Evolution of the Bond film

November 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

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I’m not a Bond aficionada, not since Sean Connery’s final throw of the trilby onto the hat stand behind Moneypenny’s desk. I’ve missed a lot of Bond films and those I’ve seen have been on TV. Spectre is my first on a cinema screen for at least three decades. An event, and a gap that has given me a perspective unavailable to all those in the Bondsphere who have followed his every move from Connery to Craig.
My original encounter with him was in the classroom, when Fleming’s books were passed around with page numbers whispered for the ‘dirty’ bits. I must have been getting on for fourteen and soon after came the films. The first time I took a train from London to Venice, in 1972, I loved the idea that it went on from there to Belgrade and Sofia, to end its journey in Istanbul, the same Orient Express that had carried Bond across Cold War Europe in From Russia with Love (1963). The thought of travelling on that train had lingered ever since I read the book. And the film has the most unforgettable Bond villain in Rosa Klebb, with her vicious knife-toed shoes, played by Lotte Lenya, a legend in her own right as the definitive Brecht-Weill singer – I have her wonderfully gritty 1957 recording of The Seven Deadly Sins. When I made my first trip to Berlin it was long after the wall had come down, but the security personnel at Schönefeld on my departure could only have been ex-Stasi and the woman doing the body searches put me in mind of knife-toed Rosa.
Aside from Connery, the locations were what I liked most in the world of Bond. They still are. Spectre’s opening sequence in Mexico City is spectacular in every sense, probably the most cinematic of Bond-openers, a single long take moving above and across the parading crowds on the Day of the Dead, widening to display a mass of panoramic detail and closing in on macabre faces, before following a skull-headed Bond as he discards the mask and crosses rooftops towards his target, shooting through stone and glass to make this from the start a very literal blockbuster.
Next comes the obligatory opening credits sequence – even more kitsch and sillier than those I remember from the past – before the plot gets going again. Are we meant just to laugh at it? Of course, this is part of the time-honoured formula, but Spectre departs from it in so many other ways.
For many Bond years the formula remained strict: a death-defying opener that always concluded a previous mission (instead, in Spectre it begins the new one); at least one disposable woman, seen off either because of treachery in the wake of sex with Bond or tragedy occasioned by romance with same (not in Spectre); failsafe, life-saving gadgets (ditto); punning quips from our hero as he delivers the coup de grace to whichever villain or henchman has stood in his way (not Craig-Bond’s style) – indeed the whole tongue-in-cheek modus operandi, where Fleming’s snobbery was tempered by Connery’s laid-back charm, seems to have been replaced by jokes of a self-referential kind, thumbing their nose at the formula. Spectre isn’t meant to be taken seriously, that’s clear enough, but it’s inclined to look back in amusement and ridicule the erstwhile frivolity.

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No doubt these changes have happened gradually and I just haven’t been paying attention. Actors come and go but they haven’t always shaped the role as Daniel Craig has, the steeliest by far. At some point Bond stopped being Commander, his naval title laid to rest as a relic of the time when Britain still thought it ruled the waves. But when did Q stop being a humourless elderly technician and turn into the witty, boyish cyber-wizard played by the excellent Ben Whishaw? Only with Skyfall, I think. Likewise, the brand-new Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), smart, black and resourceful, has eased herself into the part after demonstrating spy craft in the field. She’s young and because of that a little in awe of Bond, a little enamoured, but definitely not lovelorn. M turned into a woman quite a while back (it was high time, if we’re giving points for notional sensitivity to gender), and it’s fine to have the ever watchable Ralph Fiennes take over after Judi Dench’s on-screen demise. The Bond women have ceased to be unthinking objects of misogyny.
It goes without saying that the franchise has had to evolve vaguely in line with social change over the past 50 years, but Spectre has brought it up to date in a way none of its predecessors have achieved. This involves more than presenting a new balance of characters that includes the young and aims for ethnic diversity. Along with fresh, enlivened characterisations that sweep away the stock antecedents, the Bond film is being reset here.
At the heart of the Bond formula is a repeated narrative structure, a single plot, albeit with modifications: Bond was assigned to seek out a nasty conspiracy (to take over the world’s natural resources or wipe out its ruling powers etc) with a super-sadistic villain attached, always a neat comic book scenario requiring the single-handed intervention of a suave superhero backed by the British state. Sceptre reliably reverts to all-action comic book mode, but it shuns the formula with threats that exist in the real world. The scene where Bond infiltrates an international crime summit in the shadowy grandeur of a Roman palazzo – a dark-suited corporate meeting of mafias – is quite chilling, and reminiscent of the Godfather films, only here the workings of gangsterdom have meshed worldwide with those of legitimate business, not just in the carve-up of New York or Cuba. The overarching power it would acquire through a globally unified state surveillance has the ring of eventual truth. Take heed, Theresa May.
Bond to the rescue, then, as usual. But this time he has to save the state from itself and its neoliberal faith in a privatised Big Brother. As we well know, he’s no idealist, and here, unequivocally, he’s a hitman, rather than gallant officer and gentleman who’s licensed to kill when the need arises. What’s more, in the end he’s part of a team, as Q and Moneypenny abandon their background roles to save the day. All-round fun and excitement ensue as hierarchy is temporarily undone.
One casualty of Spectre‘s deviation from the rules is Christoph Walz (such an urbanely loathsome Nazi in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds; just imagine a Tarantino Bond movie!). His sadistic mega-villain is a bit of a sideshow compared with other concerns, so the part, though still indispensable, gets accordingly cut down.
Who knows how future Bonds will shape up? Daniel Craig seems to be vacating tenure and Sam Mendes may not want to direct a third Bond after Skyfall and Spectre. This may be the only breakaway Bond in the franchise, but it’s one to relish. Could it be the last? I think not. Bond will keep on adapting,  just so as to stay the same: a box-office cert.
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