Monday, November 17, 2008

James Bond: Now More Than Ever (Part 1)

He's been called an embarrassing relic of the Cold War who should have been forcibly retired and put out to stud a generation ago, when the Berlin Wall fell. He's been called a fascist, a racist, a neocolonial imperialist, and at the very least a shameless sexist, if not an outright misogynist. He's been the butt of jokes and the subject of parodies almost from the day he first appeared in public, and he's been described as a two-fisted, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, skirt-chasing, walking talking catalog of every bad behavior that can possibly be exhibited by the human male. It's even been said that all you really need to know about him can be summed up in just two words: Pussy Galore.

With all of this embarrassing baggage, then, how can Commander James Bond, C.M.G., R.N.V.R., possibly have a useful place in the twenty-first century?

To answer this question, we must first ask another: who is he? Who is Secret Agent 007, Mr. Shaken Not Stirred, Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang? Who is that man in the Saville Row suit, smiling with quiet confidence as he sits behind the wheel of that silver Aston Martin DB5, caressing the grip of his .32-caliber Walther PPK? Who is James Bond?

The answer to this question is not as easily found as it might seem. The peculiar challenge in assessing the proper place of James Bond in the modern world is in some respects quite similar to the challenge of picking the best brand of mineral water in the supermarket: there are so blasted many to choose from. Which one of them is the true, bona fide, and only Bond, James Bond?

As I often do with tough questions, I asked my wife. She said, "Sean Connery, no doubt about it. Very macho, very sexy, but with a roguish charm and a sardonic wit. Mm-mmm, Sean." As an afterthought, she added, "Just like you, dear." I decided to cut my losses and went to ask my friend John, the screenwriter.

"Definitely Roger Moore," John said. "Look, Bond is a joke. He's a superhero; a campy self-parody. He's the guy who can save the world without mussing his hair or spilling his martini, and Moore is the only one who got the joke and played him that way." I thanked John and left, and after that I asked more people, and got more answers. Some preferred Connery; others, Moore. Younger folks were more likely to pick Pierce Brosnan, and Timothy Dalton has his fans. No one would admit to liking George Lazenby.

But in the end, all my questioning proved fruitless. Everyone it seems has a favorite Bond, and not one single person answered, "James who?" All that my investigative efforts really produced was a wealth of opinions about the actors who had played the role, and what they'd looked like while doing it, and how they'd played it. Along with a favorite Bond actor, it seems everyone has a favorite Bond villain, a favorite Bond girl, a favorite Bond car, a favorite Bond stunt, and a favorite Bond improbable gadget. None of these opinions helped me to get any closer to resolving the crucial question of just who Bond is, though, and I still had no good answer to the question that lies at the heart of this essay: what is it about James Bond that saves him from occupying a prominent place in the dustbin of history, right next to Matt Helm?

So I went to the source.

The Gospel According to Ian

The portrait of Bond that emerges from Ian Fleming's original novels and short stories is markedly different from the collage that can be assembled by watching a series of twenty-some movies filmed over a span of forty-some years. For one thing, Fleming's Bond doesn't look much like any of the actors who have ever played him onscreen. In the words of Vesper Lynd in Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale: "He is very good looking. He reminds me rather of Hoagy Carmichael, but there is something cold and ruthless in his..." (Whatever Mademoiselle Lynd intended to say next, of course, was forever lost in the explosion that blew in the front windows of the Hermitage bar. These sorts of conversation-stoppers happen all the time around Mr. Bond.)

For another thing, it's important to note that the novels and movies were not made in the same chronological order. Bond's literary life begins with Casino Royale (1953), followed by Live and Let Die (1954), Moonraker (1955), Diamonds are Forever (1956), From Russia With Love (1957), Dr. No (1958), and Goldfinger (1959). His cinematic life, on the other hand, began a decade later with Dr. No (1962), and continued with From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), and Thunderball (1965). In some cases this resequencing of his story merely introduces continuity problems: for example, On Her Majesty's Secret Service was written and set before You Only Live Twice, and at the end of the latter book arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld is not merely dead, he is really most sincerely dead. But in the movies the sequence of these stories is reversed, so it became necessary for the moviemakers to equip Blofeld with the sort of cheesy last-ditch escape devices that Mike Myers later parodied to such great effect in Austin Powers. In still other cases — Moonraker, for example — it apparently proved more expedient to simply junk Fleming's original story completely and start over from scratch, the result being that many of the later movies, and in particular the movies from the Roger Moore era, bear naught but an in-name-only relationship to the eponymous novels. This is a very important point, and we'll return to it momentarily.

For a third thing, though, a reading of Fleming's original novels quickly leads to the realization that Bond's origins and backstory are in constant flux. In Casino Royale, for example, we get this small insight into Bond's private life: "Bond's car was his only personal hobby. One of the last of the 4-litre Bentleys with the supercharger by Amhert Villiers, he had bought it almost new in 1933 and had kept it in careful storage through the war." Two years later, in Moonraker, Bond is described as being only eight years away from mandatory retirement at age forty-five, and yet nine years after that, in You Only Live Twice, Bond's official obituary states that in 1941 he dropped out of school at age seventeen to enlist in the Royal Navy. From these apparent contradictions, and many more like them, we must draw one of only two possible conclusions: either Bond's parents in 1933 were far more indulgent with their nine-year-old son than all but the worst of modern American parents, or else even Fleming himself didn't give a rip about keeping Bond's backstory straight. And if we can't trust the putative facts put forth by his creator, then what hope do we have to know anything about the real James Bond?

What we can know is that which we are left with: his mood, tone, and character. In this regard, Fleming was quite consistent. Bond, as written by Fleming, was neither the wry stud-muffin played by Connery, the smirking quipster played by Moore, nor the smart-but-tough human action-figure played by Brosnan. Bond was a film noir character from the get-go, who had less in common with his later cinematic portrayals than with his literary contemporaries and immediate predecessors: Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, Simon Templar, and the Continental Op. Fleming's Bond was a thug. He could pass for a gentleman when required, but underneath the civilized veneer he was a cold-blooded killer in the employ of Her Majesty's government. He could slit a sleeping man's throat or kill someone with his bare hands and feel little more afterward than the need for a good stiff drink. He could make love to a woman in chapter five and shoot her in the back in chapter six. He was, as Fleming described him, "a neutral figure — an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department." He was meant to be an emotionally detached and utterly deadly assassin, a man who got involved in interesting business but was not himself interesting. In short, Bond was — ironically — meant by Fleming to be most like the least-liked of his big-screen avatars: George Lazenby.

What you start hanging about with Bond, you'll note, it is difficult to avoid becoming drenched in irony. be continued...