Monday, October 8, 2012

A November of Utmost Importance

This is the first of my Bond Series. See "'Let the Skyfall'," "'The Man With the Midas Touch'," "'Dance into the Fire'," "'Are You Willing to Die?'," "'And He Strikes...'," "You Used to Say 'Live and Let Live'," "Bond Is Forever," and "Nobody Does It Better...Still."

The Wright family tradition regarding Christmas gifts was rather different from others I knew growing up. On Christmas Eve, family gifts were exchanged. In other words, I received gifts from my parents and my sisters and they received presents from me. We each took turns and would open one gift at a time until there was nothing left under the tree. Christmas morning was for Santa gifts. These gifts (never wrapped from what I can remember) were placed in the living room, each pile designated for each child. There was no need for labels because it was fairly obvious which gifts belonged to whom. One of my most cherished and memorable gifts from Santa was Steven Jay Rubin's The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia. This revised edition included tidbits on Brosnan's 1995 film GoldenEye. It must be remembered that this was late 1990s. Brosnan's second film Tomorrow Never Dies had either yet to be released or had just been. This was the most up-to-date Bond encyclopedia available. I was ecstatic. It turns out that my mother had actually special ordered it since it was unavailable in Texas (I believe she got it in Utah, where my sister lived at the time). That may not mean much to anyone now, but seeing that Amazon and eBay were fairly new at the time, I was touched and very grateful. My mother has always had thoughtful, creative insights when it comes to giving.

Everyone has been up in arms about the importance of this November. And they are correct. This November is incredibly important because it could indicate the direction of, not the country (we'll see about that), but one of the longest running film series in Hollywood history: James Bond 007. November marks Daniel Craig's third outing as James Bond in Skyfall.

Why is this important? "There is a theory among Bond fans that it is always the third Bond film in any sequence...that tends to have extra punch and confidence and consequent success."[1] This is what I call "The Goldfinger Effect": the third film for a James Bond actor is his best, except when it's not. While I have yet to find the term used anywhere else, the thought did not originate with me. Rubin explains,

Although From Russia With Love has a better story, Goldfinger is the best film in the James Bond series. It alone elevated the series to a level of pop entertainment that very few films achieve. Goldfinger was a worldwide phenomenon when it was released during Christmastime in 1964. It was so popular that many theaters stayed open 24 hours a day to accommodate the crowds. It was the first mega-hit film...Goldfinger was a big fantasy story with three elements that have never been quite equaled. First, it has Goldfinger himself, the best of all possible Bond villains, with the most perfect of all schemes...Second, the film has the most alluring gallery of women ever seen in the series...Third, the film had the "excalibur sword" of the series--the Aston Martin DB5 with modifications...From Russia With Love had introduced some memorable set pieces, but Goldfinger introduced legendary ones.[2]

The silliness of Oddjob's razor-rimmed hat or the absurdity of Pussy Galore's name (she was a lesbian in the novel) with the slightly disturbing, macabre nature of murdering a woman by asphyxiation via gold paint (paid tribute to in Quantum of Solace) mixed, oddly enough, rather well.[3] As did the Aston Martin ejector seat (Is Skyfall's "you must be joking" line a throwback to the original Q/Bond interplay?), the laser beam torture ("No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!"), and the epic Fort Knox assault. As Bond creator Ian Fleming once quipped, "the trick...was to take much-loved ingredients and find the perfect cocktail blend for them."[4]

Following George Lazenby's solo outing in the excellent On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Sean Connery's brief, expensive (a then-record $1.25 million, which he donated to the Scottish International Educational Trust) return in the camp-filled Diamonds Are Forever, Roger Moore began taking the role in a more humorous direction fitted for what has been aptly described as a "gentleman adventurer."[5] Producers dabbled in blaxploitation with Live and Let Die and scraped the bottom of the barrel with The Man With the Golden Gun. A forced interruption due to Kevin McClory's plans to make James Bond of the Secret Service (a Thunderball remake that would eventually emerge as Never Say Never Again) brought a much needed break and time for creative renewal. Lucky for us, the result was Moore's best Bond film: The Spy Who Loved Me. In his summary of Roger Moore's third outing, Rubin writes,

The film single-handedly revived the sagging Bond series in the mid-1970s. Lavishly produced and featuring a Roger Moore who had grown comfortable in the role, The Spy Who Loved Me was the best Bond film since Goldfinger...Returning to the elements that had contributed to Goldfinger's success, producer Albert R. Broccoli gave production designer Ken Adam a free hand...Like Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me introduced a sense of worldwide alarm...Broccoli had carefully updated hi saga of 007, and the huge success of The Spy Who Loved Me guaranteed the series's longevity.[6]

The third Bond film for both Connery and Moore was their best and impacted the series as a whole. Timothy Dalton had been expected to return after Licence to Kill, but legal battles forced the Bond series into what would become a six year hiatus. Dalton eventually departed. "But when Bond failed to return in 1991, there was not much of an outcry. This was the gravest crisis that the whole enterprise faced. Was it possible that Bond might finally be killed off by indifference?"[7] The release of GoldenEye was like a phoenix rising from the ashes. It had the proper blend of elements, including the best pre-titles sequences since the ski-jump in The Spy Who Loved Me or free fall in Moonraker, while providing some self-awareness to its new era (e.g. M's verbal emasculation of Bond). However, instead of rising in quality (as in the case of Connery) to crescendo, the Brosnan films sank. Tomorrow Never Dies was harmless fun, if not knowingly stupid, while The World Is Not Enough (Brosnan's third) was bland. Granted, TWINE has an amazing pre-titles sequence and exceptional villainess (and death) in Sophie Marceau's Elektra King. However, GoldenEye was "a throwback to the intrigue-laden Bond films of the '60s;" "an interesting blend of Goldfinger glitz and From Russia With Love intrigue."[8] Following TWINE was the train wreck Die Another Day, which barely loses to The Man With the Golden Gun for worst film in the series. With that, Brosnan left us with one of the best and worst Bond films to date. In essence, TWINE was the exception to the Goldfinger Effect.

It would take a new actor and the return of GoldenEye director Martin Campbell to breathe new life into the series. Having finally acquired to rights to Fleming's first Bond novel, the producers were finally able to make a proper film version of Casino Royale. The book had previously been made into a 1954 TV episode for Climax Mystery Theater, with an American "Jimmy" Bond as the protagonist and an inspired Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. Later, after a deal could not be reached between Charles Feldman and Broccoli and Saltzman, a 1967 spoof was made starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, and Orson Welles. And it is terrible. The new film carried the well-known personality of Bond, while giving it a realism and emotion that is often difficult to portray in the James Bond universe (Vesper's suicide is particularly moving and terrifying).[9] While Bond films had received prestigious awards in technical fields, both Daniel Craig and the film itself were nominated for BAFTA awards. "There was significant sentiment to reward the popular Casino Royale" with an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, according to one writer, "but only five nominees at the time."

However, in an attempt to compete with the Bourne series,[10] the simple-minded Quantum of Solace lost much of the wit, emotion, and intrigue that made Casino Royale one of the best in the series. Only a handful of sequels surpass the original, including The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Dark Knight, and From Russia With Love (SPECTRE was seeking revenge for the death of Dr. No). Most fall short of the original. Quantum was the only other sequel in the series and it certainly showed.

To recap, Connery's first three films improved in quality, each one topping the previous. Moore began with a mediocre film, stumbled even further to the worst in the series, then skyrocketed to one of the best. Brosnan began with one of the best films, sank to a mediocre film, and instead of bouncing back, continued to sink. And now we await Skyfall. This has the potential to cement Craig as James Bond and set the tone for the James Bond series. No longer is the story tied to Vesper's betrayal and death. It is, in some sense, a fresh start. With director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) stating the film will be "epic," perhaps the series is in good hands. Add to the mix Daniel Craig's belief that the four-year break helped (remember The Spy Who Loved Me) and the speculation pertaining to the film's potential as Oscar Bait and we might have a winner. Let's hope it does not suffer Brosnan's fate.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. No. Whatever the outcome, this November is of the utmost importance.

1. Sinclair McKay, The Man With the Golden Touch: How the Bond Films Conquered the World (New York: Overlook Press, 2008), 318.

2. Rubin, The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia, Revised Edition (New York: Contemporary Books, 1995), 162-165.

3. McKay writes of the golden girl scene, "Those three or four seconds of screen time as Connery stares with disbelief at Eaton are possibly the most memorable of the entire series. (McKay, 2008, 56)

4. Ibid., 15.

5. Ibid., 159.

6. Rubin, 1995, 389-390.

7. McKay, 2008, 287.

8. Rubin, 1995, 479, 312. This last quote was used by Rubin to describe 1983's Octopussy, but I thought it was a perfect description of GoldenEye.

9. When M later inquires about Bond's state due to Vesper's death, he coldly responds, "The bitch is dead." This is actually the final line in the book ("The bitch is dead now"), following Bond's discovery that Vesper was a double agent and thus overdosed on sleeping pills.

10. Watch how Bond uses random objects in a hotel fight, similar to both The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Ultimatum. The rooftop chase in Quantum also has a similar flavor to that of Ultimatum.

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