Fifty shades of James Bond

Tomorrow is ‘International James Bond Day’, not actually a national holiday yet but I’m sure it’ll catch on eventually. It’s part of a coordinated media blitz celebrating the 50 years on screen of ‘the world’s favourite secret agent’. I’m starting the festivities a bit early today because it’s my birthday. Having thus arrived at the ripe old age of 44, I reckon I’m entitled to indulge in a bit of premature Bondomania. With the imminent arrival of Skyfall and the release on Blu-ray of all the previous films in the series (I really hate to use the word ‘franchise’), this seems like a perfect excuse to come up with my personal list of favourite 007 adventures. So wind your Omega, shake your martini, sharpen your quips and let’s ski off that mountain top and see what flavour parachute I’ve brought along …

What I have come to realise after decades as an espionage aficionado in general and a Bond fan in particular is that there are several different layers of appreciation possible when it comes to looking at the 22 films released since 1962. Unlike say the Harry Potter films it’s not that you need to have read the books first to even be able to understand them or have to watch them even in sequence (with the notable exception of Quantum of Solace). It’s a question of mood – do you want jokes or exotic locations? Imposing sets and improbable plots, villains hellbent on world domination or dark romances in which even the leading lady can get killed off? Henchmen with silly names and a gaggle of double entendres or action set-pieces to make you gasp? The answer of course is – yes!

The series is hardly immune from trends and fashions after all: witness Blaxploitation Bond in Live and Let Die, science fiction Bond in Moonraker; even Jason Bourne style Bond in the often unfairly maligned Quantum of Solace. But the films are at their best when they remain true to their varied but distinctive traits, combining humour and glamour with intrigue and adventure, stunning pre-credit teasers – and great animated titles under a killer soundtrack too, please! So, in strict chronological order, here are the ones that I think work their magic the best …

Goldfinger (1964)
In keeping with my feeling that the best of the Bonds are the ones that features the most involving female characters, I should really have picked From Russia With Love (1963) here because the development of the love story between Bond and the cypher clerk Tatiana (played by Daniela Bianchi) is probably the most charming and sweet of any of the Connery films. This is also the film with the best plot of the series and two of the very best henchmen: Rosa Klebb and Red Grant. However, the style is still quite rudimentary, the sets a bit on the drab side, the score doesn’t quite sparkle. So not in my top four – however, the film that followed it certainly is …

This stands out in so many ways as the quintessential Bond movie: Sean Connery in his third outing really seems to hit his stride here (and gets his best toupee too). Indeed, one could argue that he gave his best performance in the role here, quickly showing signs of  being bored with the role in his three (or four, depending on how you count) subsequent outings. But here he is funny, suave, sexy, dangerous and charming – and ruthless too. Then there is the ultra brassy score by John Barry and that Shirley Bassey voice on the unforgettable if bombastic song; the wonderful monomaniacal villain; the slightly over-the-top sets; the first proper pre-credits teaser that features Bond in a mini-adventure and capped with a parting quip (“Shocking … positively shocking” after electrocuting a baddie) … and the outrageously named Pussy Galore. What’s not to love?

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
This is of course the Bond movie to appeal to people who don’t necessarily like that kind of stuff – it has all the action and adventure you could want, but it is also unabashedly romantic and focuses, to an unusual extent, on a love story. After Connery retired from the role (well, until he was offered a cool mill for a one-off in 1970; and then returned for one really last go 12 years later), the series decided it needed to re-invent itself a bit. Thus there was a new director in Peter Hunt, who had edited all the previous films though, and a darker sensibility as our hero falls in love with the suicidal daughter of a rich Italian smuggler.

There is consistency though, with Blofeld recurring as the villain again (the third of four consecutive appearances, always played by a different actor) but the plot development is quite slow with the emphasis on the opulent Swiss locations and Bond having to rely on his wits and very few gadgets. George Lazenby was inexperienced and to a degree it shows, but he also brings a vulnerability to the role, crucial to make the film’s success, something that Connery could never have brought to the part. The ending is stunning (as are the ski stunts) and John Barry’s extraordinary score is topped by his best theme song, ‘We Have All the Time in the World’. There are faults, like having nearly all the action in a very long and extended climax and not spread out through a very long film (140 minutes) and getting George Baker to dub Lazenby’s voice when he is pretending to be ‘Sir Hilary Bray’ shows a near-fatal lack of confidence in the actor’s abilities. But the relationship between Bond and Tracy (Diana Rigg as the smartest and most interesting Bond girl ever) is wonderfully done. The scene when he is being pursued by the baddies near an ice rink and she suddenly turns up and bails him out is genuinely exciting and one of the few scenes where Bond is the one being saved. I love the melancholy romance of this film with its self-destructive heroine and its tragic ending, a combination not to be repeated until Casino Royale (see below).

Goldeneye (1995)
A new Bond is in town – and once again, part of the success of this film is its emphasis on its leading lady, a Russian computer programmer (Natalya Simonova) played by Izabella Scorupco (and no, I have no idea why this beautiful and talented Swedish-Polish actress hasn’t had more of a career yet). Brosnan was meant to take over in 1986 but ultimately had to bow out and Timothy Dalton took over, as everyone knows. I love Dalton’s two films but they feel like occasionally perfunctory, transitional works still made by the Roger Moore team striving with mixed results to create something a bit different. They laid the groundwork for Goldeneye, where the Bond character could be tougher than before but with some of the humour and glamour put back in. And in Martin Campbell the producers really found the perfect director to reboot Bond, someone used to working on tight TV budgets but who also has a real flair for action. This film opens with a fabulous pre-credit teaser with a gigantic bungee jump and then ending with a helicopter chasing a plane of a cliff while the middle has a succession of terrific set-pieces, most notably a tank chase, but what makes it really work is the emphasis on the three women.

Throughout the film Bond is lusting after bad girl Xenia Onatopp (a scene-stealing Famke Janssen) while following the progress of the much abused Natalya – it is her emotional journey, out of the Goldeneye facility where all her friends and colleagues were slaughtered and her attempt to get closure while rejecting the violence around her, that anchors the film. Bond is effectively modernised and chastised by her (and M) for his womanising, hard-drinking ways (though not too much). And it helps that she is absolutely ravishing of course. It’s not all good (the music score by Eric Serra is a bit too synth for me) but mostly this is a fast-paced, good-looking adventure that really did bring the series up-to-date and firmly installed its new leading man. He gets very good support too, with a pre Foyle’s War Michael Kitchen as Bill Tanner, which almost became a regular character for the films, reappearing in The World is not Enough.  And of course we also have Judi Dench in a perfect piece of casting as the new M – she is the most powerful ‘Bond girl’ of all. Sean Bean is also well cast as the renegade 006, the producers smartly using an actor who could easily have been cast as blonde Bond. In fact …

Casino Royale (2006)
Once again we have a new Bond, the franchise gets rebooted and we have a wonderful, truly compelling female lead character in Vesper Lynd (as played by bright-eyed beauty Eva Green). Having belatedly secured the rights to the first of Ian Fleming’s novels, the producers smartly decided to radically shake-up the series and create a parallel version of the hero, one catapulted back to the beginning of his career even though it is the modern-day and M is still played by Judi Dench (thank goodness). Daniel Craig is craggy and brutal and plays a young and less suave iteration of Bond. As ever with Martin Campbell, the action is brilliantly orchestrated, the opening set-piece on a construction site contrasting the smooth elegance of the free-running bomber with Bond’s crashing imperviousness to pain (and brick and mortar). This will be tested in the agonising torture scene, showcasing the thespian skills of Mads Mikkelsen as ‘Le Chiffre’. But it’s the more intimate moments between Bond and Vesper that really stand out, such as their delicate fully clothed shower scene, all elegantly filmed in a single take. My other favourite scene is the one where we see Bond wear his first proper tux, given to him by Vesper. She laughs as he preens himself in front of the mirror – he smiles, but the identity we will know from the later character is now really starting to coalesce. Wonderful stuff. A Bond movie with heart then, as well as brawn …

To put it another way, it’s the romance of Bond that I find the most appealing. Richard Maibaum, who wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for nearly all the movies made between 1962 and 1989 (You Only Live Twice, Live and Let Die and Moonraker are the only ones he didn’t get a credit on) likened the films to the swashbuckling adventures of Dumas. One can certainly see the parallels with The Three Musketeers with Constance representing the good girl, Milady de Winter the femme fatale, Richelieu the smooth villain, Comte de Wardes his unscrupulous henchman and so on. And it is the films where Bond’s emotions are perhaps most tested and where the leading lady equals him as a character that I find the films the most satisfying, something perhaps also learned from the great French author. Which is not to say that I don’t love the spectacular stunts and amazing sets and the gadgets too. I’ve never really met a Bond movie I didn’t like (though Thunderball and The Man with the Golden Gun come awfully close), but the four I have picked I believe to be the ones that stand out from the series as films in their own right.

So, what are your favourites?

The official Skyfall website can be accessed at: www.007.com/skyfall/

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23 Responses to Fifty shades of James Bond

  1. TracyK says:

    I am also a James Bond fan (movies especially). I don’t know if I can pick a favorite Sean Connery film, and he is my favorite Bond (probably because of my age). I think my husband’s favorite is From Russia with Love. I liked all four of your picks, and especially On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

  2. Sergio – First, happy birthday and many more. I’m glad you’re highlighting the Bond movies. Bond is defibnitely an iconic figure. I have to say my favourite Bond is Sean Connery. I always liked both his style and his humour. There’s just something about him in that role. A well-done post.

    • Thanks for the bithday wishes Margot, very kind. The first Bond I saw at the cinema was actually The Spy Who Loved Me with Moore but I prefer Connery (always a toss up between Goldfinfger and From Russia With Love for me) but actually am a huge fan of Brosnan and Daniel Craig (and really wish Dalton had been given more of a chance).

  3. Aidan Brack says:

    Firstly, and most importantly – happy birthday!

    Great write ups of each of those four films. We basically have pretty similar taste here though I would substitute From Russia With Live for Goldfinger (which would be fifth on my list). OHMSS is probably my favorite, followed by Casino Royale. I suspect this means that I prefer my Bond a little vulnerable rather than acting like a superhero.

    • Thanks very much Aidan – sounds like we are pretty much on the same Bond movie page – with Connery for me it’s either one or the other. I’ll have to do my favourite Fleming titles next i think, all this publicity around the new film has certainly got me in the mood!

  4. Rod Croft says:

    Birthday Greetings, Sergio ! A lot of pre-publicity arrived here, in Australia from the UK, prior to the arrival of the very first James Bond adventure filmed – “Doctor No”. Who could ever forget Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in the white bikini – sensational for the year 1962 ! The exotic scenery and interesting plot added to my enjoyment of this film.
    My wife and I have seen every James Bond film in the cinema, save one, and that was unavoidable. We caught up with ” The World is not Enough” via DVD.
    Favourite “James Bond” would have to be Sean Connery and favourite film, “From Russia With Love”, but have enjoyed them all and look forward to “Skyfall”.

    • Thanks very much Rod. I didn’t start watching them on the bog screen until 1977 but I have been devoted ever since. From Russia With Love is a terrific film, I tend to swap that with Goldfinger in my mind for first place.I do prefer the ones with strong love stories – but there you go, I’m a total softie!

  5. Sergio, a very happy birthday to you! I hope you have a great day and a fantastic year ahead.

    The Bond films evoke mixed and varied responses from people everywhere which reflects the mass appeal of this hugely successful franchise. For instance, people of our generation in India still prefer Connery and Moore as Bond. Connery was a class act, probably the ultimate Bond. What I liked about Moore was his sardonic humour; I thought he carried it well. The role fit Brosnan to a tee and I was surprised he bowed out after only four films even if it was part of the original deal. I had some reservations about Daniel Craig, perhaps because he was more human than Bond, but after I saw “Quantum of Solace” I was convinced of his stature as 007. If my memory serves me right, Craig is the only Bond who actually gets hurt and even sports bruises and scars.

    Although I still enjoy the early Bond films, I’ve become partial to the sheer technical brilliance of the modern-day versions. It’s like reading Superman-Batman comics of the 1940s and 1950s first and then switching over to the comics of the 1970s, 1980s and up to mid-1990s. Today’s comics are just gloss.

    • Thanks very much Prashant for the good wishes. They have been hurtin Bond more and more as time goes on it seems to me – in Brosnan’s last two outing, The World is Not Enough and Die Another Die he sustains fairly serious injuries (falls on to the Millennium Dome and dislocates his shoulder in TWINE and then gets imprisoned and tortured in DAD). I’m glad you liked Quantum of Solace too as I keep having to defend it – not as good as Casino Royale and too much like Jason Bourne, but still better than most I think. People loved Moore at the time and he will always be the actor who played the role for the longest (12 years!) so his place in historu is assured. I love bits from his films but like very few as a whole – Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only are probably the best for me.

  6. Colin says:

    Happy birthday sir! I see you have two and a half months seniority over me so I’ll bow to your wisdom and admit your list is hard to argue with.

    Personally, I would have added one of the Moore films – The Spy Who Loved Me or For Your Eyes Only – but I see where you’re coming from by choosing those films which feature a more compelling emotional plot.

  7. mikeripley says:

    From another birthday boy (St Michael’s Day). When I first met Pierce Brosnan on the set of The World Is Not Enough – we discovered we were almost the same age and that we had seen our first Bond film – Goldfinger – as teenagers at almost exactly the same time, certainly the same week: Pierce in Wimbledon with his step-dad Bill Carmichael and me in Cambridge with my older brother. Pierce said he left the cinema saying to himself “One day I’ll play that role” and I would have liked to have said I left thinking “One day I’ll write that script”, but in truth I only thought of that quip 35 years later!

  8. Jeff Flugel says:

    Congratulations and felicitations on your 44th birthday, Sergio! It’s interesting and pleasing to me that you and Colin are so close to each other in age, and also not far off from me; I’m also 44 (though set to turn 45 later this month).

    As you know, I too have been having my own little Bond celebration, and therefore really enjoyed your post, which as usual is very elegantly written. You make a number of great points, and I can’t really argue with any of your four choices, as they are all fine Bonds and of course OHMSS and CASINO ROYALE are really stellar and top faves of mine. Personally, I would have substituted FOR YOUR EYES ONLY for GOLDENEYE, but that’s what makes us Bond fans, eh? I found your comments re: preferring the movies with the stronger Bond women interesting and perceptive. While if commenting offhand I would likely say that I don’t care as much for the overly romantic Bonds (the goo-goo eyed one between Dalton and Maryam d’Abo in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS leaves me cold for example), in truth I must feel similar to you, as two of my absolute favorites in the series have strong, tragic romances at their core.

    Anyway, great post, and I hope you celebrate your birthday in style, with a charming beauty, a couple of properly chilled vodka martinis, Beluga caviar (north of the Caspian) and some quality time with those luscious Bond Blu-Rays.

    • Thank you Jeff – I do really like For Your Eyes Only (despite the comedy teaser and epilogue that everyone rightly hates) thoiugh the climax is a bit of a damp squib after the fine mounteneering stunts. I like d’Abo and I like the role she plays (the Cold War opening afte rthe titles, adapting the original short story, is really excellent in my view) but she is also written as one of the dumbest of Bond girls – if she’d been a bit brighter and feistier (like Carey Lowell in Licence to Kill) it would have really made a difference. And thanks for the good wishes – in my case it will probably be low calorie soft drinks and a dalek-shaped cake to please my 8-year-old nieces who will get to unwrap my presents. They are big fans of Roger Moore based on the pre-credit teasers I have let them watch thus far … We’ll have to see if they grow out of that.

  9. Skywatcher says:

    LIVE AND LET DIE was the first Bond movie that I ever saw. Back when it originally came out I sat in my local Odeon and by the end titles I was hooked, and have been ever since. As you might guess, my favourite 007 is Roger Moore, and two of my favourites are THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and OCTOPUSSY. The first one seems to me to be the quintessential Bond movie, from the pre-title sequence, to the action scenes, to the beautiful co-star, to the fantastic gadgets, to the amazing sets. OCTOPUSSY is a fascinating attempt to mix swashbuckling adventure with realistic cold-war spy stuff. A terrific leading lady, and a couple of worthy opponents for 007. I love the fact that there is a far more of Q than usual. OHMSS has to be in anyone’s list of great Bond movies. Lazenby has been unfairly lambasted for many years, but he does a great job here. He is the most believably physical of the Bonds, and when he hits someone, they stay hit! I don’t think that Diana Rigg has ever looked more beautiful than at that moment when she turns up at the ice rink. My final movie was going to be FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, but I might just choose DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER instead. I am a fan of the campier, sillier elements of the franchise, and there is none sillier and camper than DAF. Charles Gray’s Blofeld has a comeback to every one of Connery’s quips, and Wint and Kidd are creepy and funny in equal measure.

    To be honest, I love them all. To misquote Orwell, all Bonds are great, but some are greater than others.

    • Skywatcher, I think you misquote Orwell very appropriately indeed. Octopussy I thought was much too silly at the time but I don’t mind it so much precisely, as you say, for its mixture of Cold War (great Berlin clown scenes) and old fashioned adventure in India – if you excise the silly humour (like most of the elephant hunt and the tennis gags from the car chase) there is a lot of good stuff there, though Moore does look very middle aged there (he looks much better in VTAK after losing weight and a bit of a face tuck).

  10. Happy belated birthday! Very nice job on the post. GOLDFINGER is also my favorite Bond movie, with OHMSS (the first one I saw in the theater, at the age of 6) not far behind, although I love all of the first six. I hope it’s not too self-serving of me to point this out, but the new issue of CINEMA RETRO contains part one of my exhaustive analysis of Blofeld on page and screen. You might find it of interest. And I’ve covered the non-Blofeld books and films on my blog, Bradley on Film.

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