The spy who tried something different

 

© Vintage Books

 

First published in 1962, The Spy Who Loved Me is the ninth of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and holds several records in the Bond literary canon.  It clocks in at 198 pages, which makes it the shortest Bond book.  It was also the last book to appear in a world that knew Bond as a literary and not a cinematic character, because its publication came just six months before the release of Dr No, the first Bond movie produced by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.  And it was the worst-received of the books.  The Daily Telegraph reacted to it with a despairing “Oh Dear Oh Dear Oh Dear!”, the Listener dismissed it as ‘unremittingly’ and ‘grindingly boring’ and the Observer demanded, “why can’t this cunning author write up a bit instead of down?”

 

As soon as the critics stuck in their knives, Fleming himself disowned the book.  He asked his publisher not to print a paperback edition of it, a request that they honoured until two years after his death.  He also stipulated that any movie version of The Spy Who Loved Me could never use the book’s plot, only its title.  (I’m sure that 15 years later when Cubby Broccoli got around to filming The Spy Who Loved Me, he must have been distraught about this.  “You mean,” lamented the cigar-puffing mogul, “I can’t just follow what happens in the book?  I have to put other stuff in my movie instead?  Like cars that travel underwater?  Giant oil-tankers that swallow nuclear submarines?  Indestructible henchmen with steel teeth?  Roger Moore with quizzical eyebrows?  No!  NO!”)

 

A few weeks ago, I finally read the original much-maligned The Spy Who Loved Me.  My initial reaction was Ian Fleming at least deserved credit for attempting something different.  Fans of his previous eight books were surely surprised when they started reading it in 1962 and discovered they were hearing a first-person narrative voice rather than Fleming’s usual, authoritative, third-person one.  “I was running away,” it begins.  “I was running away from England, from my childhood, from the winter, from a sequence of untidy, unattractive love-affairs, from the few sticks of furniture and jumble of overworn clothes that my London life had collected around me; and I was running away from the drabness, fustiness, snobbery and claustrophobia of close horizons and from my inability, though I am quite an attractive rat, to make headway in the rat-race.  In fact, I was running away from almost everything except the law.”

 

The first-person voice is that of Viv Michel, a young French-Canadian woman who’s been left in charge of a closed-for-the-winter motel called The Dreamy Pines Motor Court in the mountains of northern New York State.  After a first chapter where Viv doesn’t cope well with a thunderstorm raging above the motel’s empty cabins, playground, swimming pool and golf range – she stupidly pulls an electrical switch at the same moment that a bolt of lightning lets rip, and the resultant electrical shock knocks her unconscious – she spends the next eighty pages explaining how she’s ended up in this situation.

 

She describes her early life in Canada; being sent to a finishing school in England where she “was made to suffer agonies” for her accent, for her table manners “which were considered uncouth”, for her “total lack of savoir-faire and, in general, for being a Canadian”; and finding work in London while suffering the afore-mentioned “sequence of untidy, unattractive love affairs”.  After the last affair results in her having an abortion in Switzerland, she returns to North America and resolves to search for some adventure and self-discovery and shake off the memories of the men who’ve used and abused her.  So she purchases a Vespa 150cc Gran Sport and sets off on a road trip.  It’s on the road that she comes across the Dreamy Pines Motor Court, where she gets offered employment; first as an end-of-season receptionist and then, when it closes for the winter, as a caretaker minding the premises until its owner, one Mr Sanguinetti, arrives to take possession of the keys.

 

Viv’s position at the Dreamy Pines feels a little like that of Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) and things soon go as badly for her as they did for the ill-fated Jack.  Two hoodlums with the nicknames Sluggsy and Horror show up at the motel in the middle of the night and take her prisoner.  It transpires that Sanguinetti is a gangster and the pair are henchmen tasked with burning the place to the ground as part of an insurance scam.  Viv, the only witness, looks likely to be torched along with the motel.

 

It’s here that we encounter the single detail of the book that makes it into the 1977 film ‘adaptation’ with Roger Moore.  Looking at Horror’s face, she notices “a glint of grey silvery metal from his front teeth,” indicating that “they had been cheaply capped with steel.”  Sound familiar?

 

© Eon Productions

 

By now we’re more than halfway into the book.  Back in 1962 at this point, readers must have been panicking: where the hell is Bond?  Well, he appears at The Dreamy Pines later that same night – Viv’s first impression of him is that he’s “good-looking in a dark, rather cruel way” with a scar that “showed whitely down his left cheek” – and he explains that his car has suffered a flat tyre on the road nearby and he’d like to get a room.  He soon wises up to the situation and joins forces with Viv.  The next seventy pages play more like a Mickey Spillane novel than a Fleming / Bond one, with considerable running, hiding and shooting before Sanguinetti’s scheme is thwarted and Sluggsy and Horror end up dead at the bottom of the local lake.  Then Viv and Bond indulge in some love-making and then, as abruptly and enigmatically as he arrived, Bond slips off again.  In the final pages, Viv muses: “He was just a man who had turned up at the right time and then gone on his way.”

 

Though The Spy Who Loved Me wins kudos for bravely departing from the usual Bond formula, there are moments when seemingly Fleming remembers it’s still a Bond novel and is forced to compromise, with awkward results.   He wants Viv to be more believable than the average Bond girl, which is why we see her depicted as a working Londoner.  But on the other hand, as a Bond girl, she can’t be too ordinary so she also gets a French-Canadian back-story to make her appear more exotic – the overall effect of which feels contrived.  Also, while Fleming wants her to be feisty and independent, he needs her to have a vulnerable side too – to be a credible damsel-in-distress, for whom Bond rides to the rescue as a knight in shining armour.  That may explain the opening chapter where she panics during the storm and, quite honestly, comes across as something of a dolt.

 

And to make up for Bond’s late entrance into the plot, Fleming feels he has bring his readers up to speed on what Bond’s been doing in the meantime; so we get the telling of a previous Bond adventure.  In a twelve-page chapter entitled Bedtime Story, Bond explains to Viv in great detail why he was on the road that night – he was driving south after an operation in Toronto wherein he and the Canadian Mounties prevented the assassination of a Russian defector by both the KGB and SPECTRE.  By now, Bond and Viv know the extreme danger posed by Sluggsy and Horror, so you’d think they’d have other things to concentrate on besides telling stories.

 

One thing I found surprisingly impressive about The Spy Who Loved Me is Viv’s account of her love-life in London.  It’s as far removed as possible from the fantasy romance / sex scenes associated with the Bond novels.  Just out of school, she gets involved with a youth called Derek Mallaby, whose posh, confident veneer hides, temporarily, the fact that (a) he’s desperate for sex and (b) he’s clueless about how to have sex.  What follows is a painful tale set in the England of “drabness, fustiness, snobbery and claustrophobia” that existed before the 1960s started to swing and the permissive era arrived.  The only privacy Viv and Derek can find for making love is in a small balcony-box at a cinema, “a meagre-looking place, showing two westerns, a cartoon and so-called ‘News’ that consisted of what the Queen had been doing a month ago.”  Their attempted lovemaking, on the floor with Derek on top “in a dreadful clumsy embrace”, is anything but sensual and it ends abruptly when a furious cinema manager bursts in on them: “Filthy little brats…!  I’ve a damned good mind to call the police.  Indecent exposure.  Disturbing the peace.”

 

Barely articulate about what they’re trying to do, relying on strained expressions like ‘doing it’ and ‘being a sport’, and not even knowing what a condom is called and having to describe it to a shop assistant as “one of those things for not having babies”, Viv and Derek are products of a repressed, joyless, monochrome Britain that the Bond novels, with their exotic glamour and glitzy hedonism, were supposed to give readers of the era an escape from.  No wonder The Spy Who Loved Me pissed so many of those readers off.

 

Once Viv and Derek have properly ‘done it’ a few times, Derek predictably proves to be a cad and dumps her.  She then gets into a second relationship with a German man called Kurt, which culminates in her getting pregnant, having an abortion and being dumped a second time.  (Kurt “had inherited strong views about mixed blood… and when he married, it would be into the Teutonic strain.”  Fleming’s well-known dislike of the Germans is on full display here.)

 

This part of the book is so interesting because it suggests Fleming, a writer not noted for his empathy with women, is trying to think outside his normal male-chauvinist box for once and identify with a female character having a hard time in a world populated with predatory, shitty men.

 

Alas, all this is rendered null and void later when Bond, hardly un-predatory and un-shitty himself, turns up and Viv promptly goes doe-eyed and weak-kneed at the sight of him; implying that Viv’s problem wasn’t men, it was just the absence of a fully-fledged alpha male like Bond to satisfy / tame her.

 

And, late on, Fleming truly sabotages his cause when Viv comes out with this jaw-dropping assertion: “All women love semi-rape.  They love to be taken.”  These ten words have rightly earned Fleming and The Spy Who Loved Me much opprobrium over the years – for example, here – and they undo whatever good work he did with his depiction of Viv earlier in the book.

 

In the end, I have no reason to disagree with the many people who label The Spy Who Loves Me the weakest of the Bond novels.  The contradiction at its heart, that it’s a Bond story and yet it wants to be something different from a Bond story, makes it uneven and inconsistent.  And it’s all over the place in its sexual politics – and, at worst, those politics are unspeakable.  But as I’ve said, it deserves a little respect trying to do something out-of-the-ordinary, and thanks to Fleming’s always-amenable prose it’s an easy-enough read.  And, in parts, hints of a better book glimmer through.

 

© Penguin Books

 

RIP, Sir Roger

 

© Eon Productions

 

I feel slightly hypocritical to be paying tribute to Sir Roger Moore, the movie star and the third and longest-serving of the cinema’s James Bonds, who passed away yesterday at the age of 89.

 

As a serious Bond aficionado, especially regarding the original novels written by Ian Fleming, I was generally not impressed by the Bond movies Sir Roger made between 1974 and 1985, nor by the easy-going way that he inhabited the role.  And during the five years this blog has been in existence I was frequently unkind to him, making cruel puns about ‘Roger Mortis’ and the Bond movies getting ‘Rogered’ in the 1970s and 1980s, and dismissing his acting ability with ungentlemanly comparisons to planks and floorboards and blocks of wood.  Once, I even sniped that the makers of Guardians of the Galaxy (2015) should have hired him to play Groot the sentient alien tree rather than Vin Diesel.

 

However, two years ago, in a fit of remorse at my un-Rogerly ways, I posted a piece detailing all the admirable things about the venerable actor.  I mentioned how his third Bond movie, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, was actually really good.  I pointed out that he was surprisingly effective as a rich, smug businessman going to pieces while a mysterious, malign and unseen doppelganger invades and takes over his life in the creepy psychological horror film The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970).  I also enthused about his 1971-72 TV series The Persuaders.  To be honest, the show itself wasn’t much cop but the theme music, composed by John Barry, made for the best TV theme tune ever.

 

And I highlighted the amount of humanitarian work he’d done as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, since 1991.  And he didn’t just express good will towards humans – he’d “also been involved in the campaign by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, against the gruesome processes used in the making of foie gras and he helped to persuade the department store Selfridges to stop stocking the stuff.”

 

© The Independent

 

One thing mentioned in Sir Roger’s obituaries that I hadn’t known about was his loathing of fox hunting.  Despite the languidly aristocratic air he had both as Bond and as his real-life self, he slammed the brutal upper-class pastime with the declaration: “Sport hunting is a sickness, a perversion and a danger and should be recognised as such.  People who get their amusement from hunting and killing a defenceless animal can only be suffering from a mental disorder.  In a world with boundless opportunities for amusement, it’s detestable that anyone would choose to get their kicks from killing others who ask for nothing from life but the chance to remain alive.”

 

To be honest, if I hadn’t been obsessed with the Bond books and hadn’t formed some strong opinions about how Bond should be portrayed on screen, and if I’d come across Moore’s Bond movies at a younger age – I didn’t see any of them until I was a sullen teen of 14 or 15 years old – I probably would have really enjoyed them: all that funny, silly but exciting stuff with Jaws, Nick-Nack and Sheriff Pepper, all those laser-gun battles in outer space and gondoliers that turn into speedboats and alligators that can be used as stepping stones when you’re making your escape from Mr Big’s henchmen.  (Indeed, Daniel Craig did something similar with Komodo dragons in 2012’s Skyfall.)  As it turned out, millions of other filmgoers, less severe in their tastes than I was, really did enjoy them – and as I’ve admitted elsewhere on this blog, the Bond franchise was fantastically lucrative when Sir Roger played its title character.

 

I often wondered why the Bond producers cast Roger Moore in the first place.  But recently I read a book called James Bond: The Man and his World by Henry Chancellor, which observes that Moore was first suggested for the role by the Supreme Being in the Bond-verse, Ian Fleming himself.  According to Chancellor, in the early 1960s when the first of the Bond movies was on the drawing board – and before co-producer Harry Saltzman got his way and cast Sean Connery in the role – Fleming “initially suggested his friend David Niven.  When it was pointed out that Niven was too old he suggested the young Roger Moore, who was starring as The Saint on television.”  Ironically, both of Fleming’s suggestions would eventually get to play Bond, for Niven turned up as 007 in the ‘rogue’ 1967 production of Casino Royale, a swinging-sixties would-be comedy so dire and unfunny that it makes even the worst of Roger Moore’s Bond films look like masterpieces.

 

Spectres at the feast

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

At last I’ve managed to catch Spectre, the latest James Bond movie, on a big screen and in English.  (I’ve spent the last few weeks in a Francophone country and it took me a while to track down an English-language showing of it at a cinema.  Nothing against the French language, by the way – but somehow the line, “Je m’appelle Bond, James Bond…  Autorisé à tuer…” doesn’t do it for me.  Especially not when you try saying it in a Sean Connery accent.)

 

So here, belatedly, are my thoughts about the film.  Be warned.  If you haven’t already seen Spectre, brace yourself for a load of spoilers.

 

Since 2006’s Casino Royale, the Bond movies have been quietly rebooting themselves.  Casino Royale (appropriately based on the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, which was published way back in 1953) saw Daniel Craig debut as James Bond and began with his ‘blooding’ as a double-O agent – he kills a man for the first time ever and acquires his licence-to-kill status.  At a stroke, this relaunches Bond’s whole timeline and dumps the back-story of the previous 20 movies with Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan.

 

It wasn’t until two films later, 2012’s Skyfall, that the rebooted series got around to introducing a new Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), a new Q (Ben Wishaw) and finally a new M (Ralph Fiennes) – previously, Craig’s version of Bond had taken orders from Judi Dench, who’d played M since 1995’s Goldeneye and constituted the series’ only link with the old days.  Thus, Spectre has Craig start the film with something he’d lacked in his previous three outings – a team comprised of all the stalwart supporting characters from the old Bond movies, though played by new actors.

 

It’s seems apt, then, that of Craig’s films so far, Spectre is the one that feels most like the preceding Bond movies.  It has scenes, characters and plot-elements that echo various things in the 1962-2002 cycle of films.  Actually, I found this slightly disconcerting because I’d got used to the Craig era’s way of doing things – ignoring traditional Bond continuity whilst showing a dour, gritty seriousness that was the antithesis of how, say, Roger Moore sashayed his way through proceedings in the late 1970s and early 1980s armed with nothing more than a nudge, a wink, a quip and a raised eyebrow.

 

But this isn’t a major criticism of Spectre.  I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Skyfall; but I liked it better than the overrated, but still good, Casino Royale and the underrated, but still not very good, Quantum of Solace (2008).

 

So, what are those echoes of previous movies in Spectre – the spectres at the feast, so to speak?  Here are a few that I noticed.

 

Spectre begins, in fact, with a nod to a film that has nothing to do with James Bond.  The pre-credits sequence has Bond stalk a villain through the streets of Mexico City whist thousands of revellers celebrate the Day of the Dead; and then there’s a huge explosion.  Up until the moment of the explosion, director Sam Mendes films everything in a wonderfully-fluid single take.  This mirrors the opening minutes of Orson Welles’ 1958 film-noir masterpiece Touch of Evil, which is also shot in a single take and features Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh weaving through the streets of a Mexican town – until a similar explosion intervenes.  Actually, the single-take effect in Spectre was acquired with the help of some computer trickery.  Poor old Orson Welles, no doubt, had to achieve the same effect in his movie with nothing but hard work, ingenuity and willpower.

 

https://ca.movies.yahoo.com/post/132951174676/how-that-amazing-opening-spectre-scene-isnt-all

 

Immediately afterwards, because of the blast, the building Craig is standing on collapses and he plunges into a maelstrom of falling masonry, furniture and dust – before landing, almost comically, on a sofa.  This stunt, and Craig’s look of mingled disgruntlement and bemusement, recalls a scene in Diamonds are Forever (1970) where Sean Connery gains entry to a penthouse by climbing through a window, only to drop and land, arse first, on the seat of a toilet.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Actually, a later moment when Craig ejects from the seat of his Aston Martin DB10, parachutes down onto a nearby street and, not missing a beat, strolls briskly and smartly away is also reminiscent of Connery – for instance, the famous scene at the beginning of Goldfinger (1964) when he strips off his frogman’s outfit and reveals himself to be wearing a tuxedo underneath.  Like Connery, Craig is able to carry off such scenes, which are inherently ridiculous, with an elegant and insolent swagger.

 

But meanwhile, the pre-credits sequence still isn’t over.  It leads up to a scene where Bond finds himself in the cockpit of an out-of-control helicopter while it crazily climbs and swoops above a city square.  This echoes the opening sequence of 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, which has Roger Moore trapped in the back of a pilot-less helicopter that’s being flown by remote control, very recklessly, by a mysterious and malevolent bald man wearing a neck-brace, sitting in a wheelchair and nursing a white cat.  The bald man is clearly Bond’s old nemesis Ernst Stavros Blofeld.  However, because the Bond filmmakers had at that time lost the right to use Blofeld, thanks to a legal battle with producer Kevin McClory, they coyly refrained from stating who he was – the character is unnamed and uncredited and is referred to in For Your Eyes Only’s promotional literature as simply the ‘bald villain in a wheelchair’.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

More on Blofeld in a little while…

 

It transpires that Bond has been on a final mission for his old boss, Judi Dench’s M – although she died at the end of Skyfall, she’d left some posthumous orders in a recording – and for a time, as the plot grows murkier, it seems that Spectre is more interested in examining the back story of the last three Daniel Craig films.  It becomes apparent that Quantum, the secret criminal organisation featured in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, is really just a subsidiary of a bigger, more secret and more criminal organisation, while Quantum’s boss, Mr White (Jesper Christiensen) – whom Bond captured at the end of Casino Royale but then let escape in Quantum of Solace – is only a branch manager for someone even bigger and badder than he is.  This amounts to a retcon of events in the earlier Craig movies and it feels a tad clumsy.  Also, I found the scene where Bond tracks down Mr White again a bit confusing because I’d forgotten who Mr White was.  (Well, I hadn’t seen him since 2008.)

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

After a final and admittedly-chilling encounter with Mr White, Bond goes in search of White’s innocent daughter, Madelaine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who unwittingly holds a clue to the identity of the puppet-master behind Quantum.  Swann works as a doctor at a secluded luxury clinic on an Alpine mountaintop and as Craig approaches it from the air, I found myself thinking: “Hello, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service!”  For this Alpine mountaintop clinic is very reminiscent of Blofeld’s headquarters in that 1968 Bond movie with George Lazenby.

 

While he’s at the clinic, Bond is unexpectedly joined by Ben Wishaw’s Q, who gives him a hand when Madelaine is abducted by some villains led by David Bautista’s Mr Hinx.  Silent, surly and vicious, Hinx comes across like a combination of Harold Sakata’s Oddjob in Goldfinger and Richard Kiel’s Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).  This is the first time that Q has worked properly ‘in the field’ since 1989’s Licence to Kill when, played by the charming and avuncular Desmond Llewelyn, he nipped off to Isthmus City in South America to help Timothy Dalton battle the brutal drugs baron Franz Sanchez.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Bond gets the necessary information from Madelaine and travels with her to Morocco.  And it’s here that we get the next Bond trope – a Big Fight on a Train.  This is against Mr Hinx again and it’s a more brutal affair than the fights-on-trains seen in Live and Let Die (1974) (in which Roger Moore defeated the hulking henchman Tee-Hee with the help of some handy wire-clippers) or The Spy Who Loved Me (in which Roger Moore defeated the hulking henchman Jaws with the help of a handy table-lamp).  Indeed, it evokes the savage brawl-to-the-death that occurred between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant in From Russia with Love (1963).  And in the midst of the action, Daniel Craig manages to land on Mr Hinx a very satisfying, Dalton-esque head-butt.

 

Eventually, Bond and Madelaine find their way to a secret base in the desert that’s run by the dastardly Spectre organisation – for Spectre, which featured so prominently in the 1960s Bond movies, is back.  Although unlike the old Spectre, which was an acronym for ‘Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion’, this organisation seems to be called Spectre because, well, it’s a snazzy-sounding name.  And in charge of it is – yes! – Ernst Stavros Blofeld.

 

(The reason why Spectre and Blofeld have returned now is because MGM and Kevin McClory’s estate finally settled the afore-mentioned legal row in 2013.)

 

The new Blofeld is played by Christoph Waltz as a charismatic but psychotic Euro-scumbag.  Unlike Blofelds of old, such as Donald Pleasence and Telly Savalas, he sports a full head of hair and he likes to wear his loafers without socks – the cad.  At least he still has a white cat.  Actually, Waltz’s character also goes by another name, Franz Oberhauser; and we discover that he and Bond have a history.  For it was Oberhauser’s father, Hannes Oberhauser, who took care of the young James Bond after his parents died in a climbing accident.  The young Franz believed that Bond displaced him in his father’s affections and has borne a grudge ever since.  For that reason, when he first comes face to face with Bond in Spectre, he taunts him with a disconcerting cry of “Cuckoo!”  He regards Bond as a cuckoo who invaded his family’s nest.

 

Many movie critics reacted with derision to this plot revelation – how corny!  Bond and Blofeld are long-lost brothers!  (Well, long-lost adoptive brothers.)  But I didn’t have much of a problem with it because Hannes Oberhauser did exist in the original, literary Bond universe created by Ian Fleming.  In the short story Octopussy, published in 1966, Bond says of Oberhauser: “He was a wonderful man.  He was something of a father to me at a time when I needed one.”  So the possibility that Oberhauser might have an embittered son who later turned to villainy didn’t seem such a stretch.  Mind you, it’s unfortunate that this revelation is similar to the revelation at the end of Goldmember (2002), the third Austin Powers movie, about Austin Powers and Dr Evil being long-lost brothers sired by Michael Caine.

 

Bond and Madelaine escape from and destroy Blofeld’s desert base – and I think it’s one of the film’s shortcomings that the place seems to blow up so fast.  Bond explodes a modest bomb in Blofeld’s torture chamber and then shoots a few bullets into a pipe, and about two minutes later the entire installation has vanished in a giant fireball.  He might be fiendishly clever, but Blofeld has clearly shown an unwise disregard for Health and Safety regulations.  This section of the film contains some wonderful touches, though.  I love the idea that the base has been constructed within a crater caused by a meteorite collision and, indeed, Blofeld keeps the remains of the meteorite on display.  Also, Blofeld has a nifty torture device – a sort of dentist’s chair from hell – that he uses on Bond.  I’m sure that Ian Fleming, whose fondness for a spot of S and M is well-documented, would have approved.

 

But the film isn’t yet over – because it turns out that Spectre is the evil silent partner in an Edward Snowden-esque global intelligence / security initiative called Nine Eyes, for which the British government has unwittingly signed up.  When Nine Eyes goes online, Spectre will have access to a raft of countries’ intelligence data and will be able to manipulate their intelligence agencies.  Masterminding Nine Eyes in Britain is the slimy and treacherous civil servant Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), who’s been waging a turf war against M.  Bond, meanwhile, is so contemptuous of Denbigh that he’s nicknamed him ‘C’.  For a while, I thought this was going to be the first Bond movie where the ‘C’ word is uttered, but alas, it wasn’t.

 

Back in London, Bond hooks up with M, Q, Moneypenny and Bill Tanner – Tanner being M16’s Chief of Staff and a character from Fleming’s novels who was played by Michael Goodlife in the 1970s, James Villiers in the 1980s and Michael Kitchen in the 1990s and is played in the 21st century by the dependable Rory Kinnear – and they launch a night-time operation to stop Denbigh and thwart the launch of Nine Eyes.  In another nod to Fleming’s books, the safe-house where they meet is called ‘Hildebrand Rarities and Antiques’ – The Hildebrand Rarity is the name of one of Fleming’s short stories in the collection For Your Eyes Only (1960).

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

M has a showdown with Denbigh – played robustly by Ralph Fiennes, this M makes a perfectly capable action hero himself – and Q performs the required computerised jiggery-pokery to hack into Nine Eyes and stop it functioning.  And in a surprise twist that will surprise no one, Blofeld pops up again to have a final crack at Bond.  (He hasn’t survived the explosion at his Moroccan base unscathed and he now has a facial scar as ghastly as that sported by Donald Pleasence in 1967’s You Only Live Twice.)  And there’s a nocturnal speedboat chase along the River Thames that, while exciting, is a wee bit too close to the River-Thames speedboat chase that graced the beginning of Pierce Brosnan’s third Bond outing, The World is Not Enough (1999).

 

Spectre isn’t the best James Bond movie.  It isn’t even the best Daniel Craig James Bond movie.  But I found it reassuringly solid and, on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d probably give it 008.  I just hope that the series now doesn’t shift any further to the style of the old movies.  With Spectre it seems to have found an appealing balance between the knowingness of the 20th-century Bonds and the no-nonsense tone of the 21st-century ones – and I think that’s good enough.

 

But for the next Bond movie, could we please get a decent theme song?  The few minutes where Sam Smith caterwauls Writing’s on the Wall over the opening credits almost turned my stomach and easily constituted the worst part of the film.  Thank God that Spectre’s last scene plays out to the brassy, booming strains of Monty Norman’s original James Bond Theme – a tune that half-a-century on is still capable of raising the hairs on the back of my neck.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Bond bows out: The Man with the Golden Gun

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

The Man with the Golden Gun was one of the first of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels that I read.  It almost put me off reading any more of them.  It was definitely not what I’d expected.

 

There were two reasons why the book bewildered me.  Firstly, I was ten years old and around the same time the 1975 movie version of The Man with the Golden Gun was showing in cinemas.  I’d seen clips of it on TV, which had Jolly Roger Moore battling hordes of karate-kicking, karate-chopping martial-arts trainees at a Far Eastern dōjō.  In the mid-1970s, popular culture was martial-arts-daft and so to me these looked like the most exciting movie-scenes ever.  So I was perplexed when I started reading The Man with the Golden Gun-the-novel and discovered that there wasn’t a single martial-arts fighter in sight.

 

It wasn’t even set in the Far East.  Most of the book’s action took place in Jamaica, which was Fleming’s main stomping ground in real life – he’d established Goldeneye, his house and estate, on Jamaica’s north coast.  (Later, briefly, Goldeneye belonged to Bob Marley and it’s now an upmarket hotel with an adjacent ‘James Bond Beach’.)  Fleming was obviously fond of using Jamaica as a setting, for he sent Bond there in the novels Live and Let Die and Dr No and the short story Octopussy as well.

 

More importantly, The Man with the Golden Gun was entirely the wrong book for a newcomer to Bond to start reading.  Fleming completed the first draft of it a few months before his death in 1964 and the manuscript was subject to posthumous revision by Fleming’s copy-editor William Plomer before it saw publication in 1965.  (I’ve heard claims that Kingsley Amis had input into the editing process too, although the book’s Wikipedia entry denies this.)  And as the last Bond novel, it carries a lot of back story.  By this point Bond had been married and seen his wife murdered (in 1963’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and had tracked down and executed the murderer, Ernst Stavros Blofeld (in 1964’s You Only Live Twice); but at the end of the latter book he’d also gone missing.  In reality, he’d been stricken with amnesia, but he was believed killed in action by his London-based boss M, who went as far as to pen an obituary for him in The Times.

 

When The Man with the Golden Gun begins, Bond has not only been fed through the wringer but he’s also – since You Only Live Twice – been captured and brainwashed by the Soviets and sent on a mission to London to assassinate M.  So not only is this a weary and jaded Bond, but also (in the early chapters, at least) a robotic and murderous one.  It’s a long way indeed from the cosy, jovial world depicted in the 1975 film version, where, for example, Roger Moore quips, “Who would pay a million dollars to have me killed?” and M retorts, “Jealous husbands!  Outraged chefs!  Humiliated tailors!  The list is endless!”

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

However, a little while ago, I found a copy of The Man with the Golden Gun in a second-hand bookshop and thought that I’d give it another go.  How would it seem to me now, a good – my God, I’m old! – 39 years after I last read it?

 

So the book begins with a brainwashed Bond returning to London and trying to kill M: “A storm of memories whirled through his consciousness like badly cut film on a projector that had gone crazy.  Bond closed his eyes to the storm.  He must concentrate on what he had to say, and do, and on nothing else.”  M, however, realising “that death had walked into the room and was standing beside him,” thwarts the attempt on his life by activating a shutter of ‘Armour-plate glass’ that crashes down from his office-ceiling and shields him from his would-be assassin.  Then, with Bond in custody and receiving de-programming treatment, M has to decide what to do with the set of damaged goods that is 007.

 

He opts to send Bond on a suicide mission of his own.  This is to locate and kill one Francisco ‘Pistols’ Scaramanga, a hitman known as the Man with the Golden Gun on account of “his main weapon which is a gold-plated, long-barrelled, single-action Colt .45.”  Linked to Fidel Castro and the KGB, Scaramanga has lately assassinated half-a-dozen British secret-servicemen in the Caribbean and M is desperate to put him out of action.

 

A restored but still-fragile Bond arrives in Jamaica and finally encounters Scaramanga in the lobby of a local ‘bordello’.  He manages to convince the assassin that he’s a private security man called Mark Hazard and, conveniently, Scaramanga hires him to oversee security during an upcoming weekend when he’ll be meeting some business associates at his new investment, a luxurious (but still-under-construction) hotel.  It turns out that this weekend conference is really an assemblage of American gangsters, plus one KGB operative, who are planning various criminal operations in the region that’ll both line their pockets and boost the standing of Fidel Castro.

 

Bond learns what’s going on with the help of his old CIA friend Felix Leiter, who’s managed to secure an undercover position in Scaramanga’s hotel too; and of his former secretary, Mary Goodnight, who’s working now in British Intelligence’s Jamaican station (and who, inevitably, ends up as Bond’s love interest in the book).  At the same time, however, Scaramanga and his guests cotton on to Bond’s true identity.

 

In the novel’s climax, Scaramanga treats his weekend visitors to a ride on a local light railway line and then a hunting and fishing trip.  Bond is forced to accompany them, aware that later in the day he’s likely to be the main quarry being shot at.  But Leiter comes to his rescue – he stows away in the train and once it’s moving a gun-battle breaks out on board.  (An added complication is that, according to Scaramanga, Mary Goodnight has been captured and tied to the railway tracks ahead.)  Bond and Leiter crash the train and Scaramanga is the only survivor among the villains.  Injured, he flees into the bush and Bond pursues him.  The pair meet up for a final showdown in “a small clearing of dried, cracked black mud” that’s infested with snakes and land-crabs.

 

As my synopsis makes clear, the plot of The Man with the Golden Gun is as simple and one-track as the little Jamaican railway line on which its climax takes place.  What’s more disappointing, however, is the lack of detail and colour with which Fleming customarily embroidered his plots – making their fantastical goings-on seem a little more grounded and believable.  Fleming tended to insert more detail when he was working on later drafts of his books but in this case he didn’t live long enough to produce a later draft.  The Man with the Golden Gun feels rather drab as a result.

 

At the same time, when it comes to describing what Scaramanga and his friends are up to, the book is muddled.  Fleming seems unable to decide on one nefarious operation for them to work on, so he has them engaged in a mishmash of things.  They’re conspiring to destroy cane-fields in Trinidad and Jamaica in order to boost the Cuban sugar industry; to use arson attacks to wreck the Jamaican bauxite industry; and to destabilise Jamaican society by bribing local politicians to grant a licence for a ruinous new casino franchise.  (“There’ll be incidents.  Coloured people’ll be turned away from the doors for one reason or another.  Then the opposition party’ll get hold of that and raise hell about colour bars and so on.  With all the money flying about, the unions’ll push wages through the roof.  It can all add up to a fine stink.  The atmosphere’s too damn peaceful around here.”)  And for good measure, they intend to flood the US coast with narcotics too.

 

Meanwhile, credibility departs when Felix Leiter turns up as a supposed accountant working at Scaramanga’s hotel.  Scaramanga has just hired the most legendary agent in the British Secret Service, which suggests that he badly needs to overhaul his vetting procedures.  But to have also recruited one of the top bods in the CIA suggests that it’s not just his vetting that’s non-existent – his brain’s missing too.  This is particularly so as Leiter has ‘a bright steel hook’ instead of a right hand, thanks to a savaging he received from a shark in an earlier book.  Sporting an appendage like that, Leiter must be the most identifiable CIA agent in the northern hemisphere.

 

But The Man with the Golden Gun’s biggest let-down is its lack of characterisation.  Mary Goodnight is perfunctorily drawn.  She’s a feisty but obviously well-bred young English gal and, well, that’s it.  Britt Ekland was criticised for portraying Goodnight as an archetypal dumb blonde in the 1975 film version.  But to be fair to Britt, if she’d looked in the book for inspiration about how to play her character, she wouldn’t have found any.

 

Equally poor is the characterisation of Scaramanga.  Although the film adaptation of The Man with the Golden Gun is regarded as one of the worst Bond movies, critics agree that its single redeeming feature is Christopher Lee’s performance as the villain.  Lee invests Scaramanga with suave and sardonic menace.  He’s charming and sophisticated but these traits are tempered by his obvious lethalness and intimidating physicality.  (You only have to look at the stills of Bond and Scaramanga together to see how the six-foot-four-inch Lee looms over Roger Moore.)

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

So it’s a shock in the book when Scaramanga first opens his mouth and comes across like a macho / braggart lowlife in a Martin Scorsese film: “I sometimes make ’em dance.  Then I shoot their feet off.”  Talking in crass gangster-isms, the literary Scaramanga is a simple thug.  He’s no smarter or more cultured than the pack of Mafiosi – the amusingly-named Sam Binion, Leroy Gengerella, Ruby Rotkopf, Hal Garfinkel and Louie Paradise – who later turn up at his hotel.  In a normal Bond novel he might make a serviceable henchman.  But the big villain?  No way.

 

And yet, paradoxically, it’s Scaramanga who inspires Fleming’s best writing in The Man with the Golden Gun.  Two-dimensional he may be, but he at least gets an intriguing backstory.  He started off as a sharpshooter in his father’s circus and his first victim was a policeman – whom he shot dead after the policeman killed his favourite circus animal, an elephant that’d gone berserk and trampled circus-goers in a rampage.  This backstory was impressive enough for the scriptwriters to use it in the film version and they have Lee relate it to Moore when they first come face to face.

 

The initial encounter between Bond and Scaramanga in the book is memorable too.  On a hot Jamaican evening, the two square up in the reception area of a dilapidated brothel called Number 3½ Love Lane and Scaramanga treats Bond to a sudden and shocking display of his shooting prowess – he blasts two tame ‘kling-kling’ birds (Jamaican grackles) a moment after they take panicked flight from a nearby counter-top.  “The explosions from the Colt .45 were deafening.  The two birds disintegrated against the violet back-drop of the dusk, the scraps of feathers and pink flesh blasting out of the yellow light of the café and into the limbo of the deserted street like shrapnel.”  And Bond and Scaramanga enjoy a good final encounter too.  At Bond’s mercy, Scaramanga pleads for a minute’s stay of execution so that he can say his prayers.  Bond is unable to refuse – Watch out, James!  It’s a trick! – and the scene acquires a strange, almost Graham-Greene-like intensity.

 

Elsewhere, it’s fun to spot signs that the then-nascent Bond movie series was influencing Fleming – Dr No had been filmed in 1962 and From Russia with Love in 1963.  There’s a movie-like emphasis on gadgetry – notably the glass shutter that saves M from the brainwashed Bond – and Fleming slips in a reference to Honeychile Rider, the heroine of Dr No whom Ursula Andress had immortalised in the film version two years earlier.  We get a hint too that Fleming was impressed by the actor playing Bond onscreen at the time, the truculent working-class, Edinburgh-born, Scottish-nationalist, former-milkman Sean Connery.  He ends the book with Bond, recuperating after his showdown with Scaramanga, receiving the offer of a knighthood for his services to the Realm.  Bond not only turns down the offer, but sends back a surprisingly anti-establishment message via a cypher machine: I AM A SCOTTISH PEASANT AND WILL ALWAYS FEEL AT HOME BEING A SCOTTISH PEASANT…

 

It has to be said that when Sean Connery was offered a knighthood in 2000, he showed none of Bond’s reluctance.  He said ‘yes’ to the thing immediately.

 

I have no arguments with the many critics who’ve dismissed The Man with the Golden Gun as the runt of the litter among Fleming’s Bond novels – though its lowly status was inevitable considering Fleming’s state of health at the time of writing and the fact that he died before he could polish it up.  Still, I didn’t find the novel boring.  I kept turning its pages until the end.

 

And what a bitter-sweet end it is.  Fleming leaves Bond in the arms of Mary Goodnight but he indicates that it won’t be long before Bond is back in his old, wandering and philandering ways: “he knew, deep down, that love from Mary Goodnight, or from any other woman, was not enough for him.  It would be like taking ‘a room with a view’.  For James Bond, the view would always pall.”  So it looks like Bond will soon be saying ‘good night’ to poor Mary Goodnight.  But alas, it’s good night too for Bond himself in his most fascinating incarnation — the literary original, created by Ian Fleming.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Bond in miniature: Octopussy and The Living Daylights

 

(c) Vintage Books

 

When, as a boy, I read most of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, the one I was least enamoured with was For Your Eyes Only.  Actually, FYEO wasn’t a novel but a collection of short stories featuring Bond.  In one of them, Quantum of Solace – which had nothing to do with the 22nd official Bond movie, made with Daniel Craig in 2008 – all 007 did was sit and act as a listener while somebody else narrated a story about a different set of characters.

 

The problem, I felt, was that Bond was too big for the confines of a short story.  For me at the age of 11, a good Bond story needed a super-villain with a suitably imposing HQ, and a nefarious scheme involving espionage, criminality and / or terrorism, and a love interest, and a number of action set-pieces in which said super-villain tried, unsuccessfully, to bump Bond off.  And of course, with Ian Fleming as writer, there’d also be a wealth of background detail culled from Fleming’s experiences as a globetrotting journalist, naval intelligence officer and bon viveur and from his research – research was something he was scrupulous about.  Obviously, cramming all these things into a short story was not viable.  And the truncated slices of Bondery that appeared in FYEO seemed to me, well, a bit weird.

 

I recently read a comment made by esteemed poet Philip Larkin about Bond’s suitability for a short-fiction format: “I am not surprised that Fleming preferred to write novels.  James Bond, unlike Sherlock Holmes, does not fit snugly into the short story length: there is something grandiose and intercontinental about his adventures that require elbow room and such examples of the form as we have tend to be eccentric and muted.”  I’m delighted to see a personage like Larkin backing up my thoughts on the subject – great minds think alike and all that.

 

Larkin, however, wasn’t talking about FYEO but about Fleming’s other collection of James Bond short stories, Octopussy and The Living Daylights, which was published in 1966, two years after Fleming’s death.  This book constitutes Bond’s final appearance in print, as penned by his creator.  It originally consisted of just the two stories mentioned in the title, although subsequent editions beefed it up with the addition of two more, The Property of a Lady and 007 in New York.  Nonetheless, it remains a slim volume.  Even with four stories, it comes to a mere 123 pages.

 

Since then, of course, Octopussy and The Living Daylights have lent their titles to Bond movies, in 1982 and 1987 respectively.  A film has yet to be made called The Property of a Lady and to be honest I think Adele or even Shirley Bassey would have difficulty wrapping her vocal chords around the title in a Bond-movie theme song.  (“The proper-TEE… of a la-DEE…!”  No, I can’t imagine it.)  Obviously, 007 in New York wouldn’t cut it as a movie title at all.  Mind you, there was a TV movie made in 1976 called Sherlock Holmes in New York starring, God help us, Roger Moore as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing detective, so anything is possible.

 

Octopussy and The Living Daylights was one of the few Fleming-Bond books I hadn’t read in my boyhood, so when I encountered a copy of it in a bookstore recently I thought I’d give it a shot.  How would I get on with it?  Three-and-a-half decades after I’d read FYEO, would I find the short-story James Bond any more palatable?

 

The opening story, Octopussy, is the longest one in the collection but Bond is only a secondary character in it.  Rather, the story concerns a Major Dexter Smythe, described acidly by Fleming as “the remains of a once brave and resourceful officer and of a handsome man…”  Now “he was fifty-four, slightly bald and his belly sagged in the Jantzen trunks.  And he had had two coronary thromboses…  But, in his well-chosen clothes, his varicose veins out of sight and his stomach flattened by a discreet support belt behind an immaculate cummerbund, he was still a fine figure of a man at a cocktail party or dinner on the North Shore, and it was a mystery to his friends and neighbours why, in defiance of the two ounces of whisky and ten cigarettes a day to which his doctor had rationed him, he persisted in smoking like a chimney and going to bed drunk, if amiably drunk, every night.”

 

The North Shore mentioned in that excerpt is the north coast of Jamaica.  During the post-war years Smythe and his wife, now deceased, established themselves there after escaping from hard-pressed, austerity-era Britain: “They were a popular couple and Major Smythe’s war record earned them the entrée to Government House society, after which their life was one endless round of parties, with tennis for Mary and golf (with the Henry Cotton irons!) for Major Smythe.  In the evenings there was bridge for her and the high poker game for him.  Yes, it was paradise all right, while, in their homeland, people munched their spam, fiddled in the black market, cursed the government and suffered the worst winter weather for thirty years.”

 

Yet this easy, comfortable and enviable life in Jamaica didn’t fall into Smythe’s lap.  Gradually, Fleming enlightens us on how Smythe was able to afford it.  In a back story that has echoes of B. Traven’s 1927 novel and John Huston’s 1948 movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, we learn that in the Austrian Alps at the end of World War II, he stumbled across something immensely valuable that he hoarded for himself.  To do this, however, he had to commit murder.  Octopussy describes what happens when Smythe’s ‘ancient sin’ finally catches up with him.  The bearer of the bad news – that the authorities have found out what he did back in the war and intend to arrest him – is a ‘tall man’ in a ‘dark-blue tropical suit’ with ‘watchful, serious blue-grey eyes’.  It’s Bond – though Bond isn’t just carrying out a professional errand.  Eventually we discover that he has a personal stake in bringing Smythe to justice.

 

Once you accept that the story is about Smythe rather than Bond, it proceeds very agreeably.  The plump and comical Smythe, who paddles about the reef in front of his villa and rather pathetically talks to the fish that swim there – plus a unfriendly, tentacled mollusc whom he’s christened ‘Octopussy’ – gradually loses our sympathy as Fleming peels back the layers and we discover the cruel, and unnecessary, deed he committed to enrich himself decades earlier.  Bond is hardly a paradigm of virtue but, equipped with a conscience and a rough-and-ready code of ethics, he’s the antithesis of what’s represented by Smythe.  The scene where the flaccid and weak-willed Smythe confesses his crime to Bond is admirably low-key, but Fleming infuses it with a cold, sadistic tension.

 

The Property of a Lady, on the other hand, is a conventional Bond adventure in miniature.  It has 007 turn the auctioning at Sotheby’s of an artwork designed by Carl Faberge – according to the catalogue, “(a) sphere carved from an extraordinarily large piece of Siberian emerald matrix weighing approximately one thousand three hundred carats” – into a trap to catch the KGB’s director of operations in London.  Also involved is a female Russian double-agent working in the British Secret Service, whom the service is aware of and uses to feed fake information back to Moscow.  To be honest, the plot didn’t make sense to me – I didn’t see how Bond, by snaring London’s top KGB man at Sotheby’s, could avoid alerting Moscow to the fact that British intelligence had cottoned onto the double agent’s existence and were using her for their own ends.

 

Still, the story is readable and the scenes set in Sotheby’s allow Fleming to show off his knowledge – acquired through research or through personal experience – of the world’s most famous broker in fine art.  When Bond expresses surprise that the auctioneer doesn’t bang his gavel three times and declare, “Going, going, gone,” an expert informs him, “You may still find that operating in the Shires or in Ireland, but it hasn’t been the fashion at London sales rooms since I’ve been attending them.”

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Elements from both Octopussy-the-short-story and The Property of a Lady turn up in Octopussy-the-1982-film, which starred Roger Moore.  In the film, the title character is not an octopus but a beautiful and mysterious woman played by Maud Adams, whose father, it transpires, once received a visit from Bond similar to the visit that Major Smythe received in the original story.  (The revelation that Bond knew her father serves, uncomfortably, to underline the 17-year age-difference between Moore and Adams, especially during the inevitable scene where they go to bed together.  By 1982 Moore was getting a bit long in the tooth and really shouldn’t have been doing love scenes.)  The film also has a proper octopus in it, an unfriendly one, and there’s some business too about a Faberge artwork being auctioned off at Sotheby’s.

 

However, if you’ve seen Octopussy-the-movie and don’t remember these things, it’s hardly surprising, because scriptwriters Michael G. Wilson, Richard Maibaum and George McDonald Fraser managed to bung everything into it bar the proverbial kitchen sink.  It has a plot involving the explosion of a nuclear warhead in West Germany, and a circus, and an exiled Afghan prince, and feuding Russian generals, and a sidekick called Vijay played by the real-life Indian tennis star Vijay Amritraj, and a Sikh henchman armed with a blunderbuss, and knife-throwing identical twins, and the latest piece of cutting-edge hi-tech equipment developed by Q, which is a hot-air balloon.  It sees Roger Moore disguised as a circus clown, disguised as a gorilla, disguised as a crocodile and pretending to be Tarzan, complete with a Tarzan-esque yodel.  Much of it takes place in a version of India that combines Indiana Jones with Carry On up the Kyber.  (“Sounds familiar!” quips Moore when he hears a snake charmer play a snatch of Monty Berman’s James Bond Theme on his flute.)  Actually, Octopussy is a terrible film.  It truly belongs in the 007 Pit of Shit alongside 1979’s Moonraker and 2002’s Die Another Day.

 

The third story in the book, The Living Daylights, sees Bond assigned a mission in Berlin.  He has to kill a Soviet sniper whom the KGB have lined up to shoot a defecting scientist while he flees from the east to the west of the city – the story is set shortly before the creation of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie.  Bond has a crisis of conscience when he discovers that the enemy sniper is a woman, an attractive blonde whom he’s seen posing as a member of an orchestra that’s performing on the Communist-Bloc side of town.  This story is incorporated, more or less intact, into the early part of the 1987 movie The Living Daylights, which was the first one to star Timothy Dalton as Bond.  In the film, however, the action is moved to Bratislava, the defector is a KGB officer and his defection is planned to take place during an orchestral performance in a concert hall.

 

Although the rest of the plot of The Living Daylights-the-film is rather convoluted and unsatisfactory, and there are a few daft moments left over from the previous movies in the series (such as one where Dalton and Maryam D’Abo ride down a mountainside using a cello as a sleigh), at the time it seemed to me a breath of fresh air.  It was an attempt at a slightly more sensible Bond film and it had an actor in the lead role trying to depict Bond as the moody, occasionally conscience-stricken character that Fleming had originally written.  (In fact, when he took on the role, Dalton made a point of reading Fleming’s books.)

 

(c) Eon Productions 

 

Alas, Dalton received a rough ride from the critics.  After spending years deriding the Roger Moore-era Bond movies for their campness and silliness, as soon as Dalton appeared those same critics discovered they’d been unconscious Moore-fans all along.  They started moaning about the films becoming too ‘humourless’ and started pining for the good old days when jolly Roger would fight off a giant henchman with steel teeth on top of a cable car with a shaken-not-stirred Vodka Martini and a raised eyebrow, or would escape from the villains in a gondola that cunningly transformed into a nuclear-powered submarine…  Gah!  It just wasn’t fair.

 

The final story, 007 in New York, is a trifle – Bond is sent to the Big Apple to warn a former Secret Service member that the man she’s cohabiting with is actually a Soviet agent, though he spends most of the story’s eight pages planning the shopping, eating, drinking, clubbing and wenching that he’s going to do while he’s there.  This allows Fleming to show off his knowledge of the city – Bond decides to visit “Hoffritz on Madison Avenue for one of their heavy, toothed Gillette-type razors, so much better than Gillette’s own product, Tripler’s for some of those French golf socks made by Izod, Scribner’s because it was the last great bookshop in New York and because there was a salesman there with a good nose for thrillers, and then to Abercrombie’s to look over the new gadgets…  And then what about the best meal in New York – oyster stew with cream, crackers and Miller High Life at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central?  No, he didn’t want to sit up at a bar…  Yes.  That was it!  The Edwardian Room at the Plaza.  A corner table.”

 

Fleming was known to have a predilection for sado-masochism, so it’s telling that 007 in New York also sees Bond considering a visit to a bar he’s heard about that “was the rendezvous for sadists and masochists of both sexes.  The uniform was black leather jackets and leather gloves.  If you were a sadist, you wore the gloves under the left shoulder strap.  For the masochists it was the right.”  Bond has an old flame in New York whom he intends to meet up with and enjoy some nightlife with, including the S-&-M-themed nightlife, and it’s here that a tiny sliver of 007 in New York makes it into the movies too.  The old flame’s name is Solange, which is the name of the character played by Caterina Murino in Casino Royale, which saw Daniel Craig’s debut as Bond, in 2006.

 

The story also had an influence on Solo, the Bond novel recently written by William Boyd.  While Solo includes ‘James Bond’s recipe for salad dressing’, 007 in New York treats us to a recipe for ‘scrambled eggs James Bond’.  I should say, though, that I have my own special recipe for making scrambled eggs and I think it’s way better than Bond’s one.

 

007 in New York is tied up with a gentle, though unexpected, twist that’s worthy of Somerset Maugham – a writer whom Fleming was a big admirer of.  And that, unfortunately, is it.  Fleming had passed away prior to this collection’s publication and no further Bond material appeared under his name.  Thus, Octopussy and The Living Daylights marked the end of James Bond as a literary phenomenon…  For all of two years, until 1968, when Kingsley Amis published Colonel Sun.

 

Boyd and Bond: book review / Solo, by William Boyd

 

(c) Jonathan Cape

 

Before I begin this review of Solo, the new James Bond novel written – with the blessing of Ian Fleming’s estate – by William Boyd, I should say that I like Boyd.  Alright, I haven’t actually read any of his other books, but I’m familiar with some of his screen-work and I’ve read some of his journalism.  He comes across as a decent and sensible type, the sort of bloke whom you’d be happy to sit down and drink a pint with.  This is more than can be said for a few of his contemporaries, who come across as the sort of smug, self-satisfied gits you’d probably find yourself punching before you got halfway through that pint.  I won’t mention any names but I’m sure you know who I mean.  (Okay, I will mention names: Salman Rushdie, A.N. Wilson and Martin bloody Amis.)

 

Also, I feel a slight kinship with Boyd, as both of us have connections with the fine Scottish Borders town of Peebles.  According to an introduction he once wrote for an edition of Alasdair Gray’s landmark novel Lanark, Boyd worked in his youth as a kitchen-porter in the Tontine Hotel on Peebles High Street.  When he travelled to his workplace from his parents’ house, which was three miles along the road from Peebles, he would sometimes get a lift from Stephanie Wolfe-Murray, who would soon set up the now-legendary Scottish publishing house Canongate Books (responsible for publishing Lanark in 1981).

 

Like Boyd, I spent time in Peebles’ hotel trade too.  In my mid-teens I worked as a dishwasher, assistant gardener and general dogsbody at the Venlaw Castle Hotel, which overlooks Peebles on the side of Venlaw Hill.  I used to cycle to work and my journey would take me through a neighbourhood called Dalatho Crescent – which in those days was regarded as The Bronx of Peebles.  (It feels more respectable these days, though maybe that’s only because I’m bigger now.)  Some of the kids who mooched around Dalatho Crescent took a dislike to me, for some reason, and would yell abuse every day as I cycled past.  So while William Boyd got to travel to his job at the Tontine Hotel in the company of the founder of the most important publisher in modern Scottish literature, I travelled to my job at the Venlaw Castle Hotel with street urchins yelling after me, “F**k off, ye f**kin’ wanker, ye!”  I guess that’s where Boyd’s fortunes and my fortunes diverged.

 

I also consider Boyd an excellent choice to write a James Bond novel, as he and Ian Fleming’s super-spy have a few things in common.  There’s the shared Scottish background for a start – according to Fleming’s later books, Bond’s father was Scottish (although his mother was Swiss).  That might be why in Solo, at one point, Boyd describes Bond convalescing at a special military installation south of Edinburgh, which I suspect is actually Glencorse Barracks near Penicuik.  Boyd also has him dining in an oyster restaurant just off Edinburgh’s Princes Street, which is surely the Café Royal.

 

And Boyd, like Bond, spent time being ‘anglicised’ at a posh private school in Scotland.  Boyd attended Gordonstoun in the Scottish Highlands – an experience that inspired him to write the 1983 TV film Good and Bad at Games, an indictment of the bullying that goes on in British boarding schools – while Bond was sent to Fettes Academy in Edinburgh.  Little mention was made of Fettes in Fleming’s original novels, but in Solo Bond is reminded of his alma mater when he accidentally bumps into a former schoolmate – an event that, it must be said, he isn’t thrilled about.

 

Incidentally, during his screenwriting career, Boyd has also worked with three of the actors who’ve played Bond in the ultra-profitable movie franchise that’s been with us since the early 1960s: Pierce Brosnan in 1990’s Mister Johnson, Daniel Craig in 1999’s The Trench and gruff old Sean Connery himself in the 1994 adaptation of his novel A Good Man in Africa.

 

But having said all that, I now must admit that I was a little disappointed in Solo.  Boyd has evidently put a lot of care into the book, but ultimately I couldn’t escape the feeling that what I was reading was just a clever facsimile of an Ian Fleming James Bond novel.  Clever, yes; but a facsimile nonetheless.

 

I’ll start, though, with what Boyd gets right.  He sticks to the timeframe that Fleming established for Bond’s life in the original books, meaning that Bond was born in 1924 and saw military service during World War II – indeed, among Solo’s more effective moments are those where Bond reminisces about his first experience of killing, which happened when, serving as a lieutenant in 1944, he stumbled across a trio of German soldiers in the grounds of a Normandy chateau.  Solo is set at the end of the 1960s, just after the first moon landing, which puts Bond in his mid-forties.  (Actually, at the beginning of Fleming’s early-1950s novel Moonraker, it’s mentioned that 45 is the age at which Bond can expect to retire from MI6, but in Solo thoughts of retirement never enter his head.  We can only assume that he’s already navigated his mid-life crisis and found a second wind.)  M, who in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1963 was commenting darkly about ‘the beatnik problem’, seems surprisingly unperturbed by the hippy movement and the Summer of Love.

 

Keeping true to the spirit of Fleming, Boyd makes Bond very particular about what he eats, drinks, wears and drives.  On page 7 he orders a breakfast of ‘four eggs, scrambled, and half a dozen rashers of unsmoked back bacon, well done, on the side’, while eleven pages later he’s test-driving a four-wheel-drive Jensen FF, the smell of whose leather upholstery ‘worked on him like an aphrodisiac.’  Later, Boyd even gives us 007’s personal formula for making a perfect salad dressing – a recipe I shall certainly file away, alongside Keith Richards’ recipe for bangers and mash.

 

I also like the fact that Bond’s main love interest in this novel, Bryce Fitzjohn, is an actress whose screen name is Astrid Ostergard and whose speciality is gothic horror movies with titles like Vampiria, Queen of Darkness.  The company that employs her, we learn, is called Amerdon Studios – which is obviously a fictional version of the real-life Hammer Films, whose horror movies were at the height of their popularity in the late 1960s.  It’s a nice touch, especially considering how the cinematic overlap between Bond girls and Hammer starlets has been a large one – off the top of my head, I can think of Ursula Andress, Honor Blackman, Martine Beswick, Joanna Lumley, Julie Ege, Jenny Hanley, Anoushka Hempel, Valerie Leon and Caroline Munro, who’ve been both.

 

Alas, Solo lacks fizz in other departments.  The initial setting for the action is a war-torn African republic called Zanzarim, whose government is trying to bring to heel a breakaway (and oil-rich) province called Dahum in its south.  This is promising enough and Boyd – who was born in Ghana – shows a convincing eye for detail.  It feels like a cop-out, though, that he has to use an imaginary African country as his setting, rather than use a real one.  Worse, later on, Boyd relocates the action to Washington DC, which just isn’t interesting enough to be an effective setting – especially as Bond seems to spend a long time staking out a boring-sounding office plaza: ‘Three six-storey glass and concrete office blocks… a large granite-paved public space… stone benches and a generous planting of assorted saplings…  An oval pool with a fountain and a plinth-mounted piece of modern sculpture.’  The mansion house that appears in the book’s climax is disappointingly generic as well.

 

Solo also disappoints with its depiction of the villains – a mysterious multimillionaire called Hulbert Linck and a war-disfigured mercenary called Kobus Breed.  Linck isn’t in the book long enough to make any impression.  Breed gets more to do, but is portrayed as a fairly straightforward psychotic thug – his calling card is to hang up the corpses of his victims with hooks through their jaws – with few quirks or eccentricities to engage the reader’s interest.  That said, I like how Boyd uses Breed’s possible presence to give the book its melancholic ending.

 

And there’s something else lacking, although I can’t quite put my finger on it.  Perhaps it’s the fact that in 2014 nobody can ever quite write a Bond novel in the way that Fleming did – because in our more politically correct times, nobody can invest Bond with quite the same amount of snobbishness, and sexism, and general un-PC-ness, which Fleming did between the 1940s and 1960s.  Sure, Boyd attempts to connect Bond with his dark side a few times.  We see him viciously taking out his frustrations on a trio of young Washington DC muggers who get more than they bargained for when they attempt to rob him, and having a disturbingly voyeuristic snoop around Bryce’s London home just after he’s met her, and confessing late in the book that he feels ‘a little astonished at his own savagery’.  Yet Boyd’s Bond, like all the attempted recreations of Bond in the 21st century, feels a shade too nice.

 

The book has its good points, then, but at the end of the day I can only judge Solo to be, well, so-so.  Despite his talents and despite the fact that he obviously tackled the job conscientiously, William Boyd doesn’t quite have Ian Fleming’s ability to write a Bond novel with the requisite polish and sparkle.

 

But then, who does?

 

Books and films: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

 

(c) Jonathan Cape

 

Although 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is perhaps my favourite James Bond movie, until recently I hadn’t read the Bond novel of the same title, written by Ian Fleming and published in 1963.  This was despite the fact that I’d read most of the other Bond books decades ago when I was a kid.  Some of those novels, in fact, I read before I’d ever seen a Bond film.

 

Now that I’ve finally got around to reading OHMSS, as I will abbreviate its title, and taken another look at the film version on DVD, how do the two measure up?  (If you aren’t familiar with the storylines of the book and film, I should warn that this blog-entry will be chock-full of spoilers.)

 

OHMSS was the tenth of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels and he wrote it in early 1962 at Goldeneye, his estate in Jamaica.  Nearby, meanwhile, Jamaican locations were being used for the filming of the very first Bond movie, Dr No.  Thus, James Bond was undergoing a metamorphosis – from a literary phenomenon into something bigger, a franchise incorporating large-scale movie-making and merchandising whose central character would be an icon of 1960s pop culture.  Though the novels were (refined) examples of pulp fiction, Fleming – who was methodical about his research – did at least try to give them a veneer of believability.  With each successive film, however, Bond seemed to drift further from the realm of possibility and into that of outright fantasy.

 

OHMSS feels like a different sort of James Bond book, but in fact it goes in the opposite direction from that in which the films would go.  It makes Bond more believable as a character, not less so.  It’s ostensibly about the first face-to-face encounter between Bond and his arch-enemy Ernst Stavros Blofeld, who is head of the secretive and deadly crime syndicate SPECTRE.  But OHMSS also explores Bond’s emotional side and highlights his vulnerability.

 

Key to this is OHMSS’s sub-plot about the romance between Bond and Contessa Theresa ‘Tracy’ di Vicenzo, a woman whose father, Marc-Ange Draco, runs a crime syndicate too, the Unione Corse of Corsica.  At the novel’s end, with Blofeld seemingly vanquished, Bond and Tracy get married – only for Blofeld to make a sudden reappearance in the final pages, spraying their bridal car with bullets, killing Tracy and leaving Bond as a babbling wreck.  As a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement noted at the time, this Bond was “somehow gentler, more sentimental, less dirty.”

 

When Cubby Broccoli and Albert Saltzman got around to filming OHMSS six years later, five Bond books had been turned into movies and the continuities of those books and films were already hopelessly at odds.  In the books, Blofeld had made a ‘backstage’ appearance in OHMSS’s immediate predecessor, Thunderball.  In OHMSS’s successor, You Only Live Twice, Bond and he have a second and final meeting – it’s the grim tale of the traumatised Bond hunting down and getting his revenge on Blofeld, much of it taking place on a bizarre ‘island of death’ off the Japanese mainland whose deadly fauna and volcanic discharges attract a steady stream of visitors, wanting to commit suicide.  In the Bond movie-world, though, Blofeld had featured in the backgrounds of From Russia with Love (1963) and Thunderball (1966) and then played a leading role in the film immediately before OHMSS, 1967’s You Only Live Twice – yes, the title that came after it in the book series.  As a result, there isn’t much grimness in You Only Live Twice-the-movie.  It’s a jolly science-fictional romp involving stolen spaceships, a secret base disguised as a Japanese volcano and Donald Pleasance playing Blofeld with a white jumpsuit, severe facial scar and fluffy white cat.  The film is a cartoonish thing compared with the book because, as far as the films are concerned, the murder of Bond’s wife hadn’t happened yet.

 

When OHMSS began filming, the filmmakers – Broccoli and Saltzman, scriptwriter Richard Maibaum and director Peter Hunt, who’d worked as a film editor and second-unit director on the previous five movies – made the brave decision to follow Fleming’s book closely, right up to the tragic denouement.  So keen was Hunt to be faithful to the book that supposedly he carried a copy of it around the set, its pages marked with his own annotations.

 

From 007james.com

 

At the start of OHMSS-the-book, it seems like business as usual for Bond.  As with the previous novels, he’s a sophisticated, money-is-no-object consumer of the sort of food, drink, cigars, clothes and cars that most of Fleming’s post-war, austerity-Britain readers could only dream about.  Although Fleming writes early on that “James Bond was not a gourmet.  In England he lived on grilled sole, oeufs cocotte and cold roast beef with potato salad,” a page later we hear him bitching about the quality of a meal he’s just had in a French eatery, about “…the fly-walk of the Paté Maison (sent back for a new slice) and a Poularde à la crème that was the only genuine antique in the place.  Bond had moodily washed down this sleazy provender with a bottle of instant Pouilly Fuissé and was finally insulted the next morning by a bill for the meal in excess of five pounds.”

 

However, the tone soon changes.  Bond’s in France at the tail end of a mission to locate Blofeld, an interminable and fruitless mission that’s pissed him off to the point where he’s ready to hand in his resignation to M, and he crosses paths with the troubled but imperious Tracy.  In a pricey hotel-cum-casino she commands him: “Take off those clothes.  Make love to me.  You are handsome and strong.  I want to remember what it can be like.  Do anything you like.  And tell me what you like and what you would like from me.  Be rough with me.  Treat me like the lowest whore in creation.  Forget everything else.  No questions.  Take me.”

 

Later, on the coast, Bond intervenes to prevent Tracy from committing suicide and the two of them fall into the clutches of some heavies who turn out to work for Tracy’s father, Draco, godfather of the Unione Corse.  Draco is delighted with Bond taking a protective interest in his daughter and urges him to marry her – offering a dowry of one million pounds as a sweetener.  Bond declines the marriage offer but agrees to continue romancing Tracy, if it’ll help her mental state.  He also manages to coax some information out of his would-be father-in-law regarding Blofeld’s whereabouts.  The super-villain, it transpires, is hiding out in Switzerland.

 

The same events occur in the film version, although in a different order.  First, Bond saves Tracy from drowning herself, then he gets to know her intimately.  Also, the action takes place not in France, but in Portugal – Peter Hunt felt that by this time cinema-goers were over-familiar with the French coast.  Just before the credits kick in (and we get to hear John Barry’s instrumental OHMSS theme, regarded by many as the best Bond tune of the lot), there’s also some breaking of the fourth wall as Bond turns towards the camera and quips, “This never happened to the other fellow.”  For yes, this movie features a brand new James Bond.  Gone is the hairy Edinburgh brawn, slurring Caledonian brogue and insouciant Scottish scowl of Sean Connery – who by then, apparently, couldn’t even bring himself to exchange words with Cubby Broccoli – and in his place is the inexperienced Australian actor George Lazenby.

 

Actually, such a novice was Lazenby at the time that the only thing he was known for was appearing in a TV commercial for Fry’s Chocolate Cream.  I’ve heard a story that Broccoli saw him a barber’s shop, liked the ‘cut of his jib’ and picked him on the spot.  However, interviewed on the making-of documentary that accompanies OHMSS on my DVD, Lazenby claims that he already had an audition for Bond lined up.  He went to that barber’s because he knew that Connery had used it in the past and he thought it was his best bet for getting a ‘Bondian’ haircut.  The establishment was used by other people associated with the Bond movies and Broccoli happened to be there when Lazenby walked in.

 

In contrast with the inexperienced Lazenby, the actress playing Tracy in the movie was already a star – Diana Rigg, who’d made a name for herself playing Emma Peel in the gloriously baroque 1960s TV show The Avengers.  Ironically, for a film series that’s often accused of de-humanising the books and emphasising big, dumb spectacle at the expense of characterisation, Tracy is a more fleshed-out character in the film than in Fleming’s novel.  She’s given more to do and, played by Rigg, she has a sparkle that’s missing in the rather aloof, ambiguous character that Fleming sketches.  Tales about how Lazenby and Rigg didn’t get on during the shoot are legion – most notably about Rigg munching garlic prior to the filming of scenes where Bond and Tracy kiss.  Director Hunt has disputed these claims, although I’ve seen at least one interview with Rigg where her comments about Lazenby are uncomplimentary.

 

From bond-girls.net

 

Both the book and film show Bond getting an unexpected lead about where to find Blofeld in Switzerland – the College of Arms in London has had dealings with his adversary, who wants them to prove that he is heir to the aristocratic title of ‘Compte Balthazar de Bleuchamp’.  This allows Bond to adopt the guise of Sir Hilary Bray, a College of Arms genealogist, and travel to Blofeld’s hideout, a mysterious medical clinic perched on top of the Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps, where he promises to do some research in support of Blofeld’s claim to the title.

 

In the novel Fleming devotes a lot of time to the College of Arms, whose work clearly interests him.  It also allows him to explore the theme of snobbery.  As Sable Basilisk, a genealogy expert interviewed by Bond, comments: “I’ve seen hundreds of smart people from the City, industry, politics – famous people I’ve been quite frightened to meet when they walked into the room.  But when it comes to snobbery, to buying respectability so to speak, whether it’s the title they’re going to choose or just a coat of arms to hang over their fireplaces in Surbiton, they dwindle and dwindle in front of you… until they’re no more than homunculi.”  It’s satisfying that Blofeld’s snobbery is the weakness that allows Bond to ensnare him.  Mind you, some would say this is a bit rich coming from Fleming, considering that his Bond novels, with their suave, sophisticated, well-travelled and well-heeled hero, have often been accused of snobbery themselves.

 

It’s also during this stage of the book we learn some things about Bond’s family.  I’d thought Fleming didn’t provide this information until the next book, You Only Live Twice, but I was wrong.  For example, he’s informed by the College of Arms that his family motto – and coincidentally a title for a Pierce Brosnan Bond movie 30 years later – is ‘the world is not enough’, of which he says, “It is an excellent motto which I shall certainly adopt.”  And we learn that his father was a Scotsman who “came from the Highlands, from near Glencoe” (a detail that was honoured by the latest Daniel Craig Bond movie, Skyfall), while his mother was a Swiss woman.

 

Not that Fleming is particularly complimentary about his parents’ nationalities.  Another genealogist, Griffin Or, says of the Scots in olden times: “In those days, I am forced to admit that our cousins across the border were little more than savages…  Very pleasant savages, of course, very brave and all that…  More useful with the sword than with the pen.”  Of his mum’s side, meanwhile, Bond snorts that ”(m)oney is the religion of Switzerland.”  (M replies to this: “I don’t need a lecture on the qualities of the Swiss, thank you, 007.  At least they keep their trains clean and cope with the beatnik problem…”  If M reckoned there was a problem with the beatniks, God knows how he felt in the late 1960s when the hippies appeared.)

 

Fleming gave Bond a partly Scottish parentage because, it’s said, he was impressed with the job that Connery did of portraying his super-spy when Dr No was filmed in Jamaica in 1962.  Dr No’s influence is detectable elsewhere.  In Blofeld’s Alpine base, which in the book is a ski resort as well as a clinic – in the film it’s only the latter – a character points out to Bond a certain lady among the fashionable skiers: “And that beautiful girl with the long fair hair at the big table, that is Ursula Andress, the film star.”  Andress, of course, was Connery’s co-star in Dr No and has a place in cinematic history as the first major Bond girl.

 

Bond duly goes to the Piz Gloria, pretending to be Sir Hilary Bray – and here the film glaringly contradicts the continuity established by its predecessor.  At the climax of You Only Live Twice-the-movie Bond and Blofeld have a face-to-face confrontation, but in OHMSS Blofeld doesn’t recognise Bond at all.  Actually, Bond might be forgiven for not recognising Blofeld either, for Broccoli and Salzman decided to recast the role of Blofeld too.  Not only do we have Sean Connery replaced by George Lazenby in OHMSS, but we have the goblin-like Donald Pleasance replaced by the bigger and more physical Telly Savalas.  To be honest, Savalas is a shade too thuggish-looking for the role, but he’s believable when doing the strenuous outdoors things required by the script later on, such as leading a ski-group in pursuit of Bond and wrestling with him during a breakneck bobsleigh ride.  Much as I like Donald Pleasance, I couldn’t imagine the silken-voiced, creepy-but-gentlemanly English character actor on a bobsleigh.

 

From whatculture.com

 

What’s officially going on in Blofeld’s clinic, Bond discovers, is that a group of young female patients are receiving treatment for food allergies.  What’s unofficially happening is that Blofeld is brainwashing them whilst simultaneously developing various destructive bacteriological agents in his laboratories.  The brainwashed ladies are to become his ‘angels of death’ and, when they return home, they’ll release those agents to decimate livestock and crops.  Blofeld finds out who Bond really is but the secret agent manages to grab a pair of skis and stages an epic night-time escape from Piz Gloria.  Blofeld’s henchmen pursue, but Tracy turns up in time to rescue him.  Afterwards, he links up with Draco again and he persuades him to launch an audacious attack on Piz Gloria using helicopters and his Unione Corse men.  Blofeld’s plans go up in smoke, although Blofeld himself escapes – despite Bond’s best efforts – using a bobsleigh.  Mission accomplished, Bond proceeds to marry Tracy, and things hurry to their tragic conclusion with Blofeld making an unexpected appearance during their honeymoon.

 

Both the book and film proceed along similar lines here, although it’s interesting to see how certain elements in the 1969 film are pumped up from what Fleming put in his 1963 book.  In 1963, Blofeld was content to wage bacteriological warfare against Britain and Ireland, devastating their wheat, chickens, beef, potatoes, etc.  By 1969, Blofeld has widened his horizons – it’s the whole world’s food supply he wants to decimate.  Accordingly, the ‘angels of death’ undergo an upgrade too.  In the novel they’re a prim, middle-class, goody-two-shoes bunch, all from the British Isles.  Rather disdainfully, Bond reflects: “The girls all seemed to share a certain basic girl guidish simplicity of manners and language, the sort of girls who, in an English pub, you would find sitting demurely with a boyfriend sipping a Babysham, puffing rather clumsily at a cigarette and occasionally saying, ‘Pardon’.  Good girls who, if you made a pass at them, would say, ‘Please don’t spoil it all’, ‘Men only want one thing’, or, huffily, ‘Please take your hand away’.”  One of them even takes umbrage when Bond jokingly likens them to the girls in the St Trinian’s films: “Those awful girls!  How could you ever say such a thing!”

 

In the film, the angels come from all over the world and they’re way more glamorous.  Indeed, a good number of the actresses went on to brighten up my spotty adolescence during the 1970s with appearances in various cult (and sometimes shit) films and TV shows.  There’s Angela Scoular, who also starred in an ‘unofficial’ Bond movie, the dreadful, zany swinging-1960s comedy Casino Royale, in 1967; Norwegian actress Julie Ege, who turned up in a couple of 1970s Hammer horror films; Catherine Schell, who’d be a regular in Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi series Space 1999; Jenny Hanley and Anouska Hempel, both of whom appeared in Hammer’s ultra-tacky Scars of Dracula; and the legendary Joanna Lumley.  In the late 1970s, of course, Lumley would play Purdey in the revival of The Avengers, The New Avengers.  In fact, you could argue that OHMSS-the-move features three Avengers actresses.  In addition to Rigg and Lumley, the face of Honor Blackman – who played Cathy Gale in The Avengers and Pussy Galore in 1964’s Goldfinger – is shown fleetingly during the credits sequence.

 

Nobly, mindful of Bond’s relationship with Tracy, Fleming has his hero seduce just one of the girls – something he does purely in the line of duty.  The filmmakers are less inhibited and for a little while on Piz Gloria Lazenby behaves like a fox in a chicken coop, shagging left, right and centre.  The movie also plays up the humour of the situation.  Sir Hilary Bray is supposed to be Scottish, so Bond dons full Highland dress before going to dinner with his hosts and their supposed patients.  Yes, after having a Scotsman play Bond for five films, Broccoli and Saltzman wait until he’s played by an Australian before they pop him into a kilt.  This enables the Angela Scoular character to write her room number on the inside of Bond’s thigh, using her lipstick, under the table — a manoeuvre that prompts Bond to comment, “I feel a slight stiffness coming on…  in the shoulder.”  If the dialogue for this Bond movie sounds sharper than usual, it’s probably because Simon Raven, the famously dissolute English author, was hired to write it.

 

 From scififlix.com

 

When Bond escapes from Piz Gloria, Peter Hunt and his crew predictably pump up the action scenes well beyond what was in the book, but I’m not complaining.  Even 45 years later, the scenes where Lazenby skis, runs, drives and fights for his life are very impressive and Hunt makes good use of his experience as a film editor – the action has a frenetic quality that, viewed now in the era of the Bourne movies, seems far ahead of its time.  Similarly expanded is the climactic assault on Piz Gloria mounted by Bond, Draco and his gang.  In the book it comes across as a brief ‘smash-and-grab’ raid but in the film it’s a full-on battle, complete with grenades, flame-throwers and flying bottles of acid.  Rarely has the pulse quickened as much as it does when Monty Berman’s James Bond theme kicks in in the midst of the mayhem here.

 

One change made to the plot by the filmmakers that I think improves on the book is Tracy being captured by Blofeld.  In Fleming’s original, after Tracy come to Bond’s aid, she disappears into the background again.  In the movie, Blofeld triggers an avalanche that leaves Tracy unconscious and at his mercy, and Bond missing, presumed dead.  When Bond, who of course isn’t dead at all, goes to Draco for help, the Corsican mafia boss has a very real reason for giving him help – his daughter’s life is at stake.  (It also allows Peter Hunt to show Savalas flirting, with an obviously menacing undercurrent, with Rigg at his mountaintop HQ.  Again, I don’t think poor old Donald Pleasance could have done the flirting bit very convincingly.)

 

Fleming depicts Bond and Tracy’s wedding as brief and low-key, but again the film makes it a big, opulent affair.  M, Q and Miss Moneypenny (who for obvious reasons is rather tearful) are in attendance, as are Draco’s henchmen, many of whom spent the early part of the film getting beaten up by Bond.  However, both the book and the film converge for the ending, which is as melancholy and understated as it is shocking.  No other Bond movie has ended like this one.  Indeed, it’s annoying that the filmmakers saw fit to follow this with 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, which gets Bond’s revenge on Blofeld out of the way in its first ten minutes, and then becomes a big, lazy, jokey and ludicrous Bond epic that would be the blueprint for Bond films later in the 1970s after Roger Moore had inherited the role.  (For a spiritual sequel to OHMSS, I think you have to look to the gritty Timothy Dalton Bond movie Licensed to Kill in 1989.)

 

OHMSS-the-film received some unfavourable reviews and made less money than its predecessors, and for years it was regarded as the runt of the 1960s-Bond-film litter.  Most, if not all, of the animosity towards the film was because in it George Lazenby played Bond for the first and only time.  (For Diamonds are Forever, Broccoli managed to patch things up with the truculent Connery and got him back into the role.)  Lazenby certainly isn’t a great actor, but I would argue that because this is a very different sort of Bond movie, one where Bond appears vulnerable and wounded, the awkward and uncertain Lazenby actually fits the film – he’s believable in terms of what the character has to go through.  I couldn’t imagine ‘Big Sean’ swaggering through the movie in his usual manner and it having quite the same emotional impact.

 

Happily, though, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has been re-evaluated and today is regarded as one of the best of the film series.  In fact, when 007 Magazine ran a poll in 2012, it was voted the greatest James Bond film ever – showing that among diehard Bond fans, at least, it’s the all-time favourite.  And much of the film’s success is due to the fact that, no matter what innovations were brought to the table by the talented Peter Hunt and his crew, it owes a great deal to the original novel by Ian Fleming.

 

 

Burgess, Bond… and birds

 

(c) MGM / UA

 

As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m a fan both of the writer Anthony Burgess and of the James Bond novels and films, so my curiosity was naturally piqued by a recent article in the New Statesman entitled Anthony Burgess’s 007 Obsession (http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/03/anthony-burgesss-007-obsession).

 

The article’s author Andrew Biswell admits that Burgess and 007-creator Ian Fleming were as different as chalk and cheese.  There’s no evidence that Fleming, who died in 1964 – by which time Burgess had penned, among other things, his Malaysia-set The Long Day Wanes trilogy, The Wanting Seed, Honey for the Bears, the first volume in the Enderby series and in 1962 A Clockwork Orange – took any interest in Burgess’s work.  Indeed, it’s possible that the famously snobbish Fleming would’ve looked down upon the Manchester-born, working-class-Catholic Burgess as a bit of an oik.

 

That, however, didn’t stop Burgess from taking a strong interest in Fleming and the Bond novels.  He saw the opulent escapism of the books, written immediately after World War II, as a commentary on the drab, depressed Britain of that post-war period, when the economy was in ruins and Britons still struggled with rationing.

 

Later in his life, aware that the context of the Bond books was lost on a younger generation who only knew the character through the Broccoli / Salzman film series, Burgess wrote that “Bond belongs to history and these are historical novels.”

 

A while back I posted a review of Burgess’s 1966 spy novel Tremor of Intent, which at times comes across as a pastiche of the Bond novels.  At other times, though, it draws its influences from the less glamorous and more realistic espionage fiction of John le Carre, Len Deighton and Graham Greene, which means the result is uneven – Burgess’s show-off prose style doesn’t help, either.  Nonetheless, Tremor provides the clearest evidence of Burgess’s preoccupation with Commander Bond.

 

What I hadn’t known before I read Biswell’s article was that in 1975 Cubby Broccoli commissioned Burgess to write a film-script for The Spy Who Loved Me, which made it to cinema screens two years later.  (The Spy Who Loved Me was the shortest, most low-key and least typical of Fleming’s 007 novels – Bond himself only appears during its final third – and it was deemed unfilmable, so the filmmakers were free to make up a new story.  Mind you, admirers of Fleming’s books would argue that making the stories up was pretty much what the filmmakers had been doing all along.)

 

Burgess’s completed script features an organisation called CHAOS (Consortium for Hastening the Annihilation of Organised Society), which places miniature nuclear bombs inside the bodies of unsuspecting victims while they are anaesthetised at a private clinic.  It also involves a plot whereby one of these walking bombs will blow up the Queen while she’s visiting Sydney Opera House.  Bond, who’s lately trained as an acupuncturist, saves the day by using his acupuncture skills to defuse the human bomb.  However, Broccoli binned Burgess’s script, assuming that the author was taking the piss, and the script that was finally used for the film was procured from Richard Maibaum and Christopher Wood instead.

 

By a coincidence, at almost the same time that Biswell’s piece appeared in the New Statesman, the Independent published an interview with one of the The Spy Who Loved Me’s eventual scriptwriters, Christopher Wood: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/confessions-of-a-sexfarce-writer-timothy-leas-sexual-misadventures-to-be-published-as-ebooks-8558702.html.

 

Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange – starring Malcolm McDowell as Alex the Droog, the embodiment of every British adult’s fears about juvenile delinquency in the early 1970s – ensured that Anthony Burgess’s name appeared on plenty of film posters at the time.  Meanwhile, Christopher Wood’s name appeared on many film posters of the era too.  These were for films portraying another form of adolescent bad behaviour.  Not violence, but sex.

 

(c) Warner Brothers 

 

Christopher Wood, you see, scripted the tacky British sex-comedy film Confessions of a Window Cleaner in 1974.  (The adjective ‘tacky’ invariably comes to mind when you attempt to describe any British film that involves comedy and sex.)  This was based on Wood’s own novel, which he’d written under the pseudonym Timothy Lea, and it was the first in a series of Confessions movies that were made until 1978 — further entries included Confessions of a Pop Performer, Confessions of a Driving Instructor and Confessions from a Holiday Camp.  All starred Robin Askwith in the lead role, playing a gormless 1970s British young ‘bloke’, desperate to get his end away with a succession of busty, lovely ‘birds’.  Also appearing in those films was Liverpudlian actor Tony Booth, who is better known these days as the father of Cherie Booth / Blair and the father-in-law of the not-much-missed former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

 

British film connoisseurs may hate to admit it, but the shag-happy Askwith, with his wide lapels, flared trousers and hairy sideburns, is as much of an icon of British cinema as Malcolm McDowell’s psychotic, bowler-hatted and spider-lashed  Alex in A Clockwork Orange — or indeed James Bond.  After all, Confessions of a Window Cleaner was the biggest-grossing British film of 1974.  And even when the film series died a death in the late 1970s, Wood continued to write sex-comedy novels using the Timothy Lea pseudonym and using the Confessions of… prefix.  The books were popular enough to eventually run to a total of 27 volumes.

 

(c) Columbia Pictures 

 

The Independent interviewed Wood recently because the publisher HarperCollins has now decided to re-release his Confessions novels as ebooks.  Christ knows why, I have to say.  As the film critic David McGillivray once said about the British sex-comedy genre, the one thing that all those films, including the Confessions ones, had in common was that they weren’t at all sexy.

 

In Christopher Wood’s defence, though, I should add that The Spy Who Loved Me is easily the best of the James Bond movies with Roger Moore in the lead role.  (That’s despite the fact that Roger Moore is about as convincing playing a licenced-to-kill secret agent as Robin Askwith is playing a sex stud.)  Unfortunately, Wood maintained his association with Cubby Broccoli and contributed the script for the next Bond film, 1980’s Moonraker, which many aficionados would identify as the series’ all-time worst entry.

 

Featuring a plot to rain a deadly nerve gas down on earth from an orbiting space station, and containing a gondola that turns into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft, and using as comedy relief an indestructible henchman with steel teeth, Moonraker makes Anthony Burgess’s script about human nuclear bombs, the Sydney Opera House and acupuncture sound almost sensible.

 

Another Burgess defects: book review / Tremor of Intent by Anthony Burgess

 

This is the second time that I’ve posted this review of Anthony Burgess’s 1966 spy novel.  The first time, it was immediately bombarded with hundreds of spam messages, most of them emanating from – rather appropriately – Russia.  Such was the intensity of the spam that I took the post down after a couple of days.  I am now reposting it, under a slightly different title.  Let’s see what happens this time…

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

For someone considered a major figure in late-twentieth-century British letters, Anthony Burgess always seemed like an outsider to me.  Unlike many of his literary peers, who were from privileged backgrounds and were Oxbridge-educated, Burgess had a lower middle-class upbringing in Manchester – his dad was a bookkeeper and pub-pianist who later acquired a few tobacconist and off-licence shops – and he attended university in the same city.  By the time he’d become a full-time writer, which wasn’t until he was in his forties, he’d held a number of proper jobs, in the army, in teaching and in the colonial service.

 

An enthusiastic composer and an accomplished linguist as well as an author, Burgess saw himself as a renaissance man and didn’t shrink from showing off his multifarious talents.  I suspect this led to him being frowned upon in some corners of the literary establishment for committing that most British of crimes, of ‘being too clever for his own good’.  He was also an incorrigible self-publicist in an era when it was still considered good form for British writers to be read and not heard.  Rarely did he seem to be absent from the newspapers and television.  A disdainful Graham Greene was known to have marvelled of him: “He talks about his books.”  Of course, were he alive today, when writers are encouraged to be visible and vocal and to miss no opportunity to sell themselves, Burgess would be in his element.  He’d be blogging, tweeting and Facebook-posting like mad.

 

One thing that Burgess was not, however, was a book snob.  Unlike the Gore Vidals, Howard Jacobsons and James Kelmans of this world, he didn’t regard genre writing as being unworthy of literary consideration.  Indeed, in Ninety-Nine Novels, his round-up of the best English-language novels written between 1939 and 1984, he championed works by several writers usually associated with the crime, espionage, science fiction and fantasy genres, including Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Raymond Chandler, Len Deighton, Mervyn Peake, Keith Roberts, T.H. White and (pertinently for this review) Ian Fleming.  And he tried his hand at a number of genres himself.  Though his Dickensian love for eccentric characters meant that all his books contained humour, a few were out-and-out comedies, most notably the Enderby novels.  Meanwhile, his best-remembered work, A Clockwork Orange, could be classed as science fiction, as could the lesser-known The Wanting Seed and 1985.  And then there’s his 1966 novel Tremor of Intent, where he tackled a genre enjoying immense popularity at the time: the spy thriller.

 

Though Tremor of Intent, if it’s remembered at all these days, is probably thought of as ‘the one where the Clockwork Orange man did a Bond pastiche’, Burgess actually drew on two sources for his inspiration.  One source was indeed Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, which had less to do with the genuine espionage world of the 1950s and 1960s and had more to do with the adventure stories of earlier decades — real-life adventure stories from World War II (when Fleming had worked in naval intelligence and known various military types who’d done heroic things behind enemy lines) and fictional adventure stories from the 1920s and 1930s, like John Buchan’s books about Richard Hannay and Herman Cyril McNeile’s ones about Bulldog Drummond.

 

Accordingly, Tremor of Intent, like the Bond novels and their predecessors, abounds with exotic locations, beautiful ladies, and larger-than-life villains.  Villains don’t come much larger than the book’s Mr Theodorescu, a man “of a noble fatness; the fat of his face was part of its essential structure, not a mean gross accretion, and the vast shapely nose needed those cheek-pads and firm jowls for a proper balance.”

 

The other inspiration for Tremor of Intent was the less sensational, more ‘realistic’ spy novel dealing with moles and double-agents, with betrayal and defection – themes that inform such classics of the genre as John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Len Deighton’s Berlin Game and Graham Greene’s The Human Factor.  These works take their cue from real events – the defections to Moscow of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951 and of Kim Philby in 1963.  Educated at expensive boarding schools and at Cambridge University, Philby, Burgess and Maclean belonged to the upper strata of the class system that was supposed to give Britain its continuity and stability.  Yet, once they’d strolled into jobs in British Intelligence and the British Foreign Office, they started feeding secret information to the Soviets.  The people who were selling Britain out to the communist enemy weren’t working-class militants and revolutionaries at the bottom of the pile – the real traitors were snobs and elitists at the top.

 

(It must’ve been galling for Anthony Burgess in the early 1980s when a survey was conducted to find out how familiar the British public were with their major authors.  When they heard his name, most people identified him as the guy, or Guy, who’d fled across the Iron Curtain in the 1950s.)

 

Tremor of Intent deals with a British traitor, a scientist called Roper, who in the manner of Philby, Burgess and Maclean has defected to the Soviet Union; and a British agent called Hilliard who is assigned the task of abducting Roper back home again while he attends a conference in the Balkans. The twist is that Roper and Hilliard are old friends.  Their relationship dates back to a boyhood spent in a strict Catholic school, staffed by fanatical priests with a predilection for ranting and raving about the sins of the flesh: “This damnable sex, boys – ah, you do well to writhe in your beds at the very mention of the word.  All the evil of our modern times springs from unholy lust, the act of the dog and the bitch on the bouncing bed, limbs going like traction engines, the divine gift of articulate speech diminished to squeals and groans and pantings.”

 

If Burgess’s evocation of Hilliard and Roper’s schooldays brings to mind James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and its passages describing the terrors of Stephen Dedalus’s Catholic education, it’s unsurprising.  Burgess was a big Joyce fan.  He once wrote an introduction to the language-bending Irishman called Here Comes Everybody and Joyce was obviously an influence on his writing style.

 

The young Roper stands up to the priests by bamboozling them with his scientific knowledge, but that’s about the last noble thing he does in the book.  Thereafter, he becomes increasingly wretched.  By the end of World War II he’s spouting pro-Nazi sympathies and soon his loyalties shift further eastwards.  He finally falls into a communist honey-trap involving an attractive but duplicitous East German woman, which seals his fate as a traitor and defector.

 

Hilliard, whom we first meet on a cruise ship heading towards the site of the now-defected Roper’s conference, is a more admirable character.  However, he’s noticeably inept as an undercover spy.  For his mission, he’s assumed the identity of a typewriter technician – a typical flourish from Burgess, who once published a book of essays called Homage to QWERTYUIOP – but he’s soon rumbled by a precocious schoolboy on board the ship called Alan Walters, who knows more about typewriters than Hilliard does.  Alan, in fact, knows a great deal about many subjects and I suspect he resembles the know-all brat that Burgess probably was himself at the same age.  At least, as the novel develops, Alan’s allowed some character development and he ends up as a definite good guy.

 

Inevitably, considering the fact that it uses elements from both the unpretentious Bond stories and from the more cerebral spy novels of le Carre and company, and considering all the additional baggage that Burgess brings along, such as Catholicism, humour and Joycean prose, Tremor of Intent is erratic.  Parts of it work well but other parts of it misfire.  The most effective scenes are those set on board the cruise ship, which is populated in the best Agatha Christie tradition by passengers with dishonourable motives and by crew-members who know more than they’re letting on.  Foremost among the passengers are Theodorescu, a man who makes his money by trading secrets between East and West, and his beautiful but lethal sidekick, Miss Devi.  Among his many bad points, Theodorescu happens to be a paedophile, which is a telling sign of the book’s vintage.  In the 1960s, paedophilia was just another character-trait that added colour to the bad guy in a spy story.  In our ultra-sensitive world today, it would be the defining, be-all-and-end-all trait that damns the character to evilness.

 

Possibly the novel’s best scene is the one where Hilliard and Theodorescu square up to each other for the first time, eager to test one another’s mettle but before hostilities have been openly declared.  In a Bond book or movie, this would usually happen in a casino, over a game of poker.  In Tremor of Intent, it takes place in the ship’s restaurant, when Theodorescu declares, “I will make a bargain with you.  Whoever eats the less shall pay for the wine.  Are you agreeable?”  There follows an epic contest of gluttony, as Hilliard and Theodorescu eat their way through the menu, verbally sparring whilst subjecting their digestive systems to increasing strain and pain.

 

Burgess has a field day describing the gastronomic duel and the dishes are served up relentlessly: “red mullet and artichoke hearts… fillets of sole Queen Elizabeth, with sauce blonde… soufflé au foie gras… avocado halves with caviar and a cold chiffon sauce… some lamb persillee and onions and gruyere casserole with green beans and celery julienne… pheasant with pecan stuffing… broccoli blossoms… some spinach and minced mushrooms… harlequin sherbert… peach mousse with sirop framboise… poires Helene with cold chocolate sauce… nectarine flan… frothing Blanquette… chocolate rum dessert, garnished with whipped cream and Kahlua… orange marmalade crème bavaroise, loud with Cointreau…”  The first Bond novels appeared immediately after World War II, when Britain’s economy had been wrecked and food-rationing was a fact of life, and it’s likely that the books’ initial readers lapped them up for their opulent escapism.  A few hours in the company of Commander Bond would transport you to a world of hedonistic consumerism, a world where the food, liquor, cigars, clothes and cars were lavishly expensive and never-ending.  Hilliard’s gluttonous and costly joust with Theodorescu in the restaurant seems to be Burgess’s sly acknowledgement of this.

 

In other places, however, Tremor of Intent goes astray.  Often this is because of Burgess’s writing style, with its Joycean pretensions, which just seems inappropriate for this particular genre.  Never one to shirk the charge of showing off, he pens flamboyant passages of fragmented sentences and disappearing punctuation, of word-puns and alliteration — when, for example, describing the effects of the drug, ‘B-type vellocet’, that Theodorescu uses to winkle information out of his victims.

 

There is also some torturous writing when Hilliard, inevitably, gets to do the dirty with Miss Devi: “With athletic swiftness he turned her to the primal position and then, whinnying like a whole herd of wild horses, shivering as if transformed to protoplasm save for that plunging sword, he released lava like a mountain in a single thrust of destruction, so that she screamed like a burning city.”  Yes, Burgess is taking the piss here, but that sentence would still make a worthy winner of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Writing Award.

 

Graham Greene once remarked that, in an adventure story, the action scenes can only be described in the plainest and most economical of prose – because violence happens simply and it happens fast.  Burgess, whose prose obviously isn’t plain or economical, or simple or fast, deals with this potential problem in Tremor of Intent by not having any traditional adventure-story action scenes.  Even the final showdown between Hilliard and Theodorescu, which involves an elevator, a syringe of B-type vellocet and a chase along a waterfront, is imbued with an unexpectedly slow, languid and ruminative quality.  And to be fair to Burgess, the sequence is actually disturbing because of that.

 

There are issues with the overall tone of the book too.  At times – for example, when he’s describing the hapless Roper’s ethical and psychological decline – Burgess seems close to believing that he’s writing a serious book.  At other times, though, he knows that he’s writing a pastiche, an exercise in a genre that has well-defined rules and limits, and he’s keen to transmit this knowingness to his readers, who are presumably in on the joke too.  Thus, when Hilliard starts blabbing secrets to Theodorescu, we get the jargon of hackneyed spy movies and cliched spy fiction: “Operation Aegir…  A pocket television transmitter called, for some reason, Nur-al-Hihar…  The Nero Caesar cryptogram…  The air exercise known as Britomart…  An atomiser-gun provisionally named Cacodemon…  The Thermidorian tumbrils…  Miniature nuclear submarines called Fomors…”

 

The book’s ending deserves mention, for it sees an unexpected switch-of-location to Dublin – not a city one normally associates with espionage stories – and it sees Hilliard, remorseful for all the bad things he’s done in life, abandon the Secret Service and take on a rather different vocation.  It’s an interesting twist, though not one I found convincing, judging by what I’d already read of Hilliard’s character and motivations.  I suspect this ending, set in the landscape of Burgess’s literary hero, James Joyce, is as much for Burgess’s benefit as it is for his main character.  I know I’d defected for a time into writing spy thrillers, he seems to be signalling, perhaps unconsciously; but don’t worry, now I’ve defected back – back to the land of proper literature!

 

Tremor of Intent, then, is a book with some serious problems.  It’s uneven, its prose-style is often inappropriate, and it doesn’t seem to know if it’s to be taken seriously or to be taken as a joke – sometimes it tries to be taken both ways.  However, if you like Anthony Burgess and if you like Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, you should get some enjoyment out of it.  I can happily tick both those boxes but I doubt if many other readers can.  And I suppose that’s why this odd, one-off novel, from a flawed but exuberantly talented writer, is almost forgotten today.

 

Some random thoughts about Skyfall

Or…  Another 3000 words about 007.

 

 (c) Eon Productions

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m heavily into bondage.  That’s James Bond-age I should add, the practice of obsessing over the licenced-to-kill hero of Ian Fleming’s espionage novels during the 1950s and 1960s and the subsequent 50-year cycle series of movies produced by Albert Salzman and the Broccoli family – and not ‘the practice of being physically restrained, as with cords or handcuffs, as a means of attaining sexual gratification’, as The Free Dictionary online drily defines it.

 

Last weekend I finally – finally! – got around to seeing Skyfall, the 23rd film in the official Bond series and the third to star Daniel Craig in the lead role.  Since its release last October, it has also proven to be the biggest-grossing Bond movie to date and has also been one of the most critically acclaimed.  So what did I think of it?  Here I’ll offer a few random opinions.  It goes without saying that, in delivering these opinions, I’ll serve up all sorts of spoilers.  So if you haven’t yet seen Skyfall and don’t want to have its surprises ruined for you, don’t read any further.

 

One.  There’s still a bit of Ian Fleming in it.

 

The Bond-movie producers have long since run out of Ian Fleming novels to base their films on, and to be honest, even when they hadn’t exhausted the original seam of books, the films often had precious little to do with their source material anyway.  For example, the 1955 novel Moonraker was a post-war austerity-era thriller set entirely in the south of England, centring on a disfigured millionaire industrialist, who is actually a former Nazi, plotting to avenge Germany’s defeat in 1945 by destroying London with an experimental missile.  The 1979 movie Moonraker had none of this.  It did, however, have space shuttles, a space station, a big space laser battle, enough nerve gas to destroy the human race, a cable-car chase, a speedboat chase, an ancient pyramid in the Brazilian jungle that’s actually a disguised shuttle-launching base, a Venetian gondola that converts into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft, and a giant henchman with steel teeth.  You get the idea.

 

One element of Skyfall comes directly from Ian Fleming, though.  The opening section, where MI6 mistakenly believes that Bond has been killed in action and his boss M writes an obituary for him in the Times, is lifted from the closing pages of Fleming’s 1964 novel You Only Live Twice.  (Bond is also declared dead in the 1967 movie version of You Only Live Twice, but in this case his death is faked by MI6, to give him respite from his legions of enemies who want him truly dead.)  M’s obituary reveals that Bond wasn’t the true-blooded Englishman that everyone thought he was, but was in fact the offspring of a Scotsman, Andrew Bond from Glencoe, and a Swiss woman, Monique Delacroix from Canton de Vaud – though Bond was orphaned at the age of 11 when they were killed in a climbing accident.  (According to M / Fleming, he was then sent to live with an aunt in a hamlet in Kent called Pett Bottom, which believe it or not is a real locality: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pett_Bottom.)  In its final section, Skyfall explicitly references the Scottish origins that Fleming devised for Bond, but I’ll talk about that a little later.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

One feature of Skyfall that’s particularly Fleming-esque is the amount of alcohol consumption going on.  Never mind the occasional dry martini and lemonade, shaken but not stirred – the literary Bond was a pisshead, often relying on alcohol to smooth the ugly, jagged edges of his existence as a government-employed killer.  (Admittedly, the novels were written at a time when it hadn’t yet become fashionable to fret about the health and social hazards of alcohol abuse.)  In Skyfall, for instance, we see Daniel Craig knocking back some hard stuff in Turkey, not even bothering to deal with a scorpion that’s attached itself to his sleeve until he’s downed the last drop in his glass.  No wonder he suffers from the shakes when he’s re-assigned to duty.  We see in a couple of scenes that Judi Dench’s M is clearly in love with her Scotch whisky too.  Indeed, Skyfall contains one or two moments where you wonder if it might’ve been more appropriately titled Skinful.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Two.  Didn’t we see a lot of this in The World Is Not Enough?

 

Pierce Brosnan’s third outing as James Bond, 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, has a section set in Istanbul, as does Skyfall.  It has another section set in the Scottish Highlands, specifically at Eilean Donan Castle on the Ross and Cromarty coast, which is about 80 miles’ drive north from Glencoe, a location appearing in Skyfall.  Also, in both films, there is a villain (or villainess) whose relationship with M is more complex than one of simple professional enmity; an introduction of a new Q; and a deadly explosion that rocks MI6’s London headquarters beside Vauxhall Bridge and overlooking the Thames.

 

The ingredients may be similar, but there is one major difference between Skyfall and The World Is Not EnoughSkyfall mixes those ingredients together a lot more successfully.  That said, I don’t think The World Is Not Enough is a particularly bad film and it didn’t deserve the critical slagging-off it got on its release.  Sophie Marceau and Robert Carlisle are particularly good in it as the villainous duo planning to destroy Istanbul by blowing up a Russian nuclear submarine in the Bosphorus.

 

But it suffers from an unevenness of tone, the quality stuff cancelled out by some truly duff elements.  Particularly cringe-inducing is John Cleese’s debut appearance as R, the replacement for Q, in which he clowns in the MI6 lab to no comic effect whatsoever with a special coat that inflates into a giant safety capsule.  Compare that with the first encounter between Daniel Craig and Ben Wishaw’s Q in Skyfall, in front of William Turner’s painting The Fighting Temeraire in the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, which manages both to be very amusing and to have a gravity worthy of Stanley and Livingstone’s meeting in Tanzania in 1871.

 

And let’s not even talk about Denise Richards’ performance as ultra-forgettable ‘Bond girl’ Christmas Jones in The World Is Not Enough.  Her sole function in the film seemed to be to enable Pierce Brosnan to make a quip about Christmas coming more than once a year.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Three.  There’s also a bit of Roger Moore in this.

 

James Bond was rogered in the 1970s in more ways than one.  This, of course, was when Sean Connery retired from the role and it was passed on to suave, safari-suited plank of wood Roger Moore, who then starred in a series of lazy extravaganzas where the only things more airheaded than the leading ladies (Jane Seymour’s Solitaire, Britt Ekland’s Mary Goodnight, Barbara Bach’s Anya Amasova) were the scripts.  1979’s Moonraker, described at the beginning of this entry, is the worst offender.  However, on the greyhound-track of 007-awfulness, there are several other Roger Moore dogs barking closely at Moonraker’s tail.

 

Now that Daniel Craig has played Bond in three films as a rugged and fairly humourless bruiser – even his prominent ears give the impression that his head’s been punched more times than is good for it – the very last things you’d expect to find in the Bond franchise are echoes of the bad old days with Roger Moore.  But I did find a few of those echoes in Skyfall, amazingly enough.  Namely:

 

A. Reptile-treading.  The scene in the Macao casino where Craig escapes from a pit of komodo dragons by hopping onto one of the beasts’ backs, and from there hopping up to the pit’s edge, is reminiscent of the scene in 1974’s Live and Let Die, where Moore runs across a pool in a crocodile farm using the crocodiles as stepping stones.

 

B. Dropping villains from great heights.  Once in a blue moon in the 1970s and early 1980s, Roger Moore’s Bond would be allowed, briefly, to show his dark side – presumably these hard-boiled bits were shot furtively whilst Cubby Broccoli was taking a nap at the corner of the set – and it invariably involved him chucking a bad guy off something tall.  In 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, he tips henchman Sandor (Milton Reid) over the edge of a Cairo rooftop.  In 1982’s For Your Eyes Only, he pushes a precariously-balanced car, containing cold-blooded assassin Locque (Michael Gothard), over an Albanian cliff-edge.  For this reason, I was reminded of Moore when in Skyfall Craig drops international hit-man Patrice (Ola Rapace) from the top floor of a Shanghai skyscraper.

 

C. Bad dental work.  At one point in Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s villain Silva removes some false teeth and shows M the disfiguring effects of a cyanide capsule that he broke in his mouth in a failed effort to kill himself.  Seeing the mangled, corroded state of Bardem’s teeth, I found myself thinking of Jaws, Moore’s nemesis in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, who was played by Richard Kiel and who had surely the worst dentist on the planet.

 

Four.  Bond travels back to his Scottish roots in more ways than one.

 

The final section of Skyfall has Bond and M take flight from Silva and his mercenaries.  They finally hole up in the crumbling mansion on the remote Scottish Highland estate where, it transpires, the young Bond lived with his parents.  We even get a glimpse of his parents’ headstone in the estate cemetery.  Obviously, this plot development comes from the backstory that Fleming created for Bond late in the original cycle of novels.  But it’s significant on a couple of other levels too.

 

For one thing, Bond and M make the journey to Scotland in the Aston Martin DB5 that Sean Connery drove in Goldfinger back in 1964.  Connery, first and greatest of the cinematic Bonds, is of course a Scotsman and so this pilgrimage north of the border can be seen as a tribute to the films’ roots as well.  (The story goes that by the time Fleming wrote You Only Live Twice in 1964, he’d seen Connery’s film debut as his superspy hero and he was impressed enough by the performance to, belatedly, give Bond a Scottish background.  Indeed, he even linked Bond to Edinburgh, Connery’s home city, though their social situations there were rather different.  The young James Bond attended Edinburgh’s poshest school, Fettes Academy, which was later the alma mater of a certain Anthony Charles Lynton Blair; whereas the young Sean Connery worked on a milk-round with Alec Kitson, who later became chairman and treasurer of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.)

 

 (c) Eon Productions

 

I was a little disappointed that Kincade, the elderly estate gamekeeper who turns up near the end to help Bond and M out when Silva and his goons lay siege to the mansion, doesn’t have a Scottish accent.  Although it’s great to see Albert Finney in the role (and he has a pleasing chemistry with Judi Dench), his gruff Lancashire tones are scarcely what you’d expect to hear emanating from a bearded ghillie who’s spent a lifetime tramping around the heathery northern Highlands.  I also couldn’t help thinking what a headf**k it would’ve been if the producers had managed to lure Sean Connery out of retirement and got him to play Kincade instead (though knowing Connery, he’d probably have demanded ten zillion pounds for the job).  In fact, since seeing the film, I’ve read that Skyfall director Sam Mendes did briefly consider offering the role to Connery, but decided not to, since it’d constitute a pretty blatant case of stunt casting.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/04/sam-mendes-skyfall_n_2074239.html)

 

One other thing that makes the Scottish-set ending feel appropriate is a sense that the film is paying tribute to Bond’s literary roots too.  In creating Bond, Fleming – like many thriller writers of his day – was influenced by the five Richard Hannay novels written by Scottish author John Buchan between 1915 and 1936.  The first and most famous of these books, The 39 Steps, sees Hannay framed for a murder and then pursued across Britain by the police and by enemy agents.  Just as Bond and M do in Skyfall, he ends up trying to elude his pursuers in Scotland – not in the Highlands, but in the equally scenic and desolate (if somewhat less spectacular) landscapes of Galloway in the southwest.  Hannay is considerably more clean-cut than Bond – as Buchan was himself, he’s a good Presbyterian.  But the character’s influence on the 007 novels can’t be underestimated.

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

Five.  God knows what James Bond universe this film is set in.

 

The first Bond movie with Daniel Craig on board, 2006’s Casino Royale, was intended to be a reboot of the series.  It opens with a scene where Bond kills somebody for the first time and wins his double-0 status from M.  Thus, it starts the story again from scratch, in the process seemingly discounting all the previous movies with Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan.  Even so, it isn’t particularly convincing as a reboot because Craig is still taking orders from M as played by Judi Dench, who of course had been in charge of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond during four previous films.

 

In Skyfall, however, we get several suggestions that Craig’s Bond is the same secret agent who had all those earlier adventures from the 1960s to the early 2000s.  His first exchange with Q – Bond expressing incredulity at Q’s youthfulness and Q making dismissive comments about “exploding pens” – suggests that Craig had worked with the old Q, who’d been armourer to Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan and who’d been played by the much-loved and much-missed Desmond Llewellyn.  And then we get the scene where Craig collects the Aston Martin DB5, out of Goldfinger, from a London garage.  Of course, it could be any old Aston Martin DB5, not the Aston Martin DB5.  However, any old Aston Martin DB5 wouldn’t have machine guns concealed under its headlights, would it?

 

However, just as we’re getting used to the idea that this film is set in the James Bond universe of old, a character whom Bond has only recently met reveals her full name.  She’s Moneypenny, Miss Moneypenny, and she’s taking on the job of secretary to M.  Of course, Miss Moneypenny was a fixture of the films from 1962 to 2002, played by actresses Lois Maxwell, Caroline Bliss and the aptly-named Samantha Bond.  So how can Daniel Craig’s Bond be the old Bond if he’s meeting Moneypenny for the first time only now?!

 

Then again, this is a film series that managed to go from gritty Cold War thriller From Russia With Love to ludicrous sci-fi comedy Moonraker in little more than 15 years.  So these continuity issues probably aren’t worth worrying about.

 

And what did I think of Skyfall overall?  Well, it’s not perfect – the climax is a little too protracted for my liking, and for Javier Bardem’s convoluted computer-hacking plot to work, it needs a prescience of what his adversaries are going to do that’s practically superhuman.  But the film is nonetheless very good.  All credit to Sam Mendes who – in a franchise that isn’t known for allowing its directors to express much individuality – manages to put his own stamp on the proceedings without diluting them and making them anything less than 100%-proof Bondian.  He makes good action-movie use of the Turkish and Scottish settings without resorting to the frantic quick-fire editing that made 2008’s Quantum of Solace migraine-inducing at times.  And with the scenes set in Shanghai – where some violent action takes place against a hallucinogenic backdrop of Blade Runner-style neon – he achieves something extra-special.

 

This Bond movie seems to be imbued with a comfortably patriotic glow.  It projects an image of modern-day Britain that would surely be endorsed by Her Majesty’s Government, by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and by the British Council – an image of a sometimes battered and harassed little country but one that’s nonetheless very plucky, if not indomitable.  It’s choc-a-bloc with tradition, history and ageless landscapes – great for tourists to visit, incidentally – but is also cosmopolitan, inclusive (as indicated by the ethnicity of the new Miss Moneypenny) and geekily hi-tech and up-to-date.  In a big, bad world, it’s still well-able to punch above its weight.  Small wonder that Daniel Craig / Bond was drafted in for the opening ceremony of last summer’s London Olympics, though one wonders why Danny Boyle got the Queen to parachute out of a helicopter with him.  Who needs the Queen when you hang out with someone as awesomely regal as Judi Dench?

 

This comfortable sense of Britishness may not last, however – not least because of the referendum about Scottish independence planned for 2014.  If a majority of Scots voted ‘yes’ in the referendum, it’d leave the United Kingdom with a diminished presence on the world stage and give James Bond a rather smaller homeland to defend.  Just now, with opinion polls suggesting that only a third of the Scottish population will vote ‘yes’ and nearly a half will vote ‘no’, Scotland’s secession from the UK looks unlikely.  However, Daniel Craig’s most illustrious predecessor may soon be embarking on a mission to change that state of affairs.

 

From www.4.bp.blogspot.com