The French estate scenes, especially the chateau-garden reception, are wonderful and the film suddenly becomes an intelligently satirical French comedy, which admittedly amplifies the film`s light-hearted, non-suspenseful feel. Much of the film`s first half has a delightful, light, sparkling, bubbly quality – which was bound to annoy Bond groupies and did. I can see why this wouldn`t necessarily be popular, since Bond types aren`t exactly known for attending Francois Truffaut film festivals. Bond meets Enchanted April. I criticize the film`s pell-mell pacing and editing, but here it`s perfect and measured.
The chateau-gardens reception is a delightful set-piece – among the series` best non-action sequences – it flows beautifully and is near perfect, marred only by a You Only Live Twice gadget pulled out of nowhere that increasingly reminds me of Leslie Nielsen`s film spoofs. Though seemingly light, the upper class lifestyle`s decadence is readily apparent. Moore often delivered stiff line-readings, but here he`s fluid and you sense he enjoyed himself; the dialogue is casual and life-like. Bond talks about his dotty old aunt, and it could very well have been improvised. The beautiful shot of Bond and Stacey on the bridge, with rowboats in the distance, is beautifully framed and it could have inspired any number of 19th century French painters; I suspect such points go unnoticed when “fans”, a term I use reluctantly, dismiss the even greater Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies as wall-to-wall action for the MTV set with no character scenes or depth – an absolute lie – or praise the crummy, graceless The World Is Not Enough which was badly photographed though I seem to have been the only person who noticed.
The exposition between Bond and Conley is perfectly handled and written. Plot details, such as the cheque and “Main Strike all set?” are nicely set up. There are other nice details: Walken`s seemingly jokey persona as he accompanies Stacey, while Bond and Tibbett watch from their balcony (John Barry`s music cue is nice, but it`s never heard again and doesn`t appear on the soundtrack). Moore`s hesitant, ingratiating smile after Mortner catches him coming out of the building. Bond snapping pictures has an edge to it and is subtle. Conley yelling, “Hi ya doc!” and Mortner`s cautious, formal reaction tells us exactly what the two think about each other without it being spelled out. And Mortner tripping over Bond`s cover name is just right for it to ring true.
When Mortner explains, “My principles apply equally to human beings” this isn`t a performance, it`s a real person, quietly proud. Walken deadpans about the “16th century duke who thought he`d be reincarnated as a horse” and it rolls off his tongue like he`s delivered that same speech before. The camera pans with Stacey, which is skilful direction, though when it cuts back to Moore, he`s looking too far over. Only his eyes should have flicked back. We`d have gotten the point. (You half-wonder why Zorin doesn`t look over his own shoulder to see what distracted Bond).
However Christopher Walken`s performance is uneven, and he`s too subdued. He`s not right for the film, which needed a boisterous actor. (Imagine if Jeroen Krabbe from The Living Daylights had played Zorin.) It`s been said that Walken`s performance would have worked better had Timothy Dalton played Bond in this film – a fair and valid argument: Dalton overacting, Walken underacting. Those who`ve seen Walken in the great film The Dogs Of War from Frederick Forsyth`s novel realize Walken`s talent is very much introspective, which isn`t completely at home in a Bond film. He has some great moments but they get lost in the melee – he needed a quieter film for his performance to completely work. When they can`t find Bond in his bedroom, he tells May Day “We must find him,” and he sounds like Peter Lorre. In a marvel of timing, after he machine-guns his men, he pauses, walks about, looks at his watch, and says “Good, right on schedule.”
He also has a wonderfully sleazy quality. He eyes Bond and runs his tongue around his lower teeth, while Bond goes on about “his dotty old aunt.” Zorin is like the kid from the Bronx made good who still eats with his mouth open. He tells Bond, “I`m neglecting my other guests, enjoy yourself, you`ll find the young ladies stimulating company”, and it`s a wonderful brush-off.
Walken is at his worst when he tries getting into the comic-book spirit of things. After the fixed horse race, he smugly brays, “You amuse me, Mr. Bond,” and it`s ungainly. His scene with General Gogol is awkward and almost embarrassing as though he doesn`t want to be in the film. His performance becomes unsteady, and he plays the scene broadly. His tendency to laugh is a mistake – when all he has to do is smile. During the Golden Gate Bridge lead-up he says, “This will hurt him more than me.” A nice touch, but the laugh is unnecessary. We get the point. His wonderfully wide insincere grin, when he says, “I`m happiest in the saddle” is great, but it`s marred by the laugh.
I discuss Tanya Roberts` performance in detail elsewhere, but occasionally when she seems weak, the fault lay elsewhere. The chateau-bridge scene is especially awkward, not because of Moore or Roberts, but because they seem to be performing in step with the Vivaldi music (Sutton`s archness works when you filter it through that prancing Vivaldi tune). John Barry`s music is incongruous and sledgehammers the point home – except for the cutaway to Walken and Jones, where the music has real feeling. Walken turns wonderfully sleazy, and it`s possibly his strongest moment. Zorin sees Bond chatting Stacey up on the chateau bridge; he takes May Day aside, by the arm, out of earshot, with Scarpine looking on: “Get her away from him.” The venom drips from each word – it`s from the heart. The rejection is real, which is probably why it`s such a strong moment and has always affected me. It`s a human moment. (At its best, despite it`s outre trappings, AVTAK has many human touches.)
AVTAK is often compared unfavourably to The Living Daylights. Vivaldi`s Four Seasons – which I don`t really care for – is sparkling and crisp. That deadweight The Living Daylights features the first movement from Mozart`s 40th Symphony (g minor), one of the great symphonic movements, and it dies on the screen. (It`s the orchestra scene immediately after the credits, before Koskov`s defection. Somehow I suspect most people won`t know this unless I mention it.)
Sharp satirical gags appear throughout: Bond, pointing to what he thinks are the stables, says to Scarpine: “Is that it?” “No, those are the servant`s quarters.” Moore`s rapid-fire delivery is excellent acting: “Oh there you are Tibbett, I wish you wouldn`t keep wandering off, there`s a good chap.” “I`m sorry, sir.” Scarpine: “Your driver may stay the night in the servant`s quarters.” “I`m sure that will be more than adequate for him. (turning) What do you say Tibbett?” Look closely at Moore`s throwaway gesture with his hand, his backwards glance at Scarpine, and his raised eyebrows. Moore`s handling of this material dispels a) that he was a bad actor, and b) that Timothy Dalton was better. Dalton would have killed the scene, unable to mimic Moore`s perfect rapid-fire delivery. (Imagine the scene being rehearsed and pretend you`re Moore given the scene to read and deciding how to play it.) Moore, in fact, gives one of his best performances; notice his sidelong grin when he says, “When you`re ready, Tibbett.” His eyes are perfect. Zorin`s computer says Bond is “EXTREMELY DANGEROUS”, an interesting perspective of Bond from the villain`s point of view, especially given Bond`s peculiar grin in the computer photo. (Earlier during M`s briefing scene, Q complains “If you ever bothered to read any memos” shaking his head as though answering for Bond. M`s straight-faced remark “You have exactly 35 minutes to get properly dressed,” and Bond`s reaction, like many other comic moments throughout the film, is played straight.)
The film`s comic timing is also frequently brilliant. Zorin asks Bond how he slept, and Bond quips, “A little restless, but I got off eventually”, Walken`s lack of a response is perfect (he simply nods, not caring about an answer, and motions for Bond to sit). After their laboratory sojourn, Bond tells Tibbett, “We better get back. The tape ran out five minutes ago. Good night.” (These kinds of lines Timothy Dalton killed dead. Moore, unlike Dalton, has the ability to deliver a funny line with the utmost seriousness and sincerity, which makes it funnier.) Or, when Tibbett brings Bond`s baggage into his room, Bond says, “Here, let me help you.” Bond takes the umbrella and Tibbett replies, “Oh thank you sir.” The point is later recapitulated when Bond asks Stacey to give him a hand with the Zorin truck driver he`s just knocked out and she takes the man`s hardhat.
Moore is vibrant and bubbly (perhaps too much so – his smile is occasionally bizarre), and in fine spirits. He`s extremely comfortable and his performance at times is surprisingly fluid (especially compared to Timothy Dalton`s). Except for some weak lines, he gives one of his best performances as Bond and fits the role like a glove. He seems to be having fun (though he hated the film). Compare how tired and haggard he was in For Your Eyes Only. Yet he becomes suitably serious after the film moves to San Francisco – appropriate given that Tibbett has been killed and what should have been an easy mission nearly cost him his life. His constant overworked smile is gone (until the journalist scene). If Moore`s performance can be faulted in one respect, it`s that at times he appears to be playing a well-paid actor enjoying himself on a film set. Occasionally he shows his age, and unfortunately, it`s these moments we remember.
The film is also overloaded and presumably the filmmakers didn`t want it running past 130 minutes. Bond`s fight with Zorin`s guards in the storehouse is unnecessary; it`s not even good and should have been cut so that we aren`t hit over the head with one action sequence after another. The horse race is good enough, despite weak rear-projection, but it feels soggy, less than it should be because of how it`s situated in the film. The dialogue between Bond and Zorin immediately afterwards is forced. There are still great touches: after Bond learns the horse`s name, he practically pivots his eyes on Zorin and he doesn`t even blink. And Bond smooching the tire is ingenious.
There are also moments that aren`t quite what they could have been: During the karate lesson, May Day`s hand comes into shot, then her face. She tells him to keep his guard up higher, and he gets up and bows, and it`s clipped. It`s a character-driven moment, but it barely registers. During their brief tussle May Day struggles like a wild animal; in a different film, where things developed calmly this could have been a fascinating sub-plot, but little is done with it. May Day becomes anxious while Zorin debates whether or not to answer the ringing telephone. He pulls away, her animal longings evident (hence the ease with which Bond gets her into bed). It`s symptomatic of the film`s problem: it`s too rushed. Glen seems to be his own worst enemy and clips shots and scenes too fast. He doesn`t know how to wait. In a nice shot, we see her reflection in mirror and then she walks in front of the camera, Zorin`s eyes tagging along with her, but the film is too impacted for such joys to be appreciated. (It`s like the gag about seeing an art gallery on roller-skates.)
May Day`s reaction when she finds Bond in her bed is a kind of a “Let me think about it” gliding glance and it`s nice; she`ll do it despite her better judgement. (How does Bond know where her room is? He saw May Day go in into it when Jenny Flex showed him to his suite.) At the Chateau reception, Bond follows Stacey and Zorin and almost walks into May Day. She glares at him, then points for him to turn around. She can`t take her eyes off him even while turning away slowly – she`s on the verge of remembering where she saw him before. Zorin kisses her hand, but she doesn`t respond, instead, she just stares at the sunken Rolls Royce with Bond trapped inside. It`s a nice touch, but like too much in the film it`s clipped too fast. (Her last shot is enigmatic and I discuss it in further detail in the mine/Golden Gate section.) During the chateau reception, May Day intervenes just as Bond is about to snap Stacey`s picture. Like much of what`s right in the film, it`s subtle.
As much as I admire John Barry`s music – his soundtracks are among the closet things we have to classical music being written today, and the soundtrack works quite well as a symphonic suite – it doesn`t always work in the film. Too often he lays it on thick. The score is bombastic and certain cues sledgehammer points home the scenes themselves have already made. The briefing scene in M`s office, Bond and Stacey on the bridge at the chateau reception, the fight in Stacey`s house, and possibly the ticking clock in the mine finale; all would have been better without Barry`s music, and I suspect it makes the film feel even more bloated than it already is. Tibbett`s death is suspenseful, but would have been better without music – especially on repeat viewings. The score screams out at us, This is a climatic moment, you`re supposed to feel tension. (It`s like a child who can`t eat anything without ketchup on it.) It only fits when it cuts to Bond and Zorin on the track, and that`s because Moore plays it light (“A little spirited, what`s his name?”). Imagine how bizarre it would have been without music, only background traffic noise, a la Hitchcock anticipating Tibbett`s death amidst tranquillity. Silence is golden.
AVTAK is oftencompared to Goldfinger, though I don`t understand how anybody can claim it`s a remake. (There are more similarities to Octopussy.) The boardroom scene on the dirigible is the closet link and it`s a good scene, but once again John Barry`s music is unnecessary since it sledgehammers the point home until Zorin and May Day look out at the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Taiwanese businessman who “drops out” is one of several spirited performers: “I want no part of it, thank you,” he says calmly. His head jerks up when Zorin says “confidential” and his eyes dart to and fro when Zorin asks him if he would wait outside. The look of good-faith in his eyes, and the business-like “Thank you,” brushing past the man clearing his throat are small pleasures that would have been more noticeable in a calmer, less jam-packed film. Zorin tells the dissenting businessman, “If you wish. Hmmm,” turning his head like he can`t understand why anybody would pass up the chance of a lifetime. May Day puts on glasses and it`s like the sun is about to appear. The descending staircase is imaginative, and in another small pleasure, Walken winks when May Day reenters the boardroom. “So does anybody else want to drop out?”
The transition from France to San Francisco is awkward; it doesn`t flow, nor is it causal. The horse-racing subplot doesn`t relate to the rest of the film, and the Russian subplot is poorly integrated, as though it was included at the last minute only because it worked so well in Octopussy. (Likewise, the film`s ending, where General Gogol, inexplicably, awards Bond a Russian medal, is indefensible.) Walken`s scene with General Gogol is weak. He`s diffident, where quiet tension would have worked. He can`t find the centre of his performance. It`s a bad scene. Scarpine, grinning, holding the gun, is the only nice detail. It`s the only time we see the character genuinely happy.
The film`s third quarter is awkwardly plotted and reminds me of Moonraker`s third quarter, but without that film`s connect-the-dots plotting. The oil rig set piece could have just as easily occurred after Bond follows Stacey home (in fact, I couldn`t for the life of me remember exactly which sequence it followed and had to double-check). It feels shoehorned, and the story progression is compressed. It introduces new characters, reminds us of the unnecessary Russian sub-plot, and the oilrig never reappears – the entire sequence could have been dropped (if I remember correctly, Judy Alexander`s children`s storybook based on the film omitted it.) Apparently, in a scene that was cut, Bond interviewed a fisherman on a boat. I suspect had it been kept, this part of the film would have played better and eased away the set-piece feel. Because the film is so compacted, viewers might not even realize until after multiple viewings that Gogol`s car follows Bond and Pola from the oil rig. There`s a nice visual touch: the Russian is sacrificed and the pump pressure falters as the valve chops him up.
Yet Stacey and the cheque plot-point is well set-up and developed. Her motives for not cashing it – which prevents Bond from finding her – ring true and are ingenious. The plot information overheard at the chateau reception is a marvel of exposition. And the chateau scenes themselves flow nicely.
Stacey Sutton is often criticized, despite being one of the best-written women in the series. Her background and current plight is excellent writing.
The fight scene in Stacey`s house is excellent, unfortunately John Barry`s bombastic music during the actual fighting section doesn`t fit. The intro is exciting and exhilarating and the portions in 3/4 time which work well should have been a clue how rhythmical the scene was to begin with. Watch it with the volume off. There are great touches, some easily overlooked: Bond`s buoyant somersault along the upper hall, accompanied by John Barry`s exciting music, and seconds later he jumps over the railing. Elsewhere, Stacey opens her upper window, and Bond hesitates, watching from offside, and it`s an effective throwaway moment. The tension increases after she`s threatens to call the police: Bond threatens to tell them about the five million-dollar payoff.
Except for the bad “stooge” line, Tanya Roberts does well in these scenes. Her performance received much bad press, and though her acting is uneven, she has some good moments. Her performance is a bit stiff, but Bond films don`t feature great female performances. She moves well, her facial expressions are good, she`s attractive to look at, and her calmer line readings are accomplished so she does well enough, though she and Roger Moore make an awkward couple, given Moore`s age and her little-girl voice, which is also a bit scratchy and hampers her line-readings. We don`t really believe that she`s a geologist and unfortunately the script saddles her with too much exposition. The part needed an actress who could communicate a kind of manic delight telling people about palaeotological rocks or for whom delivering dry information was a turn-on. Her “James, Jameses” are cringeworthy – especially in the elevator shaft and during the finale, though Diana Rigg`s in OHMSS were just as bad (Rigg`s strident English accent didn`t help). They could and should have been cut in post-production; little things do sometimes make a difference and this is probably her biggest flaw in the film.
Nonetheless, during the mine finale, she deciphers the San Andreas Fault map for Bond; her eyes don`t blink once and she`s intense. On the chateau-bridge, her defensive smile and the downcast eyes indicate that Bond should take the glass back from her. She turns the fire truck`s siren on, and her relaxed, off-kilter shrug is congenial; evens her “Jameses” during the chase are tolerable and work.
John Glen makes interesting directorial choices Occasionally he`s trying to be American. Benzali yells at Roberts from behind closed doors; she runs out, the door opens, Bond says, “What happened?” having been reading a newspaper – another subtle touch. The black secretary looking out at them closes the door. This could have been done in close-ups but Glen was clever. A nice human touch: she drops her papers, and Bond helps her pick them up, telling her to calm down. He doesn`t believe the sincerity in his own voice, but it`s all he can do, like a parent reassuring a child. “Maybe, just maybe, he`ll come up with a few answers.” The elevator door opens, he says “Here” and ushers her in, just as apprehensive. It`s life-like. I`m sure most of us have been in similar crises situations where a person did exactly what Moore does here. We feel worse for Bond because he shoulders the brunt of it.
Daniel Benzali plays Commissioner Howe and his performance is a small pleasure (he also appeared in the television series <i>Murder One</i>). His first scene is well written (both his scenes are) – it`s excellent exposition, and rings true: Benzali`s buffoonish grin and Moore`s wide-eyed smile perfectly capture how artificial journalism is. They both know they`re going through the motions, but go along anyway. (I suspect it`s too rich and satirical for Bond groupies.) Benzali`s scene with Tanya Roberts is worth studying for his impatience, Stacey being a drain on his time, his left hand extended, his “what is it now?” demeanor. After Bond tells him that he`s being used, his brown eyes flit back and forth unsure what`s really going on. His final line to Zorin: “But that means… I would have to be…”, then he`s shot – his close-eyed smile after he`s shot is typical of the details the film offers. Zorin`s line, “Intuitive improvisation is the secret of genius”, is great writing. Think the line through! This kind of line deserves to be quoted and remembered, and would be, in a calmer, sturdier film. I`m surprised self-help business seminars haven`t swiped it yet. Bond`s comment “Herr Doctor Mortner would be proud of his creation,” catches Zorin off guard. He nods, mulls it over and it`s a nice touch and fine acting. The line, “Don`t bother, Stacey, he`s a psychopath,” is childish. Moore does his best with it. His voice dies out at the end of the word, like it`s not even worth completing. Stacey`s line about “You can take your offer-” is bad. Was Zorin supposed to feel ashamed?
To be continued….
PREVIEW: In this series third installment, Nick Kincaid has harsh words for pseudo-intellectual Bond “fans” who would so easily dismiss A View To A Kill as pulp film-making.