Adding the Flavor: Legendary Set Designer Ken Adam
orget Sean Connery. Forget Ian Fleming. Forget Albert Broccoli. Production and set designer Ken Adam, German born and English bred, is the man responsible for the James Bond aesthetic, thanks to his work on the seven most visually stimulating and imaginative 007 films: Dr. No, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. Each is packed with sets that dominate the screen, all more stimulating than the words the actors speak or the guns they shoot. These designs contribute drastically to the joy of losing oneself in the preposterous world of Bond’s inhuman heroism. Adam’s artistic grasp is impressively all-encompassing, with as much of a capacity for the minutial as the grandiose. He is versatile and keen on detail, assets that have guided him swimmingly through work on two films with Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon, the last of which he snagged an Oscar for), a collaboration that yielded two very different landscapes: each managing to be both a unique product of Adam’s eye and compliant with the Kubrickian satiric vernacular.
Adam’s work is also a testament to the Alternate Universe—the fun of surrendering to an entirely imagined reality. Creating the world of a multibillionaire oil tycoon who inhabits an underwater mansion (from where he runs his various apocalyptic business enterprises, untethered by watchdog agencies whose job it is to slap wrists whilst pocketing sub-table kickbacks) is merely an iota of suggestion, a whisper in a world of endless possibilities. If a guy with a patch over his eye who parades around in a Chairman Mao outfit can hollow out a dormant volcano in Japan and launch rockets from it, what the hell does that mean for the rest of the world, and what flights of fancy might this setting ignite in the minds of the viewer with parallel psychopathic inclinations? What happens to your head, really, while learning there might actually be a secret, vacuous bunker buried hundreds of feet beneath ancient bedrock that is full of computers and satellites and where important men make irreversible decisions infused with Armageddon, the consequences of which may well birth the extinction of the human race? If something like this exists, then surely something even more dangerous and fantastic exists somewhere else.
It is Ken Adam that raises these possibilities. Below are a handful of films that showcase his work—films that not only introduce aspects of worlds almost impossible to conceive thanks to their outlandishness and intricacies, but that also set fires inside heads and shine lights beneath the cracks of doors to mysterious places you never knew existed until Ken Adam carried you there. His works are portals.
You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967)
The Spy Who Loved Me (Lewis Gilbert, 1977)
The Spy Who Loved Me is a visual landmark, simply because it offers so many incredible environments. As if the epic oil tanker was not enough satiating enough, Adam dreamt up the most inventive and original of all Bond villain headquarters with Stromberg’s Atlantis, an underwater house shaped like a giant blue arachnid. Atlantis is like one of those homes of tomorrow that stewed in the humid bowels of Tex Avery’s manic mind some fifty years ago, except Atlantis is not a cartoon. It’s real. Check the specs: A 1000 square foot dining room with a solid gold table, beneath which is fastened a custom built handgun. Classic paintings hang on the walls of the eating quarters. They are actually shades that, when drawn, reveal a checkerboard of plexiglass and pressure-proof windows that peer across the ocean floor, nary turning the surface to a seething cauldron, save for whence greeting Machiavellian private investors. It’s where Adam himself retires to during the winters.
Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert, 1979)
Needless to say, somehow Bond escapes imminent death, hijacks a spaceship, and pilots it into orbit. He docks on some kind of psychotic and jagged space station, only to find a unceasing stream of lobotomized computer technicians, dressed identically in shiny yellow jumpsuits, who file like ant-drones through futuristic tubes and make preparations to unleash the nerve gas. Bond manages to assimilate himself into the masses before disrupting the mission. Inevitably, somebody flicks the gravity switch to off, and all the crazies float aimlessly about the space-age hamster cage, firing lasers at each other, effectively eviscerating Adam’s beautiful work. It is a deep irony that these sets inevitably meet such a fate. In each film, Bond and Co. manage to blow Adam’s most beautiful work to smithereens. But if the works are a perfect articulation off all that is decadent, evil and wrong about these memorable eccentric 007 nemeses, then what better way to articulate their defeat than to blow the crap out of their crazy genius? The architecture looks good, even in pieces.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
By: Frank Rinaldi
Published on: 2007-06-21