Serial, Super Serial: Octopussy

Octopussy

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

Octopussy proves that a decent film with some major strengths cannot be a good Bond film without compelling villains and Bond Girls. Even though the film has one of the more exciting climaxes seen in a Bond mission, overall it feels bland.

After a British agent is murdered while carrying a fake Fabergé egg, Bond is commissioned to investigate his murder and the mysterious presence of the egg. When the real egg is found up for auction, he attends that auction to see who’s so interested in its purchase and becomes caught up in an art-smuggling operation headed by a woman nicknamed “Octopussy.” What seems like a fairly pedestrian Bond plot is injected with the very exciting backdrop of Soviet agents planning a nuclear accident in hopes of NATO disarming themselves, allowing the Communists to rule. By the film’s climax, Bond must save the innocent audience of a circus event at an American Air Force base in Germany.

Before we get to the climactic ending in East Germany, Bond travels to India to scope out the smuggling cartel. Octopussy’s India gets the You Only Live Twice treatment, giving us the most exotic, stereotypical view of the country possible. Bond’s India is full of dangerous animals prowling the streets and men wearing funny hats for no apparent reason. In one scene we see a man lying on a bed of nails, a snake charmer, a sword eater and fire blower all together, as if we were at some sort of Disney attraction. This is followed by a very literal circus which provides the backdrop for the nuclear accident.

[Bond, James Bond]

The quick deterioration of Roger Moore continues, as Bond seems much more comfortable at an art auction or dressed as a circus clown than in a fistfight at this point. There’s still enough action, but most of the film is toned down considerably. Although I’ve like Moore as Bond, I’m counting the films til we get some new blood in the role — and with only one more to go, this can’t come soon enough. He’s still suave and decent with the one-liners, but it’s really about time to put him out of his misery.

I’ve read a lot of criticism about Octopussy that suggests the super-spy’s used for too many punchlines. In the film, Bond disguises himself as a circus clown and in a gorilla costume in order to escape from baddies. Neither of these instances really struck me negatively, but I can see those critics’ point — even though we’re in full camp mode here, it’s a bit of a condescending presentation of who should be the world’s top spy. I think it all leads back to Moore’s age and related lack of being a believable action star.

[The Mission]

Unlike most other Bond films, the mission — rather, the building of suspense — is where Octopussy most succeeds. A big reason for this is direct John Glen and his screenwriters understand how suspense works, using the classical theory from master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, who remarked: “Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.” Octopussy uses this idea flawlessly, letting the audience know the exact time and place its own bomb will go off. Sure, we know that Bond will eventually save the day, but as the timer approaches 00:00:00, we can’t help but get more and more tense.

Most of the plots we’ve seen throughout the Bond series have been very grand in scale, involving hijacked space shuttles or nuclear bombs, and we understand their implications, but they feel so clinical and impersonal. Here, we have a plot practically most devastating in scale, where we know that if all works well, Soviet Russia will have a stranglehold on the rest of the world, but with the circus we also have a much more defined incident and real victims in danger. At the performance we see innocent children and families having a good time, not knowing that their safety is literally ticking away. This extra danger adds a lot to the suspense — we know if Bond ever fails it means complete terror, but here we see the victims who will experience that terror first-hand.

[The Villains]

Bond’s villain with the most screen time is Kamal Khan (played by Louis Jourdan), an exiled Afghan prince living in India. He may truthfully be more of a henchman, but given some of the mysteries of the film, he presents Bond’s most up-front adversary. He also fits the classic villain mold in a number of ways — he’s suave, classically and formally styled, and lets his henchman do the physical labor. Although he is Afghan, he’s very coded as European upper class, obviously intelligent and quite haughty. He may be suave and a bit charismatic, but in terms of a Bond villain he’s pretty bland. He doesn’t present much actual threat to Bond, even though the plot he’s wrapped up in does have major significance.

Khan’s main henchman and bodyguard is yet another muscly brute of few words. The film definitely tries to differentiate him through his Indianess — although he doesn’t fill a lot of the ridiculous stereotypes we see elsewhere, his turban and beard are his defining physical features. There are also two interesting twin henchmen that have a cover of being knife throwers in the film’s circus. They’re a little bit silly, but fun to watch.

With the secret plot involving the nuclear bomb, a Soviet general plays a small but important role in the film’s evildom. We meet General Orlov early on in the film, just after the opening credit sequence, during a meeting of Soviet officials who discuss how they should respond to calls for disarmament. Orlov has a radical idea, though, setting up the rest of the world to disarm through a nuclear “accident.” Surprisingly, the other Soviet officials completely reject Orlov’s plot, making him even more dangerous as a rogue. The Soviets have proved a willing adversary in many Bond plots, so if this guy is even beyond their level of evil, he must be pretty bad. He also isn’t attempting to gain personal power, per se, but to allow his beloved nation to control the world, adding another interesting level to his presence. Still, the film doesn’t truly treat him as a major villain, mostly as a background player, and he’s dispatched rather quickly during its climax.

[The Bond Girls]

The title Bond Girl could have been an interesting one, but she never quite lives up to what the film sets up. Most of the way through the film it isn’t quite known what her involvement with the main plot is — we know she has ties to Khan in the jewelry smuggling business, and she seems to be his boss in a lot of ways. She fully admits to being a jewel smuggler and has no regrets, so she’s definitely a criminal. This smuggling ring, though, is the least of Bond’s actual concerns once the plot is fully realized. By the end, she becomes just another Bond Girl trapped in the plot by the men around her, without any knowledge of the depths of their evil.

The casting of Maud Adams in the role of Octopussy is a little strange, as she is the first actress to portray two different Bond Girls. We first saw her in The Man with the Golden Gun as Scaramanga’s mistress, which is a similar type of Bond Girl, in a way. Both characters seemed like true villains until the plot went way over their heads. Adams gives a good allure of being evil, with her coldness and present scowl. And (although the filmmakers probably didn’t intend this) her age of 38 is a better match for this elderly Bond than most of the young, perky girls we’re used to seeing.

[The Gadgets]

These gadget montages are starting to feel like “what are the most inconceivable, useless gadgets we could make?” This time that’s a spiky door that slams open, spearing anyone who uses its door knocker. Yeah, that seems like it wouldn’t be dangerous for just about anyone.

[The Song]

After we saw a pretty decent ballad with Sheena Easton’s “For Your Eyes Only,” we get a pretty dreadful one with “All Time High” by Rita Coolidge. This is about the epitome of “Adult Contemporary,” which for me is a synonym for trash. The song is slow, with no energy or build.

“We’re an all time high,
We’ll change all that’s gone before.
Doing so much more than falling in love.
On an all time high,
We’ll take on the world and wait.
So hold on tight, let the flight begin.”

Maybe I’m just upset because I wanted to see them try and write a song called “Octopussy.”

[Random Thoughts]

- As this film proves, put a thin mustache on Roger Moore and he really does look Hispanic.

- Evil, knife throwing twins fighting a clown is truly the stuff of nightmares.

- Nothing says “high stakes” like art forgery — thankfully, the film was able to correct that.

- Why do all the Soviet leaders speak English to each other? And in such ridiculous accents!

- Wait, the Russians are just trying to achieve world Socialism? That actually doesn’t sound THAT bad.

- When Bond arrives in India, his local agent contact is disguised as a snake charmer (because they’re in India, you see). In order to catch Bond’s attention, the charmer plays the Bond theme song on his horn. And Bond recognizes it! This level of meta makes me wonder if the non-diegetic soundtrack during the action sequences is actually just in Bond’s head.

- The most important requirement for a henchman is to crush things menacingly. See: Oddjob + golf ball; Gobinda + pair of dice

- Do all the villains shop at the same shops? Khan’s attire looks an awfully lot like Blofeld and Dr. No’s suits.

- Doesn’t Bond know that “an island of beautiful women” means trouble by this point?

- Why do Octopussy’s assistants wear the same costume as from The Incredibles? OH, it’s because they are also circus tumblers? OK, yeah, that makes sense…

- The American Air Force officers are WAY WAY too into the circus.

- Are there any treavelling circus groups that couldn’t pull off a major heist? If you know anyone who has run away to the circus, I’d be suspicious.

Serial, Super Serial will return in Never Say Never Again

tags: james bond, john glen, octopussy, super serial

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