8/8/11 - cinema stops taking itself quite so seriously

In today's excerpt - after World War II, movies about spies and war were taken seriously—a movie told a story and the audience was expected to believe it. Ian Fleming's wildly popular books about James Bond continued that tradition—Fleming's Bond was a humorless, high-born, and unquestioningly patriotic creature. (In fact, Fleming dismissed the idea of Alfred Hitchcock directing his films because he he felt he would not treat them seriously enough). Sean Connery—who was relatively unknown, was climbing up from a working class background, and was paid a relative pittance for the role—knew intuitively to imbue his Bond with insolence and an amoral humor. Thus 1962's Dr. No, the first of the Bond movies, marks the beginning of decadence in post-war cinema—the first time the audience is in on the joke: 

"Sean Connery was nothing like the Bond so plainly envisaged in the Dr. Noscreenplay. That screenplay, finally knocked together by [director] Terence Young and his assistant Joanna Harwood in a week-long session at the Dorchester Hotel, was written for precisely the kind of old-fashioned public-school hero Connery's instinctively insolent creation was about to do away with. ...

" 'But of course!' Connery's Bond is required to say at one point in the action (as he will be throughout his pictures in the series; Roger Moore—on whom such stuffed-shirt inanities might have sat rather better—was never asked to utter the line). Hitherto, such stockbroker Sheridan would have been sayable only if dressed in the exclamatory high camp, British cinema specialized in. Connery, though, played the line for laughs by uttering it in the mocking, unshockable, dignified yet dressed-down drawl that would come to be one of the hallmarks of his Bond. It is impossible to overemphasise how central to the movie those democratically satirical inflections were. Without them, the Bond of Dr. No would have been as insufferably snobbish as the Bond of Fleming's original novels. Without them, there would have been no From Russia with Love, let alone any Quantum of Solace. ... The movie [version of] Bond owed much ... to Connery's languorously insurrectionary take on what he saw as the jumped-up imperialist bore.

"Both Young and Connery have claimed authorship for the movie Bond's flip, amoral humour. 'When I flew out [to Jamaica] with Sean, before anyone else came,' Young told a TV documentary, 'I said, 'For Christ's sake, Sean, we've got to make this picture a little bit amusing—it's the only way we're going to get away with murder.' Because a lot of the sex and violence, I think, (a), is objectionable and, (b), will never get past the censor.

"Connery, for his part, was always insistent that humour was essential to the movie Bond. Indeed so, though it should be pointed out that ... the Bond of the novels never cracks a joke, and Fleming himself was so humourless that fancy the idea of Alfred Hitchcock turning his novels into movies though he did, he also worried that Hitch might treat them with insufficient seriousness. ...

"While patriotic to the point of self-mockery, Connery's Bond seemed not at all tied to notions of history and tradition, but merely to the self-aggrandising conspicuous consumption that was the true hallmark of the [1960s] decade which spawned him. Bond's affectlessness—when he learns the detail of Dr No's plans he neither laughs nor cries but merely sounds weary at what he calls 'the same old dream: world domination'- chimed with a post-Suez British public wary of imperial overreach. Hence the movie's pop art elements, which tipped the wink to the audience that they weren't meant to take this stuff seriously. Everything they were watching, Connery's sly, sideways-on performance kept reminding them, was all part of a big joke.

"Nobody saw this more clearly than [French auteur] Francois Truffaut. 'For me,' the director told an auteurist worshipper, 'the film that marks the beginning of the period of decadence in the cinema is the first James Bond—Dr. No. Until then the role of the cinema had been by and large to tell a story in the hope that the audience would believe it. There had been a few minority films which were parodies of this narrative tradition, but in the main a film told a story and the audience wanted to believe that story.' (Don Allen interviewing Truffaut, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1979.)


Christopher Bray


Sean Connery: A Biography


Pegasus Books, LLC


Copyright 2011 by Christopher Bray


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