Hasslein Blog: Titles... Bond Titles, Part One—Featuring Guest Blogger Ed Erdelac

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Hasslein Blog

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Titles... Bond Titles, Part One—Featuring Guest Blogger Ed Erdelac

Today, we happily hand the conch to novelist Ed Erdelac, who graciously submitted a three-part retrospective about the opening title sequences of the last four decades' worth of James Bond films. This is a great piece, and I'm sure you'll enjoy it. —Rich Handley

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The James Bond Title Sequences as a Genre of Short Film
Part One: From Dr. No to Diamonds Are Forever

by Ed Erdelac

Wayyy back in my liberal arts college days in Chicago, I took a required course toward my film degree, called "Short Forms of Film and Video." The class was concerned mostly with experimental short films, like the notorious surrealist Un Chien Andalou, from Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, and almost inscrutable stuff from Maya Deren. I sat through everything, from a twenty-three-minute-long silent film that consisted of zooming in and out of an empty hallway (yeah, I'm serious—check it out below) to extreme close-ups inside the open cavities of autopsy corpses (Stan Brakhage's The Act Of Seeing With One's Own Eyes).



So when the time came to write papers for this class, I had to find a way to make it fun and interesting for myself (so I could pass). I'm sure, for my poor professor, this was excruciating. The guy was trying to expand our cultural horizons (sometimes successfully, sometimes Serene Velocity), and I was turning in essays on Tex Avery.

One paper I did, which I'm going to attempt to replicate here (don't worry, only the fun parts, kids), was called "The James Bond Title Sequences as a Genre of Short Film."


I thought it might be fun to revisit each of the title sequences, and do a breakdown on common themes and tropes that appear in them, and how each one relates to its respective film, as a kind of buildup to the release of Skyfall. I'm kicking it off with the classic Sean Connery and George Lazenby years—from Dr. No to Diamonds Are Forever.

Bond, back when villains wore Nehru jackets.

Dr. No

The opening titles for the first James Bond film establish the now-classic elements that will appear again and again in the years to come, albeit in an almost embryonic form. They open with the brilliant stylized rifled barrel framing Bond himself, walking into the shot, then turning and firing his PPK at an unseen gunman. As the screen runs with blood tint, Monty Norman's and John Barry's jazzy instrumental theme kicks in and the wavering pistol point-of-view fades into a white dot, which then takes its place among rows of similar flashing and dancing shapes, parading in tune like the lights on a jukebox. The visuals are by Bond title auteur Maurice Binder, but owe a great deal to the legendary Saul Bass, whose minimalist, evocative abstract animation and design work was inescapable and at its zenith in the 1960s, particularly well-represented in his memorable opening titles for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Vertigo. He had a way of stripping down a movie to its basic element and finding a shape or picture that best evoked the whole, like the falling silhouette in Vertigo, or the twisted, cubist yellow limb for The Man With The Golden Arm. Bass perfected the technique of animated shapes coordinating with theme music, and that's what Binder emulates here with Dr. No. Around the 1:29 mark, the Bond theme shifts into a Caribbean Calypso-style bongo tune, and we get the birth of another Bond titles trope: the multicolored dancing silhouettes of shapely females, melding together in a suggestive style. The credit sequence ends with the Calypso rendition of "Three Blind Mice" accompanying the slow, shuffling and comic procession of three blind men in a row—which of course, if you've seen the movie, you know isn't really comical at all, considering that the Three Blind Mice are the assassins hired by Dr. No to kill Agent Strangways.

From Russia With Love

The title sequence for the second Bond outing takes the fuzzy female silhouettes, hinting at the sexual aspect of the movies, and pulls them a little further and more effectively into the foreground. We lose the down-the-barrel shot from Dr. No and jump right into the credits with a John Barry trumpet refrain that swiftly becomes a jaunty pipe organ instrumental version of the first Bond song, Lionel Bart's titular "From Russia With Love" (crooned in the body of the film and at the end titles by a loungey, smoky Matt Munro). But it's the visuals that male a splash in this one. Binder's Bassian abstract shapes are replaced by some very concrete shapes here—close-ups of a full-bodied Gypsy woman belly-dancing tantalizingly against a black background, the credits projected as if drifting on water across her undulating skin. A 1963 review in London's The Observer singled out the audacity of the opening visuals, stating, "The way the credits are done has the same self-mocking flamboyance as everything else in the picture." About 1:43 or so in, the traditional Bond theme makes a welcome return.

Goldfinger

All the previous elements of the past two Bond title sequences are pulled together and wedded to the brassy, champagne vocals of the inimitable Shirley Bassey, belting out the first bona fide classic title song to create what is, for me, the ultimate opening-credit sequence of the Connery run. Maurice Binder comes into his own with this one, breaking entirely away from the Bass style. Barry's staple trumpet refrain and the gun-barrel frame return, again the gunshot and blood drip into the white dot, but then the first insistent brass strains of "Goldfinger" are heard, and the camera tilts down the praying hands and still body of a nearly nude woman painted entirely gold—actual scenes from the film (beginning with the face of Gert Frobe's Auric Goldfinger himself) projected across her shining skin along with the titles. Binder keeps the girl still and the projections moving, as opposed to the admittedly provocative dancing of the model in From Russia With Love with the static credits, and ought to have received some kind of honorary Oscar. This title sequence oozes sex, luxury and danger, juxtaposing the woman's lounging form (is she asleep or dead?) in a subdued way with scenes of Bond evading a helicopter (the landscape weirdly appears to be the girl's knees), a golf ball rolling from her shoulder to her cleavage (ha!), flames flickering and fire rolling across her shoulders, a pistol firing, and the top-notch Aston Martin squealing silently across her skin. It also, masterfully at one point, evokes the death and peril inherent in this episode, when Bassey sings "It's the kiss of death" and the girl's apparently reposing face is shown, eyes closed, the grill of the car projected chillingly across her features in a kind of faux Death's head, the license plate switching oddly across her lips at about 1:34. The inclusion of Shirley Bassey, who will return twice more, is the icing on the cake in terms of bringing in the last of the now-classic elements of the Bond openings: the torch song by a pop star. The single for Goldfinger reached number 8 in 1965. With due respect to Sam the Sham, I think it's a better tune than "Woolly Bully."

Thunderball

Fantastically parodied by Weird Al Yankovic in the theme song and opening for the espionage movie spoof Spy Hard, the theme for Thunderball, according to legend, caused singer Tom Jones to pass out in the recording booth after blasting out that sustained note at the end. By now, the gunbarrel sequence has become a staple (though it technically appears long before the opening titles as a bookend to a kind of pre-credit stinger sequence). However, we move away from the women-as-projection-screens motif, from the last two films, to silhouettes of women swimming underwater, punctuated by rising bubbles and hunting divers with spearguns, thereby anticipating the movie's climactic underwater SCUBA battle between the villain Largo's army and U.S. Coast Guard divers. It's fun, if not particularly memorable.

You Only Live Twice

Continuing the idea of translating a scene from the movie into the title sequence, just like From Russia With Love's dancing girl, Goldfinger's gold woman and Thunderball's underwater sequence, You Only Live Twice focuses on an erupting volcano (a reference to Ernst Blofeld's volcanic hideout) and lava flows, with a recurring abstract shape that seems to represent an Oriental parasol seen from above, but somehow reminds me of an opening blossom and a bullet-shattered window at the same time (possibly because when the sequence begins, Bond has just been "shot"). Nancy Sinatra successfully channels Shirley Bassey to an extent, over images of reposing Japanese geishas, shown both in silhouette and in solid.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

The title sequence for the first non-Connery Bond hearkens all the way back to Dr. No and From Russia With Love, with its silhouetted females and abstract symbols. No pop-star torch song here—instead, we're treated to a very cool new instrumental by John Barry, who said of this breakneck composition, "I have to stick my oar in the musical area double-strong to make the audience try and forget they don't have Sean... to be Bondian beyond Bondian." The theme comes off wonderfully dark and serious, a move away from the somewhat campy film Bond, and more evocative of the dangerous character depicted in Ian Fleming's novels. The visuals are harrowing, preoccupied with clocks and hourglasses (the latter are cleverly reminiscent of Bond's signature martini glass), the notion that Bond (shown for the first time as a running, imperiled male silhouette) is in flux, or has reached a milestone, or is possibly running out of time. At one point, the hourglass shows, in place of running sand, a retrospective of the women and villains of the classic Bond films, beginning with Dr. No's Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) and the doctor himself, and ending with You Only Live Twice's Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). This is one of the best. I love when the girls are posed against the British flag in the hourglass at the beginning.

Diamonds Are Forever

Shirley Bassey's return to the Bond themes is timely, because without her vocals to elevate the sequence, Diamonds Are Forever's titles feel a bit like a Valentine's Day jeweler's ad, with a white cat (presumably Blofeld's) wending a bit through the beginning to break up the monotony. The silhouette girls are here, worshipping diamonds, the focal point of this adventure, and the most nude I've seen a girl in one of these sequences is probably at the end of this one. But overall, for something centering on sparkling diamond jewelry, it's admittedly a bit lackluster. With this being the last EON-produced Connery Bond movie (and yet, also a return, after his initial departure), you'd think it'd be a little less underwhelming. Bassey's song could almost be construed as a breakup tune ("Unlike men, the diamonds linger... men are mere mortals who are not worth going to your grave for"), a lament told from the point of view of the franchise to the fickle star who helped to create it. (Nah, I'm probably reaching.)

Next up: The Roger Moore years.

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3 Comments:

At November 8, 2012 at 10:29 AM , Blogger Doug said...

- I enjoyed the article, but the titles for “From Russia With Love” and “Goldfinger” were designed by Robert Brownjohn and not Maurice Binder...

 
At November 8, 2012 at 10:29 AM , Blogger Doug said...

- I enjoyed the article, but the titles for “From Russia With Love” and “Goldfinger” were designed by Robert Brownjohn and not Maurice Binder...

 
At November 11, 2012 at 5:42 PM , OpenID emerdelac said...

Ah you're right. I misread the credit for those two as he was credited for the gun barrel sequence which they reused.

 

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