Monday, February 6, 2017

Bond, Shaken not Stirred: Critical Analysis of the Opening Sequence of Spectre


For the next few weeks, I thought I would some time to reflect on storytelling. These posts will focus on the stories I love or appreciate and the artistry behind them.

James Bond is, perhaps, the most macho franchise every conceived (though, Beowulf might give it a run for its money, purely on feats of inhuman masculine strength). Its main appeals are girls, guns, gadgets, and explosions. There is, honestly, very little redeeming quality to a 007 film. I find its objectification and sexualization of women to be gratuitous and cringe-inducing. That being said, I do have a small soft spot for the franchise. I enjoy some of the plots for their espionage, car chases, and gadgets. Although I typically prefer more nuanced stories, there is something deeply satisfying about a well-timed explosion. Not explosions in excess to the point of making me no longer care about the plot, mind you. (I’m glaring at you, Man of Steel.)

Spectre and I



Keeping those factors in mind, when my dear cousin Alex invited me along to see the latest installment of the Bond franchise, Spectre, I accepted. To my pleasant surprise, I enjoyed it a great deal more than I had expected to. The sensuality was toned down by the standards of modern blockbusters (to say nothing of the Bond franchise), the film was beautifully photographed, involved a compelling plot, and a deeply enjoyable conclusion. In fact, I can say with confidence that, of the handful of Bond films I have seen, Spectre is my favorite. (Please note that I have not yet seen any of the other Daniel Craig Bond films.) It contained the big ideas and three-dimensional characters that I find absent from most of the installments of the franchise.

When I got home, I eagerly looked up reviews of this film to see if the critical response to this film had matched my first impression. To my dismay, the reviews were overwhelming negative (some reviews even sighting it as the worst James Bond film ever). While some of the criticisms were fair, I continued to hold my high esteem for Spectre. Now a year and a half removed from that initial viewing, I believe I know why Spectre fell short of so many Bond fans’ expectations. At its heart, Spectre plays far more like an Alfred Hitchcock thriller (with a few elements borrowed from his contemporaries) than a James Bond film. As an avid fan of Hitchcock (and not a huge fans of the Bond franchise) the same elements that attracted me to the film repelled its target audience.


While I am not equipped to review Spectre in night of its predecessors, nor do I have time to analyze every element I see as Hitchockian, I do wish to take a close look at Spectre’s breathtaking four-minute opening scene. I believe this scene is a masterpiece of modern filmmaking. It foreshadows the major themes of the film and introduces the cinematic elements that place it outside of usual James Bond fare. Spoilers to follow.

Before you read any further, take a minute to watch the short clip below to provide the context for my comments.


A Long Take


A long take is a single, unbroken shot that is longer than conventional shots and often features “significantcamera movement and elaborate blocking.” At first glance, this opening sequence appears to be just such a take. However, this shot is actually the clever stitching together of six separate shots in four locations on two continents. (For more information on how this was accomplished, please see this excellent article.)

While it’s disappointing that this sequence is not a single shot, this apparent long take is in the tradition of Hitchcock himself. In the 1948 film Rope, Hitchcock used creative camerawork to make it appear that it was filmed on one, unrelenting, take. He hid the transitions between reels of film by passing the camera behind suit coats and other obstacles. A very similar technique is used in Spectre. “The first shot runs up to the door of a hotel and pauses on the Day of the Dead poster. We then transitioned by rebuilding the doorway and re-projection work in Maya and Zeno [ILM’s software platform] to transition as Bond enters the doorway.” Though updated by the use of computers, poster serves the same purpose as Hitchcock’s jackets. While Hoyte van Hoytema, the cinematographer working on Spectre, may not have had Hitchcock in mind, he was building on the foundation left by the Master of Suspense.

Touch of Welles 


A film buff cannot watch the opening sequence of Spectre without thinking of the similar long take that opens Orson Welles’ 1958 film noir Touch of Evil. In fact, both scenes take place in Mexico and feature similar camera movements. As a story of corruption and the best of intentions gone terribly wrong, some of the themes of Touch of Evil are reflected in the plot of Spectre. By including a similar sequence, at least part of audience was likely to begin to make this connection.

Finally, the long take services Spectre’s plot. While Spectre features slow pacing (for a Bond film), it is an unrelenting ride as the plot slowly unfolds. This opening long take reflects this same unrelenting pace and gradually unfolding drama. The opening shot of the film puts the audience in the right mindset to enjoy the rest of the film.


"The Dead Are Alive"


Aside from the nature of this apparent long take, the content of this scene brilliantly foreshadows the major themes of the film. The scene begins with the ominous words, “the dead are alive.” Obviously, this is in reference to The Day of the Dead but, on a deeper level, Spectre is a film about the dead influencing the living. The plot is launched by the last request of Bond’s deceased commanding officer, “M.” On another, deeper level, the villain of the film is Ernst Blofeld, Bond’s supposedly deceased childhood friend. In a significant fashion, the dead are the alive-and-kicking catalysts of the plot.

Bond Unmasked 


The opening shot also features a masked cast. While this was a technical move to simplify the digital post-production of this scene, this too mirrors the plot of Spectre. Spectre is a film about disguises. No one is who they seem to be on the outside. No one can be trusted. Everyone has ulterior motives. In a very real sense, the entire cast of characters are masked.

This film is also about unmasking Bond. Bond is stripped of his safety net provided my M-16 and forced to go rogue. His mask of the righteous secret agent in His Magesty’s Secret Service is also removed by the unusually competent Bond-girl, Dr. Madeline Swann. In one powerful scene set on a train (reminding me of a similar dinner in North by Northwest), Swann asks Bond, “Why, given every other possible option, does a man choose the life of a paid assassin?” He answers, “Well, it was that or the priesthood.” However, she won’t let him retain his mask of secrecy:

Swann: I'm serious. Is this really what you want? Living in the shadows? Hunting? Being hunted? Always looking behind you? Always alone?
Bond: But I'm not alone.
Swann: Answer the question.
Bond: I'm not sure I ever had a choice. Anyway, I don't stop to think about it.
Swann: What would happen if you did?
Bond: Stop?

Swann: Yes.

Bond: I don't know.

Swann: You know, I think you're wrong…. We always have a choice.
Bond: I’ll drink to that.

This is my favorite scene in the film. In this short dialogue, Bond is stripped on his swagger and charm. He is removed from his disguise of the strong secret agent, always one step ahead of his enemies. In this short moment, James Bond is brought to the understanding that he doesn’t honestly know why he’s doing what he’s doing. In this moment, Bond is unmasked by a woman.

This is where I believe the strength of Spectre lies. Spectre is a life-changing moment for James Bond. Stripped of the support of M-16 on a rogue mission that will ultimately lead him face-to-face with his past, Bond realizes that he has a choice. He doesn’t have to keep hiding behind his mask. At the end of the film, I truly believed that Bond was different when he chose to spare Blofeld’s life, retire, and drive off into the sunset with Dr. Swann in his beautiful Aston Martin DB5.

Conclusion



Spectre features the tropes of the Bond genre, a car chase, a spy mission, a bunch of cool gadgets, funny single-letter codenames, beautiful women, Vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred), and big explosions. However, Spectre is a far deeper film. It is a film about choices, pulling on the groundwork laid by directors Hitchcock and Welles. The opening scene helps prepare the audience for this film and reflects that themes that undergird it. Spectre shakes up with Bond tropes in interesting, original ways. Perhaps this makes Spectre is a poor James Bond film but I believe that it is a better movie because of it. Spectre may be Bond, shaken, not stirred.   

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