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“Spend the money quickly, Mister Bond”; The James Bond blogs: ‘Octopussy’ (1983)

10 Jun

Octopussy has one of the very best titles to a Bond film (or story). It’s intriguing, unique and vaguely rude. It promises much, and with another famous one word title in mind (Goldfinger) you might be excused for expecting a classic. Incidentally,Octopussy is, like Goldfinger, the only other Bond film named after its title character. The difference between the two films is that Octopussy is far from a great James Bond film, and lets us down just when it’s doing things so well. In fact, like the negative aspects of its title, the film itself is innuendo ridden, a bit silly and borders on parody.

The major deficiency in Octopussy is in the presentation of the lead character. Roger Moore is as likeable as ever, and is generally quite good, but his penchant for light comedy sometimes degenerates into farce. In the Q laboratory Bond uses a new digital camera to zoom in on a girl’s breasts. In another scene, after winning at backgammon, he hands over some cash to an Indian, saying “that’ll keep you in curry for a few weeks”. It’s almost like Roger Moore has suddenly turned into your embarrassing uncle at some Christmas party, ogling the women and making ill advised remarks about other nationalities. A suave super spy he is not. There is also a jungle scene where Bond tells a tiger to “sit!” (in a Barbra Woodhouse style) and then swings through the trees bellowing like Tarzan. Not only is this silly, it’s completely unnecessary. Bond is always meant to have an element of fantasy about him, that’s the nature of the beast, but here he is fatuous and unconvincing and that is the last thing you want to see in James Bond.

Blofeld and Goldfinger never had legs like that.

To be honest, there may have been a feeling in 1983 that Bond had had his day. Octopussy is often an unremarkable Bond film for me, which is odd considering its exotic locations. But being a good travelogue isn’t enough for a Bond film. This is even more ironic when you consider what a great story Octopussy has. Incidentally, the early part of the plot is taken from the superior Fleming short story “The property of a lady”, with the actual story “Octopussy” offering little more than its title. The story has Bond investigating the murder of fellow agent 009, and the mystery of why the spy had a replica of a priceless Faberge egg in his possession. It’s all a question of counterfeit, and Bond gets involved in a bidding war for the real Faberge egg, swapping the real egg for the fake before he loses. He follows the winner, Kamal Khan, to India where he discovers the man has an alliance with the deranged Russian General Orlov. Then enter Maud Adams as Octopussy (a stage name surely!), a mysterious circus acrobat turned jewel smuggler.

The clowns at Octopussy’s circus weren’t making much of an effort.

So Octopussy actually has a fairly interesting plot but it is often let down by its presentation. There’s no denying the impact of Peter Lamont’s lavish set design or the better moments of John Glen’s direction, but the whole thing fails to reach the heights of previous entries due to the lapses into daftness or (even worse) blandness. Despite being set in a country as exotic as India, sometimes I think Octopussy is about as glamorous as Carry on up the Khyber (and with similar humour). I can just about put up with a snake charmer playing the James Bond theme (“Catchy tune”, quips 007) but as mentioned I couldn’t really accept the jungle antics. There is a vaguely amusing scene where Bond has escaped Khans’ castle in a body bag, before freaking out two guards with his re-animated corpse routine. It’s incredibly silly, but I laughed. But, with this being Octopussy, I wasn’t laughing for long.

But despite all this negative criticism, Octopussy is nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests. Like I said, the story is a good one, Octopussy herself is an interesting character and there are some rather engrossing scenes, especially early on in the movie. The auction scenes, with the Faberge egg being switched for the fake, are quite novel and I do like the pre-titles sequence with the missile on the tail of Bond’s jet. The backgammon gambling has a degree of suspense and Kabir Bedi plays a menacing enough lackey called Gobinda. General Orlov is somewhat overplayed by Steven Berkoff as a complete nutter, but at least Louis Jordan convinces as the charming and dangerous Kamal Khan. Maud Adams is captivating as Octopussy, but she’s just not in it enough. A pity really, since she is quite a fascinating character, and complements Moore’s more mature 007 far better than the more juvenile Bond women. Also in the cast is a new ‘M’.  Robert Brown makes his debut as Bond’s boss, after the sad passing of Bernard Lee (the character was absent from For Your Eyes only). I don’t think Brown is anywhere near as good in the role, as Lee had made it his own by then.

The film also has a wonderful theme song in Rita Coolidge’s “All time high”. It’s a well-written and romantic piece of Bond accompaniment, and is possibly one of the better ‘80s themes. Once again, John Barry is the man behind the music, although, the song aside, his Octopussy score never sticks in my memory for long.

Kinder had gone upmarket.

There are some great chase scenes as well, through the streets of Delhi (some of it recreated at Pinewood studios, although you’d never guess!) India is presented in a fairly uninspiring clichéd way in this film, which is a shame, but at least the cinematography is up to scratch. Octopussy’s palace is quite a marvellous location and her ‘girls’ call to mind memories of Pussy Galore’s fighter pilots as they all have matching red jumpsuits. The final assault on Kamal Khan’s castle is very well realised too, with Moore’s Bond putting in one of his last great fight scenes. I love the bit where he slides down the stair banister, shooting off the end piece before he loses his own end piece.

Compared to the silliest parts of Diamonds are Forever or The Man with the Golden Gun, Octopussy is a much more grounded adventure. But a continuation of the grittier espionage style promised by For your eyes only is never fulfilled, although Octopussy doesn’t go too far into fantasy as some earlier Moore films. Maybe that’s part of the problem, as Octopussy treads an odd middle ground, never quite getting too outrageous, but still giving us loony comedy (usually where it isn’t welcome). Ironically, the scene where Bond disguises himself as a clown to infiltrate Octopussy’s circus, is not one of the unwelcome aspects. Here the humour is quite black, and Bond isn’t being fatuous, he’s a desperate man in disguise. Roger is at his best when he races to get to the bomb and deactivate it.

Get in there Son!

I’m well aware that some people consider Octopussy to be the very worst of the series. I think this is unfair, as there is still a lot of fun to be had watching the film. It’s no great example of the Eon series as a whole, but it’s not unwatchable. Most definitely not Bond’s all time high, but still better than your average action flick.