Yesterday’s Spy

Sorry for the lull- been finishing off my dissertation- but hopefully I’ll get round to posting more regularly now.

Alec Guinness as Smiley

The first adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was broadcast in 1979, the same year that Moonraker was released. While the early Bond films had paid lip service to the realities of espionage, by the 70s this had been jettisoned and the movies owed more to upstart genres like Blaxploitation or kung fu. Bond, divorced from his original context, became a British-flavoured Superman (the writer of Diamonds Are Forever, Tom Mankiewicz, also wrote the screenplay for the original Christopher Reeve movie).

Now that Bond was in the stratosphere, a new character came to embody the world of spydom. George Smiley, as played by Alec Guinness, feels like a conscious attempt to construct a character as diametrically opposed to Bond as possible; this is a meme that the producers of the new film adaptation have been keen to emphasise. If any character in the Bond world can be described as a Smiley analogue, it is most likely to be one of the fusty bureaucrats that 007 flips off at the start of every movie.

And that’s about the only point of intersection between the two worlds. While much of John Le Carre’s fiction, and indeed almost all of spy literature, is preoccupied with betrayal, that theme has only figured in the most recent Bond movies, and in a subtly different manner. Any of the suspects in Tinker Tailor could credibly be the mole, as each of them is trapped in their own labyrinth of double cross and triple cross. Betrayal for Le Carre’s spies is a metaphor for the modernist condition of unknowability, whereas in Bond films like GoldenEye or Casino Royale, betrayal by other characters defines Bond as morally uncomplicated, a man completely untroubled by personal or political ties.

Another major theme in Tinker Tailor– the decline of British influence in world affairs- is mostly ignored in the Bond films, though not entirely. Occasionally it is played for laughs, as in Diamonds Are Forever, when Blofeld refers to Bond’s ‘pitiful little island’. But the character of Bond transcends these moments, largely because his own Britishness is nominal at best. He stands for the generalised Western values that Le Carre has increasingly lambasted in recent years. His characters are tragic because the world they expected to inherit has been taken away from them. And this is why, for all his apparent diffidence, Smiley is a reality check of a character who could never be embraced by a mass audience; Bond, on the other hand, is a comforting myth of potency and power.

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Dance Into The Fire

"I was only about 400 years too old for the part." Roger Moore

The 1980s were pretty much the inverse of the 1960s; liberal consensus had mutated into the New Conservatism; youth culture had been superseded by the Sloane Ranger and the Yuppie. Old heroes, like Mick Jagger or Michael Caine, looked hopelessly lost, while some, such as John Lennon, didn’t even make it that far. Likewise, the Bond series began to look badly shopworn.

A View to a Kill, coming as it did in the middle of the decade, is a fascinating time capsule of this generational malaise. Aside from the notorious fact that Bond is played by a man nearing pension age (Roger Moore was 58 and beneficiary of multiple facelifts), the rest of the film seems like an effort to encompass everything that would seem retrospectively embarassing about the 80s. The villain is a yuppie who plans to destroy Silicon Valley; he owns a BBC Micro Computer and a corporate blimp (borrowed from the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles). Before Christopher Walken was cast, the producers wanted either Sting or David Bowie (Bowie looks uncannily like Walken in the video for 1983’s Let’s Dance); any of these men facing an aging Bond would have been a sight to behold, but Walken’s avant-garde delivery (he transforms a simple line of five words into two separate sentences) and Bronx accent make for a particularly bizarre contrast with the embalmed Moore.

At points, it feels as though the producers were deliberately trying to humiliate their leading man; he spends most of the film in jackets almost as leathery as his face, cooks a quiche for Tanya Roberts (star of 1982’s Beastmaster) and is roughly humped by Grace Jones (playing herself). Apparently Moore and Jones didn’t get on, partly because she insisted on playing loud rock music in her dressing room; one can only guess what he thought of Duran Duran’s theme song.

Rock music has never worked particularly well in the Bond series, and though the song itself is one of my favourites, its power-synths and overwrought yelping seem somehow comical when contrasted with the elderly bent to proceedings (Moore’s back-up in the film is the even older Patrick Macnee, and their antics together have the faint air of Last of the Summer Wine). Wisely, the band filmed their own video for the song, as the title sequence used in the film is a vision of 80s cool as seen by an old man (title designer Maurice Binder was in his 60s). The dancing girls are plastered in day-glo body paint and labour under immaculately feathered mullets, shooting flourescent laser beams or gyrating in a vaguely tribal fashion, all interspersed with old footage of Moore from The Spy Who Loved Me.

All of this probably explains why I think it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

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The American Bond

At the end of Goldfinger, Bond boards a jet to the White House for a meeting with the President. The film’s gloss would suggest a 007-Kennedy summit, but by the time it entered production JFK had been felled and Lyndon Johnson was cruising to election. Still, Kennedy and Bond are integral parts of ‘the dream life’ that J. Hoberman writes of in his book of the same name. One of its most interesting parallels is between the President and the spy. Like Bond, Kennedy operated in a vortex of sex, violence and intrigue, occasionally aided and abetted by Frank Sinatra; the three form a sort of post-war Alpha Male trifecta- the original Don Drapers, with existential angst carefully concealed.

An implication of all this is that Bond is really an American character; he might be ‘on her majesty’s secret service’, but culturally his values are located in the US. The notion isn’t that fanciful; when Bond was created in the 50s his impact was in how un-British Ian Fleming wrote him- a reaction against rationing, immigration, the welfare state and a crumbling Empire. Fleming’s racy prose had more in common with Raymond Chandler than the altogether more staid John Buchan, while two of the first four novels were set predominantly in the States. And of course, the first Bond adaptation was a CBS television production of Casino Royale in 1954, with Barry Nelson as crew-cut sporting ‘card sense’ Jimmy Bond of the CIA.

Much is made of this Trans-Atlantic transformation, but there’s really not a lot of difference between this Bond and the movie variant of the 1960s; certainly they share a wiseass sense of humour absent in Fleming. If anyone in the movies is a square, it’s the American Felix Leiter, played by seven different actors presumably chosen for their lack of personality. Bond’s own Americanness- sharp suits, fast cars, loose women- invalidates the need for a strong American character.

The most American-seeming Bond movie probably is Goldfinger. Not only is it partly set in the US (initially in Miami then later in a Kentucky mostly comprised of a stud farm, Fort Knox, and endless miles of freeway) but it is also suffused with cars and gadgets that can be operated at the push of a button, both for the ease of the user and with a deadly intent that draws to mind Eisenhower’s ‘military-industrial complex’. It is tempting to go too far with this reading, though; while Fleming occasionally decried the easy life, the film-makers understand how important that is to the appeal of the movie; so when Oddjob knocks out Bond right in front of his stylish fridge freezer, they’re not making a point about the perils of consumerism. The prevalence of labour-saving technology in the film positions Bond as a lifestyle icon, which is why the early films so successfully invaded the popular consciousness; you could buy Bond brand vodka, Bond brand dress shoes, Bond brand lunchboxes and Bond brand underpants. The nearest analogue for this total approach to consumerism would be Playboy, an enthusiastic early adopter of 007.

The next American-set Bond movie would be Diamonds Are Forever, released in the midst of the Nixon-era. Which is another time entirely…

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You can watch it all on TV…

: “You can watch it all on TV. It’s the last programme you’re likely to see.”
Bond: “Well, if I’m going to be forced to watch television, may I smoke?”

Roald Dahl had already registered his antagonism towards television in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and it turns up again in his screenplay for You Only Live Twice. Interesting that tobacco seems to be a more acceptable vice.

My first exposure to the Bond films was in 1999 when ITV showed the entire series (including Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again) in the run-up to the release of The World Is Not Enough. Despite being obviously designed for the cinema, I always thought the movies worked better on television. The commercial breaks never seemed particularly disruptive, given how episodic the movies are, and how larded with product placement they can be (that scene in Moonraker where they drive past all the billboards is actually less subtle than an advert).

Now, with YouTube, it’s possible to watch bits and pieces of the films completely divorced of their context, which I don’t see as a particularly bad thing. Most discussion of the Bond films strips them to their constituent parts anyway- best stunt, best car chase, best fight sequence etc. Certainly it’s characteristic of the way we consume culture now, in that very ADD way where we’ll listen to our album collection on shuffle or spend hours downloading pirated movies.

The other brilliance of YouTube is that stuff like this has been dredged up from old VHS recordings:

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From a Lethal Viewpoint

Maurice Binder, title designer for the Bond films

The gunbarrel sequence that opens all but two of the official Bond movies is surely one of the smartest pieces of branding in movie history. Immediately you know you’re watching a Bond film, and its absence makes the most recent films seem rather unsatisfying, at least to those of us who take a purist’s delight in collecting all the DVDs and novels- even the ones we don’t like.

As James Chapman points out in his excellent book Licence to Thrill, the sequence also establishes a theme important to the classic Bond narrative- that of looking. The rolling gun sight that eventually captures Bond in its glare is an image repeated many times in the movies proper, but on a broader level the focus of the sight is a metaphor for the camera that controls what we see and when we see it, important in thriller movies such as Bond but also to cinema as a whole.

There is also something cartoonish about the sequence. Bond, reduced in size, is only definable by his dinner jacket, while the red blood that saturates the image droops across the screen in lurid globules- in the early movies they look hand-drawn. In these respects it is the best form of branding because it tells the viewer what to expect without actually telling them- all the information is visual and registers on an unconscious level.

Perhaps because of its minimalism, the sequence is one of the most parodied elements of the franchise. The ironic effect typically comes from the unlikely stand-ins for Bond- Homer Simpson, a pantomime horse in the case of Monty Python, even Jason Voorhees. It has also been a consistent feature in marketing for the films, as in the trailers for the Roger Moore films (which all utilise it) or the poster for The Living Daylights. By dropping it from its inaugural position in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, the producers were underlining that these movies should be considered separate from the rest of the series- which is at the very least a smarter judgment than this:

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