In Praise of Lewis Gilbert: Composition in James Bond

Skyfall good 3

The image above is from the movie Skyfall and it is damn lovely. Skyfall in general is a damn fine film. It is my second favorite James Bond film, and while featuring a nigh-nonsensical plot, it also happens to have one of the best Bond villains, an excellent look into the emotional core of Bond himself, and some of the best action scenes of any film, period. But I want to focus on that damn lovely shot — or should I say shots, because Skyfall is filled with fantastic compositions and exquisite lighting. It is no surprise that Skyfall cinematographer Roger Deakins landed himself an Oscar nomination for the film. Continue reading

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A SASY digression: The omnipresent spectre of James Bond

Bond, James Bond

Hi all, this is J. We’re going to be doing something a little unusual with a few posts over the coming days that dig into a series of films that are decidedly not on the Sight & Sound 250 Greatest Films of All Time list: the canon of James Bond. Although perhaps I shouldn’t have said “we” — this one is all me, because if Daniel Craig ain’t in it, S. ain’t watching it.

I’m guessing it was around 1990, although I can’t be certain on this. It would have not been long after we got cable television for the first time, and I was plunked in front of a television with a screen little bigger than that of the laptop upon which I am typing. Bouncing from channel to channel I landed upon a bizarre scene of two men stalking each other through a psychedelic funhouse while a little person sprung traps and pranks to liven an already deadly game. It was the opening scene to The Man with the Golden Gun, and 11-year-old me was in. Continue reading

#81 (tie) – Lawrence of Arabia (1962), dir. David Lean

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

On the road to Damascus. Peter O’Toole makes his debut as a leading man in Lawrence of Arabia, a bio-pic recalling the Arab Revolt against the Turks in World War I.

When it comes to the film epic, it might be fair to say there are two kinds: Lawrence of Arabia and others. To be sure, there are plenty of films that aspire to go big — be it butt-testing running times; stories that cover years, if not decades; or spectacles on the grandest of scales. But Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is a different beast altogether. Relying less on overt pomp and largely devoid of ornate sets or heightened reality, the film derives its grandeur from remarkable desert landscapes and an intensity generated not just from incident but from the inner lives of its characters. In this, the film was no doubt aided by being based on the autobiography of T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who helped lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. But the film is also rooted in the keen sense of character and relationships that director David Lean showcased in his earlier, more modest dramas like Brief Encounter (1945). By being — or at least feeling — true to history and humanity, Lawrence of Arabia is able to take one man’s story and make it as intense and sprawling as the desert itself. (227 min.) Continue reading

#144 (tie) – The Wizard of Oz (1939), dir. Victor Fleming

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And your little blog too! Dorothy’s adventure with the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion represents one of the most enduring children’s classics to ever come out of Hollywood. But how does The Wizard of Oz hold up to adult eyes?

It’s very difficult to open a yammer on The Wizard of Oz (1939) without resorting to lame jokes about not being in Kansas or otherwise heading somewhere over the rainbow — so we’ll just skip that and get to it. Now a beloved musical and children’s film, The Wizard of Oz was actually a tumultuous production that burned through a number of directors and stars before largely failing at the box office upon its initial release. But the movie slowly gained traction through airings on television, moving from cult status to bona fide classic in subsequent decades. As you likely know, the movie tells the adventures of farmgirl Dorothy Gale, who travels through the magical land of Oz with a scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion as they seek the assistance of the titular wizard. Of course, there’s a wicked witch and some flying monkeys to contend with along the way. The movie is an unusual one for the Sight & Sound list, which is often so vigorously serious and adult with regard to its selections. The Wizard of Oz is very much a children’s film, abounding with broad performances, outrageously vibrant costumes and sets, goofy (but unshakable) songs, and a decided lack of nuance or subtlety. But there is a definite charm and energy to the film that makes it worthy of the declaration in its opening credits: “to the Young in Heart …we dedicate this picture.” (101 min.) Continue reading

#171 (tie) – King Kong (1933), dir. Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack

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Knock. Knock. The mighty ape bursts through the barred gate of Skull Island’s protective wall to retrieve his blonde in King Kong, the special effects-driven spectacular that revolutionized adventure/fantasy cinema.

If there’s one Sight & Sound film of which everyone knows at least the basic story, it’s King Kong (1933). Giant ape, blonde, airplanes, and the Empire State Building. It is one of the great enduring creations of Hollywood and has filtered across the global cultural lexicon through countless references, parodies, and remakes for 80 years — so we won’t trouble you with a lengthy recap. King Kong was the brainchild of filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, whose sparse filmographies belie their influence. Cooper was a real-life adventurer — and the inspiration for King Kong‘s Carl Denham — and he and Schoedsack had previously collaborated on some well received silent docu-dramas filmed in Persia and Siam (elephant stampede footage from their 1927 film Chang is actually used in Duck Soup). But however much adventure and exoticism Cooper and Schoedsack brought to the proceedings, the bulk of the genius behind King Kong probably came from Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion animation pioneer who brought Kong and the film’s menagerie of prehistoric beasts to life. Kong was a special effects marvel in its day, and still has the power to awe with its inventiveness and visual splendor. Combine that with some killer action set pieces, frenetic pacing, and Max Steiner’s influential (and supremely bombastic) score, and you have a film that rivals the titular ape in scale and power. (104 min.) Continue reading

#154 (tie) – Only Angels Have Wings (1939), dir. Howard Hawks

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Pea-nuuuuuuuuuuuts!!! Cary Grant and Jean Arthur star in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Howard Hawk’s action-packed adventure melodrama about mail pilots flying dangerous mountain routes in South America.

A young woman gets mixed up with a group of hard livin’, hard drinkin’ expatriate pilots who careen through a life of reckless adventure in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Cary Grant plays the manager of a small airline contracted to carry the mail through dangerous South American mountain passes. Equipped with small, out-of-date planes, the pilots don’t have the equipment needed to fly above the mountains or navigate safely in bad weather, making every flight a chance for high drama. Our window into this insane business is a plucky American woman (Jean Arthur), who steps off a boat for what is supposed to be a few hours and finds herself unable to resist Grant’s churlish appeal. This is the first movie by Howard Hawks we are going to discuss, but it is certainly not the last, as Hawks has more films on the Sight & Sound 250 list than any other American director. (121 min.) Continue reading