Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Of human Bond-age

DVD collectors can rejoice: Finally, a good James Bond movie to put on your shelves, as Casino Royale makes its debut today. And, if you're like me, you've restocked your Bonds more than once, an exercise that illustrates the joys and frustration of collecting.

My collecting of the superspy's exploits actually begins with the books, most of which I still have in 70's-era paperbacks. I was not quite a teen when I started reading them, and have to admit I didn't like them as much, as, say, the spy adventure novels of Alistair Maclean, which were far more riveting. But I knew enough to recognize that they didn't have all that much in common with the movies, which I started seeing in about 1973, when Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die were twinned for a double feature my dad took me to. After that I was hooked, watching reruns, over and over again, on ABC, which held the TV rights to the series. I remember staying up till 2am one night to catch Dr. No for the zillionth time, one of my first TV viewings after midnight. Not long afterwards we got cable--HBO and Cinemax showed them at reasonable hours, and without commercials and content cuts to boot.

Somewhere in the too short-lived Dalton era (1987-1989) the original CBS/Fox VHS tapes of the films came down in price, and within a few trips to the mall I had them all. What a thrill it was to really own a movie. And what a revelation to discover that On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), which ABC had completely, and senselessly, altered (including a Bond narration) was in fact a terrific picture, one of the series' best, even if George Lazenby wasn't the greatest actor to follow in Sean Connery's footsteps, though he wore a ruffled shirt with aplomb (it was never rerun on cable, but has been rediscovered and reclaimed). Had I but known I would still own my tape of From Russia With Love, the only time the title appeared on home video minus the bizarre splice that somehow crept into all other incarnations to date.

And for me there would be more incarnations. Laserdisc was next. I owned all the Bond films in that format, some of them twice, as LD lasted long enough for the Bonds to appear in gorgeously letterboxed editions that allowed me to at last see the older titles in all their widescreen glory and own them all that way. I obtained a beautiful boxed set edition of the so-do Thunderball, but missed out on the Criterion Collection editions of the first three Bonds, which were highly prized for their un-PC commentary tracks from their creative personnel. (They were highly priced, too, but given how much I had already spent I should've just sprung for them. Lucre under the bridge. The disputed tracks were I believe wiped from subsequent pressings of the discs.) I ditched my discs for DVD but again, a regret: The DVD versions of On Her Majesty's Secret Service are missing bits of footage that were present on the LDs and VHS tapes.

One more time. I know some of the Bonds were released in barebones format early in the days of DVD (10 years old this spring) but all of them were again remastered and released as tricked-out special editions in 2000. And, again, I bought them all, adding the off-shoots Casino Royale (1967) and Never Say Never Again, which I had also owned on LD, when they became available. If you're keeping score, this is about 20 films that I had already owned at least three times previously, which surely earned me a special citation on MGM's annual report to stockholders. But I bought them all again with a heavier heart; bored with Brosnan-era Bond, the thrill had gone, replaced with duty, to have them in the latest, if not last, format.

To tie in with the new film the Bonds were released again last year, with remastered picture and audio and new commentary tracks from the likes of Roger Moore. No sale, however--I'm finally content with my collection as is, and I'm annoyed that the new box sets have the titles arranged in random order, forcing you to buy the bad Bonds along with the good. You can get the new transfers (but not the new extras) separately, not that I'm tempted. I'm tired of the relentless double- and triple-dipping of old titles when so much else goes unreleased. I understand that the new discs do a better job of hiding the antique special effects of the older pictures, which are cruelly exposed in the new format, yet I think I've reached a mental saturation point with the series--over the years, I've seen them so many times, in so many different ways, they play in my mind's movie theater, with near-total recall of their contents. How many hundreds of hours, and dollars, it took for me to achieve this I do not care to think about, but I can say it was worth it. Next stop: HD-DVD, which may open my wallet once more, not that I've committed to that format (yet).

Comes word that New York's Film Forum is programming a partial Bond fest in April and May, along with some interesting knockoffs, like two of Michael Caine's Harry Palmer films from the 60s and Our Man Flint, which I loved as a kid. I have a bone to pick with their choices: The Daltons and Brosnans are skipped entirely, but Live and Let Die and A View to a Kill, Moore's first and last entries, and the worst in the series, are being trotted out. Still, with the Bonds a mainstay on home video, TBS, and the Spike! channel, maybe the last place to really see them is the first place, in the theater.

For the record, and to close today's dossier, my five favorite Bonds are From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Casino Royale (2006), Goldfinger, and The Spy Who Loved Me. The addition of the new picture knocked Licence to Kill off my list but it's still up there.

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