Bond, James Bond: The 70s, by Kyle Anderson
Coming out of the 1960s, the James Bond film series was sitting very pretty indeed. The six films it produced in the decade proved to be insanely profitable and they made Sean Connery an international superstar. Though the decade ended on a bit of a down note, George Lazenby’s sole turn as the character, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, made far less than the three previous films, it still made nearly 11 times its budget and the franchise was in great shape as it entered the 1970s. But what changes would the series see in the “Me” decade? While still keeping the general themes already established, the Bond films delved into different film genres including slapstick humor, self-parody, blaxploitation, kung fu movie, and even, by decade’s end, space adventure science fiction. It was a period of experimentation for the series and by and large, the audiences lapped it up. The character of James Bond also began to change with the times, in fairly unexpected ways. This also marks the period where the films began to stray further and further from Ian Fleming’s novels, retaining only traces of the source material, and often merely keeping the title.
Producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were able to coax Sean Connery out of his brief retirement for his sixth and final official appearance as James Bond, in the form of 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. This film can really be seen as a bridge between the 60s and 70s eras of the films. It again features Connery, in rather a drab performance it has to be said, as well as the final true appearance of the villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (here played by Charles Gray), though the character would appear briefly and from behind in a film in the 80s (which will be discussed next time). It was also directed by Guy Hamilton, who directed Goldfinger and who would go on to direct the next two films in the series. This is rather where the comparisons end, though, as the tone of this film is much more camp and silly and the plot becomes more outrageous and incomprehensible. The action set pieces in this film are quite subdued, which is actually a rarity in any of the films.
Many other things that would become staples of the 70s Bond films are introduced here. The sexual politics of Diamonds Are Forever are rather less liberal than they had been in the previous film and would sadly be the trend throughout much of the decade. Bond shows little regard for the women he is in bed with (figuratively and literally) and they are portrayed as not really deserving any. Tiffany Case (played by Jill St. John) is a scantily-clad diamond smuggler who acts tough but screams at oncoming danger and changes allegiances on a whim depending on which powerful man is currently winning. The secondary “Bond Girl” in the film is the ridiculously named Plenty O’Toole (played by Lana Wood) whom Bond meets at the craps table in Vegas as a woman who cruises casinos for rich men to sleep with in return for them giving her money. She’s a character who’s only purpose is for a joke and to look good in (and out) of a cocktail dress. When she is thrown out of a hotel window into a swimming pool only moments later by the baddie’s henchmen (she doesn’t die here, but randomly later on, ironically in another swimming pool), Bond seems completely nonplussed about her well-being.
After Connery retired from the role for good (until a rival company made a Bond movie a decade later), the producers turned to Roger Moore, who was known to TV audiences as master thief Simon Templar in The Saint and who had been considered to replace Connery in 1969, to fill the rather large shoes left by the previous actor. They’d replaced Connery once to more or less negative public reaction, so doing so again would be require a strong presence. Moore stepped into the role in 1973’s Live and Let Die and would hold it through seven films. The interpretations of the character by the two actors could not be more different. Connery’s Bond was brash and reckless; Moore’s Bond was droll and supercilious. While Connery would be routinely bored in his exposition-acquiring meetings with M, Moore would already know all the information beforehand. Once Moore took over, the M’s Office scenes where we’d learn what’s going on went from M telling Bond to M asking Bond if he’d heard of such-and-such and Bond spouting paragraphs on the subject, coming off as a bratty, know-it-all student. Moore’s Bond also ups the quip quota and displayed a gallows humor that Connery did not possess.
He also, shockingly, was even more misogynistic. Moore’s Bond regards women with nothing close to the, albeit tiny, level of respect that Connery and especially Lazenby had. There is no depth to his relationships with them beyond his desire get them into bed, usually using sex with them as a means of getting them to submit to what he wants them to do. In Live and Let Die, he tricks the virgin tarot card psychic Solitaire (Jane Seymour) into sleeping with him by literally stacking the deck in his favor simply to get closer to her boss, the sinister Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). Also in that film is a young CIA agent named Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) who, we find out later is a spy working for Kananga. She is inept at both being a CIA agent and being a spy and Bond tricks her into bed as well, despite her initial insistence that it would not happen. In the following film, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Bond is joined in Bangkok by fellow MI6 agent Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland). While in the novels, Goodnight is an equal to Bond, here she does little else besides pine for Bond, get angry when he beds other women, and get captured. And Bond treats her accordingly, routinely getting annoyed when she screws up and then talks down to her to calm her. He also hits several women in these two films.
In the decade’s last two films, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me and 1979’s Moonraker, both directed by Lewis Gilbert, the female leads get a lot more assertive. Spy features a Russian secret agent named Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) who is perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Sure, her code name is Agent XXX and she spends a good portion of the movie in a low cut evening gown, she’s still the most independent woman of 70s Bond. Moonraker’s main female character is literally a rocket scientist who doesn’t care too much for Bond for a good chunk of the film. She is, unfortunately, another in a long line of suggestively-named Bond Girls, sporting the unlikely moniker of Dr. Holly Goodhead. These two characters represent the less damsel-like damsel in distress. However, it’s Bond’s reaction to them that proves troubling. In both cases, upon learning they are the secret agent and rocket scientist, respectively, he was supposed to meet, he very bemusedly says, “Oh, a woman,” in a completely condescending way. That Bond stays so steadfastly in the chauvinist category speaks to his overall character; he is the way he is and can’t be bothered to change.
By this time the 70s arrived, James Bond had become a pop culture icon; everybody knew the name James Bond. This immediate recognition and notoriety bled into the films. Nearly everyone in all five of the 1970s films upon hearing that familiar, “Bond, James Bond,” knows who he is already. They often address him as “the famous James Bond” and say his “reputations precedes” him. This I find a very funny prospect. What good is a secret agent whom everyone already knows? And likewise, what good is a secret agent whom everyone knows but nobody recognizes if he just uses his real name? When he says his name is “Bond, James Bond,” the response from people should be, “So what?” However, because now, like the audience watching, everybody knows who he is, he’s suddenly given a mythic quality on top of his general heroics. Villains immediately know why Bond is paying them a friendly visit, even if Bond doesn’t know immediately they are villains.
One surprising incident of this happens in Diamonds Are Forever. Bond pretends to be diamond smuggler Peter Franks, MI6 having detained the real Peter Franks in customs. After impersonating Franks with Tiffany Case, the real Franks shows up and Bond has to fight him, eventually killing him. Quickly, he sticks a credit card or something in Franks’ pocket so that when Tiffany checks his pockets, she sees the name James Bond. At this point, Tiffany stands up and exclaims, “Oh my God! You just killed James Bond!” The filmmakers really have begun to believe their own bull. How and why Tiffany Case, a minor link in a diamond smuggling operation would know the name James Bond enough to be horrified that someone had killed him is utterly baffling. Can anyone name a current CIA operative? No, of course not. They’re secret agents for a reason.
Another 70s Bond staple that began in earnest with Diamonds Are Forever is the presence of henchmen with very distinct physical attributes or characteristics which are far more interesting than the main villain. This tradition started with the character of Oddjob in Goldfinger but didn’t become a staple until the 1970s. The henchmen usually have tussle or two with 007 during the course of the film and then show up after in the last scene in the movie after the real enemy has been killed or dispatched. Usually, this scene consists of Bond happily sharing a romantic moment with the leading lady only to have it ruined by the appearance of the henchman or men for one final attempt to kill them. In Diamonds, these characters are Kidd (Putter Smith) and Wint (Bruce Glover). These two are seen throughout the film murdering various people in innovative ways, always delivering some sort of devilish pun and always referring to each other as Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint, respectively. It is also implied that these characters are homosexual lovers as evidenced by the end of one murder scene depicting the two walking away hand in hand and another showing Mr. Wint becoming jealous when Mr. Kidd casually mentions that Tiffany Case is very attractive, “for a woman.” The two show up at the end of the film, when Bond and Tiffany are taking a cruise, pretending to be room service and attempting to kill the lovers with a time bomb and, failing that, a pair of flaming shish kabobs.
In the Moore films of the decade, the henchmen are far more physically interesting. Kananga’s number one in Live and Let Die is a character named Tee Hee Johnson (Julius W. Harris). Tee Hee is a very tall, bald black man always in a suit with tinted glasses, but much more noticeable is his mechanical claw right arm (he said he lost his arm to a crocodile, a plot point in the film) and his penchant for giggling like a school girl when violence is about to occur. Going t’other way with the idea in The Man with the Golden Gun, the titular assassin (Christopher Lee) has a murderous butler named Nick Nack, played by diminutive French actor Herve Villechaize, best known for playing the friendly version of Nick Nack, Tattoo, on TV’s Fantasy Island. The film’s final scene features Nick Nack crawling out of the ceiling on the bedroom of an enormous houseboat just as Bond and Mary Goodnight are about to celebrate a mission well executed. This fight culminates in Bond shoving Nick Nack into a suitcase and throwing him overboard. But the granddaddy of all of this variety of Bond henchman appears in both The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker and is still one of the most recognized characters in the entire history of the franchise. To quote Bond himself, “His name is Jaws; he kills people.”
Played by actor 7’2” actor Richard Kiel, Jaws was the mute, nearly indestructible hitman with the set of deadly metallic choppers. In Spy, there are several scenes in which Jaws and Bond cross paths and always Jaws would have the better of Bond were it not for Bond or Anya Amasova’s quick thinking. Standing a full foot and an inch taller than Roger Moore, Kiel was truly an imposing figure on screen. The real villain of the film is ocean-obsessed billionaire Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), however Jaws is the real baddie of note in the film. So popular was the character with audiences, he was brought back for the following film in a similar capacity, this time working for space-obsessed billionaire Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), and even got himself a girlfriend and became a good guy by the end. Moonraker does the character far less justice, but it does speak to the impact the character had that he was even given the chance to return when by rights he should have just been another no-name bad guy.
For the entirety of the decade, the Bond film series toyed with genres and styles, depending on what was popular at the time. Live and Let Die, involving a Harlem gangster trying to corner the heroin market, is for much of its running time, a pure blaxploitation movie. In 1971, Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song were released to huge cultural responses and the following year saw other genre staples like Super Fly, Hammer, and Blacula. Chosen for the role of the villain Kananga was Yaphet Kotto, fresh off of his role in the cop film Across 110th Street and even the inclusion of the first black Bond Girl in the form of Rosie Carver was a direct attempt to capitalize on the “urban market.” It features scenes shot in Harlem, New Orleans, and the Caribbean and the only thing separating this film from those other films is James Bond himself, who sticks out like a sore thumb, as is referenced in a joke in the film.
The Man with the Golden Gun takes place in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Macao and features characters performing martial arts and is shot very much in the style of kung fu movies. The reason for this inclusion is the release of Bruce Lee’s big American hit, Enter the Dragon, the year before. Much like blaxploitation, Enter the Dragon ushered in a new wave of “chop socky” films made in Asian countries with Asian and American leads and the makers of the 007 films surely knew that in choosing the next film. There’s a lengthy sequence in The Man with the Golden Gun where Bond is knocked out during a fight with two sumo wrestlers and taken to a martial arts school where he must fight his way out. Of course, he cheats by using Western fighting skills. He is also aided by Lieutenant Hip (Soon-Tek Oh) and his two kickboxing nieces and the sequence is shot to showcase the precise fight choreography.
The most obvious genre mimicry happens in Moonraker. During the end credits of The Spy Who Loved Me, a caption reads “James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only.” However, thanks to the phenomenally successful Star Wars in 1977, space adventure movies became all the rage and the Bond producers decided to capitalize. The last half hour of Moonraker takes place on a space station where Bond and his forces have to stop Drax from succeeding in destroying the Earth and all its people in favor of his ship of genetically superior humans, like an Aryan Noah’s Ark. There are extensive ship-docking sequences and several shots of the space station orbiting Earth and the film even culminates in a huge laser rifle battle in space by dozens of space-suited army guys. While these sequences absolutely do not fit in with the rest of the film, with all manner of ridiculous humor and silly action set pieces, they are very impressive from a visual standpoint and even earned the film a special effects Oscar nomination. It was a very obvious ploy on their part to ride Star Wars’ coattails, but it did succeed in making Moonraker the highest grossing Bond film up to that point, bringing in a staggering $210 Million.
Generally speaking, and in my humble opinion, the James Bond films in the 70s are sillier than they ought to be. There was a strange need to have people comment on Bond’s exploits during the films and act as comic relief. Most glaring of these is the character of Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) who appears in the New Orleans portions of Live and Let Die as a loud, blustery backwater law enforcer trying to stop the wholesale destruction created by Bond and Kananga’s thugs during a very lengthy speedboat chase through the many rivers and inlets of the city. For some unknown reason, people found this character funny and he showed up again in The Man with the Golden Gun, this time just on vacation in Bangkok, and ends up riding shotgun with Bond in a lengthy car chase. Moonraker offers several offensive moments, not the least of which is Jaws falling thousands of feet from an airplane when his parachute doesn’t open and plowing through the top of a circus tent, only to walk out unscathed. Oh, and let’s not forget the scene in which Bond’s Q-enhanced Venetian gondola sprouts wheels and hops out of the water, drives around San Marco Square as a pigeon does a double take. Yes, you read it correctly; a BIRD does a double take.
It’s things like this which make really hurt the 70s Bond films. The series delves too far into pastiche and self-parody and turns everything into a joke, with Bond himself as both straight man and punch line. While I’m not a huge fan of Moore’s take on the character, this character can and does work. The one wholly good movie in the 70s is The Spy Who Loved Me, which significantly tones down the camp humor and returns to a more straightforward action-adventure spy story. It was the most expensive and highest grossing film in the franchise (until the next film eclipsed it in both categories) and everything works, from the elaborate submarine sets, memorable action scenes, and great storyline to the jazzy funk score by Marvin Hamlisch and Carly Simon theme song. This movie is not only the best one of the decade, it’s also one of the best James Bond movies ever and proves that Moore did have it in him to make a really cracking 007. It’s just too bad that the films on either side of it were so very dumb.
So that was the 70s. Next time, whenever that might be, we’ll look at the James Bond films of the 1980s, which see a marked change in the franchise (go figure) and see the last three Roger Moore films and the only two Timothy Dalton films. Whereas I wholeheartedly love the 1960s era and almost totally loathe the 1970s, the 80s and I are still unsure about each other. Undoubtedly, watching the five films in sequence will push me one way or the other off of the proverbial fence.