Saturday 27 October 2012

Skyfall - a memetic review

Warning: this review contains minor spoilers

Skyfall is an outstanding achievement. It is both a fitting celebration of 50 years of the James Bond films, and a forward-facing film relevant for our times. That the film has pulled off this trick is testament to the remarkable work of the screenwriters, director, production crew, actors, and above all Daniel Craig in bruising and arresting form. Skyfall is not just a Bond film; it is an intelligent piece of story-telling that stands on its own terms outside Bondworld.

From the start, the narrative plunges the viewer into the heart of the action and takes a grip that does not weaken for its entire two-hour running time. A hard drive containing the identities of agents embedded with terrorist organisations has been stolen. Bond's initial attempts at recovering the disk fail, and he, M and others at MI6 find themselves one step behind the instigator of the theft, whose motivation is very personal and very deadly.

Superficially, Skyfall takes very little from Ian Fleming's novels, but dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that Fleming has not been forgotten. The ultimate inspiration for Daniel Craig's Bond still derives from the literary hero. The screenwriters, John Logan and regular scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade appear to have turned to two books in particular. James Bond's obituary, which M writes after a bungled attempt to shoot an enemy agent, takes elements, reproduced almost verbatim, from the obituary in You Only Live Twice. Bond's childhood alluded to in Skyfall is also based on details revealed in the novel's obituary.

Bond's subsequent 'resurrection', as an out-of-shape and wrecked agent, mirrors events in the beginning of the book that follows, The Man with the Golden Gun. Though not named in the film, the psychologist in Skyfall is surely inspired by the psychologist of that and other novels, Sir James Molony (I understand the character is called Dr Hall; a missed opportunity, surely, for a clearer nod to the books). But in a twist, Bond's role in the dramatic episode in M's office in The Man with the Golden Gun is in Skyfall effectively given to the villain, Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva, and this consequently shapes the film's plot.
There is a clever nod to Ian Fleming when we approach the ancestral Scottish home of James Bond. The stag sitting on the gateway recalls the beast in Fleming's family crest. And as Skyfall's narrative comes to a shocking end, I cannot help but think of the shoot-out in the Dreamy Pines motor court in The Spy Who Loved Me, and the denouement of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. James Bond only lives twice, but in return he must endure the emotional pain that  accumulates with the deaths of those closest to him not permitted such a luxury.

Inevitably, Skyfall acknowledges the history of Bond film series. Javier Bardem captures the spirit of villains past, delivering a gruesome and deeply frightening amalgam of Jaws and Hugo Drax or Blofeld; in addition, Silva's island base takes us right back to Dr No's Crab Key. Sévérine, played by Bérénice Marlohe, recalls Maud Adams' tragic Andrea from The Man with the Golden Gun film. A particularly Bondian scene in a komodo dragon pit provides a nod to Bond's alligator-hopping in Live and Let Die (which is rather appropriate, given director Sam Mendes' fondness for the film). References to Goldfinger abound. The reappearance of Goldfinger's Aston Martin DB5, which brought a cheer from the audience, was accompanied by an extended musical reference to the 1964 film. And as promised, Daniel Craig delivers the sort of measured one-liners that rival the best of the witticisms of the Sean Connery era.

The titles sequence references the best of  Maurice Binder, and Adele's title song has more than a hint of Shirley Bassey. There are doubtless many more nods to the films, but it will take repeated viewings to extract them all.

Is Skyfall the best Bond film? The question is redundant. The cultural environment is always evolving, and we get the Bond for our times. Goldfinger or From Russia with Love were the best of the 1960s' Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me was perfect for the 1970s, The Living Daylights reflected society's changing mores, while GoldenEye successfully introduced Bond to a post-Cold War world. Skyfall is certainly very good, and deservedly takes its place in the pantheon of Bond greats.

Sunday 21 October 2012

James Bond - home on the range

We almost never see the cinematic James Bond, a crack shot, practising his shooting skills. In The Living Daylights at a shooting gallery in Vienna's Wurstelprater amusement park, Bond's outstanding form threatens to wipe out the owner's stock of cheap soft toys, but that surely doesn't count. As Matthew Syed explains in his excellent book, Bounce, it may take 10,000 hours of practice to become a champion, but champions still need to practise to stay at the top. In contrast with the Bond films, cop movies often show protagonists on the range, and not even Dirty Harry, Axel Foley and Martin Riggs are excused.

I was reminded of this when I happened to open the Times and read the obituary of Eric McGibbon, a tea-planter, engineer and rifleman. Born in 1926 in Burma, he moved to India in the 1940s and managed a tea-plantation in Assam. After the Second World War, Eric relocated to England and settled in Surrey. During the late 1960s, he began open-range rifle shooting at the Bisley ranges and achieved considerable success.

Eric McGibbon would have immediately recognised Ian Fleming's description of Bisley in the short story, 'The Living Daylights', published first in 1962 in the Sunday Times magazine and, in the US, in Argosy, then in book form in 1966. The landmarks Fleming mentions are all there at Bisley. The 600-yard Century Range opens out from the north-east edge of the Bisley complex, while the Clock Tower stands some distance to its west. In between is the Bisley Gun Club pavilion.

Bond's skills on the range evidently impress the Chief Range Officer, who suggests that Bond enter the Queen's Prize 'next year'. And no wonder: Bond's shoot, comprising two sighting shots and ten rounds at each 100 yards up to 500 yards is good preparation for the three-stage competition, which requires entrants to make two sighting shots and seven shots to count at 300, 500 and 600 yards. In his Annotations and Chronologies, John Griswold places the events of the story in 1960. Out of interest, the winner for 1961, both of the gold and silver medal, was Warrant Officer Class 2 N L Beckett.

Just as James Bond is rarely seen eating in the films, but dines frequently in the books, the literary Bond appears to train more than the cinematic Bond does. Bond's Bisley shoot joins a list that includes underwater training in Live and Let Die, card-shuffling practice in Moonraker and a daily exercise routine of push-ups and leg-lifts in From Russia, with Love. In the films, Bond's training is restricted to a military exercise at the start of The Living Daylights (a nod, perhaps, to Bisley in the original story, unless that reference is made at the Viennese amusement park) and a training mission in MI6 headquarters in Die Another Day.

Finally, it is worth making the point that, as with all Fleming's writing, 'The Living Daylights' is full of facts and technical detail. Fleming's journalistic skill and desire for accuracy are very much evident in the story.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Shouldn't 'Bond girl' be in the dictionary?

As far as I'm aware, the term 'Bond girl' isn't in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). While I haven't checked the latest edition of the full OED, I recently looked the term up in the shorter and concise editions, but didn't see it there. Each new edition of the OED brings newspaper lists of modish, but often transitory, neologisms. Yet there's still no place for 'Bond girl', a phrase which is almost 50 years old and well established in popular culture.

I discussed the origin of the term 'Bond girl' in an article posted last year. One of the earliest uses of 'Bond girl' is in an article published in the Daily Express dating to 1st February 1963. A story about the daughter of Labour minister John Hare was headlined, 'Perfect Bond girl'. The term was used in the paper fairly regularly afterwards, but it also appeared in critical analyses of the James Bond phenomenon. For example, O F Snelling, in his 1964 book, 007 James Bond: A Report, describes Thunderball's Patricia Fearing, on the staff at Shrublands health farm, as being “rather unusual for a Bond girl.” Then, in The James Bond Dossier (1965), Kingsley Amis used the term 'Bond-girl' as a label for an essential element of the Bond novel. And in the 1966 English translation of The Bond Affair, edited by Oreste del Buono and Umberto Eco, the term is used in Furio Colombo's essay, 'Bond's Women' (“The Bond girl uses glances and looks”, to take one example).

Since then, of course, the term has become synonymous with the actresses who have appeared in the Bond films as Bond's companion or the film's femme fatale, but it has also been applied to supporting characters, such as Miss Moneypenny, and indeed any actress who has been cast in a Bond film, no matter how fleeting her role. The term 'Bond girl' is so closely associated with the actresses and female characters of the Bond films, that any book about them must inevitably incorporate the term into its title (for example, Bond Girls are Forever: the women of James Bond (2003), by Maryam d'Abo and John Cork).

More recently, 'Bond girl' has been used more loosely. For example, when Adele was confirmed as the singer/songwriter of Skyfall's theme song, she was quoted as saying, “I'll be back-combing my hair when I'm 60, telling people I was a Bond girl back in the day, I'm sure!”, while in the current series of BBC's Strictly Come Dancing, the phrase has been used to describe Kristina Rihanoff, the dancing partner of contestant Colin Salmon, who played MI6 agent Charles Robinson in Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, and Die Another Day. Even the Queen has been described as a Bond girl, thanks to her role alongside Daniel Craig's Bond in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.

According to the OED online, to qualify for inclusion in the OED a word “requires several independent examples of the word being used, and also evidence that the word has been in use for a reasonable amount of time.” The word must also attain a level of currency and understanding that allows it to be used without explanation of its meaning. As we have seen from the evidence presented above, the term 'Bond girl', while by no means uncontentious, undoubtedly fulfils these criteria. If 'Bond girl' is not already in the dictionary, it certainly should be. 

Update: I've been told by the OED that 'Bond girl' is on its tracking list. 

Sunday 7 October 2012

More on Peter Anthony's screentests for Bond

Fifty years ago, the public was introduced to a man who was set to star as James Bond in Dr No. His name was Peter Anthony, a model who had appeared in the pages the lifestyle and fashion magazine for men, Man About Town, and worked with Terence Donovan, pioneer of the 'Blow-up' school of photography. Peter had won a competition to find an actor to play James Bond, which had been run by the Daily Express and was to be judged by Harry Saltzman, Cubby Broccoli, Ian Fleming, Ken Hughes, and Express journalist, Patricia Lewis.

You can read about the competition in an earlier post. Since posting the article, I was contacted by Andy, a relative of Peter, who told me that Peter had read the article and had been enthralled by it. Naturally, I was excited to hear this, and was keen to continue my correspondence and find out more about Peter's brush with the world of James Bond.

So last year, Andy and I exchanged emails; I asked some questions and Andy passed them on to Peter to answer. One of my questions was about Peter's audition for Dr No. I learnt that Peter received a letter from Eon Productions to arrange the screentest. He was also sent the two-page audition script, which was of the scene set in M's office where M orders Bond to discard the Beretta in favour of the Walther PPK.

Peter's dialogue was a little different to the version that appears in the final film. Bond enters M's office and is quizzed about his last assignment in which his beloved Beretta jammed. M tells Bond that the gun has to go, and Bond reluctantly agrees. There is no armourer and no mention of the Walther PPK.

One of the biggest surprises was learning that Peter had auditioned for the role of Bond a second time, in this case in 1970/1 for Diamonds Are Forever. With the Daily Express having no involvement, Eon Productions approached Peter and sent him once again two pages of the script. At the time, Peter was living in New York and was required to fly to Los Angeles for the screentest. Peter remembers that he performed his test in the morning and was later taken to meet Broccoli and Saltzman and, he thinks, Guy Hamilton.

Peter performed the scene in which Bond introduces himself as Peter Franks to Tiffany Case. The script Peter received again differed from the scene in the final film. There was extra dialogue in Peter's script. For example, Bond asks Tiffany whether he can smoke, and a few lines later is asked to guess what the 'T' in T Case shown on the doorbell stands for. The scene is also conflated with the later scene in which the real Peter Franks arrives at Tiffany's apartment. Franks knocks on the door of the apartment and is then knocked out cold by Bond. The vicious fight in the lift is absent.

Whether the scripts for both films were especially adapted for the screentests, or that they were subsequently rewritten, is uncertain, but both give us insights into the nature of screentests in the early days of the Bond films.

Peter's auditions for the role of James Bond provide a fascinating footnote in the history of the Bond films. Though Peter never won the role, he had clearly impressed Broccoli and Saltzman, and not many actors can say that they lost out to Sean Connery twice. Peter really could have been Bond.

I am immensely grateful to Peter Anthony and Andy for responding to my questions, providing such wonderful information, and generally helping me with my research.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

From Licence Revoked to Licence to Kill

As I was reading James Bond: 50 Years of Movie Posters (2012), I was reminded of how far Eon had gone in establishing Licence Revoked as the name of Timothy Dalton's second Bond film (released as Licence to Kill in 1989). Poster concepts using the title had been commissioned, notices were published in the trade press, and a huge billboard advertising License Revoked (the spelling of 'licence' had not yet been fixed) surrounded the entrance to the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. So to change the film's title to Licence to Kill in the eleventh hour as the principal marketing campaign began was no insignificant undertaking. 

As with many well-worn facts, the reason given for the title change has subtly varied over the years, although some variants have been more successful than others in establishing themselves in popular culture.

Two of the key individuals working on Licence Revoked – Timothy Dalton and director John Glen – identify MGM as the driver for the title change. Glen writes in his autobiography, For My Eyes Only, that the marketing people protested that American audiences wouldn't know what revoked meant. Dalton supports this, telling Bill Desowitz in James Bond Unmasked that MGM thought that  no one would understand it.

In Kiss Kiss, Bang! Bang! (1997) by Alan Barnes and Marcus Hearn, and The Bond Files (1998) by Andy Lane and Paul Simpson, the emphasis switched from MGM's marketing people to US test audiences. It was their apparent incomprehension at the word 'revoked' that convinced the producers (or MGM) to go for the title change. Still with the onus on audiences, Lee Pfeiffer and Dave Worrall offer another reason in The Essential Bond (1998) – that 'it was discovered that US audiences associated the term with losing a driving licence'.

More recently, though, the MGM marketing people have returned to the spotlight. In a caption for a Licence Revoked concept poster reproduced in his poster book, Alastair Dougall describes a 'fear' that audiences wouldn't know what revoked meant, and Mark O'Connell writes in his brilliant book, Catching Bullets (2012) about a 'belief' that revoked was unfamiliar with US audiences.

Whether or not the title Licence Revoked was changed in response to US test audiences or a view held by MGM based on limited or no objective data is uncertain, but what is interesting from a memetic perspective is that the subtly different reasons given by commentators have their own currency within cultural space by virtue of their being published, and are therefore available to be replicated and become more widespread. The more frequently the variant appears in print (or on the web) the greater chance it has of being further replicated, regardless of its validity.

A variant's success is also helped by its intrinsic appeal to readers. The 'US audience incomprehension' reason seems to have more penetration in popular culture than the 'driving licence' reason perhaps because it better fits existing cultural perceptions. Just consider how familiar people are with the 'fact' that The Madness of George III became The Madness of King George because US audiences might have mistaken it for a sequel. The story of title change being driven by audience incomprehension is not quite true in the case of The Madness of King George and possibly not quite true in the case of Licence to Kill either, but the shared narrative taps into widely-held views about American culture and this is what gives the narrative its survival value.