Countdown to Spectre: Octopussy Revisited

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The Bond: Roger Moore.

The Release: Released June 6, 1983, the film made $187.5 million worldwide. While that was lower than For Your Eyes Only, it still beat the other Bond film that year, Never Say Never Again, which earned $160 million.

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The Girl: This film represents and even bigger break from the three-girl structure again than FYEO. The first girl, Bianca (Tina Hudson), is Bond’s fellow agent in Cuba and while a sexual relationship is implied, it’s never shown onscreen. The second is Kristina Wayborn as Magda. While she plays the villain’s girlfriend, she doesn’t die even after seducing Bond. More importantly, Magda is more physically powerful than many of her predecessors, even going toe-to-toe with the villain’s men in the climactic battle. The main Bond Girl, however, is played by Maud Adams, who Bond fans will recognize as Scarmanga’s girlfriend, Andrea, from The Man with the Golden Gun. Here, she’s the titular Octopussy, but Adams somehow has less to do as the lead than she did as the back-up to Mary Goodnight.

The Villain: Also like FYEO, Octopussy has a dual villain structure. French-born Louis Jourdan is about as convincing as Afghan prince Kamal Khan as Mickey Rooney is as a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but at least he’s dashing. Steven Berkoff as high ranking Russian official Orlov is no charm all crazy. However, the performance is unhinged but deliberate rather than laughably ridiculous.

The Gadgets: The Bede BD-5 micro-plane with foldable wings that Bond flies in the spectacular opening sequence is one of the franchise’s best gadgets. Cubby Broccoli originally wanted to use the aircraft in Moonraker, but the sequence was scrapped when it couldn’t be easily fit into the script. Perhaps because of its size, the plane seems to zip around at terrific speed. Parts of the scene were inevitably done in miniature (though shocking not the moment where it flies through a warehouse), but the special effects are so seamless that it’s occasionally difficult to tell. And the ending of the scene is just about perfect: Bond lands the plane on a normal road, stops at a gas station and tosses off a casual, “fill ‘er up, please,” at the attendant.

The Song: Sung by Rita Coolidge, “All Time High” is only the second Bond theme with a different title than the film for which it was written. However, it’s no “Nobody Does It Better”. The song is almost embarrassingly cheesy and would be unbearable if not for Maurice Binder’s stellar opening credits sequence. The silhouettes of naked women flipping around had become pretty standard, but the decision to project laser images onto strategically lit bare skin creates some of Binder’s most erotic imagery in years.

The Book: Like its predecessor, this film is based on two of Ian Fleming’s short stories: “Octopussy” and “The Property of a Lady.” However, writers George MacDonald Fraser, Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson did a much better job of meshing them.

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The titular tale is, shockingly, almost unchanged. Here, it provides Octopussy’s backstory. Years before, Bond investigated a Major Dexter Smythe who was suspected of stealing Chinese gold during the Korean War. Wanting to avoid the shame of a trial, Smythe killed himself, leaving behind a beloved daughter whom he affectionately called–you guessed it–Octopussy. Rather than hating Bond, however, she’s thankful that he gave her father the option to take the dignified way out by warning him of his future arrest. In Fleming’s story, Smythe is an aging widower with a heart problem whose only remaining joy the reef outside of his Jamaican home. His favorite creature in it, an octopus he calls Octopussy, eventually kills him. The only other difference is that Smythe steals Nazi gold after the Second World War and murders an innocent German ski instructor with whom Bond was close.

A surprising amount of “The Property of a Lady” makes it into the film too, namely, a Russian plot involving the auction of a Fabergé piece. In the story, it’s used to pay off the titular lady, who thinks she’s a double agent in the British Secret Service, but actually unwittingly feeds doctored information to her handlers behind the Wall. In the film, it’s just a small part of Orlov and Khan’s plot to set off a nuclear bomb on an U.S. Air Force base.

The Movie: Octopussy isn’t a bad movie. It’s vastly superior to its immediate predecessor and probably ranks somewhere in the middle of the Bond films in terms of quality. The opening Bede sequence and the scene where 009 (dressed as a clown) is chased through the woods are a great start, but the rest of the movie feels overloaded. And it doesn’t help that it’s the second best Bond film of 1983.

Kevin McClory (the guy who took Ian Fleming to court for rights to Thunderball) had been trying to make his own Bond franchise for years. His initial deal with Eon prevented him from readapting the book for a decade and he went right into development as soon as he could. The initial script had very little to do with the novel (it involved a climactic battle atop the Statue of Liberty), but after yet another legal battle with Eon, it was ruled McClory’s rights only extended as far as readapting Thunderball.

Never Say Never Again (basically a joke about Sean Connery returning to the character after 12 years of swearing not to) is more of an update than a straight adaptation, but it’s a near-seamless addition to the official franchise. Bond is at his best when he has good girls and villains to work with and that’s very true here. Kim Basinger as Domino is at the height of her beauty and she’s a genuine actress, something the official Bond girls hadn’t been since poor Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. She and Connery have surprising chemistry with little of the dirty old man feel that Moore has with Wayborn in Octopussy. However, Klaus Maria Brandauer’s turn as Maximilian (instead of Emilio) Largo is the standout. He’s sinister in a subdued way that feels a lot like Mads Mikkelson’s Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.

In fact, NSNA anticipates a lot of Bond’s future. Take the villainess Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera). Not every villainess is a tamed by Bond’s sexuality (Fiona Volpe in Thunderball, for example), but few represent as much of a physical threat as Fatima. So, because of that and her frank, aggressive, some might say traditionally male sexuality, Fatima is blown to smithereens because she represents a challenge to Bond’s supremacy. Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp from 1995’s Goldeneye follows the exact same trajectory. The only difference is that her sexuality is too dangerous for even Bond to indulge in.

Especially in comparison to Octopussy, NSNA is proof of how desperately the Eon series needed a reboot. Even on just a visual level, the official Bond looks like an outdated ’70s movie while NSNA looks like a movie from 1983. Worse, everything about Octopussy–from the costumes and the locations right down to the story–is over-complicated. There’s no room left for Bond to actually just be a charming spy. Never Say Never Again remembers that Bond, and especially Connery’s Bond, is the draw. And unfortunately, the official franchise wouldn’t remember that for a few years yet.