I’ve been revisiting the Sean Connery Bonds lately, on widescreen projection, where the immaculate detail and lush photography of airports, country roads, mosques, and Ealing Studio interiors come alive. But what I am really noticing is the full greatness of Connery’s multi-leveled performances. On the small screen you can’t really see the subtle darkening of his face when he begins to suspect whoever he’s talking to of being a bad guy; the face darkens, his smile gets a shade more patronizing, and his eyes dilate with sadistic anticipation, but that’s it, barely ripple on the calm Connery surface. It’s nuance I’d never noticed before and I’ve seen these films zillions of times…
Maybe it’s the real sense of aliveness and danger that fits perfectly around the paperback cover imagery in these early films. Bond is completely living moment to moment by his wits; no one is who they seem, and the only gadget he gets (in Dr. No at least) is a freakin’ hand gun. None of the spy game’s intricacies are spelled out in the dialogue, but they’re there and as a result, Connery Bonds keep maturing every year.
A lot of this durability likely stems from our shared collective history of “growing up Bond.” Bond movies live in a miasmatic center of the brain along with half-forgotten idylls, dreams, and distorted recollections of first loves. There’s always a ground zero with Bond – you can walk in on any of the movies half-way through and be exactly where you left off on the last one; they swim in a timeless primordial sea of espionage, whether dealing directly with the cold war (Connery), brooding impressively over simulcaratic terrorists (Brosnan) or just skylarking with deformed elitist megalomaniacs (Moore).
As a boy, the intricacies of cold war espionage were lost to me. My friends and I lived for the fight scenes and babes. Now the plots are interesting and some of the “action” by contrast looks ridiculous, such as the spider attack in Dr. No. Imagine a cool character like Bond getting all ruffled up by a mere tarantula!? Maybe in 1962 they were scared of them, but now we know that tarantulas rarely bite and if they do it’s no deadlier than the average wasp sting. Still, as a kid that was the best part. We couldn’t understand the spy talk, but a big ugly spider in your bed? That’s the stuff of kid nightmares!
Another timelessly refreshing element of the early Bonds I missed the first dozen times are Connery un-PC seduction strategies: he knows most of these women are spies out to kill him, but he feigns naivete in order to shag them first, kill and/or interrogate second, but we in the audience worry he’s letting his guard down. As in pre-code Hollywood, with Connery, sex is not a case of male take all… even in the throes of intimacy both sides have their eyes wide open, waiting for the other to reach for a pistol or put some poison in the other’s drink. Bond has to be awake all the time, and sometimes he’s caught off guard. Connery even drops his gun occasionally. All the spy stuff is taken seriously and has the ring of some truth, of being based on Ian Fleming’s personal OSS experience. It wouldn’t be until Diamonds are Forever that we’d see the beginning of the “campy” self-aware Bond era which Roger Moore would come to embody.
It’s perhaps Moore’s escalating cartoonishness, his mugging for the kiddies–so precious in The Spy Who Loved Me and a little more cheeky and tired in every movie to follow (For Your Eyes Only the notable exception)–that helped spell the end, not of Bond himself but the end of the “real” manly chauvinism embodied by Connery. When Timothy Dalton ushered in the PC Bond era, as Kim Morgan notes, he seemed almost apologetic for Moore’s and Connery’s sins against Woman. Pierce Brosnan was a healthy breath of brash air after that, yet still too perfume commercial perfect, too arrogantly 1990s; he could sleep around because he wasn’t real in the ferociously intelligent way Connery was. But if Brosnan-Bond wasn’t real, at least his gadgets were; it was the Age of Microsoft and everything was handheld. But in order to be “real” yourself, as real as your technology, you have to suffer, and the more Brosnan-Bond tried to recapture the gusto-laden tactility of the pre-PC era, the farther away it whooshed… until… Craig, Daniel Craig.
One of the many things which makes Daniel Craig the best Bond since Connery is his pain. He’s aware of the lost sense of intimacy that came with having license to both kill and “be a sexual heel.” Connery’s Bond was always civil to the bad guys until they killed a friend or a girl of his, then his steely eyes hardened and the insults started flowing; underneath the tough veneer he genuinely cared. The later Bonds by contrast put up a caring veneer in addition to a tough veneer; they were all veneer. Daniel Craig comes to us with all veneers smashed; the pain of crushed innocence and the rage of a wounded orphan child in his big deep gray eyes, the “non-veneerial” toughness returned. He’s our inner Connery, stifled from a solid three decades spent smothered under a vest of plastic self-reflexivity and now ready to break loose and start fucking shit up. He may have kept Brosnan’s M (Judi Dench) but in all other aspects he’s starting from scratch, an amnesiac Bond, caught in his loop de loop through time. But first, his eyes moistened with sorrow, Craig’s Bond pauses to shed a tear, like the Native American on horseback looking at litter in that 1970s commercial, at how much depth and beauty has been auctioned off to the lowest common denominational bidder since he went into hiding at the crossroads of Lazenby.
But all is forgiven, James! And every time a new Bond movie comes out, its a global event, a pan-historic cultural ripple, and this weekend’s Quantum of Solace should prove no exception. So what better week to dust off those old Conneries and slap yourself into a state of exultation? This time Craig has nothing to cry about; the future is rosy. Obama be praised!