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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

James Bond Vs. The Philharmonic

Roger Moore as 007, getting ready to commute across the Piazza San Marco in an inflatable gondola.
Photo © 1979 EON Productions/DANJAQ S.A./MGM Studios/United Artists.
Moonraker (1979) is one of the more dated James Bond films, a high-flown science fiction extravaganza where the villain plans to use space shuttles (a new idea at the time) and nerve gas to wipe out humanity from an orbital platform. The movie was rushed out to put Bond in competition with the likes of Star Wars and Close Encounters. It is now remembered for its over-the-top plot and its now-dated special effects.

But it's also a movie that has a pretty good John Barry score, from the romantic opening theme (sung by Shirley Bassey but originally offered to Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis) to lush orchestrations of trademark Barry music like the "007" and the "Space March."

Bond movies occasionally toss in classical music references. But Moonraker is front-loaded with them:
  • When Drax (the bad guy, played by Michael Lonsdale) first appears, he is seated at an enormous grand piano playing Fréderic Chopin's "Rain-drop" Prelude. Although the Chopin is written in D♭, Drax plays it in D for reasons known only to Mr. Barry.
  • The hunting horn plays a rising C-E-G progression. Yep, it's the first three notes of "Dawn" from Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, also known as the "Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey." And it's clearly being played on a trumpet.
  • The chase through the Venetian canals ends when Bond reveals that his gondola has an inflatable rubber skirt, enabling the boat to climb stairs and go on land. He escapes across the Piazza di San Marco to the "Tritsch-Tratsch Polka" by Johann Strauss Jr.

The whole sequence is pretty tratsch-y, nein?

  • "Vestia la giubba" (from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci) also appears, being sung at an outdoor café in the Venice sequence. Meanwhile Bond is upstairs in the glass museum, brawling with Chang, one of Drax's less useful henchmen. The guy gets thrown through a (glass) clock face and crashes head-first through the piano, interrupting the tenor before he can do the "crying clown" bit.
  • Tchaikovsky's Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet appears in the movie a few times. It represents the ongoing romance between steel-toothed 7'2" hitman Jaws (played by Richard Kiel) and Dolly, the petite, pigtailed blonde who becomes the big lug's love interest.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats