Tuesday, 26 April 2011

James Bond memes escape

A few years ago, I was watching an old British comedy film starring Charlie Drake, a comedian and singer popular especially in the 1950s and ’60s. The film was called The Cracksman, and featured Drake as a locksmith tricked by a burglar into robbing a bank. In one scene, Drake’s character crawls through a ventilation shaft. I can’t remember the exact line, but he says something like, ‘Now I know how James Bond feels’, referring to the scene in Dr No (1962) in which Bond, imprisoned by Dr No, escapes through a shaft. Released in 1963, The Cracksman shows that it didn’t take long for aspects from the Bond film to seep into wider popular culture.

The ventilation shaft scene in Dr No has faded as an individual meme readily manifested in non-Bond films, televisions shows, books and so on, but as the Bond series progressed, others have emerged and become very successful in that they are replicated often and reasonably accurately, and have survived well over the decades.

A good example is the Q meme. This is expressed as a science boffin or inventor who distributes gadgets and weapons to the hero. A variant has a computer geek instead of an absent-minded professor type. The meme, which was best-defined in Goldfinger (1964) in the scene where Q (Desmond Llewelyn) explains the gadget-filled Aston Martin to Bond, has found its way into many action films, helped by repetition of the idea in subsequent Bond films and by the fact that it’s a convenient device for film makers to incorporate useful objects into their plots. Batman Begins (2005), in which Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox arms Bruce Wayne with weapons, is a recent example (and an interesting case of one superhero genre borrowing the conventions of another).

The James-Bond-uniform meme is just as successful. Any action hero (or indeed any leading male character) in a dinner suit brings to mind James Bond, and this is acknowledged by film makers. Executive Decision (1996), to give an example, starred Kurt Russell as a desk-bound government intelligence officer. He is called in the middle of a black-tie function to join a commando team on a passenger plane to defuse a bomb. When, still wearing his dinner suit, he is introduced to the team, a member of the team asks, ‘Who’s this, 007?’. The dinner suit is so strongly associated with James Bond that Clive Owen was touted in the press as a possible James Bond after appearing in Croupier (1998) wearing a dinner suit throughout.

Another successful meme is the shaken-not-stirred meme, repeated in the Bond series each time Bond orders a Martini. Its spread into wider popular culture has also been helped by its being applicable beyond Bond and spy-film culture, enabling it to enter the general lexicon as a phrase in its own right.

There are others, such as the use of ‘for your eyes only’ as saying, and the placement of a short action sequence (as if concluding an earlier adventure) before the main titles in a film. These have emerged or have been developed in the Bond series, but have become successful with wider repetition and adaptation by others.

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