10 Films to Watch if You Like Classic Bond

Casino_Royale_1_–_UK_cinema_poster

North by Northwest (1959): It’s no surprise that Alfred Hitchcock was offered the chance to direct Dr. No because he had singlehandedly propelled the spy thriller into the public eye through such classic as The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, and Notorious. It’s also no surprise that he turned down the chance because had essentially made the greatest spy thriller ever. There was no reason to attempt to make another. Cary Grant. Eva Marie Sainte. Bernard Hermann. Ernest Lehman. Mt. Rushmore. Cropdusters. Just a few of the things that make this film awesome. It’s a must for all Bond fans.

That Man from Rio (1964): So there’s no doubt that Philippe de Broca’s film was made in a world conscious of the James Bond phenomenon but it’s also a charming blend of Tintin-esque action serials and wild humor that’s anchored by the charming pair of Jean-Pierre Belmondo and Francoise Dorleac. Its mixture of lavish location shooting, fun-filled action, and consistent humor makes it a must for all Bond lovers.

Charade (1963): By now we’ve all heard that this picture from Stanley Donen was the best Hitchcock film that he never made. Sure, that’s probably true if you want to put any stock in such an assertion but beyond that, we have Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn starring opposite each other in a spy comedy romance. It sounds like an absolutely delightful proposition and it is. It’s funny as a rom-com but still exhibits enough intrigue to pass as a compelling thriller.

The Ipcress File (1965): Sir Michael Caine as British spy Harry Palmer should be enough to pull audiences into this franchise. But if not that then consider this. Although it was made by some of the minds behind Bond, this franchise was supposed to be its antithesis in its representation of the spy life. It’s the anti-Bond if you will. Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain would follow in the subsequent years.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965): However, if you want something completely different from Bond with a sense of stark realism matched with a cynical edge you probably couldn’t get closer to the mark than watching this thriller based off the work of John Le Carre. Richard Burton is as disillusioned as any spy in the history of the movies and you get the strange sense that he has the right to be. If you looking for another tonal shift in the realm of spy thrillers look to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It’s demanding but certainly worthwhile.

Casino Royale (1967): We’re about to enter the territory of less demanding fare and the epitome of that is this initial Casino Royale (please don’t dare confuse this installment with Daniel Craig’s. Please don’t). All you need to know is that Peter Sellers plays Evelyn Tremble (ie James Bond), Ursula Andress is Vesper Lynd (ie James Bond), Orson Welles is Le Chiffre, Woody Allen is Jimmy Bond…must I go on or do you get the idea? If you had any preconception that this was a Bond movie you were mistaken.

Our Man Flint (1967): James Coburn the tough guy from such classics as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape landed his own headlining gig as a spy in his own right. See him in Charade (previously mentioned) and the continuing installment In Like Flint.

Murderers Row (1966): Dean Martin as super spy Matt Helm. Need I say more? Is it any surprise that he’s a dashing ladies man who also seems to like the high life and hitting the sauce. It grabs hold of the Bond phase like any good (or mediocre copycat) although it was based on a number of novels by Donald Hamilton. A number of sequels followed including The Silencers, The Ambushers and The Wrecking Crew.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997): Mike Myers as Austin Powers the most ludicrous, wacky, grooviest, and strangely perverse spy you’ve ever known. But his arch nemesis Dr. Evil is far worse. Pit them off against each other and you’re bound to have a stupid good time amid all the outrageous bits of parody. Oh yeah, check out The Spy Who Shagged Me and Austin Powers in Goldmember too. Groovy Baby!

Get Smart (2008): This is a public service announcement. No offense to Steve Carell or Anne Hathaway whatsoever, but please just go ahead and watch the TV show with the iconic duo of Don Adams and Barbara Feldon with Edward Platt. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry were comic geniuses and they knew a good fad when they saw one. Spies might come and go but “Shoe Phones” and “Cones of Silence” will never die. Would you believe? Because you should.

Bonus – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) et al: It might not feel exactly like Bond and Indiana Jones is a big enough star in his own right but there’s no doubt that the special mixture of thrills, humor, and iconic status also falls on the mantle of Dr. Jones. Of course, it doesn’t hurt either that his father is played by none other than Sean Connery the guy who was in Marnie, The Hunt for Red October, and, yes, a few other movies.

This is only a few options so please don’t think you have a license to kill me for leaving something off. But hope you enjoyed this assortment of 10 classic flicks for every Bond lover.

Mouchette (1967)

mouchette 1Robert Bresson’s film is an extraordinary, melancholy tale of adolescence and as is his customs he tells his story with an assured, no-frills approach that is nevertheless deeply impactful.

There is one moment early on that sets the tone for the entire story to follow. Mouchette stands in her class as the line of young girls around her sing a song in harmony with one another. She is the only one not involved, standing sullenly as her headmistress passes behind her.

In front of the whole class, her face is dragged down to the piano keys and she is forced to sing aloud, her pitch nowhere near the mark. She goes back in line with tears in her eyes as the girls around laugh at her sheer pitifulness. But as an audience, it makes our hearts twinge with pain.

She is the girl who looks out of place at a carnival, her clothes frayed and clogs constantly clomping. She is the girl who doesn’t have enough money to pay for a ride apart from charity. She is the girl who gets hit by bumpers cars. She is the girl looking for a friend, but none can be found — the school girls having nothing to do with her and her father scolding her if she ever made eyes at a boy.

She is forced to be mother, housekeeper, and caretaker as her mother lies in bed deathly ill and her swaddled baby brother cries helplessly night and day. When her father comes home he’s of no use and when he’s out he’s quick to drink.

So in many ways, Mouchette understandably finds life unbearable. She never says that outrightly. In fact, I doubt a character in a Bresson film would say something like that because it wouldn’t feel real. It wouldn’t fit his MO. Still, every moment her head is tilted morosely or she trudges down a street corner dejectedly nothing else must be said. That’s why she slinks off into the surrounding forest and countryside to get away from all that weighs on her.

And even there she cannot find complete relief. One such night during an escapade she witnesses what looks to be a fight between two men from town who have feelings for the same woman. As they are drunk in the rocky depths of a stream, such a confrontation does not bode well. When both men go tumbling down and only one gets up, Mouchette believes she is privy to a murder. The perpetrator Arsene sees her and coalesces her to keep a lie for him, making sure she doesn’t say anything. But she’s also not safe in his presence and so she eventually flees into the night.

In the waning moments of the film, what we expected from the outset comes to fruition and Mouchette loses her mother, the only person who seemed to deeply care for her with reciprocated love. And as she wanders through town to retrieve milk for her brother, she turns off anyone and everyone who makes any pretense to help her. Of course, their help is always a backhanded or pious type of charity and in the same breath, Mouchette is not about to be thankful for them. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of sorts. All parties are to blame.

In the end, she seems to be at her happiest rolling down the grassy hills away from any sort of human sorrow or interaction. It’s a sorry existence highlighted by very few silver linings. Bresson’s film hits deep with numerous bitter notes, offering up a life that is wounded and broken. Mouchette’s tragedy is great but perhaps the most important question to ask is where does her solace come from?

It’s interesting how Bresson often focuses on bodies in action, at times it almost feels like the characters are faceless. We know them, we see them but what they do and how they move speaks volumes about who they are. Posture, actions, desires, these are the things that define characters far more than even the words that cross their lips.

4/5 Stars

Close-Up (1990)

close up 1I’ve heard people like director Jean-Pierre Gorin say that there is little to no distinction between documentary and fiction. At first, it strikes us as a curiously false statement. But after giving it a moment of thought it actually makes sense, because no matter the intention behind it, the medium of film is always subjective. It’s always a created reality that’s inherently false and even in its attempts at realism — that realism is still constructed.

So you see, this is the start of an interesting idea. Film is about what you decide to put within the frame and what you keep out. Directors, cinematographers, screenwriters, and editors among others all play a part in this process. They all formulate what we see on the screen — the reality that we perceive.

It occurs to me that Abbas Kiarostami’s film Close-Up stands at the crossroads of the documentary and classical fiction filmmaking with the two lineages blurring together like very few undertakings have ever been able to do, at least to my knowledge.

The story feels simple. It follows the real-life trial of a man who impersonated popular Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf in order to gain the confidence of a family of film enthusiasts. He wanted to make a movie and they were to be his actors. Abbas obviously took interest in the story that he read of in a magazine because of its relation to film. Here was a seemingly ordinary man who loved movies so much, that he was willing to masquerade as a film director. The irony is that this cinephile Hossain Sabzian also became an actor in the process, donning this role for the family. The family who accused him consider him a confidence man, even a burglar but that’s not how he sees himself. In fact, in a way, this film reminds us that we’re all actors. It all depends on your definition and the circumstances at hand. In some way, shape or form at a given point in time, we’re playing someone who is supposed to be us.

close up 2The beauty of Close-Up that not only does it feature the real individuals involved in this whole ordeal: There’s Sabzian playing himself, the Ahankhah family who brought the case to court, and Kiarostami appearing as well. But it blends the actual footage from the trial with reenacted scenes set up by the director as if they are happening for the first time.

One of the few things to tip us off that some of these moments are reenactments is that we see the same sequence twice, just from different perspectives. Thus, the whole docudrama becomes this blend of reality and falsity. Documentary paired with purposeful re-creation, utilizing a kind of cinema verite filmmaking. I almost don’t want to know what is real and what is fake and in some respects, I don’t care. And that’s what’s fascinating about Close-Up. The story is not altogether extraordinary but, again it’s this dichotomy between reality and fiction. The dividing line proves to be paper thin.

Since much of the film is made of a close-up on Sabzian’s face, it does bring up some questions about the defining factors of identity. Is this man in front of us really what he says he is? Is how he is acting genuine and real. Is it all a facade? Was this whole sequence contrived by a director for the benefit of the viewer? You could go on and on with such assertions and with such questions I think you start getting at the profound aspects of Kiarostami’s film and film as an artistic, expressive construction.

If you’re ready to actually consider what you are being fed, what you are viewing and how you can react to it, this is a film worth your time. I have never known a film to be more engrossed in the dilemma of reality versus fiction.  It took me long enough to see a film by this late great of Iranian film, but now that I have been opened up to his oeuvre, I look forward to more on my horizon from Abbas Kiarostami.

4/5 Stars