Skyfall (2012)

You know there are too many gadgets in our lives when even James Bond is sick of them, for Skyfall expresses an unconscious revulsion against the very gadgetry in which this franchise once gloried.

The first James Bond movie, Dr. No (1962), had no gadget. In that film, a man from Q-branch gives Bond (Sean Connery) a Walther PPK, to replace the Beretta, which the man dismisses as being fine for a lady’s handbag. It would not be until From Russia with Love (1963) that Bond would get his first gadget from Q, a black briefcase, with all sorts of nifty stuff in it. But the die was really cast in Goldfinger (1964), when Bond was given an Aston Martin, with machine guns, an ejection-seat, and I forget what all else. After that, no Bond movie was complete until Q (Desmond Llewelyn) performed the ritual of giving Bond his gadget. Like technology itself, it had acquired a life of its own. But in Skyfall, Q (Ben Whishaw) gives Bond (Daniel Craig) another Walther PPK, to replace the one he lost, thereby bringing us full circle, back to that first movie, when all a spy really needed was a gun.

The movie starts with Bond chasing a bad guy. The bad guy has stolen an important hard drive, and Bond is getting lots of assistance from a technological control center. This is just to get us in the mood, to remind us of the technology that now saturates our lives. Then Bond is shot and falls to his death, which may be inferred from the fact that the movie just leaves Bond suspended below the water, unconscious. We never see him coming to and swimming to the surface, or being rescued by some bikini-clad Bond girl, as would usually be the case. The rest of the movie should be interpreted as Bond’s hallucinatory fantasy in the final moments of his life, where he dreams of a return to a simpler world. This is suggested by the theme song, which has the lyrics, “For this is the end / I’ve drowned and dreamt this moment.”

When we next see Bond, he seems to be in some tropical paradise, safe from the world of gadgets. But he realizes it is not enough to hide from those gadgets. He must return to London and stamp them out. It is after he gets back that he has the encounter with Q. When Q gives Bond the Walther PPK, plus a routine tracking device that is really no big deal, Bond seems surprised. Q asks him if he was expecting an exploding pen, and then notes derisively that they don’t do that anymore. Well, thank goodness for that. It’s not just that we are tired of that cliché. In a world full of gadgets, what could Q have possibly given Bond that would have stood out from all the technological clutter that now constitutes just so much background scenery?

Later in the movie, there is a parliamentary inquiry, at which M (Judi Dench) is the key witness. The argument being made by one of the ministers is that we don’t need secret agents anymore, because now we have technology. Just then, the bad guys burst in the door and begin shooting up the place, almost killing the contemptuous MP, until that obsolete secret agent James Bond shows up to save the day. Looks like that parliamentary inquiry is over.

MI6 had by this time already retreated underground in an effort to be technologically inaccessible, but now Bond decides to go all the way, and retreat to his childhood home in Scotland. Ultimately, this expresses a desire to return to the safety of his mother’s womb, where not even an ultrasound can get to him. But first, he goes to a secret garage, where he and M get in the old Aston Martin of Goldfinger days, because that way they cannot be tracked. But then he arranges things with Q so that he can be tracked. Well, how much logic do you expect in a man’s hallucinatory dream? Besides, it’s just another expression of his ambivalence to technology. In order for Bond’s plan to work, he needs the very technology he is fleeing from. Later, we find out the real reason for his bringing the Aston Martin. It’s so the dang thing can finally be destroyed. In this way, Bond avenges himself on the gadget that really started it all.

When Bond and M get to the house, they encounter the gamekeeper Kincade (Albert Finney), from whom we learn that Bond has been an orphan since childhood, and he is thus incapable of having the maternal protection that he unconsciously seeks. In fact, the situation is reversed. M becomes his mother-substitute, and he must protect her, instead of the other way around. In any event, the house has not changed in all these years, which means that it has remained unsullied by all the technological innovations of the intervening years. Bond, M, and Kincade lay their weapons on the table. Aside from Bond’s pistol, there is an old rifle, a shotgun, and a knife, the most primitive weapon of the bunch. Right then, we know that it will be the knife that kills the villain, a slap in the face to all the gadgetry Bond has had to endure for fifty years now.

When M, his mother-substitute, dies, Bond realizes that he will never be able to escape from this gadget-saturated world, that there is no going back to those days of innocence, when you could go a whole week without someone inventing something. The movie should have ended with M dying in his arms, as Bond’s dream comes to an end, and death, not his mother, embraces him, giving him the sanctuary of the grave.

Instead, the final scenes, which are not part of his dream, are merely a device to suggest that there will be more Bond movies to come. I suspect that in the next one, Q will be back with a real gadget again. There is just no getting away from them.

Goldfinger (1964)

The first half of Goldfinger, the third movie in the James Bond franchise, is great. In fact, the first five minutes is great, even if it does not seem to have much to do with the rest of the movie. But following that opening scene, Bond (Sean Connery) is assigned to investigate Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe). He is a jeweler who buys gold legally, most of it in England, and then ships it to another country like Pakistan where he sells it for three to four times the price he paid for it. This is the great crime that requires the attention of England’s best secret agent?

Later, Bond finds out about Operation Grand Slam, Goldfinger’s plan to nuke Fort Knox, destroying the gold, and causing his own horde of the metal to skyrocket in value. Quite by accident, then, Bond’s being assigned to investigate Goldfinger turns out to be appropriate, even if serendipitously so.

Q (Desmond Llewelyn) gives Bond the famous Aston Martin with the machine guns, ejector seat, and much more, but even so, he eventually is captured by Goldfinger. The laser that almost cuts Bond in half also cuts the movie in half, the first part making it half of the greatest Bond movie ever made. Then comes the second half of the movie, the point at which it starts being silly, when Bond wakes up on the plane and a woman introduces herself as Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). In fact, this is the point at which the whole Bond franchise starts being silly, with subsequent Bond movies becoming bloated with girls, gadgets, and wisecracks, on the principle that if some is good, then more is better.

From Russia with Love (1963)

With this second installment in the franchise, From Russia with Love, James Bond (Sean Connery) receives his first gadget: a black, rectangular attaché case filled with all sorts of neat stuff, none of which seems to be especially fantastic, as would often be the case in some of the later films.  Where the movie does diverge radically from reality is in the fact that the Soviet Union knows what he looks like, and yet Bond is still being sent out into the field as a secret agent. In fact, when the movie starts, we see some guy running around in a James Bond mask at a training camp where they practice killing James Bond.  Whereas in Dr. No. (1962), Bond was at pains to keep from being photographed, in this movie, MI6 gets information that a female Soviet agent, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), having seen his photograph, has fallen in love with him and wants to defect, bringing with her a Lektor cryptographic device. In real life, once a spy’s identity and face is known, he is reduced to having a desk job from then on, but not so in the Bond franchise.

And this was just the beginning. As future Bond movies were made, he began to acquire superstar fame, so that all the world had heard of him and his ability to turn female enemy agents by having sex with them. In Thunderball (1965), a female spy speaks derisively of Bond’s talents in this regard, having just sampled them herself:  “James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing.  She repents and immediately returns to the side of right and virtue.  But not this one.  What a blow it must have been, you having a failure.”  Apparently, the producers of the movies figured that since everyone in the audience would already know who James Bond is, then the same would have to be true for the characters in the movies, especially the women.  Of course, just because the whole world knows who James Bond is, that doesn’t mean his name can be used back at the office, where he is still referred to as agent 007.

Bond’s lovemaking does appear to be transformative.  At one point in this movie, he ends up at a gypsy camp where two beautiful women want to kill each other on account of their both being in love with the same man.  They are in the middle of a vicious fight, possibly to the death, when the camp is invaded by some Bulgars with whom the gypsies have a blood feud.  In the ensuing battle, Bond saves the gypsy leader’s life.  As a return for the favor, Bond asks that the fight between the women be stopped.  Well, there is only one way to do that.  The two women are brought to his tent where Bond makes love to them both, curing them of their passion for what’s-his-name.

In the novel, it was the Russian agency SMERSH that Bond had to contend with, but here it is actually SPECTRE, a terrorist organization first introduced in the movie Dr. No. Ian Fleming said he recommended this change from SMERSH to SPECTRE in making Dr. No, because he was afraid that by the time the movie was released, the Cold War would be over, and the movie would seem dated.  Who does he think he’s kidding?  Nobody had any sense that peace was about to break out.  In fact, the Cuban Missile Crisis took place in the very month that Dr. No was released.  On the contrary, these films were made while the Cold War was still going strong, when Russians were still thought to be utterly evil, and so it seems strange that the movie would pull its punches in this way and make a terrorist organization be Bond’s nemesis instead.

I suspect capitalism is the answer. By not offending the Soviets, the movies could be shown in Russia and in any other country under their influence, thereby increasing the profitability of the franchise.  If I am right in my surmise, then it might be asked why Fleming did not just go ahead and say this was his reason for suggesting the change.  Well, how would it look for the author of James Bond novels to admit that he was willing to knuckle under to the Soviets for mere money?

The head of SPECTRE is referred to as “Number 1,” whom we see petting a cat.  As we know from later movies, a cat is the attribute of Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  His chief strategist is chess champion Kronsteen, who comes up with the plan to get possession of the Lektor after Bond steals it from Russia with the help of Tatiana. The plan has already been alluded to above, except that Tatiana has not really fallen in love with Bond’s photograph.  She only pretends to do so, believing she has been so ordered by a Soviet Colonel, Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), who actually has defected to SPECTRE.

During the interview in which Tatiana receives her instructions, Klebb starts caressing her, telling Tatiana that she must do as she is told or face death.  The scene is meant to be disturbing, but not because Klebb is going to make Tatiana have sex with her.  Forcing a woman to have sex in these early Bond films was represented as being perfectly acceptable.  In Goldfinger (1964), Bond gives Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) the rape she needs, causing her to abandon her villainous partnership with the title character.  In Thunderball, Bond threatens a physical therapist with the loss of her job if she does not have sex with him, and we are supposed to approve of his doing so.

Nor is it the fact that Klebb is a lesbian that is supposed to make us uncomfortable.  Although audiences in the 1960s were not as accepting of homosexuality as they are today, even back then the scene would not have bothered people had Klebb been a beautiful woman like Tatiana.  Instead, it would have been titillating.  Heterosexual men have always enjoyed having at least one lesbian sex scene in their pornographic movies, because then they get to look at two beautiful naked women at the same time.  Rather, it is the fact that Klebb is ugly that makes us squirm.  Fortunately, the movie fades out at this point, so we don’t have to look at Klebb getting her ugly all over Tatiana.

The plan works pretty well, up to a point, but Bond ultimately foils it. Klebb had enlisted Grant (Robert Shaw), one of those guys on SPECTRE Island that had been killing men wearing James Bond masks, figuring he was the man for the job.  Bond had not spent any time practicing on men who wear masks looking like Grant, so he was at a disadvantage, but he managed to kill him anyway and bring the Lektor from Istanbul to Venice, along with Tatiana, who by this time has genuinely fallen in love with Bond and wants to defect to the West.

Now, it should not be surprising that a spy of Bond’s caliber might triumph. After all, even a world chess champion will lose a game occasionally. The thing for Blofeld to do would be to get Kronsteen started on plan B. But no, we find out that SPECTRE does not tolerate failure, the penalty for which is death. And so, Kronsteen is put to death by one of Blofeld’s henchmen, who sticks him with a poison-tipped stiletto that flips out from the toe of his shoe. This raises the question, who would work for these people? A Russian chess champion would be able to live pretty well by simply playing chess, even if he did make a mistake once in a while. What would he have to gain by joining up with an organization in which mistakes warrant the death penalty? Of course, the point is to convey to the audience just how ruthless SPECTRE is. But there is a difference between being ruthless and being ridiculous.

Anyway, after Kronsteen’s execution, Klebb follows Bond and Tatiana to Venice, where she almost kills Bond with her own pair of poison-tipped stiletto shoes.  Tatiana saves Bond by shooting Klebb, but one might ask if that was necessary.  All Bond had to do was have sex with Klebb, and that would have made her want to start working for MI6, and it would have cured her of being a lesbian as well, as it did with Pussy Galore in the novel Goldfinger.  It would not have cured her of being ugly, however, and in a Bond movie, the penalty for that is death.

Despite the flaws, this is still one of the best Bond movies ever made.

Dr. No (1962)

When we first see Sean Connery in Dr. No, he is at a casino playing chemin-de-fer against a beautiful woman. She asks him what his name is, and we hear him say, “Bond, James Bond,” while he lights a cigarette, accompanied by his theme music. Oh, to be that cool! It makes you ache with envy.

When he is called back to the office, he is given no gadgets by Q.  Instead, he is issued a Walther PPK to replace his Beretta, which the man from Armorer refers to as suitable for a lady’s handbag. Looking back, you realize what the series could have been if only each successive film had not been compelled to try to dazzle the audience with increasingly fantastic gadgetry.  M insists that Bond use the Walther PPK because the Beretta jammed on him once and he spent six months in the hospital.  “A double-0 number means you’re licensed to kill,” M says, “not get killed.”

The trailer for this movie elaborated a little more on this license:  “James Bond, 007, licensed to kill, whom he pleases, where he pleases, when he pleases.”  There is nothing in this that limits him to killing only enemy agents, but rather includes British subjects.  In 1962, when this movie was made, and earlier, when the novels were first published, we accepted this idea, because back then we trusted the government.  If the government deemed it necessary to kill someone rather than arrest him and try him in court, then it did so for the greater good of mankind.  Then came Vietnam and Watergate, and such naive notions were shattered.  We came to realize that governments cannot be trusted, certainly not with a license to kill.  By the middle of the 1970s, if a movie had an FBI agent in it, he was probably evil, and if it had a CIA agent in it, he was probably a psychopath.  It would not be until the 1980s that federal agents could be portrayed in the movies as the good guys again.  British agents were cut a little more slack, in that England was not involved in the American scandals, and so Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was acceptable in 1979.  In any event, James Bond got a pass on all this, because by this time the Bond franchise had already been established.  But there is no way a spy with a license to kill could have been introduced in the second-half of the 1970s, unless he was going to be the villain.

By the time License to Kill was made in 1989, it was clear that we no longer had any misgivings on the subject, in that the franchise felt comfortable emphasizing it the title.  And as long as we are on the subject, I cannot let the moment pass with commenting on Casino Royale (2006).  The movie begins before Bond has become a double-0 agent and thus does not yet have a license to kill.  Through conversation we learn that in order for him to get one, Bond must make two confirmed kills.  That is like having a regulation requiring hunters to kill two deer illegally before they can get a hunting license that will allow them to kill deer legally.

Let’s get back to Dr. No.  Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the murder of a British agent and to cooperate with the CIA regarding possible interference with rockets being launched from Cape Canaveral by radio jamming.  Because Bond is so cool, the government naturally issues him a sports card convertible to get around in.

That aside, the movie is more realistic than future Bond movies would be, especially in the way that on a couple of occasions Bond is careful to keep a woman from getting a photograph of him. By the second film, From Russia with Love (1963), his face is well-known to the enemy, which in real life would have meant a desk job from then on.  In later movies still, Bond acquires celebrity status, a superstar among spies.  I guess the producers figured that if everyone in the audience watching the movie had known for years that James Bond was a spy, then everyone in the movie must know he is a spy as well.

Another element of realism present in Dr. No is fear.  In some of the later Bond movies, especially those starring Roger Moore, he is so blasé about threats to his life that we never really feel as though he is in any danger. In this movie, however, he admits to being afraid and appears to be so on several occasions.  Notably, after he kills the poisonous spider that was crawling up his arm while he was in bed, he goes into the bathroom to vomit, giving us the sense that he was really scared. Had that sort of scene occurred in a subsequent Bond movie, he would simply have made a wisecrack about spiders, while fixing himself another martini.

Later on, he exercises his license to kill. For the first time in the history of cinema, the good guy commits a totally unnecessary, cold-blooded murder. He could easily have called the Jamaican police and had the man, Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson), arrested. After all, he had the police come to the same house a few hours before to pick up the beautiful woman who lured him there, so the police already knew the way. And they could have interrogated Dent for information. So, the killing is not only gratuitous, but also unrealistic. And yet, it is a great scene. In this case, the wisecrack, “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six,” uttered just before he calmly puts a couple of slugs into his helpless victim, perfectly suits the situation (spoiled only by the fact that the gun was not a Smith & Wesson).

Bond figures that he should investigate an island called Crab Key, and when he gets there, he meets his first Bond girl, Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), wearing a bikini.  Because this was the first movie in the Bond franchise, those of us who saw it when it first came out were not expecting someone like her to turn up, nor would we have missed her had she been left out of the movie. But her presence on the beach seems perfectly natural. In later movies, we know to expect these inevitable Bond girls, whose presence in the story sometimes seems artificial and contrived.

Finally, there is Dr. No, who we find out is a member of SPECTRE, an organization of power-mad supervillains.  Bond is captured by Dr. No’s minions, eventually escapes, and then defeats Dr. No and destroys him and his island operation by causing a nuclear meltdown that would probably contaminate the area around Jamaica for many years to come, but no one worried about that sort of thing back then.

Compared to spy movies that had come before this one, Dr. No was quite impressive at the time.  But compared to what would come later, as each successive movie in the franchise would try to outdo all that came before, with those obligatory beautiful women, outrageous schemes of supervillains, unrelenting wisecracks, and, worst of all, incredible gadgets supplied to Bond at the beginning of each film that fortuitously came in handy later on, this movie may seem a little thin and meager.  But its relative simplicity actually makes it one of the best.