Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A view to a reevaluation”

Posted on December 7, 2012

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In which we defend the Roger Moore era of James Bond, which is where the seeds of seriousness were first sown.

Maybe it’s the release of Skyfall, maybe the excitement that the Bond-movie universe is celebrating its golden anniversary, or maybe just the fact that for some people anything is a pretext for watching movies, I’ve been revisiting the films where Roger Moore played 007. Moore, to me and my generation, is the Bond we first saw in theatres. (We were either unborn or too young when Sean Connery did the honours.) I have pleasant memories of these films, most of which fell into the “good entertainment” category, but current assessments of Moore have been cruel. He’s seen as a pun-packed place-filler, whom we put up with because Connery wouldn’t do any more Bond movies and Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig were still in school. (And it dismays me that, in these evaluations, Timothy Dalton always gets a raw deal. He really was the first “serious” Bond, long before Craig and Casino Royale.)

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But back to Moore. It’s baffling how no one seems to regard The Man with the Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me, which came back-to-back, as the Bond movies where the seeds of seriousness were first sown. Of course, even earlier, we had On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where George Lazenby’s Bond, by the end, is left cradling his wife’s lifeless form. But the best Moore movies, while steering clear of such overt displays of drama, were the first where serious moments were secreted in between all the guns and girls and gadgets. This isn’t just about the throwaway shots, like the one in the opening of For Your Eyes Only, where Bond places flowers on his wife’s grave. That’s just a ripple on the surface, a pale pointer to his troubled past. All it did was link Moore’s Bond to Lazenby’s Bond, assuring us that though the actors are different, the character is the same. (The Daniel Craig movies, however, belong to an entirely different universe, whose emotional undertow goes by the name of Vesper Lynd rather than Tracy Bond, but that’s a different discussion altogether.)

In The Spy Who Loved Me, Moore’s Bond is matched with an unprecedented Bond girl, his equal both professionally and personally. Major Anya Amasova – codenamed Triple-X (thus preserving the grand tradition of snicker-worthy Bond girl names) – is to the KGB what Bond is to MI6, but, like Bond, she’s also bereaved of a lover. Forced to work together, the initial wariness gives way, expectedly, to flirtation and sex. But when she realises that her lover was killed by Bond – in the film’s opening stretch, with a ski chase – she recoils. She asks Bond, “The man I loved. He was in Austria three weeks ago. Did you kill him?” Bond thinks back, and then replies, “When someone’s behind you on skis at 40 miles per hour trying to put a bullet in your back, you don’t always have time to remember a face. In our business, Anya, people get killed. We both know that. So did he. It was either him or me. The answer to the question is yes. I did kill him.” And she says, simply, “Then, when this mission is over, I will kill you.”

But after this stretch of seriousness, we’re back to the circus, with a steel-toothed henchman and a megalomaniacal villain who wants to rule the waters and sets up shop in the sea. In The Man with the Golden Gun, the circus is literal. The villain, Scaramanga, was brought up in one, and he likes his fun and games. The plot-driving solar-power device, like the list of agents in Skyfall, is just a MacGuffin – the point, really, is Scaramanga’s desire to duel with Bond, in whom he sees a kindred spirit. (Skyfall, too, was driven by a villain cut from the same cloth as Bond.) When Bond flies into Scaramanga’s island hideout, he’s shown around the lair, given all information that will help him later. Scaramanga even shows Bond how he harnesses solar power into a weapon, and just as we’re beginning to roll our eyes at all this explication, he points this weapon at Bond’s seaplane and blows it up. He wants Bond to know the extent of his plans, and he also wants Bond to know that death is near.

Christopher Lee plays Scaramanga beautifully, as a character with serious issues and not as a jaw-clenched archetype, and you wish that the fans swooning in rapture about Javier Bardem’s “real” performance in Skyfall would realise that it’s all been done before (including the tragic backstory) – and without making a fetish of the seriousness, as if this were Shakespearean drama and not a diversion. By today’s standards, The Man with the Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me may seem slow, but they did a lot of the “for the first time ever” things that the Daniel Craig films are being praised for, and they did these things while also dispensing cheap and clever puns, sights of near-naked women, spectacular locations, surprising gadgetry from Q, and memorable sidekicks like the pint-sized Nick Nack. Those who think that the execrable A View to a Kill is what defines Roger Moore’s Bond should take a look at the installments that came before. They pack in just the right amount of seriousness we can take in a light entertainment.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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