Ahead of the release of SPECTRE this autumn, the Bond Reloaded series takes a weekly look back at each film in the iconic James Bond franchise. This week, Roger Moore dresses as a clown in Octopussy.
After the release of The Spy Who Loved Me, every Bond film was an uncertain project. The contract of lead actor Roger Moore was up, requiring each film to be individually negotiated. Moore was reluctant to return after For Your Eyes Only, leading to a search for a new man to wield the Walther PPK in Octopussy.
However, Eon soon got wind of a rival Bond project set to be released in the same year as Octopussy. Sean Connery had been enticed to star in Never Say Never Again – a remake of Thunderball. With the spectre of this competition on the horizon, Eon were keen to get Moore on board for their latest film.
They managed it, but then they put him in a clown uniform.
Gags, gorillas and girls
After an opening sequence that features a crazy light aircraft chase, Octopussy sets up two storylines – that of war-hungry Russian general Orlov (Steven Berkoff) and the mysterious appearance of a priceless Fabergé egg for auction at Sotheby’s. The auction leads Bond to suavely villainous Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) and Maga (Kristina Wayborn), who both seem to be somehow allied with the enigmatic Octopussy (Maud Adams).
In his first Bond outing, For Your Eyes Only, director John Glen dragged the series back to its grittier roots, shedding a lot of the camp and comedy of the Moore era. However, with Octopussy, he takes the series firmly back to the excesses of Moonraker. It’s not just camp; it’s goofy, and that makes it something of an ugly mess.
It doesn’t help the film that it has at its centre a star who quite clearly would rather be literally anywhere else. Moore is just going through the motions here, delivering every line with exactly the energy you’d expect from a tired, jaded man in his mid fifties. By the time he dons the now notorious sad clown make-up in the finale, he is entirely somewhere else – presumably counting the money.
"Mr Bond is indeed of a very rare breed… soon to be made extinct."
The failure of Octopussy is doubly shameful given the strength of its supporting cast. Both Kristina Wayborn and especially Maud Adams as the eponymous seductress. Octopussy promises to be a complex, interesting character, but the script seems to have absolutely no idea what to do with her and gives her about half of the screen time she needs to make it work.
Perhaps this lack of focus and direction is a result of a new scriptwriting voice in the franchise, with George MacDonald Fraser joining Bond vets Richard Maibaum and Michael G Wilson. At times, Octopussy seems like a rather obvious case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.
It’s that script that also scuppers the villainous side of Octopussy. Early on, the film establishes three potential big bads – Kamal Khan, General Orlov and Octopussy herself. Louis Jourdan, as Khan, is a genuine delight of suave sophistication. By the time he casually munches down a sheep’s eye towards the midpoint of the film, it’s clear that he is the bad guy this film deserves.
Rather than establishing one of these villains as the film’s main antagonist, Octopussy is tossed to one side and Khan and Orlov kind of get in each other’s way until the credits roll. There is none of the narrative simplicity that drives the best Bond films and the lack of a concrete villain leaves the story feeling muddled and confusing.
The issue with Octopussy is that it has absolutely no idea where to position itself on the spectrum between serious and silly. If Moonraker’s outer space laser battle and love interest for Jaws seemed bizarre, brace yourself for Roger Moore in a gorilla suit and doing a Tarzan yell as he swings between trees to escape a tiger. It’s an absolutely barmy film that doesn’t have any notion that it should rein itself in a little.
"I wish you weren’t in such a weakened condition."
The film has an unpleasant, disturbing habit of undercutting its best and most dramatic action beats with needless comedy. Chief among these is the ticking clock climax, which is completely nullified in terms of tension by Moore running around in a clown costume and being surrounded by random slapstick, literally as he is disarming the device and saving thousands of lives. By the time he arrives with Q in a hot air balloon for the film’s final battle, it’s really tough to care about anything Bond does.
There also seems to be a more adult, crude edge to Octopussy that it really doesn’t need. Bond’s crushing misogyny is more overt in this film than ever, coupled with a desperately adolescent joke about erectile dysfunction that he delivers to Q. That laddish humour and casual sexism is even more alarming given that Moore’s years continued to advance as his leading ladies remained the same age. In this film, Adams is 17 years younger than the star and Wayborn is more than 20 years his junior.
It’s remarkable that the James Bond franchise has continued as long as it has given that, in 1983, Octopussy looked like the death rattle of a once great pillar of British cinema. Thankfully, things would eventually change, but Octopussy is one hell of a low to have to pick up from.
Box office highs
Released in the summer of 1983, Octopussy managed to win the Bond battle of that year, out-grossing Never Say Never Again. It wasn’t all good news, though, with the film failing to match the gross of its more serious predecessor – For Your Eyes Only.
The reviews weren’t all that kind either. Danny Peary, in Guide for the Film Fanatic, wrote that the film has “slow spots, little humour”. He also criticised the villains, who aren’t nearly up there with the best of the franchise. In recent years, Octopussy has often placed towards the tail end of Bond lists, with Entertainment Weekly calling it the third worst film in the franchise and IGN listing it seventh from the bottom.
"Do you think you can help me? Someone seems to have stuck a knife in my wallet."
It’s certainly true that Octopussy is one of the worst outings for Roger Moore and for James Bond in general. Despite great use of its exotic Indian location, the film never manages to find any focus and really suffers from a desire to incorporate too many villains, complicating the narrative. And that’s without even mentioning the silly costumes.
Next time, Roger Moore finally bows out and Christopher Walken is the villain in A View to a Kill.
What do you think of Octopussy? Does Moore still hold up as Bond or has he become a clown? Let me know in the comments section and keep your eyes peeled for an early new Bond Reloaded this week.