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A Deeper Look into Sam Mendes' "Spectre"

by Gerardo Valero

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I can’t recall another James Bond film that caused as uneven a reaction as “Spectre." Watching it shortly before the reviews came out, I never imagined that any backlash was about to follow. The complaints differed somewhat from those I’ve heard on past 007 entries, but personally I believe that director Sam Mendes got just about everything right. The movie was neither too serious (“Quantum of Solace”) nor too humorous (“Moonraker”), it had plenty of large action scenes but none of them went overboard (“Die Another Day”) and more importantly, the character’s stories never got lost among the special effects as tends to occur (“You Only Live Twice”). “Spectre” was perfectly cast, the series’ regulars jelled, the jokes worked, the villains were menacing, the girls were as beautiful and three-dimensional as they’ve ever been and the locations were outstanding (how is it that Bond never visited Rome before?). 

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The movie deals with James Bond’s unveiling of the legendary crime organization and their eventual clash when the group tries to infiltrate British Intelligence. SPECTRE the organization first appeared in the early Sean Connery-era Bond films and it held the distinction of counting with Ernst Stavro Blofeld among its ranks, the only main villain in the series who survived at the end of each of his entries, even after making Bond a widower. Oddly enough, the character was always played by a different actor, sometimes as a cripple in a wheelchair (“For Your Eyes Only”) others as a champion skier (“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”); sometimes as a shadowy presence behind a curtain (“Thunderball”) others bald and scarred (“You Only Live Twice”); sometimes he could be cruel and menacing (“From Russia with Love”) others he was campy, dressed in drag and not terribly imposing (“Diamonds Are Forever”). One of Bond’s most renowned enemies was never given a defined personality beyond being overall “bad” and yet the filmmakers somehow expected audiences to accept any incarnation of the character. 

The SPECTRE period is best remembered for these gargantuan climatic battles that involved dozens of extras dressed in matching, brightly colored uniforms, launching grenades at each other while catapulting into the air via hidden trampolines. For a while the series settled into this lazy routine and the movies involved lacked much suspense. The best thing about this latest incarnation of SPECTRE is that it deals with them much like in the magnificent “From Russia with Love," as an utterly sinister and yet subtle organization, pulling the strings from behind the curtains on some truly evil acts.

“Spectre” is the second Bond film directed by Sam Mendes and it couldn’t be more different than his previous “Skyfall," one of the few 007 entries that managed to keep the audience at unease over the uncertainty of what was going to happen next. It follows the structure of most every other Bond movie, something that’s not necessarily a bad thing when considering this hadn’t been the case during the ten years of Daniel Craig's tenure. The fact that it includes a direct homage to “From Russia with Love” with another sensational (and brutal) train fight hardly makes it the “Greatest Hits of the Past” that some people have made it out to be. I don’t see how “Spectre” can be considered repetitive unless you believe that dealing with car chases and gadgets, snow action sequences or villains doing business in colorful lairs (if a bit reminiscent of hollowed volcanoes) means indeed that they are making the same movie all over again.

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The Bond movies have had their share of outstanding action openings like the Thames Q Boat (“The World is Not Enough”) and the Istanbul Motorcycle-Train (“Skyfall”) chases, but only a handful have been able to provide as jaw-dropping an introduction as the one here with Bond and his nemesis doing battle while hanging from an out of control helicopter above a plaza filled with thousands of Day of the Dead celebrants. This may very well be the most astounding 007 launch since Roger Moore’s 007 skied off a mountain while wearing the infamous banana suit in “The Spy Who Loved Me” and it is just about the only pre-title sequence in the series that achieves an additional instance of comparable awe with its continuous "Touch of Evil"-type opening shot. This was obviously accomplished with the help of modern technology to hide the seams much like last year’s Oscar winner “Birdman," but unlike such it isn’t there just for show as it serves to jump start the action from the very first shot, something at which the Bond films have always been second to none anyway.

A 007 film that doesn’t stretch believability has yet to be made but I can’t recall another one that has been torn apart as minutely as “Spectre." Since the movie opened last November I’ve heard repeated complaints about how unlikely and unnecessary it was for Bond and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) to get those fabulous clothes for their Morocco train journey. This dilemma brings to mind the scenes where Roger Moore wears a tuxedo in the middle of the Egyptian dessert (“The Spy Who Loved Me”) or in the Rio de Janeiro carnival (“Moonraker”). And more than it being a matter of practicality or realism, I’m convinced they were done that way on purpose in order to get a laugh at their own absurdity, something essential to every Bond movie. I’ve also heard more than a few skeptical comments on how Bond and Madeleine could ever find a perfectly positioned net at the bottom of the MI6 building to cushion their fall. But if you’ve ever been to any site that’s under construction or renovation you’ll surely have noticed similar arrangements to prevent workers from getting hit by debris (my first impression upon once seeing such on the Empire State Building facade years ago was that it was there to save potential suicide jumpers!). Some were also puzzled by the size of the explosion that destroys the villain’s hideaway, the result of Bond shooting a simple valve, but I assume that any facility housing an army of hundreds in the middle of the dessert would have to be self sufficient and as such require a great deal of fuel to run, besides, a crime organization that invested its human trafficking profits into going Green may not have made much sense. Perhaps next time around Blofeld will consider hiding what was basically his lair’s self destruct lever behind a fake wall and under key, as he once did in his old Japanese Volcano.

Of greater concern to me was Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography and his tendency to suck the reds and blues from the screen, applying instead a never ending supply of yellowish-browns. Hoytema’s golden tones in the L’Americain and train sequences were sensational, but overall the film looks much too flat. Case in point is the otherwise spectacular plane sequence in the Austrian Alps where the colors were toned down to a point where it’s hard to differentiate between the sky and the mountain peaks. Additionally, the nighttime London and the interior of the abandoned MI6 building were lit so dimly, they could barely be appreciated. The end result might be close to what they would look under such conditions, but just remember how spectacular Roger Deakins was able to make the similarly natured subway tunnels from “Skyfall” in what’s surely the best looking Bond movie ever. I also think that Daniel Kleinman’s nightmarish opening titles represent one of the his lesser efforts, especially the images of a shirtless Craig surrounded by several female arms meant to invoke the SPECTRE octopus, much like designer Maurice Binder once did with Roger Moore for “Octopussy” but not with quite as much class. In past title sequences we’ve had images of romance and horror (think of the burning skull from “Live and Let Die”) but never in the same frame and when the leading couple is shown wrapped around an octopus’ tentacles, this look more like the titles for “Alien” than for a Bond movie.

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These facets aside, I don’t think “Spectre” showed a significant drop from Sam Mendes’ own “Skyfall." Here’s a director who never loses bearing on where his characters are set emotionally at any point of his movies and much to my surprise, he’s turned out to be one of the better action directors in the series’ as well. It wasn’t easy for the latest Bond to follow “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall," two entries that acquired a particular weight from the death of one of their main characters, something that may very well be on the radar early for the next 007 movie since the remaining presence of Madeleine leaves Bond out of action when it comes to new female conquests, the one thing he’s never had to survive in any of his movies.

Perhaps “Spectre” was too ambitious in trying to tie up the three prior Daniel Craig entries, the kind of decision that is never easy to accept when done retroactively, no matter how much sense it made on most levels. Regardless, this solution helped close the unforgivable loose end that was the character of Mr. White from “Casino Royale” and provided the grounds for a terrific homage to the “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” titles with its hourglass of past memorable characters. The idea that Bond and the main villain knew each other as children may have been a bit too reminiscent of Dr. Evil/Austin Powers, but it did serve to link Blofeld’s story with the “Dead are Alive!” motif from the beginning of the movie. In the grand scheme of things I found this decision harmless but it’s clear that not every audience member out there was bound to feel overjoyed upon listening to the disclosure of the name Ernst Stavro Blofeld, from watching him acquire the same scars as his Donald Pleasence counterpart, from getting his identity revealed by the presence of a white cat (a really nice touch, by the way) or even from having him preside over a sinister meeting where he disposes of one of his own men around the largest table imaginable. Such moments made “Spectre” one of those movies that work better among the die-hard fans, hence the mixed reviews.

At first I couldn’t picture Waltz becoming Blofeld because of how unlikely it seemed for an actor of his stature to commit to doing several entries of such a commercial series. I do hope that his casting here doesn’t mean that there will be a different Ernst Stavro in each of the upcoming movies as they did during the 1960s; Waltz is one of those rare actors who can exude utter evil without breaking a sweat. He wasn't quite as frightening here as Bardem’s Silva was in “Skyfall” but hopefully he will be able to reach his character’s potential with one defined personality, and maybe even while sporting the same face as well. 

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Whatever the case, there’s no question that the Bond production values remained first rate in “Spectre," something remarkable for the 24th entry of any movie series. One of the best things about the Bond films is that the newer ones work just about as well as the fifty-year-old ones. The main reason behind this is that the series has never fallen into the hands of a film studio where the bottom-line is king, residing instead with the same group of auto-critical professionals whose main goal in life is to make the best James Bond movie possible. If you doubt this, just wait a while and watch how “Star Wars” fares in the hands of Disney.

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Few cinematic institutions are as resilient as the Bond franchise. Initially emblematic of the styles and trends of the 1960s, the personification of excess and cool, it declined in the ’70s, barely survived the ’80s, and then reinvented itself twice, first in the ’90s and then the mid ’00s.

When it all began, Bond was a fun-filled caper, fronted by a charismatic super spy who shoots people and sleeps around. Now it’s a serious, gritty drama with a more muscular version the same Secret Service agent. One of the defining and most enduring features of the franchise – evading the dips of quality the films themselves – is the opening credits sequence. More than that, they have so far accurately reflected each era’s distinctive feel, capturing the essence of the kind of Bond movie we were about to watch. Here are 10 of our favourites from the estimable Bond back catalogue.

1. Dr No (1962)

Behold the original Bond title sequence, which is sometimes referenced in later Bond sequences. The bullet hole that swerves around was a genuine innovation of its the time, as it created a kinetic energy that held the audience’s attention. Created by career title designer Maurice Binder, who made the majority of the early title sequences, it’s fun, colourful and predates the mobile phone video game Snake by some 30 years. It also descends into a dance where everyone holds their hands up. Remember those hands, because they are a key constituent of the Bond title sequence.

2. Goldfinger (1964)

The credit sequences for the next two films, From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, were designed by Robert Brownjohn, who as as Art of the Title point out, loved typography. More than that, his style was to overlay the credits onto human figures – in the case of both films, scantily clad women. Goldfinger was the first Bond title sequence to feature characters from the movie, superimposed onto a gold-painted model. If Bond was an art installation, this is basically what it would look like. It’s a simple, sensual opening sequence. The next instalment, From Russia with Love, established another early Bond motif: women wearing very little.

3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Binder returned to make the title sequence for Thunderball in 1965, which would be the first that used the ‘dark silhouettes on a coloured backdrop’ theme. Binder struck gold with the idea, and one of the best opening sequences from the ’60s and ’70s is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which opens with the line, ‘This never happened to the other fella,’ uttered by the Commonwealth Bond, George Lazenby. The film was made in 1969, and is representative of Bond as many still see him: Martinis and the British Empire. By this point the women are no longer wearing clothes. The new dominant theme of Bond title sequences is nipples.

4. Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

A peak into Bond’s subconscious now: the title sequence for Diamonds Are Forever sees Bond about to shoot a vagina just before it turns into a diamond.

5. For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Hands were also important in this period. The nourishing hands of a woman catch Roger Moore as he descends on a parachute in the 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun, and the sequences of the 1970s are fairly silly, featuring naked women jumping in the air in 1979’s Moonraker (a naked Superwoman even makes an appearance). For Your Eyes Only again features hands, this time as a woman desperately tries to crawl out of Roger Moore. It also features Sheena Easton, the only time the performer of the Bond song was featured in the title sequence. Thankfully, this was a one-off.

6. The Living Daylights (1987)

The 1980s were all about lasers. And good Bond songs. The Dalton years saw some of Binder’s best work, as old motifs like naked women were fused with lasers, and a generally darker, neon feel. According to Art of the Title, lasers first became a thing in Bond title sequences in Octopussy, which used them with plenty of smoke to suggest an air of mystery. This sequence also memorably sees Bond throw a woman across the credits before proceeding to have tantric sex with her. A View To Kill opens with a woman revealing her cleavage, only to have a lasered 007 on her chest, which even for Bond is pretty unsubtle. For our money, the best Bond title sequence of the 1980s is The Living Daylights, which features a song by A-ha. In it, Bond impregnates a woman by shooting 007 inside of her with a laser gun. When Bond does LSD…

7. GoldenEye (1995)

Binder’s last sequence was License to Kill in 1989, arriving before Bond took a hiatus, returning in the form of dashing Irishman Pierce Brosnan in 1995. Designed by Daniel Kleinman, it’s a much more colourful sequence than Binder’s usual stuff, and is literally crawling with naked women, who are destroying phallic symbols of communism. This sequence is what Bond sees when his therapist makes him take a Rorschach test. Kleinman cut his teeth in music videos, and directed one of the best music videos of the 1980s, Big Love by Fleetwood Mac.

The music video is an early indicator of where Kleinman would take the Bond title sequences (the colour palette is very similar), but it also shows the same imaginative streak when it came to structure. GoldenEye was a transition sequence though, as Kleinman would unleash his creative vision with Tomorrow Never Dies, his best sequence. Similar to Binder, it updates the formula with CG women made of circuitry, which is as creepy as it sounds. Figures are locked in bullets. We see guns through an X-ray. It’s all rather stunning. Interestingly, this was the first Bond title sequence not feature 007 since Dr No. It’s Bond’s nightmare, in which the technological future assumes the form of his mortal enemy: women.

8. Die Another Day (2002)

Throughout the 1990s, Bond title sequences displayed a curious fascination with covering women in something dangerous, be it circuitry, oil (1999’s The World Is Not Enough) or fire and ice. The last one is the theme of Die Another Day, where Bond is surrounded by women who are made out of fire and ice, and who both dance on the fire that is used to torture him and provide consolation. The naked silhouettes, a staple theme since the 1960s, is now more alluring and much more dangerous. This is reflected in each of Brosnan’s Bond films, as the stakes and danger to the world are considerably higher. Also, at one point, Madonna sings, ‘Sigmund Freud/Analyse this’. Indeed.

9. Casino Royale (2006)

Instead of women we get cards, which makes sense in that Casino Royale was supposed to reboot the franchise and bring it more in line with the popular Bourne series, which ditched the romance for set pieces. Kleinman explained the absence of women by saying that Casino Royale takes place before Bond has his heart broken, which is a weird thing to say, but suggests that the sequence was motivated by Bond’s fears and vices.

It’s a neat title sequence, apart from the fights that Bond is having with the men in red, which feels like overkill. As Art of the Title points out, however, it is much more in line with the more modern, violent Daniel Craig-era Bond. The amount of colour is refreshing, as is the visual symmetry. The bit where Bond is sitting and screwing the silencer on to his gun is a cool visual. The only woman is when Bond’s sight comes across Eva Green. But he doesn’t shoot. He’s not a monster. Yet.

10. Skyfall (2013)

Quantum of Solace was the first Bond title sequence to be executed by the studio MK12 and the film’s director, Marc Forster. It’s a fairly average sequence, with Bond in the desert. At one point he awakens gigantic slumbering women made out of sand, and falls down, Mad Men-style. Scratch that, this is definitely the fever dream Bond has before he wakes up in cold sweat.

Skyfall, on the other hand, is one of the most referential Bond sequences, reflecting the sense of finality present throughout the film. Adele opens the sequence by warbling, “This is the end.” The hand, which caught Robert Moore’s parachutist in The Man with The Golden Gun, is back, this time to drag 007 underwater. At one point, Bond shoots his own shadow, and inside him is a blood skull, neither of which is particularly subtle, but well composed nonetheless.

It’s an impressive sequence, shot by the returning Kleinman, until the weird dragons and the point at which it all starts resembling Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy video. The sequence is a far cry away from the ’60s or ’70s Bond openings, and reflects the change in tone that the franchise has undergone as social mores have changed. Even though Bond remains one of the most conservative franchises in existence, we now live in the age of the gritty anti-hero and easily accessible pornography, which has made sequences like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service feel out-dated and tame. As the Bond franchise has progressed, meta commentary within the sequences has also become a theme that is increasingly obvious: Skyfall, after all, leaves us closing in on Bond’s eye, which as we all know, is the mirror to the soul.

The title sequence of the new Bond film, Spectre, will once again be designed by Kleinman, his seventh one. Hopefully, the franchise will return to the innovative spirit of the Brosnan Bonds, rather continue with the slick but ultimately dull fare of the Craig years. If the rumours are true, and Radiohead really is recording the theme song, the possibilities are endless.

Published 19 Aug 2015

Tags: James Bond

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