Nobody Does It Better: The Complete, Unauthorized Oral History of James Bond
by Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross
Having retold the oral history of Star Trek in The Fifty-Year Mission, authors Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross set their crosshairs on another target — the 58-year legacy of James Bond in Nobody Does It Better: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of James Bond. Bond fans devour 007 minutiae more greedily than the Cookie Monster devours that first box of Samoas after a cold Girl Scout-cookieless winter. The James Bond mythology takes on a life of its own, sometimes blending wish fulfillment and fantasy into the simple facts of the series’ production. Outlandish stories are often disproven, but in the James Bond universe some of those tall tales turn out to be true.
In Nobody Does It Better, Altman and Gross haven’t exactly provided an ideal reference for fact-checking (though I’ve earmarked a few dozen pages that clarify or disprove a few widely-held notions), but they’ve gifted us this immersive, eminently readable collection of stories, musings and first-hand production accounts from the men and women that made it all happen. Contemporary critics, filmmakers and James Bond obsessives also populate a portion of these 716 pages. While they offer a utilitarian, sometimes apologetic 21st century perspective. I’ll always allow airtime to James Chapman —whose Licence to Thrill is one of my go-to Bond texts — and Phil Noble, but some of the other contributors felt superfluous. Not unwelcome, necessarily, just less meaty. As someone who trades in these didactic retrospectives in the Twatterverse, I was far more interested in the stories told by the talent that turned Ian Fleming’s unlikable literary scoundrel into the world’s most famous agent of espionage.
Terence Tells All
As a well-read consumer of the Bond histories, I relished the uncensored dishing captured in these excerpts. Director Terence Young (the Noël Coward of the Bond universe?) offered a wellspring of unfiltered conversation about Dr. No and From Russia with Love in particular. Take for example this passage where he praises and eviscerates producer Harry Saltzman in the same breath:
That pre-credit sequence in From Russia with Love was a very good sequence. It was Harry Saltzman’s idea; he wanted to set the killing of James Bond in that training school. We had a lot of arguments about it, and eventually they were all in America and I shot it in the back lot at Pinewood… Harry had some very good ideas, I must say. Also, he had some of the worst ideas I’ve ever seen. If you’ve sense, you discard the bad ones, and if you’re intelligent, you keep the good ones. But he was a terrific idea merchant. That was definitely one of his best.
Young also provided subtle (but not necessarily modest) insights into his filmmaking process and the limitations placed upon the Bond production in the early 1960’s.
The only reason I used to get away with a lot of what I did was because I always used to try and make a laugh at the end of a violent scene. That was one of the traditions I set up, that you could be as violent as you like, provided at the end there was something like when he kills Grant on the train… Bond leans across and says, “I don’t think you’ll be needing this… old man,” and he takes it. It got a laugh and it took care of the censor. The censor let it through on that strength. He’d be saying, “Oh, no; oh, no!” I was there when they were running it… He giggled and he laughed and he let us get away with it.
The Blofeld’s in the Details
The authors also devote a number of pages to ephemera that might sit beyond the scope of an average Bond viewer such as the 1954 CBS Climax Mystery Theater episode of Casino Royale starring Barry Nelson, the Kevin McClory legal saga over Fleming’s Thunderball and the on-again-off-again rights to SPECTRE, the 1967 Casino Royale spoof, McClory’s production of Never Say Never Again (1983), and the MGM sale that stalled production between Licence to Kill (1989) and GoldenEye (1995). Sections like these are likely to be devoured with equal relish alongside the juicier concrete production tidbits.
If the book can be faulted for under-representing any particular area of the James Bond production machine, it’s the undocumented production time between filming the movies themselves. For example, script development and actor selection sneak into the stories in fits and spurts but rarely receive individual focus. The media circus surrounding Daniel Craig’s selection prior to Casino Royale (2006) gets a passing mention. Granted, much of this process took place behind closed doors and occurred before the 24/7 media blitz so catty quotations like Terence Young’s might not have been exactly forthcoming — or they deemed this information to be wallpaper, useful but entirely unnecessary in holding up the foundation of the franchise.
Nobody Does It Better Final Thoughts
This exhaustive and carefully curated text gives the creative (and often unsung) heroes and heroines behind James Bond a voice in their definitive story. Nobody Does It Better pulls back the curtain on the history of EON Productions and serves as a welcome reminder that nothing about Ian Fleming’s creation was pre-ordained. Talent, persistence and a lot of luck made James Bond. The authors’ adoration for the material transmits through the width and breadth of this Ken Burns-like document to the greatest film franchise of all time.
Sample each section of Nobody Does It Better in conjunction with your latest James Bond rewatch or sit down with a martini (or six) and absorb everything all at once. Casual fans might be put off by the size of the book itself, but they’d be missing an in-depth snapshot of the movie business that’s far more than just 007 fan service. Bond fans will definitely want to make (significant) room on their shelf for Nobody Does It Better.
It’s been awhile since I pulled an oddball piece of Bond-related vinyl from the shelf and shared it with #Bond_age_ fans. With the Christmas season upon us, I figured I’d rekindle the tradition with the first record I pulled off the “Bond oddities” shelf.
The Stingers – Guitars A Go Go
Today’s offering has ever so little to do with James Bond, except for the title of the first track on the album. Sonically, you might be able to pick out some actual 007-inspired guitar licks, but… then again maybe not. I’m sharing this record because it’s swinging surf guitar from the 1960’s by a band The Stingers.
“The Stingers” was really just a pseudonym for Los Angeles-based session guitarist Jerry Cole. He churned out cheapie records for Crown Records throughout the 1960’s and played on a few tracks you might recognize like The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” He also appeared in fits on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
Jerry Cole passed away in 2008, but left a significant mark on the music business whether you knew his name or not. From his discovery by Bobby Darin all the way to his appearances in TV show bands for the likes of Andy Williams, Sonny & Cher, Laugh-In and Dick Van Dyke. Elvis Presley. Isaac Hayes. Frank Sinatra. Lou Rawls. Ray Charles. You name a great artist — he probably played with them all.
When adding this record into my Discogs profile that there was indeed a Guitars a Go Go Vol. 2. Maybe one day I’ll track that one down, too.
We’ve been delinquent on our list-making. Our apologies. I blame Spectre for anything that’s gone haywire at #Bond_age_. I’m sure Waltzfeld had something to do with the fact that we started making this list more than a year ago and it’s just now seeing the light of day. Or at least he’d like to tell you he thought of it first.
James Bond pre-title sequences hold a special place in the hearts of Bond fans. They often stand out as distinct short films, going as far as to enhance the memory of lesser Bond entries. How often does The World is Not Enough immediately inspire a comment that’s something like, “That movie, I dunno, but the pre-title sequence, though!” It’s a rough estimation of a conversation that is probably happening right now out there on the Interwebs.
As always, we compile the rankings by soliciting a list from each of the #Bond_age_ contributors. Joining Krissy, Greg and myself for this list is Eric on his maiden Licence to List voyage. We took the average of all four of our rankings to come up with the list below. So if you take issue, with something, remember… we’re all Spartacus. But if you take *great* issue, it was the newbie’s fault.
If you have a suggestion for a future List, leave a comment at the bottom of this list and we’ll tackle it in a future episode of Licence to List.
#Bond_age_ Licence to List: Pre-Title Sequences
24. Diamonds Are Forever
Highest Rank: Greg, Krissy, Jay (23)
Lowest Rank: Eric (24)
Jay:We’re pretty much united in our agreement that this is the worst James Bond pre-title sequence. It’s just so frustrating to watch the way that the Bond producers immediately rebelled against the relative failure of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with this as the reaction to dead Mrs. Bond. Tracking down the most notorious and secretive criminal mastermind only requires a gruff demeanor and a bikini top. IT’S JUST SO DUMB. ALL OF IT. SO. DUMB.
23. A View to a Kill
Highest Rank: Greg (19)
Lowest Rank: Eric (23)
Greg:By the time AVTAK came out, I had been a Bond fan for several years. I’d watched a lot of the previous movies a number of times, but I’d never seen a Bond movie first-run until AVTAK (I did see Never Say Never Again two years earlier, but that’s only because I thought there was no way in hell I’d be allowed to see a movie called Octopussy at my age then). So when I speak of the pre-titles sequence of AVTAK, I speak of it fondly. It is by no means the best pre-titles sequence out there, but it was my first experience of Bond on the big screen, so it has a sentimental placing on my list.
22. You Only Live Twice
Highest Rank: Eric (18)
Lowest Rank: Krissy (22)
Eric:The capture of the space shuttle is probably better than all of Moonraker combined and then Bond gets shot. What’s the connection? Who cares? It’s the birth of the absurd Bond film!
Highest Rank: Jay (16)
Lowest Rank: Greg (22)
Jay:I drew the short straw on this one. Let’s just call it a spectacular skydiving stunt buoyed by some brassy Barry-tones and move on with the countdown. Can I just ask how and why it ends with a sort of circus net and drum roll? The gimmick is the return of Jaws. And we settle for that and a stunt rather than actually executing something remotely memorable. Kudos to those skydivers, though.
20. Dr. No
Highest Rank: Greg (5)
Lowest Rank: Krissy, Jay (24)
Greg:In my blurb for FRWL, I mentioned how Dr. No has no pre-titles sequence. How then, you may ask, can I write a blurb about Dr. No’s pre-titles sequence? The answer is quite simple: Dr. No did have a pre-titles sequence; just not where you expected it to be. By going with Dr. No as the first Bond film (after their attempts to do Thunderball initially fell through), the producers made it clear that the villains were going to play as important a part in the series as Bond. To that end, we come out of the credits into a chilling scene where two MI-6 operatives are brutally murdered, and as the music swells, we’re introduced to both the main villiain and his lair (but only as file names). This is a perfect example of what a great Bond pre-titles sequence can be; it’s just no one thought of the idea of actually putting it before the credits.
Highest Rank: Jay (9)
Lowest Rank: Eric (22)
Jay:Easily the best thing about Octopussy. I’m appalled that it ranked this low on our countdown. I blame Eric. Hell, I should have ranked it more highly, myself. A Party Moore special loaded with humor and ridiculous action spectacle. It begins with a so so good-bad Toro “Load of bull” pun followed by the application of a porn star mustache. This introduces the beautiful setup of the “So you’re a Toro, too” gag when he meets the real General Toro. A captured Bond gets carted away, which allows us to ogle some lovely lady stems and witness a horse’s ass fall away to reveal an Acrostar Minijet! BEHIND THE FAKE HORSE BUTT! The best aerial Bond action this side of Little Nellie. I KID. The Acrojet makes Little Nellie look like a Cracker Jack toy.
18. For Your Eyes Only
Highest Rank: Eric (8)
Lowest Rank: Jay (19)
Eric:Moore is in top form here. A solemn cold open featuring a visitation to Tracy’s grave. The measure of solace achieved through (one might say a quantum…) vengeance on a Blofeldian man in a wheelchair with a white cat. Party Moore actually looks pretty athletic in this late-era Moore. I’m relieved he didn’t drop the cat down the smokestack.
Counterpoint Jay: Conceptually I love the reason this scene exists. As a piece of the movie it’s so disjointed that I had to dock it a few points.
17. The Man with the Golden Gun
Highest Rank: Greg (7)
Lowest Rank: Eric (20)
Greg:While Bond is usually the focus of the pre-titles sequence, when your Bond villain is being played by Christopher Lee, you make damn sure he gets as much screentime as possible. To that end, the pre-titles sequence to MWTGG does a fantastic job of establishing Scaramanga’s world. His relationship with Nick Nack is made clear immediately, and all the credit has to go to Lee and Herve Villechaize, who do a phenomenal job of showing the menace inherent in both characters. A fantastic opening.
Highest Rank: Greg (12)
Lowest Rank: Eric (17)
Greg:If I were to compile a list of the best opening shots on a Bond film, I would be hard pressed to think of any better than the opening shot of Thunderball, where we see a coffin draped in a cloth with the initials JB on it. No Bond fan would seriously expect the JB to stand for James Bond, but then you never can tell sometimes. This great opening shot then leads us into a great pre-titles sequence in which Bond, very much alive, takes out one of the operatives of SPECTRE, introducing us to another key (if controversial) creation in the Bond mythos.
Agreeable Jay:Plus it inspired a classic and quotable Austin Powers gag.
15. Die Another Day
Highest Rank: Krissy, Eric (13)
Lowest Rank: Greg, Jay (14)
Jay: I ranked this 14th, but the distaste for the whole film might have docked it a few points in any tossup choices. The pre-title teases some of the silliness that would come later, but by no means is this any more absurd than the opening of The World is Not Enough. Any movie that utilizes hovercrafts and land mines deserves some respect bringing out the B-team of military-grade weaponry.
14. Licence to Kill
Highest Rank: Krissy (6)
Lowest Rank: Jay (17)
Jay:While I love Licence to Kill unironically, I really only enjoy the Smolder bridegroom slo-mo ironically. All of this feels like a bad mismatch of the A-Team and Miami Vice and Magnum, P.I. My point being that it feels like a cool finale to a 1980’s TV cop drama, not the pre-titles to a James Bond movie.
13. Live and Let Die
Highest Rank: Eric (4)
Lowest Rank: Jay, Krissy (20)
Eric:A solid opening sans Bond that catalyzes a mystery and causes some creative kills. It lends the film some gravitas that it doesn’t actually earn, but it’s cool to see the world of MI6 without Bond.
Counterpoint Jay:When I can’t immediately recall the pre-title attached to a movie that’s generally a bad sign. There’s something about this particular pre-title that doesn’t stick. It does seem like the trend with these first two Moore movies was to remove Bond from the pre-title in order to establish malice. That’s a nice concept, but The Man with the Golden Gun offered me something memorable about the villain. This? This is just a scene. Fun. But just a scene.
Greg:QoS is an anomaly among Bond films. It’s the first Bond film to carry the action directly from the previous Bond film into the next. A long establishing shot zooming across a lake, we have no idea where director Marc Forster is taking us. As we zoom in, we’re then moved straight into the action as we find Bond in the middle of a frantic car chase as he is bringing the wounded Mr. White, shot by Bond at the end of CR, to an interrogation session with M. It’s a great sequence, but one wonders how Mr. White managed to survive all the bullet holes they shot into Bond’s car.
Highest Rank: Jay (6)
Lowest Rank: Greg (16)
Jay:There’s something about this opening that feels more off-the-rails than other Bond movies. Call it an air of danger, of unpredictability. Moneypenny becomes part of that equation because we’re seeing her for the first time in the Craig era — and out from behind the desk. Despite the shirt cuff swagger that Craig serves up as he leaps onto the train, we never really feel like he’s in control. There’s a blissful thrill of seeing Bond in complete control during the pre-title — see Tomorrow Never Dies, but there’s also something visceral and shattering about the pre-titles in which he’s been kicked in the teeth. As a viewer, you’re put off balance, dying to know what the hell happens next and the movie cuts to the title credits, like self-enforced “to be continued…” This imbalance is something that Skyfall nails. Die Another Day nailed it too, mind you, so it’s not exactly quality proof-positive.
Counterpoint Greg:I’m used to finding good things to say about the Bond pre-titles sequences, but for Skyfall I’ve been tasked with critiquing it. It’s hard to fault it for its action, because it’s got lots of lovely moments in it. It features one of the most brutal fights Bond’s ever had, and we witness a mission go very bad very quickly. If I have to find fault with it, then I think the fault lies in the fact that the reason the mission goes bad is because of Moneypenny. Up to this point, Moneypenny had been the one character missing from Craig’s run as Bond, and for the producers to attempt to give her a backstory is commendable. However, having her backstory be “accidentally shot Bond on a mission and retired from field duty to work as M’s secretary” does the character a great disservice, I think.
10. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Highest Rank: Greg (6)
Lowest Rank: Eric (16)
Greg:OHMSS marks the first time that a new Bond would be introduced in the pre-titles sequence (Connery didn’t get a pre-titles sequence until FRWL, and Moore wasn’t introduced until after the credits in LALD). Given the uncertainty after Connery’s departure, I believe a decision was made to remind people that Connery or no, Bond was still Bond. To that end, the pre-titles of OHMSS serves us well, giving us views of M and Moneypenny and the world Bond left behind. Then it adds to the mix the lovely Diana Rigg, some fighting, and then the introduction of George Lazenby as Bond. Connery is still very much on their minds, however, as Lazenby’s “This never happened to the other fellow” aside to the camera shows.
Agreeable Jay: Breaking the fourth wall straight out of the gate in the post-Connery era announced they’d changed the game. Inventive and boldly creative tactic.
9. From Russia With Love
Highest Rank: Greg (9)
Lowest Rank: Jay (12)
Greg:The pre-titles sequence that started it all. When Dr. No came out, there was no pre-titles sequence. So where the idea came from to begin the second film with a brief taste of the action, I have no idea. Whoever came up with it, though, have to be congratulated on adding a key element to the Bond formula. And they did it with such style, too; it helped set up the film’s enemies quite nicely in a tense set-piece that really plays with the viewer’s expectations.
Highest Rank: Eric (5)
Lowest Rank: Greg (17)
Eric: Just watch this pre-title sequence. Seriously, just the opening only. Maybe the song portion if you’re into tentacle erotica, but this is really all you need. It’s well shot. Craig is at his best when he swaggers. Don’t worry about the rest of movie.
7. The World is Not Enough
Highest Rank: Eric (7)
Lowest Rank: Jay (11)
Eric: This Brosnan pre-title sequence feels most classic. This pre-title mini-movie sets the stage for Brosnan’s best performance. He runs the gamut of emotions from swagger to despair. What’s also cool about this one is that Bond actually loses.
6. Tomorrow Never Dies
Highest Rank: Jay (5)
Lowest Rank: Greg (11)
Jay: For me this opening is all about the debut of David Arnold’s sonic palette. “White Knight” is a damn fine introduction that escalates the intensity of this second Brosnan open. Brosnan at his cocky best with a terrific action beat to open Bond’s best pure action film. The TND pre-title sets the tone for the entire movie and Arnold paves the way.
Highest Rank: Krissy (2)
Lowest Rank: Greg (13)
Jay:Welcome to the certifiable classics of James Bond pre-titles. The Top 5. And somehow Goldfinger barely sneaks in. SHOCKING. POSITIVELY, SHOCKING. From Russia With Love initiated the pre-title. Goldfinger made it permanent. Iconic images, timeless one-liners and Bond doing actual spy work made this the Gold-standard. Every Bond that came later had at least attempt to match this. And apparently a few managed…
Highest Rank: Jay (1)
Lowest Rank: Eric (12)
Jay: Second best Bond reveal? Feel free to argue this at home. Brosnan arrives in 1995 with a cocky swagger and just inhabits Bond like he’s been the model all along. Say what you will about the films themselves, but Brosnan understood the character and Bond tenuous place in the 1990’s pop culture landscape. Goldeneye nailed it. But even more so than that, Goldeneye nailed the pre-title sequence with a mind-melting bungee jump and a heavy dose of character.
Counterpoint Eric: Fluffy’s slambang debut. He’s partnered with Sean Bean (in one of his many cinematic reincarnations). He shoots up a factory and drives a motorcycle off a cliff and gets in a plane. How much power is in that hair? Is he channeling his Remington Steele Days?
3. The Spy Who Loved Me
Highest Rank: Krissy (1)
Lowest Rank: Greg (10)
Krissy: [orgasmic squeals]
Jay: I’ll have what she’s having.
2. The Living Daylights
Highest Rank: Greg (1)
Lowest Rank: Jay (7)
Greg:TLD may have been the second Bond I saw in theatres, but it had the first pre-titles sequence to blow me away. Dalton was the first Bond I saw first run, and his introduction could not have been staged any better. Tense, atmospheric, and downright cool.
Jay: The best Bond reveal in the series.
1. Casino Royale
Highest Rank: Eric (1)
Lowest Rank: Krissy (5)
Eric: There’s no Bond here. Just a blunt tool of the British government. A stark black-and-white sequence introduced us to a pre-00 Bond who only sees his assignment in black and white. See the job. Do the job. It’s visceral and rough and ragged and you can feel the impact of this scene in your loins — both the method of delivery and the cocksure assertion that Bond was f’ing back.
On Disney’s Phineas and Ferb, the two titular brothers create wild new inventions for each day of summer. Meanwhile their pet platypus named Perry moonlights as Secret Agent Perry the Platypus working for the American counterintelligence agency O.W.C.A. (Organization Without a Cool Acronym — where all the secret agents are animals) fighting his evil nemesis Dr. Doofenshmirtz. The James Bond influence permeates the entire animated series, which ran on Disney XD from 2008 until 2015. Beyond “Perry’s Theme,” an obvious reimagining of the Bond theme, there have been six individual episodes in the show that have specifically referenced the James Bond series of films, but none more vividly than…
Season 4 Episode 32: “Live and Let Drive”
The title of the name riffs Live and Let Die, but the episode itself is littered with classic Bond reference and allusion.
1. Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s disguise resembles Dr. No’s Nehru jacket. (Dr. No)
2. Perry teams up with British agent 0-0 (left) for the third time to thwart Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s latest scheme. Later Agent 0-0 battles Doofenshmirtz in a game of tic-tac-toe, thus revealing his complete tic-tac-toe futility. Perry must step in to beat Doofenshmirtz.
3. Dr. Doofenshmirtz trades lairs with a guy that resembles Ernst Stavro Pleasancefeld. (You Only Live Twice)
4. The newly acquired lair might look familiar as well. (You Only Live Twice)
5. Norm, Dr. Doof’s mechanical henchman, gets a brand new set of metal teeth. (The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker)
6. When Dr. Doofenshmirtz introduces Perry to his new hideout through a song called “Doof’s Evil Hideout Vacation Swap” sung by a very Shirley Bassey-like crooner. The tune, as one might expect, recalls the Goldfinger theme.
7. Perry pulls off his wetsuit to reveal a tuxedo. (Goldfinger)
8. Perry’s spy car is a 1963 Olson Martin. (Martin Olson is a writer on the show, which provides the impetus for the Aston Martin gag.)
“It’s a Kubrickian-ish Tinker Tailor told from the perspective of From Russia With Love’s Tatiana Romanova by way of Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion.”
Red Sparrow has created a rift. One faction stands opposed shaking its fist angrily at mainstream misogyny. The other faction wilts a little, quietly asserting that Francis Lawrence’s film is an uneven, but generally competent thriller that may actually have something unique to offer.
The general public, however, has been misled about the nature of the film. Expectations can be damning. Luring an audience that feels betrayed by the content creates negative word of mouth. An advertising campaign that sells a movie like Red Sparrow as another Hollywood thriller (it’s like Atomic Blonde because it’s girl spies and stuff!) creates immediate indifference in the moviegoers who might be more willing to meet it on its own terms.
I should also make it clear, right from the get go, that I do not believe battle lines have to be drawn between gender perspectives. I believe that the effective employment of the aesthetic in question remains a universal concern for discerning fans of both mainstream cinema, genre cinema and beyond. This is not an easy film to defend, but I will try to piece together appropriate and clear-minded words of some kind.
People are violently, viscerally offended by the content of Red Sparrow. I believe they’re viewing the film with miscalibrated expectations. Maybe that’s wrong. Maybe the most violent detractors have the film assessed more clearly, but Red Sparrow doesn’t – or shouldn’t – fall into mainstream genre convention. The minute I made the connection to Shunya Itō’s Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (1972) I had to question its existence as a big budget Hollywood thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence.
Meiko Kaji in Shunya Ito’s Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion
Let’s talk exploitation and frame of reference
For those that haven’t seen the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, they’re stylized revenge films (and part of the Japanese women-in-prison genre made by Toei Company) concerning a woman named Matsu coerced into undercover work by her boyfriend (a crooked police detective) to win the trust of the Yakuza. After she is gang raped, the police detective barges in, busts the Yakuza and discards the battered Matsu, nothing more than a pawn in his political aspirations. After a failed attempt to stab her former lover, she’s sentenced to hard time in a women’s prison and subjected to torture at the hands of her sadistic male prison guards. She ultimately escapes, as if emerging from a chrysalis. The virgin reborn as an assassin, whereby she extracts bloody revenge, including literal emasculation. Itō’s sympathy clearly resides with his strong female character.
In Sight & Sound, Matthew Leyland notes that the feminist reading of the film as a criticism of the oppressive Japanese patriarchal society becomes “hard to reconcile with the sustained, glib emphasis on female torment” – something that has been said about Red Sparrow, just without the benefit of 40-plus years of critical analysis. Though “hard to reconcile” Ito has made a strong case for his film. Going as far as calling it a feminist manifesto, as some have done, stretches credibility however. Creating the ultimate rebel within such a deeply misogynistic society required a figure of female opposition.
The inciting scene of sexual violence, stylized and shot from beneath, reduces viewer proximity to the on-screen action by calling attention to the film as artifice.
Female Prisoner 701 portrays men as filthy, leering animals, and the two rape scenes place very little flesh on display. There’s no shortage of frivolous nudity, but the film also deflects base criticism by using a highly stylized color palette and innovative camera work, transcending its graphic nature and rising above reductive terms such as “Grindhouse” or “exploitation.” The male gaze (and thereby the male viewer) is complicit, and make no mistake it is not celebrated. Recognizing this is an important step in processing the film’s impact as both a piece of exploitation and as a feminist-leaning film.
With regard to Red Sparrow, it’s also important to attempt to define the term “exploitation” – not because I assume you’re unfamiliar, on the contrary, but because it encompasses so many broad and independent factors like budget, theme, graphic content, and intended audience that the determination ultimately lacks idiosyncratic specificity. Exploitation cinema implies many different things depending upon your own cinematic point of reference.
Pam Cook, in her article “The Pleasures and Perils of Exploitation Films,” suggests that exploitation films can be seen “as offering alternatives to the dominant representational system, opening up the possibility of saying something different.” In other words, they’re not beholden to traditional commercial expectations because they do not aspire to attract mainstream sensibilities.
After the inciting rape scene, Ito plays with color and cinematic conventions to denote the emotional transformation of Matsu.
She continues to say that “much of the appeal of exploitation films to the drive-in cinema and student audiences for whom they were primarily intended derived from the knowing way in which they played on audience expectations of narrative and genre, parodying mainstream conventions.” This is an important distinction as it places exploitation in direct conflict with the multiplex. She goes on: “Low budget exploitation scandalises some of the most hallowed canons of film criticism – the assumption that the critic or academic knows better than ‘unsophisticated’ audiences how to judge a good or bad film…” An exploitation film attempts to shock your sensibilities (and undermine critical superiority) by way of uncommon or sensationalized sexual or violent imagery – and as Cook suggests, they also often do so referentially, with a nod toward films of the past or an eye towards undermining genres or conventions of the present.
Despite being released to mainstream cinemas and marketed as a conventional spy thriller, Red Sparrow falls neatly into that definition of exploitation cinema. It does not dare go as far as a film like Female Prisoner 701 because there are dozens of systemic checks and balances in place to make sure that nothing as challenging as Shunya Itō’s landmark film could ever accidentally play at your local multiplex.
And this is how that relates to the Red Sparrow
From this point on, I cannot guarantee a totally spoiler-free conversation due to the required specificity. Proceed at your own peril. I promise not to give away the final act, however.
Red Sparrow attempts to reset our expectations early in the film. Bolshoi ballerina Dominika Egorova suffers a gruesome injury during a performance. Her male counterpart lands on her leg, crushing her tibia. The camera pulls upward revealing the grotesque configuration of her once pristine, virgin body. Virgin as in untarnished by the cold, sterile, and uncivil world outside her isolated Bolshoi bubble.
The opening ballet scene, pre-injury, that also showcases some of the standout costume design found throughout the film.
The film cuts to the hospital. The film’s warm color palette disappears, replaced by sterility. Dominika rushed into surgery. The standard Hollywood film concerned with broad decorum would have skipped directly to a shot of her walking with a cane, a close-up of the 12” scar on her shin. Red Sparrow does not offer anesthesia in the form of semiotics – injury to visual post-surgical evidence. Lawrence allows his camera to linger over the horror in the space between the cuts. The lifeless pronate ballerina, the open gaping wound. Surgeons drill her shattered bones back together. An unsettling brand of body horror brought to you by the coalescence of mangled flesh and the aural tremors of power tools.
Exploitation films do not avoid conflict with expectation – they thrive on it. For revenge films especially, the audience must experience these horrors so that they may morally justify the ultimately extreme actions taken by the protagonist. Without proper justification, the film ebbs closer towards repellent nihilism (see something like I Spit on Your Grave, which Roger Ebert called a “a vile bag of garbage”) or the Death Wish sequels (“morally repugnant”). The torment of the protagonist feeds our sympathies.
But the balance
A director must frame or balance any exploitative sexual violence or exhibition with an equal or opposite force. This is where I’ve noticed the violent criticisms made against Red Sparrow take exception to Francis Lawrence’s leering camera and the use of rape as a frivolous inciting action. I see reason for objection and wholeheartedly respect the criticism. Rape has become a lazy narrative device for both film and television written or produced by any gender. While I do not entirely disagree with this criticism of Red Sparrow, I also believe that this reaction speaks to the provocative and calculated ways Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe approached – albeit imperfectly – a narrative development that they saw as essential to Dominika’s character.
But we’ll return to that in a minute. I want to first put Dominika Egorova’s character into some kind of cinematic and perhaps historical perspective.
All roads lead to James Bond
Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova in From Russia With Love.
In Ian Fleming’s novel From Russia with Love, the Soviet counter-intelligence organization known as SMERSH recruits a young cipher clerk, Corporal Tatiana Romanova, to defect from her post and seduce James Bond in order to set him up for assassination and humiliate Britain with reports of 007’s affair with a Russian agent. The cipher clerk’s official conscription occurs when Rosa Klebb (“The Head of Otydel II, the department of SMERSH in charge of Operations and Executions”) orders Tatiana to her apartment. Once there she interrogates the clerk with intrusive, sexually-explicit questions before excusing herself only to reappear moments later in a “semi-transparent nightgown in orange crepe de chine.”
Though Fleming reserved plenty of disgust for his grotesque creation of Rosa Klebb and the recruitment of the gentle flower Tatiana Romanova, he stopped far short of implying anything as dehumanizing Dominika’s training. Fleming wasn’t pulling strictly from his own wellspring of lecherous imagination; (his lesbian derision notwithstanding) the fictional SMERSH organization embellished characteristics from the real-life Russian Red Army counter-intelligence department. He fictionalized well-known stories of female spies sent to seduce and cohabitate under orders of their government. Their bodies belonged to the state, a method of operation that Red Sparrow hammers home relentlessly.
Sparrow inverts our perspective in From Russia With Love (1963). Instead of the dashing Western, morally superior James Bond, we identify with the film’s Tatiana Romanova. A female agent forced against her will to degrade herself in the name of her country. James Bond, of course, woos and turns Romanova’s loyalties as a result of his cro-magnon sex appeal. There’s no great impetus for Grand Guignol revenge because she’s only been made extremely uncomfortable by unwanted sapphic advances and forced to have sex with James Bond – which according to our coached Western perspective turned out to be pretty okay. The reality, of course, is far from Fleming’s fairy tale.
Corruption and rebirth
Dominika Egorova, Matsu, and Tatiana Romanova have all been exploited. These stories detail degradation of the human spirit and the prioritization of the expendable flesh. The truth of this exploitation, i.e. the events contributing to the dehumanization, should repel viewers vis-à-vis the humiliation suffered at the hands of her instructors/captors.
Dominika, like Matsu, must first survive the transformative horrors that corrupt her virginity (symbolic and/or literal) and re-render her a cold-blooded killer that uses her sexuality for power and leverage against her enemies. Her training is meant to disconnect the human from their body, to seduce and destroy without reservation, to interpret the desires of the target and offer them as means to emotional and physical domination.
This is where I feel that Red Sparrow becomes potentially more than its critics suggest. Not easily stomachned, the training scenes in Red Sparrow do not reach the levels achieved in Female Prisoner 701. Lawrence has made them cold and clinical and negated the titillation factor associated with on-screen Hollywood nudity. To its credit, the film provides some gender counterbalance. Male students are also humiliated, forced to strip and display their bodies for the class and thereby the viewers.
These scenes make up the film’s statement regarding the sexual power struggle. After a fellow student attempts to rape an unsuspecting Dominika from behind in the shower, she rips the handle from the shower and beats him, leaving gashes across his face. In class, that battered student is presented to the class, and the instructor (played Charlotte Rampling, in a tactical and knowing bit of casting) tells Dominika to “give him what he wants.”
The exercise intends to further break Dominika’s rebellious spirit, to humiliate and degrade. Instead, she undermines the exercise by undressing completely and presenting herself on the table in front of him. The would-be rapist suddenly falls victim to impotence. When Dominika removes his leverage, she castrates his power over her. Her instructors, of course, find fault in her manipulation, yet she is mysteriously given a a field assignment: to seduce an American agent (Joel Edgerton) working in Istanbul who could reveal the name of name of his Russian contact. We will not know how or why she “passed” her training until much later.
Dominika begins her seduction of the American agent (right), played by Joel Edgerton.
I’d like to direct you to a recent article by Elena Lazic in the Guardian that does a better job of putting this scene into contemporary context by way of discussing rape as a narrative device. She discusses how Red Sparrow both succeeds and fails at adequately portraying the trauma of the rape victim. Still, it spurred the conversation — and within the conversation itself lies value.
The Red SparrowAtomic Blonde problem
Red Sparrow should be seen – love it or hate it – because it’s an albatross, a Hollywood film that cast major stars (Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons), found major studio backing, and breached the exploitation genre at your local multiplex. I’m quite sure the film will continue to inspire both awe and ire among critics and viewers. That Red Sparrow draws from so many different sources of inspiration should eventually lead to at least a re-evaluation of the film among genre fans.
This is not the world Atomic Blonde, the film I believe most viewers anticipated when buying a ticket for Red Sparrow. Lacking a 1980’s gloss, familiar chart-toppers or a cathartic release in the trappings of action cinema, Lawrence’s film relies on low-lying suspense (and a subtle but effective score from James Newton Howard) – how is Dominika manipulating these men to extricate herself from this unwanted life? Likewise, the ending relies on a slight bit of misdirection, but one I found quite satisfying in light of the torture and degradation she suffers along the way. Where Atomic Blonde is a mildly amusing pop-culture pastiche, Red Sparrow digs deeper into genre and unsettling imagery that plays like a minor-key Female Prisoner 701 and forces us to consider the more unsavory baggage that goes along with the male gaze in cinema.
And what of Francis Lawrence’s ultimate success in handling the material? The opening ballet sequence teased hints of Kubrick – prolonged dolly shots, slow camera movement, long takes. Having just recently watched A Clockwork Orange again for the Cinema Shame podcast, I couldn’t help but note similarities between the way the films were shot, but also the handling of rape, sexual perversion and violence against women.
It’s no profundity to suggest that Kubrick handled it with far more nuance, but Lawrence offers a measure of competency. Though not a full recommendation, I’ll call them accolades with reservation. Despite the graphic nature of the film, it still relies on an espionage framework most associated with a John le Carré spy film – plodding realism, miles of subtext, and conversational narrative advancement – and this is where Lawrence succeeds. This pacing will automatically turn away a broader audience. The director succeeds at building tension while withholding precise character motivations. We can never truly believe Dominika’s commitment to an individual state because her only true allegiance lies with her ailing mother.
Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) with her ill and dependent mother Nina (Joely Richardson).
So who’s left that’s willing to meet this movie on its own terms? It’s no surprise to me that Red Sparrow’s well on its way to becoming a box office dud. Critics, social media, expectations of another Atomic Blonde, Jennifer Lawrence (who’s quite good, by the way) all discouraged the film’s potential audience. The controversial and cold nature of the sexuality on display. Gaping wounds? Bone screws? Jennifer Lawrence spewing nonsense in the press about her boobs, pouring lighter fuel over the incendiary reviews and undermining the strongest elements of the film? More dissuaded viewers.
This is a patient and occasionally plodding espionage film with controversial exploitation elements that, while imperfect, do add something to the cinematic conversation of violence against women. But this is not mainstream cinema, no matter the flash or pedigree. This is a movie that presents itself as an outsider commenting on and referencing the genre from within. Red Sparrow does not court complacency; it wants to rattle cages. The violent reactions for and against the film show that it was at least successful in that regard. It deserves an audience because it is worth the conversation, no matter your ultimate perspective. Without this conversation, the next generation of Shunya Itōs may never find that balance of exploitation, artistry and nuance. Red Sparrow didn’t quite get there – but in the meantime I’ll celebrate its efforts and try to help it find the receptive, but critical audience it deserves.
I’ve had this song from the Last Shadow Puppets on the Opening-Remix back burner for years. I never quite found the right fit. Seeing as how this week marked the 40th Anniversary of The Spy Who Love Me, I figured I’d give it a shot at the big time. And, well, this is the result — The Last Shadow Puppets official audition tape for the title track on Bond 25. I feel like they’ve said all that’s necessary. Even the Hamlisch intro to the classic Carly Simon song functions admirably with “My Mistakes Were Made For You.” If there’s a non-Bond song that Bondier than this this, I’m not sure I know it. Enjoy. (And please, EON, do better than Sam Smith next time, okay? I think we’ve proven that you could have thrown a dart at the entire music industry and stumbled upon something more interesting.)
For those of you unfamiliar with the Last Shadow Puppets, they fall into the category of “supergroup” featuring Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys), Miles Kane (The Rascals), James Ford (Simian Mobile Disco) and Zach Dawes (Min Masions). We’ve made the case for Arctic Monkeys as a Bond title-track artist on the #Bond_age_Pod, but in fact this side project of Arctic Monkeys lead-singer Alex Turner that better fits the bill. “My Mistakes Were Made For You” come from the band’s 2008 debut The Age of Understatement. The album was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize in the UK, falling victim to Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid.
Without belaboring the point of the band’s qualifications further… here’s The Last Shadow Puppets “My Mistakes Were Made for You” replacing Carly Simon on the title credits for The Spy Who Loved Me.
The Spy Who Loved Me Opening Remixed w/ The Last Shadow Puppets