Speculations on the true character of James Bond, and comments on the film, “Spectre.”
As James himself might exclaim, that’s a bloody long time between drinks. “Doctor No” was released more than half-a-century ago, four years after the novel became published in Britain, when author (and former WWII spymaster) Ian Fleming himself was still around and kicking, able to come on set to offer his real-world advice.
In order to reveal how and why “Spectre” succeeds where many preceding Bond films pathetically failed, I must begin by underscoring a few spectacular qualities in that first flick.
Why do I bestow such a resonant “Yes!” on “No?” Some die-hard Bond fans might aver it’s because this movie introduced a youthful Sean Connery to the role. For many, Mr. Connery remains the consummate Bond.
I agree with that assessment, yet it’s only part of my answer.
A Real Spy Goes to Work in Dr. No
A greater cause of my high evaluation is the fact that the first half of “Doctor No” consists almost entirely of tradecraft. It shows Bond going on foreign assignment, dealing with an outer ring of baddies, sussing out a messy situation and devising a way to cut to the kingpin. With an absolute, cold efficiency, he deals with any and all who block his path. That style of making progress is a true skeleton key to his personality, and a theme we’ll return to momentarily.
But first, I’d like to describe how the wheels of “Doctor No” fall off entirely in its second half.
The demolition begins when a consummate Bond Girl, the Swedish bombshell Arsula Undress – whoops, lil’ Freudian typo, there – I meant, Ursula Andress, wades from the sea in her itsy-bitsy white bikini. Right then, “Doctor No” jumps the shark and never quite manages to get back on track.
Hell, after that, all subsequent Bond films leap blithely over an entire pod of sharks (i.e. they grow increasingly whimsical and preposterous). They never seriously return to their roots, not until now, 2015, some 53 years later, with the release of “Spectre.”
Here’s why “No” fails when Andress appears. Bond is immediately transformed into a lovestruck simp who cares about her at least as much as he cares about his mission. Let me make an era-appropriate reference to pinball: TILT! Following that fail, again and again, the Bond industry’s books and films resort to that same, flimsy, claptrap device. Having a spy with ice in his veins get a warm spot for a gal he’s only just met might be a twist, but it’s wrung to smithereens. The over-used, “lovely-and-beloved-damsel-in-distress” trick is of a piece with the grandiose special effects and the tedious set pieces that gradually swelled up to dominate the whole franchise.
Why is this wrong? To explain, permit me to give the Wayback Machine one more crank.
The Spymaster’s Original Version
Ian Fleming began dreaming up our modern antihero in the 1950s. He started by selecting a boring name for an exciting character – a useful accessory for a spy. So he swiped the byline of an American ornithologist from a bird-watching manual and a meme was born: “It’s Bond. James Bond.”
There’s your bland label. And the contents? Unrelieved bottled lighting. Bond is like the Swiss Army Knife of the British secret service, with tools to address any problem. He deploys Q’s devices and his own pluck and dash to defeat all adversaries, regardless of their wealth, power and political clout, or their ability to chain Bond down and assault him with saws, lasers, crematory fires or ravenous sharks if they spot what they think might be an opening. In short, he’s Superman clad in a black-tie tuxedo, not blue tights. He’s a superhero designed for adult consumption, in that he acts like a bit of a cad with the ladies (to whom he unvaryingly proves catnip). He can also waltz deftly around chunks of what would be Kryptonite for ordinary folks: mighty cocktails, strong tobacco, perilous rides in performance autos and nocturnal forays in high-stakes casinos.
An impressive package. Why did Fleming devise a character so free of vulnerability, as well as ordinary human complexity? Because James Bond was an archetype of ego-restoration and wish-fulfillment for Britain’s battered psyche. Examine the timing: Fleming wrote just after his country came within an eyelash of being absorbed, body and bones, into Hitler’s Third Reich. Next, fatigued by the existential struggle of World War II, the nation watched its once-global empire shrink like a leaky barrage balloon. Meanwhile, a brash upstart (the U.S.) and a pair of noxious hegemons (the U.S.S.R. and Red China) strode out together to lord over the world’s stage as the reigning trio of superpowers. Finding itself sidelined into roles as a bit player, Britain – via Fleming’s literary ministrations – found its quantum of solace in a fantasy.
Given such genetics, what do we find this homunculus, this fantasy character, desiring and pursuing most ardently? Power. Especially in its most tangible and immediate form: winning a direct confrontation. And if that can be accomplished in the face of impossible odds, so much the better.
Bond might serve a fading nation, yet he invariably shows himself the most knowledgeable about global affairs and international skullduggery, the most brave and skilled at unconventional combat. He becomes the West’s indispensable man for coolly resolving a threat of jaw-dropping proportions. And that prize arrives with a special bonus! Every battle’s won with a sardonic quip and a wry grin. More than a Brit, he’s a cosmopolitan European, with outsize gifts of sang-froid plus savoir-faire. It’s no accident that Bond’s opposite number, in America’s CIA, is one Felix Leiter, drawn as a garishly-dressed, loutish rube (particularly in the films). Leiter’s principal talent seems to be summoning a Hercules plane full of SEALs to assist during the final clean-up phase of Bond’s most recent triumph.
And thus, suddenly, reality flips onto its head and the world’s dominant power becomes reduced to acting as Bond’s sidekick.
Pathology as Talent
One must ask, what keeps this top operative so calm, cool and collected, no matter the threat level? What’s his ice-blue secret? (‘Nother topical reference, there.) We know that normal men must be harshly trained to do what has to be done in combat. They undergo endless drilling in performing essential moves, in practicing obedience to orders, in learning to tamp down most emotion – other than feeling intense bonds of loyalty to cohorts and comrades.
But there’s a certain class of men who come onto tough scenes preternaturally suited to win success at the chores demanded. They have no apparent emotions, other than ones they choose to fake. They possess a grandiose and overweening sense of superiority. Despite this, they can come across as charming, even charismatic, but only because they’re highly persuasive and manipulative. They remain ruthless and lacking in all remorse, but that allows them to focus intently on any task at hand, no matter how violent or vile it appears. They remain untouched by a level of fear that can undo others. We call these men psychopaths. Professionals who study the pathology say 1-2 percent of the world’s population fit this description. Such men can prove quite useful warriors during a conflict. But how on earth do you handle them in peacetime?
Turn them into secret agents. Because for those in clandestine service, wars never end.
When Ian Fleming conjured up James Bond, he envisioned a ruthless variation on the jazz singer Hoagy Carmichael.
Fleming has another character say that Bond looks like Hoagy with, “That black hair falling down over the right eyebrow. Much the same bones. But there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.”
There’s your big clue to Bond’s inner nature, similar to the essential hint Dashiell Hammett provided for his detective Sam Spade, who looks, “rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”
The Ethics of a Cynic
Bond’s saving grace is that, regardless of what he must do in his tradecraft, he remains a loyal subject of the Crown. That’s his sole North Star, his one moral constant. Put it aside, and he’s a rule-breaker, an impudent and rebellious operative, and a self-serving narcissist. He can read most other people easily, but he basically doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about the lot of them. In essence, he’s an ethical psychopath – which is the root of his legendary coolth and poise.
But, as President Truman said of the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza, “He might be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”
To design Bond that way, yet also make him a sentimental push-over who falls in love quickly and easily is to stir forces together that can’t actually blend. Misbegotten efforts to humanize him, to round him out, to explain his character and motivation with a traumatic backstory is to attempt to transform him into something he never was and could never be. That irresolvable conundrum has polluted many a film and imitation Bond book (those written by stand-ins after Fleming died).
Even Daniel Craig’s performances as Bond in the films, “Casino Royale,” in which he falls desperately in love with Vesper Lynde, and “Skyfall,” wherein he adores the mother-figure of Judy Densch’s “M”, are cases in point. Those films flail back and forth between presenting Bond as a cold-hearted bastard and Bond as a sweet and decent mensch who’s simply burdened with doing a tough job.
Given that, why do I think that “Spectre” works? Because finally, finally, Craig gets it right – he remains demonically self-possessed no matter what happens. Even when his prime object of desire says goodbye to him, he doesn’t so much as flinch. The script-writers get it right, too – Bond’s quips are not tacky puns, but wry lines that point to a hard, unflinching, and world-weary core philosophy. Even those worn but de rigeur phrases, “Bond, James Bond,” and “shaken-not-stirred,” are slipped deftly into fresh contexts.
But the main reason “Spectre” succeeds that Bond’s object of desire (one hesitates to call her an actual love interest) is nearly as tough as he is. French actress Léa Seydoux – operating at an acrobatic leap beyond her turn as a nubile naïf in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” – is Dr. Madeleine
Swann, the daughter of an international assassin, and no shrinking violet herself. She can shoot, she can fight, and when their mutual combat against a brutal killer on a train is over, she’s more than ready to celebrate with hot sex.
A SUB-ZERO LOVE AFFAIR
Bond does not fall for her, exactly, yet he does want to be with her. Why? Bond’s a consummate narcissist, and she’s entirely too much like him for him to resist. Charming her, kissing her and stroking her, for him all these loving moves are like licking a mirror. As for what she sees in him, Bond provides a compelling view down a path she did not take herself (yet), the same route along which she saw her own father disappear. Bond is her chance to finally grasp the essence of her deceased father, and to some degree, pull a facsimile of him back into her life. You can’t say they don’t have chemistry, but it is of an extremely chilly type – theirs is a romance located, say, on Pluto. Which is perfect for Bond.
“Spectre” is not without flaw. Its opening sequence, with CGI octopus arms writhing across the screen as though black linguini has begun slumping out of a tilted pot, is utterly risible. Yet more ludicrous moments arise during the showdown in the arch-villain’s desert lair. What experienced villain would ever let a major international spy keep his wristwatch right there on his arm? Godammit, did you crafty villains learn nothing from Hermann Goering’s fountain pen? And then, allowing Swann to run to Bond, embrace him (and release him) instead of keeping her tied in a chair? Bad guys, please! That’s just plain goofy.
Another pratfall. I tell my writing classes they can watch a movie’s plot flounder if tension has to flare on the screen via the glowing time readout on some sort of explosive device. Now, I must say, “Spectre” doesn’t inflict a single one of these irksome clichés on you. It offers two, with their readouts running down simultaneously. The first concerns a global takeover by a computer program; the other is on an actual timer in a big building crammed with explosives. And, oh yes, a maiden is indeed also tied to that railroad track.
I don’t think filmmakers gain extra points for doubling or even tripling down on vapidity.
Another gratuitous absurdity: Bond next proceeds to shoot down a helicopter with his handgun. At a range of, oh, a hundred yards or so, in the dead of night. While he himself goes bouncing along the Thames in a speedboat. In all fairness to the filmmakers, though, I must say they do insert a shred of suspense by requiring Bond to take more than a single shot.
But the interpersonal climax? Now, that’s sublime.
So the chopper crashes on Westminister Bridge in London and our chief baddie, Christopher Waltz as Franz Oberhauser (nee Ernst Stavro Blofeld, leader of the international crime syndicate, Spectre) crawls wounded out from the wreckage. Bond then has a chance to shoot him, yet he declines. It’s enough to gaze down at Blofeld, knowing that he has won, and to see Blofeld look back up at him, also knowing that Bond has won.
For Bond, this is way better than any orgasm could ever be. Once again, he’s proven his supremacy as the ultimate icy bastard. He takes special delight in seeing that realization dawn in the eyes of an enemy. Compared to Bond, a serial killer like Ted Bundy is a mere dilettante and poseur. Bundy sought out those he perceived as weaklings for his prey, but Bond takes on near-equals, even presumptive superiors, and for much higher stakes.
Smiling, Bond ejects his gun’s ammo clip (a covert message to Dr. Swann, who did the same thing to his weapon about a third of the film back), then flings it away, telling Oberhauser he’s got better things to do. Next he kisses the girl and strolls off with her. Nice closer sequence, but scoring with this chick again is rather beside the point.
The main thing for viewers to celebrate is that the genuine Bond has finally shown up once more. The last time we really saw the guy was during “Doctor No,” after he’s packed off the female double-agent he’s screwed in more ways than one, and sits playing solitaire and smoking cigarettes while he waits for a target to arrive. That target, a British traitor, dutifully walks in, glimpses the dummies Bond has placed in a bed, falls for the ruse, and fires multiple bullets into them.
Bond then raises his own gun, makes the traitor drop his. When the traitor snatches up his gun again, Bond raises an eyebrow and waits for its firing pin to fall on an empty chamber. “That’s a Smith & Wesson,” Bond informs him. “And you’ve had your six.” Then he calmly drills him.
Six of one, meet half a dozen of the other.