The Iconography of James Bond

by | Oct 30, 2012 | Film & TV

james bond iconography

‘Well I’m not hiding in there, if that’s your brilliant plan,’ M tells Bond as they stand outside the lock-up on a dark quiet backstreet somewhere in London.

‘We’re changing vehicles,’ replies Bond.

This is the pivotal moment in Skyfall, the 23rd film in the James Bond and the 3rd in which Daniel Craig has played the eponymous super spy.

The previous ten minutes has seen a spectacular and tense action sequence involving a deliberately evocative bomb and underground moment and an assassination attempt on Bond’s boss, M (Dame Judi Dench) during a Governmental hearing debating the relevance of her Secret Agent organisation (MI6) in the modern world.

It’s the underlying question that lurks behind the entire movie, up until that moment, and perhaps a question that has been hanging over the entire Craig era since he first earned his Double-O in the brilliantly stripped down Casino Royale.

Bond, with typically impeccable timing, saves M’s life at the hearing and ensures that she escapes from the scene unharmed — her would-be doer-inner Silva, however, gets away.

The next task therefore is to get his boss hidden and protected.

He gets her away by commandeering one of the official vehicles which just so happens to be a sleek, ultra-modern looking Jaguar. For the sake of what will follow, of course, this is surely no coincidence.

The scene cuts to night and the lock-up in the dark and empty street in London. Bond leans in, pulls open the locker door, a light flickers to life revealing, as we hear the deep bar of the opening theme music, an old Aston Martin DB5. And not, of course, any old Aston Martin DB5 — this is THE DB5 from Goldfinger, which became the ultimate Bond icon.

‘Get in,’ he tells M as the music segues into the equally iconic and quite wonderful guitar based 007 theme that takes us right back to the moment Connery looked across the baccarat table and announced himself to the world in Dr No — the first film of the series — in 1962.

Skyfall marked the 50th anniversary for the Bond of the movies and this scene is the less than subtle tribute to the franchise’s (don’t you hate that word?) heritage.

The scene shouldn’t work.

In the context of the film it borders on the silly and, in other less capable hands, would have had the audience removed from the tension that had been built up in the spectacular action which preceded it, taking the film into the realms of pastiche. It was the major flaw in the 20th Bond film Die Another Day (fun though it was), which marked the 40th anniversary (the last of the Pierce Brosnan era).

It doesn’t, of course, make any sense. This car is nearly fifty years old and the story arc we’ve been given for Bond is less than a decade in the making. And yet, despite this, the scene plays out — as far as I am concerned — wonderfully.

As out of context as the symbolism is we can forgive it momentarily (I confess to a little tingle of goosebumps as the car sped off into the night) because, for one, Craig and Dench remain unflinchingly in character and, secondly, the scene is short and not dwelt on for any great length. Moreover, however, the scene works because it represents a major — and quite surprising, for a Bond movie — shift in the pace, tone and theme of the film as it moves towards a climax. The moment Bond gets behind the wheel of that car is the culmination of a process which began right at the beginning of Casino Royale.

The culmination of Bond’s reconstruction.

Bond? James Bond?

In Casino Royale we see Bond as a bit of maverick and, indeed a novice. It makes him tough, volatile and, furthermore, vulnerable and prone to error. He doesn’t care whether his drink is shaken or stirred and when he introduces himself it’s as: ‘James Bond,’ only using ‘Bond, James Bond’ as the end credits roll (the indication that he is on the path towards the character with whom we’ve grown familiar.)

By Skyfall however he’s the seasoned spy — a man who has seen all, done all and who, it is suggested, may be somewhat jaded by his many missions.

Again the question of whether this is a man who’s time has passed. he’s still blessed with that arrogant coolness that we expect of the character — the cuff-links moment near the beginning a brilliant example. But Craig’s version of Bond is not that of some of the predecessors where the character became no more than a series of tics and catchphrases to run off ad nauseum to the delight of the hardcore fan. Craig has brought a harder edge, more in keeping with the Bond of Fleming’s novels, ruthless and occasionally reckless with strong sense of duty and right vs wrong.

This is not a man of raised eyebrows and cheesy one-liners upon death — the one moment he does it in Skyfall is laced in pathos for a man trying to maintain an image in the face of a formidable foe.

So when we reach the moment with the DB5 it is new meeting old. Craig has developed the character through three films to this moment — the moment he embraces all of those Bond icons of the past half century, shakes away all the rough edges and becomes that smooth sophisticate with whom we’re all too familiar.

Except, of course, he doesn’t.

That’s the beauty of the scene and the reason we can allow some latitude for its lack of context. You see, it goes back to that underlying question: Is Bond relevant in this modern world? M, in the minutes before Silva’s attack at the hearing, makes an impassioned case for the defence — but not necessarily is she speaking on behalf of the type of spy Bond had become by the time Brosnan hung up his tuxedo. A new century, a new era and new version of an old model.

And it’s the scene at the lock-up which seems to give us the definitive answer, before pulling the rug from our feet.

Bond may have arrived in the new car and left in the old one but anyone thinking that this was the moment he reverted to type and headed off to Silva’s lair (possibly in a volcano) to win the day, were really quite mistaken. In fact, from this moment onwards, the film goes in exactly the opposite direction — to which the director, Sam Mendes should be applauded. Bond doesn’t hunt Silva, he waits for Silva to hunt him (and M) — stripping down to the bare, and somewhat primitive, minimum. Yes there’s a final battle but there’s a more visceral, survivalist edge to it that gives mind to Straw Dogs or First Blood. (Yes, you could also argue if you were feeling a little mean spirited that it’s not a million miles from Home Alone or Crocodile Dundee 2!)

And the end, when it comes, is distinctly lacking in any kind of wit or indeed spectacle. So yes, the ‘lock-up’ scene may be a little of the left field, a self-referential nod to get the nostalgic among us a trifle misty-eyed. Nevertheless, the scene also works as a turning point; it allows a film that was ramping up and up in its intensity and city-levelling carnage, to take a breath — give a moment of pause — and then to strip away all that went before it, leaving one man standing at the end. A man still, it would seem, with a place in the world.

Which I think may have been the point.

Skyfall is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime

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