James Bond Will Not Return: The Device of the Ignominious End in 007 Parodies

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote, “Great is the art of the beginning, but greater is the art of the ending.” In James Bond parodies–a topic I’m researching for a book on serial strategies in 007 fiction–the art of “endings” is of paramount concern, but not for reasons you might expect. For 007 parodists, two creative problems need solving: (1) how to end their stories–a concern for any author of fiction–and (2) how to end James Bond.

When 007 parodies first became a hot item in the 1960s, they played out in ways that the official film series simply could not: they introduced the idea of the demise or even death of the iconic British spy. So common was the device of “007’s shocking end” across media, in parodic films, comics, novels, and short stories, that it became an opportunity for competitive oneupmanship in the cultural market. Who could do in Bond in the cleverest or most embarrassing fashion?

Parody proved to be a rather flexible mode. Bond’s downfall didn’t have to be built up to, but could be staged at the beginning, middle, or end of a story, and where one situated it and how could be used to reveal something or other about one’s take on 007–about how one was constructing a different sort of response (affective, ideological, moral) to Ian Fleming’s creation.

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Fig. 1. The end of Bond’s “first life” in the precredit scene of You Only Live Twice (1967).

The precredit cliffhanger of You Only Live Twice (1967) might be read as a nod of sorts to the speculative “what if?” and comic tone of this popular trend. Near the end of the sequence, Connery is riddled with bullets, having been betrayed (or so it seems) by a Chinese mistress (Fig. 1). Cheekily flippant in its handling of the cliffhanger device, You Only Live Twice‘s opener comes to a resolution after the credit sequence. Bond emerges, characteristically unscathed, from a coffin buried at sea. The film’s narration need not linger–few details are on offer about his staged assassination. By this point in franchise history, everyone knew that 007 was never really going to bite the dust, so screenwriters could indulge in increasingly elaborate, even farcical play with near-death scenarios. Even mortality was all in a day’s work for Connery’s superspy. Some fancy technology and coordination among the relevant international spy agencies probably sufficed to generate the illusion, but best not think too much about it for fear of losing the flavor of the irony here.

Other official products have had the occasion to kill off Bond, too, with mixed results. In the first-person shooter GoldenEye: Rogue Agent (2004), game designers have us playing a gun-for-hire who witnesses 007’s death during a training simulation (Fig.2). In this case, the cliffhanger scenario is fairly literal, and the effect is odd and unfulfilling.

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Fig. 2. Bond dangling precariously before falling to his death in GoldenEye: Rogue Agent (2004).

Parodists have explored the “art of ending,” of “gaming out” 007’s comeuppance, ruin, or expiration, in much more inventive ways. They have plotted for Bond an array of unceremonious or ignominious ends, at times with sharpness and poignancy. In some cases the effect is comic; in others it’s much more barbed. If franchise stakeholders have created a superspy who will forever cheat death, parodists have worked to undermine the authority of canonical “Bonds” by exposing 007 as a mere mortal.

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Fig. 3. The opening lines of Holmes Meets 007 (1967).

Bond parodies constitute a compendium of conjectural fiction about 007’s bottoming out. In Donald Stanley’s Holmes Meets 007 (1967), originally published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1964, Bond is outwitted by his Doylean counterpart and left to ponder his empty future. Throughout the seven-page “chapbook,” 007 and Holmes engage in a battle of wits. When Holmes deduces where Bond and M had been before arriving at his home, Fleming’s spy blurts: “Somewhat circusy, but neat. Would it have the desired effect on a SMERSH man, though? A touch of the steel, a taste of the Walther, a karate chop. Those are more likely to impress the blighters” (p.3).

Fleming’s is a man of action who gives no quarter. He’s present in Holme’s abode, it seems, to bring to justice the greatest of all criminal masterminds, right from under Holmes’ nose:

“What I mean,” Bond said, “is that your Dr. Watson is an imposter. We’ve gotten onto him through his worldwide narcotics contacts. Watson,” and he paused for dramatic effect, “is none other than my old antagonist Ernst Stavro Blofeld, master of disguise, fiend incarnate, slayer of my bride and now delivered into my hands.”  (p.5)

But Stanley, a Holmes aficionado, uses his parody to turn the tables on the legendary spy. It’s 007 who’s been duped. The sting for Bond fans comes at the very tip of the tail, in the story’s climax. This is Holmes:

“…naught naught seven is simply an accessory, a fairly ignorant tool. This is our man on the floor…. the greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations has been ensconced for lo these years in Special Branch. Our visitor M is none other than our old enemy Professor Moriarty.” (p.6)

Stanley stages Bond’s humiliating demise. Dr. Watson narrates:

Then I noticed the crestfallen figure standing near the window.

“What should we do with Bond?” I asked.

[Holmes:] “Bond? Oh, send him back to his little bureaucratic niche, I expect. Really, I couldn’t be less concerned.” (p.7)

We leave 007 a sad figure, stripped of that which always defined him, his alluring self-confidence and exotic profession. Pity is introduced into Bondian lore; he’ll will live out his years working a desk job for a gray and gross bureaucracy.

* * *

In visual media, the parodic strategies have been more varied, ranging from frothier takes–efforts to explicitly burlesque 007 and the 007 storyworld–to more ponderous interpretations of the character’s downfall.

In the middle of a 1996 episode of The Simpsons entitled “You Only Move Once,” Homer turns from a snack dispenser to execute a split-second dive-tackle on a fleeing Bond (Connery’s, as it happens) (Fig.4). As Homer is thanked by his friend Hank, the episode’s supervillain, 007 is encircled by henchmen who fill his body with lead. The humor stems from a ridiculous incongruity: all it ever took to eliminate the iconic action hero was a chance intervention by a clueless buffoon like Homer Simpson.

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Fig. 4. A tackle from Homer leads to 007’s death in episode 155 of The Simpsons (1996).

The short-lived, but appropriately named, Thwak magazine (2002-2003) imagines a different denouement to the 007 saga in issue No.5. A sci-fi premise is fed into the Bond narrative in order to acknowledge and “clean up,” in comic fashion, all (or most of) the various, incompatible chronologies of the Eon film series. A transporter unites Connery’s with Lazenby’s, Moore’s, and Brosnan’s Bond (Fig.5).

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Fig. 5. Thwak‘s parody (2003) mocks the film series’ incoherence by brining “Bonds” past and present together for a final mission.

Like Holmes Meets 007, the enemy is a close confidant: Q (here, “Cue”), who has brought many of Bond’s archenemies back to life for a final confrontation (Fig. 6).

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Fig. 6. Q (or “Cue”) confronts a team of 007’s past with a motley group of antagonists.

Mocking the conventions of Bondian storytelling–internal cliffhangers and technological deus ex machinasThwak‘s parody clogs the story’s climax with implausible twists and turns (Fig. 7). After recounting our band of superspies’ escape from certain death and the end of “SPITBALL” (Thwak‘s burlesque of SPECTRE), the comic pares Bond down to his essentials and offers a happy ending of sorts–for antifans, that is. As they celebrate at the Casino Roy & Al–hardly a high-end establishment!–our 00’s settle down to indulge their true pleasures: “womanizing, drinking, and gambling.” “THANK GOD! Its [sic] finally THE END,” Thwak‘s staff of parodists declares, liberating the reader to abandon the 007 saga once and for all.

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Fig.7. “Finally”…. Thwak brings the James Bond saga to a close.

The demise of Bond orchestrated in Modesty Blaise (Losey, 1966) (Fig. 8) is more generic and, for that reason, smarter. The film targets the male spy without naming him, skewering 007 and predecessors like Dick Barton, a British spy featured in a franchise first launched as a postwar radio serial (1946-1951).

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Fig. 8. The Bondian poster art for Modesty Blaise (1966), adapted from the comic strip (1963-2002).

Far more effective than the hilarious, but at times rather empty, Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy (2015), Modesty Blaise cuts downs the image of the virile masculine secret agent by taking aim at the famous hat toss motif, an emblem of male potency. The running gag has roots not in Fleming, where Bond’s flirtatious exchanges with Miss Moneypenny never made use of such a prop, but in the 1948 adaptation, Dick Barton: Special Agent, a film released five years before the first 007 novel. Early in the film, as female characters look on in admiration, Barton slings his hat offscreen (Fig. 9). We cut to the reverse angle as it lands on a rack (Fig.10). The Connery Bond films turn this little sleight of hand into a recurring vignette and an opportunity for more adult forms of coquetry.

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Fig. 9-10. Bond before Bond: A hat toss in Dick Barton, Special Agent (1948).

Modesty Blaise punctuates Bond’s/Barton’s death–at any rate the end of the iconic hyper-masculine English spy–with a pair of tosses that have an air of finality to them. At the start of the sequence, an offscreen male voice, presumably the film’s equivalent of M (the head of the Secret Service), is heard casting doubt on a proposed alliance: “Modesty Blaise? Why on earth do we need Modesty Blaise?” As a well-tailored Englishman turns the corner of an Amsterdam street (Fig. 11), the voice-over asserts: “We have our very best man on the job!” The trilby-sporting spy elegantly raises his umbrella to ring a doorbell (Fig. 12). In the blink of an eye, Bond/Barton is obliterated in a violent explosion (Fig. 13).

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Fig. 11-13. The petty end to the “very best” of male spies in Modesty Blaise.

The blast sends what remains of Bond’s/Barton’s trilby for a spin in one shot…

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Fig. 14. Bond’s final trilby toss in Modesty Blaise, part 1.

…and shows it landing with a spin atop the table of the British secret service in the next (Fig. 15).

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Fig. 15.Bond’s final trilby toss in Modesty Blaise, part 2.

“No use crying over spilt milk,” one Secret Service official proclaims. So much for our “best man,” and his loyalty to the job. Moments later, the 007/Dick Barton myth is erased as Modesty Blaise, a thief-turned-spy, takes the job.

Resting somewhere on the line between parody and straightforward continuation story (albeit, an unauthorized one), In Service of Nothing (Gibb, 2015) both lampoons aspects of the film franchise and explores the pathos of ignominious decline in surprisingly profound ways. More focused than Thwak‘s satirical “what if?”, Gibb’s film–only a “previz” of which has been released–brings a single continuity, that of Connery’s Bond, to a close. Creating a close parallel between the life of the actor and the life of the character, the previz animators fashion Bond’s looks and persona on Connery, ca. 2015. Now a grizzled and curmudgeonly retiree, Bond muses wistfully about the decline of honor and duty to country in late modernity. “Ends” abound here. Bond is no longer in the service. He can no longer find comfort in his medium-dry martini, served only, these days, at cheap casinos and booming night clubs (Fig. 16). He’s perfectly alone; gone are Moneypenny, M, Q, Leiter, and all the women he’d bedded over the years. Even his license–to drive, that is–has been revoked. Gone is the DB5. He must travel like the average citizen, aboard a commuter train (Fig. 17).

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Fig. 16-17. In Service of Nothing (2015): Bond confronts his own obsolescence.

None of this prepares us for the desperate extremes to which this Bond, once a government-employed assassin, will resort in order to feel alive. Bond boards a train to Lyon, France to accept a menial hit job. What transpires is ugly. He arrives in Lyon and feels the rush: “I am in the field again. An agent. My senses are keen. Alert. The blood in my veins feels warmer. The world seems brighter.” The prospect of a kill gives Bond one last go at life.

A violent scene shows Bond enter the modest abode of one Monsieur Van Boot. He’s no rich mastermind à la Goldfinger or Blofeld. Van Boot’s wife emerges from a kitchenette to assail a beleaguered Bond who’s experiencing flashbacks of missions past. Bond responds intuitively, tossing her effortlessly against the edge of a table. He hesitates for a moment. But Van Boot is attempting an escape. Pleading for his life, Van Boot retreats to the dead end of an alley as Bond approaches, gun in hand (Fig.18). The victim’s eyes and posture elicit sympathy (Fig. 19). Reverting back to the killing machine he once was, Bond no longer hesitates. Interrupting his victim mid-sentence, the former 00 delivers a bullet straight through his head (Fig. 20). Our sympathy for a figure we once knew as 007 comes under severe strain.

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Fig. 18-20. In Service of Nothing: Bond assassinates Van Boot.

After the kill, Bond philosophizes the pointlessness of modern society: “They [once] forgave me my transgressions, my service. That was long ago now. Today, the world offers no such forgiveness. It doesn’t need to. The conceit. Self-absorption. Each of them out there, seeking only to satisfy their own, every indulgence. In service of nothing.”

Presumably, once caught for Van Boot’s murder, Bond will live out his days in a federal penitentiary. Worse than disgraced, he’ll be utterly forgotten.

* * *

What do we learn from James Bond parodies? They suggest where we might draw the boundaries of official franchise storytelling. With Bond and other major franchises configured as more or less unending series and increasingly preoccupied with the art of beginnings and back stories, it will sometimes prove useful to look beyond the limits of official stories–to the work of parodists–in order to explore the possibilities inherent to the “greater” art of endings.

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