Many have tried to get James Bond, but they always fail. No matter how intense the laser-like focus, Bond always manages to escape relatively unscathed. I’m not talking about the villains who try to kill him (and never succeed), but rather the writers who attempt to put him in a box.
In general, there have been two categories of books about Bond. The first consists of dry academic tomes, dedicated to skewering both Bond and Ian Fleming on charges of sexism, racism, homophobia, and colonialism—not exactly breaking news. However, these intellectual Blofelds suffer the same weakness as Bond’s villains. They won’t go for the simple kill by putting a bullet in 007’s brain so they can just be done with it. Instead, they use jargon-filled theoretical models as grandiose torture devices to threaten Bond while making their own self-aggrandizing speeches.
The second type of Bond book tends to be more fawning. These breathtakingly beautiful coffee table books with glossy photos tend to heap lavish praise on everyone who ever had anything to do with a Bond film. Like one of the secondary “good” Bond girls who gets killed by the end of the first Act, these books have short shelf lives and seem destined to go the route of Jill Masterson—in bed, naked, and painted from head to toe in gold.
All of which makes Sinclair McKay’s The Man With the Golden Touch quite special. Neither megalomaniacal villain nor forgettable victim, McKay manages to produce a book that works in many ways like a Bond film: it’s both smart and dumb, conventional and idiosyncratic, funny and dull, and in the end, it runs on too long.
McKay provides a methodical analysis of all of the Bond films in a lively and deeply personal way, not afraid to admit that it took him several tries to untangle some of the more labyrinthine plots. He’s not above giving himself over to verbal flourishes and quirky digressions, and he frequently caused me to laugh out loud. It’s as if you were on a trans-Atlantic flight next to the world’s biggest James Bond enthusiast who blusters through the canon with the energy of Quintin Tarantino lecturing on ’70s B movies.
To his credit, his approach is not all self-indulgence and humor. He often grounds his film discussions with social, political, and economic context. Some of these are strained, some are enlightening, and some are utterly unconvincing, but one appreciates the effort. He also does some very good work in highlighting the contributions of some of the key Bond personnel. Chief among these is Ken Adam, the set designer who created most of those spectacular underground lairs. More than any of the tuxedoed actors, it is Adam who emerges as the star here.
However, this ultimately is not a book for cultural historians or film geeks so much as it is for someone who can appreciate an impassioned argument about why James Bond should never wear shorts. Or why Bond movies should never feature boat chases. Or why the lyrics to Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” are really stupid.
For all its annoying tangents (do we really need to begin a chapter about Moneypenny with the history of secretaries in Western Society?), in many ways this is the perfect book about Bond. None of the Bond films is perfect, either. As everyone knows, Dr. No is too uneven, From Russia With Love is too subdued, Goldfinger is too implausible, The Spy Who Loved Me is too campy, and Casino Royale is too…
Okay, so Casino Royale is pretty brilliant. But no Bond film really pleases everyone, which is one reason why the character keeps resurfacing with one reboot after another. It remains to be seen if MGM’s money woes have effectively revoked Daniel Craig’s license to kill. However, McKay reminds his readers that the series has endured at least a couple of legal crises and emerged stronger each time.
In many ways, the overall effect of this book doesn’t come together as well as the individual parts (much like On her Majesty’s Secret Service, actually). Given his tepid response to many of the Connery films and his ebullient praise of the Roger Moore era, not to mention his odd habit of referring to Moore by his first name, it feels like what he really wanted to write was not a comprehensive analysis of the Bond films, but rather an apologetics for the “Roger” era.
Perhaps some things are better left classified.