Intuitive Improvisation

(January 25, 2004)

Bond villain Max Zorin boasts that "intuitive improvisation" is "the secret of genius" halfway through A View To A Kill, having just outlined a scheme that will finish off Bond and Stacy while neatly wrapping up some loose ends. Trouble is, his plan's no more original or “ingenius” than that of a stock villain in a vintage Warner Bros gangster flic ("Shoot Howe with Bond's gun, then burn Bond up!"). The real master of quick-thinking is, of course, our hero 007, though it's doubtful he'd call himself a genius for it. When you've been polishing off criminal masterminds for 40-plus years, you don't need a Mensa membership to prove you're a bright boy.

“Intuitive improvisation," of course, is just a fancy term for “making it up as you go along.” Hardly a suitable definition for "genius" as defined by the likes of DaVinci or Einstein, but it may be 007's handiest skill when it comes to survival. In fact, Bond’s ability to quickly assess a situation and improvise a solution based on the resources at hand is one of the keys to his appeal as a character, and the origin of some of the best-loved scenes in the series.

Turning The Tables

Way back in From Russia With Love we see an early example of intuitive improvisation as Bond, in a boat with Tania, finds himself pursued by a literal fleet of SPECTRE speedboats. Loaded in the back of Bond’s boat are several drums of fuel, presumably put there to aid Red Grant in his planned escape (he must have had a long way to go). Thinking fast, Bond tosses the punctured containers overboard and ignites them with a flare gun, wiping out his pursuers in a water-borne holocaust.

Bond with Flare GunToday's audiences, jaded as they are by over-exposure to an endless glut of action films, would probably see that trick coming a mile away (hmm… those fuel drums must be there for a reason…), but way back in 1963 I’m betting this neat little maneuver really came out of left field and brought some cheers from theater-goers. In fact, it must still be a neat trick because Brosnan’s Bond recycles it, with variations, to wipe out a helicopter in 1999’s The World Is Not Enough.

Of course, action films sink or swim based on their ability to involve the audience, and nothing is more fun than seeing a hero outwit his enemies. Sometimes, as with the exploding fuel drums, the fun is in the surprise of it all. Other times the fun comes when we know full well what’s going to happen next, but the characters on screen don’t. A good example of this came earlier in FRWL, when Bond, on his knees and at the mercy of Red Grant, makes a show of being “eager” to open his attache case. Suspicious, Grant tells him he’ll open it himself, and immediately we know Bond’s got him…brains win out once again.

Think or Sink

Sometimes there are no gadgets to fall back on, and Bond's left to cope using whatever’s at hand in his environment. Maybe the best example of this comes in Goldfinger during the fight with Oddjob in Fort Knox. For once, Connery’s Bond is unable to simply pummel an opponent into submission; Oddjob outpowers him by a mile. That doesn’t stop Bond from trying, of course, but when fisticuffs, karate chops, a makeshift bat and hurled gold bars get him nowhere, it’s time to use the old noodle. Nearing the end of his rope, Bond flings the deadly bowler at Oddjob in what looks to be a last, desperate effort…that fails. Tasting triumph, Oddjob gleefully goes to retrieve his hat, only to have Bond fry him with a live electric cable.

death of oddjob

This might just be the most perfectly staged example of “intuitive improvisation” ever. All the elements have been carefully set up for us…the sputtering wires, the iron bars, the metal hat brim…and yet we’ve been so caught up in the excitement of the fight, we’re still surprised when it all comes together. But Bond, with his razor-sharp mind, recognizes the possibilities and exploits them cunningly. This last-minute victory pulled from the jaws of defeat ranks as one of the greatest visceral thrills in the series…small wonder it shows up in virtually every “clip reel” of series highlights. And again, the point is Bond triumphs because he is able to adapt to the situation and “make it up as he goes along.”

In Thunderball, Bond escapes from a car full of baddies by spilling a bottle of booze held by a passing drunk and setting it on fire with the cigarette lighter held by one of his captors. Then at the dance club, he spins his evil dance partner into the path of an assassin’s bullet, working the whole maneuver into the dance. This time, we can almost see the wheels turning as Connery concocts his strategy: “There’s a guy with a gun behind the curtain…and there’s an enemy right here in my arms…hmm…”

Sometimes these moments of improvisational genius are "big," sometimes small, but they all reinforce Bond's rep as the ultimate survivor. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 007 has no gloves to protect his hands, so he rips out his pants pockets and pulls them on instead…problem solved. In AVTAK, Bond needs to keep up the illusion that he’s drowned in a submerged car, so he breathes air from a tire until the baddies go away. In The Living Daylights, he transforms a cello and its case from excess baggage into a makeshift vehicle. And so on…

Out of the Frying Pan…

In a previous article, I discussed Bond’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge on all sorts of subjects, but it’s not his mastery of arcane trivia that makes him a movie hero; it’s his quick wits and adaptability. In fact, if anything, it’s the villains who are presented in the traditional “genius” mold, plotting their complex, "fool-proof" schemes for world domination down to the tiniest detail. Then up pops Bond to blow the whole thing up in their faces with a strategy he’s just improvised off the top of his head…no wonder they hate him so!

In a very real sense, the Bond films are a celebration of intuition over intellectualism, spontaneity over heavy thinking, while Bond himself represents the ultimate ideal for modern man with his ability to adapt to – and thus “conquer” – a world that's changing around us from minute to minute. Bond is never caught flat-footed; he's always on top of the latest fashions, always at home in any country or social setting, always one step ahead of the crowd with his cutting-edge gadgets.

This is a key element of the films' appeal. For years we've lined up to see what kind of curves will be thrown Bond's way, confident in the knowledge that he'll rise to every challenge. This is one reason why Bond movie stunts stand apart from generic movie stunts: done right, they're an expression of the Bond mystique and character. 007's knack for salvaging hopeless situations is something best conveyed through actions, not words.

So it is that we remember most fondly those moments when Bond turns the tables. Trapped in the middle of a swamp and surrounded by alligators, Bond runs across the reptiles' backs to dry land. Dragged behind a boat over a razor-sharp coral reef, he wraps the rope around a submerged boulder, using the power of the boat’s engine to snap the rope for him. Chased by a heat-seeking missile in his tiny, unarmed jet, he manuevers the missile into completing the job he was sent to do in the first place. From on-the-run to back-on-top in one fell swoop; that’s our James.

Upside Down in DADAdmittedly, these moments haven’t come as often in recent films, perhaps because it’s getting harder to come up with fresh new predicaments after 40 years on screen and with all those competing action flics exhausting every imaginable idea. But there was a flash of the old style in Die Another Day, during Bond’s fast-paced car battle with Zao. Careening out of control in an upside-down Aston Martin, Bond seems a sitting duck for Zao’s coup-de-grace, but then he opens his sun-roof and uses the car’s ejector seat to flip the car rightside up again.

“Survival of the Fittest”

“You have a nasty habit of surviving,” says Kamal Khan to Bond in Octopussy, to which Bond replies, “you know what they say about the fittest.” And though some wags would carp that Roger Moore was anything but an ideal of vim and vigor circa 1983, this line is actually spot-on. Darwin's theory suggests that survival often hinges on a successful adaption to one's environment, and by that definition James Bond is the ultimate survivor.

Maybe I’m just stating the obvious here, but it hit me recently that this is the key to the whole Bond mystique. It’s not that he’s prepared for everything in advance – that would get dull in a hurry – it’s that he can adapt as needed when life throws him a curve. It’s not that he doesn’t feel fear, it’s that through his adventures we experience the visceral thrill of mortal danger and the satisfaction of a hair’s-breadth escape. Like the ancient heroic myths, 007’s adventures are about the ability of an individual – albeit a rather extraordinary one -- to triumph over tremendous odds through his wits and prowess.

The films themselves have proven equally adaptable, running the gamut from Cold War thrillers to epic spectacles to light-hearted romps to high-tech showpieces, answering – and quite often anticipating -- the demands of each era’s audiences with remarkable success. Only time will tell what other changes are waiting for us down the road, but it’s a safe bet the future will find 007 up to the challenge. And my intuition tells me we’ll be coming along to cheer him on.

David Morefield