KT Long Read: Getting to know Bond, James Bond

The 007 films franchise, stirred not shaken, has been a long haul of reinventions without letting go of the structural template. Here's trying to figure the best draws from a moving ensemble.

By Vinay Kamat

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Published: Thu 28 Oct 2021, 9:36 PM

As the new B-flick makes a big splash, you have all the time in the world to see it twice.

Bonds are forever. Rarely has a brand been a constant buzz for 60 years. Rarely have generations bonded over a spy who’s always disrupting his persona. From Baby Boomers to Gen Z bloomers, Bond’s appeal lies somewhere between class and craft. He’s neither highbrow like John Le Carre’s Smiley nor a coldblooded machine like Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne. Over the years, as he reinvented himself, we redrew our image of the uber spy.

Let’s start by deconstructing all 25 Bond flicks and script the ideal Bond blockbuster: BOAT, the Bond of All Times. But before that, a glimpse into the Cult of Craig which turned a suave spy into a muscular mascot. From his first appearance in Casino Royale to his last in No Time To Die, Craig’s wiry mien and austere acting have awed us. There were glam, goons, girls and

gizmos — but there was true grit too. Take the first Bond (Sean Connery). Add Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). Stir. You have a Bond with the clinical ability to indulge

fantasy and reality. Some amazing cinematography made Craig’s Bond quicker and slicker, creating a new Bond identity. No Time To Die, the latest B-flick, photocopies that ID.

The Title Is The Key

If you look at all B-flicks, the ones that intrigue and tantalise more than others: Dr No, From Russia With Love, The Spy Who Loved Me. Then, the cheats (they overpromised and under-thrilled): Diamonds Are Forever, Octopussy, The Man With The Golden Gun. But there’s one blinder, which should have earned its spurs a long time ago: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. And, finally, we have the redemptions: Casino Royale and Skyfall, the movies that would easily make it to a podium finish. But if we shake the Bond franchise, one title would still stay atop, simply because it has an audacious storyline: Goldfinger.

What makes Goldfinger so stylised? Quite a few

substances, actually. The awesome opening sequence in Miami. The first glimpse of a carefree Sean Connery. A dead girl painted in gold. Operation Grand Slam:

the ingenious, radioactive plot to starve the world of gold. An aristocratic villain. An evil hat-flinging henchman. A genre-defining Bond girl. An iconic golf game, which defines the suave and the shrewd in the Connery persona.

Perhaps the essence of conflict is embodied by the villain, Auric Goldfinger: “Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He’s fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor... except crime.” Auric’s lament gives him the aura of James Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis. Goldfinger sets the script for Bond villains of the future: each one conjures a crime more horrific than the other. Auric’s 1964 lament has set the benchmark for villainy in every Bond flick since.

But Goldfinger didn’t stop with templating the villain. It defined the index of style for the British spy; it created the nerd index for gizmos; it won an Oscar (for sound editing); it was a blockbuster when it was released in 1964, raking in $126 million. Since then, an 007 connoisseur has always been tempted to index a B-flick to Goldfinger.

Five years later, in 1969, a Bond film came very close to the Goldfinger standard: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In fact, it might have just surpassed it in some respects. Think of a pre-Jason Bourne thriller, stabbed by emotion. Look for a plain martini Bond; a reinvented Bond girl; a villain straight out of a 1967 war flick The Dirty Dozen, and squid game-type thrills on bobsleds. You have an outlier Bond film that has become cult. George Lazenby, B-girl Diana Rigg, big bad guy Telly Savalas, Louis Armstrong’s lingering song and an eerie storyline will all rank as the best ingredients in a recipe that epicurists missed for 50 years.

Villain Is The Hero

Perhaps the best way to script a Bond thriller is to weave a script around the villain. We have many who turbocharged the franchise: Gert Frobe (Goldfinger), Donald Pleasance (You Only Live Twice), Robert Shaw (From Russia With Love), Christopher Walken (A View To A Kill) and Javier Bardem (Skyfall). The ultimate Bond villain is not easy to define.

The best baddie could be a tossup between Walken and Bardem. Walken may have had it easy against Roger Moore’s Bond; Bardem simply got a great script to flaunt his insanity. Max Zorin (the character played by Walken) talks the walk: “Intuitive improvisation is the secret of genius.”

Raoul Silva (played by Bardem) is more earthy: “It’s about her (M)… and you (Bond), and me. We can either eat each other… or eat everyone else.” Both epitomise the ultimate Bond villainy. But there’s a dark horse lurking: Mads Mikkelsen (Le Chiffre, in Casino Royale) comes close to the two greats. In Casino Royale, he’s the cool criminal, probably cinema’s meanest card shark. Mikkelsen, like Savalas 37 years before him, glides to glory. But when B-history is revised 10 years from now, it’s Bardem who’ll have the last laugh.

Bond Girls Are Forever

The best Bond girl? There are many to choose from: Ursula Andress (Honey Ryder, in Dr No), Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore, in Goldfinger), Diana Rigg (Tracy Bond, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Barbara Bach (Anya Amasova, in The Spy Who Loved Me), Carol Bouquet (Melina Havelock, in For Your Eyes Only), Rosemund Pike and Helle Berry (Miranda Frost and Jinx, in Die Another Day), Sophie Marceau (Elektra King, in The World Is Not Enough) and Lea Seydoux (Madeleine Swann, in No Time To Die).

But one girl jilted glam — quietly and happily: Eva Green. As Vesper Lynd, Green simply stormed the script. What set her apart from other B-girls was her ability to match style, wit, mood and finesse with cinema’s most stylised spy. Take in this conversation with Bond:

“By the cut of your suit, you went to Oxford or

wherever, and actually think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain… my guess is you didn’t come from money and all your school chums rubbed that in your face every day, which means you were at that school by the grace of someone else’s charity, hence the chip on your shoulder… And it makes sense since MI6 looks for maladjusted young men who’d give little thought to sacrificing others to protect queen and country.”

Green’s act was a game-changer for the franchise which bred on varying shades of oomph. She brought another dimension to the spy saga by triangulating it; you can’t think of Casino Royale without Bond, Le Chiffre (the villain) and Green (the girl), with Green dominating. Irene Adler, who outwitted Sherlock Holmes, was always “the woman” for the maestro. Likewise, Green will always be “the Bond girl” in the Bond universe; she reinvented the girl part of it. No other Bond girl has been able to rival her since.

Briefly, Berenice Marlohe, who plays Severine, outshone as a Bond girl in Skyfall. Sensuous and elegant, sharp and intense, she brought to the table a dalliance between charm and fear. Her mystique and Bond’s coldness brought out the best in the flick. Although it lasted for a short while, Marlohe made her presence and mystery linger.

The Director’s Cut

Who would you choose to direct the defining Bond film? Would it be Guy Hamilton who architected the Bond template in Goldfinger or Sam Mendes who turned Skyfall into a bible for future Bonds? Despite the elemental success of Skyfall, Hamilton’s the original druid. The 1964 film is probably a topper in all respects: story, tech, cars, locales, villains, girls. And Oddjob, the deputy villain who kills people using a steel-rimmed bowler hat, is spy fiction’s most enduring killer.

Yet, Skyfall turned out to be the perfect Bond film of the new millennium with a great story of a spy gone rogue, Bond’s home-coming, M’s demise, an unusual villain (Javier Bardem) driven by revenge, a theme song by Adele that competes for the top slot with Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger.

“A movie is a little like a question, and when you make it, that’s when you get the answer,” said Francis Ford Coppolla. In Skyfall, Mendes completes the arc of delight with all the answers: a cast that’s a perfect fit, a storyline that probes spy morality; action sequences that are neatly stacked and an unbeatable climax. If you look at two different villains played by Bardem — a ruthless killer in No Country For Old Men and a spy gone rogue in Skyfall — you hate him in the first, you empathise with him in the second. Like its multi-layered villain, there’s very little to question in Skyfall.

Goldfinger is BOAT despite Skyfall’s near perfection. And yet when you sit by the fireside and start rating Bond flicks, you find yourself constantly stumped. And the googly comes from the 1969 B-flick, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was released the same year as Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, True Grit, Midnight Cowboy and Mackenna’s Gold. All four have had their moment in the sun, now it’s Bond’s turn.

When you see No Time To Die, soak in the last scene and savour the song. The newest B-girl, played by Lea Seydoux, keeps the nostalgia going. It takes you back to a time when the characters played by Telly Savalas, George Lazenby and Diana Rigg met on a winding hill road, in the tragic final scene of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and rewrote a spy saga.

You have all the time in the world.

- vinay@khaleejtimes.com

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