About two thirds of the way into Spectre, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is tied to a chair in the desert crater headquarters of Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), the head of Spectre and by coincidence both the son and the murderer of a man who took the young Bond under his wing. Oberhauser is operating a contraption that threatens to deprive Bond of his facial recognition abilities by driving a pair of pins into the sides of his skull – a painful operation in its initial stages, as indicated by Craig’s grimacing and an uncontained scream. Waltz’s speech in praise of this torture method is drawn from Kingsley Amis’s Bond novel Colonel Sun; he also taunts Bond for not remembering the faces of the women he takes to bed – not the first time we’ve seen 007 slut-shamed. The crater is an allusion to the Japanese volcano that Spectre operated out of in You Only Live Twice, and despite the quasi-Freudian set-up of the jealous birth son having his revenge on the usurping adoptive brother, we know from the presence of a white cat that Oberhauser will reveal himself to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the sinister mastermind familiar from three of Ian Fleming’s later novels and from his showdowns with the Bonds played by Sean Connery, George Lazenby and Roger Moore. (Copyright issues prevented any showdowns with Bond as played by Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan.)
Craig’s Bond is tougher than any of his predecessors – a thug Bond who looks like he drinks more protein shakes than martinis – but also more craggily sensitive. This Bond doesn’t go after a villain just because he’s going to blow something up. There has to be something personal at stake: the villain killed your girlfriend (Quantum of Solace), or wants to kill your mother-figure boss (Skyfall), or thinks you stole his father’s affections. Oberhauser/Blofeld seems to have put together a massive international criminal organisation that’s cornered the market in sex trafficking and counterfeit drugs in order to bring about a climactic face-off with his erstwhile adolescent rival. For the villains too, bringing the world to its knees isn’t enough of a reason to bring the world to its knees. Out with the Cold War or any actual international political problems; in with the mummy and daddy issues.
Spectre is relentlessly allusive. Is a fight on a helicopter ever a fight on a helicopter in a Bond film or is it an allusion to, say, the opening of For Your Eyes Only, in which Blofeld (John Hollis) traps Bond (Moore) in a remote-controlled helicopter until Bond takes control of it, scoops up Blofeld’s wheelchair with the chopper’s leg and dumps him down a chimney? (This was Bond at peak camp; before the big drop Blofeld begs: ‘We can do a deal! I’ll buy you a delicatessen!’) Spectre opens and closes with helicopter fights. The first is a protracted punch-up (actually, Craig’s Bond favours the head butt) in the cockpit of a chopper wobbling above Mexico City, where Bond has gone in pursuit of a bad guy on the posthumous orders of M (Judi Dench). Bond foils the bad guy’s plan to blow up a stadium but makes a bit of a mess in the process and is grounded by the new M (Ralph Fiennes) when he gets back to London.
It emerges that the stadium plot was part of a campaign of co-ordinated terrorist bombings undertaken by Spectre to nudge nine governments into pooling their intelligence resources in a single programme called ‘Nine Eyes’. A strong proponent of this project is C (Andrew Scott, who wouldn’t look out of place in Cameron’s cabinet), who is intent on merging MI5 and MI6, and a Spectre mole. Shuttering the double-0 programme and retiring Bond are on C’s agenda: 007 is obsolete in the age of drones and wiretaps. This is the movie’s peculiar Snowden-era politics: better to field a team of assassins with good sense and exquisite tailoring than to run a surveillance state that could be hijacked.
Bond disobeys M’s orders and skips town in order to bed the bad guy’s widow (Monica Bellucci) in what seems the most joyless encounter in the annals of 007: when not in love, this Bond seems less a ladies’ man than a guilt-ridden sex addict. Thanks to her tip-off, he has no trouble crashing Spectre’s AGM, at which a global cast of villains gather around a long table. Bond tradition dictates that one of them has to die before the meeting ends; here it’s a case of death by eye-gouging, as executed by Hinx (Dave Bautista), a henchman of few words who’s vaguely reminiscent of the late 1970s Bond villain Jaws, though more strongly of a meathead in a competing franchise, Game of Thrones. In quick succession Hinx engages Bond in a car chase in Rome, a plane/car chase in the Alps (Bond seems to have lost his skis at some point in the 1980s) and a fight on a train in Morocco en route to the confrontation with Blofeld.
By this point Bond is in the company of Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), a strong-willed psychiatrist who’s at first immune to his charms. But since this is the Craig era, she goes from banning him from her bed to saying ‘I love you’ in the span of about twenty minutes. Under torture Bond complains of having to listen to Blofeld talk, but Waltz’s banter is about the best thing in the movie. By the end Waltz has his own version of the Blofeld scar that Donald Pleasence made famous in You Only Live Twice. The final showdown in London rings false not so much because Blofeld neither escapes to menace Bond again nor dies at Bond’s hands, but because his defeat is the result of the joint efforts of Bond, M, Q (Ben Whishaw), Swann and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). Who ever looked to 007 for displays of teamwork?
What would Fleming have made of all this? He would no doubt have been happy that the film’s box-office take has already exceeded $500 million. The title of the new collection of his ‘James Bond Letters’, The Man with the Golden Typewriter, isn’t just a bad Flemingism: Fleming bought himself a gold-plated typewriter in New York for $174 to celebrate selling Casino Royale to Jonathan Cape in 1952. The Bond letters are short on adventure and long on the logistics of publishing. The book rehearses the Bond origin story several times: Fleming the inveterate shagger had finally decided to marry Ann, widow of Lord O’Neill and until recently wife of Esmond, 2nd Viscount Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail. In January 1952, with prenuptial jitters, he sat down in Goldeneye, his bungalow in Jamaica, and wrote Casino Royale at a pace of two thousand words each morning. He would enact the same ritual annually until his death from a heart attack in 1964. Until near the end, when Fleming at last sorted out the film rights for 007, money worries were never far from his mind. He complained frequently to Jonathan Cape (who didn’t like the Bond books and stopped reading them after Casino Royale):
The truth is that in order to free myself to write more books for you, I simply must earn more money from them. My profits from ‘Casino’ will just about keep Ann in asparagus over Coronation week, and I am praying that something may be forthcoming from one of the reprint societies, or the films, to offset my meagre returns from what has turned out to be a successful book.
There are a few letters to the Flemings’ more famous friends (Somerset Maugham, Claudette Colbert, their Jamaica neighbour Noël Coward), but details of their social life are sketchy. When Truman Capote pays a visit, Fleming writes to Ann: ‘Can you imagine a more incongruous playmate for me?’ He seems happiest discussing technical details, as when a gun expert, Geoffrey Boothroyd, wrote to say that Bond shouldn’t be packing a Beretta .25. The Walther PPK was Boothroyd’s suggestion; ‘if possible,’ he added, ‘don’t have anything to do with silencers.’ Fleming replied: ‘I sympathise with you about not liking silencers, but the trouble is that there are occasions when they are essential to Bond’s work.’ His attention to detail could be oppressive, as attested by his American friend Ernest Cuneo, a former OSS officer:
Of all the maddening trivia through which I have suffered, nothing quite matched Fleming’s instructions on how his [martinis] were to be made. [He] was painfully specific about both the vermouth and the gin and explained each step to the guy who was going to mix it as if it were a delicate brain operation. Several times I impatiently asked him why the hell he didn’t go downstairs and mix it himself, but he ignored me as if he hadn’t heard and continued right on with his instructions. Equally annoyingly, he always warmly congratulated the captain when he tasted it as if he had just completed a fleet manoeuvre at flank speed.
In one letter Fleming responds to a panning of Dr No in the Guardian which accused him of celebrating ‘the cult of luxury for its own sake’ and asked: ‘If one of the most bourgeois and peaceable people of the world decide that a diet of sex and violence is to its liking, is it not because it can thereby sublimate its more anti-social instincts?’ Fleming answered: ‘One of the reasons I chose the pseudonym of James Bond for my hero rather than, say, Peregrine Maltravers was that I wished him to be unobtrusive. Exotic things would happen to and around him but he would be a neutral figure – an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a government department.’ As for all the sex, ‘perhaps Bond’s blatant heterosexuality is a subconscious protest against the current fashion for sexual confusion.’ Coward disagreed, and told Fleming (whom he addressed as ‘Beast’): ‘I was … slightly shocked by the lascivious announcement that Honeychile’s bottom was like a boy’s! I know that we are all becoming progressively more broadminded nowadays but really old chap what could you have been thinking of?’
The truth might have been that Fleming was bored. As he wrote to Raymond Chandler: ‘If one has a grain of intelligence it is difficult to go on being serious about a character like James Bond. You after all write “novels of suspense” – if not sociological studies – whereas my books are straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang, kiss-kiss variety.’ Cuneo confirmed the diagnosis: ‘I think Bond was a thing apart from him. Though created by him he seemed to be as detached from Bond as a scientist who has created a robot, and … there were a considerable number of times when I thought Bond bored Fleming to tears.’ And in his own largely boring posthumous memoir of Fleming, Robert Harling, who served with him in naval intelligence and later consulted on the typeface and design of the novels’ covers, says that Fleming told him over lunch: ‘Bond’s a bore. The discovery’s been creeping up on me for some time and now I know it’s true. I don’t know what I shall do with him.’ It’s a feeling shared by Daniel Craig. When Time Out asked him if he’d be up for reprising the role a fifth time, he said: ‘I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists.’