The 50th anniversary of the first James Bond film is nigh, and so is the release in October of Skyfall, the latest in the franchise to star Daniel Craig. As part of what’s likely to be an overwhelming onslaught of promotional activity, the studio is also finally making available all 22 previous Bond films on Blu-ray after a partial release back in 2008/9 stalled when the Bond franchise owner MGM Studios went into debt and was sold off.
In the circumstances, it would be positively rude not to review one or two of the Blu-rays from the new boxset …
For Your Eyes Only is one of the Bond films that did get a Blu-ray release four years ago, and the version in the new Bond 50 boxset is the same one that was released back then and which is itself a high definition transfer of the ‘ultimate edition’ DVD, even down to the same menus and extras on the disc.
If you’re labelling the Bond film Friends-style along the lines of “the one with …” then For Your Eyes Only would probably be “the one that no one really remembers.” Somehow it falls through the cracks: it’s by no means bad, so you don’t remember it as being utterly dreadful in the way that you might with Diamonds Are Forever, The Man With The Golden Gun or A View To A Kill for example. But neither does it stand out as as anything brilliantly good either. There’s not even anything about the story or the characters that really seizes the imagination.
What there is, is a palpable desire to draw back from the excesses of Moonraker which literally sent Bond into orbit, and to bring him right back down to earth again (pun intended.) That’s made clear from the moment that Bond’s gadget-laden Lotus goes up in flames as the result of an over-zealous anti-burglary device early in the film, after which Bond is almost entirely bereft of his usual trademark gizmos.
Even the opening pre-credit sequence – for the most part a fast-moving, exciting and effective mini-adventure – seems laden with significance, this one a message about closing the door on the past as a certain cat-stroking bald supervillain is tipped down an industrial chimney stack in the Docklands. The film was made at the time when Eon Productions was in dispute with rival film producer Kevin McClory who claimed co-authorship of Ian Fleming’s Thunderball which introduced the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and so the makers of the ‘official’ Bond films decided they would show just how dispensable the character was to them by offing him even before the titles kicked in.
There’s a lot going on under the surface, then, but Roger Moore is still inclined to play the part of Bond in just the same smooth but lightweight and flippant way that he had done in the four preceding films. There are some overly comedic moments that were hallmarks of the earlier Moore films, a completely bizarre last line “I’ll buy you a delicatessen! In stainless steel!” from faux-Blofeld, and the film’s coda sequence with Janet Brown cameoing as Mrs Thatcher is dreadfully out of place (although watch for John Wells playing Denis, who quite beautifully steals the scene.)
However the producers are evidently really aiming for something altogether more gritty, realistic and harder-edged. They lift a nasty torture scene from the novel Live and Let Die in which Bond and his leading lady are painfully keelhauled over coral, and Bond is made to suffer in order to climb to the heights of the villains’ mountain top lair. The biggest change for the character is when he cold-bloodedly kills an opponent by kicking his teetering car off a cliff edge – something that Moore himself is said to have thought wrong for ‘his’ Bond.
As part of their back-to-basics push, the producers return to Fleming’s books for their plot after diverting away completely for the last two film outings. The literary For Your Eyes Only is a collection of short stories, and from the title tale is taken the murder of the Havelocks and the quest for revenge by their daughter (renamed Melina in the film and played by Carole Bouquet) while from Risico comes the story of the feuding smugglers Kristatos (Julian Glover) and Colombo (Chaim Topol), the two threads held together by an original McGuffin of a supersecret encoder.
The Risico plot requires an initial uncertainty about which of the smugglers is friend and which is foe, but that means that neither can be over-the-top moustache-twirlingly evil in the grand tradition of the best Bond villains. We know that Glover can be delightfully nefarious (see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Doctor Who: City of Death for example) but here he’s very reigned in, cold and impersonal. The worst thing that can be said about him is his leering over young ice skating prodigy Bibi (an early role for Lynn-Holly Johnson, whose inexperience shows) and that just makes him slightly creepy and distasteful rather than a full-blooded Bond foe.
Topol, on the other hand, gets to play one of the best characters to appear on Bond’s side in many a film. His passionate, life-loving, pistachio-addicted larger-than-life presence evokes the great Kerim Bay as played by Pedro Armendariz in From Russia With Love. However, Bay had Rosa Kleb and Red Grant to face off against; whereas when Colombo ends up being almost the most memorable thing about For Your Eyes Only, you know the rest of the film is lacking something vital.
Without a doubt, the single most vital thing the film is lacking is a decent score. Respected American film composer Bill Conti takes over the music duties from John Barry, and while he tries to keep elements of Barry’s trademark brass-heavy sound he also unwisely tries blending it with dance and funk that sounded dated even when the film was released in 1981 and hasn’t improved since. At times the end result is positively annoying. It simply doesn’t sound authentically Bond, although there are at least a couple of music cues when it does come close to almost – almost – taking off. And then it doesn’t, and you’re left thinking that this is just a forgery of the real Bond exploits. (McClory’s Never Say Never Again had much the same problem when it was made, especially when Eon recalled John Barry to make the official films once again sound like the real thing. That was continued when Bond fan David Arnold took over scoring duties with just the right sensibility of updated respect for Barry’s work from 1997.)
The one thing that does work in the musical score of For Your Eyes Only is the title song, which is actually very good indeed – right up there with the top classic Bond themes. It was performed by Sheena Easton, one of the very first pop stars discovered by the now-omnipresent ‘reality show’ format and who was very much the major star of her day. Legendary film title designer Maurice Binder liked the look of her so much that he even had her appear in the credits – the first time that the singer of a Bond theme was on screen in the film itself.
Given the unsuccessful score as a whole, it’s perhaps ironic that the soundtrack is one of the best things about the Blu-ray disc. That’s because it was the time in cinema technology history when theatres had just been forced to invest in advanced Dolby Surround systems after the breakthrough success of Star Wars in the sound department. Before then, most films – including the Bonds – had been mono or barely stereo affairs. But For Your Eyes Only was the first Bond to get into the new sound technologies and really start using the multi-directional capability creatively, so it was already a quantum leap ahead of its predecessors even before the Blu-ray restoration team got to work. It’s still a relatively early outing for this sort of new and improved approach to film sound and obviously can’t hold its own against 21st century offerings, but it’s still as good as we’ll ever hear the film.
The visual appearance of the Blu-ray is less impressive – but not because of any technical failings by the restoration team. Like the film as a whole, the visuals are all over the place and very patchwork, hit and miss throughout: spectacular one minute, positively tepid the next. It’s entirely down to the way the film is shot (the production design, the film stock, the lighting) and not because of a poor transfer. Indeed, the restoration team are to be commended for not going over the top and changing the film’s original look and feel in order to show off the Blu-ray technologies. Such tampering with a film should be best left to those who can’t help themselves – like George Lucas.
It does mean that the scenes filmed on soundstages look very flat and soft – perhaps even more so than the DVD versions, despite the same source being used for both. It’s so far off that you might even think something is wrong with the disc or your TV, but it patently isn’t because the minute the film goes back on location in Greece, Italy or the Bahamas the whole thing comes alive and sparkles with colour, contrast and detail. It’s just that the sets seem to have been designed predominantly in beige, pastel and khaki colours; they’re lit in an amazingly flat fashion; and shot unimaginatively without any sense of depth. There’s even a hint that the producers had taken a look at the dailies and panicked when they saw that their star was showing his age, and asked the director to soften the closeups whenever possible thereby losing sharpness and detail emphatically present in the location work. You’ll certainly be left in no doubt about what was shot at Pinewood, simply by the way the transfer looks at any given point.
That means that this is by no means the best of the Bond films in high definition – the earliest Bond films have massively improved the most thanks to the new technology, while the most recent films (from Pierce Brosnan’s début onwards) only needed a bit of a polish to make them dazzle anew in the first place. But if For Your Eyes Only represents the low-water mark for the 22-film boxset, then that’s still a standard by which many Blu-ray releases would find themselves left wanting by comparison.
There’s a ton of extras, all of which are also on the 2-disc ultimate edition DVD and include three audio commentaries. Almost all of the extras are in standard definition, by nature of when the source materials date from.
Film rating: a charitable *** out of five
Blu-ray rating: a slightly miserly **** out of five, just because I don’t want to peak too soon!