Friday, October 29, 2010

007 In Depth: Conventional Thinking

In Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), villainous mastermind Dr Evil captures Austin Powers, who he then introduces to his son, Scott:
'Dr. Evil: Scott, I want you to meet Daddy’s nemesis, Austin Powers.
Scott Evil: What? Are you feeding him? Why don’t you just kill him?
Dr. Evil: I have an even better idea. I’m going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death.'
This is an obvious parody of James Bond, and raises a laugh for that reason. One of the best-known examples of such a scene takes place in Goldfinger, in which Bond is captured by the eponymous super-villain, a gold-smuggler said to be ‘the richest man in England’. In the novel, published in 1959, Bond is bound to a table and threatened with a buzz saw:
'Bond glanced down the table on which he lay spread-eagled. He let his head fall back with a sigh. There was a narrow slit down the centre of the polished steel table. At the far end of the slit, like a foresight framed in the vee of his parted feet, were the glinting teeth of a circular saw…'1
Bond, increasingly desperate as the saw approaches his body, suggests that he and his companion Tilly Masterton could work for Goldfinger. The offer is rejected:
'Bond said politely, ‘Then you can go and —— yourself.’ He expelled all the breath from his lungs and closed his eyes.

‘Even I am not capable of that, Mr Bond,’ said Goldfinger with good humour. ‘And now, since you have chosen the stony path instead of the smooth, I must extract what interest I can from your predicament by making the path as stony as possible...’'2
But then, on a whim, Goldfinger changes his mind. He decides he does need a couple of assistants after all, and shuts off the saw.

When it came to adapting the book for film, this scene proved problematic for the scriptwriters. The first problem was the one that Austin Powers poked fun at: why would a villain go to such extravagant lengths to kill the hero when it would be much simpler (and safer) to just shoot him through the head? Secondly, how does Bond get out of the situation? Fleming’s solution seemed highly implausible, and might elicit groans from a cinema audience. And finally, the entire set-up was a cliché: along with being tied to train tracks, such scenes had been a staple of the early radio and film serials, pulps and cartoons. In Columbia Pictures’ Captain Midnight in 1942, for example, the titular hero finds himself on a log rapidly heading towards a buzz saw, while in the 1933 Disney cartoon The Mad Doctor, Mickey Mouse has an extended nightmare in which he is strapped to an operating table by a Doctor XXX before a spinning saw descends from the ceiling to cut him in two.

While he was working on the treatment for Goldfinger in April 1963, Richard Maibaum wrote to the film’s producers, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, to explain his solution to this problem:
'That BUZZ SAW in the torture scene must go. It’s the oldest device in cheap melodrama. The villain strapping the heroine to a work bench, etc. It’s comic by now. Instead, I am dreaming up a machine which utilizes the new LASER BEAM. It was featured in LIFE magazine and I have sent for the article to send on to you. It’s a coiled light around an oblong-shaped ruby. When the light is turned on a beam of red light is emitted from the ruby. A ten-thousandth of a second exposure to the beam can remove a cancer. It also can be used, when developed, to cut steel, etc. I visualize a demonstration of the beam, from an overhead contraption hanging from rails on the ceiling, showing it cutting through steel like a razor through paper. And then used, as the buzz saw was in the book, threatening to cut Bond in half. The beam will look like a fiery red concentrated thin long blade emerging straight down from the contraption overhead, coming closer, closer. With the same electrical whine as the saw would have. This out-Flemings Fleming. Using the very latest scientific discovery in the old way of scaring the wits out of people.'3
The futuristic extravagance of the laser beam distracted from the fact that the essence of the scene remained the same, with the same problems: there seemed no reason for Goldfinger not to just shoot Bond, no reason to spare him, and equally no way for Bond to plausibly escape from the table. Maibaum and Paul Dehn, who was called in to work on the script, both struggled with these problems. Eventually, Dehn worked out a solution whereby Bond overhears Goldfinger refer to ‘Operation Grand Slam’ earlier, and by mentioning it piques the villain’s interest and fear enough to have him shut off the machine. Dehn also added the famous dialogue in the scene:
'Bond: Do you expect me to talk?
Goldfinger: No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!'
Goldfinger was the film that made James Bond a global phenomenon. As a result, this scene is popularly regarded as the prototype of the villain arranging an elaborate death for the captured hero, as parodied in Austin Powers and elsewhere. But this convention doesn’t simply predate Goldfinger: it was so common that it was already being parodied decades before the novel and film were released. In Leslie Charteris’ 1930 novel Knight Templar (later retitled The Avenging Saint), Simon Templar renews battle with villainous mastermind Dr Rayt Marius. In the third act, Marius captures The Saint, who sardonically remarks that he hopes Marius has invented a ‘picturesque’ way for him to die:
'‘It is certainly necessary for you to die, Templar,’ said Marius dispassionately. ‘There is a score between us that cannot be settled in any other way.’
The Saint nodded, and for a moment his eyes were two flakes of blue steel.
‘You’re right, Angel Face,’ he said softly. ‘You’re dead right… This planet isn’t big enough to hold us both. And you know as surely as you’re standing there that if you don’t kill me I’m going to kill you, Rayt Marius!’
‘I appreciate that,’ said the giant calmly.
And then the Saint laughed.
‘But still we have to face the question of method, old dear,’ he murmured, with an easy return of all his old mocking banter. ‘You can’t wander round England bumping people off quite so airily. I know you’ve done it before – on one particular occasion – but I haven’t yet discovered how you got away with it. There are bodies to be got rid of, and things like that, you know – it isn’t quite such a soft snap as it reads in story-books. It’s an awful bore, but there you are. Or were you just thinking of running us through the mincing machine and sluicin’ the pieces down the kitchen sink?’
Marius shook his head.
‘I have noticed,’ he remarked, ‘that in the stories to which you refer, the method employed for the elimination of an undesirable busybody is usually so elaborate and complicated that the hero’s escape is as inevitable as the reader expects it to be. But I have not that melodramatic mind. If you are expecting an underground cellar full of poisonous snakes, or a trap-door leading to a subterranean river, or a man-eating tiger imported for your benefit, or anything else so conventional – pray disillusion yourself. The end I have designed for you is very simple. You will simply meet with an unfortunate accident – that is all.’
He was carefully trimming the end of his cigar as he spoke; and his tremendous hands moved to the operation with a ruthless deliberation that was more terrible than any violence.'4
This is essentially the same gag as the one in Austin Powers, only 67 years earlier – and 23 years before James Bond was created. Charteris was poking fun at well-established thriller conventions, and also at himself, as he had used many of them. But he also made sure not to undermine the idea so much that he couldn’t use similar plot devices later:
'The Saint knew as well as anyone that the blood-curdling inventions of the sensational novelist had a real foundation in the mentality of a certain type of crook, that there were men constitutionally incapable of putting the straightforward skates under an enemy whom they had in their power – men whose tortuous minds ran to electrically fired revolvers, or tame alligators in a private swimming bath, as inevitably as water runs downhill. The Saint had met this type of man.'5

Knight Templar features several other conventions now associated with James Bond. In the novel’s opening chapter, Simon Templar is held at gunpoint; he throws a cigarette onto the floor that fills the place with white smoke, allowing him to make his escape. ‘Altogether a most satisfactory beginning to the Sabbath,’ he remarks to his sidekick, Roger Conway, as they speed away in his eight-cylinder Hirondel:
'‘I won’t say it was dead easy, but you can’t have everything. The only real trouble came at the very end, and then the old magnesium cigarette was just what the doctor ordered...’'6
If you were to feature such a scene in a film or novel today, it would be seen as a parody of James Bond. But Ian Fleming also spoofed this precise plot idea. In From Russia, With Love, published in 1957, Bond is caught unawares on the Orient Express by SMERSH assassin Red Grant, who aims a copy of War and Peace at him that can shoot –.25 dum-dum bullets fired by an electric battery. Bond stalls for time by saying that SMERSH seems to have thought out their operation very well, but for one thing. Grant asks him to elucidate:
'‘Not without a cigarette.’
‘Okay. Go ahead. But if there’s a move I don’t like, you’ll be dead.’

Bond slipped his right hand into his hip-pocket. He drew out his broad gunmetal cigarette case. Opened it. Took out a cigarette. Took his lighter out of his trouser pocket. Lit the cigarette and put the lighter back. He left the cigarette case on his lap beside the book. He put his left hand casually over the book and the cigarette case as if to prevent them slipping off his lap. He puffed away at his cigarette. If only it had been a trick one–magnesium flare, or anything he could throw in the man’s face! If only his Service went in for those explosive toys!’'7
The joke in Austin Powers about villains not shooting heroes when they get the chance is immediately associated with the Bond films, testament to how successful they have been. A knock-on effect of their global popularity has been that Ian Fleming is now thought to have originated many conventions of the thriller genre that predate his novels by decades. A related convention to the villain preparing overly elaborate methods of doing away with the hero is that while doing so he also boastfully explains his plans. Once the hero has escaped, he is then armed with enough information to stop the plot. Red Grant makes this mistake in From Russia, With Love:
'‘I expect you’d like to know what this is all about. Be glad to tell you. We’ve got about half an hour before you’re due to go. It’ll give me an extra kick telling the famous Mister Bond of the Secret Service what a bloody fool he is.’'8
This device also features in Knight Templar: when Rayt Marius captures The Saint, he conveniently outlines ‘the bare and sufficient essentials of an abomination that would set a torch to the powder-magazine of Europe and kindle such a blaze as could only be quenched in smoking seas of blood’.9

Even the popular conception of what constitutes a ‘Bond villain’ predates Ian Fleming. Marius is an arms-dealer trying to start a war on behalf of a group of financiers; said to be ‘one of the richest men in the world’, he is nicknamed the Millionaire Without A Country. He is also a giant, and an ugly one at that, which is why The Saint calls him ‘Angel Face’. In fact, this sort of megalomaniacal super-villain plotting wide-reaching conspiracies has existed since the beginning of the 20th century, featuring in thrillers by the likes of William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim. These characters were often physically deformed foreigners who wined and dined the hero with great sophistication while pontificating on their grand schemes. Here’s an excerpt from The Man With The Clubfoot by Valentine Williams, published in 1918, in which Prussian spymaster Dr Adolph ‘Clubfoot’ Grundt entertains British secret agent Desmond Okewood:
'‘You smoke?’ queried Clubfoot. ‘No!’ – he held up his hand to stop me as I was reaching for my cigarette case, ‘you shall have a cigar – not one of our poor German Hamburgers, but a fine Havana cigar given me by a member of the English Privy Council. You stare! Aha! I repeat, by a member of the English Privy Council, to me, the Boche, the barbarian, the Hun! No hole and corner work for the old doctor. Der Stelze may be lame, Clubfoot may be past his work, but when he travels en mission, he travels en prince, the man of wealth and substance. There is none too high to do him honour, to listen to his views on poor, misguided Germany, the land of thinkers sold into bondage to the militarists! Bah! the fools!’
He snarled venomously. This man was beginning to interest me. His rapid change of moods was fascinating, now the kindly philosopher, now the Teuton braggart, now the Hun incorporate. As he limped across the room to fetch his cigar case from the mantelpiece, I studied him.

He was a vast man, not so much by reason of his height, which was below the medium, but his bulk, which was enormous. The span of his shoulders was immense, and, though a heavy paunch and a white flabbiness of face spoke of a gross, sedentary life, he was obviously a man of quite unusual strength. His arms particularly were out of all proportion to his stature, being so long that his hands hung down on either side of him when he stood erect, like the paws of some giant ape. Altogether, there was something decidedly simian about his appearance... his squat nose with hairy, open nostrils, and the general hirsuteness of the man, his bushy eyebrows, the tufts of black hair on his cheekbones and on the backs of his big, spade like hands. And there was that in his eyes, dark and courageous beneath the shaggy brows, that hinted at accesses of ape-like fury, uncontrollable and ferocious.

He gave me his cigar which, as he had said, was a good one, and, after a preliminary sip of his wine, began to speak.

‘I am a plain man, Herr Doktor,’ he said, ‘and I like plain speaking. That is why I am going to speak quite plainly to you...’'10
Since the publication of the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953, dozens of articles and books have been written about Ian Fleming. Surprisingly, very few have looked at his influences in any depth. In The James Bond Dossier (1965), Kingsley Amis repeatedly compared Bond to H. ‘Sapper’ McNeile’s character Bulldog Drummond. But while Drummond was certainly an influence – a two-fisted hero in a Bentley battling arch-villain Carl Peterson and his mistress Irma – he was much less of one than Charteris’ The Saint, who is surprisingly absent from most literary criticism on Ian Fleming (Bernard Bergonzi being a notable exception). The early serials, pulps and other authors barely get a look-in, and the idea has solidified over the years that Fleming was influenced primarily by Sapper, John Buchan and Sax Rohmer. He was inspired by all three of those writers, in various ways, but I think several others were greater influences.

The result of Amis’ and others’ misconceptions is that later critics have read a couple of Sapper or Buchan novels and come away with the idea that they represented the last markers before the arrival of James Bond on the scene: it is as though the thriller between around 1928 and 1953 has been completely forgotten. This has led to the even firmer idea that while the so-called ‘clubland heroes’ may have defeated a few foreign baddies and driven fast cars, there was no sex, sadism or snobbery in thrillers before Fleming. For example, in 1968 Richard Boston wrote in The New York Times that ‘the short step from Bulldog Drummond to Ian Fleming’s James Bond consisted in giving the hero a sex life’11. In fact, sex had arrived in the British thriller long before the publication of Casino Royale, and in some cases was significantly more graphic. Several wartime heroes were much more of an influence on Fleming than those of 1920s clubland.

When Ian Fleming sat down to his typewriter in Jamaica in January 1952, he created an iconic fictional hero. Like Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood and King Arthur, as long as stories are told James Bond will live on. Kingsley Amis wrote The James Bond Dossier as a rallying cry for Fleming to be granted a place in the canon of literature as a genius of popular fiction alongside the likes of Jules Verne, Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle. But that cry has largely been ignored, and a great deal of analysis of Fleming’s work has misunderstood his place in the canon of the thriller – and quite a lot of it has ignored the fundamental principles of literary criticism.

I believe Ian Fleming wrote some of the most groundbreaking and influential thrillers of the 20th century, but that they were so in very different ways than those with which he’s usually credited. To get to what I think Fleming contributed to the genre, it’s necessary to dismantle some long-standing and deep-rooted misconceptions about his work, and the context in which he created it. So in the next few posts in this series, I’ll be looking in greater depth at several old thrillers, many of which have been forgotten, but which I think will seem very familiar if you’re a fan of James Bond.

And I’ll be strapping a few of Ian Fleming’s critics to a work-bench and switching on my laser beam.

With many thanks to Colleen Kelley at the Special Collections of the University of Iowa Libraries.


1, 2. pp145-148 Goldfinger by Ian Fleming, Pan, 1964.
3. Richard Maibaum to Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, April 30 1963, Papers of Richard Maibaum, Special Collections of the University of Iowa Libraries.
4. pp148-149, The Avenging Saint by Leslie Charteris, Hodder & Stoughton, 1954.
5. p150, The Avenging Saint.
6. p16, The Avenging Saint.
7. p195, From Russia, With Love by Ian Fleming, Pan, 1972.
8, p189, From Russia, With Love.
9. p145, The Avenging Saint.
10. pp98-99, The Man With The Clubfoot by Valentine Williams, BiblioBazaar, 2008.
11. ‘What Became of Harting?’ by Richard Boston, New York Times, October 27 1968.

This is part of 007 In Depth, a series of articles on Ian Fleming and James Bond.


  1. FanTAStic! I assume Denis Wheatley will be one of the influences listed? ;-)

  2. Thanks, Matthew. Yes, I'll be discussing Wheatley, but also a lot of other writers. I hope you enjoy it!