Ian Fleming’s last James Bond book was a collection of short stories that was published in 1966, two years after his death, and has had several incarnations. Variously titled simply Octopussy or Octopussy and the Living Daylights, it originally contained the latter two stories, which appeared first in, respectively, Playboy (March and April 1966) and The London Sunday Times (February 4, 1962). Subsequent editions added “The Property of a Lady” (written for the 1963 volume of the annual Sotheby’s publication The Ivory Hammer, and reprinted in the January 1964 issue of Playboy) and “007 in New York” (first published as “Agent 007 in New York” in The New York Herald Tribune in October 1963, and reprinted in the U.S. edition of Fleming’s Thrilling Cities).
Octopussy was the second of five consecutive Bond films directed by erstwhile editor John Glen and co-written by Richard Maibaum and producer Michael G. Wilson; like For Your Eyes Only, it melded the eponymous story with another from the same book, “The Property of a Lady.” The title character in Fleming’s “Octopussy” is an actual cephalopod to which Major Dexter Smythe, an ex-Service officer living in Jamaica on Nazi gold he stole at the end of the war, hopes to feed a deadly scorpionfish in a bizarre experiment. Informing Smythe that the body of the German mountain guide he’d murdered—a friend of Bond’s—has been discovered, 007 leaves him to his presumed suicide, but Smythe, already dying from the sting of the scorpionfish, is drowned by Octopussy.
“The Property of a Lady” is the Emerald Sphere, an “object of vertu” by Carl Fabergé, allegedly inherited by Maria Freudenstein, the KGB double agent whose demise Fleming reported in The Man with the Golden Gun (wherein her name and that of Doctor No’s Honeychile Rider appear erroneously as Freudenstadt and Wilder). Maria is a cipher operator through whom the Service feeds the Soviets disinformation, and the funds realized from the sale of the sphere at Sotheby’s are to be her reward. Bond deduces that the KGB’s Resident Director in London will be there to push up the price as an underbidder, and by attending the auction, 007 is able to identify him so that, “In the grim chess game that is secret service work, the Russians would have lost a queen.”
The film opens on an inauspicious note with a typically irrelevant teaser, as Bond wreaks havoc in an unnamed Latin country, and a generic Maurice Binder title sequence. Even the cinematic purveyors of Pussy Galore were not bold enough to give Octopussy a literal title tune, so John Barry’s theme song was “All Time High,” which—as in Moonraker—paired a perfectly lovely theme that was, perhaps, a little too romantic for a spy thriller with somewhat schmaltzy lyrics, written by Tim Rice (!) and sung by Rita Coolidge. Then begins the story proper, almost wholly invented by Maibaum and Wilson with their collaborator, George MacDonald Fraser, the author of the Flashman novels and the screenwriter of all three of Richard Lester’s Musketeers movies.
The illness and death of Bernard Lee, which made Moonraker his last Bond entry (and eleventh continuous appearance since Dr. No), resulted in a bit of a flurry atop the command structure of the cinematic Secret Service. Out of respect for Lee, the role of M—said to be “on leave”—was not immediately recast in For Your Eyes Only, where his function of assigning 007’s mission is divided among three men: Q (Desmond Llewelyn); M’s boss, Minister of Defence Sir Frederick Gray (Geoffrey Keen); and his Chief of Staff, Bill Tanner (James Villiers). Bond’s best friend in the Service in the books, Tanner had been briefly portrayed, uncredited, by Michael Goodliffe in The Man with the Golden Gun, and would return in the Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig movies.
Octopussy introduced Robert Brown as M, apparently retaining Gray’s presence for continuity, although the filmmakers stretched credulity by having him hanging around for Bond’s briefings in the next two films as well. This mission offers a rare, short-lived look at another member of the Double-O fraternity in the person of 009 (Andy Bradford), who dies bringing a Fabergé egg to the British Ambassador in West Berlin. This turns out to be a forgery, and because the Soviets are thought to be trying to raise funds by selling the original, Bond is assigned to join art expert Jim Fanning (Douglas Wilmer) at the auction, where he substitutes the fake while bidding up the price paid by exiled Afghan Prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) and Magda (Kristina Wayborn).
Following Khan home to India, Bond produces the genuine article when he out-cheats the prince in a backgammon match that rehashes Goldfinger’s golf game, right down to the henchman who crushes Khan’s crooked dice to powder in his fist. Soon Bond is a guest of Khan’s confederate, Octopussy, who heads a criminal sisterhood and is played by beautiful but under-emotive model Maud Adams, previously an ill-fated moll in Golden Gun. Instead of blaming Bond for the death of her father, Smythe (an expert on octopi who, we learn, gave her the nickname that inspired her sisterhood’s distinctive tattoos), she is grateful to 007 for allowing him an honorable alternative to prosecution, and requires only two kisses to melt into her obligatory “Oh, James” submission.
Khan and rogue Soviet General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), who has been stealing objets d’art from the Hermitage, double-cross Octopussy and plant an atomic bomb in her circus, about to perform at a U.S.A.F. base in Germany. When General Gogol (Walter Gotell) gets wind of this, Orlov—who hoped the apparent nuclear accident would lead to NATO disarmament—is shot, and after the sisterhood attacks Khan’s palace, 007 rescues the kidnapped Octopussy from his plane before it crashes. Along the way, we revisit the fauna-head camouflage (Goldfinger), assassin lurking above the bed (You Only Live Twice), car up on two wheels (Diamonds Are Forever), and nuke-disarming (The Spy Who Loved Me), and are subjected to Bond dressed as a gorilla and a clown.
Having stated earlier that Octopussy and its successor, A View to a Kill, vied with Moonraker for the admittedly subjective title of “Worst Bond Movie Ever,” I am now prepared—having studied the entire pre-Brosnan series in detail—to award that dubious distinction to Moonraker. And yet Octopussy has a lot to answer for, e.g., 007’s Indian contact, who poses as a snake charmer and identifies himself by playing “The James Bond Theme”; a double-take by a camel; and a “poison pen” gag that was acknowledged as hoary when used sixteen years earlier in Casino Royale. The usual sophomoric double entendres are matched by what Q dubs Bond’s “adolescent antics,” as he uses a mini-camera to zoom relentlessly into and out of the cleavage of one of Q’s colleagues.
To be continued.