Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Thirteen: For Your Eyes Only (1981)

It’s possible that EON Productions spent more time in the early 80s on casting their leading man – without recasting – than any other studio.  This was more notable in the build-up to Octopussy in 1983, but the telltale signs that For Your Eyes Only was going into production without a commitment from Roger Moore is written all over the final product.

As the James Bond series entered its third decade, it was reaching a crossroads.  While no longer ruling the cinematic world – Star Wars by now a hotter property – it remained a very successful franchise.  Moore had successfully supplanted Sean Connery as James Bond in public consciousness, and grosses had rebounded from the low of The Man with the Golden Gun.  For all that, with Moonraker the series had stepped just outside the tonal sweet spot it had found with (most of) The Spy Who Loved Me.  Moore would turn 53 just before production commenced on the twelfth entry.  It was understandable that EON would look both at tone and leading man.  With the success of the previous film, however, it’s fair to say that they preferred to avoid a change of lead at this stage.  In the event, a deal was struck, but not before a script was drafted that took a more grounded tone, opening with scenes perfect for introducing a new Bond.

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For Your Eyes Only opens with Bond at Tracy’s grave (which would have established the new leading man as the same character).  This leads on to a horrible and incongruous scene with Blofeld (not named – and only here for EON to thumb their nose at Kevin McClory – see the Thunderball article for details) hijacking Bond’s helicopter and…. well let’s just skip that.  The main story sees British Intelligence called in after the navy loses an Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator (ATAC – a similar plot device to the Lektor in From Russia With Love).  Bond is called in to ensure it’s recovered before the Soviets can get it, as they would be able to order Polaris missiles to be fired in that event.  Marine archaeologist, Sir Timothy Havelock and his wife are murdered in the course of trying to locate, for MI6, the ship on which the ATAC sank; leaving their daughter, Melina (Carole Bouquet), vowing revenge.  As her mission to avenge parents crosses with Bond’s need to recover the ATAC, they find themselves investigating a supply chain that leads directly to Greek businessman, Aristotle Kristatos (Julian Glover),, as, with the help of Milos Columbo (Topol), they race to prevent the device falling into Soviet hands.

For Your Eyes Only is the first entry to be directed by John Glen.  Starting with second unit and editing work on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Glen had been with the series, on and off, since the late ’60s.  He was very much aware that his leading man was on his fifth outing, and hence Moore’s take on the character was established.  Bond stalwart Richard Maibaum returned to scripting duties however, and this time was joined by Michael G. Wilson.  Wilson is the stepson of Cubby Broccoli and, with his sister Barbara Broccoli, the incumbent owners and production team at EON.  Today he is seen in every film, in a small cameo – some subtle, others… well.  Between the three men, they fashioned a relatively straight and serious spy thriller.  Glen would prove repeatedly, as he returned for every 1980s entry, that he had an excellent grasp of action cinema, with the set pieces in this era being a real standout.  For a personal opinion, Glen produced three excellent entries out of five: For Your Eyes Only is one of the three.

Roger Moore was too old to play Bond by now.  He was entering the stiff hair years: on the set of A View to a Kill, Grace Jones noted that Roger had the stiffest hair she’d ever encountered.  As he thinned somewhat, wardrobe and make-up had taken to thickening and arranging his hair and then adding industrial amounts of hairspray.  He simply doesn’t look as natural as in the 70s, and eight years into a role he assumed at the too-late-to-start age of 45, time was now against him.  On balance, Timothy Dalton would have been a better fit here, and casting him earlier would have given him the whole of the 80s, rather than the mere two films we got.

That said, this is Moore’s best performance in the role.  Were he not in this, it’s likely that the stupid Margaret Thatcher joke and the idea of a parrot giving out key plot information wouldn’t be either.  Otherwise, he plays it warm and sincere this time.  In early exchanges he’s in detective mode, and once with leading lady, he plays it caring in a way we’ll see again from his successor.  This is a Dalton film, three entries early, polluted slightly by the fact that they simply can’t help themselves with this Bond: there just has to be a silly (and rarely funny) joke crammed in where it doesn’t belong.  Thankfully, that sort of stuff is at a minimum, and the film isn’t too unbalanced tonally as a result.

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Supporting cast is excellent this time out, with Melina – as a strong, determined women, with a genuinely interesting and unusual look – at the stronger end of the Moore leading ladies (not the grandest compliment, to be fair).  Figure skater Bibi Dahl (Lynn-Holly Johnson), on the other hand is a mistake.  Both women are too young for the leading man (both being around 23 at time of the film’s release), but Melina has a slightly timeless quality.  Bibi plays very young (likely teenage), only exacerbating the age gap, and leaving Moore looking slightly uncomfortable.  Milos Columbo is one of the best allies of the series, rivaling Kerim Bey and Marc-Ange Draco.  Italian ally Luigi Ferrara (John Moreno) fares less well, given he’s there for a few minutes and, effectively, recommends the film’s villain to Bond.  Julian Glover as that villain is somewhat forgettable, but this is due largely to his late(ish) reveal in the film.  He’s playing decent for much of the running time.

As discussed last time, there is a Bernard Lee-sized hole in this film.  Lee was contracted to appear, but was taken sick with stomach cancer while the film was in production, and died in January 1981, before he could film his scenes.  The film puts M “on leave”, and makes do with Bill Tanner and the Minister (Geoffrey Keen in the latter role surviving a change of Government, with there now being a Conservative administration – hence the truly abysmal Thatcher joke at the end).  Lee’s absence actually serves the sense of MI6 being clueless without M, with Bond having to convince his bewildered superiors that there is still hope after the loss of the ATAC.  We would meet our new M in two years’ time.

For Your Eyes Only isn’t perfect.  The lead is too old, and his presence forces in jokes to a film that is screaming out for that sort of thing to be kept to a minimum.  Imagine Dalton or Craig chatting to a broad impression of the Prime Minister, while she cooks dinner – it wouldn’t fit… and it doesn’t here.  It lacks the iconography of a The Spy Who Loved Me.  It’s also slowly paced, meaning younger viewers often struggle to engage with it.  For all of that, it’s Roger’s best Bond entry and performance.  John Glen drew a straight, compassionate performance where we thought we’d already seen everything he could do with the role.  The story is stronger than thee last two outings, more evocative of a From Russia With Love, with its cold war-era espionage angle, than the tiring trope of a maniac wanting to erase humanity.

Taking around $195 million, (the highest grossing Bond of the 1980s – more on grosses in later articles), For Your Eyes Only would have been a wonderful swansong for the ageing Moore.  On the horizon, however, was a certain Kevin McClory.  The competing product that had been feared since the mid-70s when the ten year post-Thunderball moratorium expired was now on its way.  Once Sean Connery was announced to lead that project, EON felt they had no choice but to retain the Moore name to sell their film.  1983 would see a Battle Royale, as EON braced itself for the Battle of the Bonds.

The Road to Bond 25 will return with Octopussy (1983).

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