Octopussy (1983) – BlogalongaBond #13
Yes, we’re up to Bond movie #13. Unlucky for some.
(John Glen, 1983)
Think the title’s animal amalgam is ungainly? Wait ’til you see the Frankenstein stitch-work on the most randomly assembled Bond film to date
You’d think they’d be taking the competition seriously. After all, a rival Bond film – reuniting Sean Connery with his license to kill, no less – was set to go into production, stealing the march on the official series. In their favour, Cubby Broccoli and chums duly persuaded Roger Moore to stay, signed on Hollywood legend Louis Jourdan as the baddie, and got Tim Rice and John Barry to pen the greatest of all Bond songs (no arguing: Pulp covered it). Yet in every other way Octopussy doesn’t have a clue how to beat the competition.
The stakes had changed in the real world, 1970s detente giving way to renewed hostilities between an apparently resurgent Russia and a paranoid America. This ensured that Never Say Never Again (with its plot bound by complex legal shenanigans to be nothing more than a remake Thunderball) had an authentically retro, Cold War edge that recent Bonds had more or less given up. So what’s Octopussy’s response? To drop in a comically gung-ho Soviet General, who actually gets to say “The West is decadent!” and is played by Steven Berkoff in such deranged, accent-mangling glee that he became Hollywood’s go-to guy for OTT villainy in Beverly Hills Cop and Rambo: First Blood.
Weirdly, though, the film takes ages to actually fulfil its promise of a Cold War thriller, disguised instead as an exotic caper movie about Faberge egg smuggling in India. The thinking, presumably, was that Bond had to pay at least a modicum of lip service to Ian Fleming and, having worked through all the obvious material, the producers got stuck with the title of one short story, Octopussy, and the Sotheby’s sequence from another, The Property Of A Lady.
And here’s where the problems start, because none of these elements really belong together – not least, because the producers forgot to have what the nowadays call a “tone meeting.” With a director of relatively serious intent in John Glen, and the threat of atomic extinction for the first time in a Bond movie for ages, this ought to be all gritty BAFTA, but everyone else is under the misapprehension that they’re still making Moonraker.
The list of poor choices includes, but is not limited to: A tennis player cast as Bond’s sidekick, so that he can fight baddies with a racket and be watched by a back-and-forth crowd. Bond telling a tiger to “siiiit!” a la Barbara Woodhouse. Johnny Weismuller freestyling on the soundtrack as Bond swings from tree to tree a la Tarzan. Octopussy’s harem runs a harem of lady ninjas in red Lycra. Bond’s idea of attacking by stealth: a Union Jack hot-air balloon. And enough racial stereotyping to keep India in fury for weeks.
Roger Moore, at least, is in his element here, revelling in some of his most glorious moments of comedy and becoming the film’s de facto auteur. Told that a tattoo is “my little Octopussy,” he delivers a mini-symphony of darting eye movements and raised eyebrows to convey his wry amusement. Even better is the moment where, faced with the ignominy of wearing a gorilla suit, Moore makes the most of it by checking his watch. OK, so purists would argue that you’d never see Connery stoop so low for a laugh, but anybody who’s seen Never Say Never Again will know that Connery could have done with a few half-decent gags at this stage.
And yet John Glen staunchly refuses to treat this as camp. He’s a director who seems blithely unaware that the endless parade of animals – spiders! tigers! crocodiles! – are not (as he tries to film them) objects of realistic menace but signs of rollicking Boys’ Own peril. As a director, his trademark shot is a slow pan following people walking across a sumptuously decorated room. It’s as if he saw the rushes of Never Say Never Again and decided to take the pace down a notch. And he’s an editor by trade! Jeez; this is one of the least action-packed of Bond movies, which shoots its bolt with the daft but undeniably impressive opening minijet-through-a-hangar stunt, and the chilling woodland clown take-down, and effectively gives up.
Admittedly, Glen delivers the goods in the Berlin sequence, where he finally musters the urgency to create one of 007’s most compelling countdowns – but by this point the film makes as little sense as a Jabberwocky in an Escher painting. Apparently, the U.S. Air Force never vets its visitors, hiring a circus named after a world-famous criminal, and nobody’s even bothered to ask why 009 turned up dead in a clown suit. So when Bond himself dons outsized shoes and a red nose to prevent Armageddon, there’s a twisted inevitability to it. Often painted as a franchise nadir, it’s actually the one moment in the film where the serious and the surreal work together instead of being at odds.