The James Bond movies are famously formulaic. Five films into the series, about to switch Bond actors, it does feel like the patterns have coalesced into a “Bond formula.” Sort of. What is going on in these movies?
The film will start with a weird stylized sequence in black and white, where Bond walks across a room seen through the barrel of a gun. Not the sights of the gun, the barrel. Bond will abruptly pivot and shoot the screen. The screen will turn red as the point-of-view character falls to the ground. There may or may not be a cold open preceding this sequence, but every one of these films has this bit of style.
Directors and writers will be fluid, but the music will be John Barry and the John Barry Orchestra, featuring variations of the James Bond theme created by Monty Norman. The set design will be Ken Adam. The main titles will be Maurice Binder, and yes I have watched so much James Bond that I now know the name of the person who designed the main titles to the James Bond movies, and yes that makes me barf on the inside.
The title credits will be weird. The theme song will be sung by a popular singer and the chorus will directly reference the title of the film, even if that leads to a song that makes me think that the bad guy of one of these movies is named “Thunderball.” Visually, the title will feature stylized imagery of beautiful, over-sexualized women, but each time, Binder will try to display them in a new and novel way. This worked well in “Goldfinger” but has been off-putting in all the others.
What about the plot of a James Bond film? For a franchise with some oddly specific rules, you can’t really pigeonhole a James Bond plot. Bond will uncover and foil a supervillainous scheme, but the specifics of the scheme to be foiled have varied wildly, from simply stealing a codebreaker to starting World War 3. The one constant is that these plots are never the work of a nation, but of a third party, typically SPECTRE. The Chinese and the Russians have been portrayed as enemies to Britain, but never quite direct aggressors.
The villains have typically been high-ranking SPECTRE operatives, overseen by Ernst Blofeld. Although he’s only been given a face in the most recent film, he has had a presence since “From Russia With Love.” The filmmakers built him up over several films, and he feels suitably large enough to serve as Bond’s Moriarty. He works because, he’s not just a generic mastermind, he has multiple weirdo tics. He forces a white cat to come with him wherever he goes, and he likes to make one person think they are going to be murdered for their failure, only to murder another person instead. He’s done that, like, five times in three films.
The other villains have been weird and grandiose in different ways. Dr. No had no hands. Rosa Klebb was a lesbian with a knife-boot. Goldfinger covered everything he owned and everything that he wished to murder with gold. Largo wore an eyepatch and named his super-yacht the Disco Volante. Some of these guys have proven to be more memorable than others. (Hint: The good ones had movies named after them.)
These bad guys will have sweet Ken Adams sets and from “Goldfinger” onward, the head villain has always had a mute head henchman, although only Oddjob of “Goldfinger” has been memorable in this role.
The villain will not murder James Bond when they have the chance. In three of the films, the villain has played host to James Bond as if he were an honored guest. In “From Russia With Love”, the villain repeatedly saved Bond’s life.
Four of the five movies end with Bond making out with a woman on a boat. Again, this is weirdly specific. After the boat, are the end credits, which all announce that James Bond will return in the following film. I hope this continues through the entire franchise, a fifty year chain of kept promises.
I had been lead to believe that gadgets were a bedrock of James Bond movies. And indeed, James Bond receives some new spy gear in every one of these films. However, despite a couple of scenes where Bond is seen clearly appreciating his new toys, Bond does not really seem like a man who needs complicated or clever ways to murder dudes when a gun or a garotte will do the trick.
I had also formed the impression, before watching these films, that the tricked-out Aston Martin from “Goldfinger” was a series mainstay, basically the Bondmobile. This turns out to not be the case. Bond doesn’t have a spy car in the two following films, although Aki in “You Only Live Twice” has an awesome one.
Bond spends a lot of time in warmer climes. There is a travelogue component to most of these films. Bond’s missions inevitably take him to exotic locales. Or Kentucky. A lot of time will be spent on soaking up local color. Unfortunately, this is really pretty dull in a post-globalization world. The exotic isn’t so exotic any more.
Bond has two catch-phrases. “Shaken, not Stirred.” and “Bond, James Bond.” are two of the most famous three-word phrases in all of pop culture. They are absurdly well-known. Watching these films, I have no idea why. They get said repeatedly, but they have no impact, no resonance. One would think that they would elicit reactons along the lines of “oh, fuck yes he is Bond James Bond! He is going to drink the shit out of that martini fuckers!” but they don’t. They don’t signify much, just a preference for a particular drink, and an ability to give one’s name when prompted.
Bond movies are equal parts sex and violence, and so there will always be lots of beautiful women. (Ostensibly so, at least. Most of them don’t really do it for me, but perhaps I reveal too much.) In any given film, Bond will sleep with several of them, at least one good guy one and one bad guy one, except for “From Russia With Love”, where his only real love interest is neutral. He will seduce them or allow them to seduce him, but there is nothing warm or romantic in any of this. The first four movies all had coercive sex, two of them having Bond outright rape a woman. All the sex in these movies is gross.
Bond does not have friends. Bond is a sociopath incapable of friendship. The closest he gets is his coworkers. In every film, Bond has to be briefed by M, flirted with by Moneypenny, and equipped by Q. There may or may not also be a random American dude in the mix that the audience is told is Felix Leiter. The repeated use of these characters is important. They give the movies an aspect of humanity that Bond himself lacks. I don’t even like M or Q but when they show up, they are a gasp of fresh air, providing warmth in an otherwise icy, cold universe.
Bond is often called a super-spy, and he did show some espionage bona fides in From “Russia With Love” and “You Only Live Twice”, but his forte is not stealth or deception. His strengths are brutality and seduction. In fact, in three of these five films the villain’s plan was undone not by Bond, but by a woman that Bond has seduced to his cause.
Bond is considered to be a hero, but nothing he does in these movies is selfless. Not only does he never has a “save the cat” moment, he never has a moral moment. He is a murderer and a rapist and a petty golf cheat to boot. Arguably his actions serve the greater good, or at least the good of Britain, but we are never given any reason to believe he gives the slightest shit about patriotism or other human beings.
Bond is a sophisticate. He gets his suits from Saville Row and he wears them well. He knows what temperature he likes his Bollinger Champaign and he knows how he likes his drinks mixed. He confidently moves through this world of style and status, having learned all the correct shibboleths. . However, despite these trappings of culture, his true nature is that of a monster who lives only to kill and mate. That animal aspect is always right below the surface, glinting in his eyes.
This man-monster is what I find compelling about the James Bond presented in these first films. The character exists as an argument that beneath all of our sophistication and culture, we are nothing more than ugly beasts. Bond is a black-hearted parody of humanity, a brilliant construction that I think is largely unintentional on the part of all parties involved in creating and presenting the character. If someone were to make a movie that treated Bond like the abomination that he is, it could be a hell of thing.