How a James Bond film went from serious to parody


On a whim, I decided to watch the second film in the James Bond franchise From Russia With Love starring Sean Connery. I had seen it as a boy a long time ago when it first came out and remembered my adolescent self being highly taken up with the film and really enjoying it so I decided to give it another go. It is usually a mistake to revisit books and films aimed at one’s teenage self and that one enjoyed as a very young person because the second time around as an adult is usually disappointing, so I was ready to feel a little let down.

What I had not expected was to find the film to be a real hoot, laugh-out-loud funny. The humor was not intentional especially when it came to the villains. They were cartoonish, with hooded eyes, flat voices, and speaking curtly in heavily accented villain clichés. The chief villain was even shown petting a white cat on his lap, a dead giveaway that he is a very evil person indeed, a comedy staple nowadays. Bond’s flirtations and romantic liaisons with attractive women were also hilarious, the kind of thing that an adolescent would think of as suave but utterly unrealistic.

How could a film that originally was considered serious become over time a parody of itself and of the genre? I think that it is not the film itself that is at fault but that its huge success spawned a vast number of imitations that copied many of its signature features. Spy films began to follow a pretty rigid template. From there it was but a short step for parodies to be made that took that template and made fun of the genre. So now when watching an old Bond film, the roles have reversed and it seems to be following the template of the parodies, rather than the other way around.

Here’s the trailer.

The scene in the film where the evil mastermind discusses his plan with his underlings is now a standard parody staple as in this scene from That Mitchell and Webb Look. (As a bonus, towards the end you can see this year’s Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia Colman in the early days of her career when she was a supporting player in this sketch comedy series.)

Comments

  1. Bruce says

    This blog post reminds me of the classic schoolboy complaint about Shakespeare: why did he have to use so many cliches and overused figures of speech? Why couldn’t he use more original diction and phrasing?

  2. ridana says

    Whenever I see any movie featuring a vast secret underground complex or hidden rooms and trap doors, I do always think about the workers who built them. Especially the big construction projects that would require veritable armies to build and then keep silent, one way or another. So that Mitchell & Webb clip was a wonderful validation of that impulse

    But I also always wonder about the subsequent news reports and cleanup operations of all the destruction in spy, action-cop, and super hero movies.

  3. says

    Mano,

    My father enjoyed the Ian Flemming books and thought the James Bond movies (produced by Albert Broccoli, yes, his family is credited with making the stalky vegetable popular in America) we’re OK, but he much preferred the spy novels of Len Deighton and the movies starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer: The Ipcress File (1965), Funeral In Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967).

    My dad said that James Bond was a great fantasy character, but Harry Palmer was far more real.

  4. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Ian Fleming was a good writer. Much better than you might think, if you have only seen the movies.

    As a rule, one minute of movie needs one page of script. To make a movie you first throw away most of the original text. In the case of Fleming that includes much of the word play, because the movies are so action-oriented.

  5. jrkrideau says

    The chief villain was even shown petting a white cat on his lap, a dead giveaway that he is a very evil person indeed,

    Err, wait a minute. I have a white cat, admittedly, he does not sit on my lap but I do not think I am evil.

  6. DonDueed says

    Ironically, From Russia With Love is generally acknowledged to be the Bond film that comes closest to portraying real spycraft. It is much less dependent on gadgetry and fantastic situations than any of the other films in the series.

    Of course, that’s rather a case of damning with faint praise, since as Mano points out, it’s far from realistic.

  7. Matt G says

    Those familiar with the Austin Powers movies will recall that the long-haired white cat from early on is replaced with a hairless cat after experiencing some traumatic event.

  8. Jenora Feuer says

    @Bruce:
    Or as a friend of mine put it while watching Casablanca for the first time: “I kept thinking to myself, my god that’s such a cliche, and I had to keep reminding myself, this is the movie that made it a cliche.”

    @Lassi:
    Well, yes. Fleming knew his stuff, he’d worked in military intelligence. And the Bond of the books was pretty much a sociopath on a leash.

    (I’ve commented before that one of my favourite scenes from the books was from Moonraker, where Bond cheats Drax out of several thounsand pounds in a bridge game that Drax had been previously cheating at.)

  9. Glor says

    There was an article by some old-time big-name reviewer who was in a recent showing of an old James Bond movie and was outraged that the younger audience laughed at it, treating it as a parody. There was also a newer article by a younger critic basically mocking the first one, sadly I wasn’t able to find either just now.