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On the Three Best Bond Films

A countdown of the secret agent's outstanding screen adventures

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By Ian Dunross
December 10, 2009
For clarity, all book titles are displayed in small caps (Casino Royale), and short stories are shown in quotes and capitalized accordingly (“For Your Eyes Only”). Film titles, on the other hand, are italicized and shown with the capitalization used by the filmmakers (Dr. No).
This essay contains spoilers.

Background to a spy: a brief historical perspective, one would sort of have to think

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The year 1962 holds intriguing events in modern history. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, outraged that his militant Santa Claus image (replete with beard and rumpled green fatigues) wasn't catching on as a fashion trend, sought attention by transforming his country into a storage facility for Soviet warheads.

For his part, Nikita Khrushchev—leader of the Soviet Union and, most notably, a frightening creature without even a speck of pigmentation—bowed to the gods of Cuban rhythm and playfully formed a conga line in the streets of Havana. Hemingway observed the procession from the terrace of Finca Vigía (his retreat on a hill overlooking the city) and was inspired to write the screenplay of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Of course, the great writer died in 1960, bringing contradiction to the timeline and to which, so far as historical documents have shown, he made no attempt to rectify. But historians and literary scholars have concluded that had the burly alcoholic witnessed Khruschev's procession, he would have caught the rhythmic fever, dropped the writing career, and played the congas along the sidewalks of South Beach.

What does all this have to do with the three best 007 films? Sadly, not much (“Get on with it,” so says my editor). Nevertheless, the conga line was enough to jolt President Kennedy into action, leaving Marilyn Monroe in bed so he could address an apprehensive nation. “It is United States paahlicy,” he explained, “to regaahd Khrushchev's dancing, along with nuclear waaheads in Cuber, as an act of waah against the West.” Historians quickly noted that “Cuber” was either a reference to the coming of Cuba Gooding Jr. or a mispronunciation of the German word “Über,” an intriguing notion that suggested the President was reading Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra as bedtime story to Judith Campbell Exner.1

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A press conference ensued, wherein the President announced, “My brother Baahby is waiting in the North Laahn to discuss Cuber matters in detail.” Unfortunately, the conference was interrupted when a mischievous reporter from Pravda persuaded the President to say, during this televised event, “I've paahked my new caah by the gaahdan,” and the entire world burst into laughter. It was a major coup for the communists; and throughout 1962, while Castro persisted in taunting the President (“Hey Jack, how about a press conference, NEENER, NEENER, NEENER!”), Khruschev was still smirking and high-fiving the Pravda reporter.

Against this colorful backdrop, principle photography for a little known film spanned from January 16 to March 30, 1962. It received no official premiere in the United States and, consequently, opened to little fanfare. But there was something magical about the film, and it quickly burst into public consciousness. The film was Dr. No, and it launched the most successful series in cinema history.

Enter Agent 007

To date, there are 22 films in the series (excluding the 1967 version of Casino Royale, produced by Charles K. Feldman, and Never Say Never Again, produced by Jack Schwartzman in 1983). And to view each one is to see the complete spectrum of production elements that constitute high impact cinema: magnificent set designs, an onslaught of action and stunts, beautiful cinematography in exotic locations, and a majestic musical score. Despite some odd intervals in the later stages, especially with the kitschy reboot for the Daniel Craig tenure, the entire oeuvre transforms into a serial adventure when viewed chronologically, reminding us of the colorful nineteenth-century feuilleton2—a sort of David Copperfield redux—but heightened for the modern age. Villains just as baroque as the ones concocted by Dickens clash with the ingenuity of Agent 007, while other characters such as M, Q, and Moneypenny reappear to provide continuity. Some films even refer to others but most are standalone adventures that contain plotlines, scenes, and motifs that are variations of those in previous films.

Constant elements also appear: the introductory gun barrel imagery, for one thing; the plethora of girls, the exotic locations, and of course the title credits and accompanying song. Individual 007 films are also marked by the gadgets, certainly the elaborate stunts, and the peculiar villains and their henchmen. The advent of Blu-ray only enhances these visual treasures in pristine glory for home video.3 In what follows, I offer a rundown of the three best films in this forty-something-year-old series, as well as note the ones that deserve special recognition. My parameters are based on film-making elements that distinguish a particular movie, the quality of adaptation (if any) of Fleming's work, and any other characteristics that make the movie unique and entertaining.



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Ursula Andress and Sean Connery in the
1962 film.

1. Dr. No (1962). A landmark film, launching the most successful series in cinema history and setting innovations in narrative film. Director Terence Young and editor Peter Hunt emphasize jump cuts, narrative pacing, and rapid cutting to give the the film briskness and style. Remarkable in its day, this approach is now essentially taken for granted, but modern action films owe their taut visual structure to the invention of Young and Hunt.

Although not a straight dramatization of Fleming's Doctor No, the screenplay retains the substance of the novel. Moreover, Richard Maibaum, who cowrote the script and would become the veteran screenwriter for the series, cleverly mixes humor with the action, establishing the distinct Bond style wherein the narrative moves from suspense to humor to teasing sexiness and back again. Hence, in this first film, a new type of storytelling was set in motion, and Maibaum is as responsible for the cinematic bond as anyone associated with the series.

The spirit of the Fleming books also graces the screenplay. Maibaum includes a casino sequence near the start of the film—the glamour of the surroundings, Bond at the gaming table and summoned to M at 3AM—which is an ode to the opening scene in the first novel Casino Royale (“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning....”). Connery's performance also harks back to the literary character: he's a bit cold and gruff, even bureaucratic, the staunch civil servant on a mission forMI6 (witness his interaction with the Chief Secretary, Pleydell-Smith, in the Jamaica sequence).

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Although unknown at the time, Connery blazes as a “big screen” hero-type unlike any that international audiences have seen before. Deeply charismatic and dashing, Connery's Bond is able to romance a woman at one moment and treat her harshly the next (note his treatment of Miss Taro). Credit also goes (once again) to Young and Maibaum's approach to the character: they brighten Fleming's dark hero just enough to lift the seriousness with the throwaway humor, particularly at the end of a harrowing action scene. Again, this is all part of the new storytelling technique that underlies Maibaum's screenplay, and Dr. No is perhaps the first adventure film where audiences were swayed with suspense at one moment and suddenly allowed to release the tension through a clever line that only Connery, in his slyness, could deliver.

Through it all, what's fascinating about the first 007 film is the underlying seriousness—despite the fantastical elements (such as as Dr. No's secret island laboratory), the film conveys a strong sense of believability. Moreover, because Bond's mission begins as an investigation into the death of a British agent, the film takes on the feel of an investigative report—a sort of documentary mood that grounds the story into reality. Dr. No is a terrific blend of realism and fantasy.


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Pedro Armendáriz, Daniela Bianchi, and
Sean Connery on board the Orient Express.

2. From Russia with Love (1963). Again, Terrence Young's direction is a standout; Richard Maibaum offers a terrific adaptation of the Fleming novel; and some of the most interesting and menacing villains in the series are introduced to make this second entry a classic adventure film. Young maintains a deep sense of mystery with a plot concerning a missing espionage tool. From the opening teaser—the first in the series, featuring the eerie moonlit garden—to the sequence in Istanbul to the suspenseful journey on board the Orient Express, the film is full of intrigue. The Orient Express sequence, in particular, translates effectively on screen as a great setting for mystery. Trains have always been a classic element of the cloak-and-dagger genre, and Young's direction of this sequence is outstanding, considering that he filmed it at Pinewood Studios. Also, cheers for Peter Hunt's exceptional editing: he inserts interior scenes of the cabin to contrast shots of the actual train, and summarizes the long trek with a map of the journey superimposed over the action, showing the train's location in various parts of eastern Europe. Spielberg and Lucas would later use this map route imagery in their Indiana Jones adventures.

Then, of course, we have the gripping confrontation between Bond and Grant. Maibaum's screenplay showcases the brilliant dialogue between the two characters. The scene is full of suspense and tension as the audience finds Bond on the verge of death. Kneeling in the cramped cabin, disarmed, with the silencer of Grant's automatic aimed at his face, Bond is trapped. But in a nod to Fleming's characterizations, Maibaum presents Grant's flaw—greed—which is enough for Bond to use to his advantage (with the aid of the trick briefcase). All of these sequences have a deep sense of reality, colored by a foreboding tone from the great John Barry soundtrack. I have a feeling that today's audiences would find this film slow-moving. Also, the humor is subtle, blatant gore is absent, and gadgets are few; but From Russia With Love is an intelligent film and remains one of the best adventures ever made.


3. Both On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) and For Your Eyes Only (1981)

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A transitional film for producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, On Her Majesty's Secret Service features Peter Hunt's directorial debut, Australian model George Lazenby as 007, and a spy story that abandons gadgets to emphasize intrigue and a haunting romance that ends in doom. The series had lost its momentum after the bland spectacle of You Only Live Twice (1967), and Connery walked away from sheer boredom with the role. In steps Lazenby, still a curiosity today, struggling to emulate the Connery-Bond but largely succeeds as an animatronic 007. The fact that the film holds together is a testament to Hunt's magnificent direction: working from the thoughtful Maibaum adaptation of the Fleming novel, Hunt presents a believable human relationship between Bond and Diana Rigg's Tracy di Vicenzo in the midst of a plot concerning arch-enemy Blofeld's genealogy and his plans for germ warfare. Moreover, Hunt's photography of spectacular skiing and toboggan action scenes in the Alpine sequence remains among the best in the series.

The film has many other highlights. Gone are the futuristic sets of Ken Adam; instead, Syd Cain compliments the human drama with realistic set designs that fit the gloomy imagery of Michael Reed's cinematography. The narrative pacing also races by despite the 140-minute running time, and John Barry offers one of his finest scores.

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What are the film's problems? Well, the absence of Connery is the major downside. As John Barry famously noted, had the finale featured the Connery-Bond cradling the dead Tracy, the scene would have been a “bombshell of a moment” (Rubin). Also, Telly Savalas, as Blofeld, lacks the grandeur of Fleming's villain and comes across as something of a small-time gangster. In addition, Gabriel Ferzetti, as Marc Ange Draco, is too kind and pleasant as the head of a mafia ring (the Union Corse crime syndicate). Still, the daring venture of the filmmakers—presenting a new Bond in an epic story with a downbeat ending—makes this film a hallmark in the series and certainly one of the best.

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Another transitional film, For Your Eyes Only is a welcome return to an earthbound story after the incredulous outer-space romp of Moonraker (1979). Maibaum and co-writer Michael G. Wilson weave two Fleming short stories, “For Your Eyes Only” and “Risico,” 4 into a decent screenplay that resorts to realistic espionage, assassinations, and revenge plots, while shunning megalomaniac villains obsessed with world domination. Linking the two stories is another missing espionage device, which is suitable enough for our man Bond to race the enemies to an underwater wreck (ah, once again sharks and corals and glorious underwater cinematography). The finale, a spectacular action sequence wherein Bond and his allies scale a vertical cliff to infiltrate the villain's lair, is reminiscent of The Guns of Navarone; but it works in context to the film's lack of fantasy.

This is a Bond film that works successfully as a spy adventure—it features mysterious characters, plot twists, romance, and a strong leading lady in Carole Bouquet, the most esoteric Bond babe, who seeks revenge on the villains who murdered her parents. Sad to say, the only glitch is the bizarre pre-titles sequence, featuring left-over nonsense from Moonraker: the helicopter stunt is well staged but marred by inane dialogue as Bond drops a Blofeld-like character into a chimney stack. Fortunately, it's easily eclipsed by the stunning title song, performed by the lovely Sheena Easton appearing with a hint of nudity in the Maurice Binder title graphics.

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Other highlights point to the filmmakers's homage to Fleming. Roger Moore's performance is sincere, exuding the persona of a tired secret agent—something akin to the literary Bond. Editor John Glen was the right choice to take over the directorial reins, and he delivers some of the best collection of action scenes in the series, including the keel-hauling scene from the novel Live and Let Die, while maintaining the travelogue flavor in the Fleming books. For example, there is time enough in Corfu for Bond and Melina Havelock to visit the marketplace and watch some of the locals perform a Greek dance. This balanced approach, along with the adaptation of some Fleming material, are a momentous breakthrough in a series that had spent more than a decade neglecting its literary roots.

Special recognition


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Goldfinger (1964). Much has been written about this third entry as the perfect Bond film, the template for subsequent films in the series, etc., and does not require additional lucubration from me. Certainly the film has endured, even reaching iconic status, and its dominant image—the corpse of a woman painted gold, in tandem with Shirley Bassey's forceful rendition of the John Barry classic song—remains striking, haunting, the quintessential Bondian imagery. The dialogue also remains quotable; the introduction of the Aston Martin, along with key scenes (the golf match, the Fort Knox sequence), are legendary; and characters Auric Goldfinger and Oddjob have become the classic Bond villains. The screenplay, by Maibaum and Paul Dehn, presents an offshoot: refreshingly, SPECTRE isn't involved, only a maverick gold-hoarder who plans to detonate an atomic bomb inside Fort Knox to expose the American gold supply to radiation, thereby boosting prices for his own reserves and providing economic chaos in the West for his backers, the Red Chinese. It's a clever plot, certainly enhancing the scheme in the novel, considering that the literary Auric simply intends to steal the gold from Fort Knox. The raid into the fortified vault building is well choreographed, the fictional vault interiors are another Ken Adam exemplary design, and the consequent fight between Bond and Oddjob is one of the best in the series.

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What prevents me from placing Goldfinger in the top-three list? The film is a bit sleek and light for my taste; and curiously, Bond is more spectator than hero: it's Ms. Pussy Galore, Goldfinger's tomboyish pilot, who's instrumental in the defeat of the villain. (Despite proclaiming immunity to Bond's advances, she fortunately isn't, and sex prevents the decline of the West.) Moreover, the film contains an underlying confidence that translates into an overly self-assured James Bond. As a result, he's rude to everyone he meets, including his enemy, his superior, his gadget guru Q, and the women he's attempting to seduce. The seriousness of the mission is secondary: somehow, it's all too easy for him and he even enjoys sharing mint juleps with Mr. Auric at the villain's stud farm, while they discuss his plan to break into Fort Knox. Alas, this is the film where the cinematic Bond becomes Mr. Renowned Secret Agent. Connery's performance is magnificent, to be sure, exuding the epitome of cool; but from here on, the cinematic Bond is indestructible, well known (especially to bartenders and maître d's), playfully rude, and entirely confident that he essentially reacts to anything he encounters with yawning indifference.

Nevertheless, Goldfinger is witty and highly entertaining, despite having a hero who walks into more traps than required for a seasoned Double-O agent and who plays no real part in the defeat of the villain. No one seemed to notice, and the film soared at the box-office. Its stature in the series cannot be underestimated: before The Dark Knight, your Harry Potter films, your Avatars, and your Twilight series, Bond ignited the cinemas with Goldfinger; the film was a global phenomenon during its release in the Christmas season of 1964, and its popularity compelled many theaters to stay open 24 hours a day to gratify the crowds. Goldfinger was the first true blockbuster.

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GoldenEye (1995). Thirty-one years after Goldfinger, the franchise finds itself with another transitional film, the seventeenth in the series, which revived the Bond engine after the bleak six-year delay that stemmed from 1989's dismal Licence To Kill. Pierce Brosnan makes a smashing debut as 007, and his entrance via the bungee-jump sequence is one of the best introductions for a new actor in the series. Although there are sluggish moments in the story and the entire Janus-charade lacks clarity (was it all planned between 006 and Ouromov during the brief moment when the Russian general had a gun to the agent's head?), the film contains enough interesting characters to make it all worthwhile.

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In addition, there are some unique elements: a sense of darkness pervades the imagery (the eerie moonlit scene in the old Kremlin junk yard comes to mind), and Brosnan, perhaps more than any actor, conveys the inner torment of Fleming's Bond. Timothy Dalton, a fine 007 in his own right, captured the ruthlessness of the character—but the scripts he dealt with lacked subtleties. In GoldenEye, for once we see the inner torment that fuels the hard side of the man. The scene on the beach where the Brosnan-Bond stares into the sea and contemplates killing Trevelyan is a standout. “He was your friend,” says Natalya Simonova, the Bond gal of the piece, “and now he's your enemy.” This is a throwback to the impermanence of good and evil, to the emptiness, to the lack of structure in the world, that Fleming's Bond begins to sense in the first novel Casino Royale.

Notes

1 Judith Campbell Exner claimed to be a mistress of JFK. The two met in 1960, in Las Vegas, when Frank Sinatra introduced her to the then senator and presidential candidate.
2 Originally the section in a European newspaper devoted to light fiction and articles of general entertainment, the feuilleton developed into a format for a novel published in installments. Many of Dickens's works were published in serial form.
3 At the time of publication, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and GoldenEye were not available on the Blu-ray format.
4 Both “For Your Eyes Only” and “Risico” are part of the short story collection For Your Eyes Only(1959).

List of Illustrations

“Film Reel and Bond Silhoutte.” Personal graphic by author. 14 Dec. 2009.
“Castro and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Online Image. Free Clip Art by Phillip Martin. 13 Dec. 2009
<http://worldhistory.phillipmartin.info/worldhistory_cuban_missile.htm>.
“JFK.” Online Image. Arthur's USA Clipart. 13 Dec. 2009
<http://www.arthursclipart.org/usa/usa/page_02.htm>
“Ursula Andress and Sean Connery.” Online Image. Guardian.co.uk. 11 Nov. 2009
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/may/02/radio.bbc>.
“Sean Connery.” Online Image. amnesta.net. 11 Nov. 2009
<http://www.amnesta.net/other/007/>.
“Pedro Armendáriz, Daniela Bianchi, and Sean Connery on board the Orient Express.”
Online Image. britmovie.co.uk. 5 Dec. 2009
<http://www.britmovie.co.uk/films/From-Russia-with-Love>.
“Beach Scene: On Her Majesty's Secret Service.” Online Image. getback. 10 Dec. 2009
<http://www.getback.com/gallery/the-bond-girls-guide-to-catching-a-guy/2985815/6/>.
“Wedding Scene: On Her Majesty's Secret Service.” Online Image. bondmovies.com. 10 Dec. 2009
<http://www.bondmovies.com/news/235.shtml>.
“Roger Moore.” Online Image. IGN Movies. 12 Dec. 2009
<http://bluray.ign.com/articles/923/923679p1.html>.
“Carole Bouquet.” Online Image. Predrag Ličina. 12 Dec. 2009
<http://www.pedja-licina.com/blog/?p=154>.
“Bond Discovers the Golden Girl.” Online Image. flimsquish.com. 15 Dec. 2009
<http://www.filmsquish.com/guts/?q=node/4047>.
“Oddjob with Bond and Goldfinger.” Online Image. Reel Movie News. 15 Dec. 2009
<http://www.reelmovienews.com/tags/quantum-of-solace/page/2/>.
“Trevelyan and Bond.” Online Image. Casey's Blog. 5 Nov. 2009
<http://rammfan518.wordpress.com/category/movie-top-ten-lists/>.
“Beach Scene: GoldenEye.” Online Image. James Bond 007 Museum. 8 Nov. 2009
<http://www.007museum.com/goldeneye_beach.jpg>.

Works Cited

Rubin, Steven Jay. The James Bond Films: A Behind The Scenes History.
New York: Arlington House, 1983.
Dr. No. Dir. Terence Young. Perf. Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman,
Jack Lord, Bernard Lee. Blu-ray Disc. MGM/UA, 1962.
For Your Eyes Only. Dir. John Glen. Perf. Roger Moore, Carole Bouquet,
Topol, Julian Glover. Blu-ray Disc. MGM/UA, 1981.
From Russia With Love. Dir. Terence Young. Perf. Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi,
Pedro Armendáriz, Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw. Blu-ray Disc. MGM/UA, 1963.
GoldenEye. Dir. Martin Campbell. Perf. Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean,
Isabella Scorupco, Famke Janssen, Joe Don Baker, Judi Dench. DVD. MGM/UA, 1995.
Goldfinger. Dir. Guy Hamilton. Perf. Sean Connery, Honor Blackman, Gert Frobe,
Shirley Eaton, Tania Mallet. Blu-ray DVD. MGM/UA, 1964.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Dir. Peter Hunt. Perf. George Lazenby, Diana Rigg,
Telly Savalas, Gabriele Ferzetti, Ilse Steppat. DVD. MGM/UA, 1969.
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