Wednesday, March 23, 2011
All In The Wrist
Sometimes it’s like arguing over James Bond movies really does no one any good. We all have our own preferences, our own dislikes and they each are for our own reasons. Part of this is purely sentimental, having to do with recollections of the first one our parents took us to or whatever. Which is fine. And it’s just a fact that, for me, the early 80s Roger Moore entries were probably my first real exposure to the series, not counting the old intros on the ABC Sunday Night Movie. There were probably multiple viewings of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY on cable and, as a matter of fact, the 1983 OCTOPUSSY was the first one I ever saw in a theater. I’m actually old enough that my first Bond could have come earlier so that I wasn’t ever taken to one before then is a little surprising to me. When I was a kid I was mostly just interested in comedies but even so, you’d think my parents would have thought I might enjoy MOONRAKER or something. But hey, they took me to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK on its opening weekend when I had no idea what that was so looking back on it now I cut them some slack. Many people out there probably prefer the larger-than-life approach of the two entries directed by Lewis Gilbert, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and MOONRAKER, with their world domination plots, Richard Kiel’s Jaws and giant Ken Adam sets and sure, I’ll sit through those any old time. But I suppose the slightly grittier straightforward adventure stories of the three with Roger Moore directed by John Glen that followed, each with a fairly serious nature leavened at times by Moore-era silliness are, for me, as comforting as a warm blanket, making me feel all is right in the Bond world in a way I can’t even fully describe. I’m not saying they’re the best. I’m not even saying they’re my personal favorites of the series. I’m just saying that deep down they mean something to me and if that forces me to admit to some affection for the hated A VIEW TO A KILL, which I’ve done before anyway, that’s the way it’s going to have to be.
As for OCTOPUSSY, my fondness for it is such that when I saw the American Cinematheque was running it at the Egyptian on a double bill with THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN as part of an ongoing John Barry tribute (made for a nice Maud Adams pairing as well, with the actress appearing in person between them) I kind of had to go, mainly to see it for the first time in a theater since it opened way back in June 1983. And I still like the film now, even if I’m aware of certain minor drawbacks. Every Bond has some problems mixed in with its good points and OCTOPUSSY is no different but there are enough things about it that work—actually, there are a refreshingly large amount of things that work—that I’m perfectly glad to continue speaking in its favor. And since we’re probably all finished snickering about the title after being used to it for nearly thirty years, I suppose we can focus on the positives by now.
Soon after agent 009 is found killed while fleeing East Berlin with a suspiciously fake Royal Faberge egg on him, James Bond 007 (Roger Moore) is enlisted to aid the Universal Exports art expert (good to know they have one) in investigating when such an egg turns up for auction at Sotheby’s in an attempt to identify the seller. At the auction Bond becomes suspicious of Prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jordan), who seems particularly interested in bidding on the item and, also intrigued by the beautiful Magda (Kristina Wayborn) who accompanies the prince, immediately decides to book the next flight to India (“Yes, I’ve got 55 minutes to make that flight, sir.”) and trail Khan where he soon learns of the Prince’s involvement with rogue Russian General Orlov (Steven Berkoff). Eventually Bond’s investigation leads him beyond simply the egg and its replicas, right to the heart of the smuggling ring in the person of Octopussy (Maud Adams) the mysterious, alluring head of the organization who lives in a palace on her own island where there are apparently no men allowed. She and Bond hit it off immediately but when an attempt on their lives results in what she mistakenly believes to be Bond’s death he uses the opportunity to track Octopussy and her circus troupe back to East Berlin. There he eventually learns that Khan and Orlov’s final goal leads to far beyond simple smuggling and could possibly result in the deaths of thousands along with eventually a shifting of power in Eastern Europe.
Just mentioning that I saw this particular double bill on my Facebook page resulted in a thread of people debating them, some preferring one and some the other, with at least one person chiming in to wonder why we had anything good to say about either film at all. Probably a diehard Connery fan, I’m guessing. For me, while THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN has some enjoyable quirks and nice travelogue bits that stood out on the big screen more than they ever had while watching the film at home, it never seems very interested in the possibilities of its own story, whether it’s that damn Solex device the climax gets centered around or even knowing to take full advantage of the character of Scaramanga, as great as it is to see Christopher Lee in a Bond film. Framed in a flat 1.85 ratio instead of 2.35 for reasons I’ve never understood, the production even seems cheaper than usual, almost like a TV show, and while the print screened at the Egyptian was fine this is one of those movies that will only ever look so good. Coming second, with the huge Egyptian screen widened out for Scope and shown in a very nice print, the John Glen-directed OCTOPUSSY (his second of the series) feels like a more expansive film right from the get go with the right sort of luxury and sumptuousness brought forth that is absolutely appropriate for a Bond film. The action scenes are well-staged, tightly assembled and the lavish feel that sells how we’re journeying to an exotic land plays totally right--the storybookland portrayal of India certainly has nothing to do with reality but it does lend the film its own unusual feel. The film was being made at the same time as the rogue Bond entry NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN that returned Sean Connery to the famous role but missed its hoped-for summer release over production difficulties which are at times apparent in that film. In comparison, OCTOPUSSY has the vibe of a well-oiled machine that makes it feel like the people making it are doing everything possible to make this feel like a pure, uncut James Bond film, with all of the extravagance that implies as well as being one with its own unique quirks.
I’ve said before that FOR YOUR EYES ONLY plays as a near classic hurt maybe by the absence of one dynamite sequence in its second half, something which is interestingly kind of reversed here. For its first hour OCTOPUSSY (screenstory and screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser and Richard Maibaum & Michael G. Wilson, with a few elements from Fleming taken from the stories “Octopussy” and “The Property of a Lady”) is pleasant, enjoyable, diverting, with just the right touches of jet-set elegance coming from the Sotheby’s auction house sequence and our introduction to the luxury palaces of India. There are some decent action sequences—a chase through an Indian marketplace and a MOST DANGEROUS GAME-riff with Bond being chased by Khan and his people through the jungle—along with a particular briskness to the (Cuban-set?) teaser which contains some of the film’s most memorable imagery and is so quick, exciting and to the point watching it now I couldn’t help but be surprised that it was all over before the eight-minute mark. The film even displays a clever appreciation for the Bond of years past with that backgammon scene reminiscent of the way Goldfinger cheated at cards and how Maud Adams plays her first scene with her face amusingly obscured Blofeld-style. It’s all very nice and enjoyable throughout that first half, yet the vibe may be almost a little too pleasant by a certain point and the pacing does begin to lag. But almost as if the film is aware that it needs to hold our attention things begin picking up once the titular character of Octopussy begins to figure into things and once she’s very much a part of the plot the final forty-five minutes turn into a nonstop succession of action scenes with tension continually mounting as the story moves back towards Berlin and Bond has to race against a ticking clock to prevent something unspeakably horrible from happening. As he moves from cars to trains and into a certain infamous clown disguise all the elements combined play as hugely impressive with director Glen keeping the frame active throughout utilizing elements like that yo-yo blade with great effectiveness. Plus, for me having various characters racing around inside a train and fighting on top of it is just the sort of thing I love in a film like this, what can I say. The complete film doesn’t work quite as well as FOR YOUR EYES ONLY and in some ways is a more mild effort as well, maybe a somewhat deliberate pulling back from the nastiness of that effort as if they wanted to resist going too far in that direction (which the series ultimately did anyway, but that’s another story). But like what the films seemed to be doing during this stage which I always think of as Moore’s elder statesman period there seems to be an emphasis on Bond having to use his wits more than usual, pulling back from the near fantastical elements of the ones that Lewis Gilbert directed. The single biggest gadget in the film is that mini plane used during the teaser and even though Q has a somewhat enlarged role this time out being sent to India to work with Bond (although I doubt Desmond Llewelyn actually went there himself) there’s no one crucial gadget that the plot winds up turning on, which is frankly fine with me. I admit that I like when Bond is more stripped down like this, forcing the character to figure out what to do on his own and it makes things that much more suspenseful.
It’s even the rare Bond film to resist killing off its secondary girl when her plot function is basically completed—it’s nice to have her around anyway but in addition to taking advantage of her Wayborn's athleticism but it also means that Octopussy’s circus troupe isn’t just populated by a bunch of nameless extras and, besides, since the film isn’t just casually killing off characters as is often the case it feels like there’s a little more to be emotionally invested in this time around (interesting to compare this to the next film, A VIEW TO A KILL, which probably has more sacrificial lambs than any movie in history). And Moore’s obvious comfort with Maud Adams is evident from their very first scene—the film compresses their ease with each other by having her explain their unknown history together in the form of what is essentially the Ian Fleming short story “Octopussy” (originally published along with the short story “The Living Daylights”). It feels a little shoehorned in and the way the speech is cut feels a little like they’re trying to get through this as fast as possible but it still holds, her past makes the character part of this world and you can easily accept their immediate interest in each other, something that has to happen considering they don’t meet until past the halfway point. It’s hard to really believe that these two people have never met before, maybe a residue of her GOLDEN GUN appearance, but even so the effect it gives off seems just right.
Like just about every Bond film ever the plot isn’t quite airtight— I always kind of glaze over at the explanation of this odd criminal ring involving these beautiful women, a circus troupe and “the revival of the old Octopus cult”, I will admit. Moving things back to India for the climax feels slightly awkward but at least it does allow for the thrilling plane climax which is still impressive to look at today. And, admittedly, some of the film has that expected Moore-era goofiness, with that Tarzan yell (we really didn’t need that) and one wonders exactly how Bond manages to recognize his own theme when it’s played for him upon his arrival in India. Plus I suppose that one drawback to having the film named after one of the main characters is that we don’t get the pleasure of having somebody state the film’s name in dialogue for no particular reason. But I guess you can’t have everything and much of the film has aged pretty well with very little, aside from those garish red spandex costumes worn by some of Octopussy’s guards, causing it to feel dated at all and it just seems to exist within its own timeless exotica vibe. Sure, it crams in the 80s cold war elements as most of the Bond films generally did during this period (with the expected appearance by Walter Gotell’s General Gogol) whether it was necessary or not but here it pays off big time with the introduction of the dynamic General Orlov who as played by Steven Berkoff probably wished that the sets were even bigger so he could have more scenery to chew. His legendary “THE WEST IS DECADENT AND DIVIDED!” speech fittingly takes place in a giant Soviet war room, almost the only type of setting that could possibly contain him as he screams this and the extravagance of the set feels like the right kind of old school approach to bring to mind the 60s heyday of the series.
And as the second half gradually builds to Bond trying to track down that bomb at the U.S. air base in Germany Moore’s growing hysteria is almost surprising considering how Bond barely seems to bat an eye even when a secondary character gets killed off in certain movies (such as what had already been seen that night in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, to name one). Sure, he’s trying to save his own skin here as well but where Connery would have upped the anger if he’s ever done such a scene the Moore version of Bond, famously buried under that clown makeup which adds an extra twist to things, plays the total desperation and is probably more emotional here than the character ever had been seen before (or since, probably). Maybe this grounded sense with stakes that seem absolutely believable even on the pulp level of the Bond series is something I’ve always responded to and maybe it just affects part of what I always find myself responding to in the series as a whole. I suppose I’m fine with the goofiness but would still like some seriousness to my pulp instead of the camp that gets emphasized in certain entries which may be why I’ve never been as crazy about THE SPY WHO LOVED ME as the rest of the world seems to be. OCTOPUSSY isn’t in the top ranks of the Bond films but the right sort of tonal balance is maintained throughout so discovering how well it still played returning to it now was somewhat gratifying. Maybe it was the summer release, but the film wound up doing better business than the unofficial NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN ($67 million to $55 million—in fact, no other Bond film did as well until the release of 1995’s GOLDENEYE) and for me OCTOPUSSY has aged much better as well. NEVER SAY NEVER has its qualities but momentum isn’t one of them and just as a pure James Bond film with the right amount of action and suspense OCTOPUSSY wins hands down. For me, something about the effect it gives off is just kind of endearing.
Yeah, Roger Moore’s getting older here. And so what. I still enjoy watching him in this film, as clearly bemused and enjoying himself as he is at times. He even seems more engaged by the various actors he’s working with this time around than he has on occasion and he knows to totally kill all pretense at the lightness when things begin to look grace—it feels like they deliberately pulled back from the ruthlessness displayed at some points in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, but the seriousness is certainly there. Maud Adams was maybe never the greatest actress but I’ve always had a certain fondness for her maybe because she got to be in two of these movies. She exudes the right kind of intriguing elegance as Octopussy, not seen until more than an hour in, with a certain amount of assertiveness to the character as well so whenever she’s onscreen I don’t mind it one bit. Watching them back to back makes it clear that Adams is much more effective here than she was as Andrea Anders in GOLDEN GUN, which makes me wonder how much more John Glen was attentive to her needs as director than Guy Hamilton was. (Someone even asked about the differences between the two men during the Q&A, but her answer didn’t shed very much light on things. The discussion was pleasant but uneventful. She seems like a nice woman.) Louis Jordan maintains the right kind of evil smarminess throughout as Khan, relishing every ounce of his dialogue and making it clear that no one is more amused to say the name “Octopussy” than he. His sly style is just the right counterpoint to Berkoff’s manic ravings and maybe because this film is slightly forgotten about at times it feels like these are a few of the more underappreciated Bond villains in the run of the series—seriously, why hasn’t Steven Berkoff gotten a statue erected in his honor for his performance as Orlov? Kristina Wayborn manages to combine her acrobatic playfulness with a touch of alluring gravity to her presence and I’m kind of surprised she didn’t wind up as a regular on a nighttime soap after this-she’s definitely pleasing to the eye and even when she’s essentially an extra in the second half she still has a definite screen presence. Tennis pro Vijay Amritraj smiles genially and gives Bond shoulder rubs as trusted Indian contact Vijay (they went to a lot of trouble choosing that name—there are tennis jokes as well) and, among the various regulars who appear, Robert Brown makes his first of four appearances as “M”.
And since he was really who was being paid tribute to that night I should mention John Barry’s score, which maintains an exotic vibe as we travel through India and along with the expected use of the James Bond Theme he hits just the right tone for the B action motif which recurs throughout—I suppose that deep down to me this seems like the perfect music for Roger Moore to fight to. I don’t even really mind the Rita Coolidge-performed main theme “All Time High” (unsurprisingly, no mention of the title in the lyrics) and this seems like one of those times where a softer Bond theme seems to actually go with the movie almost as if it’s the musical equivalent of the cool glamour that Maud Adams exudes. During this viewing I also found myself fixated on a particularly lovely instrumental of that theme which pops up during Bond’s outdoor dinner with Magda—the cue is unfortunately not on the soundtrack album but there’s something about the vibe it gives off which has the right kind of elegance that I somehow connect with my own memories of seeing movies like this when they were first released way back when. It’s a comforting feeling which reminds me how I was affected by them at the time and what I think of them now, with some of these movies forever being projected in the back of my head as I return to the multiplexes of my childhood in some dream I barely remember. Of course, there are times when certain films are probably best left in memory but when I return to something like OCTOPUSSY in a theater once again I’m reminded that some of them really were pretty good after all, even when it's something like this one which is kind of a silly, minor thing to defend. Or maybe it really isn’t silly or minor at all because in a way that I can only partly understand this is a film that still means something to me. And I suppose it always will.