IT'S A PLEASURE to report that the James Bond company is confidently back on the beam.
"Octopussy" is the 13th installment in the series and the sixth with Roger Moore in the starring role. Opening today at area theaters, it proves one of the snazziest, wittiest productions in the history of the serial. (It also provides an unexpectedly droll justification for that bizarrely embarrassing title. Louis Jourdan, probably the most elegant and adroit star yet recruited to portray a villain in the series, pronounces the word "Octopussy" with such mischievousness that you'd have to be defiantly humorless not to relish the opportunity afforded him to demonstrate blithe phonetic command of a ridiculous-sounding name.)
Having found the overall editing and orchestrating control that eluded him in "For Your Eyes Only," director John Glen may be in a position to give the Bond films a fresh kind of spaciousness, as potentially distinctive and satisfying as the sleek, spacious set designs that the great art director Ken Adam contributed to installments like "Goldfinger" and "You Only Live Twice."
The most striking improvement in "Octopussy" is the recovery of smoothly coordinated teamwork and entertainment machine maintenance. The mixture of elements that contribute to a satisfying Bond adventure now seems astutely measured again. For example, a cumbersome chase sequence, in which Bond becomes the prey of an elaborate hunting party in an Indian jungle, is finessed with impressive aplomb by an effective throwaway joke--when Bond makes like Tarzan all of a sudden.
The element of disguise is cleverly sustained and designed to come full circle all through this episode. The mystery begins with the violent death of a Secret Service agent dressed as a clown in a circus troupe performing in East Germany. The climactic episode obliges Bond to don the identical disguise in order to buy sufficient time to avert a nuclear disaster. The intervening events take place for the most part in India, where Bond is sent to investigate the death of his colleague, connected somehow with the activities of Jourdan's ruthless character, a playboy dealer in precious gems and objets d'art named Kamal. Kamal is allied in an international smuggling ring with the reclusive, fabulously wealthy woman known as Octopussy, who eventually appears in the statuesque presence of Maud Adams and proves a more sympathetic, amenable criminal bosslady than the hero had a right to suspect.
In addition to being composed with an unusual regard for storytelling symmetry, the screenplay for "Octopussy"--evidently begun by George MacDonald Fraser of "Flashman" fame and then polished by Bond movie veterans Richard Maibaum and executive producer Michael G. Wilson (also the son of producer Albert R. Broccoli)--is worked out more intelligibly than one is accustomed to in the plots of thrillers hinging on a doomsday countdown. "Octopussy" makes far more suspenseful sense than "WarGames," for instance, because there's a genuine conspiracy involved in the planting of a nuclear device actually timed to detonate.
The doomsday element derives from a Soviet connection of Kamal's, unknown to either Octopussy or the suave, levelheaded Soviet espionage chief Gogol, played by Walter Gotell. More and more of a fixture in the series, and a shrewdly conceived one at that, Gogol is confronted with the potentially appalling prospect of a general who duplicates the fanatic initiative of the Sterling Hayden character in "Dr. Strangelove." Called Orlov and played by Steven Berkoff with a rather, uh, Teutonic strain of fanaticism, this impatient warrior can't stand the thought of all those formidable tank divisions in the East never getting the chance to prove themselves by rolling West, so he wanders off the reservation in order to provoke something decisive.
Bond, strategically positioned to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for both superpowers and possibly the human race one more time, is even more strategically positioned to sustain a heroic semblance of British imperialism into the 21st century.
Moore has perfected a nearly imperceptible "take" to express Bond's amusement, particularly when anyone has uttered a double-entendre. No single feature seems to betray a knowing tic; he doesn't elevate the eyebrows or anything. It's as if his whole demeanor had an unspoken "Hmmm . . ." written across it. This deadpan aplomb also enhances moments of peril in unexpectedly funny ways; for instance, after a stuntman has executed a particularly gutsy maneuver on top of a speeding train, Moore seems to reward the man's exertions with a "Mind if I come in?" look he directs at a reclining Maud Adams.
Unfortunately, Moore's face has begun to thicken in some vaguely distressing fashion that works against his accomplished deadpan takes. Moore is 55, after all, two years older than Sean Connery, and it's possible that the old heroic profile may not be permanently sag-resistant. There's a curious aspect to the obligatory scene with Lois Maxwell as M's secretary, Miss Moneypenny. She introduces rascally James to her dewy new assistant, Penelope Smallbone, played by Michaela Clavell, a daughter of the novelist James Clavell. The suggestion is inescapable that this could be Maxwell's farewell appearance.
But if dear, frustrated Moneypenny is on the verge of retirement, it's difficult to overlook the reciprocal logic: Time is surely creeping up on Moore, especially if the series is going to go merrily along into the next decade and century, as it certainly could. OCTOPUSSY
Directed by John Glen; screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser, Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson; music by John Barry; director of photography, Alan Hume; executive producer, Michael G. Wilson. Produced by Albert R. Broccoli for MGM/UA Entertainment Co. Rated PG. THE CAST James Bond....Roger Moore Octopussy....Maud Adams Kamal....Louis Jourdan Magda....Kristina Wayborn Gobinda....Kabir Bedi