First, the necessary introduction, for old time’s sake.. This ditty about Spectre marks the 24th essay in a 23-part series about the James Bond cinemas. I encourage everyone to comment and join in the conversation.
Of [In]human #Bond_age_ #24: Spectre and Blofeld, the Villain Bond Can’t Quit
by James David Patrick
The title of this essay came before the essay itself. And of course it was a scene from Brokeback Mountain that initially inspired it. Jack Twist turns to Ennis Del Mar and tells him, “I wish I knew how to quit you.” Recreate that scene with James Bond and Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Let me help.
This is the director’s cut of my original essay about Dr. No. It has been enhanced for your reading pleasure. (Also, welcome #BeyondTheCover blogathonners!)
Of [In]human #Bond_age_ #1: Dr. No and Adaptation: How a Giant Squid Helped Define James Bond
by James David Patrick
Adaptation is a tenuous, often thankless creative endeavor. A screenwriter’s given a pre-existing project, most often a book, and told to adapt a complex, multilayered narrative for the big screen. The result, by nature, is a comparatively brutish, SportsCenter highlight clip reel of the novelist’s original intent. If the screenwriter dares to make innovative choices to streamline the original work, she risks alienating the pre-existing fanbase that catalyzed the adaptation in the first place. Budget limitations, eccentric actors, demanding studio heads also insert themselves into the equation, more often than not further limiting creativity. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote and directed an entire movie about his tortured inability to adapt Susan Orleans’ The Orchid Thief into a feature film. Kaufman turns his character’s writer’s block into a quasi-thriller that blends fact with fiction and blurs the lines of reality. Charlie Kaufman is also one of only a handful of people in the entire business of moviemaking that would be given the creative freedom to combine adaptation and fabulist memoir in a wide release feature film.
To use a recent example of high-stakes adaptation (that resulted in far less hallucinatory delirium), consider the cinematic choices made at the beginning of the Harry Potter series. Consider how those choices carried on throughout the eight-movie cycle, the design of the Hogwarts castle, the casting choices for primary roles, the score, etc. With only a few exceptions director Christopher Columbus’ stylistic decisions in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone remained throughout the seven-film cycle. Even though Harry Potter screenwriters defaulted to J.K. Rowling’s books as narrative blueprints whenever possible, the movies required concrete visual and aural choices to translate a book to the big screen. These are the images the mind’s eye filled in while reading the books. Nobody saw the same Hogwarts or the same Ronald Weasley, no matter how vividly Rowling’s prose conveyed the stuff of her imagination. (more…)
Daniel Craig’s fourth Bond film promised us many things in advance. Daniel Craig promised a lighter Bond. Mendes promised a continuation of the Skyfall narrative. The teaser trailer promised us snowbound Craigers! (Skiing, maybe?) The end to a decades long legal feud between EON and Kevin McClory (who most surely returned from the grave after the release of Spectre to sue someone) promised the return of the global shadow organization SPECTRE – and presumably at some point the man with the master plans and the original grumpy cat, Blofeld.
SPECTRE had been decommissioned Bond property since McClory successfully lobbied for the rights to SPECTRE and Blofeld after Ian Fleming turned the screenplay he and McClory had penned for an early version of Thunderball (then called Longitude 78) into the Thunderball novel. In 1965 EON licensed the rights from McClory for 10 years. When the rights reverted back, Bond lost his long time nemesis. Consequently, in a grand symbolic gesture during the pre-titles of For Your Eyes Only, Bond dropped a Blofeld-type character down a smoke stack. The scene had no bearing on the narrative of the film and existed solely to raise a collective middle finger at Kevin McClory. “We don’t need no stinkin’ Blofelds!” it suggested.
And indeed, Blofeld had lost his utility. In the years that followed, Blofeld would even become representative of the campiest aspects of the Bond series, the most ripe for parody – as evidenced by Dr. Evil in Austin Powers. While there are elements from many Bond villains contained within the Dr. Evil character, the primary influence is unmistakably Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld in You Only Live Twice. I’ll save any further Blofeld editorialization for my full #Bond_age_ essay on Spectre. Suffice it to say that use of the original, farcical Blofeld character would be impossible in the gritty and grounded Craig era. A new Blofeld would require… innovation.
No more beating around the Blofeld. Let’s come right out with it. My one sentence review of Spectre and then we can all go send me disagreeable tweets. Spectre is not a good movie, but it is a good, hearty, old-fashioned Bond movie… until it isn’t. Spectre builds hope, and then burns it to the ground. Like when Halle Berry backdives into a sea of CGI in Die Another Day, I can pinpoint exactly when Spectre thumbs its nose at audiences. Your ultimate opinion on the film will depend on your ability to look the other way in that particular moment, to dare follow the rabbit down the rabbit hole… or more accurately, to follow Bond into yet another Fever Dream.
Royale-les-Eaux, France. A gaunt man enters a pissoir and approaches its other occupant, who lounges nonchalantly against the urinal’swall.
—I’m Lieutenant Mathis of the Special Police. These are my credentials.
—They appear to be in order.
—Come with me.
It’s probably the strangest opening scene in the history of Bond movies. And this odd meeting leads into a uniquely picaresque adventure, one in which Ursula Andress kills James Bond twenty minutes before the film ends, a sexually insecure Woody Allen will attempt to avert a nuclear explosion using Alka Seltzer, and 007’s usual final-battle alliance of US Marines, submarine crews, or friendly ninjas will be augmented by cowboys and Indians, sheepdogs and seals… and Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Welcome to 1967’s Casino Royale.
You know, Skyfall wasn’t the first Bond movie in which our hero’s ancestral home goes up in flames. Right at the start of Casino Royale, an alliance of world powers attacks the mansion of our hero, James Bond, an ageing World War I veteran. (Perpetually 35-ish no more.) Only such drastic invasion of privacy can motivate Britain’s happily retired super-spy to take on one last mission. David Niven plays this reluctant Cold Warrior as a gallant Edwardian gent, “Sir James Bond 007.” The mainstream Bond usually sleeps with women in the employ of his enemies; his bedfellows then die for their troubles. Faced with the same situation, Niven politely declines the advances of SMERSH’s Deborah Kerr, causing her to, of course, reform and trade espionage for a nunnery.
Niven’s Bond harkens back to the roots of Fleming’s character in wartime and prewar imperial Britain. Nostalgia for British strength and leadership is writ large in this fussy, fatherly Bond; Niven lends the role his aura as the star of movies such as In Which We Serve and A Matter of Life and Death. Dismayed by contemporary “joke shop spies,’ he defeats SMERSH drones with nothing more than a shotgun and a pair of suspenders before heading back to base and declaring that all British agents will henceforth be known as James Bond 007, “to confuse the enemy.”
It’s an onscreen gesture that addresses Bond movies as a real-world media phenomenon. As Robert von Dassanowsky comments in his essay on Casino Royale, “By the release of Goldfinger, everyone wanted to be Bond; now everyone was.”
Among the numerous Bonds we find Terence Cooper’s “Coop,” the British Secret Service’s most sexually desirable agent, as selected by Miss Moneypenny. We see his Bond in a line-up of rival candidates – subjected to, and evaluated by, the female gaze, years before Daniel Craig swaggered forth from the surf. (And Niven’s renaming directive affects Moneypenny too, meaning that 1967’s Casino Royale also gives us a moment where 007 goes to bed with 007, completing the narcissistic circle implicit in every Bond film).
There’s also Woody Allen as a villainous, neurotic Bond living in the shadow of his famous uncle; Daliah Lavi as “The Detainer,” a female counterpart to Cooper; an unseen 007 who has “gone into television”; and Joanna Pettet playing Niven’s daughter by Mata Hari. (Her mother, Niven tells us, was “a great little dancer, terrible spy… whereas young Mata is a terrible dancer, might be a great little spy”).
If that wasn’t enough, we also have Dr. No‘s original Bond girl reinvented as another 007: Ursula Andress plays Vesper Lynd as a ruthless femme fatale who successfully murders one of our heroes and yet somehow manages to find herself literally on the side of the angels at the film’s end.
The spy killed by Andress is one of my favourite Bonds, Peter Sellers as baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble. This hapless nerd is recruited to become 007 and defeat Orson Welles’ villain at the card table, but he finds that being a studly superspy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When a temptress drugs his glass of champagne, he uses an antidote pill which fails to work; his bulletproof vest is “a little tight around the poison capsule compartment,” and although he can shoot the cork off a champagne bottle from across the room, he needs his thick, black-framed National Health Service glasses to do so.
The Evelyn Tremble suplot serves as a commentary on the boys’-own dream of being Bond, as a competent but ordinary man fails to fill the shoes of an impossible übermensch.
When Andress seduces and recruits him, Sellers’ Bond shows the uncomfortable, feigned nonchalance of a man dating out of his depth, and floundering. (—Martini? asks Vesper. —What about them? replies Tremble). Just as Moneypenny evaluates the male agents for sex appeal, once again it is a woman who subjects Bond to her gaze: Andress of the famous bikini is now fully clothed, photographing Bond in a series of increasingly ludicrous costumes as she gets the measure of him.
VESPER: Stand still!
[holds a light meter to EVELYN’s face]
I’m going to give you a five hundred at f2.
EVELYN: That’s the nicest thing that anyone’s ever said to me.
Sellers’ character tries to show off with press-ups and clowns around to hide his own discomfort; Andress takes the lead and he can barely manage to follow. At least he has the chance to dress as Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, and Toulouse Lautrec during his love scene, which is more consideration than anyone in a proper EON release ever got.
Inducted into the secret service, Sellers does slightly better with Jacqueline Bisset’s SMERSH floozy, but she still gets the better of him in the end. It’s only really in his drug-addled dreams, where the women are merely figments of his imagination, that “Evelyn Tremble” achieves true Bond-ian swagger.
Echoing Ian Fleming’s text, Sellers’ Bond later faces torture at the hands of Orson Welles’ Le Chiffre. (He is tied to a chair with no seat before enduring a psychedelic assault, a reminder that this parodic Casino Royale is more faithful to its origins than one might credit.) Poor old Evelyn Tremble thought he might be able to impersonate James Bond. Instead he’s driven out of his mind, then shot to death by the woman he was trying to rescue. (And you thought Daniel Craig felt betrayed by Eva Green.)
Here, 007 dies by the hand of the original Bond girl, in both senses: Ursula Andress of Dr. No playing Vesper Lynd from Fleming’s first novel. It’s small consolation for Tremble that, as the film’s closest thing to an Everyman, his ghost gets to condemn Woody Allen’s Bond to hell in the closing credits. Those credits include Mike Redway’s song, “Have No Fear, Bond Is Here,” which rounds off the movie’s closing whirl of soap-bubbles, deadly gunfire, and broad comedy:
The formula is safe with old 007
He’s got a red-head in his arms
Though he’s a lover,
When you are in trouble
Have no fear, look who’s here:
They’ve got us on the run
We’re fighting for our lives
Have no fear, Bond is here
He’s gonna save the world at Casino Royale
The jaunty tune seems doubly ridiculous, as Bond and his namesakes have been killed in a nuclear explosion. (It’s hard to tell whether the blast saves the world from Woody Allen’s villain or if it represents a kind of implied apocalypse in the style of Kiss Me Deadly.) As far as subversion of the Bond persona goes, it’s as if Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale concluded with What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding instead of the Monty Norman theme.
The 1967 Casino Royale takes a lot of flak for incoherence and apparent self-indulgence. And don’t get me wrong – this is a very silly, very self-indulgent film made by people burned by the real-life business of Bond.
BOND: (searching for Vesper) You haven’t by any chance seen a young lady in a green dress?
CONCIERGE: Would that be a lady with a black bag over her head being manhandled by two unsavoury gentlemen?
BOND: Could very well be.
CONCIERGE: She went that way, sir.
You have to be in touch with your inner eight-year-old to appreciate the movie’s mix of flying saucers, Dr. Caligari-meets-the-Keystone-Cops, go-go booted gladiator women, and French cops with Scottish accents. But Casino Royale is jester and carnival: a season of masquerade and festivity. It is the unreasonable, indulgent, frustrating quality of filmmaking that allows chaos to provide a serious and highly prescient commentary on the ludicrous and increasingly self-referential pageant that the Bond series would become. The movie is a true burlesque that goes where no “official” Bond film ever could – and you should rightfully christen it your new favourite Bond.
This is the 23rd essay in a 23-part series about the James Bond cinemas. I encourage everyone to read the other essays, comment and join in on the conversation about not only the films themselves, but cinematic trends, political and other external influences on the series’ tone and direction.
Of [In]human #Bond_age_ #23: Skyfall and the Deconstruction of James Bond
Charles Darwin once said, “It’s not the strongest or the most intelligent who survive but those who can best manage change.” Malleability permits longevity. In order to survive, a species… or character must adapt.
00Darwin, Licence to Theorize
I’ve discussed James Bond, Batman and Sherlock Holmes at some length as legendary protagonists that have endured multiple iterations over the course of generations. Born of literary roots, all would go on to experience sustained success in print, film and/or television. Bond, Batman and Sherlock share a tremendous amount of DNA but nothing more strongly perhaps than their persistent pop-culture relevance.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle blessed his Sherlock character with rich character flaws such as serial pomposity, drug addiction and a latent distrust of women. These are timeless traits that have allowed Sherlock Holmes to be a pompous but typically affable wiseass. These flaws make him human and relatable. Though he will always be the smartest man in the room, stoic and calculating, he succumbs to fear and insecurity like anyone else. Perhaps as a result, Sherlock Holmes’ feats of mental dexterity connect with broad audiences whether smugly played by Basil Rathbone or smugly played by Johnny Lee Miller.
The character of Batman, however, is built of symbols and a backstory. The Batman logo, the batsuit, the bat signal, the Batmobile. The actor playing Batman is often obscured behind costumes and custom vehicles. In Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Michael Keaton spends 22% of the entire film (not just Bruce Wayne/Batman screentime) inside the batsuit/Batmobile/Batwing. The average for all subsequent Batman films hovers just shy of 20%. The question of character for Batman then revolves around his much rehashed origin story of childhood trauma and recovery. Bruce Wayne is Batman because he witnessed the murder of his parents. Batman longs to rid Gotham of the criminal elements that orphaned him at the age of eight.
Bond, like Batman, also boasts a collection of iconic, albeit inconsistent, suits and gadgetry at his disposal, the Aston Martin, the Walther PPK and general Q Branch gizmos. None prove nearly as identifiable as the assorted bat menagerie. Bond’s style and weaponry changes with the times… and with guaranteed promotional dollars. That EON has financed Bond independently made the franchise more reliant upon branding and promotion to pay the bills. Tomorrow Never Dies, in fact, became the first film in history to be completely financed through sponsored product placement and promotion. (more…)
I Know How to Hurt: The World is Not Enough and James Bond’s Shaky Ethics
by Steve Sandberg
In discussions of the James Bond franchise, The World is Not Enough is rarely even acknowledged, and when it is, the talk isn’t usually positive. Treated as more forgettable than an outright disaster, Pierce Brosnan’s third outing as 007, in which his attempts to protect an oil heiress from a deranged anarchist are thwarted by the devious damsel herself, just doesn’t get much respect. I’ve had a rough relationship with TWiNE. I even despised it for a long time, but I’ve come to not only love it, but also believe it’s the most fascinating Bond film of the Brosnan era. I wouldn’t argue too stubbornly with anyone who doesn’t like the movie (as the flaws remain glaring) and few things are more subjective than the quality of individual Bond movies, but I will fiercely defend this film from any Bond fan who deems it an unimportant part of the series.
I believe the popular opinion of Brosnan is that he was a great Bond stuck in mostly mediocre movies. I can’t agree with that perspective, but I can certainly understand it. His embodiment of 007 is his own, but there’s something of an amalgamation of all previous versions of the character in it; he has Connery’s suaveness, Dalton’s harsher edges, Moore’s gift for making the most of bad puns. And like the way his performance somewhat encompassed all that came before, his movies were similar in how they spanned the franchise’s entire spectrum of quality. In just four films, Brosnan’s work reached masterful heights, embarrassing lows, and everything in between. That’s a badge of inconsistency to be worn with pride. In The World is Not Enough, his career hit all of these levels in one single movie.
My first instinct is to discuss the biggest complaint everyone has with TWiNE: Dr. Christmas Jones. I get it, Denise Richards is not a believable atomic physicist, and I wouldn’t trust her to defuse a nuclear bomb any more than I’d trust Bond not to make awful jokes about her inexplicable name. Despite that, I think she’s a lot of fun in the role, giving Bond guff about his Russian cover and attempting to chit-chat about his sex life, which is obviously ludicrously impressive. Many viewers find her insufferable, and that’s cool. She’s not that big of a component of the movie, anyway. TWiNE is all about Elektra King.
Where Dr. Christmas Jones is an average, disposable Bond girl, Elektra King is anything but. The oil heiress central to the film’s plot is not only the Bond franchise’s sole main female villain, as James David Patrick points out in his #Bond_age_ essay “The Tragedy of The World is Not Enough,” but also one of the most interesting, fully-developed female characters of the whole series. King is a tragic villain who subverts expectations, disguising herself as a damsel in distress while manipulating both Bond and her anarchist lover Renard as a means of coping with her bungled rescue years earlier.
Electra and Renard’s relationship supplies TWiNE‘s central theme: the idea of living without fear of death, or its consequences. Renard, with a bullet lodged in his brain, could die at any moment. I don’t know how medically accurate this scenario is, but it makes for a great bad guy. He feels no pain, and does not dread his imminent demise. By acknowledging his own certain death, he becomes more powerful. His philosophy rubs off on Electra, who was kidnapped, traumatized, and changed forever by Renard at a young age. She repeats his mantra (or is he repeating hers?) “There’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive.” This freedom from the nagging burden of mortality allows Electra and Renard to pursue their goals quite effectively, but all their acknowledgment and philosophizing can’t change the inevitable. Their plans are just as doomed as their Stockholm-y relationship, and the only thing the two villains achieve for their grand efforts is the death they refused to fear.
All this Fearless-ness makes me think about our hero, and how he views his life. Does James Bond fear death? For all TWiNE does in attempts to physically humanize him – a shoulder injury sustained early in the film becomes an easily exploitable weakness – he’s still very much an immortal character. 007 never has to be afraid of not returning for another film, and since mortality isn’t an issue, his morality becomes that much more important. If James Bond never dies, how can he live with himself and the many not-so-heroic things he has done?
Bond’s trademark attitudes weren’t always appreciated in the Brosnan era, most notably by Judi Dench’s M, who famously refers to him as “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur” in Brosnan’s first 007 adventure. Despite these self-aware criticisms, Bond’s old ways didn’t change much in the ’90s. In TWiNE, released on the cusp of a new millennium he’s up to his usual antics right away, but he’s immediately greeted with visible disgust from the first object of his innuendo. Later, he dons a pair of X-ray specs and scopes out all the nearby ladies’ undergarments, a scene that might have been cheeky fun in Moore’s era, but here feels unjustifiably creepy. The audience is forced to see Bond as more despicable than usual, and this is only the beginning.
The film’s action finale is between Bond and Renard in a submarine, but the real climax takes place just before, in Elektra King’s bedroom. Her death is delivered by 007 himself, as he shoots and kills her, an unarmed woman, in cold blood, when simply knocking her out or otherwise subduing her would have done just fine. It’s pretty harsh. The look of horror on M’s face as she witnesses this says enough. James Bond finally, unquestionably, went too far.
Bond certainly takes full advantage of his license to kill throughout the movie, gunning down quite a few unarmed thugs who don’t seem to require such force, but this murder is the one that feels truly excessive. Why go so far? Elektra’s betrayal probably hurt his tiny emotional center, but she wasn’t one of the rare Bond girls that he actually loved (though when 007 tells her “You meant nothing to me,” I don’t entirely believe him). Could his rage derive from the idea that a woman finally, truly got the upper hand over him? If that’s the case, his vengeance is swift and unsettling, a confirmation that his patented misogyny can’t be labeled harmless. He clearly isn’t happy about killing Elektra, maybe he even regrets it afterward, but he did it, and now he has to live with it.
I think the murder of Elektra King is a huge moment in the 007 canon. It will never be alluded to in future films like the deaths of Vesper Lynd or Tracy di Vicenzo have been, but it’s a pivotal moment for the character of James Bond, and, perhaps more importantly, the context in which he’s viewed. James Bond usually exists firmly in a world of good guys and bad guys, but The World is Not Enough shows him at his most ethically uneasy, building on decades of questionable attitudes and actions, challenging fans who hold him as an ideal. Whether or not that was an intentional choice, it makes the movie a lot more complex and important than it ever gets credit for.
SteveSandberg (@steevenberg) is a part-time student of film and composition hailing from exotic northern Illinois. He’s slightly obsessed with goofy action and horror movies, and occasionally takes time to blog film reviews at MovieMarathoning.blogspot.com.
First Bond film: GoldenEye (and its video game counterpart) turned me into a Bond fan for life.
Favorite Bond: Since GoldenEye, Brosnan has come to represent all that is 007 to me. Connery is great, too, and I’ll always wish that Dalton had gotten one more shot.
Favorite Bond Girl: Elektra King is unforgettable, her deviousness founded in tragedy is unique, and her being so beautiful I wouldn’t think twice about hijacking a nuclear sub if she asked me to is a big factor. I’m also a big fan of Camilla Montes’ fierce determination and Kara Milovy’s mad cello skills.
How I Discovered #Bond_age_: Most likely a shout-out from @bobfreelander’s Twitter feed made me immediately curious, and I became a fan pretty fast.