THE THIRD PHASE OF JAMES BOND'S EXISTENCE


The “third phase”, as typified by the Roger Moore films, is to James Bond what Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is to Indiana Jones: it’s the tongue in cheek and self-effacing spin on the established franchise elements. It’s also finely dramatic and majestic when the mood takes it…

“This never happened to the other fella.”
James Bond (George Lazenby) in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) 

It would seem an odd fact that one of the earlier, more straight-faced and revered James Bond films was also the first to deliver such a memorably "fourth wall”-breaking moment. Although, actually, is it all that surprising? On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, after all, followed five staggeringly successful James Bond films. And these five instalments were more than just films; together, they constituted a cultural phenomenon. Coupled with this, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the first Bond film released without the (what had become) iconic visage of Sean Connery imprinted on its celluloid. Why not spare a moment, then, for an acknowledgement – a shared joke between filmmakers and their close-to-worldwide audience – of the Connery-Bond’s impact on popular culture?  

An ironic wink at the audience had been bubbling away from the moment the film character debuted – although it didn’t involve such self-reflexive joshing. That would come later. The deliberations between director Terence Young and Connery – to inject a wry, knowing humour into the character – are well documented. I would refer to this addition as James Bond's second phase. The first phase is Ian Fleming’s literary character – largely humourless, coolly deliberate, womanising, sometimes self-doubting and melancholic – and the world he operated within – a largely recognisable but definitely heightened version of reality. While the second phase lightened, if not removed, the melancholia of the literary character, the early films were still largely straight-faced, if fanciful, affairs. 

In these early years, no one could have envisaged (or dared to hope) that the film character and his world would become so iconic. The third phase in James Bond's existence is seen primarily in the Bond films made between 1971 and 1985, where the film series had moved from "phenomenon" to "institution". This phase seemed in large part to emerge as a response to the film series’ ascension into cultural folklore. These films include a range of explicit and broadly humorous plays on James Bond’s cultural status, as well as a wink at Bond's invulnerability.

Roger Moore, who portrayed James Bond from 1973 to 1985, was particularly keyed in to the logic of this third phase. And he could play off it as well; it was a happy marriage. In 1984, he noted: "What we are saying to the audience is: 'Look, you've been seeing these things for 22 years and they are intended to be fun, and we want you to laugh with us, not at us."1 Moore is capturing not only a sense of Bond’s cultural place, but also an interesting irony/anxiety that emerges with enduring film heroes; that is, on the basis of great box-office and intense public recognition and enthusiasm, the hero survives a steady stream of fanciful scenarios, but, in the process, cannot help but acquire a faintly ridiculous air – a point typically compounded by the wave of spoofy imitators that follow in a phenomenon’s wake.

This tendency, plus accumulating accusations of outdated-ness from media commentators, can leave even a coolly sardonic character on the precipice of mockery. And in James Bond’s case, On Her Majesty's Secret Service's box-office underperformance – comparatively speaking – didn't appear to reassure the Bond team that an overwhelmingly serious tone would satisfy a large audience in the foreseeable future. The development of a third phase for James Bond was perhaps unsurprising.

Some could contend that Moore's comment ("these films are meant to be fun") is playing to his typically recognised strengths – Bond as urbane gentleman spy, tongue planted in cheek – rather than alluding to the danger, physicality and mocking humour that Connery had famously brought to the character. Except that the Connery-Bond and his universe in 1971's Diamonds Are Forever – the Bond film directly preceding Moore's introduction – had already taken a marked step towards pop cultural jokiness, and with it, a wry send-up of Bond's vices (snobbishness, machismo, materialism) and a mellowing of the character's rougher edges. Moore, in this regard, simply got on board with the new sentiment. And by his third Bond film, 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me, this sentiment had been distilled into a brand of its own.

Anyway, such audio and visual pop cultural jokes included: Bond's Tarzan yell and the snake charmer summoning Bond with The James Bond Theme (“That’s a charming tune”) in 1983's Octopussy; the accompaniment of The Beach Boys’ classic, California Girls, as Bond improvises a snowboard escape in 1985's A View to a Kill; the inclusion of Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia theme in The Spy Who Loved Me, and Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven theme in 1979's Moonraker, as an accompaniment to Bond's globe-trotting; the usage of Close Encounters of The Third Kind’s five-note musical motif as an access code in Moonraker; Margaret Thatcher's endorsement of James Bond in 1981's For Your Eyes Only; Connery-Bond winking at the audience in the unofficial Bond film, Never Say Never Again  (1983), in response to a question reminiscent of that long-standing cultural rumination: "Will Connery's Bond return?" Each example here plays like a self-reflexive joke on the character's own significant position in popular culture. Such moments may seem baffling and even irritating for some (Why mess with the “smooth sophistication" of the Sixties?) and yet, in a historical and cumulative sense, make amusing, intuitive sense to others.

This sort of humour, I believe, can be misconstrued by commentators. The use of California Girls, for example, is often read as the filmmakers excitedly asking the audience, "Bond is surfing – you get it? You get it??" I don't think the impression of Bond surfing would be lost on any audience member, irrespective of whether or not California Girls was used; the point is the playful engagement with popular culture. That's where the enjoyment lies. But if you assume it's the filmmakers operating under some erroneous impression that they’re being wonderfully clever, it stands to reason you'll be unimpressed.

A knowing wink towards Bond's pop cultural status, as well as his ongoing survival of multitudinous fanciful situations, was also delivered through moments where Bond's dynamic spy universe bumped shoulders with the deluded, bewildered and clumsy "real world". Examples of clumsy and deluded "ordinary" men included Joe Flood’s police captain in A View to a Kill and Roy Hollis’ sheriff in Diamonds are Forever, while bewildered members of the "real world" included the tourists of Corsica (The Spy Who Loved Me) and Venice (Moonraker). Moore responds to the broader scenarios superbly, gliding through each with a studied nonchalance, and providing the punch line with an ironic glance or raised eyebrow.

Was this third phase a step too far beyond the parameters of a good spy fantasy? Or was it that a new flavour of Bondian fantasy had been created? Certainly, while you can see how Moore's films could leave a Fleming and early Connery fan unsettled, equally you can see how Moore could win over other audiences. His realm was the self-reflexive, self-parodying Bond fantasy that would prevail for over a decade, effectively undercutting the series' extensive history of "smooth sophistication" and Connery-Bond’s imperialist-style mockery – lest any commentators cut those ones down to size first, or claim them as outdated. Moore's "We want you to laugh with us, not at us", in many respects, says all that needs to be said.  

In fact, with the broader humour laced through the narratives, a certain impression is left for the audience: “smooth sophistication” may be fun to watch, even to imitate (at least in a self-aware, tongue in cheek fashion), but it isn’t to be taken too seriously. The arrogant, snobbish sting is taken out of the sophistication, a development in the series again welcomed by some, not by others. This is no early-Connery "aspirational" sophistication; in fact, the broad situations have a downright subversive effect – there's nothing quite like unpretentious humour to lay bare the pretentiousness inherent in "cultivating a sophisticated self".

Interestingly, the majority of these third phase films, like the later, more slapstick-infused Indiana Jones films – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) – still contain some of the series’ most dramatic and resonant passages, and often-times contain notably mature themes. Furthermore, while Moore could pull off the self-reflexive tone that the filmmakers felt was the wisest path to take, he could equally deliver the drama. "We want you to laugh with is, not at us" could be rounded out with "so you'll accept us when it's time to play seriously."  This latter strength of Moore's is typically overlooked in critical conjecture – indeed, it's often overlooked by Moore himself – and his tenure is broadly characterised as tongue in cheek. But Moore, along with Indiana Jones’ Harrison Ford, is a leading candidate for the best worried eyes in show business – a welcome feature that brings an extra level of engagement to dramatic moments. Both Moore and Ford can also navigate the realm of the ridiculous with an amusing look of mock bemusement. 

This combination of qualities is probably best demonstrated in Moore's sixth Bond film, Octopussy. This is a film that has often been regarded as an awkward mix of tongue-in-cheek cliff-hangers and Cold War tension. And awkward these proceedings would be – if another actor were leading them. (Do punters mentally replace Moore with Connery as they are watching? Do they assess the material independently of Moore’s presence?) Moore - lightly parodic yet dramatic - unifies the material with ease and finesse.

He's certainly the actor needed to weather a character such as Clifton James’ J.W. Pepper. In the realm of third phase pop cultural jokes, I would contend that Pepper is a step too far, although there is a clear point to his existence: a grotesquery of what is, apparently, an already pretty grotesque creature - the southern sheriff - he singlehandedly balances the ledger on the high volume of devious African-American characters featured in 1973's Live and Let Die. And Live and Let Die, so colourful and cartoonish, is certainly the most appropriate Bondian context for Pepper to appear. But the filmmakers repeatedly return to his antics during the speedboat chase sequence – and this tends to deprive the sequence of a certain momentum. (These jokes typically need to be fairly quick and throwaway in design.)

This is similarly the case with Pepper's encore in 1974’s The Man with Golden Gun, where the sheriff has seemingly been carted to Thailand by his wife, and continually bumps shoulders with “that British Secret Agent”. What almost legitimises Pepper's return is Moore's low-key responses to his antics. (Jaws and Dolly’s union in Moonraker is likely another step too far, although the shades of Frankenstein’s Monster and the ill-fated child at least gives the joke an interesting edge.) 

Of course, the prevalence of this third phase would soon pass as the trends (and the box-office) of the day suggested a new paradigm was needed. It came in the shape of Timothy Dalton, who was directly summoning Fleming's Bond. But remnants of the third phase remained, particularly when a pursued Bond inadvertently took his Aston Martin for a spin across an icy plain. And "cool sophistication" continued to be undercut, although in a different fashion: while the sophistication was played seriously, Dalton's spy, at heart, seemed unhappy. Arrogant sophistication bore little contentment.

Dalton and Daniel Craig's films are, by and large, more Fleming-esque in their presentations of Bond and his world - more first phase, if you will. In a sense, though, there has subsequently been less need for self-reflexive joshing, as the introductions of the three succeeding Bonds have possessed a greater sense of “reboot”: Dalton, because we now had a Bond actor who was noticeably younger than his predecessor (not a particular achievement given Moore was 58 years when he officially retired); Pierce Brosnan, because Bond had been off-screen for six years; and Craig, because his tenure commenced with an explicit “Bond Begins” scenario. Moore, in contrast to Dalton, was a couple of years older than Connery (if slightly younger looking); there was the sense that Moore was continuing the character's adventures, rather than rebooting them. He was still essentially the same guy beating another series of wild odds – yet again. The impression with Dalton, Brosnan and Craig was that their Bond hadn’t yet cheated fate so many a time. Much less of a need, then, for the filmmakers to deliver self-parodic elements.

Less need, I stress, as by the time Brosnan reached his fourth film, 2002’s Die Another Day, there was a noticeably stronger sense of self-parody. Dalton, meanwhile, was only there for two films, but at the conclusion of his second film, 1989’s Licence to Kill, a giant, smiling fake fish was winking at the audience. And by Craig’s third film – the richly textured and brooding Skyfall (2012) – a rather offbeat moment occurred when a bewildered "ordinary" man delivered a deadpan appraisal of Bond’s leap for a commuter train: "He's keen to get home." It’s interesting that the Oscar-winning director of Skyfall, Sam Mendes, a man known for “big themes”, treated a typical third phase piece of humour as a valid part of the accumulated James Bond filmic identity.

Similarly, in the same film, when Bond runs away from his soon-to-be incinerated ancestral home, only to turn back to camera (almost engaging the camera, fourth wall-breaking style) and state, "I always hated this place" we are back in "This never happened to the other fella" territory. Ditto the moment where the villain blows the Aston Martin to smithereens and Bond looks a picture of fury in response. Why should Bond give a damn? Because, in this instance, he’s responding on the audiences’ behalf – and they know when an iconic structure has been defamed.

Of course, the particular qualities that each subsequent Bond actor has brought to the role haven’t “encouraged” the same level of frivolity that Moore did. But nevertheless there is a strong suggestion that as each actor has progressed in the role so has the perceived need for some self-reflexive humour. Let us see if Craig's soon-to-be-released fourth film - Spectre - will build on the third phase elements of Skyfall.

I'm not advocating for Bond’s recent and past history to be demarcated by phases, but noting phases does assist a nuanced understanding of the range of ways the James Bond character and his world have been realised. The point is: there is often great variation, regardless of the always-dutiful delivery of formulaic essentials. The film series, in particular, has gone down a number of differing paths, often due to a sense of cultural necessity, and each excursion can be proclaimed a worthy one. In fact, fair to say, a range of "Bondian genres" have been successfully created. Which of these you prefer is neither here nor there. What matters is that a number of very solid genres now exist – and through each of these, James Bond has continued to survive.

Correction: he continues to thrive.


1 Quoted in Lee Goldberg, ‘Roger Moore: His Name is Bond’, Starlog, no. 96, July 1985, p. 41-42.

Published 20 October 2015 

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