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 …
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).
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/