A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

The 100 Films Guide to…

In his own way he is, perhaps, the most dangerous man who ever lived!

Original Title: Per un pugno di dollari

Country: Italy, Spain & West Germany
Language: English and/or Italian
Runtime: 100 minutes
BBFC: X (cut, 1967) | AA (1981) | 15 (1986)
MPAA: M (1967) | R (1993)

Original Release: 12th September 1964 (Italy)
UK Release: 11th June 1967
Budget: $200,000

Stars
Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter, Gran Torino)
Marianne Koch (The Devil’s General, Spotlight on a Murderer)
Gian Maria Volontè (For a Few Dollars More, Le Cercle Rouge)
Wolfgang Lukschy (Dead Eyes of London, The Longest Day)
José Calvo (Viridiana, Day of Anger)

Director
Sergio Leone (The Colossus of Rhodes, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)

Screenwriters
Víctor Andrés Catena (Kill Django… Kill First, Panic)
Jaime Comas (Nest of Spies, Cabo Blanco)
Sergio Leone (The Last Days of Pompeii, Once Upon a Time in the West)

Dialogue by
Mark Lowell (High School Hellcats, His and Hers)

Story by
Adriano Bolzoni (Requiescant, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key)
Víctor Andrés Catena (Sandokan the Great, Cabo Blanco)
Sergio Leone (Duel of the Titans, Once Upon a Time in America)

Based on
Yojimbo, a Japanese samurai film written by Akira Kurosawa & Ryûzô Kikushima and directed by Kurosawa. (Not officially, but the makers of Yojimbo sued and it was settled out of court — presumably because it’s really, really obviously a remake of Yojimbo.)


The Story
The Mexican border town of San Miguel is ruled over by two rival gangs. When a gunslinging stranger arrives, he attempts to play the two gangs off against each other to his benefit.

Our Hero
The Man With No Name, aka Joe, seems to just be a drifter, who rocks up in San Miguel and sees an opportunity to make some money by doing what he does best: killing people.

Our Villains
Neither of the two gangs — the Baxters and the Rojos — are squeaky clean, but the Rojos are definitely the nastier lot. Led by three brothers, the cleverest and most vicious of them is Ramón, who’ll stop at nothing to punish Joe after he threatens their empire.

Best Supporting Character
The innkeeper Silvanito, who warns Joe away when he first arrives, but becomes his friend and almost sidekick later on.

Memorable Quote
“When a man with .45 meets a man with a rifle, you said, the man with a pistol’s a dead man. Let’s see if that’s true.” — Joe

Memorable Scene
As Joe heads off to confront three of Baxter’s men who shot at him earlier, he passes the coffin maker — and tells him to get three coffins ready. Coming face to face with four of Baxter’s goons, Joe asks them to apologise to his mule. They, naturally, refuse… so he shoots them all dead. As he walks back past the coffin maker, he casually apologises: “My mistake — four coffins.”

Memorable Music
Ennio Morricone’s score is as much a defining element of this movie as the visuals or the cast. His later theme for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly may be his best-known work, but there’s a cracking main title theme here too.

Letting the Side Down
It’s just a fact of this kind of production from this era, but the English dubbing is really quite terrible. Well, the acting’s not all that bad, as it goes, but the lip sync is not very synced.

Making of
When it premiered on US TV in 1977, the network found the film’s content morally objectionable: the hero kills loads of people, apparently only for money, and receives no punishment. While that might sound perfectly attuned to US morals today, they had different ideals back then. So they ordered a prologue be shot, showing Eastwood’s character receiving a commission from the government to go sort out the town of San Miguel by any means necessary — thus morally justifying all his later killing, apparently. The short sequence was directed by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) and starred Harry Dean Stanton (RIP).

Next time…
The loosely connected Dollars (aka Man With No Name) Trilogy continued with For a Few Dollars More (which was part of my 100 Favourites last year) and concluded with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (which someday will get the “What Do You Mean You Didn’t Like” treatment).

Verdict

The Dollars trilogy were among the first Westerns I saw, and I’ve been meaning to revisit them for many years. I was finally spurred on to start by watching Yojimbo for the first time. Watching that and this back to back, you can’t miss how similar they are — no wonder they settled the legal case, they wouldn’t’ve had a leg to stand on. Yojimbo is the classier handling of the material, giving the whole scenario a weightiness that has gone astray here. Fistful has its own charms, of course, as director Sergio Leone merrily reinvents the Western genre before our eyes — out go the simply white hat / black hat moral codes, in comes baser motivations (greed, lust) and quick sharpshooting. What it lacks in classiness or weight, it makes up with coolness and style.

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New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari

2017 #75
Tokuzô Tanaka | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

New Tale of Zatoichi

With studio Daiei apparently realising they had a potential long-running series on their hands, blind masseur cum roving wrong-righter Ichi (Shintarô Katsu) makes his colour debut in this third film. Despite the obvious visual change, New Tale picks up on plot threads from the previous film, concluding a trilogy of sorts that spans the series’ first three instalments.

Two strands from Ichi’s past come forth to challenge him this time: as he’s hunted by the brother of a villain he killed in the previous film, Ichi runs into the master who trained him to be a sword fighter, Banno (Seizaburô Kawazu). Desperate for money, Banno has fallen in with a criminal gang, while also trying to marry his younger sister, Yayoi (Mikiko Tsubouchi), to a respectable samurai — but Yayoi has feelings for Ichi.

Where the first Zatoichi sequel was faster and more action orientated, New Tale takes a slower, character-driven tone. Ichi is pulled in multiple emotional directions, most of which he keeps stoically buried, but we can still interpret them from Katsu’s nuanced performance. The most forefront theme is violence and the honour of it: Ichi vows to renounce those ways to marry Yayoi, while Banno is betraying them with his greedy actions — and naturally those two are going to come into conflict. It makes for a sombre film, that doesn’t come to a happy conclusion.

Family dynamics

Although this is the first colour Zatoichi, director Tokuzô Tanaka keeps the palette muted throughout, but this is particularly obvious at the end: after Ichi gives in to his old ways, the final shot is practically in black and white, like the previous two films — perhaps a visual indicator of our hero’s return to, or acceptance of, his previous position. Although this dull colour scheme means New Tale isn’t the most vibrantly exciting film visually, it’s compositionally strong, making appropriate use of the wide frame. It’s interesting to note that Tanaka was previously an assistant director on such acclaimed masterpieces as Rashomon, Ugetsu Monogatari, and Sanshô Dayû, so I guess he picked up a thing or two.

As Ichi hits the road again at the end (I don’t think it counts as a spoiler that he doesn’t ultimately settle down), it feels a little like an origin story has been completed, setting Ichi off on a path ready for standalone adventures. That said, according to the liner notes that accompany Criterion’s Blu-ray release, audiences “became increasingly starved” for details of Ichi’s past as the series went on, so I guess some people weren’t satiated.

I don’t think New Tale is quite the equal of the first film, which seems the purest execution of the character as yet, but its thoughtfulness in engaging with the emotional effects of a violent life mark it out as a step above the second movie.

4 out of 5

Review Round-up

Over the last ten-and-a-bit years I’ve prided myself on reviewing every new film I see. Well, at the start it was less pride and more just how I did things (and most of those early ‘reviews’ were only a couple of sentences long), but as I’ve maintained it for so long I’ve come to pride myself on it. However, of late my backlog has reached ridiculous proportions, and is only expanding.

But I’m not giving up just yet, dear reader — hence this round-up. There are some films I just don’t have a great deal to say about, where all I’ve really got are a few notes rather than a fully worked-up review. So as in days of old (i.e. 2007), I’ll quickly dash off my brief thoughts and a score. Hopefully this will become an irregular series that churns through some of my backlog.

In today’s round-up:

  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
  • Under the Shadow (2016)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)
  • Dazed and Confused (1993)


    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
    (1965)

    2016 #167
    Martin Ritt | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | PG

    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

    John le Carré’s famed story of crosses, double crosses, triple crosses… probably quadruple crosses… heck, maybe even quintuple crosses — why not?

    The storytelling is very slow and measured, which I would guess is not to all tastes — obviously not for those who only like their spies with the action and flair of Bond, but even by Le Carré standards it’s somewhat slight. That’s not to say it’s not captivating, but it lacks the sheer volume of plot that can, say, fuel a seven-episode adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Quite how the forthcoming miniseries from the makers of The Night Manager intends to be more than a TV movie… well, we’ll see.

    There’s also some gorgeous black and white photography, with the opening sequence at Check Point Charlie looking particularly glorious.

    5 out of 5

    Under the Shadow
    (2016)

    2017 #12
    Babak Anvari | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / Persian | 15 / PG-13

    Under the Shadow

    Be afraid if your doll is took — it could be the Iranian Babadook.

    Honestly, for all the creepy quality on display in this UK-funded Iran-set psychological horror, I don’t think labelling it as something of a mirror to The Babadook is unfair. It’s about a lone mother (Narges Rashidi) struggling with an awkward child (Avin Manshadi) while a malevolent supernatural entity that may be real or may just be in her head attempts to invade their home. Where the Australian horror movie invented the mythology for its creature afresh, Under the Shadow draws from Persian folklore — so, same difference to us Western viewers. The devil is in the details, then, which are fine enough to keep the film ticking over and regularly scaring you, be it with jumps or general unease.

    The Babadook may have done it better, and certainly did it first, but Under the Shadow remains an effective chiller.

    4 out of 5

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
    Out of the Shadows

    (2016)

    2017 #29
    Dave Green | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Hong Kong, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

    This first (and last? We’ll see) sequel to 2014’s Teenage Mutant Michael Bay Turtles ends with a cover of the theme from the original animated series, just in case you weren’t clear by then that it’s aspiring to be a live-action version of that particular cartoon.

    For one thing, there are appearances by a lot of popular characters who are primarily associated with that iteration of the franchise. For another, parts of the film have a very “rules of Saturday morning cartoons” feel — people thrown from a plane are immediately shown to be opening parachutes; all of the villains survive to fight another day; that kind of thing. They’ve clearly made an effort to make it lighter and funnier than its big-screen predecessor. The downside: they’ve gone a bit too far. The tone of the screenplay is “kids’ movie”, which isn’t a problem in itself, but Out of the Shadows retains the dark and realistic visual aesthetic of the first movie, plus enough violence and swears to get the PG-13 all blockbusters require, which means the overall effect is a little muddled.

    While it’s not a wholly consistent film, it does work to entertain, with funny-ish lines and kinetic CGI-fuelled action scenes. I must confess to ultimately enjoying it a fair bit… but bear in mind I was a big fan of the cartoon when I was five or six, so it did gently tickle my nostalgia soft spot.

    3 out of 5

    Dazed and Confused
    (1993)

    2017 #53
    Richard Linklater | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Dazed and Confused

    Writer-director Richard Linklater has said that with Dazed and Confused he wanted to make an anti John Hughes movie; one that showed teenage life was mundane and uneventful. So here’s a movie about what it’s like to hang out, driving around aimlessly doing nothing. Turns out it’s pretty mundane and uneventful. And most of the characters behave like dicks half the time, which isn’t exactly conducive to a good time.

    Despite that, some people love this movie; it’s often cited as being nostalgic. Well, I can’t say it worked that way for me. Indeed, I’m kinda glad I didn’t know those people in school…

    3 out of 5

  • The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

    aka Zoku Zatôichi monogatari

    2016 #194
    Kazuo Mori | 73 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

    The Tale of Zatoichi Continues

    Back in 2014, when I reviewed the debut Zatoichi movie a year after first watching it, I promised that reviews of the series’ future instalments would follow in 2015. Well, it’s 2017, and here’s Film #2. Yeah, this is going to be the new Rathbone Holmes, isn’t it?

    Anyway, this second movie is — as its title might suggest — a direct sequel (a rarity for the series, so I gather), which sees our hero, the blind masseuse and skilled swordsman Ichi (Shintarô Katsu), back in conflict with one of the gangs from the first film. Despite that, it doesn’t start like a direct sequel at all. Reference is made to the previous film, the events of which have given Ichi a reputation, but that could be a reference to something that occurred off-screen for all its significance to the story. Later, however, we learn that Ichi is travelling to pay homage to the grave of the samurai he killed before, and we end up in the same town with some returning characters. It’s quite a nice structure for a sequel: to seem like a new adventure before revealing and exploring connections to the previous movie. Unfortunately, to say this film “explores” anything would be doing it a kindness.

    All the ladies love a blind man

    The consensus seems to be that The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is a faster-paced and more action-packed movie than its predecessor, which is obviously to some viewers’ taste. The fight scenes are certainly on a more epic scale: where the first movie ended with a one-on-one between Ichi and an opposing samurai, here he takes on a small army of men. It’s less than an hour-and-a-quarter long, too, at which length it’s hard to avoid running at a brisk speed. However, I thought it lacked the artistry of the first film. It’s very focused on plot rather than digging into character, which is especially problematic when it comes to a subplot about a rogue who turns out to be Ichi’s brother. It’s structured to make for good reveals, but they aren’t always well executed, and what should carry a weight of emotion ends up rushed.

    The movie as a whole is oddly paced and very oddly ended. What turns out to be the de facto climax starts earlier than you’d expect, but then the film moves on from it… before suddenly stopping. Is this meant to be a cliffhanger? It doesn’t quite play like one, but it’s also unresolved. Film 1 felt like a complete story, but this ends with the need for a Part 3 — or rather a Part 2.1, because it doesn’t feel like a whole movie. The fact the next one is called New Tale of Zatoichi isn’t promising…

    Brotherly love

    Technical merits are similarly mixed. It’s not poorly shot, but it’s not as striking as its predecessor. The music is occasionally horrendous. There is indeed more sword fighting, and with it more involved choreography, but it doesn’t feel like an earned trade-off with the lightweight story.

    The Tale of Zatoichi Continues comes with lots of great ideas and potential themes, but the rushed production seems to have led to a weak execution. It’s almost like you want to say to the filmmakers, “good effort, you’re almost there. Now try again and do it properly.” Of course, there are 23 more films where they may do exactly that…

    3 out of 5

    The Magnificent Seven (1960)

    2016 #152
    John Sturges | 123 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG

    The Magnificent SevenDescribed in the booklet accompanying the Ultimate Edition DVD release as “the last great American western before Sergio Leone reinvented the genre,” The Magnificent Seven doesn’t feel as dated as that might make it sound. Famously, it’s a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai — a technique Leone would pilfer for his first Western, A Fistful of Dollars, which is a do-over of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Leone did his without permission, resulting in a lawsuit that was settled out of court, whereas Magnificent Seven was a fully-licensed re-do. As you’d expect, it therefore sticks fairly closely to the events of Seven Samurai, albeit getting through them an hour-and-a-half quicker.

    Of course, it’s relocated — not to America, but to Mexico, where a farming village is being terrorised by a gang led by Eli Wallach. A couple of villagers head to the border to buy some guns to defend themselves, but end up recruiting Yul Brynner to put together a band of gunslingers to help. With no significant pay on offer, his slim pickings are pre-fame turns from Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn, plus Brad Dexter and Horst Buchholz.

    Steve McQueen respondsWith even less screen time to go round than in Kurosawa’s original, the cast only get to provide thumbnail sketches of their characters. However, bearing that in mind, only Vaughn really feels shortchanged on time, while McQueen manages to steal every scene he’s in, even when he was supposed to just be in the background — much to Brynner’s annoyance. One reason this works is because the seven represent more or less the same things thematically, in some respects functioning as one hero character with seven parts. They are all unsettled drifters, good at killing but not at settling down; they have nothing to do but win and so be damned to go find another cause, or die trying. This is taken from Kurosawa’s film too, of course, but it fits just as well in its new setting, and the main scene where the seven discuss it is a definite highpoint of the movie.

    Most of the action is saved for the big climax, a good old fashioned free-for-all that (like the rest) doesn’t quite have the epic scope of Kurosawa’s movie, nor the stylised discipline and suspense that would be Leone’s enduring contribution to the genre. I’ve yet to see this year’s remake, nor read too much about it, but I understand it’s changed the plot and characters a fair bit, and I imagine this is one area it’s really applied a new emphasis. Much has changed in what we expect from action movies, which is not to criticise the ’60s film, but more to observe that what once might’ve satiated an action fan’s thirst may no longer fit the bill.

    Magnificent badassesThat’s not something that bothered me, but where I did find it suffering was in comparison to Kurosawa. While it has obviously been rejigged for its new setting, it’s not just borrowed the basic concept of seven violence-skilled loners defending a needy village, but rather retained all the bones of the samurai original. As with most remakes, it falters by not doing the same thing quite as well, for one reason or another. Still, if it is a faded copy then at least it’s of one of the greatest films ever made, which leaves it a mighty fine Western in its own right.

    4 out of 5

    Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1969)

    aka Du bei dao wang

    2016 #101
    Chang Cheh | 101 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin

    Return of the One-Armed SwordsmanIn this lesser sequel to the exceptional original, the titular warrior’s life of peace is disrupted when a gang called the Eight Kings capture all the sword masters and order their students to chop off their sword arms.

    With ten varied adversaries to defeat — the Eight Kings plus their enforcers, the Black and White Knights — Return puts greater emphasis on action than did its more dramatic forebear. The fighting is solid, with the enemies’ different skills adding some occasional freshness, but the plot underneath is thin. It makes for a decent but largely unremarkable, kind of run-of-the-mill, martial arts adventure.

    3 out of 5

    Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #67

    There were three men in her life.
    One to take her…
    one to love her…
    and one to kill her.

    Original Title: C’era una volta il West

    Country: Italy, USA, Spain & Mexico
    Language: English and/or Italian
    Runtime: 166 minutes (international) | 145 minutes (US theatrical) | 175 minutes (Italy)
    BBFC: A (cut, 1969) | 15 (1989) | 12 (2011)
    MPAA: PG (1969) | PG-13 (2003)

    Original Release: 21st December 1968 (Italy)
    UK Release: 14th August 1969
    First Seen: DVD, c.2003

    Stars
    Claudia Cardinale (, Fitzcarraldo)
    Henry Fonda (My Darling Clementine, 12 Angry Men)
    Jason Robards (Hour of the Gun, Tora! Tora! Tora!)
    Charles Bronson (The Magnificent Seven, Death Wish)

    Director
    Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in America)

    Screenwriters
    Sergio Donati (Face to Face, A Fistful of Dynamite)
    Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dynamite)

    Story by
    Dario Argento (Deep Red, Suspiria)
    Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist, The Last Emperor)
    Sergio Leone (The Last Days of Pompeii, For a Few Dollars More)

    The Story
    The mysterious Harmonica arrives in the town of Flagstone, out for revenge against Frank. Frank, working for a railroad baron, is busy murdering Brett McBain for his land and blaming the crime on the bandit Cheyenne. Cheyenne teams up with Harmonica to help McBain’s newly-arrived widow, and therefore owner of his land, Jill. Jill finds herself caught in the crossfire between the three men pursuing their own interests…

    Our Heroes
    Jill McBain, a former prostitute who’s still subject to the will and whims of men. Harmonica, a formidable gunslinger known only by the instrument he plays. Even Cheyenne, a bandit leader, is a good buy when they’re all arranged against…

    Our Villain
    Frank, the meanest sonuvabitch in the West. What did he do to Harmonica in the past? What will he do to Jill to get his way? Nothing good…

    Best Supporting Character
    Crippled railroad tycoon Morton only wants to intimidate the McBains to relinquish their land, which I guess makes him a nice guy when compared to his murderous handyman, Frank, who he clearly can’t control.

    Memorable Quote
    Harmonica: “Did you bring a horse for me?”
    Snaky: “Well, looks like we’re… looks like we’re shy one horse.”
    Harmonica: “You brought two too many.”

    Memorable Scene
    In one of the most iconic opening sequences in cinema history, three gunmen arrive at a train station and… wait for a train. For ten minutes. Ten real-time minutes, accompanied only by sounds like a squeaky windmill, a dripping water tower, and distant bird cries. Then the train arrives… and then the train leaves… and then a harmonica plays. And the action… threatens to start. Ah, Leone.

    Memorable Music
    It’s a Sergio Leone film, of course there’s an Ennio Morricone score — and it’s one of his best. It was composed before shooting began so Leone could play it on set, so it fits like a glove. The best bits include the striking leitmotifs: a haunting one for Jill, with wordless vocals by Edda Dell’Orso, and a dramatic one for Harmonica, threatening guitar combined with a melody played on a… well, you know.

    Technical Wizardry
    The entire picture looks fantastic thanks to the work of cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. It displays all the framing and composition Leone is famous for, but also evokes an oppressive hot, sweaty feeling, and the light and texture of the image have pure cinematic quality. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

    Letting the Side Down
    Leone’s original plan was for the three gunmen in the opening scene to be cameos for the stars of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach — but Eastwood (who’d already turned down the role of Harmonica) was unavailable. Shame.

    Next time…
    Considered by some to be the first part of a thematic “Once Upon a Time” trilogy, which continues with A Fistful of Dynamite (released in some regions as Once Upon a Time… the Revolution) and Once Upon a Time in America.

    What the Critics Said
    “The world of a Leone Western is just as enchanted as it was in the films the director saw as a child, but the values have become confused. Heroes as well as villains are apt to be motivated by greed and revenge, and the environments in which they operate are desolate and godless, though very beautiful. The Leone Westerns are twice removed from reality, being based on myths that were originally conceived in Hollywood studios in the nineteen-thirties. […] Once Upon the Time in the West thus is a movie either for the undiscriminating patron or for the buff. If you fall somewhere in between those categories, you had better stay home” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times (Just so we’re clear, I think this is a terrible review.)

    Score: 98%

    What the Public Say
    “The clue’s in the title: Once Upon a Time in the West is a fairy story, a mythologised version of the American West, peopled with immediately recognisable archetypes. It’s also a commentary on the Western genre itself, and a celebration in the form of a kind of “greatest hits”, full of references to other films and filmmakers: John Ford, George Stevens, Anthony Mann, Shane, The Searchers, High Noon, and so on. […] So the game isn’t originality, but Everything More Iconic Than Everyone Else. Westerns – even great Westerns – would follow, directed by the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, and Eastwood himself, but [this] still feels like the genre’s final word.” — Owen Williams

    Verdict

    America didn’t ‘get’ Once Upon a Time in the West when it first came out (hence the retrospectively laughable reviews, like the one above). The French did, though: it played for literally years in Paris cinemas, even inspiring fashion trends (the long duster coats). I confess, my initial reaction was a little more akin to the Americans’ — OUaTitW can be quite a slow film, and the plot is deceptively obscured until quite late on. But it certainly rewards repeat viewings, because it’s a film of rich content and, perhaps even more importantly, supreme style and technical achievement. The French were right (but don’t tell them that).

    #68 will be… completed while you shop.

    On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #66

    Far up! Far out! Far more!
    James Bond 007 is back!

    Country: UK & USA
    Language: English, German & French
    Runtime: 142 minutes
    BBFC: A (cut, 1969) | PG (1987)
    MPAA: M (1969) | PG (1994)

    Original Release: 13th December 1969 (Japan)
    UK Release: 18th December 1969
    US Release: 18th December 1969
    First Seen: TV, c.1995

    Stars
    George Lazenby (Who Saw Her Die?, Gettysburg)
    Diana Rigg (The Assassination Bureau, Theatre of Blood)
    Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes)

    Director
    Peter Hunt (Shout at the Devil, Death Hunt)

    Screenwriter
    Richard Maibaum (From Russia with Love, The Spy Who Loved Me)

    Additional dialogue by
    Simon Raven (Unman, Wittering and Zigo, The Pallisers)

    Based on
    On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the tenth James Bond novel by Ian Fleming.

    The Story
    After James Bond saves the life of Teresa DiVincenzo, her mob boss father offers him information on the location of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who Bond has been unsuccessfully tracking for years. Operating against orders to drop his investigation, Bond goes undercover in Blofeld’s Swiss research facility to find out what nefarious scheme he’s plotting now…

    Our Hero
    Bond, James Bond, agent 007 of the British secret service. On this mission, he falls in love and gets married — that never happened to the other fella!

    Our Villain
    Bond’s second face-to-face confrontation with the head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., evil mastermind and archetypal uber-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, now played by Telly Savalas. It’s a very good villainous performance, though possibly suffers by coming after Donald Pleasance’s iconic turn in You Only Live Twice.

    Best Supporting Character
    Contessa Teresa Draco DiVincenzo — aka Tracy, the only woman headstrong, intelligent, and bold enough to tie down international playboy James Bond.

    Memorable Quote
    “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.” — James Bond

    Quote No One’s Going to Use in Everyday Conversation Anymore, That’s For Sure
    Bond: “I find her fascinating, but she needs a psychiatrist, not me.”
    Draco: “What [my daughter] needs is a man… to dominate her! To make love to her enough to make her love him! A man like you!”

    Memorable Scene
    As M, Q, and Moneypenny sit around wondering where the devil 007 is, a shadowy man drives an Aston Martin accompanied by the Bond theme. (As in we hear it — he’s not got it on the stereo.) To his surprise, he’s overtaken by a woman. A few miles down the road, he sees her car stopped by the beach, and she’s walking out to sea. He runs after her, scoops her up and carries her back to the shore. As she wakes up, we see his face for the first time — and it’s not Sean Connery! But he does say, “My name’s Bond. James Bond.” Then he has a punch-up. A tradition (keeping the new Bond’s face a ‘secret’ until some kind of reveal*) is instantly born.

    * Not that this happens in Live and Let Die. Or Casino Royale, really. Oh well.

    Write the Theme Tune…
    Regular series composer John Barry aimed to help cover for the absence of Connery by making the score “Bondian beyond Bondian”, and this certainly applies to the main title theme: an instrumental number (of which there are only three in the entire series) which is surely second only to the main James Bond theme in its Bondianness. It’s a fantastic action number that sits just as well over the ski sequences as it does the opening titles. (There’s also a great cover version by the Propellerheads on David Arnold’s Shaken Not Stirred album, by-the-by.)

    Sing the Theme Tune…
    Nonetheless, the film does contain an original song, composed by Barry with lyrics by Hal David, and — most famously — sung by Louis Armstrong in his final recording: We Have All the Time in the World. Considering the 1967 Casino Royale also produced The Look of Love, it was clearly an unusually fertile time for Bond films to produce songs that transcended their origins.

    Technical Wizardry
    Various methods were used to capture the Alpine action scenes, including camera operators skiing alongside the stuntmen (backwards while holding a camera!), and using Swiss Olympic athletes for the bobsled chase (with the sequence rewritten to incorporate their accidents). Most remarkable, though, was the aerial photography achieved by cameraman Johnny Jordon. To get flexibility to shoot scenes on the move from any angle, he developed a system where he was dangled 18 feet below a helicopter in a parachute harness. Mad.

    Looking good, Lazenby!Letting the Side Down
    There’s little doubt that George Lazenby is the worst big-screen Bond (though all of those who came after have their detractors), but he’s not actually that bad — he certainly sells the film’s emotional ending in a way I can’t quite picture Connery managing. If he’d stuck around for a few more movies I imagine he’d be better regarded. What really lets him down is his costuming — that frilly-shirt-and-kilt outfit is half the reason people who dislike the film dislike it so much, I swear. (Here it is bigger, if you want a good look.)

    Making of
    Various stars of The Avengers (the classic British TV series, not the Marvel superheroes) have appeared in the Bond series — Honor Blackman in Goldfinger, Patrick Macnee in A View to a Kill (plus narrating loads of the DVD documentaries), and of course Diana Rigg here — all after they appeared on the TV show. The exception is Joanna Lumley, who appears in a small part here a few years before joining The New Avengers. Despite the diminutive size of her role, Lumley spent two months on the production, dubbing the voices of Blofeld’s whole cadre of women using German, Chinese, and Norwegian accents. She also taught the other actresses to crochet, so that was nice.

    Previously on…
    Five James Bond films starring Sean Connery.

    Next time…
    After Lazenby pulled out of his contract, Connery returned for Bond’s next adventure. There have been 17 Bond adventures on the silver screen since that, and the series continues indefinitely, with a 25th entry due in 2018 or so. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was adapted for radio in 2014, the fourth of (to date) five Bond radio adaptations starring Toby Stephens as 007.

    Awards
    1 Golden Globe nomination (Most Promising Male Newcomer (George Lazenby))

    How OHMSS Got a Bad Reputation
    “I suspect the average filmgoer still believes Lazenby was fired because the movie flopped. Wrong on both counts. OHMSS was not a blockbuster on the scale as Connery’s previous two films, but it was a solid hit. Box-office returns were no reason to fire Lazenby, and he wasn’t fired. He quit. […] OHMSS would go over schedule and over budget and [director Peter Hunt] would continually clash with his producers as well as his star. When OHMSS didn’t prove to be a runaway success, the public would blame Lazenby, but Saltzman and Broccoli and United Artists privately blamed Hunt along with his insistence on creating a tense, serious action film faithful to Fleming. Perversely, the finest film in Broccoli and Saltzman’s series became the model of everything they wanted to avoid in the future. In their desire to run from all that OHMSS represented, they turned the next film, Diamond Are Forever, into the dumbest, sloppiest mess in the series’ history. But Connery had returned so it was another substantial box-office hit, and the producers felt vindicated in their artistically disastrous decisions. The success of Diamonds Are Forever dealt a hit to OHMSS’s reputation. Thankfully, quality cannot go ignored for long and as more people discovered Hunt’s neglected masterpiece, the more admired it has become.” — Jeffrey Westhoff, Culture Spy (that whole piece is excellent, by-the-by)

    What the Critics Said
    “it is nothing short of miraculous to see a movie which dares to go backward, a technological artefact which has nobly deteriorated into a human being. I speak of the new and obsolete James Bond, played by a man named George Lazenby, who seems more comfortable in a wet tuxedo than a dry martini, more at ease as a donnish genealogist than reading (or playing) Playboy, and who actually dares to think that one woman who is his equal is better than a thousand part-time playmates. […] The love between Bond and his Tracy begins as a payment and ends as a sacrament. After ostensibly getting rid of the bad guys, they are married. They drive off to a shocking, stunning ending. Their love, being too real, is killed by the conventions it defied. But they win the final victory by calling, unexpectedly, upon feeling. Some of the audience hissed, I was shattered.” — Molly Haskell, The Village Voice

    Score: 82%

    What the Public Say
    “Not everybody is wrong about this film, of course. Steven Soderbergh and Christopher Nolan are both fond of this film. As am I. There are problems with this film, to be certain, and the problems do lie (mostly) with Lazenby. […] Having gone with the amateur Bond, they upped the ante for the girl. Diana Rigg was already a star from The Avengers and was perfectly suited to be a Bond girl. [She] is the answer, of course, as to why this film ranks as high as it does on the list of Bond films when Lazenby is so lackluster a Bond. Yes, there are good things in the film beside her – the ski scenes, the bobsled scene (you can tell the close-ups are rear projection but the longshots are real and exciting), the tragedy of the ending. But, for the first 40 years of the series she was the height of the Bond girls and she pulls this film higher than we had any right to originally expect.” — Erik, News from the Boston Becks

    Verdict

    The history of opinion on OHMSS is a fascinating one: written off as a failure, the series’ black sheep thanks to Lazenby and the less fantastical tone than the films that surround it; then gradually rehabilitated precisely because of that tone, to the point where it’s now almost “the Bond fan’s Bond film” (it certainly still has its detractors, who are either baffled by or in denial of its acclaim in other quarters). The ways it subverts the Bond formula are part of what makes it so memorable, but so are the ways it plays up to it, like Blofeld’s mountaintop base: considerably more plausible than the hollowed-out volcano (it’s a real place, for one thing), but no less incredible. Similarly, there’s an atypical plot, but also incredible action sequences — all done for real, too (well, aside from some iffy back projection). It does have faults that hold it back from being the best Bond movie in my estimation, but it’s up with the series’ best nonetheless.

    #67 will be… a Western fairytale.

    Mary Poppins (1964)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #58

    It’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 139 minutes
    BBFC: U
    MPAA: G (1972)

    Original Release: 27th August 1964 (USA)
    UK Release: 23rd December 1964
    First Seen: by osmosis in childhood.

    Stars
    Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music, Torn Curtain)
    Dick Van Dyke (Bye Bye Birdie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)
    David Tomlinson (The Love Bug, Bedknobs and Broomsticks)
    Karen Dotrice (The Gnome-Mobile, The Thirty-Nine Steps)

    Director
    Robert Stevenson (Jane Eyre, Bedknobs and Broomsticks)

    Screenwriter
    Bill Walsh (The Love Bug, Bedknobs and Broomsticks)
    Don DaGradi (Blackbeard’s Ghost, Bedknobs and Broomsticks)

    Based on
    the Mary Poppins books by P.L. Travers.

    Music and Lyrics
    Richard M. Sherman (The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)
    Robert B. Sherman (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh)

    The Story
    Not impressed by the nannies selected by their domineering father, Jane and Michael Banks write a letter describing their ideal applicant. Conversely, Mr Banks is not impressed with their requirements, and tears up the letter and throws it in the fire… from whence it reaches Mary Poppins, who floats down to bring fun and discipline to all of the Banks household.

    Our Hero
    The magical nanny who comes from the sky, Mary Poppins can be (whisper it) actually a little bit annoying at times. Julie Andrews, on the other hand, is practically perfect in every way.

    Our Villains
    Ultimately, bankers. Some things never change.

    Best Supporting Character
    Ostensibly this is the story of children Jane and Michael Banks and their need for a SuperNanny to help them with their oh-so-terrible father — and, as a child, that’s where your focus lies. Really (and I guess you need to grow up at least a bit to see this), it’s about how said SuperNanny saves their father, Mr Banks, helping to transform him from a miserable corporate drone into a joyful family man. David Tomlinson negotiates this arc fantastically.

    Memorable Quote
    “You know, you can say it backwards, which is ‘docious-ali-expi-istic-fragil-cali-rupus’… but that’s going a bit too far, don’t you think?” — Mary Poppins

    Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
    “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” — Mary Poppins

    Memorable Scene
    Chimneysweeps dancing on the rooftops! (Fun fact: I always thought Step In Time was called Stepping Time. I mean, the dance does contain a lot of, sort of, steps…)

    Best Song as a Child
    Iiiiiiit’s Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious. If you say it loud enough, you’ll always sound precocious. (Sacrilege maybe, but the version from the 2004 stage musical is even better.)

    Best Song as an Adult
    When I was little, the whole part of the film around the bank, Feed the Birds, etc, was The Boring Bit between the fun and the return of the fun. Now, I still think most of Feed the Birds is a little insipid, but the instrumental reprise as Mr Banks walks slowly back to the bank, his world and everything he knows torn asunder, his humiliation imminent… It’s heartbreaking, and the music is most of the reason why.

    Technical Wizardry
    The sequence where Mary, the children, and Bert jump into one of the latter’s street paintings — all of it animated, with the exception of the leads — is a sterling extended example of combining live-action with cel animation.

    Truly Special Effect
    As a lad, I could never work out how exactly they’d managed to create Mary’s bottomless bag. I haven’t watched the film for a while and imagine it’s painfully obvious now… I also used to think the little bird that lands on her hand was a miraculous effect and didn’t understand why some people slagged it off, but then I watched that bit on YouTube a couple of years ago and finally saw what everyone else saw. Oh, the sadness of ageing…

    Letting the Side Down
    The fact that real cockneys don’t sound like Dick Van Dyke. No, I don’t mean it the other way round — the fact that the real-life denizens of East London sound nothing like Bert is the problem here, not Bert’s accent. That is how I think cockneys should sound, and it always will be.

    Making of
    See: Saving Mr. Banks. Knowing biopics it’s probably not 100% accurate, but it is a good film.

    Next time…
    Despite several attempts, a sequel never happened. The director and/or writers worked together on multiple films at Disney over the next few years — most famously, an early-’70s blatant attempt to recreate the Poppins magic, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Mary Poppins herself returned in 2004 in a Cameron Mackintosh-produced West End musical, based on the film but re-incorporating more from the books. Talk of it being adapted into a film seem to have come to nowt. Instead, a (very) belated sequel with Emily Blunt in the title role is due in 2018.

    Awards
    5 Oscars (Actress (Julie Andrews), Song (Chim Chim Cher-ee), Substantially Original Score, Editing, Visual Effects)
    8 Oscar nominations (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Color Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color Costume Design, Sound, Scoring of Music Adaptation or Treatment)
    1 BAFTA (Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Julie Andrews))

    What the Critics Said
    “Of course, it is sentimental. And, as Mary Poppins says, “Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their feelings.” But being not practically perfect, I find it irresistible. Plenty of other adults will feel the same way. And, needless to say, so will the kids.” — Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

    Score: 100%

    What the Public Say
    “It is the single glowing moment of sheer unmixed genius in the long stretch of lightweight successes and dreary failures that made up nearly three whole decades of Disney’s output in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s; a fantasy of the most delicate touch and charming disposition, sweet and precious while being neither sickening nor cloying.” — Tim Brayton, Antagony & Ecstasy

    Verdict

    I feel like Mary Poppins is the kind of movie that it would’ve been easy to overlook in putting together this list of favourites — a childhood favourite, that’s maybe so obvious you kind of forget about it as A Movie — which is one of the reasons I made sure to get it on here. Another is how well it works for both children and adults. As the former, the magical adventures and toe-tapping songs are pure joy, a wonder-filled experience that doesn’t date. As the latter, those elements are still entertaining, but the depth of some of the film’s messages (especially pertaining to the adults) really comes through. It’s a film for all ages, and one for the ages too.

    #59 will be…

    Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)

    2016 #107a
    Marv Newland | 2 mins | streaming | 1.37:1 | USA / English | U

    At the risk of my blog becoming some kind of film-watching Inception, with a host of viewing goals within viewing goals (the titular one; “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” / Blindspot; all those ones I mentioned in my review of Home on the Range), here’s something new I’m setting out to do (in a vague, loose, ‘will get there one day’ kind of way):

    Regular readers will surely remember iCheckMovies, the movie list website where you can check off films you’ve watched and see how many you’ve seen on particular lists, like the IMDb Top 250, or They Shoot Pictures’ 1,000 Greatest, or 179 other ‘official’ lists (or 8,603 user-added ones — seriously). Obviously you can use this as an empty-headed list-completing exercise (and some people do), but it’s also a way to motivate watching well-regarded movies, and to discover new ones.

    (What does this have to do with Disney’s dear deer meeting Tokyo’s greatest monster? I’m getting to that.)

    There are several lists in particular I have my eye on, for one reason or another. Getting around to some more films on those lists was part of the motivation behind my selections for this year’s WDYMYHS, for example (most of the motivation, if I remember rightly). However, even while I’m a decent way through completing some lists, I happened to notice last night that there are a handful of those 181 official lists on which I have precisely zero checks. 26, to be precise, which in some ways sounds like a lot, but in others is only 14%. Naturally, this inspired one particular thought: to endeavour to get at least one check on every single list.

    (The bereaved fawn and gigantic lizard are coming up imminently.)

    There are pretty obvious reasons why I’ve never seen any films on many of those lists — quite a lot are country or continent specific, and as Western film viewers we’re notoriously poor at having seen movies from, say, Africa. The lack of acclaimed films I’ve seen from the likes of Belgium, Finland, Holland, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Portugal, and Spain is my own fault though, I guess. Anyway, this is something I intend to rectify in the coming days / weeks / months / years / decades — however obscure some of my missing lists may seem, there’s at least one film I’ve heard of on all but one or two of them, so there’s that.

    Anyway, I started with the easiest list of all lists: Best Cartoons Ever – A Gift List From Jerry Beck. This list contains “the 50 greatest cartoons of all time, from a poll of 1,000 animation professionals conducted by author/film historian Jerry Beck for the 1994 book The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals.” There’s all sorts of famous stuff on there, from 1914’s Gertie the Dinosaur, to Mickey Mouse’s debut in Steamboat Willie, to acclaimed classics that appear on multiple other lists, like Duck Amuck and What’s Opera, Doc? But I started with possibly the shortest of the lot: 92-second one-gag short Bambi Meets Godzilla.

    I say “one-gag” — there’s one headline gag, but I’d argue there are at least five jokes slipped into the film’s minute-and-a-half running time. Describing the ‘plot’ would be pointless, especially when it would be almost as quick for you to watch it yourself on YouTube; or, if you really want, a couple of years back a fan restored/remade it in 4K with 5.1 surround sound (seriously), which you can watch here. It loses a lot of its charm in that form, if you ask me. Either way, there are less amusing ways to spend 90 seconds of your time.

    Why is this film notable? In fact, is it notable? Well, it was voted in to The 50 Greatest Cartoons by some of 1,000 animation professionals, so there’s clearly something there. It was created by animator Marv Newland while he was a film student in L.A., after a live-action project he’d been planning to submit was scuppered (according to Wikipedia, uncited, that was due to the loss of “an essential magic hour shot”). Newland created the short animated gag in his room and submitted that instead. It’s a pretty straightforward piece of animation — black-and-white line drawings, some text, few moving elements — with a couple of music tracks on top (Call to the Dairy Cows from Rossini’s William Tell, which you might not know by name but will certainly recognise, and the final chord from the Beatles’ A Day in the Life).

    Maybe it’s the subversiveness that makes it significant? It comes from an era when that must have been a factor, surely — there’s a certain Monty Python-ness to it, and it was made the same year Flying Circus first aired. Perhaps it just has some familiarity — I’ve seen comments by people saying it was regularly screened at sci-fi conventions throughout the ’70s, and it was attached to film prints and VHS releases of Godzilla 1985. There are even two sequels, Son of Bambi Meets Godzilla and Bambi’s Revenge, which weren’t made by Newland and are apparently hard to come by. I suppose Beck’s book must explain its inclusion, but if anyone has a copy of that to hand then they’ve not bothered to quote its entry online.

    Anyway, for what it is it’s very effective, but it is slight, so I shall give it:

    3 out of 5