History, Legacy & Showmanship

James Bond’s All Time High: Remembering “Octopussy” on its 35th Anniversary

June 7, 2018 - 11:58 am   |   by
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A scene from Octopussy (1983).

Coate: In what way was Maud Adams’ Octopussy a memorable Bond Girl?

Chowdhury: Casting director Jane Jenkins had originally looked to cast Indian actresses as Octopussy including Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s bald beauty, Persis Khambatta. However, again, in a sign of the times, Maud Adams was eventually re-cast as the title character. Trailed as the first female Bond villain, Octopussy has a depth of background drawing cleverly from the eponymous 1966 posthumous Fleming short story. Adams had gained in confidence and her mysterious introduction feeding her pet octopus is atmospheric and bodes well. Adams’ scenes with Moore sizzle — especially where she dresses 007 down as a paid assassin and daring him to become two of a kind and move with her as one. Adams did the best with a poorly written part — MacDonald Fraser has her name revealed to be October Debussy — whose villainy is co-opted by her male co-stars. She is athletic in the Monsoon Palace attack and beautiful in a sari and acquits herself with grace and poise.

Christie: Octopussy may well be a movie which has been blighted by claims of cultural chauvinism over the years, but there was no denying the robust feminist credentials of its eponymous figure. Maud Adams’ Octopussy is smart, resourceful, and perceives Bond more as a useful instrument to achieve her goals than as the singular answer to her problems. In that sense she owed more to the tradition of strong, highly-skilled female supporting characters such as Anya Amasova and Melina Havelock than she would to the somewhat less independent Stacy Sutton who was to appear in Moore’s swansong A View to a Kill. The audience could believe without question that Octopussy is such an intelligent and quick-witted character, with undeniable qualities of leadership and organizational ability, that she is perfectly capable of taking on the film’s antagonist directly with no necessary involvement from Bond; a fact which is emphasized by the highly effective assault on Khan’s palace by her employees, which she orders when the scope of his treachery becomes clear. Rather than diminishing Bond’s relevance, Octopussy’s unwavering competence, ingenuity and autonomy make the on-screen pairing an interesting match of professional skills and understated romantic chemistry which was handled with customary proficiency by both Adams and Moore.

Cork: Octopussy was the first attempt to do a full-scale female Bond villain. She’s very much inspired by Pussy Galore, even down to having her own “flying circus” (of acrobats, not pilots). And like Pussy Galore, she’s really a good girl at heart once she’s slept with 007. There is something that dances into Tennessee Williams territory when she sleeps with the man responsible for her father’s death, but I’ll leave that to Octopussy’s therapist to handle. She also reminds me, oddly, of Marnie from the Hitchcock film starring Sean Connery in that she’s an obsessed kleptomaniac with sexual issues. Maud Adams is good in the role, but I miss the film where she’s the actual villain. As it is, she has far too little to do. She never seems essential to the plot.

The father of the cinematic character of Octopussy is one Major Dexter Smythe. Smythe commits suicide when confronted by Bond over the murder of a mountain guide some years previous. In the film, Bond refers to Smythe’s “native guide.” All this is a reference to the original Ian Fleming short story Octopussy. In that original short story, where the murder of the guide takes place in Austria, not North Korea, the guide is given a name, Hannes Oberhauser. The literary Bond describes Oberhauser as a father figure after the death of his parents. And in the film SPECTRE, Oberhauser is also the father of Franz, who grows up to become Blofeld. This means in some twisted merged literary / cinematic universe, Octopussy’s father killed Blofeld’s father.

Pfeiffer: I’ve known Maud for many years and she still remains one of my favorite Bond actresses. She was one of the few admirable elements in The Man with the Golden Gun. She has the distinction of being the only actress who played two different major roles in two different Bond films. She’s exquisitely beautiful as Octopussy and kudos to the costume designer for outfitting her so exotically. In the past, some of Bond’s leading ladies were…well, let’s put it this way…they were responsible for eliciting some unintended laughter from the audience. But Maud can act and can deliver some questionable lines of dialogue without the unintended consequences. She and Roger were great friends in real life and remained so. In 2010, Roger was in London and had agreed to appear at an event for our magazine, Cinema Retro. We were able to arrange for him to have a surprise reunion with Maud and Britt Ekland, who was also in Man with the Golden Gun. It was quite apparent how much respect Maud and Roger had for each other.

Coate: Where do you think Octopussy ranks among the James Bond movie series?

Chowdhury: I find ranking Bond films particularly difficult and actually unhelpful and inaccurate. Also, my mood shifts and times change. For me Octopussy was certainly the winner of 1983’s The Battle of the Bonds having a better story and setpieces than Connery’s Never Say Never Again — American fans tend to prefer the latter. Octopussy had too much broad humor which offset the clever and politically astute plot. However, as I outline [in my answer to the next question], as the Bond films moved away from setpieces and locations extravaganzas, one sometimes misses the sheer, unabashed entertainment where Octopussy’s virtues overcome its vices.

Christie: It seems that Octopussy has become a bit of a curio amongst Bond movies, and while unlikely to rank amongst the very best of Moore’s appearances in the role, its Cold War credentials have lent it a kind of contemporary political relevance (shared by its predecessor) that would be largely lacking in Moore’s final performance as Bond two years later. While it could be argued that the conceit of a nuclear incident being deliberately engineered to shift the Cold War status quo was more effectively delineated by Frederick Forsyth’s later novel The Fourth Protocol and its cinematic adaptation, for a Bond film the scenario felt fresh and germane to the glacial geopolitics of the early eighties in ways that demonstrated a shift away from the more grandiose global annihilation strategies of the late seventies entries in the series. However, what may feel like a move in the direction of greater subtlety and finesse in the film’s political commentary would inevitably make it seem remarkably sedate when viewed in the wider context of the Bond cycle, meaning that Octopussy has divided the opinions of both fans and critics since the time of its initial release.

Cork: I enjoy Octopussy. In my 2012 rankings I did with my son, it landed 15th, but that seems low to me today. Yet, when I look at the list, there are no real clunkers above it. It’s not a great Bond film. It’s too long. I never need to see the tuk-tuk chase in India again or cringe at Octopussy thanking Bond for causing her father’s death. But the chase to the airbase in Germany works on a Hitchcockian level, building real suspense. The film is saddled with a lot of silliness, like reaction shots from camels, and the smarmy sex jokes feel a bit creepy, but so much of the film just works.

Pfeiffer: I don’t think it outshines the first six films in the series or Casino Royale or Skyfall, but I do think it can fit snugly in as perhaps my 9th favorite film in the series. So middle-of-the-pack, in my opinion. I watched it last year when I screened the film at the Players Club in New York City, where we inducted Roger Moore as a member some years ago. I was very pleased with the way it held up, not having seen it in quite a few years. It still made me laugh and I believe it’s Roger’s most enjoyable performance as 007. More importantly, the audience, which was comprised not of Bond fans but of private club members, enjoyed it immensely, so I think its merits hold up well today.

Octopussy newspaper ad

Coate: What is the legacy of Octopussy?

Chowdhury: Watching the film now, one realizes they don’t make Bond like they used to. In 1983, they went to real, iconic locations and interacting directly with them: the Berlin Wall and Udaipur are incorporated into the story and action.

Back then, they kept loosely to the Three Girl Formula as coined by Roald Dahl: Tina…good, Magda…bad-ish, Octopussy…good-ish augmented by publicity pulchritude, the Octopussy Girls.

In those days, Bond films were the iron fist of a world affecting caper clad in the velvet glove of an elegant, seemingly unconnected MacGuffin, seasoned with elements of Ian Fleming. George MacDonald Fraser, later rewritten by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, confected a Zeitgeist-ian tale of forced nuclear disarmament exploited by a renegade Soviet general unraveled by the trail of a jeweled Faberge Egg, The Property of a Lady.

In 1983 there was still a suave central villain — the Afghan Prince Kamal Khan — assisted by physical heavy with a novel accoutrement: beturbaned Sikh warrior, Gobinda with his yo-yo buzz saw.

The film exemplifies the then typical Bondian trope of many staggered endings. Firstly, we have the nail-biting, absurdist Hitchcockian circus finale. Then, the all-girl assault on the Monsoon Palace, a feminist take on the boiler suit end battle. This is capped by the stinger where the villain and/or henchperson are dispatched using their devices against them. In this case, Bond using the Beechcraft airplane to off Gobinda (the twanging aerial) and Khan (his jacket jamming the airflap). Of course, the film finally ends with an “Oh James” waterborne ending. And, alas, Octopussy is the last Bond to end with the announcement of the title of its successor.

Watching any Bond film is to examine a pop-cultural time capsule but watching Octopussy is to examine how they used to make Bond films and how that process has evolved. For me it is nostalgic exercise, capturing the enjoyment of my youth. May 2017 marked the first time an actor who played Bond in the Eon series had passed. With the death of Sir Roger Moore, watching Octopussy now is freighted with poignancy, evoking the ache of all my unbought yesterdays.

Christie: While Octopussy may always be fated to be best remembered as the Bond film that went head-to-head with Never Say Never Again, its real legacy was to reaffirm the relevance of the series to an increasingly sophisticated international audience that was being presented by a resurgent action movie genre which was offering whole new levels of cinematic spectacle and excess. Whether it can be regarded as vintage Bond, or even a classic of the Moore era, is questionable. However, there is no doubt that the movie did play an important part in ongoing efforts throughout the eighties by John Glen and others within Eon Productions to reinvigorate the series, and that the groundwork laid at the end of Moore’s tenure in the role would act as a foundation for the considerably moodier and more starkly uncompromising approach of the Timothy Dalton films that would appear later in the decade.

Cork: In the film Ted, Mark Wahlberg belts out a terrible version of All Time High at a Nora Jones concert. That moment, in its own way, cemented the film’s place as an icon of 80s pop culture. Moonraker felt like From Star Wars with Love in 1979, and Octopussy feels a little like Raiders of the Lost Bond until it gets back to Germany during the last hour of the movie.

The legacy of Octopussy is, I feel, tied very much to one of the writers, George MacDonald Fraser. He was the original writer on the film. He oriented the story towards India, decided Bond should disguise himself as a clown and a gorilla. He also personally embraced the ideal of the British Empire, and he gave this movie a slightly anachronistic feel of The Raj, or at least Hollywood’s vision of it in films like The Rains Came (1939) with lots of white folks living in luxury and hobnobbing with exotic princes in India. Fraser did quite a bit more, too. This was Fraser’s version of James Bond which is a very different Bond than any other incarnation. Fraser wrote a famous series of novels about a 19th century bully, liar, and coward named Flashman. The brilliance of these novels is Flashman’s ability to seem like a hero despite being anything but. Fraser was also a passionate lover of the writing of P.G. Wodehouse, and Octopussy gives us a Bond who has quite a bit of Flashman and Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster mixed with a dash of Ian Fleming. This Bond is singularly annoying like Flashman (his taunting of Fanning at the auction, for example), utterly incompetent like (Magda stealing the Fabergé egg from him), easily flummoxed like Bertie Wooster (Bond is too intimidated by a woman at a pay phone to get word to the authorities about a legitimate nuclear terrorism threat), yet succeeds in spite of himself. Like Bertie Wooster after putting on blackface to escape a tense moment in P.G. Wodehouse’s Thank You, Jeeves, Bond in clown-face finds himself unable to be believed when he desperately needs help. Like Flashman, this Bond is a prankster, a 007 who would fake injuries that require elevation pulleys to be installed on Octopussy’s barge, all to surprise her when he breaks loose from them to reveal that he’s not injured at all. It is an interesting take on the character, and it worked for audiences. Fraser’s view of Bond is far from my take on the character, but it delivered the last unqualified success of the Bond series until GoldenEye, twelve years later.

Pfeiffer: Coming off the anemic Man with the Golden Gun, the series was in trouble. Grosses were down and Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli had broken up as partners. Cubby saved the day with the opulence and grandeur of The Spy Who Loved Me but went off track with Moonraker. That film was a commercial success but he later told me that he knew they had crossed the line in terms of over-the-top humor. He wanted to bring Bond back down to earth. He achieved that with For Your Eyes Only but that film really only comes alive in the second half. There was still too much zany, Keystone Cops-like humor. Octopussy finally got the formula right. I don’t think most fans appreciate the movie on the same level I do, but I urge them to give it another try.

Coate: Thank you — Ajay, Tom, John, and Lee — for participating and sharing your thoughts about Octopussy on the occasion of its 35th anniversary.

The James Bond roundtable discussion will return in Remembering “Live and Let Die” on its 45th Anniversary.

A scene from Octopussy (1983).

IMAGES

Selected images copyright/courtesy 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, CBS-Fox Home Video, Eon Productions Limited, Danjaq LLC, MGM Home Entertainment, United Artists Corporation.

 

- Michael Coate

Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link. (You can also follow Michael on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

Octopussy (Blu-ray Disc)

 

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