For Your Eyes Only is evidence that the 007 franchise has been revising itself long before Casino Royale. Granted, it doesn’t drastically alter the tone or shift the chronology like Casino Royale does. It’s not a hard reset to factory settings.
Yet, if the extravagance and outlandishness of the Bond films have always ebbed and flowed, For Your Eyes Only looks like low tide after the veritable tsunami of Moonraker. Fewer gadgets, more realistic villains, a more plausible story, an emphasis on stunt work over special effects—these were the marching orders. Lewis Gilbert, director of three gigantic Bond films—You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker—exited the series, and John Glen, an editor and second-unit director on previous Bond films, stepped in to helm the project. As Roger Moore Bond films go, this is as restrained as it gets.
The more subdued story (in Bond terms, that is) sets aside the supervillains in favour of Greek mobsters and the Cold War. A British spy ship housing a special ATAC communicator meant for coordinating the UK’s Polaris nuclear submarine fleet is sunk somewhere in the Greek islands, and, soon after, the marine archaeologist recruited to secretly find the sunken communicator is killed. His surviving daughter, Melina (Carole Bouquet), swears revenge. Meanwhile, Bond is put on the job. His mission: find the ATAC before anyone else does, particularly the Russians. Bond inevitably joins up with Melina, and they in turn become involved with Greek mobsters who might have the ATAC or at least know where it is.
While the stakes are still big (it might not be the end of the world, but it’s still Britain’s nuclear deterrent on the line), personal dimensions are emphasized. Melina’s desire for revenge conflicts with Bond’s national interests. The Greek mobster plot revolves around the current gang rivalry between two comrades-in-arms during the Second World War. There’s the cold, calculating Kristatos (Julian Glover) and the hot-tempered Columbo (Topol).
The revenge subplot is added to give the main Bond girl greater motivation and agency in the story, which means Melina should be comparable to Tatiana Romanova (in From Russia with Love) or Anya Amasova (in The Spy Who Loved Me) in terms of character depth and interest. Unfortunately, Carole Bouquet, the French actress who became the face of Chanel in the 1990s, is pretty bland as this supposedly fiery, vengeful Bond girl. Her efforts at conveying the bitter rage that fuels her revenge are weak, so that in one scene Glen has to resort to awkwardly zooming in on her face (she looks directly into the camera) to emphasize the severity of her grief. Okay, sure, she’s angry.
The other two Bond girls are also notably given a bit more personality and more defined relationships. In other words, they’re more than female bodies used to move the plot along. I found Bibi (real-life figure skater Lynn-Holly Johnson) incredibly annoying the first time I watched this movie, but this time around I found her tolerable and more interesting. After all, she’s meant to be annoying to the other characters, and, to the film’s credit, Bond actually turns down young Bibi’s aggressive sexual advances (it’s hinted because of her young age). Lisl (Cassandra Harris) takes on the role of the bad girl who Bond uses to further his mission. However, this time, the character turns out to actually be good. After she and Bond spend the night together, in the morning a new dimension to the character is revealed, which makes her subsequent death more touching than the deaths of similar Bond girls in earlier movies, which are typically handled fairly callously. (It will be interesting to see as we continue watching through the canon whether this is a trend that develops or an anomaly.)
Many of the Bond films, and most of the Moore ones, contain one or two egregious missteps that are difficult to overlook. In For Your Eyes Only, the pre-credits sequence is unforgivable—and probably the worst in the franchise’s long history. As the film opens, Bond is leaving flowers on the grave of his dead wife, Tracy, in one of the series’ few acknowledgements of the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond then boards a helicopter sent from HQ, only to discover that the vehicle is under the control of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, back from the dead and sillier than ever. The reduction of Blofeld to a goofy, cackling villain in a wheelchair tormenting Bond with a joystick cannot be forgiven. The sequence is even more offensive for how it exploits serious and great prior plotlines, namely Tracy’s death and the entire SPECTRE movie arc, for a cheap opening lark. Imagine if the Joker showed up for a few minutes at the beginning of a new Batman movie, only to be quickly thrown down a smoke stack. What were they thinking?
Fortunately, everything that follows is better, and much of it is actually pretty good. The action scenes are particularly well-crafted, in spite of Moore’s visible aging. Although the film plays like something of a reel of cool stunts in neat locations (there’s a car chase down a Spanish hillside, skiing in the Italian Alps, deep-sea diving in the Ionian Sea, and rock climbing to a famous Greek mountaintop monastery), they all manage to impress.
The music and title song are awful though. The cowbell beat at the beginning of The Spy Who Loved Me might sound dated, but the eighties guitar stings in this score sound even more out of place. The music has not aged well, perhaps because it seems so desperate to have been cool at the time.
The absence of M (Bernard Lee was dying of cancer at the time) is just one bit of evidence, though, that despite the reorientation that took place during the production of For Your Eyes Only, there were still serious cracks in the franchise to deal with. Moore’s flirting with Moneypenny in the eighties films becomes increasingly desperate and sad. It’s an example of just one part of the formula that needed to be removed or significantly altered. As mentioned above, Moore is also starting to look old, and the fact that he isn’t doing the stunts is more apparent.
All this shows that For Your Eyes Only is mostly a superficial reworking of the formula. As the 1980s progressed, it became clear that more serious restoration and retooling were required.
6 out of 10
For Your Eyes Only (UK, 1981)
Directed by John Glen; written by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson based on the collection of stories by Ian Fleming; starring Roger Moore, Carole Bouquet, Topol, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Julian Glover, Cassandra Harris, Jill Bennett, Michael Gothard, John Wyman, Jack Hedley, Lois Maxwell, and Desmond Llewelyn.