Friday, November 09, 2012

Bonding With Bond

I stood on the sunlit sidewalk outside Regina’s Capitol theatre, staring at the poster and lobby cards for the movie “Now Showing” in its plush velvet interior. Barely 13 years old, I was certain that the matinee I’d just seen had to be the best movie ever made, “Dr. No”.

I knew nothing of spies, espionage or the Ian Fleming novel on which “Dr. No” had been based back then. What had drawn me was the concept of a man with a “Licence to kill”.

Movies back then stuck to a stronger moral code than they do now. And while today’s action heroes blast away with impunity, a contemporary hero in the 60’s had to be law-abiding and responsible. So the idea that James Bond had been given the okay to kill whoever he wanted without having to answer to anybody was unique indeed.

Looking at “Dr. No” now, it’s hard to believe it had the impact it did. The level of action and production values aren’t far beyond that of an average hour of television –- from the 1970’s.

And for all of his vaunted “License to kill”, the film’s half over before Bond dispatches his first bad guy.

But there was something about it.

All the trademarks of the Bond franchise were there at the beginning. The opening shot through the gun barrel, the stylized title sequence, the theme music with its infectious guitar riff, “Bond. James Bond” and Martinis “shaken not stirred”.

And there was the first “Bond Girl”. I still credit the moment when Ursula Andress’ “Honey Ryder” rose from the ocean in her white bikini as the moment I entered puberty.

I knew I was going to see this movie again. But it was a long wait until the next Saturday matinee. That problem was solved halfway up the next block, when I saw the paperback version of “Dr. No” on a drugstore rack.

I was a couple of chapters into the book before the bus from downtown got me home. Hard as it was for me to believe, it was even better than the movie.

Bond was a rougher, tougher guy. But still with his devil-may-care roguish flair. Dr. No was far more evil, his secret island not a Bauxite mine but a quarry for mining Bat Guano. Who knew bat shit was even called Guano, let alone how much work went into processing it. Fleming was a sucker for detail.

Everything in the book was richer. The inner workings of MI6 and the flavors of Jamaica were knitted throughout. Dr. No’s victims weren’t just thrown in the ocean or fed to sharks. They were staked out on a beach to be set upon by ravenous crabs. And Honey –- Oh My God – when Honey Ryder stepped out of the ocean she wasn’t wearing nothing at all!!!

That copy of “Dr. No” was utterly dog-eared by the time school rolled around on Monday.

And by the end of that first weekend I had become a confirmed James Bond fanatic. By the time “From Russia With Love” came out a year later, I’d read all every one of Fleming’s novels. And I found the second Bond film even better than the first.

But Bond and I were still relative outliers. The films were successes, but didn’t reach “must see” status for the general public until “Goldfinger” came along.

It was followed by what I still think is the best Bond caper, “Thunderball”. But then things started to get into a pattern  where you felt you’d seen it all before. The iconic moments were still highlights, of course. But everything else seemed a re-tread of what had been done before.

The magic of the books and the first films had been replaced by the Hollywood process of turning a plot into a sequel string of familiar touchstones. I always thought that was the real reason Sean Connery walked away from the franchise.

In a way, I walked away too. I didn’t even have an interest in seeing George Lazenby’s turn in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”.

Part of me figured maybe I’d just grown up.

Then, during a break in shooting a scene on “The Last Detail”, Clifton James started talking about the part he’d just played (Sheriff J.W. Pepper) in what would be the next Bond film “Live and Let Die” with the new Bond, Roger Moore.

I pressed him for details and he said the franchise was going in a “different direction”. It was going to be more “tongue in cheek”, more fun.

That didn’t feel right to me and after I saw the movie I knew I was right. Moore’s Bond was a wise-cracking cad who didn’t even drink Martinis and almost seemed to enjoy killing.

I still went to see his Bond films. Back then I saw everything. But I recall leaving both “Moonraker” and “View to a Kill” vowing I’d never see a Bond movie again.

The rugged humanity and unflinching decency that would need to be there for a man to be granted a “License to Kill”, a permit to operate beyond the rules of society in the first place, were gone. Without that, James Bond was just another psychopath. A sophisticated one to be sure. But not a hero.

And that wasn’t the guy who had first gained the trust of both me and Honey Ryder.

bond and honey

Yet, proving just how out of step I was with the Zeitgeist, the popularity of the franchise just seemed to grow.

And while I longed for the Bond of the books and the first films, each new release was accompanied by magazine spreads on the new “Bond Girls” and the “Gadgets” sandwiched between ads for Bond’s new Breitling watch, his special edition Florsheim shoes and the bullet shaped suppositories he could shove up his ass if he came down with a case of the piles.

Commerce had overtaken and corrupted what had been (at least to me) pure art.

By then, luckily, I was on my own espionage series, “Adderly” where fellow story editor Carl Binder and I would do all we could to keep our spy character in the Connery mode while the network kept pushing him ever closer to Roger Moore.

To be honest, both we and the network were deluding ourselves, since our secret agent operated on a far lower level than the double O’s of MI6.

Still, there was a moment late in the second season when we finally got “Adderly” into a white dinner jacket and seated at the Baccarat table of a Moroccan Casino. It was a small victory. But one we savored to the hilt.

I felt the Bond franchise began to turn back to its roots with Timothy Dalton and sensed a perfect balance developing between the Connery and Moore camps in Pierce Brosnan.

But the harsh reality of the character’s life as an espionage agent and what he sacrificed to keep the free world free was still missing.

And then along came “Casino Royale”, reminding all who had been there from the beginning of the magic inherent in Ian Fleming’s creation.

I don’t know if any movie has ever made my movie-going tastes feel more redeemed. A redemption confirmed by “Quantum of Solace”. And hopefully by “Skyfall”.

It’s hard to believe that a movie franchise is still with us, the arrival of its next instalment as anticipated as it is a half century after the first one appeared.

But that’s the bond we all seem to have with Bond. Hopefully, it will continue for many more episodes and incarnations to come.

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