Bond Keeps Up His Silver Streak

  • Share
  • Read Later
The air is electric at this posh London casino. A beautiful woman is losing big at chemin de fer. How can the stranger across the table keep drawing better cards out of the shoe? Desperately, she borrows more to cover her bets, and the stranger says, "I admire your courage, Miss . . ."

"Trench," the brunette answers. "Sylvia Trench." She appraises her rival with an envy edging toward lust. "I admire your luck, Mr. . . ."

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

"Bond." The silver cigarette lighter snaps shut to reveal a face of elegant cruelty: dimples welded like scars, incredible long whips of eyebrows, a full mouth ready for any challenge -- to spit out a witticism, to commandeer a kiss, to sip from the cup of revenge. To say his name. "James Bond."

Moviegoers first heard that terse exchange in a London theater on Oct. 6, 1962. The same week Johnny Carson became host of the Tonight show, and Pope John XXIII adorned the cover of TIME. Two weeks later, Khrushchev and Kennedy would go eyeball to eyeball in a dispute over Cuban missiles. So who cared about the world premiere of the first James Bond film, or the introduction of * Sean Connery as Her Majesty's hunkiest secret servant? Who knew?

It has been six U.S. Presidents, five Soviet leaders -- and four actors playing 007 -- since Dr. No opened to no special acclaim. But the spy created by Novelist Ian Fleming is still in business: saving the world from megalomaniac crime masters, heartless femmes fatales and indifferently prepared vodka martinis. It's a big business too. The first 14 Bond films presented by Albert R. ("Cubby") Broccoli have earned something like $2 billion around the world. (Broccoli did not produce the 1967 parody Casino Royale or Connery's free-lance return to the role in 1983's Never Say Never Again.) Now, on the series' silver anniversary, Broccoli offers a new Bond film, The Living Daylights, and a new Bond hero, English Actor Timothy Dalton. Both are taut, dark and handsome, suggesting that 007 is good as new. Anyway, good as 1962.

To a world disturbed by cold war ultimatums and distracted by Camelot dazzle, Bond gave the traditional action hero modern attitudes and equipment. He brought a killer's lightning instincts to Sherlock Holmes, a suave caress to crude Mike Hammer, the microchip age to Dick Tracy's gadgets. His films were comic strips with grown-up cynicism, Hitchcock thrillers without the artistic risks. He was an existential hired gun with an aristocrat's tastes -- just right for a time when class was a matter of brand names and insouciant gestures. "My dear girl," Bond tells a new conquest, "there are some things that just aren't done. Such as drinking Dom Perignon '53 above a temperature of 38 degrees F. That's as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs." Minutes later the dear girl's body is lacquered to death by Auric Goldfinger's Korean manservant.

As the Bond films made celebrities of his enemies (Oddjob, Rosa Klebb, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Jaws), so they incited schoolboy giggles with the names of his women. Pussy Galore and Octopussy! Kissy Suzuki and Plenty O'Toole! Mary Goodnight and Holly Goodhead! They were as indispensable and interchangeable as 007's other accessories, the Walther PPK and the Aston Martin. Pussy Galore might be a judo expert who could toss Bond like a crepe, but he would merely toss back a wolfish double entendre: "We must have a few fast falls together some time." In its Connery years, Bond comprised equal parts of Jack Kennedy's playboy glamour and Hugh Hefner's Playboy Philosophy.

But always teddibly English and utterly U (though Connery was a working- class Scot). To a nation that had seen its empire shrink in rancor, and its secret service embarrassed by the Burgess-Maclean and Profumo scandals, the notion of a British agent saving the free world was a tonic made in Fantasyland. The Beatles might have made Britain swinging for the young, but Bond was a travel-poster boy for the earmuff brigade. The Bond films even put a few theme songs (including Paul McCartney's Live and Let Die) on the pop charts. But their signal influence was closer to home. In the '60s, Bond spawned a whole genre of superspy imitators: Matt Helm and Harry Palmer in movies, Maxwell Smart and the men from U.N.C.L.E. on TV. Later a young generation of filmmakers found inspiration in the series' success. The past decade of high-tech adventure movies, from Star Wars to Raiders of the Lost Ark to RoboCop, would be unimaginable without the brut effervescence and special-effects expertise bottled in Bond.

No surprise there: John Stears, the effects wizard of Star Wars, supervised the visual tricks on six early Bonds. He was one of many craftsmen who kept returning to the series: Screenwriter Richard Maibaum (twelve of the 15 films), Composer John Barry (twelve), Production Designer Ken Adam (seven), Main Credits Designer Maurice Binder (13). Bond's office colleagues -- M, Q and Moneypenny -- have appeared in every episode. John Glen, who has helmed the past four films, is just the fifth director in the series. The Bond team hit its early peak with Goldfinger in 1964 and followed up with some snazzy films (Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me) and a few lame ones (You Only Live Twice, The Man with the Golden Gun). Eventually, the pictures were faithful only to the titles of Fleming's novels and stories; now each screenplay was an original endeavor. But the basic Bond recipe was merely stirred, not shaken: Do it over, do it bigger, 'cause nobody does it better.

Often the formula continued to pay off. The precredit sequence almost always packed more gasps, laughs and subplots into six minutes than most movies do in 60. It also meant that conventions established in the early films ran the risk of calcifying in the later ones. Plenty of cleavage, but no nudity. Innuendos but no dirty words. Most important, a dogged adherence to old-fashioned storytelling -- which, in an industry that has thrown narrative logic outuendo, can make an 007 film seem slow moving. But Bonds were never aimed at the thrills-above-all youth market. Or even, primarily, to the U.S. (where, by the way, each new Bond film is consistently among its year's Top Ten box- office winners). The series has a broader goal: to be the last of that fine old breed of movies that can offer something for everybody, adults as well as kids, in Europe, Asia and South America.

Besides, like any clever agent, Bond could adapt to the Zeitgeist. With an eye toward detente, he found villains in rogue warriors, not cold warriors. Indeed, in A View to a Kill, "Comrade Bond" is awarded the Order of Lenin. One of these days, he might even get a citation from Ms. magazine. The male chauvinist piggy is still susceptible to European beauties of no fixed abode or accent, but now he relies on their intelligence and independence. They can fight manfully; he can fall in love.

These changes in Bond films had more to do with keeping the series fresh than with the new actors who slipped into his Savile Row suits. When Connery tired of the role -- and it showed -- Broccoli cast George Lazenby in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Bond became a husband and a widower in that one, but it was Lazenby who disappeared as Connery returned for one more film. Then Roger Moore took over for seven episodes. Amiable and reliable, he nonetheless walked through his part like a waxwork on casters and left the heavy jobs to his stunt doubles. The series aged with him; it was in danger of becoming a travelogue with a smirk. Perhaps 007 was finally ready for his pension.

But wait! It's Indiana James to the rescue! In Timothy Dalton's interpretation in The Living Daylights, one finds some of the lethal charm of Sean Connery, along with a touch of crabby Harrison Ford. This Bond is as fast on his feet as with his wits; an ironic scowl creases his face; he's battle ready yet war-weary. And in the age of AIDS, even Bond must bend to serial monogamy; this time, for reasons of plot and propriety, he's a one-gal guy. Dalton performed a lot of his own stunts, and he looks great in a tuxedo -- especially the one with the Velcro lapels that fold over to give him the guise of a priest-assassin.

Happily, the series has revived itself to welcome Dalton. It opens with the moral dilemma that Full Metal Jacket took nearly two hours to waddle up to: whether a good soldier must kill a pretty young sniper (the unenticing Maryam d'Abo). Then it's off to Vienna, London, Tangier and Afghanistan -- the usual guided tour of In spots and hot spots, with a politically savvy cast of , adversaries. An honorable KGB boss and a duplicitous KGB agent. Afghan freedom fighters who push opium on the side. A renegade arms dealer who may remind you of General Secord's friend Edwin Wilson. And 007 in the middle, juggling global juggernauts like Ollie North, but with less piety and more smarts.

Some will miss the puckishness of the old Bond; others may wilt during an overlong sequence set in the Afghan desert, when the movie turns Ishtary. But Glen, Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson (Broccoli's stepson, who serves as co- screenwriter and co-producer) have wrapped a few nifty surprises in the security blanket of genre familiarity. The gasbag KGB agent is smuggled out of Czechoslovakia through the Trans-Siberian natural gas pipeline. A professional killer and a British guard stage the best kitchen fight since the gremlins got microwaved. The requisite ski chase sends Dalton and D'Abo bobsledding down the slopes in her cello case. Throughout, the film forfeits sniggering humor to accentuate action and character. As Bond Marketing Chief Charles J. Juroe notes, "The Living Daylights is an action-adventure film whose hero happens to be named James Bond."

Will Dalton earn the loyalty of 007 traditionalists, while luring a new generation into Bondage? He ought to. But the only real suspense left is what to call the films when all the Fleming titles have been used up. One matter was settled long ago: Bond films have no competition as the most durable and popular series in movie history. Superman, Rocky and Jaws may have produced four installments; Friday the 13th may have hit six. But 15 films -- and more to come -- with the high gloss and safe thrills of Bond? My dear Hollywood, there are some things that just aren't done.