October 4th is International James Bond Day, and 2012 is the 50th Anniversary of the 007 franchise. To commemorate this occasion, I thought I'd dedicate several posts over this week to one of the all-time great series in movie history.
We movie geeks love to make lists. So, here's my first list revolving around the Bond series. And what's more typical of a list than a Top Ten? So, without further ado, here are The Stalking Moon's picks for the very best of Bond.
1) On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
This should come as no surprise to readers of this blog. OHMSS is the champion as far as I'm concerned. Check out my detailed post here to see why.
2) From Russia With Love (1963)
The second Bond film gets nearly everything right. Exotic locations, a beauteous Bond girl in Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), great villains in Rosa Klebb (Lotta Lenya) and Red Grant (Robert Shaw), and a number of increasingly epic action sequences in the movie's rousing final third, from Bond's brutal hand-to-hand fight to the death with Red Grant in the train compartment, to the helicopter chase and the explosive motor boat finale. Better yet, back in this early, stripped-down phase of the series, the filmmakers focus on the story, taking the time to build an actual plot with loads of character moments and local color. We also have perhaps the best of all Bond allies in Kerim Bey (portrayed with great warmth and panache by the dying Akim Tamiroff).
3) Thunderball (1965)
This is the James Bond series at the zenith of its popularity, and Thunderball oozes confidence and swagger. There's just so much to love here. We have Connery at his peak, the last time he's fully committed to the part. We have a trio of stunning Bond girls (Claudine Auger, Luciana Paluzzi and Martine Beswick), a terrific villain in Adolfo Celi's Largo, an involved and interesting plot, and a host of great underwater footage. Now, there are some fans out there who find this movie's climactic underwater battle tedious and hard to follow. Maybe you have to be a diving or underwater afficionado, but I think they couldn't be more wrong – it's a fantastic ending, epic and impressive, full of lots of nifty gadgets, such as 007's mini-aqualung, hover sleds and jet-propelled scuba tanks. After this lengthy fight we get th more personalized and exciting pell mell fracas on Largo's boat, culminating in that great bit where Connery, in a life raft with his leading lady, puts up a rescue balloon, grabs Domino tight and waits for the navy plane to come and whisk them off into the great blue yonder, all to the brassy strains of the 007 theme. Just epic stuff.
4) Casino Royale (2006)
In one of the most successful reboots in memory, Bond production company EON went back to the basics with this adaptation of Ian Fleming's first novel. Their biggest coup was hiring steely-eyed Daniel Craig to take over the role from previous Bond Pierce Brosnan. Not only is Craig a terrific actor, probably the best to play the part, but he's 100% convincing as a ruthless, tough and unflappable secret agent. Casino Royale also gets the series' best script for ages, with a meaty story that finds time for a compelling romance between Bond and fiction's first Bond girl, Vesper Lynd (played with a silky, sexy mystery by Eva Greene). Mads Mikkelson as Le Chiffre is a good, middle-of-the-road Bond villain, but the shadowy organization manipulating the scenes in the background are perhaps a tad nebulous to register up there with the best Bond villains.
Much like the similar in many ways OHMSS, Casino Royale anchors its strong story with many relentless, exciting action scenes. For my money, far and away the best 007 film since OHMSS.
Highlights: the opening foot chase and fight in Africa, the extended poker match that punctuates the middle third of the film, the infamous torture scene, and the glorious bit at the end when Craig strides into screen with a machine casually balanced over one shoulder, and for the first time utters that immortal phrase, “My names is Bond. James Bond,” as the 007 theme soars.
5) Goldfinger (1964)
Cited by many as the perfect Bond film, I find Goldfinger great fun but overrated. For one thing, why does it not seem to bother anyone that Bond spends nearly half the movie as a prisoner? What possessed the filmmakers that this was a good idea? Also, despite a scenic sojourn in Switzerland, too much of Goldfinger is set in the USA. In my opinion, there is a truism in the world of 007, proven over many years of watching these films too many times to count: if it's set in America, or features an American Bond girl, it's just not going to be as good a Bond film as it should be. (And I say this as a card-carrying Yank.) These U.S.-set Bonds might seem exotic to Europeans, but to me, the familiar locations render them workaday and far less interesting. That said, Goldfinger is so good in other ways that it pretty much becomes the exception to that rule.
There is just so much iconic goodness here, from the excellent pre-credits sequence that plays like a tightly-constructed short Bond film, the terrific title song belted out by Shirley Bassey, the great opening section with Shirley Eaton and Connery sending sexual sparks flying off the screen, perhaps the best main villain/henchman combination in the series in Auric Goldfinger and Oddjob, the unveiling of the fantastic Aston-Martin DB5, and of course the memorable entrance of Honor Blackman:
"I'm Pussy Galore."
"I musht be dreaming."
Wonderful stuff, in many ways the archetypal Bond film. Just not the best.
6) For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Roger Moore brought a sangfroid and wry humor to the franchise that saw it safely through the 70s, but today, his era is not so well regarded. I've always been a fan of Moore's, and while he has some stinkers, and pretty much all of his Bond movies have some cringe-worthy moments of cuteness or goofy slapstick, many of them remain very fun and watchable. For Your Eyes Only is far and away the best Moore Bond. Once again, after the enormous excesses of a previous film (You Only Live Twice before OHMSS, Die Another Day before Casino Royale, and Moonraker before this film) we get a back-to-basics Bond film featuring a strong plot, interesting characters, fewer gadgets and lots and lots of excellent action. FYEO is epic, grand stuff, but it remains a fairly simple story at its core, and is all the better for it. Highlights include Bond's nerve-wracking ascent to the clifftop monastery and the ensuing melee at the finale, an extended underwater sunken vessel exploration/ mini-submarine battle, a nifty car chase through the olive tree-lined hills of Corfu, and yet another killer ski chase. Moore is looking a bit long in the tooth here, but overall gives a strong performance as Bond, more sober and serious than usual (love that scene where he kicks the evil henchman Locque's car over the cliff), and he's well-matched with the smouldering French beauty Carole Bouquet. The only things that bring the movie down somewhat are the jokey dispatch of an (unnamed) Blofeld in the pre-credit sequence, a silly if marginally amusing Margaret Thatcher joke at the end, and a badly-dated 80 synth score from Bill Conti.
7) Dr. No (1962)
Dr. No is a hugely enjoyable thriller; it only seems small scale and mildly underwhelming when compared to the subsequent huge action fests that the series would swiftly become. This comparatively modest, less preening and strident nature is one of the movie's charms, however. Connery nails the part from the very first frame, making his iconic entrance as the camera pans up to him sitting at the roulette table, cigarette dangling from his cruel lips. Jack Lord is still my favorite Felix Leiter (at least until Jeffrey Wright took over the part), and we get perhaps the most memorable entrance for any love interest ever as the bikini-clad Ursula Andress arises like Venus from the sea, crooning "Underneath the Mango Tree." Joseph Wiseman's Dr. No is a fine villain to open the series with, and he invests his brief screen time with a palpable menace. There's lots of real spy skullduggery in this first Bond film, and one of its best moments shows Connery sealing Bond's image as a smooth, ruthless killer as he empties his pistol into the body of traitorous Professor Dent. "You've had your six."
This is one 007 film where we get a real sense of the danger Bond routinely puts himself in. The world of espionage is shown as a savage, precarious place. This sense of risk would gradually evaporate by the time the series left its golden era of the 60s.
8) You Only Live Twice (1967)
Big, big, BIG. That's the one thing you notice about You Only Live Twice right away. Made when the Bond craze couldn't possibly get any greater, this is one plus-size, eager-to-please, highly entertaining movie. Probably the most overtly exotic of the early Bond pics, YOLT spends its entire time in Asia, chiefly Japan. As someone who has made my home in that country for over 8 years now, I find it a real kick seeing how much - and how little - Japan has changed since 1967. One time Bond screenwriter Roald Dahl throws pretty much everything but the proverbial kitchen sink into this film, and Lewis Gilbert directs with style (if very little restraint). It's all grand fun, hampered only by a tired and slightly phoning-it-in performance by Connery, who by this time had had his fill of the part, and it shows. That said, even halfhearted Connery makes for a good Bond outing, and there is plenty on offer here to compensate. We've got the great Testuro Tanba as the Japanese "M" equivalent, Tiger Tanaka, two great local beauties (Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama) as Bond girls (plus a so-so Karin Dor as the requisite femme fatale), unending local color and atmosphere, the mini-helicopter "Little Nellie," Ken Adams' most gargantuan and extravagant set (Blofeld's volcano lair), an all-out ninja assault at the end, and one of John Barry's lushest and most romantic scores. Pity that the usually-reliable Donald Pleasance makes for a rather wimpy Blofeld.
9) The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
The most flamboyant (and that's saying something) of the Moore era, The Spy Who Loved Me mostly fires on all cylinders, another of those huge, epic Bonds with a seemingly unending array of locales, stunts, gadgets, girls, gunplay and fights. We get not only the stunning Barbara Bach as the (rather stupidly named) Triple Agent X, we also get the equally gorgeous Caroline Munro in a brief bit as a baddie. We get a sterling villain in Carl Stromberg (Curd Jergens in full-on icy mode), who has one of the most audacious evil masterplans to grace the series. We are also introduced to hulking giant metal mouth Jaws (Richard Kiel), who in this film is allowed to be truly scary at times. Bond trades in his trusty Aston-Martin for a Lotus Esprit (that conveniently turns into a submarine at one point). All in all, tremendous fun, and really, isn't that what the Bond series is all about? (The Carly Simon main theme tune is wildly overrated, however).
10) Goldeneye (1995)
Pierce Brosnan's freshman outing as 007 is a very good Bond film, with again a more down-to-earth, meaty story that takes advantage of the chaotic post-Cold War era Russia. It also features a more physically-intimidating and well-motivated main baddie than usual in the form of almost Bond Sean Bean (ah, if only he'd got the part instead of Brosnan...) The tank chase is a series highlight as far as I'm concerned, and the two Bond girls (Izabella Scorupco as the good girl, Famke Janssen having a ball as the bad) are appealingly European. In fact, the whole film feels very non-American, which is most commendable. Lots of great action and good plot here, and there's an almost perfect pre-credit sequence (starting off with a magnificent bungee jump off a dam), which unfortunately is fatally marred by the ridiculous, physics-defying bit where Bond rides a motorcycle off a cliff and catches up with a falling plane, clambers inside and, at the last moment, pulls the craft up and away to a safe escape. I get that the Bond films are a fantasy, but this is carrying things too far.
Brosnan always seems a bit weedy and slight for 007, but he's pretty good here. You can tell he's excited to finally have the part and is giving it his all. A bit of ungainly PC-itis creeps in here as the now female M (ably portrayed by Dame Judi Dench) lectures 007 like he's an errant schoolboy, and Moneypenny tries her best to deflate his ego as well. It also suffers a bit from the Dalton-era's occasional indulgence in navel gazing and overly angsty brooding, but there's luckily a minimum of that guff and the film mostly just gets on with it program and delivers a rousing action romp. Love the theme tune by Tina Turner as well, and Daniel Kleinman outdoes Maurice Binder in his inventive opening credits.
Runner-up: The Living Daylights (1987)
Depending on my mood on a given day, Timothy Dalton's first Bond film could easily be swapped out for the Brosnan one above. The Living Daylights is another of those superior back-to-basics Bonds. It all feels very, very British. Another truly spectacular production from EON, with tons of gripping action and stunt work. Dalton is a fine actor and is a convincingly serious 007, but seems incapable of handling the humor that is part and parcel of the (movie) Bond, so he at times comes off a tad strained and flat. He's definitely a respectable super agent. The post-AIDS world encroaches on the fantasy 007 one here, as notoriously randy Bond is limited to a rather chaste, sweet yet dull romance with mousy Maryam d'Abo. But the film's incredible action and sweep, mixed with a (comparatively) believable plot, elevate this entry into the top half of the series.
There you have it. As any Bond fan worth his salt knows, one man's favorite is another man's dog, and vice versa. Chime in and let me know your own picks. And happy 50th anniversary, Commander Bond. You've earned it.
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