Licence to thrill

Licence to thrill

It was on October 5, 1962 that Ian Fleming’s suave 007 first hit the big screen in ‘Dr No’, but the seductive allure of the British superspy, who has ‘sex for dinner and death for breakfast’, continues to this day, writes Pradeep Sebastian.

There are many interesting ways, I suppose, to watch a James Bond movie — one of them this October will be to see Skyfall in an IMAX version; my cousin and I, in another instance, have recently discovered the abjectly hilarious pleasures of watching a dubbed Bond movie in Tamil and Telugu.

The classic lines, all the zingers, sound funnier, campier, cleverer! What a treat to watch Goldfinger, Oddjob and James Bond have a discussion in Tamil, more or less adlibbed. Or Pussy Galore introducing herself in Telugu. Though unexpectedly now, I find myself eagerly anticipating the new Bond movie.

The franchise, I once thought, was all but washed up. I marvel now at the ways James Bond reinvents himself for a new generation of fans. He seems to be able to hold his own with the other heroes out there, making himself count on the screen and at the box office as much as Jason Bourne, Spiderman and Ethan Hunt.

I think we can all agree that Daniel Craig made a huge, huge difference. He brought back the sense of menace and rawness Sean Connery gave James Bond and combined it with an intensity all his own.

Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan had played him for laughs, one tongue in cheek and the other with a twinkle in his eye, making 007 more charming but less interesting. (Timothy Dalton alone, reading the books closely, tried to give us Fleming’s vulnerable Bond).

But there’s more to why Skyfall — the 23rd movie that marks 50 years of James Bond — is being heralded so widely than just its darkly seductive star. It’s the way Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace retooled the Bond franchise (which is, incidentally, the longest running franchise in movie history, and the second most successful after Harry Potter) for a newer, younger audience.

Writing in the pages of the Sunday Herald in 2002, I said (after having just watched Die Another Day, Bond’s 40th anniversary): ‘Not only is Bond not shaking anymore, he’s not even stirring. With uncanny prescience, James Bond’s own boss, M, pronounced him a relic as far back as Goldeneye: “You are a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, Mr Bond,” says Judi Dench.

The Bond series itself has turned into self-parody — Austin Powers without the jokes. The recent Bond movies crawl like mechanical monsters (nosily, coldly, efficiently droning along) and look a little out of place before other razor-sharp, dazzlingly inventive 21st century thrillers. It seems as though we sit through the new Bond movies out of sheer loyalty. Just about the only thing that seems to work today in the Bond franchise are the opening title sequences and the (unfailingly) exciting Bond music theme. If the series doesn’t get a makeover soon, we should revoke 007’s license to entertain.’

In 2006, when we were least expecting it, the reboot happened with Casino Royale and Daniel Craig. The franchise did what fans had been hoping for: it went back to its roots, to the trilogy that first created all the Bond mania, Dr No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, bringing back seriousness and emotion to the characters, danger, excitement and suspense to the action, and a retro atmosphere to the way the whole movie looked and felt.

The second half, if you remember, uncharacteristically (or perhaps very characteristically) remained locked at the casino table. It wasn’t busily jump-cutting to exotic locations and explosions. Craig was given a long sequence, in Sean Connery fashion, to just sit tight at the casino table and act. Emote. Sweat. Experience real fear and near death.  Quantum of Solace, though not as crackling and fresh, further resurrected the mythic qualities of the James Bond movies that had disappeared in the bland Moore-Brosnan numbers.

And now with Skyfall, they are taking it further, bringing a director like Sam Mendes on board. Sam Mendes! The director of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road! James Bond in the hands of an arty, intellectual, filmmaker! Never saw this one coming, though there had been a fantasy all along floating in the Bondsphere that cult filmmakers will try their hand at retooling 007 in startling ways.

Quentin Tarantino, you’ll recall, wants badly to make a Bond. His Bond movie, he once said, “would have taken place in the 1960s and have a narrator like the Ian Fleming books. Maybe get Daniel Day Lewis for Bond. Give it a more literary kind of feeling.”

Scorsese has expressed his desire to make his own Bond version. Perhaps one of them will be next, who knows? Other changes to the Bond movies that have been suggested over the years: Connery or Pierce Brosnan as an uber-Bond villain with world domination on their minds, Sharon Stone as a kind of all new Bond (Paula Patton in the new Mission Impossible and Gina Carano in Haywire have already come close); an African-American Bond with Idris Elba and a gay Bond with Rupert Everret or Colin Firth. 

Ian Fleming, 007’s creator, finished Casino Royale in 1952-53 at his winter home in Jamaica. (He would go on to write most of the books from this home called Goldeneye). Working on Casino Royale, he toyed with various opening lines for the book, and finally settled on, “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.”

Not many Bond fans know that Fleming is connected with the origins of the most respected bibliophile journal, The Book Collector, and that he had a fine collection of rare and first editions. Today, the early Bond books are highly collected, something that would have deeply gratified and astonished him. Casino Royale, published by Jonathan Cape on April 1953 in the UK, had only a first printing of 4,728 copies. It is now sold for £50,000. There are so many luxury item set pieces in the Bond franchise, and I’ve been thinking that it’s high time a signed first edition of Casino Royale turned up as a showpiece — in the fabulous library of, let’s say, Bond’s arch villain?

Villains. Which reminds me that there are so many supporting characters and team members to recall fondly and salute as James Bond turns 50. The screenwriters gave all the best lines to these suave, silky bad buys. As the industrial laser beam inches closer to Bond’s crotch in Goldfinger, threatening to cut him in half, 007 coolly asks, ‘Do you expect me to talk?’ and Goldfinger exclaims with relish: No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!”. Though less famous, Drax’s lines lisped by the dapper, uber-cultured Michael Lonsdale in Moonraker are better: “Look after Mr Bond. See that some harm comes to him.” The three-nippled Scaramanga who chides, ‘Come, come, Mr Bond, you enjoy killing as much as I do.”

A string of sidekicks and supporting actors follow: Oddjob and Nick Nack being the most unforgettable. My favourite Bond remains From Russia With Love, precisely for Lotte Lenya’s campy Rosa Klebb with her trained assassin, a cold, blond, stunningly fit-looking Robert Shaw who fights Bond in the tiny train compartment (no better festicuffs have yet been put on screen). Grace Jones as May Day, Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp, Richard Keel as Jaws (who was a hit in India, and whom I found tiresome), Bernard Lee as M, Desmond Llewelyn as Q and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny.

And then there are all the beautiful Bond women (except Barbara Bach and Denise Richards — I never got that), the best of them being Carole Bouquet, Daniela Bianchi as the musically named Tatiana Romanova, Honor Blackman as the gloriously named Pussy Galore, and the newest, hottest heroine who scars and wounds James Bond’s heart for life, Eva Green as Vesper Lynd. 

The team that established the Bond franchise: John Barry’s signature theme (the thrilling, unforgettable guitar twang that signals we are in a Bond movie now), Maurice Binder’s iconic opening title gun barrel sequence and the liquid, silhouette credit titles, Ken Adams’ production design (plus the men and women who designed all those stylishly cut Savile Row suits, designer clothes and the Aston Martins), director Terence Young and Guy Hamilton, screenwriter Richard Maibaum (responsible for Bond’s wit in Dr No; ‘shocking, positively shocking’), Bob Simmons, stuntman for Sean Connery.

(It is Simmons and not any of the Bond stars who had the honour of appearing first as 007 on screen — it is Simmons walking and shooting in the opening gun barrel Binder graphics in Dr No!).     

And then the bevy of vamps who did all the heavy duty work to keep James Bond rakish. One of them, the aptly named Miranda Frost (sexy Rosamund Pike), summed up our hero quite nicely: “I know all about you, 007. It’s sex for dinner and death for breakfast.”

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