Hitchcock, Bond, Batman and the Ingredients of ‘Skyfall’

By  · Published on November 11th, 2012

The Ingredients is a column devoted to breaking down the components of a new film release with some focus on influential movies that came before. As always, these posts look at the entire plots of films and so include SPOILERS.

The James Bond series is something of a hub in the course of film and pop culture history. As iconic as it is on its own, it tends to be informed by other material as often as it does the informing. In the beginning, for example, the movies were highly influenced by the works of Alfred Hitchcock. Author Ian Fleming even wished for Hitch to direct the first movie adapted from his 007 novels. And Cary Grant was famously sought for the part of Bond, which would have been interesting had he continued with the second film, From Russia With Love, given how much it calls to mind North by Northwest.

Instead, little-known Sean Connery embodied the character, and after the first two installments made the actor famous, Hitch cast him in Marnie. As usual, the director capitalized on a movie star’s pre-existing notoriety, his screen value, which makes it quite difficult for us to see Connery’s Marnie character, Mark Rutland, as anything but James Bond as a wife-raping publisher. Hitch went another step with his next film, Torn Curtain, which was an admitted direct response to the 007 films. He wrote to Francois Truffaut in 1965:

“In realizing that James Bond and the imitators of James Bond were more or less making my wild adventure films, such as North by Northwest wilder than ever, I felt that I should not try go one better. I thought I would return to the adventure film, which would give us the opportunity for some human emotions in situations that were not so bizarre.”

With years under its belt, the Bond series has become like a mobile library, loaning out this and that plot line and character archetype for parody or knockoff, while also taking in second-hand stories where it can. It’s incredible that for so many years the franchise inspired copycats the world over, and yet once Star Wars came out the Bond producers had to go and sell itself short with a knockoff. The constantly ripped off became the rip off with Moonraker, and it’s no wonder many fans think it the worst of all the 23 films.

Just before that one, The Spy Who Loved Me seemed to have a little fun with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. While sharks have been a staple for Bond villains since the beginning and so nothing new to this sequel, the introduction of a henchman named “Jaws” (also seen in Moonraker) had to have been an intentional nod to the horror blockbuster, which was a much greater hit than the Bond movies had been of late.

So, it isn’t too much of a bother when the series looks to other hits for inspiration. Like how Quantum of Solace appears to be mimicking the Bourne series’ editing style (the fault there is in the choice, not in the choosing). And like now, the way Skyfall is being discussed as a Bond movie that borrows a lot from Christopher Nolan, specifically his Batman films. The conversation isn’t exactly negative. Wired’s Lewis Wallace intro’s a list of “10 Ways Skyfall Borrows from the Dark Knight Playbook” by writing, “there’s an undeniable whiff of bat clinging to the latest 007 film. And that’s a good thing.”

Wallace notes how Skyfall director Sam Mendes has “flip-flopped” on acknowledging Nolan’s influence, telling The Playlist that The Dark Knight was a “game changer for everybody,” then telling The Metro that he “didn’t feel directly influenced” and “would have made the movie the same way had I seen The Dark Knight or not.” Of course, there is the matter of Javier Bardem’s villain, Raoul Silva, reminding many viewers of Heath Ledger’s Batman baddie. Elsewhere, I noted how the character, primary motivation aside, “almost seems to also just be doing it all to have some crazed, anarchistic fun, like the Joker but more brilliant.”

It would be difficult to call Skyfall out on anything paralleling The Dark Knight Rises, though, and yet there are the coincidental opportunities. We can compare the “fan service” at the very end of the Bond film to a similar character reveal at the end of the Batman sequel. We can link the aspect of the respective heroes battling their own age. The way they like to fake death and take a hiatus. The way Silva is also a bit like Bane. Understandably, there have been plenty of mash-up trailers combining audio and video from Skyfall and Rises. But is it all just for nitpickery or a laugh?

Here’s Christopher Rosen’s criticism of Bond’s superhero-ness in The Huffington Post:

Bond is an orphan, whose parents died in a car accident. Not only is that classic superhero motivation (Batman, Spider-Man), but, as presented in “Skyfall,” it’s also kind of inconsequential. “Skyfall” doesn’t really bother examining what being an orphan means to Bond, nor whether his parents’ deaths affect his relationship with M (Judi Dench). In Nolan’s Batman films, the specter of Bruce Wayne’s dead parents hangs over the proceedings like a funeral dirge; in “Skyfall,” it’s an easy plot point used as shorthand to give meaning to a character who doesn’t require any more meaning. Bond is Bond; he’s been the same misogynistic, psychotic, alcoholic secret agent we’ve come to love over the past 50 years. There’s no need to turn him into Bruce Wayne.

Well, to a degree, Bond has long had commonalities with comic book heroes. His gadgetry has always been relative to non-powered “super” heroes like Iron Man and Batman. Indeed, the Nolan Batman films’ employment of Lucius Fox has obviously been suggested as being Q-like. Throughout the series, Bond’s villains have been a combination of Lex Luthor types – no more so than Max Zorin of A View to a Kill, with his earthquake real estate scheme right out of Superman: The Movie. Meanwhile, some of the henchmen have seemed appropriate for the old Batman TV series. Baron Samedi from Live and Let Die comes to mind.

Let’s not forget, also, that the Bond of Skyfall is an evolution of the Bonds that have come before him. You can, as I have, think of each actor’s run as hosting a different individual who takes on the Bond moniker, none meant to be the same person. After The Bourne Legacy, however, it could be unwise for the Bond producers to even hint at such an idea. Still, the Ms and Qs are viewed as new people filling old shoes… As for Silva, his ex-MI6 status puts him very much into the Bond canon, calling to mind plenty of double-crossers and double-agents and dopplegangers, particularly GoldenEye’s Alec Trevelyan.

Movies today are all in the soup, mixing with ingredients of the past, but the Bond movies are an extraordinary case. Skyfall is celebrated for being so conscious of the whole half century of these films while also moving forward. But it’s not necessarily forward or fresh or innovative in any way that we can expect future blockbusters or a whole subgenre to imitate it. That’s a rarity for mainstream cinema today, and we can accept that. But we also can’t fault it for being conscious of what is popular right now, especially when its influence is already sourced from the same past.

This week, Slashfilm’s Angie Han asked Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson the big question, whether they’d be interested in Nolan directing an installment of the series. They didn’t have much to say on the possibility, but there is no more a reason for him to tackle Bond than there was for Hitchcock to when Fleming made that call. And not just because of the comparisons between Skyfall and his work. He’s already embedded in the process. And he’s already shown us his take on Bond by emulating the ski chase from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in Inception. It’s a big swirl that comes back around, as Bond inspires Nolan inspires Bond, etc.

Do we even need to talk about how so many think Nolan is like a new Hitchcock? At this point, Hitch is just a grandfather to both Nolan and Bond through other Bonds. Nolan doesn’t seem to recognize the heritage (he tends to cite Welles and Kubrick instead), Mendes has acknowledged the North by Northwest connection to 007, but in time all the influences, direct and indirect, become hazy.

Now Nolan is off Batman, and who knows where that character is going? Back to the cheeseball days of television or Schumacher? And could Bond ever head back through its own corny legacy of cartoonish henchmen and jet packs and puns galore? It will really be interesting to see the ways in which the two properties continue to inform one another. And what else informs and becomes informed by them as well.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.