26 August 2012

A BOND OF FLESH

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.


OCTOPUSSY
Directed by John Glen
Written by George MacDonald Fraser and
Richard Maibaum & Michael G. Wilson

Premiered 6 June, 1983

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
What we have here is nothing less than a perfect little standalone mini-movie that sums up in less than ten minutes the entire raison d'être of the Roger Moore era Bond films: in a Latin American nation that is pretty obviously Cuba, though I'm damned if I can remember the name cropping up, Agent 007 has been tasked with interrupting a launch of some airborne weapon. This he does by impersonating a local military man, Colonel Toro (Ken Norris), but the ruse falls when the actual Toro shows up, and Bond is only just able to escape with the aid of his lovely local assistant Bianca (Tina Hudson). She's towing an experimental plane hidden in a horse trailer, and Bond is able to fly it in all sorts of breakneck ways back to the military airfield where he attracts and then drops a heat-seeking missile which ends up completing the job that he couldn't at first. These exertions leave him almost out of fuel, so he lands the plane, folds up its wings - plane has folding wings, y'see - and coasts it into a gas station, where he smiles his most jolly of smiles at the flabbergasted attendant, and brightly demands, "Fill her up!".

We have everything: sexy location; sexy woman; horrible puns ("Toro. Sounds like a load of bull."), frothy word play ("What a small world, I'm a Toro too"), and one of the best-delivered quips in Moore's career as Bond in that gas station button; terrifically "cool" action with that ridiculously little plane hauling ass through a cramped hanger. The line between camp and thriller action is never more excitingly toed than when Moore prods his captors to check out the super-gorgeous woman making kissy faces at them in the next truck over; Moore himself has only rarely been this winning, or physically credible as an action star. And because it has nothing at all to do with the rest of the film, it can be snipped aside and enjoyed for just what it is: the super-concentrated form of all the most escapist things Bond has to offer in one fun-size package.

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Rating: 5 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
The run of adult contemporary ballads masquerading as James Bond themes finally ends on its lowest point, "All Time High", as performed by Rita Coolidge. "Octopussy" being rejected as a potential song title for reasons that we can all agree are fairly obvious, and not even putting in a cameo in the lyrics, the way The Spy Who Loved Me did in "Nobody Does It Better". Which, since I brought it up, is this song's most obvious progenitor, and an example of how to do this sort of thing right, if you insist on doing it at all: "Nobody Does It Better", though a bit out-of-place as a Bond theme, is a rock solid singer-songwriter ballad, whereas "All Time High" is even further out-of-place for Bond, and blows as a singer-songwriter ballad.

I'm pleased to say that it was with this most recent viewing of the film (my fourth, I think), that I figured out part of why: while the limp music is by Bond franchise stalwart John Barry, the lyrics are by Tim Rice, one of my great bêtes noires in the history of dramatic songwriting. And while the song isn't typical of his work by any stretch, the overall blandly vague "weeee are in looove" sentiment that has diddly shit to do with anything hits a very distinctly Rice-ian sweet spot of sounding like it means something without actually meaning anything. "Doing so much more, than falling in love" goes one particularly grating line in the chorus. What more? Spelunking? Bio-chemistry? Do please tell, Rita Coolidge, in your guise of one of Bond's many lovers, what more than falling in love? Jesus fucking Christ.

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Rating: 1.5 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
Hey everybody, Maurice Binder found a laser pointer! And by God, he uses it as enthusiastically as that jackass at every movie in the late 1990s. Can't find way to work octopuses into a sequence of sexy women moving slowly and looking smokily at the camera? Have an octopus laser image slide up a woman's naked thigh! Want to do something fun with the "007" graphic? Slide a laser version of it down a woman's naked thigh! Want to coyly point out that Bond sleeps with all the women? Have a little man-shaped laser blob "walk" across a woman's mostly-naked breasts! The possibilities are GODDAMN ENDLESS!

Also, there are some kind of vaguely acrobatty, "pick up a woman and spin her around" or " soar through the air like you just jumped off a swing" moments, several of them against spin-art backgrounds. I think we can safely point to this sequence as the moment that the creative foundering began in earnest.

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Rating: 2 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
Adapted - and greatly expanded, I am told - from Ian Fleming's short stories "Octopussy" and "The Property of a Lady", Octopussy starts with an exquisitely disorienting scene of a circus clown (Andy Bradford) in East Germany running through the woods like his life depends on it. Which it does, in fact, depend on it, because he is being pursued by knife-wielding twins (David and Anthony Meyer), who cause him a fatal wound, though he does not actually die until he delivers a message to the British Embassy: a forged Fabergé egg. This, we shortly learn, is MI6 agent 009, and nobody knows what the hell is going on, so M (Robert Brown) sends his most competent agent - that being, of course, James Bond - to track down the only thin lead that has cropped up: the real version of the same egg is up for auction at Sotheby's. Here, Bond is able to connect the egg to exiled Afghani prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), whose motivations are as yet unclear; we, however, know a bit more than Bond does, since we know that deep within Moscow, the highest levels of the Soviet government are under internal assault from General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), who is trying to trigger war with the West at all costs. And here I must pause to note that, as much as the Bond franchise never seemed to find its way in the 1970s, despite trying unsuccessfully to latch onto all sorts of ripped-from-the-headlines concerns about the economy and environment, this movie does a smashingly good job of leaping into the Thatcher/Reagan '80s with both arms wide open, what with its story of a Soviet Union that was better-organised and better-armed than we were, that was just one demented leader away from destroying the very fabric of Western democracy. For this was back before the Iron Curtain fell, when we did not know that in the '80s, the only thing propping up the rag-tag skeleton of the U.S.S.R. was vodka and hope and a shitload more vodka.

But I digress.

The first chunk of Octopussy, up to almost the one-hour mark of a movie that, at 130 minutes and some seconds, is the second-longest of the official franchise to that point (but factor in the expanding length of end credits, and it winds up south of Thunderball) is pretty much airtight. For the first time in years, decades even, we're back to a James Bond who is, oddly enough, doing the work of a spy in the employ of the British government: the achingly slow reveal of the plot to him and to us (we're ahead of him only insofar as we know that Orlov is involved, but we don't know how or why) makes this perhaps the only Bond movie that's actually effective as a mystery as much or more as an action thriller. There's a definite barebones feeling about the whole thing, on the model of From Russia with Love, even as the ever-punning Roger Moore and a distinct uptick in gadgets make it clear that we're still in Bond as popcorn entertainment mode.

Then the plot starts to coalesce, and go straight to hell. Khan leads Bond to a mysterious smuggler named Octopussy (Maud Adams), based out of India, who owns a circus touring Europe - a clown in East Germany ring a bell? - and the outrageously over-complicated plot that ensues offers at least one too many candidates for Main Bad Guy, while the details of Orlov's plot to nuke West Berlin wouldn't even make sense as a parody: smuggle jewels out of Russia to feed to Khan to sell at auction to pay Octopussy to use her circus to smuggle more jewels and unbeknownst to her, a nuclear bomb. I think. I've never actually followed every curve of the plot, any time I've watched the movie. But the point is: nuclear bomb will fuck up U.S. interests, because if there's one thing we haven't seen enough of in the Bond franchise, it's ticking-clock scenarios involving nuclear bombs. Such a dismally confused way to end from such a rich, elegant beginning.

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Rating: 3 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAINS
To be honest, I don't know who belongs here, so I'm putting two men down: first up, we have Kamal Khan, the elegant, maliciously bored smuggler who, by virtue of being played by Louis Jourdan, sounds like he absolutely should be a slam-dunk of a bad guy: the actor has an elegant cruelty about him that was attached straight out of the factory, and it should be the easiest matter in the world to make him a potent foil for Bond, especially the refined gentleman version of Bond played by Moore. But this was the Jourdan who'd acted in Swamp Thing the year before, not the Jourdan who devoured the screen alive 35 years earlier in Letter from an Unknown Woman, and that is not a Jourdan that I care for overmuch. If nothing else, he's a Jourdan who seems somewhat uncomfortable in the role (though not remotely as uncomfortable as in Swamp Thing), and one gets the impression that he either didn't entirely "get" what it meant to be in a Bond film, or felt a little dirty for being in something so tacky. Either way, it's a missed opportunity, particularly since irrespective of Jourdan's performance, Khan is such an impossible character: the film plays coy for much, much too long about whether he's playing Octopussy or is being played, and whether he or Orlov is the big boss, and he never really does anything particularly menacing besides stand in palaces, sneering.

Still, the man fills out eveningwear well, and I might almost give him a pass, but here to drag the average way, way down, is Steven Berkoff's astonishingly bad performance as Orlov, which doesn't sport one of the worst Russian accents I've ever seen onscreen only insofar as he's using a German accent, and that, coupled to the overall "orders! vich will be obeyed! vizzoutQUESTION!" tenor of his line deliveries, makes it really hard to shake the feeling that he completely misunderstood the script, and thought he was playing a Nazi, not a Soviet ideologue. Ghastly cartoon nonsense.

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Rating: 2 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
Octopussy does, in the end, prove to be a hero and is duly rewarded by getting a chance to ride the 007 Express, though her status to Bond Girldom is rather shaky in my eyes, except in that she is officially recognised as such. But for all that she is the film's title character and serves as the inscrutable, half-hidden Harry Lime for a huge portion of its middle, she's really not given very much to do - thanks to the pointlessly over-loaded series of nested villains and secret plots within other secret plots, removing her entirely would not only fail to weaken the film, it would probably make the film better, as it would accordingly be more streamlined. Hell, she doesn't even do anything to help Bond out that couldn't be easily, and profitably, dumped onto the shoulders of the Secondary Bond Girl.

Given all that, I still appreciate with Maud Adams does with this non-character; I was rather enthusiastically in favor of her smaller role as Andrea Anders in The Man with the Golden Gun, and despite the obvious fact that we really oughtn't have one actor playing two such prominent characters in this franchise (this had happened before and would happen again; each time, it bothers me less), I am not displeased to see more of Adams. It's not that she's unspeakably hot; in fact, I think you could easily make the argument stick that she's the least attractive Bond Girl, which does admittedly set us securely in "world's tallest midget" territory. But I am consistently in favor of the leading ladies who give Bond the most trouble and call him the most on his shit, and Adams has a bitter streak to her that makes everything she says and does seem a lot more potent than it actually is. It's a fantastic performance of a frivolous character, which counts for at least a tiny bit.

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Rating: 3 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMEN
Two chief villains are hard to parse; but damn me, Octopussy has a full-on aquadron of featured henchmen: the knife-throwing circus brothers Mischka and Grischka, Guy with a Sawblade Yo-Yo (William Derrick), potentially any combination of Octopussy herself, Khan, or Khan's mistress, depending on how you want to parse things, and the most legitimate claimant to the title of Lead Henchman, Khan's faithful bodyguard Gobinda (Kabir Bedi). He's not exactly one for the ages; prior to this viewing, I'd completely forgotten that he existed. And he does tap into the film's rather uncertain "India, place of exotic things and people that are disgusting and dangerous" undercurrent. But that's countered by the very real sense of omnipresent menace he brings to the table; until he starts to be too active and thus too familiar, he just kind of appears, looking scary, in a way that meets at least my minimum threshold for Bond thuggery.

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Rating: 3 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
Khan's aforementioned mistress, Magda (Kristina Wayborn), who suffers something of the inverse of Octopussy; she's set up to be much too important before basically evaporating into nothingness. Not "nothingness" exactly - she's around to the very end - but the impact she seems poised to make is largely forgotten after Bond beds her as part of Khan's grand plot, and from that point on she's just standing around where she's needed, holding whatever allegiances to whichever side are required to facilitate the drama of that scene. In a film that was at least one rewrite away from a completely satisfying back half, she is the most notably inconsistent, maddening element.

Also, she suffers from unbelievably bad post-production dubbing.

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Rating: 2 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
Memory is an odd thing, sometimes. Octopussy is one of the Bond films I consistently tend to recall the least, which I think is because of the ways I tend to file the movies in my head: by theme song (which is gruesomely forgettable), by villain (hard to pin down), and by the most splashy stunt (this is the least "stunty" of Moore's Bond films). I knew I liked it, mostly, but I didn't know why. And I certainly, in a hundred years, would not have said, "oh right, Octopussy, that's the one with the best action in the Moore era". But it is, in fact, that exact thing.

Being a Moore film still puts a cap on just how good that action can be, of course, especially with Moore himself a blithe 55-years-young at the time of the movie's release. And maybe "action" isn't the most appropriate word; but the thriller sequences are frequently terrific: the bombast of the opening plane scene, the tension of the clown chase that starts the movie proper (largely generated by the sheer incongruousness of it all; I misremembered "the one with spies dressing up as clowns" as being something that made the film weak, not one of its biggest strengths), an ostensibly comic chase scene that, in between the quips, has some genuinely sharp cutting, a fantastically-staged bomb-defusing sequence with Moore in his own clown make-up, horribly unable to cross the handful of yards to get to the bomb.. To cap it off, there are two extraordinary sequences that find Bond crawling around on top of fast-moving vehicles: a circus train screaming through the German countryside (where the editing does not convince us that Moore is actually doing the stunts), and a plane high over some desolate quarter of India (where the editing does so convince).

On the other hand, there is a de rigeur "storming the enemy's lair with a small army" sequence that's just one Burt Bacharach score away from being parody, and a scene that will live in infamy: Bond, swinging on a vine, with Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan yell piped in. If it is not the worst moment in any Moore Bond picture, that's only because the series promptly marched into a bottomless pit for the next movie after this. So it's not perfect, by any stretch. Still, for this era of Bond, it's damn close.

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Rating: 4 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
Having effectively clamped down on gadgets in the preceding, "grounded" Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, just as effectively re-introduce them without spiraling into camp. The ever-present Seiko wristwatch is here, this time with a much-too-noisy radar function; another watch serves as a TV receiver (Bond immediately uses it too check out a woman's cleavage, in a gag that is not nearly as funny as I think it is). A pen that shoots acid - Bond makes the obvious "poison pen" joke and is just as obviously glared at by Q (Desmond Llewelyn) - and has a mini earphone hidden in the cap, the better to listen in on the bug that the wristwatch detects.

But the one that I always get way too much of a kick out of, is the small watercraft disguised as a crocodile, a bigger, dumber riff on the duck snorkel from Goldfinger, but do I care that it's dumb? No, I do not. I find it delightfully silly, and it's the last delightful silliness in a good long while.

I'm not sure if the experimental plane hidden in a horse's ass is delightfully silly or not, but it has, I fear, always gotten a grin out of me.

Llewelyn's role in the action continues to expand, and while he gets no quintessential Q moments, I do find his addled response to Octopussy's legion of girl warriors to be awfully cute.

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Rating: 3.5 Easily-Riled Welshmen


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
This one took me a good long ponder. Peter Lamont's second outing as production designer is, if nothing else, a bit more consistent across the movie than his work in For Your Eyes Only, though the closest that we get to a take-your-breath-away creative set is the Soviet war room, and even that is a bit too readily derived from fellow Bond designer Ken Adam and his work on Dr. Strangelove. That said, for all the villainous lairs that are teeming pits of multicolored lights and impossible geometry and overwrought spaces, I don't know if I can offhand name another set in the series where production design serves character development quite like Octopussy's palace, a rather lavish affair that is, for some time, all we see of its mysterious inhabitant. No, it's not a gaudy showcase, but it fits the movie's atmosphere beautifully well. And as much as I like eye-candy, suiting the film as a whole is probably the more mature, valid way to go about design.

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Rating: 3.5 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
The confluence of Jourdan and Moore, with all those jewels, and the overall sexiness of the opening "let's hunt smugglers at Sotheby's" gambit certainly give Octopussy a leg up, but glamour doesn't end up being all that high on the film's list of priorities: beyond laconically demonstrating that Fabergé eggs are yet another topic on which he knows everything there is to know, and rocking the holy hell out of a white tux, Bond never really stops to enjoy the high life this time around; he is a classy man throughout, but more passively classy, if you catch me meaning. Moore is charming enough to skate by on even passive class, but there's nothing resembling the life-changing casino scene from For Your Eyes Only.

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Rating: 3 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
Bond injects himself into Khan's backgammon game, and introduces himself as a gentleman must.
Forced or Badass? Insofar as it calls back to the "please shut up and let me play baccarat" moment in Dr. No where this trope was first introduced, I think it best to call it crypto-badass, with the caveat that backgammon is, after all, way the hell less badass than baccarat.


BEST QUIP
MAGDA: "You have a very good memory for faces."
BOND: "And figures."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
Roger Moore was 54 at the time of shooting, and that is the short version of all we need to know.

Thing was, Moore himself wasn't terribly excited to play Bond again, at his increasing age; and to that end, For Your Eyes Only was meant to be a potential transition film (which explains the erratic nods to series continuity, and perhaps even the more sober tone). But along came rival producer Kevin McClory, and rival Bond vehicle Never Say Never Again, and boy, if it wasn't going to star Sean Connery himself, returning to the role after a 12-year gap. Albert R. Broccoli was no fool, and he was not going to try to fight a Connery Bond picture with a brand new actor in his own series; thus Moore was persuaded to stay on, and the film is rather noticeably wrapped around the fact that he just wasn't spry enough to be a credible action hero anymore.

Hence the emphasis on spying and cloak-and-dagger thrills in the first half of the movie; a first half that includes some of my favorite material in all of the films Moore made as Bond. In this, his sixth outing, the actor had long since eased into the part, but I find this to still be the most comfortable of Moore's performances, which is a distinctly different thing than the best. It most certainly isn't the best - there's too much of a knowing twinkle that pushes off a half-step away from the character, as though Moore is more concerned with being "Roger Moore's take on James Bond" than actually playing James Bond. Still, if there's any value at all to the light, playful approach that this actor took towards this character, then it's never more charming and effective than here, in moments like the quip-a-thon of the opening sequence, or Moore's priceless reaction shot to Magda's description of a cephalopod tattoo as "my little octopussy", which finds the spy glancing every direction possible, the gears in his head plainly rolling through so many jokes that even he is ashamed of them.

I suspect that, having run out of things to do with the character, Moore just wanted to have fun this time. Not that he doesn't take the part seriously when it's necessary; the final chase to stop the bomb is proof enough that Moore hadn't given up completely yet. Frequently, the only thing holding the movie together in the face of its increasingly desperate story is Moore's commanding authority as Bond, the Bond we know and love, the Bond whose company is such a comfort as the psychotic Commies and thieving Afghanis try to destroy all the good things in the world.

This could all get so soft as to be pointlessly fluffy, but John Glen's approach to directing kept Moore's performance on track, and the film retains a vestige of the harsh edge that made For Your Eyes Only such a bracing thing, even if it's unquestionably the least-intense of the five Bond movies Glen helmed. He still had an editor's knack for staging scenes to escalate and tighten as they move along, though this approach cannot save the film's confused back half, only make sure we jog through it at a heightened clip; while the film is the first of the genuinely bloated Bond movies (it will be well over a decade, and two leading actors later, before we see another Bond picture that comes in under 130 minutes), it only rarely drags.

Other points of note: we have, at long last, our second M, with Robert Brown replacing the late Bernard Lee, though the movie does not clarify whether it is the same M, or a new man with the same title (his secretary is still Lois Maxwell's cheeky Miss Moneypenny, thankfully, with a new assistant of her own: the groaningly-named Penelope Smallbone, played by Michaela Clavell). Either way, out of a very small pool of three, Brown's is my least-favorite M; he lacks the crabby grampa vibe that Lee increasingly brought to the role, and comes nowhere close to Judi Dench's sharpness. Lee was, of course, a hard act to follow, and the filmmakers hedge their bets by doing little more than introducing Brown and giving some M-ish scenes to Q; the actor does well enough with what he has, though he cannot truly rise above the "square boss" constraints of the part.

I would also add that Octopussy includes a singularly random scene demonstrating nothing at all except that they eat the craziest, most disgusting food in India, a whole year before Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom committed similar acts of cultural insensitivity. This has absolutely nothing to do with James Bond or his 13th big screen adventure, but I still wanted you to know about it.


OVERALL SCORE
35.5/60
The same score I gave For Your Eyes Only; this seems oddly perfect.

7 comments:

Andrew Testerman said...

Rice had previously earned a pass from me because I like The Lion King an awful lot. Then I learned he collaborated with Cliff Richard and John Farrar to write Heathcliff: The Goddamn Musical—because every time I read Wuthering Heights I always lament its lack of awful '90s English pop. Pass revoked.

Tim said...

I had never heard of this thing, and now that I've done some research into it, it sounds exorbitantly awful. And it was recorded on video! These are not situations a man prone to self-destructive movie watching choices needs to be faced with.

alexf said...

Say, Tim, what are the odds you might cast an eye and a pen over 'North Sea Hijack', Roger Moore's attempt to start an anti-Bond franchise in the early 80s?

You know, in case you need a counterpoint to next week's wrinkle-fest of a Bond movie?

Andrew Testerman said...

Tinker Tailor Soldier Bond

I had a chance to watch all of Heathcliff last summer with my friend Jordyn; the entire thing is on YouTube, last I checked. After viewing it and throwing up for a half-hour straight, we both agreed it wasn't very good. Still, the opening ten minutes are worth watching, if only to get a taste of what's to come; it's right around the time the chorus takes Catherine to Thrush! Cross! Grange! that the remaining 100 minutes begin to shape themselves.

Brigdh said...

I can never understand some movies' fascination with making Indian food scary. Especially given that most Indian food is vegetarian. Were a lot of Hollywood directors traumatized by potatoes and rice as small children?

Tim said...

alexf- This is the first I've heard of North Sea Hijack, so firstly, thanks for bringing it to my attention. Secondly, I happen to have a really swell hole in my blogging schedule the week after The Nazi and the Earthquake Machine, so barring any problems I have in finding a copy, I can just about promise that it will show up.

Andrew- Thanks? Though that remains to be seen.

Brigdh- In the case of Temple of Doom, it's just a good ol' case of Orientalism and Exotic Otherness. I have no idea what Octopussy's excuse is, because a gross-out scene doesn't make even the slightest bit of sense in the Bond universe.

redwood said...

I always kind of liked this one, too. It has its moments. In fact, it's really a film full of good moments, rather than a linear production, kind of all over the map. Personally, that Tarzan yell would definitely be up there as a candidate for worst moment, but really it befits the humor in this outing. I mean, it's bad enough all the really grade school sexual innuendos, but only worse when coming out of the mouth of a refined British gentleman ... in his mature years. It's kind of like seeing grandpa make a dirty joke. Eww. So, entertaining Bond? Sure. One of the poorer outings? Definitely not (think "Moonraker" and, for me personally, "Diamonds are Forever" - not to mention the next one up, for certain). Just not that memorable, kind of like the Sean Connery Bond out that same year, "Never Say Never Again", or something like "Live and Let Die". Not a favorite, overall. Also, "North Sea Hijack" was retitled as "Ffolkes", outside of the UK (but, ironically, it really DOES NOT have much action, so it's not much of a counterpoint here).