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For Your Eyes Only, darling: Why Topol was one of James Bond’s greatest allies

Farewell then Topol, icon of Israel and legendary star of stage and screen, who has shit his last bolt in his native Tel Aviv, aged 87. Not only was he a commanding and charismatic actor and a fine singer with that glorious baritone, but he played one of my favourite ever characters in a Bond film — the only 007 caper shot in my maternal homeland and one of the most under-rated in the entire series. Efkharistó, Milos Columbo of For Your Eyes Only.

“If I were a rich man, ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum!”

Like many a Brit, I was familiar with the famous Fiddler On The Roof songs from an early age as my gran (the English one, not the Greek) had the soundtrack album of the West End stage show — though (I’ll whisper this bit) regrettably, she had the version by Alfie Bass, who took over the celebrated role of Tevye the milkman from Chaim Topol, a career-defining performance which won him a Golden Globe for Best Actor in 1971, and a part he played over 3,500 times, right up to 2009.

A decade later, Topol played Milos Columbo, an infinitely curious character in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, the rapidly ageing Roger Moore’s fifth turn as “James Bond of the British Secret Service”, and something of the forgotten Bond film to many. However, fans of the tighter, less ostentatious From Russia With Love and the 2006 version of Casino Royale are going to enjoy this take on a 007 adaptation. That‘ll be me then.

Certainly one of the more under-rated and under-stated films in the 007 franchise, FYEO is a fairly straightforward revenge story that took Bond back to its gritty, grounded roots — an obvious retaliation against Moonraker’s camp, far-fetched venture into space. I say fairly, as you can’t not expect a few twists and turns in a James Bond adventure.

For Your Eyes Only premiered at the Odeon, Leicester Square on 24 June 1981 before going on general release on 26 June, my 12th birthday. The charity screening was attended by the soon to be arranged manacled Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer, and Topol suggested to Cubby Broccoli that he invite his former Bond co-producer Harry Salzman, which he did, marking the first reunion between the two men since their break up after The Man With The Golden Gun in 1974.

Despite that ever-present nagging feeling that Moore was forever in Sean Connery’s shadow, there are many unique moments throughout For Your Eyes Only: for a start, it‘s the only Bond where you see Bond attend the grave of his dead wife Tracy (Diana Rigg), who was gunned down by Spectre at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and only very briefly mentioned again once in The Spy Who Loved Me; it’s the only Bond minus M (Bernard Lee had recently died and they didn‘t recast the role with Robert Brown until 1983‘s Octopussy); it’s the only only Bond where the singer of the title song  in this case Sheena Easton – is seen on screen performing it during the opening credits; it‘s also the only Bond where the Prime Minister of the day is portrayed; and it‘s the first Bond of the 1980s, kicking off a five-film run directed by John Glen that culminated in 1989‘s Licence To Kill with Timothy Dalton.

However, the main and atypical twist is that for much of the film — the only 007 caper filmed in my Hellenic maternal homeland to date — the viewer is encouraged to believe that Columbo, the Greek smuggler who boasts the great Cassandra Harris (wife of Pierce Brosnan) as his partner in crime — is the villain of the piece.

“I’m a smuggler. I smuggle, yes. I smuggle gold, diamonds, cigarettes, pistachio nuts… but no heroin.”

Roger Moore’s introductory scenes with Topol are also well played as the two are wary of each other before the real villain of the film is revealed. The whole story structure of Bond being kidnapped by Columbo’s men after his beach rendezvous with Harris‘s Countess Lisl (Lisl Baum in Ian Fleming’s original short story) which results in her meeting a sticky end in spectacularly brutal fashion was lifted more or less verbatim from Fleming’s RISICO.

With his great booming baritone and natural charismatic warmth, Topol steals every scene he’s in.  He practically seems to be winking at the audience and having a blast at the same time, munching on a handful of pistachios with an amused gleam in his eye. But he sells the revenge storyline as well, as only Tevye can, and which instantly made him one of my all-time favourite one-off characters in the series, occupying a unique position somewhere in between From Russia With Love’s Kerim Bey and René Mathis from the Daniel Craig era, but without actually being in the employ of any secret service.

Interestingly, after the “bad guy really the good guy and vice versa” plot twist is revealed, Columbo ends up being the only Bond ally who kills the main megalomaniac baddie Aris Kristatos (a rather bland Julian Glover, ostensibly phoning it in from Putin’s KGB); in effect, doing 007’s dirty work for him.

And if you‘ve ever wondered why 007 says Yassou (hello) instead of Yiamas! for cheers (Γειά μας), I guess that‘s a matter for him and his Greek translator. Hopefully they never worked again.

The ‘Bond girl’ in FYEO – Melina Havelock, played by the stunning French actress-model Carole Bouquet – is also an exception to the standard trope. Not only is Melina the film’s deuteragonist, but she’s a Citroen-driving badass herself who‘s serious, not frivolous, and bloody lethal with a crossbow. Near the start of the movie she witnesses her parents being gunned down by her own seaplane taxi driver-turned-airborne assassin, resulting in a drive for vengeance shocks even our favourite superspy, one of cinema’s most famously ruthless avengers. Her journey will, naturally, force her to work with 007 to start a twisty investigation, laden with brutality, betrayal and (gasp) double agents.

At its core, For Your Eyes Only is a taut, to-the-point revenge thriller, aided in no small part by both Bouquet and Topol. Just ignore the cringey Thatcher skit at the end, and the eternally annoying Bibi (Lynn-Holly Johnson), a Lolita-like figure skating nympho with daddy issues and a pointless sub-plot who didn’t get smacked nearly enough for my liking. 

“I wanna win the gold medal!,” she kept repeating ad nauseam. If she had, I would have so loved to wrap it round her tender throat. If that’s too harsh I could settle for a trade-off — if she promises never to speak again I’ll buy her a delicatessen… in stainless steel. 

Let us drink to that. Layla Tov Topol.

Give us a kiss, give us a kiss.

Chaim Topol, born September 9, 1935 in Tel Aviv, died March 8, 2023 in Tel Aviv

Steve Pafford

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