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 (July, 2018)

July 3-Three Days of the Condor (1975, Sydney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it’s still the best straight movie about the CIA (and all that it represents in a nonrepresentative “democracy”). Much as I’ve liked it over the years, it’s grown lately, I think because Faye Dunaway’s performance no longer seems like it belongs in another movie. The rest always fit. It might be Robert Redford’s best role/performance and the rest of the stellar cast (Cliff Robertson, Max Von Sydow, John Houseman) were never better. And to remind myself that we still haven’t figured out who watches the Security State while they are busy watching us.

July 3-The Hot Rock (1972, Peter Yates, 2nd Viewing)

Because I liked it just well enough when I watched it a few years ago to give it another chance and besides Illeana Douglas, who generally has impeccable taste, recommended it on her podcast. Good move. I can now count it as one of the few good adaptations of a Donald Westlake novel. Still not sure I buy Robert Redford as Dortmunder (if you’ve read the books you’ll know what I mean–he’s as miscast here as he was perfectly cast in Condor), but he gets by, and the rest works beautifully.

July 4-Drums Along the Mohawk (1939, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well it was one of those July Fourths that happened to coincide with “time to watch Drums” moods. And I ask myself, yet again: Why is there only one great movie about the Revolution? Because nobody could imagine why another one was needed?

July 5-The Replacement Killers (1998, Antoine Fuqua, 3rd Viewing)

Because sometimes you just want to watch a movie while “Popcorn, got to be a mother for me!” plays in your head. If you ever get those moods, this is a real good one. And these days, you can wonder if Harvey Weinstein killed the box office to get back at Mira Sorvino, who, on this evidence, should have gotten her own action series.

July 7-Proof (2005, John Madden, 3rd Viewing)

For one of Gywneth Paltrow’s best performances (from the days when she was almost too good to be true), matched by a stellar cast. For one of the few movies about the life of the mind–especially the fine line between genius and madness–that works all the way through. For Hope Davis’s chilling, almost sympathetic, take on a middle class Iago. Why don’t I watch it more often? Watch it once and you’ll know why.

July 7-Diamonds Are Forever (1971, Guy Hamilton, Umpteenth Viewing)

My favorite Bond. Others are “better” of course (Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, maybe one or two of the later ones). But this one’s the meanest, most cynical, trashiest, least coherent. All the things I want most from Bond. The only fault is they needed more Plenty O’Toole. Of course they did.

July 7-D.O.A. (1949, Rudolph Mate, 1st Viewing)

Because this was one of the few top-rated films noir I had never seen. Talk about incoherent. But the atmosphere was everything everybody always said it would be and I’m a sucker for Edmond O’Brien, especially when the script and the lighting give his goofy melodramatic side a chance to run free. Plus it has a downer ending (surprisingly rare in noir), that you’re told is coming in the first moments and still packs a punch. Look for the great Neville Brand, minus his trademark gravel voice, in a chilling role as that rare movie goon who would give you the heebie jeebies if you met him in real life–not least because he’s the type you might actually meet in real life.

July 8-D.O.A. (1988, Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, 1st Viewing)

This was on a disc with the original D.O.A. but I might have watched it some time or other anyway. I’m an unabashed fan of Dennis Quaid’s wicked grin and Meg Ryan’s tousled hair. To tell the truth both have been used to better advantage elsewhere. This isn’t bad, it just doesn’t quite seem to have a reason for being. It can’t match the nightmarish qualities of the original (color doesn’t help) and Ryan is pretty much wasted in a tack-on part. Plus, Quaid’s character is one of those modern academic men who isn’t sure he wants to live anyway. Kind of takes the tension out of a movie about being dead on arrival. And did Dennis Quaid ever strike you as a guy who wasn’t sure he wanted to live? I didn’t think so.

July 8-Buchanan Rides Alone (1958, Budd Boetticher, 3rd Viewing)

Because it had been a while. It’s a measure of just how good the Scott-Beotticher westerns are that this is counted one of the “lesser” efforts. Lesser it may be, but it’s still hellishly entertaining, with Randolph Scott trading his trademark stoicism for a grin Dennis Quaid would kill for and making it work. Even so, it’s not a comedy. The plot is strong if elemental and Boetticher’s unabashed love for Mexico and its people (not to mention its honor code) will make you weep for a land where, these days, having a hundred or more political candidates murdered in a single election season isn’t even news.

July 9-Funny Face (1957, Stanley Donen, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because Audrey. Lots were better dancers, but, among Fred’s many partners, only Ginger was a better match for banter–and Audrey could always make you root for her beyond all reason, so her dancing has a poignant quality no others matched. Made because Astaire had held on to Daddy Long Legs for decades (until he was old enough for the part) and agreed to do it with Hepburn, who, at the last minute was unavailable (he did it with Leslie Caron instead and the world got a two-for-one deal that’s pretty wonderful). He still wanted to work with her and you can see how much fun it was for all concerned. Hepburn turned out to be just as good at “serious” parts as she was at romantic comedy. But this is the last time she was lit from within in the manner that made her a star.

Soon after, reality set in and the world of Three Days of the Condor hove into view.

More’s the pity.

Til next time….