Wednesday, November 04, 2015

007 Week: For Your Eyes Only (1981)

After dispatching a deadly assassin in For Your Eyes Only (1981) James Bond (Roger Moore) makes a joke. 

He quips that the killer “had no head for heights.”

In a funny kind of way, the same observation could be made of this follow-up to Moonraker (1979).

It has no head -- or appetite -- for heights, either.

Instead, For Your Eyes Only is a dedicated re-grounding of the James Bond mythos and one that deliberately dials down the silly humor of the previous entry. Instead of focusing on space age jokes, this Bond film obsesses on matters of earthbound import such as revenge. 

Virtually every aspect of this 1981 Bond entry suggests a back-to-basics approach in terms of the 007 character, his world, and the style of storytelling, even.

For example, For Your Eyes Only opens with a scene reminding viewers of Bond’s deepest, most grievous loss, the death of his wife Tracy. After that painful memory, the film then proceeds through a gadget-less but fast-paced adventure in which Bond must depend not on technological trickery, but rather his own instincts and skills if he hopes to survive.

Likewise, the film’s central car chase involves, approximately, the world’s least romantic-looking car.

As these and other facets of the film make abundantly plain, the intent in For Your Eyes Only was clearly not to make another jokey roller-coaster ride with flourishes of fantasy and outrageous humor, but a legitimate thriller instead, one with moments of significant suspense and high intrigue.

The filmmakers succeeded admirably and more than that, found a useful idea on which they could hang their tale.  The central leitmotif of For Your Eyes Only, as mentioned above, is revenge.

Is revenge right?

Is it useful?

It is it inevitable, given human nature, and human loss?

From the film’s pre-title sequence (featuring an unnamed but recognizable Blofeld…) and its Greek heroine’s quest to avenge patricide, to the violent rivalry between Kristatos and Columbo, For Your Eyes Only explores the concept of revenge fully, if not always deeply.

As Bond himself notes in the film’s final moments, revenge is “not the answer” to anything.

Beautifully shot, and remarkably suspenseful in a few notable places, For Your Eyes Only remains Roger Moore’s best turn as the iconic secret agent.

“The Chinese have a saying: Before setting out on revenge, dig two graves.”

The British spy ship St. Georges is struck by a mine at sea, and goes down before the officers can self-destruct its most vital system, the ATAC (Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator), which has the capability to transmit orders to England’s fleet of Polaris submarines.

When the Soviet Union’s General Gogol (Walter Gotell) learns that he could get his hands on the valuable device, he contacts an agent in Greece to acquire it for him.

Meanwhile, James Bond, Agent 007 (Moore) is also tasked with obtaining the ATAC.

Bond’s first step in that hunt is to follow a hired gun named Gonzalez (Stefan Kalipha), the man is responsible for murdering a British operative, Havelock, and his wife, in the waters near the St. Georges’ last known position.

Also determined to find -- and kill -- Gonzalez is Havelock’s lovely daughter, Melina (Carole Bouquet).

After Melina succeeds in her quest, Bond gets her to safety, and must follow his second lead instead: the man who paid Gonzalez for the Havelock hit: Emile Leopold Locque (Michael Gothard).

Bond travels to Italy in pursuit of Locque, and his contact there sets up a meeting with Arius Kristatos (Julian Glover), a Greek businessman and informant who has worked before for England. 

Kristatos informs Bond that Locque is employed by a criminal boss known as “The Dove,” or Columbo (Topol).

When Bond meets “The Dove” for himself, however, he learns that Kristatos has framed Columbo, and that Kristatos is a Soviet agent…the very man attempting to acquire the ATAC.

Racing against the clock, Bond and Melina retrieve the ATAC from the sunken St Georges, but Kristatos is aware of their location, and prepares to take possession of it for himself…

“That’s Détente. You don’t have it. I don’t have it.”

For Your Eyes Only is a back-to-basics Bond film, and a wonderful one at that.

The film opens with sadness…and franchise history.

We see Bond visiting the grave of his dead wife, and her tombstone is marked with the legend “We have all the time in the world.”

This scene represents a remarkable bit of continuity with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), which is widely considered the biggest failure of the franchise.  It was so disliked a film for so long, in fact, that Tracy wasn’t even mentioned by name in the follow-up Bond film, Diamonds are Forever (1971). 

Bond was going after Blofeld with a vengeance in that film’s pre-title sequence, but there was not one word spoken about Bond’s marriage, his wife, or Tracy Draco.

Yet For Your Eyes Only remembers both Bond’s marriage, and the tragedy that followed the wedding. The first shots of the film are of a graveyard, and of Bond bringing flowers solemnly to Tracy’s grave. 

He doesn’t say anything -- his thoughts are private -- but there is heaviness about Moore’s Bond here.

But the significant point is that this is not Plastic Man.

This is not Luke Skywalker, either.

This is a man that has known love and tragedy in his life. Bond is a person like any other person, and one not immune to the dangers or vicissitudes of life.  That’s a key aspect of the literary Bond character, and one that needed to be projected immediately in For Your Eyes Only if there was to be a course correction from the outlandish (though undeniably entertaining…) Moonraker.

After the opening scene’s acknowledgment of Bond’s humanity and history, For Your Eyes Only goes to great lengths to keep the secret agent away from his trademark gadgetry. In fact, the gadgets in the film are deployed not as aids to Bond…but literally as jokes. 

The first such joke involves Bond’s Lotus Esprit.  He parks the stylish car, locks the door, and activates a “burglar protection system.”

When bad guys attempt to break the unoccupied car’s windows, the Lotus explodes into a million pieces. 

Some burglar protection system! I think it’s called a “self-destruct device,” actually.

But the up-shot of the car’s destruction is that Bond cannot rely on his fancy ride to get him out of trouble.

He will not have the benefit here of ejector seats, missile-launchers, or any other high-tech trickery.  He’s going to have to go it alone, with only his wits and instincts as co-pilots…

…in a Citroen 2CV, the pokiest, most light-weight car you can imagine.

Yet -- in what could be the motto for For Your Eyes Only -- Bond (and the filmmakers) turn this poky, light-weight, bright yellow car into a strength instead of a weakness.  In the exciting car chase that involves the Citroen, Bond finds that it is more maneuverable than his opponents’ big, heavy vehicles, and uses that quality to steal a win.

This car chase sequence remains amazing, not only because it follows a joke about Bond’s gadgetry, but because it re-establishes viscerally Bond’s unparalleled skill as a driver. He’s got nothing else to fall back on here, and so he drives back-wards, downhill, and even weaves and dodges his way to success. 

As one would expect of a Bond film, the stunts in this sequence are spectacular, but it’s a nice de-glamorization of the Bond universe to see 007 driving not a very expensive sports car, but a clunker instead.

The only other gadget in the film is Q’s Identigraph, a device which allows Bond to identify Locque, using the data files of Interpol, etc. 

At one point, Q (Desmond Llewlyn) turns Locque’s nose into what Bond calls “a banana,” and again, the idea transmitted is simply that technology is fallible, and therefore not always useful. The skill of the user is the thing that matters, not the device itself.

The film’s McGuffin, the ATAC (heir to the Lektor of From Russia with Love [1963]) transmits the same notion. The officers aboard the St. Georges are not able to destroy the device, and so all of England -- and the West itself -- is imperiled by the existence of a small, unassuming typewriter-like device.

If the gadgets are mightily de-romanticized in For Your Eyes Only, so are the schemes of the Bond villain, Kristatos in this case.

As you may recall, Drax (Michael Lonsdale) in Moonraker sought to wipe out the human race from his space station in Earth orbit, and then re-seed the Earth with his hand-picked super-people.

By contrast, Kristatos merely attempts to to steal the ATAC and make some money off the theft. 

Kristatos is also a sadist -- as his act of keel-hauling proves dramatically -- but he’s a more realistic, more nuanced figure than either Stromberg or Drax were. 

In fact, Kristatos is kind of petty, even, sending Bond to kill his rival, Columbo so he doesn’t have to expend the energy himself.

In terms of action, For Your Eyes Only is exhilarating, in part because director Glen often adopts the first-person point-of-view in the chase sequences, particularly in the ski-chase and inside the bob-sled track.

This P.O.V. angle literally lands us in the action, and though the feelings of speed and acceleration are incredible, so is the feeling of reality.  This is not something “faked” like the outer space adventure of Moonraker, for example.

Moore’s Bond also seems more world-weary and less fresh-faced in this entry. I know that many fans believe that Moore was too old, at this juncture, to play the role effectively, but I like Moore’s Bond with a little age on his face, in For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy (1983), specifically.

He’s still an attractive, able-bodied man, but with age comes wisdom, and also the appearance of a more knowing, perhaps more fatigued demeanor. I think Moore’s appearance works well in conjunction with the character’s story in For Your Eyes Only. Bond stopped being “dashing” and “fresh-faced” a long time ago.  He’s seen much mileage since those days.

As I wrote above, For Your Eyes Only revolves largely around revenge. 

The opening scene sees Bond execute his final, fatal revenge upon Blofeld, the man who killed his wife. Bond offs this dastardly opponent with appropriate glee, given what Blofeld cost him. 

But then, after exorcising his own vengeance, Bond counsels Melina not to further pursue her own. She has already killed the man directly responsible for her parents’ death, and Bond doesn’t want to see her make violence and revenge a way of life. 

This advice is intriguing.  Bond wants to spare Melina his own journey, either because he has recognized this impulse for revenge in himself, or because he has beaten that impulse within himself.  The movie doesn’t specify which happens to be the case, but it’s enough that Bond notes the Chinese proverb about seeking revenge, and digging two graves.

Melina, however, doesn’t want to hear Bond’s words. She compares herself explicitly to Electra, the daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra. When her father was killed by Aegisthus, Elektra plotted revenge with her brother, Orestes, and that revenge consisted of murder.   

Revenge also comes into the picture with Kristatos and Columbo: rivals who hate one another, and will do anything to destroy one another. Every slight, every attack, is countered so that their conflict continues endlessly. This is the very example Bond fears for Melina: a cycle in which she can’t let go of her hatred, or the need for violence. A cycle which kills innocents, like the Countess, Lisl.

Bond’s understanding, finally, about revenge seems to involve the answer he gives Gogol, after destroying the ATAC: “Détente.”

At some point, enemies -- like the East and West in the Cold War -- must put aside slights, hurts and rivalries, and attempt to move forward.  If that doesn’t happen, the two-sides will be locked forever -- like Kristatos and Columbo -- in an undying rivalry of violence and bloodshed.

Screening For Your Eyes Only again this week, I was struck by how tense and suspenseful the film remains.  I noted this suspense in three key scenes: at the ski tower, were Bond is bullied and pushed into a jump, underwater, in his battle with an enemy in a heavy diving suit, and finally during the ascent to Kristatos’ St. Cyrils mountaintop headquarters.

That final sequence, with Bond scaling a mountain, is nerve-wracking, in particular.  There’s no music accompanying his climb, just the noise of the wind howling all around him.  Similarly, when a bad guy attempts to knock James from his high perch, we hear the jangling sounds of the villain banging the butt of his gun into the metal hooks which keep Bond tethered. 

There’s also the sound, here, of ropes stretching and straining as they struggle to hold Bond’s weight.

Bill Conti’s musical score does not kick in until Bond dispatches the henchman, and gives the order for Melina and Columbo to proceed.  When the score commences, it’s a variation of the famous 007 theme, and you’ll sigh in relief at the comfort (and triumph…) that the familiar tune provides after such sustained, carefully-generated anxiety.

In For Your Eyes Only, the push-button Bond of Moonraker is gone, and we get in his stead a man who feels pain, who remembers his history, and who uses his instincts -- not his toys -- to stay alive.  

The result of all these efforts to re-ground Bond is a great entry in the canon, and the best Roger Moore 007 film of all.

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