Never Say Never Again (1983)

When it’s on: Saturday, 1 September (3.35 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Never Say Never Again should be terrible. It’s a remake of Thunderball, nobody’s idea of the best of Bond though it remained an obsession of Kevin McClory’s, the copyright holder who’d won the right to make an independent James Bond film featuring SPECTRE as the villains. Why anyone would take a second rate adventure like Thunderball and feel people needed to see it again is anybody’s guess, but into the works it went, after a string of legal delays setting itself up for a head to head clash with the ‘official’ Octopussy in 1983. Sure enough, by the end of the year Broccoli and Wilson could claim victory, with Roger Moore’s India based nonsense winning the war of the box office. The challenger came off a not too distant second, though both films made little dent on the success of Return of the Jedi, which walked away with the year’s takings.

That it isn’t a disaster is largely down to the presence of Sean Connery in the lead. Never Say Never Again had various working titles before the Edinburgh actor accepted a disproportionate salary to play Bond once more, the film’s name coming from a jokey reference by Connery’s wife to his famous vow to never again star in a Bond picture. Perhaps it’s weeks of sub-par Moore entries that provoke this sentiment, but Connery as 007 just feels right, like he fits the superspy in a way no one else quite manages. The script even makes frequent references to his age, Bond’s retort of ‘It’s still in pretty good shape’ coming across as entirely welcome after watching the increasingly creaky Roger Moore fart around in yarns that cry out for someone twenty years his junior.

Other moments chime with Connery’s Bond, such as the often messy methods of dispatching baddies, his reading of the character as essentially fatalistic and his natural charisma when it comes to the opposite sex. The differences are obvious enough – Connery is Bond, whilst Moore is a debonair actor who’s clearly playing a tongue in cheek character. Most appealing is the lack of musical cues, awful gags and impossible stunts. Connery may very well have defined Bond as a virtual superhuman, but during the Moore years it became a running joke that he could get out of any scrape with barely a hair out of place. Ironically, whilst the screenplay demands a spy who’s long in the tooth, this Bond feels less tired and out of steam.

In some instances, the film plays with the usual cast of characters, giving them new tropes and dimensions. Q has turned into a Cockney geezer named Algy (Alec McGowan) who replaces Desmond Llewellyn’s weary barbs with banter. M (Edward Fox) is younger and clearly dismissive of Bond’s old school methods. As usual, Moneypenny (Pamela Salem) is mishandled and given next to nothing to do. Max von Sydow makes for a charismatic Blofeld, whilst Klaus Maria Brandauer knocks memories of Adolfo Celi out of the park as Largo, giving the film’s villain a psychologically rich study of megalomania and inferiority that makes him strangely vulnerable. Kim Basinger is lovely as Domino, but like Claudine Auger is there to get captured and scream.

The most controversial bit of casting has former Playboy centrefold Barbara Carrera taking the part of Fatima Blush, SPECTRE’s femme fatale as essayed by Luciana Paluzzi in Thunderball. Carrera plays her as a ball of sexual energy, Bond’s equal in ability and determined to turn their contest into a personal battle. Unfortunately, this leads to various instances of overdoing it, hamming shamelessly, with an undercurrent of instability that appears to be what she was going for. At the heart of her unhinged performance is a need to be the best, as evidenced in her climactic scenes with Bond where she makes him write a note confessing her as his most talented lover. I prefer Paluzzi in this instance, if for no other reason than she knew how to project menace whilst staying perfectly still, but both are performances of their respective times.

The action scenes vary wildly, from the good – any scenes with the motorbike – to the Thunderball referencing underwater fights, which don’t take up so much time but are as insipid as ever. Director Irvin Kershner seems more comfortable with the moments when nothing much happens, the lower key times like the computer game duel between Bond and Largo, which somehow elicits tension from an arcade machine. Michael Legrand’s jazzy score, whilst an intentional departure from John Barry, is about as bad as these things ever get. It’s awful, as is the main song, elements that really make you miss those melancholic Barry overtures. Rowan Atkinson’s needless cameo is poor, but Legrand ensures it isn’t the worst thing about Never Say Never Again.

Never Say Never Again: ***

L.A. Confidential (1997)

When it’s on: Monday, 18 June (11.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Whilst I’ve enjoyed the several James Ellroy books that have passed before my eyes, I can’t say I have ever begged for more. It’s not that I think they’re anything less than brilliant, more the sheer demand they place on my concentration span. Densely plotted and involving many fully rounded characters, you get what you pay for with an Ellroy, but they’re heavy going pieces of work. I thought I’d done well with Clandestine, only to find it was a quickie he’d knocked out in between bigger projects. And then there’s American Tabloid, a convoluted tale leading to the Kennedy assassination that I devoured whilst on holiday. As Mrs Mike siesta’d the afternoons away in mid-forties Luxor, I worked my way through bottles of water, cheap cigarettes and the book. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

L.A. Confidential is much the same. Character after character pops up, each with its own complicated back story and distinct personality, every one either as crooked or as on the make as the next. Fantastic stuff, but I could see why adaptations of Ellroy’s work are few and far between. So much happens, involving so many people, that holding it together on film should be virtually impossible. Ellroy was very complimentary of the 1997 adaptation, calling it a ‘wonderful fluke’ because it somehow pulled all the disparate threads of his novel into a ‘movie of that quality.’ L.A. Confidential claimed an Academy Award for Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay, and would surely have won more but for it sharing the bill with a certain Titanic.

And yet there must be no one who would possibly rank James Cameron’s watery epic above a masterpiece like L.A. Confidential. I like Titanic, but this one’s a bit special. If you haven’t seen it, my strong recommendation would be to ensure you’re sat comfortably for Film4’s screening tonight. Record it, because after watching it you’ll want to do so all over again, only with the benefit of hindsight so you can see how cleverly the strands have been woven together, how sublime the entire cast is and the layers within the characters they play. Or maybe you’ll just replay it for your favourite moment. Mine is the look on Guy Pearce’s face when another character says the words ‘Rollo Tomasi’ at a crucial moment. It beats the unfortunate meeting in the diner involving Lana Turner. Or the bit where Kevin Spacey’s ‘celebrity cop’ pockets a packet of marijuana after a drugs bust. Or the powerhouse performance put in by Russell Crowe. Or the seductive Irish brogue of James Cromwell’s captain. Or the ‘window’ scene. Or Danny DeVito’s opening voiceover. Or the playing of various 1950s hits, like Wheel of Fortune. Or just how uncontrollably sexy Kim Basinger is, even in her 40s. Or the period detail.

It’s a crime yarn for the viewer who’s prepared to put in the hours, to appreciate a film that packs more story and characterisation into a running time of little over two hours and loses little of the book’s detail. It’s rightly referred to as a modern take on film noir because the attention to detail is note perfect. L.A. Confidential feels like a film from the 1950s, only one that flips a finger to the censorship laws of the era by showing the blood and letting the characters speak like real people. The casting is every bit as amazing. Of the three main players, Kevin Spacey was the most famous and made his turn as Jack Vincennes feel effortless, up to the point where he’s challenged over why he’s in the force. The real coups were Pearce and Crowe. Both had appeared in Australian soap, Neighbours, Pearce for several years, and the pair were relatively little known in America before their appearances in this. Crowe in particular is brilliant, the tank with a chivalrous streak and desire to be more than a mere heavy. They could have copped out and given the roles to more famous actors, but would they have been nearly as memorable?

It’s simply a superb film, and like all the best ones I find something new to enjoy in it with every viewing.

L.A. Confidential: *****