Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge

My first full day in San Francisco was partially spent marvelling at the steep gradients of the hills. They are as jaw-droppingly large as the tourist images suggest and totally add to the unique brilliance of the city. I would later explore these angular roads via the iconic cable car, but before then I hopped on a ferry to take a tour round America’s most notorious high-security prison, a practically inescapable place surrounded by icy water and fast-moving currents: Alcatraz. We journeyed there in the evening, when it was covered with an ominous layer of fog:

Alcatraz Island

Upon our arrival we learned that Alcatraz had been selected and preserved as a US National Park; after all, there was so much history that lay inside its walls. Al Capone had served a four-year term on the island not long after his conviction for income tax evasion. The events of June 1962, in which three prisoners escaped to the bay after undertaking a very elaborate escape plan, are still widely discussed to this day. It is not known if these three prisoners survived or drowned and there are various theories for what actually happened (the events were dramatised in Don Siegel’s excellent Escape From Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood).

The cell of Frank Morris – one of the prisoners who tunneled out of the moisture-damaged wall. Note the paper maché head that was used to distract the guards.

The prison itself is very atmospheric. You walk through the rows of cells as voices of guards and prisoners from the fantastic audio tour tell you about what it was like to live there fifty years ago. Tales of boredom, violence, escape attempts and solitary confinement emanate from behind the bars. You really have to go there and experience it for yourself; the myths still appear in popular culture, most recently in a short-lived eponymous television show airing on Fox.

A row of cells at Alcatraz Federal Prison

A number of films have also been shot at Alcatraz which no doubt appealed to me. Perhaps the most famous is Michael Bay’s The Rock (starring Sean Connery), probably his most critically successful film. Aside from Escape from Alcatraz, Clint Eastwood also went to the rock for The Enforcer, the surprisingly good third entry into the Dirty Harry series. On the arthouse side, John Boorman’s stellar Point Blank, a pioneering film in terms of its editing, was partially shot on Alcatraz, the first film to do so after its closure in 1963. I’m pretty sure this is one place where Boorman stuck his camera, the outside recreation area:

‘I want my 93,000!’ – Walker, Point Blank (1967)

Both before and after walking in the footsteps of some of the most violent and dangerous criminals, I visited the Golden Gate Bridge. We had driven across it when it was absolutely engulfed by an even thicker layer of fog, and when visiting it from beneath it hadn’t changed much. However, it wasn’t necessarily a disappointment; I was able to get a clearer picture the next day, and the mist added to the atmosphere of another movie location, the place of Kim Novak’s suicide leap in one of my favourite films, Vertigo.

The Golden Gate Bridge

The bridge itself is a stunning work of engineering. Since its opening in April 1937, it continues to be undamaged by earthquakes, and a team of hundreds work on it every day, painting it in the colour of international orange amongst other jobs. Just beneath the bridge is Fort Point, the military base that was intended to prevent an invasion should there be one (which there wasn’t). A great exhibition was on at the base celebrating 75 years of the bridge, but I was happy enough to just take a picture, as Fort Point was another location in Point Blank.

Fort Point

I’ve been travelling all over the place in the past few days and only spent a few days in San Francisco so I haven’t been able to blog every day. Tomorrow I’m off to the Grand Canyon, but who knows what will appear on this website next! I have no idea. See you then, anyway.

Bond on blu-ray

The twenty-two James Bond films, from Dr. No to Quantum of Solace, from Connery to Craig, comprise my entire childhood. I can still remember that fateful day when as a young child I purchased a VHS tape of The Spy Who Loved Me from a market whilst on holiday in Durham, and that equally fateful day when I decided to watch it. Instantly I was filled with exciting images of car chases, dastardly villains, gunshots, brilliant theme tunes, more explosions than you could shake a stick at and the coolest spy ever committed to celluloid; in fact, six incarnations of him! I became an avid fan and set to work on viewing each of Bond’s numerous outings.

Nobody does it better.

Eventually there came a long hiatus when my VHS tapes suddenly became redundant and DVD rolled in. I didn’t watch a Bond film for three, perhaps four years, until Casino Royale exploded into cinemas. I thoroughly enjoyed the modern take on Ian Fleming’s first novel featuring the iconic spy, but hated its follow-up, Quantum of Solace, and thus another hiatus took place. It wasn’t until this year that I ultimately sat down in front of my television with a recorded Dr. No on my DVD-TV hard drive and indulged myself in classic Bond.

Dr. No

It was just brilliant. I loved every second of it; I may have preferred Roger Moore when I was eight years old, but I can now safely say that Sean Connery is Bond. There’s simply no argument about it. The film was exciting enough with its double-crossing characters and classic action set-pieces, but re-watching the film came a realisation. As a child, I had asked my mother: “Why is there a woman in every Bond film? Surely there’s got to be one that doesn’t have a woman.” I still haven’t found one, but Ursula Andress’ quite famous entrance from the Caribbean sea delighted me as I saw a side of Bond that I hadn’t quite noticed before. The oft-cited expression “The men want to be him… the woman just want him” suddenly made sense; I enjoyed the film even more than I did when I first watched it.

Ursula Andress' immortal entrance into film history

It is with this very personal introduction, therefore, that I address Metro Goldwyn-Mayer. I’ve wanted to rediscover the Bond films for a long time but the recent selected release of Blu-rays has prompted me to be patient. This is what was recently released in shops:

Features Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Thunderball, For Your Eyes Only, Live and Let Die and Die Another Day

Fair enough; certain Bond films such as Goldfinger have been released individually. But what a weird choice for a boxset. For Your Eyes Only? Die Another Day? Surely not classic Bond outings. What aggravates me the most is that while not all the films have yet been released, reviews suggest that the ones already out look absolutely astonishing on blu-ray. This is what stops me from getting a DVD boxset, yet I’ve been waiting for too long. This message is to you, MGM studios, put in large font for more of an effect:

My guess is they’ll release them in a big boxset next year for the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. No (and the release of the new film, Skyfall, which has the new Q!), but that’s still too long. I want to rediscover the thrill of Goldfinger, the mystery of Live and Let Die and the brilliant set-pieces of The Spy Who Loved Me in their full glory. Some of the greatest films ever made are Bond films. I honestly cannot wait another day.