I’ve become hooked again on rewatching the James Bond films. It happens from time to time, usually when I’m feeling tired or down or simply uninspired. A James Bond season is my way of turning my brain off and vegetating in the early evening over a week or two. My lack of critical faculties during this time perhaps explains why I usually find myself enjoying the films the critics tell me that I’m not supposed to enjoy. It also leads me to write outlandish statements like ‘Roger Moore was the best James Bond’, even though I know that to be rubbish. The best James Bond was Timothy Dalton. The worst James Bond by a good distance was Pierce Brosnan. The rest sit somewhere between those extremes of brilliance and banality.
Connery may have looked the most like the Bond I knew from the novels but it was Dalton who took the Bond from the page and played him on the screen with the right mixture of self-loathing, anger, and masochism. He was Daniel Craig before Craig brilliantly remodelled Bond as a hitman from the pages of GQ magazine. George Lazenby could have been the best had he been given chance and, certainly, his one outing remains a highpoint of the franchise yet he was unlucky to appear in the first Bond film that broke away from the established model. Years ahead of its time, you might say, and in retrospect, probably the first real Bond classic, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the Bond they got so very right but they didn’t realise that at the time.
As for Brosnan, it was an experiment that began well with Goldeneye but went wrong very quickly. He also suffered from his own good looks. He only became a genuinely interesting actor once he stopped trying to be James Bond, making two woefully underrated movies Matador (2005) and Seraphim Falls (2006), and then the critically acclaimed The Ghost with Polanski in 2010. In those films he delivered something he failed to bring to Bond which was the complexity of a man no longer young but more interesting because of that. In contrast, the Brosnan Bond had been too suave, too debonair, too liable to pout to camera at important moments. The films also lost their way with diamond encrusted villains, invisible cars, Madonna, and (the possibly the worst plot point in any Bond film) facial transplants that turned a North Korean colonel into a proper plummy Toby Stephens.
Somewhere in the middle of such debates sits Sir Roger Moore. Moore wasn’t a perfect Bond by any means. In the later films, he was too old but from the beginning he was already too gentlemanly to be the deeply twisted Bond of the novels. He just possessed too much humour, while his taste in clothes was abhorrent. Yet it’s his films that cheer me up like no others in the series. Of course, Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun are two of the strongest Bond films yet made but those aren’t films I find myself rewatching. I have a strange special place in my heart for his last three outings as James Bond even though they are routinely placed at the bottom of other people’s lists. I don’t know why but I love For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, and A View To A Kill…
Even when I’m watching them, I know they’re bad. In A View to a Kill, I cringe the moment Bond ‘surfs’ across a frozen lake to the music of The Beach Boys. He then gets into a strange mini submarine camouflaged as an iceberg but inside turned bordello with a blonde busty member of MI6 wearing a one piece fur lined gold lamé ski suit. Don’t get me wrong. If I was going to jump into a mini submarine disguised as an iceberg, my preference would be into the arms of a blonde busty member of MI6 wearing a one piece fur lined gold lamé ski suit and I don’t care what Edward Snowden and The Guardian have to leak about that.
Octopussy has even more of those cringe worthy moments. I detest the moment when Bond arrives in India and the local agent (dressed as a snake charmer) identifies himself by playing the Monty Norman’s James Bond theme. That character, Vijay, was played by Vijay Amritraj, a famous tennis player, which leads to the awful visual pun during a chase scene when Vijay fights off the henchmen with his tennis racquet and the crowd looking one way and then another as if they’re watching a real tennis match. Then there’s that questionable moment when Bond hands Sadruddin, the Head of the Indian Station, a wad of money with the quip ‘That should keep you in curry for a few weeks’. I hate it when Bond swings through the jungle and yodels the Tarzan yodel made popular by Ron Ely’s Tarzan. Then there’s the terrible moment when Bond faces down a tiger by giving it a Mary Woodhouse ‘sit’ and who can really forgive it for the moment Q drops Bond on the villain’s home from a large hot air balloon covertly decorated with the Union Jack. Add in the outlandish yoyo killers who always require a conveniently located high ledge, the scene where Bond dresses as a clown and the moment Bond hides in a gorilla costume and you have the strangest Bond film since the Woody Allen Casino Royale.
Octopussy has a dozens upon dozens of these moment yet I find myself perversely enjoying them and I don’t know why.
A View To A Kill has possibly the worst Bond girl in Tanya Roberts yet I love every moment she’s on screen, either screaming at a pitch that only bothers dogs or talking about geology like she only learned to spell it that morning. It’s also the film with the murder by butterfly on a fishing rod and the bad dubbing that makes French actor Jean Rougerie sound so lecherously vile as Achille Aubergine. In the last twenty minutes, Grace Jones’ May Day undergoes an instantaneous switch from being Bond’s nemesis to being his saviour. There is then a moment when Tanya Roberts is running away and doesn’t noticed the enormous bloody airship chasing her.
Yet my favourite Bond movie was the first of the three. For Your Eyes Only has one of the most stunningly beautiful leading ladies in Carole Bouquet yet it’s also the one with the transgender woman who was born a Barry. If you type ‘Carole Bouquet’ into Google and it will offer as the top suggestion the phrase ‘Carole Bouquet is a man’. She isn’t, wasn’t and never has been, but, as a youth, I learned with great bewilderment that one of the Bond girls in my much thumbed James Bond annual was originally born a bloke. That, however, wasn’t Carole Bouquet but the actress Caroline Cossey seen briefly walking from the pool. I believe she even claimed to have dated Des Lynam though he apparently doesn’t remember.
But back to Bouquet and Bond… For Your Eyes Only begins with a ropey pre-credit fight between Bond stuck in a remote control helicopter over London and Blofeld in his electric wheel chair. Obviously fake mannequins and atypical electronic music set the tone for the rest of the movie. Bond parachutes with a parasol, climbs a mountain with his shoe laces, and ends up snorkelling in the nude as a parrot gets saucy with Janet Brown’s Margaret Thatcher. Yet, again, all of that never stops me enjoying it.
It’s probably the mistakes, the lousy jokes, the comic accidents that keep me entertained. There would be better Bond films. Casino Royale was possibly the best of the lot and Skyfall almost as good. There would be better Bond girls (Carey Lowell, especially in the latter half of License to Kill… sigh). And yes, there would be better Bonds. Yet none of them have Moore whose personality infects the films with a spirit that’s somehow comforting, reassuring, uplifting. He’s wry, knowing, in on the joke. And that’s why I was wrong to say that Roger Moore was the best Bond. I should have said: there was no better Roger Moore than the Moore of the James Bond films. He was my favourite Roger Moore. Nobody did it better.