This Christmas my two big gifts were the Criterion Olympic Box Set and the James Bond Collection Box Set. As the world is sheltered in place, these box sets have proven themselves as perfect pass times to distract from cabin fever staying in and the grim news of the world outside. There are no sports that are still active and the Summer Olympics have been officially pushed until 2021 and all travel plans for anyone are pushed back nearly as long as well. Through these boxes I’ve been watching the luxury and travel of James Bond and the competition and beauty of past Olympiads. I have been going through both boxes mostly at random, zipping around the world and hopping through time. The other day I happened to put on For Your Eyes Only from 1981. It’s not one of my favorite Bond movies, although I am nostalgic for watching at my neighbor’s house along with a couple of other Bond movies from the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s. While watching this time I realized that a good chunk of the movie is set in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, a site of an Olympic Games in the 1950’s and documented in the highly acclaimed documentary White Vertigo.
For Your Eyes Only, 1981
For Your Eyes Only was the fifth of seven Bond movies starring Roger Moore and the first of five directed by John Glen. It’s a film that opens on Bond visiting the grave of his wife Tracy Bond (that never happened to the other fella) and he kills an unnamed Blofeld (they lost the rights to the character until Daniel Craig’s SPECTRE). A British ship is sunk and Bond is sent on an investigation that brings him in search of a secret base at the Italian ski resort town of Cortina. There he crosses paths with an Olympic hopeful figure skater who is waaaaaay too young and spunky for the 54 year old Roger Moore. It’s embarrassing for everyone. I believe that actress once said that it was like kissing her grandfather.
As this was a former Olympic site there are many opportunities for Bond to run wild on winter sports events. After a casual biathlon outing with the guys turns into an action ski chase Bond races through a bobsled course, jumping an embankment. The chase results in Bond beating up a small team of hockey playing henchmen, a horn going off as they are dispersed sliding into the goal. This was meant to be a more grounded and less wacky Bond movie after he went to space in Moonraker, but the franchise couldn’t resist the sounding of the horn.
The ski chase is a staple of James Bond movies although I don’t believe Sean Connery’s Bond ever hit the slopes. None of them are exactly Warren Miller movies, but they are so ubiquitous that when the Inception crew is wearing turtle necks and attempting to make their way into a mountainside compound, the reference is quite clear. George Lazenby was the first Bond with a ski chase in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service while making agettaway from a nefarious allergy center on a mountain top. Daniel Craig finally had a chase in Spectre with circumstances that were the same, but a more spectacular payoff of a plane sliding down a snowy hill. Timothy Dalton had a chase that I always loved that involved a cello, and Pierce Brosnan skied in a scene that I have no recollection of at all.
Roger Moore gets the most skiing in, making getaways in three movies. The signature ski chase of all James Bond movies is the cold open to The Spy Who Loved Me. The chase is good enough as an action sequence until Bond skis off an enormous cliff, freefalling just a bit too long without the camera cutting before a Union Jack parachute opens and the theme music bursts out. That incredibly suspenseful fall was shot without a cut because the other camera at the location didn’t capture the action and they were forced to go with the footage they had. It turned out, the footage they had was exactly what the stunt required to make viewers stomachs drop. The chase in For Your Eyes Only is a bit more campy, and the final ski chase of the Moore years in A View To A Kill is overly safe in comparison
Even as For Your Eyes Only moves on to the warmer waters of Greece, the character of the skater lingers around to talk of her ice skating ambitions and pose the question of why the head of the crime ring has a young figure skater on retainer to entertain him? Bond ends up meeting another woman who is more mature and runs around with her, don’t worry the audience has long forgotten about the scene at his dead wife’s grave long ago. Skip to the end: Bond saves the world and blows off Margret Thatcher to trick her into talking to a parrot, the most insulting creature of all the animal kingdom.
White Vertigo, 1956
Both For Your Eyes Only and White Vertigo show the town of Cortina as a little mountain hamlet with old world charm, but actress Lynn-Holly Johnson said her experience was of luxury shopping and affluent people. Winter Olympics seemed to be a bit of an elite gathering for spectators before corporations required bigger venues and bigger crowds. White Vertigo shows the natural beauty of this Italian town and the scenery around it. The games are kicked off with the torch relay as it always does, however this time there was a bit more wonder as a lone skier came down from the mountain with a torch that included what appeared to be fireworks sparklers that made the skier glow on the snow.
The documentary that preserves the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina, Italy, White Vertigo from a director from the Neo-Realist class of Italian filmmakers, Giorgio Ferroni, tells the story of the winners and losers, but also the beauty of the event. This was shot with Eastman color. At the time there were two main coloration processes and Technicolor was considered the brighter of the two. Technicolor was the more difficult and more expensive way to shoot as it was shot in three different colors and merged together and Eastmand from Kodak was a single film strip capturing full color. Here, the blues look to have a tinge of grey to them which makes everything look just a little colder, perfect for a winter games with below zero temperatures. Reds also have a little bit of grey in them compared to the popping reds of Technicolor, but they are very rich, nonetheless. This is a beautifully shot film by the cinematographer that shot Antonioni’s L’Aventura a few years later.
Ferroni brings a lot of stylization to this documentary, the fantastic score by a composer that worked with Orson Welles gives a wonderful taste of jazz during the segment on the hockey tournament. The bobsled (or “bobsleigh” as europeans call the sport) segment cuts to a roller coaster shot where a camera was put in the front of a racing (but I imagine not competing) sled to give the viewers a first person view of the course. The speed skating sement transitions to figure skating as though a DJ is cross cutting between beats during a song change. While a speed skater races around a bend it cuts to a pair of figure skaters in the same direction, seemingly at the same speed, cutting back and forth through many different races and routines as the score jumps back and forth accordingly. Similarly, the ski jumping segment furiously edits through skiers in the air, never seeming to land until every skier lands all at once.
This is one of the great Olympic documentaries from the Criterion Box Set that had pretty much been lost for decades. I looked through a pretty sizable book from my college days on Italian Neo-Realist films and directors and Ferroni nor White Vertigo were mentioned even once in that fairly comprehensive text. It is fortunate that now this has been released by Criterion, the Cortina games might be better remembered from the documentary about the games than one of the lesser James Bond movies that visited the town decades later.