Like a number of successful novel sequences or film franchises, the James Bond movies have spawned a stream of books that analyze, often too solemnly, the artistic merit and the cultural relevance of the original works. These books tend to be written by people who take great pleasure in complete immersion in their subject. A book on, say, Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed detective is likely to know what kind of pipe Sherlock Holmes smoked, or where Dr. Watson underwent his training in medicine. The James Bond scholar (there’s a phrase!) is likely to know that Noël Coward was considered for the role of Dr. No, and that if Cary Grant had been willing to sign on for more than one film, he very well might have been cast as the lethal British spy.
Very well and good, you say—an author ought to know his subject. The problem is that such arcane trivia tends to cloud out the bigger picture; fandom, with its purely obsessive approach, does not always produce the most considered or insightful judgments. Most James Bond books (and I do not mean the fiction on which the films are based) tend to get lost in the universe under review—and, to paraphrase Ian Fleming, this world is not enough. Fans of Conan Doyle or P.G. Wodehouse or Star Trek know what I mean, however loathe they may be to admit it.
Another danger stems from the opposite problem: a tendency to condescend to the subject. There are few things worse than a 007 obsessive who pens an entire book about his hero, but, out of an apparent need to appear serious or highbrow, ends up trashing what he most worships. Where is the fun in that? This is a longwinded way of saying that Sinclair McKay’s new book is one of the very best attempts to take stock of the Bond films. It has its share of quirks, and is by no means appropriate for someone with a minimal interest in the series. But his analysis of the movies is smart and unexpected, and his grasp of Bond is obviously the result of thought and study.
McKay organizes his book so that each film receives its own chapter. And he analyzes every film on a scene-by-scene basis. The first two efforts, Dr. No and From Russia with Love, wisely updated the Fleming novels and replaced the Communist villains with the seemingly omnipotent organization SPECTRE. Of Dr. No, McKay bravely notes: “It has to be said that in his debut outing, Connery looks distinctly ill-at-ease.” He is right. And he adds: “In some scenes…Connery’s performance is jarringly irritable.” That, too, is astute, and rarely remarked upon, in part because Connery’s magnetism is so powerful that it tends to silence any doubters, and in part because his performances in later Bond films (Goldfinger and Thunderball, especially) are flawless. McKay’s description of From Russia with Love’s great Orient Express fight scene is very nicely rendered: “And then the fight itself. It’s the implacable violet of the compartment night-light that somehow sticks in the mind, the only point of stability in a breathtaking blur of fists, punches, swings, kicks, all choreographed in this claustrophobically small space.”
McKay is also good on the early 1970s films, which feel much more dated and hokey than the early Connery movies. The Harlem heroin dealers in the second of these films, Live and Let Die, are so stereotypical as to be unseemly. And Bond’s involvement in such nefarious activity—even in a time of rising concern over inner-city drug use and black radicalism—makes the character appear small.
But by the late '70s, Bond—played urbanely, until his suavity became an excuse for parody, by Roger Moore—found himself again saving the world from annihilation in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. The producers wisely decided to increase the films’ budgets and ditch the increasingly transatlantic locations for more exotic fare. McKay has a high opinion of these late '70s Bond adventures, and he correctly calls The Spy Who Loved Me one of the “most amazingly assured” productions in the series. Moonraker was much too fantastic and absurd, although McKay is aware that both films offered the chance for their leading ladies (Barbara Bach and Lois Chiles) to do slightly more than look pretty.
But McKay’s attempts to liven up his chapters with political asides usually fall flat. He identifies the producers’ willingness to spend big in the late '70s with the Labour government’s spending, and he seems to think it was brave of the filmmakers to base scenes in Egypt because England’s disastrous Suez attack of 1956 would evoke “strong memories” in English filmgoers. Other authors, most notably Simon Winder, have more successfully placed Bond in historical and geopolitical context; McKay’s easy correlations and coincidences never quite pay off.
The major disappointment of this otherwise fine book lies in McKay’s unwillingness to wield a scalpel when considering the last two decades of Bond films. He is right that the Pierce Brosnan adventures specialized in self-reflexive in-jokes that mocked Bond’s fame and history in order to make the character appear hip and timely. In trying so hard to be clever, the movies come across instead as smug. “Brosnan seems to step into the shoes rather faster than most,” McKay writes. “But of course he was the first actor to have been steeped in decades of screen Bond.” The omission of the humorless Timothy Dalton makes this comment literally untrue, but McKay has indeed identified the problem with Brosnan’s completely self-conscious performances. A great actor should never appear to be acting, goes the old saying. Watching a less-than-great actor “act” is even worse. One feels shaken but not stirred.
After hitting a new low at the end of the Brosnan era, the series was briefly brought back to life by the intense and intelligent Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, the best 007 film in decades. The follow-up, Quantum of Solace, was not only a waste of Craig’s considerable talent, but a mean-spirited, uninvolving, and poorly made action film. It was also a worldwide smash. McKay spends less time than he might have on why James Bond is the most commercially successful film series in cinema history. Theories abound, from latent Anglophilia and the brilliant “placement” of consumer goods to the women and the gadgets. Less remarked on have been the casting decisions: by never using a huge star in the central role, the series focused more on the character than the man playing him. (The most relevant contrast here, given that it also deals in espionage, is Paramount’s Mission: Impossible franchise, which has been only a vanity project for its star.)
Finally, Bond battled South American drug smugglers in the '80s, media consolidators in the '90s, and environmental criminals in the next decade, thus enabling the series to capture the zeitgeist in ways that a strictly anti-Soviet secret agent never could. But many of the plots still have resonance because these stateless villains are often seeking possession of weapons of mass destruction; this is a fear that has been exacerbated—rather than ameliorated—by the Soviet collapse. Even if this history shows the canniness of the filmmakers’ commercial instincts, the movies themselves—especially of late—live in an unchanging male fantasyland and are completely without artistic merit. A true Bond fan must ruefully concede as much. My greatest fear used to be that the series would end, but now that thought is oddly appealing.
Isaac Chotiner is the executive editor of The Book.