Photos: 50th Anniversary James Bond Exhibit at the International Spy Museum

Work brought me to Washington, DC this week, and when I found out that there was a 50th Anniversary celebration of James Bond villains, “Exquisitely Evil”, at the International Spy Museum… well, I had to take some time off to check it out. The exhibit is fantastic, and has lots of original props, models and costumes on display.

They said “no photography” but I was able to take some clandestine shots. It IS a Spy Museum, after all. Here they are:

The full set is here.

The Spy Museum also has a fun free iPad app that allows you to create your own Bond villain and lair, you can get it here.

On James Bond movies and continuity…

Trying to figure out and align James Bond continuity is like making a vodka martini from Siamese vodka… it can be done, but it’s not going to result in something that is very palatable or satisfying.

I remember one of the first attempts, a crazy theory promoted by many fans, one that aligned all the Bond films by saying “They are all different men, given the codename James Bond along with the number 007.” That theory was “blown up” (along with Bond’s childhood home) in Skyfall when we see the grave of Bond’s parents. Bond isn’t a code name, it’s his name. He’s just one (really cool, well-trained) guy.

You could also say, because of the last scene in Skyfall, that the other Bond films take place AFTER the movie ends… which makes no sense because of the fanboy-pleasing callbacks in the movie and the many topical and technology references in the earlier films.

There is no “Grand Unified Bond Theory” that makes it all make sense, as hard as we would like to try, because it Just. Doesn’t. Work.

Bond is an “evergreen” character, open to reinterpretation and “resurrection” every few years. It is what has kept the character alive and relevant, the same way different takes on the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne have occurred over the years. You can’t align the Bond movies into a single timeline anymore than you can make the Christian Bale Batman exist in the same “universe” as Adam West and Michael Keaton.

I love continuity as much as the next fanboy, but we should really take the sage advice of someone much wiser than I am, a man who long ago said “Just repeat to yourself ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax…’”

See question on Quora

Bond at 50: A critical reappraisal of Goldfinger

I love Goldfinger.

Not the character Auric Goldfinger, Goldfinger, the movie. It is, by popular decree, the Best. Bond. Ever. It features the Most Famous Car in the World (the Aston Martin DB 5) Sean Connery at his hairy testosterone-filled peak, the best henchman in Odd Job, and the most awesome Bond girl name ever: Pussy Galore. As a Bond fan, I can’t help but love it… it’s the movie that most of the films in the series emulates.

But… while I do love it… I love it like I love my sons, and my wife, focusing on their good qualities while I minimize or ignore their imperfections. It’s what people do when they care about something. I see that happening, on a scale writ large, in our current Presidential election – we root for Our Guy, and boo and slam the Other Guy.

Well, I just rewatched Goldfinger a week after the world celebrated the first ever James Bond Day (a holiday created by the producers of the soon-to-be released 22nd Bond film Skyfall, naturally). And after that rewatch… well, ladies and gentleman of the jury, I have some verbal arguments to make.

Goldfinger… has some problems. Lots of them.

Allow me to make my case, and the bulk of my evidence rests with item #1:

The plot

I love that Goldfinger that takes the whole three-act classical structure Robert McKee so popularly documented in his book on screenwriting Story and throws that stuff right out, presumably using the ejector seat of Bond’s Aston Martin. Bond, as the Protagonist, is passive a huge chunk of the movie… basically, he’s captured halfway through and then doesn’t do much.

“Wait!” You may cry, “He escapes and hides out in the giant Fort Knox model and learns about Goldfinger’s plan!” Yes, he does… he learns about Goldfinger’s FAKE plan to rob Fort Knox that Goldfinger tells all the gangsters he owes money to. A great scene, one where Goldfinger reveals not one but TWO gigantic maps/models of Fort Knox that he had built… why, exactly? Because it looks good on the movie screen, that’s why.

And why tell them any plan, if he was going to kill them anyway? The real reason is not to tell them, but to tell the audience, so when Bond learns the real plan later there will be a moment of surprise. “Bond figured it out!” No.

And the whole segment with Goldfinger sending the gangster Solo out with his payment, then killing him and crushing his car in a junk yard? Why didn’t Odd Job take the gold OUT before crushing the car? And why such a dramatic method of disposing of the body? Again, because it looks great on the big screen.

You apply an ounce of critical thinking to the events that occur and… Well, it’s a house of cards on a windy day.

Yes, yes, I know, “it’s a Bond movie, turn off your brain and enjoy it.” I’ve always rebelled against those type of defenses that people use for movies. I expect movies to MAKE SENSE… at least, maintain some form of internal logic in the world created in the film. Goldfinger’s plot often doesn’t make one lick of sense, especially the middle of the film as detailed above.

The acting

The leads (Sean Connery, Gert Frobe, and Harold Sakata) do good work but when you look at the rest of the cast there are some weak performances. Both actresses who play the Masterson sisters, while beautiful, are one-dimensional and flat, and the actor playing Felix Leiter is not only too old but is as wooden as Goldfinger’s rotating pool table.

Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore is… well, she’s also wooden. She plays the “icy lesbian” part fairly well, but to be fair to her she’s not really given much to work with. There is no real emotional “arc” for her to play… and the change that her character DID have… Jeez. More on this later.

Add in some bad dubbing in some scenes, and the results ain’t pretty.

It hasn’t aged well

I love John Barry’s score, it’s one of his best, but there are moments… Yikes. The worse offender is when the pilots in Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus land. The score goes into “WAH-WAH! Sexy Chicks!” mode for several moments and it’s so dated and cheesy it’s embarrassing.

In an early scene Bond very famously states that drinking Dom Perignon at room temperature was “like listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” That puts Bond clearly on the wrong side of the culture war that took place in the sixties… the one the Beatles won. Which is ironic, when you think about who later writes and performs the theme to the Bond film Live and Let Die.

Finally… Pussy Galore. In the orignal book, she’s openly a lesbian – a bold story point for a “respectable” mainstream book written in the 1950s. In the book, as in the movie, she “turns” after Bond shows her the awesomeness that was/is heterosexual lovemaking.

Baloney.

I’m sorry, but the whole idea of Bond winning Pussy over to his side that way is ridiculous, and the notion that a lesbian can be “converted” that way was very much a sign of the times. It was incredulous in the book, and equally incredulous in the movie.

(Full disclosure: I am a married heterosexual man who likes the ladies… especially Bond Girls.)

In closing

Goldfinger is, above all else, the prototypical Bond film… it is what we have come to expect when we buy our tickets and sit down. It is the “patient zero” that infected the moviemakers, an infection that almost proved fatal when it was contracted by Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan.

Too many people, myself included, has put it on a pedestal for decades, and there’s still plenty of praiseworthy elements here. But as Q would say, “Can we please be serious?” Taking Goldfinger seriously, one can see plenty of things that don’t quite work. But as everyone can admit, it has now become a classic, and it’s… well, it’s Goldfinger.

Flaws and all, I do love it so.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is Bond at his most underrated

Tomorrow October 5th is “James Bond Day”, a new international holiday that also happens to occur just before the release of the new Bond film Skyfall (wow, what a coincidence). To celebrate Bond day I rewatched one of my favorite Bond films, the underrated and under-appreciated On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

OHMSS, as I will call it for the rest of this article because I’m lazy, was the first Bond film that didn’t star Sean Connery, and the idea that anyone else could play Bond was a pretty crazy idea at the time. The type of cast changes and “reboots” that are now common place just didn’t exist back then, and for many moviegoers Connery and Bond were, basically, the same man… As if “Sean Connery” was some alias Bond used when he wasn’t on assignment as 007.

But Connery was done with the character (at the time), and so Australian actor George Lazenby was hired based on his good looks and an impressive fight-scene audition (the story publicized at the time was that he accidentally knocked out a stuntman he was fighting with – apocryphal or not, who knows?). There was only one problem… he wasn’t really an actor, he was a model. More on that later.

The film was a bold move on the part of the filmmakers. After the bombastic, special-effects filled You Only Live Twice, they decided to keep the story – and the budget – low-key. For that, they did what they had rarely done before and since – they went back to the book and (gasp!) actually ADAPTED it. OHMSS, like From Russia with Love before it, is one of the closest adaptations to the original Fleming ever filmed. Fleming was not easy to adapt – much of the famous “Fleming effect” was in the way he described the details of things and people, making the reader feel that what he was reading was grounded and real. You can’t do that in a film, which relies on visuals instead of descriptive paragraphs. But with OHMSS they capture the spirit of Fleming, and the melancholy tone that started to soak through his work around the time the original book was written.

Like the book, it’s a grounded film, and Bond is more a real person here than he is in most of the rest of the series. Not the Superman parody that Roger Moore would eventually play, Lazenby played the part as tough but sensitive, a man who could fall in love and open himself up – in this case, to a Contessa… Tracy. It’s a tough balance for any actor to play, and to be frank Lazenby doesn’t quite carry it off. He’s not bad… except he’s also not very great, either. He tries, bless him, but he benefits greatly from some great performances around him – Diana Rigg is especially good as Tracy, and you can see her giving her all to try and help Lazenby in many scenes.

In the past many Bond fans have stated their opinion that if Connery, instead of George Lazenby, had played Bond. this would have been the Best. Bond. Ever. As much as I appreciate the film, I have to disagree. There is a substantial section of the movie that has a glacial pace (and that’s not an unintentional pun, even though the majority of the film is set in Switzerland). It also has a rushed third act and an invasion/battle sequence that isn’t nearly as effective as it could have been (and its nowhere near as good as my personal favorite, from the aforementioned You Only Live Twice). Besides, Connery had already starred in the Best Bond Ever, a movie named Goldfinger.

Three final thoughts: First, the score by John Barry is one of my personal favorites, rivaling Goldfinger as the best Bond score ever composed. Second, the filmmakers are to be commended by following the original novel all the way to the (very) unhappy ending… an ending that was absolutely appropriate but probably didn’t help the film at the box office.

Finally, as you may know this was Lazenby’s only Bond performance (Connery returned one more time for Diamonds are Forever, and then Moore took over the role). He went on to other acting, but never found another part as big as Bond again. I wonder if he stayed if he would have “stepped up his game” to become a great Bond. As it is, and as I noted… he was good, not great.

But then again, how many actors can say they once played James Bond?

How feasible is building a James Bond villain hideout?

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When it comes to feasability, you have to look at three things: location, labor, and the type of lair you are trying to build.

Location is the most important factor, because if it is in a remote area the construction can occur with minimal subtrifuge and interruption from locals (when I refer to locals I mean both civilians and government). It will also decrease your chances of the construction being seen by satellite surveilance. And, speaking of space, that type of lair is out of the question… it would take a huge number of launches to get the modules into orbit and that would definitley get noticed by the world's governments,

Labor is actually the biggest challenge, in that the more complex a lair the more skilled professionals and craftspeople you will need. If you want an ornate meeting room to taunt Bond in (like Dr. No had) you are going to have to hire people to lay the marble, to put in the raised ceiling, to emboss your super-villian logo in the wall… etc. For your control room you have to network the computers and servers together, you have to pipe in a high-speed data connection, you name it. You need air conditioning, you need plumbing… all this requires someone to do it. That's a lot of people, and you need to keep these people quite after they are done.

Contracting is kinda out of the question, as you can end up with dozens of guys in bars on Friday nights telling their buddies "Yeah, we just got threw with the SPECTRE job… man that Blofeld guy was a real stickler for detail."  You could kill the workers when they are done, but that could draw unnecessary attention when dozens of men and women in a single area disappear. So you need to hire everyone, and keep them on the payroll (and potentially provide housing for them).

The type of lair is also important, in that burrowing out a volcano (for example) will take a huge amount of effort, equipment and materials that would definitely be noticable and take a HUGE amount of time. An "above ground" lair will take less work and can be disguised with a "cover" construction project that looks normal. I think a perfect location would be a new high-end hotel… you can set aside a dozen floors for your headquarters and your henchman can be disguised as hotel workers.

So, can an adversary of James Bond and MI6 build a huge cinematic hideout in real life? Yes, but I'd hate to be the project manager supervising the construction effort.

See question on Quora