It's part parody and part travesty,
and it's amiably fatigued.
- Pauline Kael in The New York Times (June 1983)
Film: 1983 (#13)
Book: 1966 (#14)
009 is killed while bringing a fake Faberge egg across the Berlin Wall.
The British government suspects that Russian treasures are being sold as a source of funding for unsavory Russian activities. We learn that one General Orlov, who wants a hawkish future for the USSR, is arranging for the fake ones to be made to cover the theft and sale of the real goodies - but since the fake one was discovered, needs the real one back to pass museum inventory.
Bond assumes they will buy back the real egg at auction, which they do, but not before he swaps the real and fake ones. He then follows the trail to India and one Kamal Khan. He shows Khan that he has the real egg and eventually Khan sends the enigmatic Magda to sleep with Bond and take the egg back. Bond lets her because a tracker has been put in the egg and ....
Eh. Do you really care? Even more so than most Bond films, this is not about plot, and it's not worth unscrambling the rest. There's a bomb in there somewhere, and a troupe of female thieves/acrobats, and an octopus, and a circus, and ... don't think about any of it too hard. Just go along for the ride.
Book vs. Film
The last of the Fleming books, published posthumously, contains bits and pieces that had appeared in various places in Fleming's final years. Depending on the edition of the book you have, it contains two stories, three, or four. Putting aside the short, strange "007 In New York," which I continue to think was Fleming's little joke, two of the remaining three are relevant to this film.
"Octopussy" is the same in substance as the story Octopussy tells Bond in the film. Bond confronts Major Smythe, who has retired to the islands, because evidence has surfaced that during the last days of the war he stole some Nazi gold and killed to cover his theft. (The victim was a friend of Bond's - he taught him to ski - and Bond requested the assignment personally.) Bond deliberately tells Smythe he has a week before "someone comes to bring him home" to stand trial. Smythe goes out swimming, in a depressed and possibly drunken daze, and is killed by a combination of scorpion-fish venom and his own favorite "pet" octopus. The tone, throughout, reflects Fleming's own state of mind near the end of his life.
"The Property Of a Lady" concerns a Faberge egg which has come into the possession of a known Russian agent working for MI6. They have known about her for ages, but let her believe her infiltration is successful so that she can feed the Russians false cipher information. The egg is her payoff for several years' service, in a lump sum. MI6 believe that London KGB operatives will try to bid up the price for it at auction, to make the payoff higher, and they send Bond to watch the sale to see if he can spot the people involved, which he does.
The remaining story in the book is called "The Living Daylights," so that will have to wait its turn.
Not too bad, when the script isn't serving him poorly.
Moore said of the part around this time:
The real drawback to acting Bond is that it's not acting. You are just a comic-strip hero, the central figure around which the action and the gadgets revolve. Bond is exactly the same in the last scene as he is in the first. I'm not saying I'm the world's greatest actor, far from it, but I do enjoy acting.
Moore insisted at the time, after the usual money dance with Broccoli, that this was his last Bond. (Of course, he'd said that before. We get one more effort out of him and it's a valiant one.) The exhaustion and the impatience is showing clearly, and the film gives him far too many opportunities for dismissive humor.
One interesting thing about this film is that it's the closest a Bond tale has ever come to being dominated by women. I'm not saying it's a feminist masterpiece - this is Bond, after all - but Magda and Octopussy and their team are clearly people to be reckoned with, and Bond, to his credit, deals with them frankly and directly.
He has no illusions about why Magda has agreed to come to his room, and neither of them is coy about it. Later, his discussions with Octopussy take the same tone. He treats them more as equals, in other words, than he does Kamal Khan, whom he seems to detest from square one.
Octopussy is portrayed as more than capable of taking care of herself (her facial reaction when she realizes Khan has betrayed her is excellent), and only goes into damsel-in-distress mode for the minimum amount of time necessary. A weakness of the film is that she isn't given more to do. She has a relatively tiny amount of screen time for a title character!
I might also add that Maud Adams has much improved from Golden Gun - or perhaps she just drew a better script this time, one that bothered to give her a personality. (Her speech about Bond's morals and hers is particularly nice.) Could be a little of both. Strangely, Pauline Kael, who is usually a source of Great Truth, disliked her because she was "disappointingly warm and maternal." I'm not sure what Kael had been hoping for.
In 1980, United Artists released a movie directed and written by Michael Cimino called Heaven's Gate. It cost about forty-four million dollars to make, it earned about three million, it sank the Hollywood Western for a decade, and destroyed Cimino's career. It also nearly destroyed United Artists.
Don't forget, UA co-owned the rights with EON post-Saltzman. If they went under, it might very well have ended Bond. Fortunately, in 1981 MGM bought UA, and confirmed their belief that Bond would continue to be a tentpole going forward by budgeting $25 million for this one.
Apart from that moment of panic, and some issues with the script which I prefer to discuss in the next section, nothing else on the backlot was substantially different from the previous crew. John Barry finally returned; the score is not his best, but it beats the snot out of Bill Conti.
A mostly-non-screenwriter named George Fraser was brought in to work on a script with Broccoli and director John Glen. Later, though, Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson produced a second version which doctored the previous script almost into unrecognizability. Glen was reportedly enthusiastic about getting back to the down-to-earth tone of Fleming material, whereas Maibaum was happy to say the script was "nothing like anything ever written by Fleming." This film was destined to have a split personality from the start.
Most commentators agree this is two different films spliced together. They just can't seem to agree on which one, if any, is the good one. Bond Films, for example, says the film is "a blackly comic Cold War thriller - except for when it's a sub-Merchant Ivory Indian adventure." I tend to work it the other way 'round, preferring the India story to the Germany one on balance. Oh, both parts have their moments, but in particular, when rewatching, I tend not to give the whole bomb/circus plot my attention, preferring to hurry back to India for the truly lovely acrobatic assault on the Monsoon Palace and the denouement. Bond Films thinks the bomb portion is one of the only moments of real tension. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
It's true that the two halves do swear at each other in odd ways. The villain of one story has all kinds of sinister motivations and diabolical schemes, but is barely a character, especially when handed to the scenery-chewing Steven Berkoff. The villain of the other has absolutely no motivations at all to speak of, but is played by the suave, delightful, always-watchable Louis Jourdan. Were the writers hoping they'd somehow merge together?
The pre-credits sequence is indicative of the trouble with the late Moore films. We start with a nice tense segment of Bond trying to infiltrate a Central American air base to destroy a plane. It gets rather more improbable, but still fun, when the little Acrostar jet comes out of the horse trailer. If they had stopped the seguence with Bond flying off successfully after leading the missile into the hangar, it would have been fine. But they have to take it one step too far and go for the cheap joke. Sadly, the rumor is that Glen was going to cut the line until he saw how test audiences liked it, which just shows why we can't have nice things.
In general, this film is okay when it isn't trying to go for the cheap joke. The problem is that it does this an awful lot. In the Indian market sequences there are any number of bad and borderline-racist gags (see below); the whole hunting-on-elephant segment contributes nothing but bad jokes and is worth fast-forwarding past; and when Bond gets to Germany there are cheap jokes on German stereotypes to correspond to the Indian ones earlier on. An equal opportunity offender.
As noted on the previous page, the consensus is that Wilson can be credited/blamed with the Cold War slant of this film and the one preceding it. At any rate, they both present a surprisingly sympathetic view - not a demonized USSR, but one which has both reasonable people and bad eggs (pardon the joke). In this case the schism is shown very literally, with our old friend Gogol as the definite Good Russian (his eyerolling at Orlov's polemic is great) and Orlov as the Bad Russian. If this doesn't seem radical, contrast it to some of the diatribes coming out of the White House during this era.
Of course, as one of my books points out, the whole concept hinges on a Russia which is far more dangerous than they actually proved to be. In reality by 1983 they were ill-equipped for a ground invasion of anything, but no one in the West knew this ... making this film a trifle dated, but what else is new? By the time your grandchildren see this film, you'll have to explain to them that once upon a time, the city of Berlin was divided in half ....
Lois Maxwell gets an assistant in this one; it's an entertaining sequence, but the idea was not repeated. Incidentally, Broccoli borrowed the name Penelope Smallbone from one of the models in the Spy Who Loved Me credits.
The part of M is filled from here until Brosnan by Robert Brown, who played Admiral Hargreaves in The Spy Who Loved Me. He's no Bernard Lee, but you get used to him. Perhaps because of this, the Minister of Defense gets most of the briefing lines, but we do get a smile from M later on, in Berlin, when he knows Bond isn't looking. No one is clear whether there is meant to be any implied continuity about M, but I prefer to believe that Hargreaves has gotten promoted into the job and that Sir Miles Messervy has retired quietly to Quarterdeck ....
It amuses me that the "poison-pen" remark in the Q equipment briefing is exactly the same remark that gets treated with utter contempt in the 1966 Casino Royale. I'm far from the only person to notice this, too. We all need lives.
Steven Berkoff's performance as Orlov sounds to me exactly like Frank Gorshin playing the Riddler in the old Batman series. Listen to the hysterical peaks of the verbal rhythm and tell me it isn't so. There's even something of a facial resemblance.
If you would like to see what the doomed 009 looks like under the clown makeup, go back one film and check out the gent who finds that the basket-lift shed is locked during the St. Cyril's assault, so he goes around to the side to look underneath, whereby Melina shoots him. That's Andy Bradford.
There's a lot of griping about the casting of Vijay Amritraj, a real-life tennis star, in this film, and the attendant tennis jokes. I agree about the jokes, but the truth is that Amritraj is extremely likable, does a very good job (especially for a non-actor), livens up any scene he's in, and his death is genuinely nasty and shocking. (The sawblade yo-yo sounds silly on paper, and is one of the scariest weapons in the series in practice.)
I'm less willing to shrug off some of the many racist jokes or remarks Bond makes in the India sequences, with one exception: Some critics dislike the idea of his tossing money into the crowd to block the road and make a distraction. I believe that this is likely what would actually happen and I don't have nearly as much of a problem with this as, say, "That'll keep you in curry for a few weeks"!
One joke has actually been deleted: In the film version as I saw it (and in later broadcasts on cable movie channels), when the thug is tossed onto the fakir's bed of spikes, the fakir's outburst is (crudely) subtitled GET OFF MY BED. On my DVD, the outburst is still there, but the subtitle is not.
The backgammon sequence, with Bond and Kamal being oily to one another, is perfect ... but it's never been made clear to me exactly how Kamal is cheating. It can't be a sleight-of-hand thing or Bond wouldn't be able to do the same trick with Kamal's dice. Oh, well.
Louis Jourdan really is very good. In addition to getting some of the film's better lines, there are two places where his reaction shot is flawless: When Orlov smashes the real egg, thinking it's fake, and for one second escaping the circus when he thinks the car won't start. His henchman Gobinda, by contrast, is largely uninteresting, although there is that golden moment when Khan orders him to go out onto the wing of the plane ....
It occurs to me that Octopussy's floating palace is basically a variation on a harem - sort of harem-as-women's-shelter. It's a very interesting concept, and Bond, it should be noted, is actually quite restrained when he's there - no innuendo. He knows when to play by someone else's rules, especially when he's a guest.
If Adams is not actually doing the pole-lift stunt at the end herself, then the cuts are very well-made. Kristina Wayborn, as Magda, did her own work in the unwinding-dress escape, so one never knows.
We will not discuss how Bond managed to get out of the gorilla suit fast enough.
The ending of this film is reasonably subdued, thank god, with no cheap jokes and a nice wrap-up from Gogol. And Q gets the girls! Well, after a fashion.
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