By Jos Blake
‘No Time to Die’ shows that it is indeed time for the James Bond film franchise to die.
WARNING: this article containers spoilers for various James Bond novels and movies
‘Do you expect me to talk?’ asks Sean Connery’s James Bond in the 1964 classic, ‘Goldfinger’ as a laser beam cuts towards him, threatening to bisect him from the fly of his trousers upwards.
‘No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!’ says the titular, precious metal obsessed master villain.
What Makes a Classic Bond Film?
‘Goldfinger’ is generally reckoned to be one of the best Bond films – glamorous locations, a plot that is as tight as the uniformly beautiful female characters’ clothing and a properly villainous villain with a sinister henchman, Oddjob, in tow. The locations – Miami, London, Switzerland and Kentucky – are what technicolour was designed for. Even the theme tune, sung by Shirley Bassey, is a classic.
There are striking moments in ‘Goldfinger’ which linger in the memory and are genuinely great moments in cinematic history: Goldfinger’s female adornment, Jill Masterson, killed by being painted gold (which causes skin suffocation) as punishment for falling for Bond; the frightful snap of her vengeful sister, Tilly’s, neck, killed by Oddjob’s skillfully thrown metal brimmed hat; and the champagne cork popping noise that accompanies Goldfinger’s exit from a jet plane via the window at the film’s conclusion, to name but three.
Origins: the Ian Fleming Bond Novels
One of the reasons Goldfinger is such a good Bond film is that it remains generally true to the original Ian Fleming novel, barring one or two minor amendments. It is Oddjob who exits the plane via the window, not Goldfinger, for instance – Bond simply strangles Goldfinger, in a subtle form of breathing/neck-associated revenge for the Masterson sisters. These days most interactions with Bond begin with the films, which is a pity in some ways because the novels, while of their time (the enemy is unequivocally the Soviet Union in the first novels, reflecting the concerns of the 1950s when they were written), have a degree of richness that the films can never equal. Meals are sumptuous, an escape from the food rationing of the time (which was still in place in the UK in the 1950s) and clothes are so expensive they don’t even have labels.
The violence is equally excessive. In ‘Live and Let Die’, Mr Big’s henchman, Tee Hee, bends back Bond’s left hand little finger until it snaps, not something we would ever see in a film meant for general release, and Bond nurses the injury for the rest of the novel. (As the least used finger on the less used hand, the choice of finger is ingenious in its sadism.) The assassin sent to kill Bond in ‘From Russia With Love’, Red Grant, is a lunatic in the strictest sense, who has to kill during the period of the full moon. His superior, Colonel Rosa Kleb, is equally sinister, made all the more villainous by her toad-like appearance and her predatory lesbianism (the scene where she tries to seduce Tatiana is nauseating). But all elements of the novels have depth, including the women: in ‘Dr No’ Honey Ryder yearns to have enough money to fix her broken nose, inflicted upon her by a rapist whom she subsequently killed with a poisonous Black Widow spider. She also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the flora and fauna of the Caribbean. One novel, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, is even told in the first person by a woman, Vivienne Michel. Honey and Vivienne, like the other women in the novels, are not what the author of ‘A Clockwork Orange’, Antony Burgess, referred to as the ‘animated centrefolds’ of the films.
How Bond Got Lost
But at the same time Goldfinger shows indications of how the films would begin to drift off course. The latest Bond film, ‘No Time to Die’, along with its predecessor, ‘Spectre’, see the series finally run aground.
As a sage commentator (me) noted, there are clear indicators that a Bond film has gone awry: ‘a female agent who can give Bond a run for his money’; another 00 goes rogue; Bond himself goes rogue; a secret in Bond’s past (which, for some reason, he can’t remember); or an excess of tech, to name but five. An excess of gunplay is another (Bond is usually disarmed relatively early in the classic Bond films and has, instead, to rely on his guile to dispatch the villain and his sidekicks). Yet another sign that the wheels are coming off a Bond film is the humour: not the pithy witticism of Bond in ‘Goldfinger’, which, while absent from the novels, is a key element of the successful Bond films, but the campness of, say, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, which would be better suited to a pantomime. Virtually all of these are present in ‘No Time to Die’.
This is not to say the Bond films went adrift when they stopped following the novels, a process that began with 1967’s ‘You Only Live Twice’. This was the first Bond film to feature improbable gadgets (a collapsible helicopter that sports an arsenal of weaponry), and an enormous villain’s lair, complete with large doors that open slowly, to dramatic music and which is populated by large groups of yellow boiler-suited thugs running around in formation with weapons at the high port. But it is still a good Bond film: it is just not a ‘pure’ Bond film. The screenplay for ‘You Only Live Twice’ was written by Roald Dahl, who took over the task from the aforementioned Antony Burgess, a sign that, while deviating from the Fleming novels, the makers of the films still took the plot seriously.
Bullet Holes and Plot Holes
This cannot be said for some of the most recent Bond films, which feature gaps in the plot as large as the entrance to one of those Bond villain’s lairs. Take 2015’s ‘Spectre’, for instance. Why can’t Bond remember that Oberhauser was the son of his adoptive father? Why did Oberhauser change his name to Ernst Stavro Blofeld? At a more minor but equally undermining level, who is Moneypenny in bed with and constantly confiding in? Why does Lucia Sciarra take her clothes off then put them back on? Watching ‘Spectre’ is like watching a series of flashy music videos on MTV, not a taut spy thriller.
‘No Time to Die’ has an equal number of holes and exhibits virtually all of the flaws of a bad Bond movie. Without giving away too much of the plot, in the opening sequence and after an admittedly thrilling car chase, Bond puts Madeleine Swann on a train and tells her she will never see him again – why not? Wouldn’t they fare better together? From the titles onwards there are so many twists and reveals that the film ends up being virtually incomprehensible.
People will, of course, still watch ‘No Time to Die’ and enjoy it. The Bond films have survived by reflecting the advances and the tastes of the time in which they are made. ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ (1974) features a lengthy martial arts battle, at a time when Bruce Lee had made kung fu popular. ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977) was made at the same time as ‘Jaws’ and takes place by the sea, on the sea and under the sea (it even has a character called Jaws). The more recent Bond films are heavily influenced by the Jason Bourne series. But the last true Bond films were probably ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘Quantum of Solace’, and they were exceptions, a harking back to the past, in the longer running trend of trying to pander to audience trends (and ticket sales).
Build Back Bond?
Should the twenty fifth Bond film be the last? It probably won’t be, given the enduring power of the brand to fill cinemas. But there are maybe some ways to restore the reputation of the series as something more than a long series of luxury advertisements (‘It’s an Omega.’), punctuated by choreographed violence.
One option would be to return to the novels. Most would attract an adult rating because of the sex and the violence but it would be better than what we have now, which is something akin to an adolescent’s speculation about what both of those experiences are like. As period pieces they would be fascinating, especially as the world once again divides itself into camps.
A Woman Agent On A Par With Bond?
Another would be to give a serious hearing to one of the alarm bells that sounds to indicate a bad Bond, a woman agent on a par with Bond. The first attempt at this, in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, was Barbara Bach’s Anya Amasova (‘Agent XXX’ – again, panto humour): it was a disaster. However, there was a serious plan to have a spin-off series based around Halle Berry’s Jinx (2002’s ‘Die Another Day’) and two of the few saving graces of ‘No Time to Die’ are Lashana Lynch as Nomi and Ana de Armas as Paloma.
The difficulty seems to be avoiding the reduction of the woman to a device for providing plot updates or something to warm Bond’s bed in the final moments of the film (usually with a smutty line thrown in). At the opposite extreme, the women agents in the Bond films often become little more than a bipod for a weapon (which, sadly, happens to both Nomi and Paloma in ‘No Time to Die’). But there are plenty of real world examples of women spies for the writers to go on. There are added complexities to being a woman in the world of espionage that could be seriously thought provoking for the audience. The current Bond films provoke nothing except the urge to buy an Omega watch.
James Bond Only Visited the African Continent Once
And what about the other 00s? Bond is constantly being threatened with being replaced by 008 – what is he all about? At various times 003, 004 and 0011 are mentioned in the novels. Bond regularly finds himself in Europe, the Americas and the Far East – who covers the rest of the world?
Maybe there is a 00 who specialises in the African continent. James Bond only visited the African continent once in the novels (South Africa, as he runs down the remnants of Jack Spang’s diamond smuggling ring in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’) and three times in the films (Egypt in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ & Morocco twice, in 1986’s ‘The Living Daylights’ and ‘Spectre’). But that doesn’t mean that the future of literary and celluloid secret agents can’t be here. It just might mean that he – or she – isn’t a stale pale male who is not sure if he is in a high tech action film, a luxury goods promo or a pantomime.