Features & Columns

The Mask of James Bond

Richard von Busack on our love affair with 007
BOND: Over the course of five decades, 007 has changed with the times, even as he has remained the same.

And once again, the Englishman saves the world. Spectre has the second biggest opening of any of the 24 canonical EON production James Bond films. To inflame the Bond fever, some 15 earlier 007 films are now streaming on Hulu Plus, including the magnificent 1969 cult Bond On Her Majesty's Secret Service, an early attempt to bring Bond back to earth and to make him as much a lover as he is a fighter.

It's a mystery how the same British agent can be both clown-suit wearing kid entertainer (in Octopussy, 1983) and the stone killer that the amazing Daniel Craig plays in this critic- and fan-savaged hit of today. The phenomenon of the 1960s box office, spurring hundreds of imitators around the globe, has been considered passe by serious cultural commentators since the close of the '60s, and yet something in the James Bond movie's DNA kept it alive despite it all.

Spectre is a matter of controversy—"Worst Bond in 30 years," cries one critic, Scott Mendelson of Forbes. This, even though Spectre delivers what the fans had wanted for decades: the resurrection of the British secret agent's greatest enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The Professor Moriarity of the Bond saga is played by Christoph Walz.

Even people who dislike the rest of Spectre admire the lavish opening sequence in Mexico City during a Dia de Los Muertos parade, shot seamlessly in a way that's been compared to the endless tracking in the movie Birdman, and finishing with a fist fight in a helicopter over a crowded Zocalo. Bond's been to Mexico before, in the pre-titles of Goldfinger (1964) and in License to Kill (1989). The parade of skeletons deservedly welcomes this killer, who has come in so many faces over the course of the last 50 years. He keeps coming back from the dead, surviving "this ever-changing world in which we're living" to quote that awful Paul McCartney song from Live and Let Die.

HISTORY

Bond began in 1953. He was the hero of more than a dozen novels written by the black sheep of an important British banking family, an upper-crust sado-masochistic, hard-drinking former reporter named Ian Fleming. In these unputdownable thrillers, James Bond was a British naval commander serving the British Ministry of Defense (MI6) during the frostiest years of the Cold War, when our enemies were well-defined and nuclear proliferation was rampant.

The enemies of the British are far more ambiguous these days. Eastern European and Chinese organized crime syndicates deploy hackers to steal cash from the personal bank accounts of average citizens, and the Islamic State terror organization is diffuse and hydra-headed.

The question of these changing times and Bond's obsolescence is always on the minds of the people who write and direct these epics. The phrase "The Bond of the books" is often thrown around; it's shorthand for staying true to the character's roots—and steering clear of the campier, more embarrassing side of the spectrum, the comic superhero made to appeal to American kids, as played in the late 1970s and '80s by an increasingly grandfatherish Roger Moore.

The films have always been a family affair, produced by descendants of producer Albert R. Broccoli. In the early 1960s, Broccoli was paired with the similarly enterprising Harry Saltzman and tasked with the production of the first Bond movie, Dr. No. The two agreed on the casting of Sean Connery as the leading man. An urban Scotsman from Edinburgh, Connery was muscular, sardonic and more or less in open rebellion both on-screen and off.

There may not have been a more masculine actor in the 1960s films. But like Elvis, who Connery resembled in appeal, the actor tended to zone out if the script didn't interest him. Was he sometimes ducky, with his slicked-back hair, romping around in the unfortunate swimwear they sometimes costumed him in?

Perhaps. But rewatching these early Bond films, so much of what Connery did works: the smoothness, the dark humor, the sudden flash of interest. He had as much deadpan confidence in the face of the bizarre—like when he'd meet girls named Pussy or Kissy—as he did when tangling with haywire nuclear bombs.

Broccoli and Saltzman were not wrong in their observation that Connery moved so much better than the average man. Truly, an essential part of being a star is seen in the way an actor walks, per critic Manny Farber's rhapsodizing on Humphrey Bogart crossing Las Palmas Avenue in The Big Sleep. That's why you can feel a rustle of energy in a theater when that iconic gun-barrel logo starts scoping across the screen; Bond enters—stage right, just like always—striding confidently forward before swinging to his left and shooting the viewer right between the eyes.

THE MASK OF BOND

Longtime quartermaster, Major Boothroyd (known as Q) played by the late Desmond Llewelyn in 17 of the Bond films, once said that his idea of 007 was the 1980s Bond, Timothy Dalton. In scenes early in Dalton's debut, The Living Daylights, the actor looks right: knife-like and impatient with the diplomats he has to work with.

Pierce Brosnan's Bond struck a balance between Moore and Dalton. He was poised, foxy and humorous. He made the Bond of today possible back in the 1990s, by absorbing the feminist fury over Bond's '60s caddishness. Once, in what Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw called "the most sexist scene in cinema history," Connery's Bond slapped the rump of an actress named Margaret Noland, letting her know it was "time for man talk." It was Brosnan's Bond who got the payback, including a bitch-slapping from Sunnyvale's own Teri Hatcher, playing a lady 007 discarded in Brosnan's best Bond outing—1997's Tomorrow Never Dies.

Brosnan was also the first to get a tongue-lashing from Dame Judi Dench's M, who spared him little of what she thought about men who run around fornicating, killing and blowing things up. She referred to him as a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur."

Craig's Bond was also dressed-down for his conduct during his efforts.

Dench's M in Casino Royale tells him: "Bond, this may be too much for a blunt instrument to understand … but arrogance and self-awareness seldom go hand in hand."

But by the end of their time together, Dench's M had mellowed and become more maternal. Perhaps Skyfall was the biggest of the Bonds at the box office because 007's typically problematic relationship with women became rather simple—the film was, in essence, all about a man protecting his mother from Javier Bardem's transfixing and completely insane, Oedipal predator, Raoul Silva.

The humanism of Bond is evinced in movies as varied as Moore's most serious effort at the part, For Your Eyes Only (1981), On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) starring the underrated one-and-done Bond George Lazenby, and the melancholic Casino Royale (2006)—in which Craig's 007 unequivocally fails to save the woman he loves.

CIVIL SERVANT: Although Bond enjoys top-shelf cocktails, fast cars and faster women, he is, at bottom, a man of the people—who fights tirelessly to prevent nuclear war and thwart the nefarious plots of evil 1-percenters.

VULTURE CAPITAL

The latest Bond picture resurrects SPECTRE, short for the Special Executive for Terrorism Revenge and Extortion, as well as the organization's Polish-born mastermind, Ernst Stavro Blofeld—the cat-stroking, bald-headed and scar-faced villain, so famously lampooned by Mike Meyers' Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers trilogy.

The innovation and the futurism of the Bond films lies in the creation of SPECTRE during the course of the Cold War. Blofeld's debut in the film version of From Russia, With Love, gives us a pulp fiction denial of the bilaterality of the Free and Communist world. In this fantasy, something worse than the commie threat looms, fed by strife and confusion: a mysterious international ring of villains with the ability to disrupt missile launches and steal atomic weapons.

This drastically peacenik critique of the sense that the world was either for or against the U.S. was tolerated because the Bond films were considered such trifles. Even later, in preposterous Bonds, like Octopussy (1983) and Die Another Day (2002), the villains are renegade military men seeking glory in a nuclear winter—they're irresponsible lone nuts in uniform, opposed by patriotic, peace-loving communists. Throughout the series, from The Spy Who Loved Me on, actor Walter Gotell played General Gogol, the sympathetic head of the KGB who sometimes aided Bond in his war against international crime.

Most of the nefarious men and women Bond faces are all remarkably constant: they are usually wealthy, industrious and hell-bent on using their established power and establishment ties to realize their evil ambitions.

The Bond films are often categorically dismissed by critics as white male, fascist fantasies. In fact, they are most often stories of a government man trying to prevent the next war, while going up against entitled vulture capitalists—figures who channel Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers, Larry Ellison and Richard Branson, and who firmly believe they're John Galt incarnate. Ayn Rand, a fan who wrote an essay of complaint about how audiences laughed at the Bond films, would have fit beautifully into the series as a greedy villainess... continue reading