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50 Years of James Bond

by Alexander Cockburn

Continued from 50 Years of James Bond

The titular villains in the Bond books are always grotesques. Le Chiffre, in Casino Royale, set the tone, weighing in at 252 pounds at a height of 5’8″, with his ‘small, rather feminine mouth’, small hairy hands, small feet, small ears ‘with large lobes, indicating some Jewish blood’, ‘soft and even’ voice and white showing all round the iris of each eye, ‘large sexual appetites’ and ‘flagellant’ tastes. This, in admittedly baroque form, was our old friend the Father Figure, as evinced in the scene where Le Chiffre goes to work on Bond’s balls with the carpet beater and promises to chop them off with a carving knife.

Fleming inaugurates the torture scene thus: ‘”My dear boy”–Le Chiffre spoke like a father–“the game of Red Indians is over, quite over. You have stumbled by mischance into a game for grown-ups, and you have already found it a painful experience. You are not equipped, my dear boy, to play games with adults, and it was very foolish of your nanny in London to have sent you out here with your spade and bucket.'” But when Bond, manhood spared by the Russian executioner who dispatches Le Chiffre, recovers in hospital and then prepares–with Vesper Lynd’s help–to check that all physical systems are in working order, he discovers that she too is a villain.

This is less surprising when we realise that Bond’s women are often men, thinly disguised. This is progress from Buchan and Drummond where they were often horses. Vesper is introduced with the news that ‘her eyes were wide apart and deep blue and they gazed candidly back at Bond with a touch of ironical disinterest which, to his annoyance, he found he would like to shatter, roughly. Her skin was lightly suntanned and bore no trace of make-up except on her mouth which was wide and sensual. … the general impression of restraint in her appearance and movements was carried even to her fingernails, which wer unpainted and cut short.

Of course there was dutiful mention of Vesper’s “fine” breasts but Fleming does not seem to have been too interested in them. Four years later in From Russia With Love, Fleming scurries past Tatiana Romanova’s breasts with a mumbled “faultless” before assuming a hotly didactic tone on the matter of her ass: “A purist would have disapproved of her behind. Its muscles were so hardened with exercise that it had lost the smooth downward feminine sweep, and now, round at the back and flat and hard at the sides, it jutted like a man’s. A year later, after publication of Dr No Noel Coward wrote to Fleming, saying that he was slightly shocked by the lascivious announcement that Honeychile’s bottom was like a boy’s. “I know that we are all becoming progressively more broadminded nowadays but really, old chap, what could you have been thinking of?”

Fleming didn’t address the point in his response, but there is an answer in one of his notebooks from the thirties, a period when he looked, in one description, like someone who had walked out of the pages of The Romantic Agony: ‘Some women respond to the whip, some to the kiss. Most of them like a mixture of both, but none of them answer to the mind alone, to the intellectual demand, unless they are men dressed as women_ For Bond there were father figures lurking behind every shrub none more imposing than old M, with his damnably blue eyes, whom Bond tries kill in an Oedipal spasm at the start of OHMS. But here too we find that ambiguity discovered by the very fat policeman when he slipped his hand up Savage’s skirt. Fleming’s father was killed in the war when he was a boy. The dominant figure in lan’s life was his formidable mother Mrs Val. Like Holmes and Moriarty locked together over the Reichenbach Falls, motherand son maintained vigorous psychic combat until they died within two months of each other in l964, MrsVal going first in July. Fleming often called hiss mother M.

Always this terrible confusion! The real ‘M’ in the war was the head of MI5, a man called Maxwell Knight. He was loved by his secretary, Joan Miller. She died in 1984 but her daughter fought, over the desperate efforts of MI5 to suppress them, to publish her memoirs, which are now available in Ireland. There is a poignant passage in which Miller describes the object of her doomed love: “As I sat there watching this avowed opponent of homosexuality mince across the lawn, a number of things became clear to me. His tastes obviously inclined him in the direction of what, in a phrase not then current, is known as “rough trade”. It was plain that he’d taken himself that time, to the cinema tea room, instead of spending the afternoon with his wife in Oxford, in the hope of effecting a suitably scrubby pick up.”

If Bond’s women were men in the books, in the movies they are fish, starting with Honeychile who comes up out of the sea in Dr No in one of the most successful associations of woman with water since Botticelli stood Venus up on a clamshell. In the movies Bond is often to be found down in cold water or up in the snow. The problem for Maibaum and for the various directors was no doubt to find scenery to match or compensate for the distraught psychic landscapes of the books. They found the answer where Jules Verne so often did, in the soothingly amoral underworld of the sea. It didn’t always work. The underwater sequences in Thunderbolt are numbingly slow. But at their best, in the explicitly Verne-like Spy Who Loved Me with Curt Jurgens’ Atlantis on its tarantula legs, or in the lesbian fantasy, Octopussy, the movies do take on the surreal texture of a Max Ernst painting.

They also lightened everything up. The only time Bond really behaves like a licensed killer is at the start of Dr No, when he studies the renegade Strangeway’s empty gun, says ‘You’ve had your six’ and then kills him in cold blood. Maibaum gave Bond a sense of humor. The idea was to present the cold war as a necessary, but humorous–in the case of Moore, frivolous–ritual. Right from the start the film series stood in marked contrast to the books in being pro detente. The only bad Russians are renegades, part of SPECTER, intent on sowing distrust between the great powers, as in The Spy Who Loved Me, where Jurgens schemes to arrange mutual assured destruction of all great powers other than his own. Maibaum says now that starting with Dr No, ‘for some reason, looking at the very, very long-range future United Artists did not want the Russians to be out and out villains, so we made Dr No come from SPECTER rather than SMERSH. That was really done for reasons of motion picture distribution, thinking that maybe some day Bond might go to Russia.’

Dr No set the high standard for Bond villains. The best of these villains was probably Gert Frobe in Goldfinger and Maibaum gave him one of the best lines. ‘Do you expect me to talk?’ Connery grits as the laser slices towards his crotch. ‘No Mr Bond, I expect you to die.’ On the whole one feels rather sorry for the villains, cultured and bold, but thwarted in their schemes for world conquest by so mean an intellect as Bond’s. But films don’t have the juice that Fleming’s cold war fifties political stance gave the novels, which is no doubt why the films got more and more fantastical, as sea, snow and travelogue became substitutes for Fleming’s paranoid verve. It is not surprising, given the length of the Bond series, that the audiences now take so much pleasure in the expected, in Bond as ritual: the pre-credit sequence established in From Russia With Love; the encounter with Miss Moneypenny; the throw-away lines and polished dialogue; the gadgets produced by Q.

Ah yes, the gadgets: the briefcase with knives and gold sovereigns, the Aston Martin DBS with ejector seat and saw-blades in the wheel hubs … In the mid 1960s Umberto Eco wrote an interesting essay about Fleming in which he discussed the author’s stylistic technique. ‘Fleming takes time to convey the familiar with photographic accuracy,’ Eco wrote, ‘because it is upon the familiar that he can solicit our capacity for identification. Our credulity is solicited, blandished, directed to the region of possible and desirable things. Here the narration is realistic, the attention to detail intense; for the rest, so far as the unlikely is concerned, a few pages suffice and an implicit wink of the eye.’

Fleming, and through him, Bond, was acutely aware of commodities, mundane objects of desire. No previous thriller writer had ever accommodated himself to such an extent to the psychology of acquisition, of envy, to the spiritual rhythms of the advertising industry. The makers and marketers of Bond movies understood this aspect of Fleming’s appeal very well, and soon the world grew used to Bond’s pedantic lectures on Taittinger and Q’s proud demonstrations of the latest in British gadgetry. The movies are full of tie-ins, from Cartier watches to vodka to the trusty Aston Martin itself. Backdrop becomes commodified too, as the Bond producers scour the world for fresh locations and ministers of tourism plead for a visit.

In this matter of commodities the Bond films have been a somewhat ironic reverie of British omnipotence. The cycle of Bond films began just when the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson was urging the nation to cast aside the archaic vestments of the past and bathe itself in the ‘white heat of technology’. Things worked in Bond movies but they didn’t work in Britain and as Kingsley Amis once sadly remarked, if Bond had really had to use his mini-submarine in combat conditions it would have surely taken him straight to the bottom. In 1983, just when Q gave Bond a staggering number of gadgets in Octopussy, Britain became for the first time in its history a net importer of industrial goods.

Noel Coward put the contrast between fantasy and reality well. ‘One of the things that still makes me laugh whenever I read Ian’s books is the contrast between the standard of living of dear old Bond and the sort of thing Ian used to put up with at Goldeneye. When Bond drinks his wine it has to be properly chambre, the tournedos slightly underdone, and so forth. But whenever I ate with Ian at Goldeneye the food was so abominable I used to cross myself before I took a mouthful. … I used to say, “Ian, it tastes like armpits.” And all the time you were eating there was an old lan smacking his lips for more while his guests remembered all those delicious meals he had put into the books.’

In that same weeklong visit to the UK years ago I turned on Channel 4 one evening. There was my friend Robin Blackburn, at that time editor of New Left Review, addressing the nation on the paramount necessity of Britain becoming truly socialist if it is to get out of its present mess. “The social horizon,” Robin said, “is still defined by institutions which serve British capital but which are not specifically capitalist and are not found in any other capitalist country. Our ruling institutions are the products of oligarchy and empire. Consecrated by time and custom they are like a dead weight on the imagination and aspirations of the living. Britain has become a living museum of obsolescence, whose most splendid trophy is nothing less than the world’s last ancien regime.”

Under prime ministers stretching back to Churchill, 007 has done his best, probably none better, to put Britain’s foot forward. He himself is, with the happy assistance of United Artists, one of Britain’s most successful exports. But if Bond is a fine example of world cultural integration at the level of kitsch, things have not always been in good shape on the home front. What has improved strongly is the coercive apparatus of the state. ‘You’re nothing but a stupid policeman,’ Dr No told Bond. If he had not had the misfortune to drown in his own nuclear well, the doctor would have been unhappy to discover that Bond’s trade–policing the British state–has fared better than most of the other props in the old museum. In this respect at least, the fantasy came true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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