The Bluffer's Guide
Adding the Flavor: Legendary Set Designer Ken Adam



forget 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)

For Adam’s fourth foray into the series, Eon Productions allotted him a budget the magnitude of which he had never known, so he built a hollowed out volcano with a retractable top and planted a state-of-the-art rocket launching pad inside the mountain. Evil genius Blofeld (indefatigably creepy Donald Pleasence) has developed the hair-brained scheme, via his independently funded space program, of launching spacecrafts that hijack orbiting Russian and American vessels in the hopes of starting an actual war between the superpowers. How this would benefit Blofeld is really beyond me. Maybe death en-masse gets him hot, or maybe the flexing of power muscles triggers his ulnar nerve. Either way, watching a team of Ninjas cascade from the launch-pad orifice while firing water-cooled sub machineguns into a gaggle of murderous rocket scientists and astrophysicists is one for the 007 highlight reel.


The Spy Who Loved Me (Lewis Gilbert, 1977)

The oil taker cum nuclear submarine…storage facility is Adam’s favorite Bond set. It’s also the largest and most expensive ever made. Billionaire and aficionado of all things aquatic, Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens) has been hijacking US and Russian submarines in yet another attempt to start an atomic fight. Bond tracks the missing subs in a stunning sequence that finds him navigating miles and miles of metal grates that stretch and dip below a metallic horizon, which certainly lead to evil plans and machinations more treacherous than the one at hand. Stromberg’s oil tanker was so huge, an entirely new studio was built in England to accommodate Adam’s imagination.

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)

Admittedly, it is growing a bit tiresome, articulating these Bond stories, considering that each is essentially the same script recycled from the last venture, only the gimmicks altered. So, herein resides further testament to Adam’s contribution to this immortal series. A combination of You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker concerns Hugo Drax’s sinister plan to unleash gallons of nerve gas on earth from space. Bond, with the assistance of a speedboat that morphs into a hang glider, hunts for Drax in the heart of the Amazonian rain forest. He locates Drax’s palace, which doubles as a spaceship launch pad, and is greeted by a coterie of scantily clad exotic hotties, before Drax apprehends him, throwing him into the pit of a launch chamber, wherein he is dwarfed by the rocket engines that hang like crunching metal above his head, all dripping liquid oxygen, and gysering an unclassifiable super-heated gaseous matter. This set is massive, and nearly built to scale. There were no models used, and the only tomfoolery is a slick-as-hell distortion of perspective: the largest and most unwieldy of mechanical apperatus (the rocket engines) were scaled down so as to accommodate the frame. The set piece is thrilling, and even if your eyes are good enough to catch the compositional illusion, it’s impossible not to admire the expertise of craft with which it was executed.

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)

Ken Adam’s design of the War Room is really quite fascinating, because it is an apotheosis of everything he is good at. The space suggests many of the Bond underworld lairs with its sprawling table, strange oblique structures hanging from the ceiling, and the most appealing and foreboding of the underground adornments, a giant computerized map with detailed geographical checkpoints, flight paths and missile defense systems specs, a piece of overwhelming technology no Adam’s set should be without. But, unlike many of his classic sets, the War Room is by no means crowded. It is sparse, stagnate and nearly hermetic, a cavernous void with invisible windows and corners swallowed by darkness. It is a space that evokes the abject horror and vacant panic an imminent nuclear holocaust would likely induce. This pit of an evil space communicates a weird sense of agoraphobia, and meshes perfectly with the hollow and absurd meaninglessness of an unimaginable procedural blunder, the complexity and severity of which is compounded by the frustrating behavior of a paranoid-schizophrenic who somehow bluffed his way into a position that allots him the ability to explode the world. A reality difficult to fathom under normal circumstances, but not in the context of a scenario cooked up by Kubrick and marinated by Ken.


By: Frank Rinaldi
Published on: 2007-06-21
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