Thursday, 17 August 2017

On location: Altaussee, Austria; or a visit to Mr White's house

A summer holiday to Salzburg in Austria allowed me to visit one of the locations used in the last James Bond film, Spectre. The edge of Lake Altaussee, by the alpine village of Altaussee and about one and a half hour’s drive from Salzburg, was the setting for the scene in which Bond visits Mr White. One of Eon’s local contacts during the filming of the sequence was offering ‘In the footsteps of James Bond’ boat tours of the lake, and naturally I booked myself a place on one of them.


My fellow passengers and I had our first treat even before the boat left the jetty. Beside us, moored to another landing stage, was the thin wooden boat that Daniel Craig’s James Bond uses to motor across the lake to Mr White’s cabin.The boat is based on a traditional Austrian craft known as a Zille or Plätte.

Bond's boat in Spectre
As we pulled away from the shore and started to make our way across the lake, we heard some facts and figures about Altaussee. Unfortunately, my German was too poor to understand much, but I got the gist, and in any case, I didn’t need any translation to realise that we were heading towards a wooden building on the far side of the lake that looked rather familiar. In fact, we were following Bond’s course to Mr White’s house.
 
The view towards Mr White's house on the tour (top) and on screen
After a while, the boat pulled up to the jetty beside the building that normally serves as a bar and restaurant. This is presumably closed during the winter, allowing it to double as Mr White’s cabin in Spectre.

 
Mr White's house now (top) and as shown in Spectre
We wasted no time in disembarking and literally walking in James Bond’s footsteps towards the house. Apart from some superficial differences, the outside of the wooden building seemed little changed from its appearance on the big screen. Indeed, traces of the production still remain. The stone footings of the veranda are made of fibreglass and were fitted especially for the scene, and if I understood aright, the chimney was added too.

 
The veranda with the fake stone footings
Entering the building, I saw that the staircase seen in the film is a feature of the property (annoyingly, I didn’t take a photograph).

 
The staircase as shown in Spectre
And there is a further sign that the production crew had been there in the form of two displays of photographs and newspaper cuttings.

 
The displays inside the house
Just before Bond enters the house, we have a view back towards the lake. This shot shows the actual edge of the lake in front of the building.


The view from the house to the lake (not sure where the tree went)
Eventually, we all boarded the boat and returned across the lake back towards the village. As we approached the end of the tour, our guide let us into a secret. Bond alumnus Klaus Maria Brandauer has a house (and boathouse) here. We weren’t told whether he was there during filming, but it’s intriguing to imagine Bond’s reaction if he had bumped into Maximilian Largo, his old sparring partner in Never Say Never Again
 

The boat tour, organised by Altaussee-Schifffahrt, was excellent, although it would have been helpful to have some information at least in English. Nevertheless, if you happen to be in the area, the tour is essential.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

James Bond films referenced in latest VW commercial

The latest Volkswagen TV advert for the Golf GTE looks to two classic James Bond films for inspiration. The ‘Button’ advert, created by adam&eveDDB, promotes the vehicle’s hybrid technology, which allows drivers to combine electric and petrol engines at the push of a button. The advert features a series of archetypal movie villains with their fingers poised over big red button ready to wreak destruction. We then see the car – and its all-important button – in action before the advert ends with the tagline, ‘a more responsible use of power’.

Viewers are treated to a pantheon of villains. There’s sci-fi supervillain on a spaceship who presses the button to fire a laser that blows up a planet, which is an obvious nod to Star Wars. We also see a mad professor straight out of a 1930/40s’ black-and-white horror film, who presses the button to animate his own Frankenstein’s monster. Then there are villains from a 1970s’ blaxploitation-type film, a Lethal Weapon-style buddy cop film, and a Indiana Jones-like adventure. 

Naturally, the film series that defined many of the standard tropes or memes of the movie villain is not forgotten. A man strapped to a near-vertical table is looking at the wrong end of a large laser weapon. A woman in a military uniform is at the control panel and laughs maniacally as she presses the button to fire the laser.

What’s interesting is that the scene draws on two Bond films. The laser and the set clearly derives from Goldfinger (1964). There are shades of Ken Adam’s designs, as the set in the advert replicates the little office, complete with employees and a small set of steps, at the back of the laser room in Goldfinger, the golden-brown colour scheme, and the angular walls and metal supports. The laser weapons are also similar in design, albeit that one has green elements, the other blue.

 
The laser rooms in the VW ad (top) and Goldfinger

The villain is modelled on Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love (1963). She wears a Russian-style military jacket with gold buttons, a light brown or khaki shirt and a brown tie similar to the uniform that Rosa Klebb, played by Lotte Lenya, wears in the Bond film. Their hair is different, but it’s sufficiently close to reinforce the link.
 
A Rosa Klebb-style villain in the VW ad (top) and Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb

VW’s ‘The Button’ ad is the latest in a long line of commercials that reference the James Bond films, despite the products having no connection to them. Back in the 1980s, PG Tips advertised its tea bags with the help of a chimpanzee spy called Bond, Brooke Bond. More recently, Sky Sports enlisted David Beckham to advertise its services in a Bond-style advert, and Jaguar evoked Spectre in its advert for the Jaguar XE. Coincidentally, the Sky and Jaguar campaigns, like that for VW, also focused on the villain, demonstrating that the Bond villain is every bit as enduring in popular culture as Bond himself, and is especially appealing to advert writers.

Friday, 4 August 2017

James Bond and railway station restaurants

We know from Goldfinger and the short story ‘From a View to a Kill’ that James Bond is rather partial to the hotels and restaurants of French railway stations.
 

In Goldfinger, while driving through Orleans in pursuit of the eponymous villain, Bond decides to stop at the Hotel de la Gare and eat at the station buffet. Bond tends to choose the station hotels, we’re told. They were adequate, and ‘it was better than even chances that the Buffet de la Gare would be excellent.’ Just as Bond expects, he finds his room cheap and comfortable, and he is able to eat one of his favourite meals – oeufs cocotte à la crème and sole meunière – in the restaurant.
 

Even in Paris, Bond opts for the station hotel. In ‘From a View to a Kill’, Bond stays at the Terminus Nord opposite the Gare du Nord, which we’re told is the least pretentious and most anonymous of the station hotels in the city, although on this occasion, he decides to eat out.
 
Bond's hotel in 'From a View to a Kill'
James Bond would find a kindred spirit in Walter Hillyard, a character in the 1961 espionage novel, The Arena, by William Haggard. While waiting at Paris’s Gare de Lyon to board a sleeper train destined for Milan, Hillyard visits the station restaurant and orders ‘the set dinner unhesitatingly.’ He reflects that ‘you could eat much better at the Gare de Lyon than at many more famous restaurants,’ adding that there was less fuss in the service too. We’re not told what Hillyard eats, but he orders a bottle of Beaujolais, ‘confident that here at least the label wouldn’t be lying.’
 

Such views are probably all that Bond and Hillyard have in common. Hillyard is a City banker, and is unaware that there is a plot to murder him on the train. There is, however, more of a Bond figure in Major Mortimer, a British secret service agent who’s been keeping an eye on the situation and might just be able to save the day.
 

Is it still the case that station restaurants in France are the best? Was it ever the case? Of course, I can’t comment on all stations, but I can certainly vouch for the restaurant attached to the Gare d’Agen in southwest France, where I once had a superb meal of foie gras mi-cuit and steak tartare. You wouldn’t get that in the chain restaurants and sticky-carpeted pubs typically found in English railway stations. As Walter Hillyard says, ‘nobody in their senses would eat at an English terminus at all.’

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Bond 25 - some speculation


The announcement that the next James Bond film will be released in November 2019 was both exciting and frustrating. On the one hand, at last we have solid news about Bond’s next screen adventure. On the other hand, it’s over two years away. When it finally comes out, it’ll be four years since the last film, Spectre, representing the longest gap between films since Licence to Kill (1989) and GoldenEye (1995). Still, looking on the bright side, the anticipation for the new film will be massive and doubtless the film will be a bigger success because of it.
 

The long wait also means that there is plenty of time to speculate wildly about the new film. So, I thought I’d kick my speculation off with some thoughts about what we might expect from Bond 25.
 

We have precious few details to go on, but there are some factors that might be relevant. In my review of Spectre, I suggested that the film had escaped the tag of being Daniel Craig’s Moonraker or Die Another Day. In retrospect, I’m not so sure. I rather think now that the film does represent the end of a cycle, meaning that the next film will recalibrate the series and be more down to earth.

That said, it’s worth bearing in mind that the film may be Daniel Craig’s last film. Or it’ll be the first film of a new Bond actor. Either way, the film will be a reaffirmation and celebration of Bond, and so will attempt to meet audience expectation of what constitutes a Bond film. Putting those two factors together, Bond 25 could well be a good, solid adventure, which exotic locations, jaw-dropping stunts and so on, but built around a plausible espionage plot. Think From Russia with Love or For Your Eyes Only, rather than You Only Live Twice or The Spy Who Loved Me

I don’t think the humour level will be any greater than the level in Spectre, but I do make one plea. Whatever happens, please don’t make it personal for Bond. We’ve had enough of him going rogue.
 

What about Blofeld? He’s too good a character to leave out, but I wouldn’t mind betting that the step-brother angle will be quietly dropped. I expect the story won't explicitly continue the story arc of Spectre either.
 

It's likely the script will once again mine unfilmed passages from the Fleming novels, and there is plenty still to film. But now that an element of continuation novel Colonel Sun has been used in a Bond film, could we see more use of continuation novels? I don’t think so, but an exception could be made for Trigger Mortis, which featured a plot outline and dialogue written by Ian Fleming.
 

As for title, there’s been no urgency to use Fleming’s unused titles, but I’ve always thought that some of his chapter titles would make good film titles. But I have another idea. The trend these days has been for eponymous titles, such as Jack Reacher, Rambo, John Wick, and of course a whole host of superhero films. I have started to wonder, especially in an increasingly competitive market, whether we might eventually see a Bond film called, simply, James Bond, or perhaps Bond, James Bond. Maybe Bond 25 will be that film (but I hope I'm wrong!). Remember, you read it here first.   

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Alternative James Bond memes

There’s an image circulating on the internet of Sean Connery – he’s bearded, so it’s not a Bond-related image, but he’s wearing a dinner jacket and still has the look of Bond – accompanied by the words, ‘A book fell on my head. I can only blame my shelf’. This is one of the many vaguely amusing images that can be found on the internet when searching for ‘James Bond meme’.
 
Some James Bond memes
For most people, the word ‘meme’ refers to any image combined with words for humorous effect or to make a point of some kind and disseminated by social media. Anyone can create them (though presumably few people bother about copyright) and there are various meme generators available.


‘James Bond memes’ is also the name of my blog, which has been running since 2010. In this case, the name refers to another – and original – meaning of ‘meme’. The word was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In his seminal 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins drew a parallel between biological and cultural evolution, arguing that the two are governed by a similar mechanism. 


The things that make up culture – the ideas, traits and tropes – can be regarded as the units of cultural selection, the process that determines what in culture survives to spread and become a trend or fashion, and what dies or fades away, in much the same way that genes are the units of natural selection. Richard Dawkins called these cultural units 'memes'. Successful memes, like successful genes, are those that are selected or favoured to be replicated often and accurately, and have longevity. 


The cultural environment is also crucial. Memes that are not sympathetic, or cannot adapt, to the prevailing cultural environment may struggle to compete with existing, successful memes, and be not be replicated to any great extent to survive in the longer term. The prevailing environment creates selection pressures that constrain and shape behaviours and choices.


That’s probably enough of the evolutionary theory, but it is worth noting that internet memes are also memes in the Dawkins’ sense of the term. They survive by being transmitted between people (usually via social media), and the most successful memes are those that are copied frequently, become widespread, and just won’t go away. 


It’s easy to see from an internet search which James Bond memes are the most successful ones. There are numerous images of Daniel Craig’s Bond with the Queen (an image taken from the 2012 London Olympics film). A recent version has Bond saying, ‘And Donald Trump, Ma’am’, with the Queen responding, ‘Yes, but make it look like an accident 007’. What makes the meme particularly successful is that it uses ideas or memes that are already well established in popular culture – the image of Bond walking with the Queen and corgis at his heels, and the meme of Bond as assassin (although, as I’ve argued on this blog, he’s nothing of the sort). What also gives the meme an advantage is that it is also adaptable. Other versions I’ve seen include UK and EU politicians; the name can be replaced by any bête noire du jour.

 
Bond takes a walk with the Queen

To be a successful meme, it also needs to have the right Bond. It’s hard to be particularly precise about such matters, but the Bonds of Daniel Craig and Sean Connery are clearly the most popular, followed by those of Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore. A meme featuring Timothy Dalton or George Lazenby is unlikely to be generated very often or shared very widely. There are probably several reasons for this, but the current Bond (Craig) has an advantage, as does the first Bond (Connery), the Bond that appeared in the most films (Moore), and the Bond that introduced the film series to the social media generation (Brosnan). The ubiquity of these Bonds is also helped by their association with some of most successful entries and most iconic moments in the film series. 

Successful internet James Bond memes include those that draw on Bond-related memes that have become successful in their own right, such as the phrases ‘shaken, not stirred’ and ‘the name is Bond, James Bond’, and the uniform of Bond’s dinner suit. The last is particularly useful, as it unifies the various portrayals and makes the character instantly recognisable. We ought to note, too, that the legend accompanying the images is not necessarily positive, tapping into popular notions about, for instance, Bond’s drinking habits and relationship with women.


Of the Bond villains, Blofeld as portrayed by Donald Pleasence (and his cat) probably generates the most successful memes, though Scaramanga, Alec Trevelyan, and Le Chiffre don’t seem to be far behind. 


While the ‘internet meme’ has become the primary definition of the meme, it also behaves in the way first defined by Richard Dawkins. In that respect, it’s no different from the James Bond memes explored elsewhere in this blog – the ideas and influences found within the Bond books and films and the Bond-related ideas that have made an impact on popular culture.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Almost a Bond novel: a review of Forever and a Death


Warning: this post contains minor spoilers
 

Picture the scene. James Bond dons his wetsuit, jumps into the murky, debris-filled water in a flooded tunnel, and swims in a race against time. His goal – to defuse a series of bombs that threaten the existence of the city above. If this scenario seems plausible, that’s because it’s based on a film treatment written for the follow-up to GoldenEye (1995).

Ultimately, the plot idea, along with the rest of the story outline devised by thriller writer Donald E Westlake, was never used, but, in fine tradition (think of Ian Fleming and Thunderball, Peter Vollmer and Per Fine Ounce, and Anthony Horowitz and Murder on Wheels), the author put the material to good use and created a novel. The result is not exactly a Bond novel, but is an exciting page-turner all the same.


In Forever and a Death (a solid, typically vague, Bondian title, though I don’t know whether Westlake gave his treatment this title), Singaporean businessman Richard Curtis has a new device, the soliton, that can reduce buildings erected on reclaimed land to rubble. Facing financial ruin following the handover of Hong Kong to China, he plans use it to destroy Hong King Island, wreak his revenge on the territory, and at the same time steal the gold in its vaults. Standing in his way are two environmentalists, Jerry Diedrich and Luther Rickendorf, a diver named Kim Baldur, and Curtis’s engineer, George Manville, who, having built the soliton, finds himself on Curtis’s hitlist when he begins to question Curtis’s judgement and plans. 


The plot could easily grace a Bond film. There are shades of Goldfinger (1964) and A View to a Kill (1985) in the final act, and the novel contains the sort of elements that we’ve read in the Bond books or seen in the films: thrilling underwater swims, gunfights on boats, daredevil escapes, a beautiful woman, global travel, and submarines. Richard Curtis can also call on the services of several henchmen, who are nasty pieces of work, though more in the line of Horror and Sluggsy in the novel of The Spy who Loved Me, than Jaws or Oddjob. 


So, out of all characters set to oppose Richard Curtis, who is the James Bond figure? There is no spy sent to investigate Curtis, and the police are a little slow on the uptake. (I was reminded of A View to a Kill and Sir Frederick Gray’s response when Bond expresses suspicion towards Zorin: ‘Impossible. He's a leading French industrialist.’ Curtis is similarly able to deflect suspicion from himself almost simply by dint of his reputation as a successful businessman. In today’s world of perceived corporate greed and exploitation, that doesn’t ring quite so true.)


Initially, it’s George Manville who seems to take on the mantle of James Bond. He’s resourceful, knows a thing or two about guns, and makes love to the heroine, Kim Baldur. But there are long periods when he is absent from the narrative. In any case, his moral ambiguity, at least at the beginning, is more redolent of the anti-heroes of an Eric Ambler novel than of Bond. The environmentalists, who take on some of the investigative elements, are candidates for Bond, but again are sidelined across many chapters. Kim Baldur also has Bondian characteristics, for instance having a crucial role at the end which would have gone to Bond had it appeared in a Bond book or film. It seems that all these characters play Bond to some extent, as if, in recasting his story outline, Donald E Westlake divided Bond duties between them.


Indeed, somewhat in defiance of convention, it’s the villain who’s the central character, who dominates the narrative and is rarely away from the book’s pages. This is his story, not that of George Manville, Kim Baldur or others. (I must admit that the villain’s name is a little distracting, since in the UK, the name is associated with Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley, Four Weddings and a Funeral and other creations far removed from Bondian plots.) 


The structure of the novel and its characterisation reminds us that we aren’t reading a James Bond continuation novel or a novelisation of a never-produced Bond film script, but a Donald E Westlake novel, complete with the traits of his work, among them a focus on flawed characters and multiple viewpoints. 


This took nothing away from my enjoyment of the book. It’s a terrific read, containing edge-of-your-seat descriptions, shocking moments of violence that somehow keep you glued to the page, and a masterful, subdued ending that almost elicits pathos from the villain’s fate. The afterword, provided by Jeff Kleeman, recounts the history of the novel and its role in Bond lore, and is also a must-read. 


Forever and a Death by Donald E Westlake is published by Hard Case Crime/Titan Books.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Where is James Bond's big gun?

The poster for Live and Let Die, created by Robert McGinnis, is iconic and a classic piece of Bond art, but there’s something on the poster that’s been puzzling me. In the centre of the artwork, a woman sits on top of the barrel of a field gun or anti-aircraft gun, which is being fired by James Bond.


I’ve watched Live and Let Die countless times, but I can’t remember ever seeing James Bond wield a gun of that sort. Unless it’s a case of blink and you miss it, the gun doesn’t appear in the film. What’s surprising, though, is quite how central the image is to the publicity of the film.

Apart from the poster, a large image of the gun is shown in the gatefold of the soundtrack album. Interestingly, the image here is a photograph. This rules out artistic licence, and means that Roger Moore filmed a scene featuring the gun or posed with it. It’s reasonable to conclude that the gun was used for publicity only or the scene ended on the cutting-room floor.



If the latter, the photograph may offer a clue about the gun’s intended placement in the film. Roger Moore is shown wearing a pale open-necked shirt, possibly the same shirt he wears for his scenes in Mr Big’s poppy field. Had Mr Big installed the gun in the poppy field to protect his crop? Perhaps there was a scene in which Bond discovers the gun and uses it to destroy the helicopter that’s attacking him. (That's another puzzler - what happens to the helicopter?)

The gun itself is shown in more detail in the photograph. To me, it looks like a Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun, but I haven’t been able to identify it precisely. A photograph in the US edition of Roger Moore’s Live and Let Die diary shows Roger Moore being shown how to use a gun mounted on a US Coast Guard boat. It's hard to tell, but it could be the same gun as that in the poster (Roger Moore is also wearing a pale open-necked shirt), in which case, the photograph on the soundtrack album would appear to be a publicity shot.

If anyone knows more about James Bond’s missing gun, then post a comment at the end of this post. I’ll be glad to hear from you.