoming more and more serious. Spielberg’s first theatrical feature sees him putting in some great cinematic filming. The lines of police vehicles rumbling along endless Texas roads, the landscape and horizon running on eternally in all directions, make for lovely visual storytelling. A bit of a hidden gem this one, with its almost impenetrable accents and an ending that’s rather downbeat and brave considering the man behind it all. 7/10

20. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

The second Indiana Jones entry isn’t a patch on the first. Some of the Nazis’ comic book adventure from Raiders of the Lost Ark is replaced with body horror, in parts so gruesome that it prompted a new certificate – PG-13 – to be established in America; also there’s an uncomfortable element to the way Indians are portrayed – either evil Thuggee cultists or desperate peasants waiting to be saved by the nearest passing white man. The heroine has none of Karen Allen’s guts and is there to be rescued or provide the comic foil. And Indy is saddled with a cute kid partner in order to appeal to younger viewers.

And yet Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is still an Indiana Jones film, and it’s as thrilling and action packed as you might expect. The fast pace never really lets up, starting with a James Bond style opening in a Shanghai restaurant before moving quickly to India and the beginning of the film’s main plot. There’s an ever present sense of peril, mainly from Amrish Puri’s heart stealing cult leader, who’s great value as a villain, and the nightmare of Indy himself being converted to Kali worship, which only heightens the odds. The chase through the mines is as good a sequence as they get, even if it was a leftover action scene from Raiders into which it could not be worked. You get traps, crashing planes, jungle rope bridges and voodoo rituals somehow being slipped into the plot, and it all works. Throughout it all Harrison Ford is on top form as the eponymous hero, looking as though he’s having loads of fun referencing his own antics in the first film (even though the events in this one take place earlier in the Jones timeline) and playing off his co-stars, especially Ke Huy Quan’s Short Round, with whom he has a surrogate fatherly relationship. The best moments have an atmosphere reminiscent of Gunga Din, that old-fashioned caper set in colonial India, with shades of The Stranglers of Bombay taking over for the darker aspects of religious cultism in that huge country. Despite the negatives, which do creep in thanks to a story designed to be darker in tone (a consequence, Spielberg noted, of the break-ups of both his and George Lucas’s relationships) than the matinee thrills of its forerunner, it’s breathlessly exciting in many places. 7/10

19. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Spielberg’s first and only – to date – attempt at a fully animated feature was a collaboration between himself and Peter Jackson, the latter involved as producer and offering the use of his Weta Workshop. Both are Tintin fans, and so there’s a lot of love invested in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, an effort to honour Herge as well as update the legend. The production values are high, with some serious talent behind it, including the likes of Daniel Craig, Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis providing their vocal and motion capture talents.

The film’s a lot of fun. Spielberg seems to relish making use of the form to create some impossible shots, such as the magical sight of a galleon crashing across sand dunes, and there’s a sense of it trying to push the limits of the technology available. It’s got pace, action and bags of good humour, all coming in generous waves of fine, high concept entertainment designed to appeal to long-term fans and newcomers alike. But in the end, the animation – virtuously displayed as it is – is also its heel. I understand the argument for its necessity, that recreating Snowy as a realistic character was best served in this way, but it winds up looking too clean and weightless. Compare this with Spielberg’s most famous enduring character, Indiana Jones, and those flaws become even more apparent – you got to see the blood, sweat and tears as a consequence of Indy’s physical effort, the toll of his adventuring, and there’s none of that here. Still, a nice try and I’d have no trouble recommending it. 7/10

Here’s the full review

18. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Spielberg’s first serious stab at a World War Two movie sees him take what appears to be an obvious route by telling his story from the perspective of a young boy. Based on JG Ballard’s bestselling novel and adapted by Tom Stoppard, the directorial chair was initially offered to no less a figure than David Lean before Spielberg took over, in the process making a picture in the Lean style. Empire of the Sun cost a lot of money to produce – a then colossal $35 million – and put it all on the screen, recruiting respected yet relatively little known character actors and shooting the Shanghai based scenes in Shanghai itself, hiring an army of extras to depict the bewildering chaos of the Japanese takeover. It’s film making on an epic scale and the effect is astonishing, especially when you consider it is, at heart, an intimate little tale about a lost British boy growing up in captivity.

John Malkovich is on great form as the rotten to the core Basie, a heartless yet charming grifter who uses everyone around him, and there’s fine support from the likes of Nigel Havers, Miranda Richardson and Leslie Phillips. But the film belongs to Christian Bale, then twelve years old and winning the part out of thousands of casting auditions. His is a star making turn, the camera following his character’s gaze as the cosy world he grew up in shatters and he’s left to fend for himself in a suddenly meaner world, one for which he’s completely unsuited. The development of his journey and the changes it tells within him are well worth following, Bale’s countenance going from wide eyed innocence to crushed cynicism in an entirely credible way. Sadly the film collapses in on itself by the close, Spielberg unable to wrap it all up satisfyingly, but getting to that stage is worth it all the same. If it fails, it does so with interest. 7/10

17. Schindler’s List (1993)

When I was at school, controversial historical events like the Crusades and the Holocaust were airbrushed from the curriculum, as though things so terrible were not suitable subjects for young people to learn, too many uncomfortable questions and so on. They still don’t do much about the Crusades before sixth form, but my son covered the Holocaust during Key Stage 3, making it an integral part of historical studies and something that everyone needs to be taught. I wonder how much of that is down to the longer lasting influence of Schindler’s List, an enormous critical hit upon its release that continues to garner respect and cultural relevance to this day.

Whether that makes it a good piece of work is another matter, of course, and in discussing the film solely on its own merits I’m left pondering the extent to which it’s revered because of its subject matter rather than its greatness, whether the Holocaust’s exposure to wide audiences due it being a major film by a much loved director was enough. Perhaps it was. Spielberg tries. The story is told in austere black and white, the photography often taking a detached view as though it’s a contemporary documentary rather than a piece of narrative cinema. It works in many places, or at least it should, yet Spielberg can’t help despite having all this devastating real life material to hand but add his own little touches to heighten the viewer’s senses. Thus we get the famous ‘girl in the red coat’ scene, where Liam Neeson’s Schindler, watching the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, spies a little girl wandering through the uprooting and carnage, apparently separate from everything that’s happening, her coat a shocking flash of red to add emphasis. And it’s just unnecessary, as though audiences couldn’t be trusted to have an emotional response to the moment and needed that extra little push. The result is of course an instant where you’re suddenly removed from the experience and realise it’s only a movie.

Schindler’s List is nearly great, but moments like these – and there are many – stop it from achieving that, and I far prefer Spielberg’s later ‘serious’ efforts, where the filming is unobtrusive and both the actors and viewers are allowed to immerse themselves in it. No doubt however that it’s a tale more than worth covering, and for that reason it deserves recognition. There’s something about the cheapness of human life on the screen that makes it an exhausting watch, even if Ralph Fiennes as the sadistic German officer treads a very fine line between authentic evil and comic villainy. It’s a good performance of an unambiguously nasty piece of work, without shades of grey to make him come to life (the man needs to be taught to understand the concept of forgiveness). Even Schindler himself, the man on the make who comes to understand the relevance of what he’s doing, flips from anti-hero to outright hero in moments, as though only displaying his humanity at a plot-convenient instance. For me a magnificent failure. 7/10

16. Duel (1971)

Duel was a made for TV movie, filmed over twelve breathless days in 1971, and perhaps for that reason it’s a bit of a cheat to include it here, though I’m going to do so because (i) it had a theatrical release throughout Europe (ii) it’s great. The plot is simplicity itself. Dennis Weaver plays a middle aged man who’s driving on a business trip along the roads of California. He unwittingly picks a fight with a massive tanker truck, which not only bullies Weaver’s little (by comparison) red Plymouth Valiant but becomes increasingly intent on killing him. The stakes rise as the truck escalates its road rage from merely intimidating Weaver through to forcing him off the road, attempting to push him into an oncoming train and careering into the telephone box where he’s making a call to the police. The stress tells on Weaver, who is more and more on edge, not to mention paranoid when he’s sat in a café trying to guess the identity of the truck’s driver from the group of drinkers. We never see the guy behind the wheel, one of those neat little stylistic touches that really set Duel apart when it was first shown. Another is Spielberg’s frenetic shooting style, filming from another car and in constant motion so that the viewer is moving at the same speed as Weaver and the truck.

The film’s an exercise in pure tension, inspired by the work of Hitchcock and based on a short story by the great Richard Matheson, who also wrote its screenplay and based it on a road rage incident he had experienced personally. Perhaps best of all is the look of the menacing truck, a dirty as hell monster that has crushed bugs on its fender and numerous licence plates, suggesting Weaver is the latest in a string of victims claimed over the years. 8/10

15. War of the Worlds (2005)

One of Spielberg’s more divisive recent entries, War of the Worlds suffers from using the ‘official’ ending that made the original novel work so well. In HG Wells’s text, the Martian invaders are undone by coming into contact with Earth’s microscopic life, contagions against which they have no defence. It’s a brilliant, poetic finale, but it doesn’t translate so well to the screen, in which the tension and hopelessness has been built and built, only to be fatally undermined by a climax in which the film’s heroes are turned into witnesses rather than protagonists. In a story that pits humans against overwhelming odds, I don’t know what would work better – would you prefer the cheeky computer virus that somehow beats the technologically superior aliens, as witnessed in Independence Day?

Otherwise, it’s a much, much better and more convincing film than Roland Emmerich’s 1995 epic, with its focus squarely on Tom Cruise’s unlikely family man rather than widening the scope to the invasion’s global impact. Cruise is a divorcee who’s landed with his kids for the weekend. He’s not very interested and they don’t want to be there, and then the aliens strike. This puts them on the run as the bond between them very slowly grows once again, Cruise realising that his instinct is to protect the youngsters, especially his ten year old daughter (Dakota Fanning). For a 12A picture, the invasion is depicted as realistic and frightening, the people reduced to ants as they have no choice but to flee and then keep on fleeing. The aliens kill humans by the thousand, but because their rays incinerate the victims there’s no blood and the certificate remains, which does nothing to reduce the terror of their presence. The scene in the cellar, where the characters wait around whilst aliens explore, is about as suspenseful as these things tend to get, and in the end War of the Worlds is a pure exercise in tension. It works tremendously, especially as the CGI is mixed with practical effects to lend an authentic sheen to it and, when it comes down to it, a shot of empty clothes floating along the screen is more powerful than any number of digitally rendered tripods approaching. Just a shame that with all the money and influence brought to bear on this production, they still couldn’t improve upon the ending. 8/10

Here’s the full review

14. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

The Indiana Jones franchise by 1989 was so strong that it needed very little promotion; just knowing a new picture was coming turned out to be enough, leaving the year’s hype in the pocket of Tim Burton’s Batman, for which the pre-release marketing was relentless. Returning to the kind of ‘fun’ fare that he crafted before The Color Purple, Spielberg retreated from the horrors of The Temple of Doom to effectively remake Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy is once again tussling with Nazis for a Biblical relic, with John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliot from the first one reappearing in considerable supporting roles (no Karen Allen though, which is a pity). As an added gimmick, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade places Jones Senior into the storyline, and in a cracking instance of casting hands the part to Sean Connery. The film is at its absolute best when Connery and Harrison Ford, two screen legends from successive generations, are on the screen together, their verbal sparring an undiluted delight.

Following a winning prologue that features the late River Phoenix as the young Indiana, a sequence stuffed with brilliant in-jokes, the action moves in short order from Harvard to Venice, to Berlin and finally Jordan, events moving so quickly that it all has the blistering pace of globe trotting James Bond flicks at their rollicking height. It isn’t as good as Raiders though, principally because special effects too often substitute for the blistering stuntcraft of that earlier film. Industrial Light and Magic swaggered in its late-eighties pomp, but there’s an over-ambitiousness to some scenes that too often have the obvious compositing effect that completely removes viewers from being immersed in the action. It suffers also from the lack of a strong female presence. For all that, it’s a good humoured and relentlessly exciting confection. There’s a sense of Spielberg at this time wanting to move into serious drama, that he’d done the matinee thing and craved recognition as an auteur of adult cinema. Nothing wrong with that kind of ambition, of course, but when his attempts at adventure yarns are as good as The Last Crusade, shifting effortlessly from breathtaking chase scenes to Indy bumping into Adolf Hitler, you can’t help thinking that he was born for it. 8/10

13. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

A.I. started life as a Stanley Kubrick project, where it gestated over many years. Rumour has it that Kubrick was waiting for special effects technology to catch up with the story he wanted to tell. However true that is, in his burgeoning friendship with Spielberg he tried again and again to pass over the concept as an assignment for the younger director. And then he died, leaving Spielberg to make it as a tribute to him. There are clear signs in the finished product of an effort to make it in Kubrick’s style, especially when it comes to the austere sets, but in reality it’s blatantly a Spielberg picture with full rein given to the story’s emotional hook and the theme of looking for a parent figure, a long running one within his body of work.

That it tugs mercilessly on the heartstrings of viewers is in little doubt; before I became a father I might have been unmoved, but when I saw it my boy was two years old and it snared me precisely as it intended to. I can’t think of a film to which I’ve had a stronger emotional reaction, and it’s possible this has blinded me to its merits. But I don’t think so. I’ve had the opportunity to see it several times now, and on each occasion I’m impressed, both with the performances and the rather blinding effects work. The latter continues to be excellent, even years later, the film mixing CGI and practical effects sublimely and keeping the former to a reasonable minimum, so that the images that obviously rely on computer imagery, such as the woman’s face opening to reveal a robotic skull in the opening scene, is seamless. Then there are the performances, Jude Law leading the supporting cast as a ‘mecha’ that works in the sex trade, supernaturally beautiful enough so that the slightly too plastic hair just adds that touch of artifice. In the end it all depends on Haley Joel Osment, fresh from his affecting turn in The Sixth Sense and having to carry the film as the little robot child suffering from Pinocchio Syndrome. He does, mainly because beyond the cuteness and dogged loyalty to his mother (Frances O’Connor) he shows the humanity that ought to be beyond him, displaying qualities of selfishness, anger and impatience that blur the line between his artificial state and what makes someone a ‘real boy’.

A.I. received levels of opprobrium for its closing act, which adds a sentimental pay-off. I think it’s only fair; after a tale that heaps misery upon misery it’s the least his character deserves. Whether it was the original intention to do this or something added by Spielberg is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t diminish the overall quality of the piece. 8/10

12. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

The first impossible thing in Close Encounters of the Third Kind happens within five minutes of its opening credits. In the middle of the Sonoran Desert, a group of scientists come across a fleet of World War II fighter aircraft, perfectly preserved, looking as though they’ve just returned from a 1945 mission but reported missing some thirty years beforehand. From there, the plot follows two strands. The first shows government officials tracking UFOs and building to their climactic contact, overtones of Watergate present and correct as they create conspiracies in order to keep what they’re doing a secret. The second, and more interesting, is Spielberg’s insight into how this affects ordinary people who are (un)lucky enough to have their own close encounters. Richard Dreyfuss plays a family man whose domestic life steadily unravels once he’s seen the UFOs and had his own moment of contact. His story dovetails with that of single mother Melinda Dillon, once her two year old son becomes a target for the ‘visitors’. The paths of both characters eventually leads them to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a site they learn is where ‘contact’ will be made, a place they are subconsciously compelled to reach, leading to suggestions they have somehow been invited along. It’s a riveting adventure, Spielberg eschewing the classic, paranoid stories of alien invasion in favour of one involving benign visitors from another galaxy, the shadowy government people emerging as the real villains with their deceptive tactics and efforts to keep ‘the people’ at arm’s length. There are some sublime little touches, such as the moment Dreyfuss waves a set of headlights past his parked car and they move up instead of across, also the instances of normal family life he’s involved in that have an aching sense of reality, his character as childlike as the kids. I love the musical interaction between the people and aliens, prefiguring the reaching out made in 1997’s Contact by hinting at the mathematical rules that lie behind individual notes and their combinations.

There are several versions of the film and three are collected on the Sony Blu-ray. I’ve seen them all various times, but for this viewing I caught the Director’s Cut, which removes the superfluous shots from inside the alien starship that were tagged onto the special edition. The film’s last act, when contact is made, should and does end with Dreyfuss entering the ship and it taking off, leaving just enough mystery for viewers to wonder what happens next. The effects are still great, but there’s always the possibility of too much of a good thing being just that. 8/10

11. War Horse (2011)

War Horse is the closest we have to a John Ford film from Spielberg. Pappy’s influence is clear from some of the film’s earliest images, the Narracott farm framed against endless Devonshire skies suggesting an earthly paradise for Jeremy Irvine’s young dreamer and the horse he’s loved since its birth. It’s one of the most consciously beautiful of Spielberg’s films, shot after shot of gorgeous landscapes and the people occupying them made to appear very much a small part of the eternal story of the countryside.

Making a decision to use CGI as sparingly as possible, the action as it follows the horse into the maelstrom of World War One seems very real, gritty and downright dirty. There’s some great equine acting (fourteen horses were used to portray the lead character, Joey) and sensational performances from the human actors, notably Irvine in his first major role, with a broad range of reliable, mainly British faces filling the ranks around him. Peter Mullan’s boozy father is incredibly effective in his relatively few scenes; taking a break from the harder roles for which he’s better known, a world of pain is conveyed in his turn, showing the reasons for his turning to the bottle. Great support also from Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston and Niels Arestrup’s devastated French grandfather. There’s a sentimental streak about War Horse that is completely unashamed. It looks and feels old fashioned, like a film that belongs in the Golden Age, and I think it’s a tremendous success. 8/10

10. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Catch Me If You Can is based on the real life adventures of Frank Abagnale Jr, a teenager who conned his way into becoming rich by posing as a Pan-Am pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. The story was ideal material for a movie adaptation, and indeed the rights had been shuttling around the movie industry for some years before being acquired by Dreamworks and eventually directed by Spielberg. While some liberties were taken with Abagnale’s biography, an effort was made to stick to the facts as far as possible and certainly to stay within the ‘spirit’ of the tale.

And it’s a cracker. Leonardo DiCaprio at the time was still best known as the boyish hero of Titanic, and could convince as a character much younger than the actor himself. Time is taken to explore Abagnale’s motives. He runs away from home after the break-up of his parents’ marriage, learning the lessons from his ‘all charm’ father (Christopher Walken) to start a life of petty grifting. He realises that doors open for airline pilots. Wearing the Pan-Am uniform gives him enough credibility to get his cheques cashed, particularly in the pre-digital age, and it isn’t long before he’s faking employment cheques and boarding flights for free. He gets away with it for a time, but eventually his actions attract the attention of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), who starts a lifelong pursuit even though most of his fellows deride him for his involvement in the comparatively trivial world of cheque fraud.

There’s a lovely degree of period authenticity at play here, a lost world of 1960s Americana that wouldn’t look out of place in Mad Men, and clearly it looks and sounds great with those tailored suits and Sinatra songs. It’s revealed that Abagnale’s activities are an effort to bring his parents together, showing the little boy fantasising an outcome that can never become reality. Meetings with his dad betray the levels of hero worship he has, even as Abagnale Sr is diminishing into a broken figure; it’s great work from Walken.  In the end Hanratty becomes a surrogate father as the unlikely affection between the pair grows, the older man coming to appreciate Abagnale Jr’s motives and eventually helping him. But in reaching that point the movie’s a lot of fun, DiCaprio charming and childish in equal measure, heading a great cast that includes Amy Adams, Martin Sheen and Jennifer Garner falling for his likeable con artistry. 8/10

9. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

I felt flatness when first seeing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at my local cinema. Bringing with it all that baggage of box office records shattered, a world renowned master of entertainment at the top of his game, the promise of a rather wonderful story beautifully told, well it just left me disappointed. The film looked too dark, moved slowly and on the whole was a bit boring. Such is the impossible level of hype, the sort of thing I can cope with now but at the age of ten was tougher to rationalise. Thankfully, subsequent viewings have led to greater levels of appreciation and enjoyment. Now that the film is part of history, I can find simple pleasure in its almost modern fairy tale approach, the top notch performances it elicits from its very young actors, especially Henry Thomas as its ten year old hero, and most of all the way it breathes life into an animatronic puppet.

This, I am convinced, is why it all works. Spielberg clearly took note of the way Mark Hamill performed alongside the muppet Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back – because Hamill’s Luke at no point hinted that his character was interacting with anything other than a living, breathing being, Yoda’s authority as an aged Jedi master was left intact, and whilst E.T. is clearly a model with someone’s hand stuck up his backside the way the child actors treat him as though he’s exactly what he’s supposed to be makes us believe that it’s all real. Wisely, many of the early scenes in which he appears are shot in semi-darkness, easing us into his obvious artifice by never quite letting us see him in full, so that by the time we do we’re sold on E.T. being an actual living thing. That he’s given bags of personality helps also, the moment he returns Elliot’s M&Ms a lovely hint into the benign way he thinks, the emotional and psychic link he forms with the boy coming across as charming and credible, plugging us into the thoughts and hopes of a character who can’t communicate verbally. Then there are the shady government officials on E.T.’s trail. For much of the film, they don’t speak a word, but they are shown closing in, wandering around the background, illuminated by torchlight but we can’t see their faces and so they’re instantly suspicious. It’s a wonderfully childlike way of showing us these figures of authority, and while they’re humanised by the end thanks to Peter Coyote’s sympathetic performance it’s clear the empathy of the film rests with the youngsters.

Years later, the only thing that lets it down is what helped to sell it back in 1982, and that’s the special effects. E.T. himself is fine. The HD transfer favours his facial expressions even better than before, but the scenes that involve flying bikes and the alien spaceship now show their joins and betray the film’s age. 8/10

8. Munich (2005)

An unusual choice of subject matter for Spielberg, Munich plays more like a Paul Greengrass film in depicting the events of the massacre of Israel’s Olympics team during the 1972 games, and the aftermath. Eric Bana plays a young Mossad agent who is assigned to build a team of assassins and take out the eleven Palestinians believed to be behind the attack. This he does, assembling a group including Daniel Craig’s South African hard man and the shady Ciaran Hinds. Together they slip across Europe, eliminating their targets as identified by a French informant (Mathieu Amalric) in various grisly situations, but as their work progresses Bana finds that he’s questioning his cause, the information he’s working from, the motives of those supplying the details, the innocents who get caught up in the killing, the effect all this is having on his own life and soul. Paranoia strikes and he ends the film terrified, every sound containing the possibility of a hitman closing in on him and his family.

Based on the written account of a Mossad agent and covering events that were top secret and little known, Munich was a rare Spielberg entry in terms of not setting the box office on fire, but it was well received critically and deservedly so. It isn’t an easy watch; the assassins make mistakes, their first attempts at killing executed sloppily, and there’s a focus on their preparations, the intricacies of bomb making, the moral debates they share. It’s an attempt to show what life was really like for them, and it plays very well over a running time of nearly three hours that by necessity is leisurely paced in places. For me, Eric Bana is one of those great semi-lost actors, capable of superb work and yet often choosing the wrong projects, or those that are off the radar. It’s as though we’re all waiting for his explosive performance, the one that propels him into the A-League. Over time, this might be revealed as the one that got away. A really good film, containing loads of fine period seventies detail and suggesting haunting parallels between the original attack and those of the assassins that linger long after it’s finished. Comparisons with 9/11 and its aftermath, especially considering when Munich was made, cannot be ignored. It depicts both the righteous fury and the moral ambiguities of the bloody response, and it’s perhaps the uncomfortable questions this raises that did for its relative lack of success with the public. 8/10

7. Jurassic Park (1993)

After a dip in form, Spielberg turned 1993 into his comeback year, conquering the box office with Jurassic Park, as well as the Oscars, who conferred all their important awards on Schindler’s List. Before James Cameron bludgeoned his way into the record books with Titanic and Avatar, this was the biggest selling film of all time, putting it up there as an event with the likes of Star Wars, and whilst it didn’t quite have the full cultural impact of George Lucas’s space Western it was, and remains, a very big deal. Watching it again and the reasons become clear. The story’s tension is palpable, the film essentially a two hander with the first half setting everything up before the second rips it apart by delivering one exhilarating chase sequence after another. Jurassic Park is credited with showcasing the potential of photo-realistic, computer generated effects for the first time, breathing life into extinct dinosaurs, but in reality the CGI is used sparingly, many shots opting for animatronic models, which lends to the authenticity and weight of many scenes when humans are interacting with Velociraptors and the Tyrannosaurus Rex (I can’t really deal with the phrase ‘T-Rex’, as it conjures too many surreal images of Jeff Goldblum being terrorised by Marc Bolan).

The dinosaurs are obviously the film’s star attractions, to the extent Spielberg didn’t hire big names but instead gave his lead roles to the likes of Sam Neill and Laura Dern, good performers capable of coming across as credible experts who are utterly dumbfounded at their life’s work being rendered null at the appearance of a Brontosaurus. So much of Jurassic Park is cleverly put together, character developments and relevant information being established to the viewer economically yet clearly, while the dinosaurs get great entrances. The glasses of water rippling to herald the Tyrannosaur’s approach is beautifully judged cinema, building suspense with sublime simplicity, and that’s just the film’s most celebrated example. What about the ‘clever girl’ scene? Or the bit where Dern relaxes as she feels Samuel L Jackson’s arm on her shoulder, only to recoil in terror when she finds the arm is all that’s left of him? There’s an argument for suggesting it’s all a retread of Jaws, and indeed it mines Spielberg’s earlier entry for its build-up, but it’s a film made in the interests of treating audiences to a thrill ride, and even then it establishes that the creatures aren’t monsters, just animals trying to survive, a fact lost on its three sequels. Seeing Jurassic World in the cinema earlier this year, I was hopelessly drawn into the action, but catching it again later on the small screen I realised I had been seduced by the IMAX, 3D and sharing the experience with a big theatre audience. The dinosaurs, by now fully rendered by CGI, just didn’t feel as much ‘there’ and the effect was dimmed. Not so with Jurassic Park, which remains as thrilling now as it did the first time. 9/10

Here’s the full review.

6. Lincoln (2012)

All the plaudits and praise went to Daniel Day-Lewis for his playing of the eponymous Civil War president. Whilst it’s impossible to know exactly what Lincoln was like in reality, the performance given is so note-perfect to carry an instant seal of authenticity. The face is careworn, the movements stooped and weighed down by years of living, the voice cracks with wisdom and a thousand anecdotes. It’s riveting work, fully deserving of the Oscar Day-Lewis collected.

But there’s a lot more to Lincoln than that. I was expecting a bombastic affair, not the complicated and dialogue-heavy drama that emerged as a nineteenth century edition of The West Wing, and it’s all the better for that. The film’s driving point, that Lincoln’s successful passing of the emancipation bill was achieved through negotiation at individual levels and political chicanery rather than tugs to the heart, is really well made, with James Spader shining as one of the operators working behind the scenes to win votes for the bill. For a film maker used to hammering home his themes, the emphasis here is on the actors and the script, and rightly so. The idea appears to be that the material is powerful enough on its own, which is true, and the maturing of Spielberg from the sorts of cinematic gimmicks he was unnecessarily inserting into Schindler’s List cannot be overstated. The period detail is of course perfect, and this allows the performances to shine through, from David Strathairn as the President’s assiduous Secretary of State through to Sally Field’s emotionally compromised First Lady, bottling up the tragedies she’s experienced for the most part but occasionally letting them rise to the surface. Lincoln’s close to masterpiece territory. 9/10

5. Jaws (1975)

Jaws is forty years old and in places looks it. The model shark comes across increasingly like a model shark – Spielberg famously referred to it as a ‘weighty turd’ – and some of the film’s weakest scenes now are those where it puts in an appearance. It’s fortunate therefore that these moments are sparing and Jaws it at its best when all it needs to do is shoot underwater, the camera floating beneath all those human legs dangling in the sea while John Williams’s terrifying score signifies from which perspective we’re seeing the action. With subsequent viewings, the human drama becomes more focal. Roy Scheider plays a police chief on the holiday island of Amity. He discovers the gory remains of a young woman, the shark’s first victim, and tries to close the beaches while they deal with the threat, only to come up against the Mayor (Murray Hamilton), whose interests are commercial with Amity’s entire economy depending on the summer tourist season. Unwisely the beaches remain open, leading to a string of false alarms and actual shark attacks that prove the Chief to be absolutely right. He’s backed up by Richard Dreyfuss’s oceanographer, who is on hand to make clear the level of threat represented by the shark, which appears to grow with every killing. And what about Robert Shaw, gleefully chewing the scenery as a grizzled sea captain who represents the island’s one legitimate chance of dealing with the shark?

It’s a film that has rightly earned its acclaim as a thrill ride, an exercise in brilliant suspense. Viewers of the earlier Duel will see clear parallels between the monster truck and shark, the concept of this almost unstoppable killing machine, though Jaws is scarier because the great white is outlined effectively as ‘a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all.’ I remember seeing it for the first time when it made its network television premiere. I can’t have been any older than ten, and it seemed everyone I knew was watching it also; we were all sold, hopelessly terrified, and unable to be anything but compelled to see it through to the end. Just a brilliant piece of entertainment. 9/10

4. Bridge of Spies (2015)

It’s a common theme of this Spielberg retread that I wish the auteur trusted his material and players and let them get on with telling the story. Too often, that lack of faith in what he already possesses has led him to add his own directorial flourishes, as though audiences need that extra little push to fully appreciate the emotional impact of what he’s trying to convey. You might call this the ‘girl in the red coat’ syndrome. It’s only with his more recent efforts that he’s stepped back, and the effect has been marvellous.

Bridge of Spies is a complex, densely laden Cold War thriller about an insurance lawyer (Tom Hanks) given the thankless task of defending a man (Mark Rylance) who’s accused, and obviously guilty, of being a Soviet spy operating from Brooklyn. The case mushrooms into a major diplomatic incident when the Russians capture Gary Powers, who was shot down whilst flying a spy plane over Soviet territory. The lawyer then finds himself in East Germany during winter, oscillating between the two halves of Berlin as he attempts to negotiate a trade of hostages. The film depicts the impact of all this on Germany to wonderful yet horrible effect. East Berlin is hostile, mistrusting, cold and in every sense of the word inhospitable. People who try to cross the Wall are simply gunned down, depicting the reality of all those films when they somehow make it; Bridge of Spies makes such an escape impossible. By chance, I caught The Man from U.N.C.L.E earlier in the year, which includes a similar scene, but that’s a film played for high adventure and laughs, whereas here you get to see, in stark contrast, the gun towers that the potential escapologists would actually be up against. Hanks, by now a Spielberg regular, is completely assured and does a great job of getting across the toll all this has on him. But even he’s eclipsed by Rylance, a wholly unassuming man in terms of looks but able to be compelling whilst doing very little. For a film that concentrates on character interaction over action sequences, lots of scenes that feature men talking, it’s a mesmerising experience and reflective of the blossoming of Spielberg’s abilities. 9/10

3. Minority Report (2002)

Tom Cruise and Spielberg were seeking a project for them to collaborate upon for some time before they agreed on an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s short story. The result, Minority Report, was a return to thrill-ride cinema for the director and one of his most relentlessly exciting films. Say what you like about Cruise; he knows how to put in a job of work for this kind of fare. As the film’s hero, John Anderton, he’s rarely still and often running for his life, sustaining high energy levels throughout. In the opposite corner is Colin Farrell’s government agent. Like Cruise, he’s a much better actor than he often gets credit for, bringing a fine physical presence and forensic intelligence to the picture.

One of the best things about Minority Report is that it features a complicated plot but it weaves it well, pockets of information disclosed along the way in snatches of conversation or the actions of characters. The somewhat disturbing philosophy of the film – in the near future, psychically linked ‘cognitives’ are able to foresee murders that are about to take place, making it possible for police to arrest and incarcerate the killers before they can commit the act – is there, but teased out through blistering action rather than expositional conversations. Cruise’s character finds himself listed as a future murderer and goes on the run from his own men, at one stage taking with him the main cognitive, Agatha (Samantha Morton). The humanity that has been denied to Agatha comes out through Morton’s superb performance, ending any debate over the ethics of leaving her in a vegetated state, existing solely as a police aide. The little details here are great. In one scene, Cruise enters a shopping mall, the stores identifying him through optical recognition and offering him personalised adverts as he walks along. It’s also very funny; Peter Stormare’s cameo as an eye transplant doctor leads to episodes of grisly humour that offer some nice relief from the film’s overall sweep. With great pace, a fine story, a vision of the future depicting both positive and negative aspects that feels very believable and Cruise doing what he does best at its heart, Minority Report is a real treat. 9/10

2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan is a film that improves with repeated viewings. The first time I saw it I was blown away by the D-Day sequence that opens the film, and rightly so – it’s one of the most visceral and terrifying pieces of cinematography I’m ever likely to see. Suddenly it feels as though every war movie has been zapped into yesteryear with this single, twenty minute slice of action, but then it all slows down as Tom Hanks’s band of brothers moves across the Norman countryside, searching for Matt Damon’s Private Ryan and the film starts aping all those old flicks it had retired. Seeing it again, years after the hype has died down, and the little details emerge that I previously overlooked in the grand sweep – Edward Burns’s belligerence, the debilitating cowardice of Jeremy Davies, the scene where Vin Diesel is landed with a little French girl to look after, the slow uniting of the company as a consequence of their shared experiences.

By the time it reaches its climax, when Ryan has been found and the company is preparing to defend a bridge against overwhelming German numbers, the film gives us some precious minutes to catch our breath alongside the men, individuals we suddenly realise we care about. We can sit and listen to Davies translate the lyrics of an Edith Piaf ditty because we want this moment to last, the deep breath before the Panzers arrive. Saving Private Ryan turns out to be less about heroes and more so ordinary men committing heroic acts because if they don’t then they’ll die, and if they do then they’ll probably die anyway. War can be random in its death toll and so it proves here. There are little instances where a character redeems himself and someone gets a narrative arc but in truth it’s breathtaking how well the film manages to avoid lapsing into the sort of hackneyed tropes we’re well used to. The death knell you’re noticing is that of the action war movie, the sort inspired by Where Eagles Dare that dominated the genre for a time and, while fun, has been utterly outmoded by a single piece of work. Everything about it works, from the amazing washed out photography to the minimal yet well deployed John Williams score. Spielberg won his second Best Director award for this one, which I applaud; the film represents nothing less than his flowering as an auteur. 9/10

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those movies that leaves you forgetting your jaw is scraping the floor. Things are happening all the time and even in the film’s quieter moments – of which there aren’t many – key plot points and clues linked to future developments are unfolding. Famously, it was conceived by Lucas and Spielberg as an homage to the classic adventure serials of their youth, the likes of Flash Gordon and Crash Corrigan that were served up in fifteen minute instalments, ended every episode with a cliffhanger, and left you waiting for the next chapter and the resolution. As someone who grew up watching these shows on reruns, I loved the film’s spirit. Years later, the love’s still there. I think it’s perfect entertainment.

Tales of the film’s production are as legendary as the final product. Mythical keynotes, like the fact they wanted Tom Selleck for the lead character, go hand in hand with the eight years between Lucas’s original concept to its release, various adaptations and amendments taking place over that period, studio after studio turning it down as too risky an investment before Paramount agreed a $20 million budget, its essence remaining intact throughout, which is the important thing. The eventual casting of Harrison Ford, whose star had risen during the development period, turned out to be a masterstroke. The use of the lost Ark of the Covenant as a MacGuffin, which had been in the story since its earliest days, contains just that right balance of mythology and indefinable allure. Indiana Jones risks life and limb in his quest for the Ark, with no purpose higher than the possibility that it’s there and worth going for. In making Nazis the villains the film has an ultimate cinematic opponent – endlessly resourced and capable of unimaginable evil, though Paul Freeman’s rival French archaeologist is just as good, the yin to Jones’s yang, avaricious as opposed to altruistic. The film contains bags of good natured comedy. Considering Spielberg’s previous film was the failed 1941, specifically a comedy, it’s telling that with a better script and winning performances he gets it exactly right here.

The influence of Raiders of the Lost Ark is long, directly with several sequels but extending far beyond those, with numerous rip-offs on screens both big and small and even bleeding into the video games market – there wouldn’t be a Tomb Raider, for instance, without it, throwaway scenes from the film like the enormous ball that pursues Indy through a tomb finding its echoes in important action sections within the game. In the end, it’s just a sublime couple of hours, up there with North by Northwest in the best fun cinema has to offer. 10/10

Maureen O’Hara

We’ve lost one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age with the passing of Maureen O’Hara, aged 95. Sad times indeed, and I suppose it’s fair to say that just about any fan of classic cinema is also a fan of Maureen’s. I ignore David Thomson’s comment that she came with limited talent; for me she was a fiery presence in every movie she made and very memorable. Her performances always left an impression. It was as though she approached every part with a determination not to be billed as the token female but to stamp her authority all over it. More often than not, she did just that.

Her 65 appearances across a career than spanned from 1938 – back when she was Maureen FitzSimons and carving out a role within the British film industry – to TV work as recently as 2000 often seemed carefully chosen, and it’s incredibly likely you’ve seen her in something. She was in one of the best known Christmas flicks, 1949’s Miracle on 34th Street, and appeared in a number of John Ford productions, often alongside John Wayne, most famously in The Quiet Man. My favourite of her Ford roles, perhaps of them all, was as Angharad in How Green Was My Valley. Initially entering a tragically loveless marriage with the mine owner’s son rather than wait eternally for Walter Pidgeon’s kindly minister to propose, she later shows her mettle when confronting the bullying and cowardly church deacons after they have treated an unwed mother harshly. The part suited O’Hara’s screen persona down to the ground and defined the characters she would come to portray.

It’s impossible to discuss O’Hara without noting her beauty. Her green eyes and red hair were legendary to the point of helping to get the Technicolor process off the ground, all the better to capture her natural colours, it’s said. She was certainly striking, though just as important was her flexibility, her appearances in comedies – her sparring with Wayne in McLintock! is the film’s highlight – and dramas, notably in swashbucklers, to which she brought a level of natural grace, as in The Black Swan.

O’Hara definitely had a good innings, knowing when to retire from acting and restrict her appearances in later years. Her last showing in Hollywood was when she collected her Honourary Oscar in 2014, recognition for a career of no little significance. She’ll be missed, though we have some excellent films to look back on and significantly a series of landmark performances.

Taking a Break

You might have noticed a lack of activity from these here quarters in the past week or so. There’s nothing wrong and I’m not going anywhere, but I have decided to take a short break from updating the site. I would like to say this is because I’m off to the Seychelles and intend to spend the time walking along white beaches and drinking from coconut shells, but the reality is I’m going nowhere and instead of a tropical paradise I remain in the north-west of England, where summer means the obligatory splish-splash weather and drinking from cans of Special Brew. Put it down to a recharge and in terms of film viewing just catching up with stuff I definitively want to see rather than watching for the purpose of covering them here. This part of the year is never brilliant for ‘films on the box’ anyway. There was a time when summer meant a season of Weismuller Tarzan offerings from the BBC, but those days have long gone and instead we get countless episodes of meandering daytime telly and the strangely absorbing Pointless, which kinda sums it up.

In other news, I have embraced the twenty first century and am now the proud owner of a Blu Ray player. My starting entertainments are three movies – The Third Man (because no collection would be complete), Fury and a copy of Clash of the Titans that a neighbour donated several years ago (not even the Harry Hamlin version, for pity’s sake). My mission therefore is to enhance the collection, with a dawn raid on Masters of Cinema in order, and an order already placed for the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes set.

As always, thank you for supporting these pages and I’ll see you on the other side.

RIP Christopher Lee

An unhappy day for these quarters with the sad news that Christopher Lee has passed away, aged 93. As a fan of Hammer movies, I naturally see Lee as a hero of the acting fraternity, known for his presence, deep, solemn voice and so many performances that packed in a genuine feeling of menace. He didn’t always play villains; his performance as Duc de Richleau in The Devil Rides Out added real heroism to a standout film. But he was best known for his bad guys; his imposing height of just under two metres making him ideal for the playing of heavies and a natural for the monster in Hammer’s breakthrough The Curse of Frankenstein. The following year saw him add grace and a certain sexuality to Count Dracula, the role with which he would forever be associated. Lee might have hated having to don the Count’s cape within a series that had an admittedly uneven sequence of entries, but there’s little doubt he fit the part like those menacing fangs he bore for a total of seven Hammer Draculas. He remains by some distance my favourite ever actor the take the part.

Lee was one of those actors who at one stage seemed to pop up everywhere. I loved him in Richard Lester’s Musketeers flicks, adding a great sense of comic timing to his otherwise menacing Comte de Rochefort, the arch-enemy of Michael York’s dashing d’Artagnan. He was wasted a little in The Man with the Golden Gun; no fault of the actor’s, it just wasn’t a very good Bond film. But there was nothing wrong with The Wicker Man. Lee played Lord Summerisle, the leader of a remote island cult that slowly draws in a visiting police sergeant to his doom, and it’s every bit as weird and unsettling as that description implies; a great piece of work.

In later years, the ageing Lee snagged a couple of supporting roles in two of this century’s biggest selling trilogies. In the Star Wars prequels he was Count Dooku, the duplicitous rebel leader who’s also a Sith apprentice. Better still was his part in Peter Jackson’s superior The Lord of the Rings. Playing Saruman, the head of a virtuous wizardly order who betrays it to join the evil Sauron’s cause, it’s a perfect bit of casting as Lee quickly overpowers Ian McKellen’s Gandalf. When the trapped grey wizard makes his escape from the lofty tower of Isengard, Saruman looks on, his imposing words – ‘So you have chosen death‘ – carrying a real haunting resonance.

Do I have a favourite Christopher Lee performance? I’m honestly not sure that I do, enjoying all of those mentioned above and otherwise grab-bagging from any number of his astounding 281 film appearances to produce a composite character of all the best bits. A couple of non-Dracula Hammers stick with me though. There’s his sinister Doctor in Taste of Fear, one of a series of gripping black and white psychological thrillers the studio churned out that channeled the low budget brilliance of Psycho. Lee’s close identification with villainy made him the obvious murder suspect, only in a lovely bit of misdirective casting he turns out to be perfectly innocent. And then there are his two turns in Hammer’s pirate films, The Pirates of Blood River and The Devil Ship Pirates. Both are nonsensical, and in one Lee puts on a fabulously forced French accent, but they’re so much fun that it’s impossible not to sit back and enjoy them for the cheap matinee fare they are.

I might not be doing him justice by choosing these movies as favourites; there are many that are so much better. But it doesn’t really matter. They’re titles I look upon with affection and Christopher Lee was a big part of that. He’ll be missed.