THE VIRGINIAN AND THE REAL BOND GIRL (James Drury and Honor Blackman, R.I.P.)

It only takes one.
(Orson Welles…on being remembered)

They did other good things, but when 60’s stalwarts James Drury and Honor Blackman passed away within a few days of each other last week, it was for The Virginian and Goldfinger they were principally, almost exclusively, remembered. That might have been a little unfair to their steady, consistent careers, but there you have it.

I think each deserves a slightly bigger context: Blackman wasn’t just a Bond girl, she was the Bond girl. Goldfinger was the third release in the Bond franchise. It had fabulous villains, a pulsing score, great, memorable set-pieces and Sean Connery. But the first two films had all of that…and better plots. There was a reason Goldfinger became the never-matched standard for a franchise now approaching its 60th anniversary. Blackman was the first credible actress to play opposite Connery as a love interest (Ursula Andress, the original Bond girl, had her lines dubbed because she spoke little English…the best that could be said of the rest was that they were, to a woman, no Ursula Andress).

Combining the necessary hot-to-trot factor (which Blackman had more of at 38 than ninety-five percent of beautiful women have at 22) with a knack for sardonic by-play and credible fight scenes was not as easy to pull off as she made it look. In the long decades since, only Diana Rigg, who had taken Blackman’s place in the iconic British spy series, The Avengers, managed it as well, and, while she had a better story, she didn’t have Connery. And she didn’t do it first.

The idea for an improbably gorgeous, ass-kicking femme may have sprung from the fertile imagination of Ian Fleming, but it was Honor Blackman who first embodied it for all to see. They gave her the most ridiculous of Fleming’s ridiculous names (“I’m Pussy Galore,” “But of course you are”), the furthest fetched of his far-fetched plots, and the hoary old frigid-lesbian-who-really-only-needs-to-meet-the-right-man for a character. She didn’t bat an eye. She just owned it. If you watch the first three Bond films in order you can still feel the shock when she shows up. It’s the first–and last–moment in a Bond film that lets you understand how the Brits came to rule the world for the three centuries preceding Blackman’s birth. Their failure to reproduce her in adequate numbers goes as far as anything to explain why she died in a world where her native land has become a footnote.

If James Drury were only remembered as the paragon of small town virtue and frontier decency and competence he represented so ably in Pollyanna and The Virginian it would be a fine legacy. But his “one”–the one that ensures he’ll be remembered as long as anyone cares about film–is, ironically, his nasty villain in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country.

For all of that film’s other great qualities, it’s Drury, as the leader (but not, crucially, the oldest or meanest) of a band of ornery brothers, who gives the film its edge. Had he come along a little earlier and played bad apples in the crime noirs of the 40’s and 50’s he might have a cult following to match Dan Duryea’s or even Lee Marvin’s. As it was, he settled for making a living on television. In those perilous times, no man could be blamed for that–and few had the chops to make such a transition look as natural as riding a horse.

Honorable careers, honorable lives, one indelible moment. There has never been an age when people who matched those descriptions were in abundance. Sad to lose two of our age’s best in such short order.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December 2019 and January 2020)

December’s always a good time for revisiting old favorites so there was a lot of that…Excluding re-watches of Gettysburg and A Perfect Murder, both of which I’ve commented on several times in the past here, and Knives Out and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which I hope to be commenting on in my At the Multiplex category soon!

December 16-The Thin Man (1934, d. W.S. Van Dyke, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it had been a while, and, when it’s been a while, it’s even more marvelous than when it hasn’t been a while. “You got types?” “Only you my darling.” Who doesn’t want to spend time with that? William Powell and Myrna Loy were always priceless. And here, at the beginning, even the mystery part was good!

December 22-The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, d. Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, Umpteenth Viewing)

Truth be told, I like at least a couple of other versions just as much, but there’s a lot about this one that can’t be beat, starting with Olivia De Havilland, Technicolor and Golden Age Hollywood, all at their most ravishing. The costumes alone would make this worth regular viewing. Interesting at this distance to note that Old Hollywood has become nearly as mythological as the Robin Hood tales themselves. Perhaps more than any movie of its era, this one carries a tinge of melancholy–where else can one count the cost of so many things modernity has destroyed in one place? Errol Flynn’s offhand charm, De Havilland’s impeccable grace, Eugene Pallette’s foghorn voice, Basil Rathbone’s swordsmanship, Claude Rains’ arched eyebrow. Which of those things could even be faked now, let alone replicated? And who would dare leave them in a movie if the world permitted them to exist in the first place? We are further from them than they were from the Crusades that started this whole thing….at least the other fave versions (with Richard Todd or Patrick Bergin) don’t beat me over the head with that mournful stick!

December 23-The Big Heat (1953, d. Fritz Lang, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s the greatest of all thrillers: peak Lang, peak noir, and the shock of its  mostly unseen violence still strikes deep decades after Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch have become film school exercises. And because I’ve shown it to several friends, male and female, down through the years and the response to Gloria Grahame’s entrance has always been the same: Who is that?

December 24-The Mark of Zorro (1940 d. Rouben Mamoulian, Umpteenth Viewing)

The Adventures of Robin Hood put me in a swashbuckling mood, so why not? A lot of the elements are the same. Zorro’s just Robin Hood gone to Spanish California after all and never mind Basil Rathbone with a sword, it’s even got Eugene Pallette as Friar-Tuck-of-the-West. But it’s not lesser. Tyrone Power was Flynn’s only match for this sort of thing and the story’s just as good, as are the direction, script, and overall Old World craft. It moves! No better way to say Merry Christmas to yourself!

December 24-Duck Soup (1933, d. Leo McCarey, Umpteenth Viewing)

Unless maybe it’s this. After all, even Flynn or Power against Rathbone is no match for Chico vs. Harpo! With Groucho as the referee. I hadn’t watched this for years and I was a little trepidatious because the last time I tried to watch A Night at the Opera, I didn’t make it half-way through. I was probably just in a bad mood because this one had me rolling again. And was it the most significant historical cultural achievement in the year Hitler rose to power? I don’t know but I sure don’t like to think about what sort of response we’ll have when he comes ’round again. Hail Freedonia!

December 25-The T.A.M.I. Show (1964, d. Steve Binder, Umpteenth Viewing)

Reviving a Christmas tradition from the days when this was only available on bootleg video cassettes. I only have two standards for American film-making: this and The Searchers. There are at least a half-dozen performers here who would have been the best thing ever if only James Brown hadn’t showed up. That includes the Rolling Stones, who “won” the argument over who was going to follow who.

December 26-Sabrina (1954, d. Billy Wilder, Umpteenth Viewing)

Roman Holiday was such an across the board success Audrey Hepburn was bound to be the point of whatever she did for the next twenty years, let alone her next picture. One of the many things I really like about this charming trifle is that Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, who famously didn’t get along, had an odd kind of on-screen chemistry, while she and Bill Holden (who was enough in love with her to promise he would get drunk in every port in the world if she didn’t marry him, a promise he kept after she told him not to be silly) had none. It works so well for the improbable story that I sometimes wonder if Billy Wilder saw how the land lay and planned it that way.

But you can have a lot of fun watching it even if you don’t know any of that. I promise!

December 29-Witness (1985, d. Peter Weir, Fourth Viewing)

A modern updating of Angel and the Badman that’s just as great as the original. Possibly Harrison Ford’s finest hour and peak 80’s Hollywood even if they had to import an Australian director to pull it off. It has grown with time. The only reason I haven’t watched it more over the years is that it was the last movie I saw in a theater with my mother….maybe enough time has passed for the association to soften. In any case it’s a great movie. How Hollywood kept Kelly McGillis from becoming a star would be a real interesting story for someone to tell. I guess keeping her name and face off posters that promoted the feakin’ soundtrack was a start.

January 1-On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969, d. Peter Hunt, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Diana Rigg, a bunch of great action sequences, a thousand small touches that enhance the atmosphere of a satisfying formula and to remind myself that George Lazenby may not have been Sean Connery…but he came closer than anyone has since.

January 3-Day of the Outlaw (1958, d. Andre De Toth, Second Viewing)

The greatest weather movie ever? Maybe. I can’t think of a better one and it’s certainly in the DNA of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Where Eagles Dare and Runaway Train among many others. Turn the central heat up full blast and you can still feel the Wyoming winter biting into your bones. The atmosphere is intensified by Robert Ryan and, especially, Burl Ives, who provide chilly performances to match the mood. For a surprise, Ryan is the sort of hero and Ives the definite villain while Tina Louise gets a turn that suggests Gilliagan’s Island really was beneath her. The rest of the cast is impeccable, including David Nelson, Ricky’s now forgotten big brother, as The Kid torn between two strong men, nagged by the idea that he may have chosen the wrong one. De Toth’s final western and one of Golden Age Hollywood’s finest….about which I’ll have more to say when I do my Non-canonical Golden Age westerns some time in the new year.

…Til then!

LAST GENTLEMAN STANDING (Patrick MacNee, R.I.P.)

PATRICKMCNEE1

Even when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, it was no longer given that there would always be an England.

I had a sneaking suspicion there might always be a Patrick MacNee.

Now that he really is gone it is, of course, a sad day for his family and friends. But it’s also a bit of a sad day for anyone who cherished the existence of a certain sense of style.

Not that it was any way common back when, but the sort of ease McNee carried around in his bones isn’t merely uncommon now. It’s gone.

He did other things, naturally, including a Bond movie where they had to kill him as quickly as possible to keep any semblance of order and both Holmes and Watson (the latter opposite the lately departed Christopher Lee in a couple of TV movies). But  he was John Steed before and after he was anything else and no actor has ever been more identified with a single part.

And of course it wasn’t really him. Hard to imagine Steed being tossed out of Eton for making book and selling dirty pictures, as MacNee was.

But there was a piece of him in it somewhere. Steed’s knowing air and flexible, but finally impenetrable, mix of charm and distance might well have belonged to a man who missed D-Day because of a bout of bronchitis to be  later informed that everyone else in his unit was lost.

Somehow, out of that, he forged a genuinely memorable and iconic character, more English than James Bond could ever be, and more modern than even the most brilliant reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes imaginable.

And his most remarkable gift on screen (who knows if it carried to “real” life), was his easy chemistry with an astonishing string of lovelies who got younger and younger while he stayed…out of reach.

We’re used to a different sort of leading man now. Fine actors, sure. Likeable presences, sure. But George Clooney has achieved the kind of chemistry MacNee had, week after week, with Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, Joanna Lumley, exactly once and that was because Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight burned so hot she could have put a twinkle in a pair of eyes painted on a rubber plant. Russell Crowe got it once, too, in Proof of Life, but it took a ruinous method-style affair with Meg Ryan to get there. Brad Pitt? Well he had it once, in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I think we all know how that turned out and he’s been walking about with a glazed look on his face ever since.

One could go on. And one could argue that MacNee, as Steed, never had to actually consummate those longing, corner-of-the-eye looks his leading ladies were forever throwing at his genial profile or perfectly-tailored back.

But that’s the hardest kind of electricity to generate, let alone sustain across nearly two decades on television with four very different women.

And if you can’t make it look easy, you can’t do it at all.

How improbable was the achievement?

Well, pick the leading man of your choice, born after, say, 1960.

Then ask if they could ever, in a thousand years, pull this off. Or if future-Dame Diana (to say nothing of Emma Peel), would have really stood it from anybody else:

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For him, it was just another day at the office.

So yeah, I joke around here some times and say, “Goodbye us.” Well, half-joke anyway.

But today, at least, I can say with a perfectly straight face that it really is goodbye to a little piece of us.

Here’s hoping it won’t be too badly missed next time D-Day rolls around.