Thursday, October 15, 2015

James Bond Franchise Review Part One

This two-part review of the first twenty-one James Bond films -- I am reaching twenty-one by including Never Say Never Again (1983), which was not released by Eon Productions and therefore is not considered canonical by them -- is, in a couple of senses, "old." For one, it deals only with the pre-Daniel Craig Bonds. You should read my earlier introduction to this post for the reasoning behind that exclusion, but the short version is: the Craig Bonds serve as a true “reboot” of the franchise, taking the Bond premise and feel in a wholly new direction. So while I really like Craig in the role and appreciate Casino Royale (2006) and especially Skyfall (2012) on their own terms (as contemporary action thrillers), they do not seem to fit in with the spirit of the Bond franchise in its Connery-through-Brosnan period.

More significantly, however, I use "old" here to designate that I originally wrote this review a fairly long time ago, in August 2008, over seven years ago.  Some of my opinions and thoughts on these terrifically entertaining (if racist, misogynist, and imperialist) films have shifted in that time, though I have continued to enjoy most these movies with some regularity on their "Ultimate DVD" editions released in 2006. (A notable exception is that I still tend to avoid Octopussy, a film I more or less despise despite my warm feelings toward many of its actors).

Therefore I propose to share the following Bond review as a starting point for a re-consideration of these films. I may one day follow up this "old" review with some newly posted revisions, amendments, and afterthoughts on the cinematic James Bond franchise. I may even get around to writing some stuff about those Daniel Craig "James Bond" films in due time, who knows?

[UPDATE 6/3/2016: Along this line, you simply must check out "HULK VS. JAMES BOND," Film Crit Hulk's four-part James Bond franchise analysis, which puts mine to shame. It's essential reading for Bond critics and aficionados alike.]


Carter’s Complete Guide to the James Bond Films!

Sean Connery as James Bond in You Only Live Twice (1967).

Yes, I admit it, I am something of a Bond junkie — though something of a selective junkie who wants the Bond films I watch to demonstrate some effort on the part of the producers, to really engage me, to have that spark of well, fun and well-crafted intensity that some of the best ones have.

Unfortunately, the economic juggernaut that is the James Bond cinematic franchise has certainly relied more than once upon momentum alone to keep itself going. There are some films in the series, like Octopussy and The Living Daylights, that are so goddamned bad it embarrasses me that their DVD versions are allowed to sit in the same boxed set as masterpieces like Dr. No and Thunderball. Yet it is the existence of the eight or so Bond films that are truly great that keeps me coming back again and again to these formulaic, sexist, frequently silly, often entertaining and almost always action-packed films.

So what follows is my guide to the first twenty-one James Bond movies: the great, the mediocre, and the really bad. In addition to ranking the films from best to worst, I also take the time, in true Entertainment Weekly-esque fashion, to present “sidebars” on a few of my favorite Bond villains, women, and theme songs.

On a technical note, I should mention that I did my “research” for this Guide by buying and then incessantly watching the digitally remastered and restored DVD versions of the first twenty James Bond films — from Sean Connery’s debut in the role, Dr. No, in 1962, to the final Pierce Brosnan extravaganza, Die Another Day, forty years later. (Note that the one Bond film that was not released by Albert Broccoli's Eon Productions, Never Say Never Again, is not included in this set. I bought that DVD separately.) Anyone who hasn’t seen these new versions should treat yourself — the colors just pop right out and the transfers are crystal-clear. This especially pays off when watching some of the 1960s Connery films — for example, Goldfinger fuckin’ glows!

But buyer beware. If you are a James Bond film aficionado and are thinking about acquiring the Bond remaster DVDs (called the “Ultimate Edition”) for yourself, note that to date, only the boxed set versions include a second DVD of Special Features with each film in the series. That’s right, the “Ultimate Edition” Bond DVDs that are sold singly include only one disc, i.e. the film itself, usually with one or more commentary tracks, BUT WITH NO EXTRAS DVD. (I discovered this the hard way before I finally capitulated and bought the whole damned set, the Bond fanboy in me secretly gleeful.) The four individual boxed sets that make up the “Ultimate” Bond collection are organized very trickily/shittily, NOT in chronological order but all mixed up willy-nilly: truly great films like the aforementioned Thunderball and the Roger Moore classic The Spy Who Loved Me are crammed onto the same set with crappy-but-enjoyable films like A View to a Kill and Licence to Kill, and, of course, the obligatory utter piece of shit, Die Another Day. Each box in the 4-box collection constitutes a similar strange managerie of the great and the dismal; this is how they trick schlubs like me into buying every last fucking film. But I grow repetitive.

One more thing before the list: A note on my preference for Sean Connery in the role of James Bond. Connery, the originator of the Bond role and star of seven Bond films, is the best actor ever to play the part. He has the most toughness, good looks, charm, and acting chops (with the exception of the classically trained Timothy Dalton) of any Bond actor, and when he plays Bond, it is, well, very tough and therefore very believable. He plays the role in earnest (not tongue-in-cheek like Moore) and it works. Anyone who thinks otherwise should be condemned to hell — i.e., watching only Moore, Dalton and Brosnan Bond films — forever. The litmus test: if someone forced me at gunpoint to watch only Connery Bond films to the exclusion of all others for the rest of my life, I could do so happily (of course, I’d argue with this imaginary armed ruffian to allow me to include on my “can watch” list the 1969 George Lazenby Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, since it technically took place during Connery’s tenure and it’s damn good — see below).*

The best Bond: Sean Connery.

So now the list, roughly in order from best to worst, with my comments. Enjoy!


THE TRULY GREAT JAMES BOND FILMS

Adolfo Celi as Largo in Thunderball.

Thunderball (1965)
The best of the best. While many claim that 1964’s Goldfinger is the best of the Bonds since it established the formula for all its successors, I in fact favor Thunderball, which rides the momentum of its predecessor and takes the newly discovered Bond “formula” one step further, into more grandiose and exciting directions. The plot of Thunderball is one of the most believable and interesting in the Bond corpus, and the ambitious undersea sequences remain breathtaking from a technical and visual standpoint to this day. Thunderball’s villain, Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), may not be as dynamic or maniacal as Auric Goldfinger, but his eye patch and love of sharks establish him as one of the most iconic of all Bond villains, and there is a twisted side to Largo that really makes me fear him. Furthermore, Thunderball’s female lead, Domino (Claudine Auger), is one of the most haunting, (literally) tortured, and captivating of all the Bond women put on screen. I also nominate the musical score throughout the film as being one of the best in all the Bond films. Check this one out at all costs!

James Bond as he prepares to kill Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) in Dr. No.

Dr. No (1962)
This is simply one of the most fast-paced, thrilling, and suspenseful Bond films made. It stands up to the test of time far better than most of its successors. The plot is lean and mean, and despite the obvious racism and sexism that are seemingly an inextricable part of the Bond universe to this day, Dr. No is well worth repeat watchings. In addition to displaying Connery at his youngest and brutally toughest, Dr. No also features the legendary Ursula Andress as Honeychile Ryder, plus the best Felix Leiter ever: Jack Lord. Fuck yeah!

The great Pedro Armendariz in From Russia With Love.

From Russia With Love (1963)
Graced with a bigger budget than Dr. No and featuring a perfect cast, the second Bond picture is truly special. It is more epic in scope than Dr. No and has not yet settled into the “formula” established by the third Bond film, Goldfinger. Hence, From Russia With Love feels fresh and fairly unique among all the films in the Bond corpus. And about that aforementioned perfect cast: Lotte Lenye as the dastardly dyke Rosa Klebb, Robert Shaw as the assassin Red Grant, and my favorite supporting character in the whole Bond filmography, Kerim Bey, played by Mexican actor Pedro Armend├íriz in his final screen role (he died before From Russia With Love was released). And while Daniela Bianchi’s performance as Tatiana Romanova may not be the strongest in the Bond filmography, it suits the role — that of an inexperienced cryptology clerk — ideally. Further, the climactic brutal fight between Bond and Grant on the Orient Express sets the tone for many of the best Bond fistfights for years to come, such as the Osato Chemical fight in You Only Live Twice and the Bond/Peter Franks elevator fight in Diamonds are Forever. From Russia With Love is also an aesthetically beautiful film — especially the sequences in Istanbul and the gypsy camp. So forgive some occasional uneven pacing and dive into this lush Bond classic!

Oddjob (Harold Sakata) on the Fort Knox set in Goldfinger.

Goldfinger (1964)
This film will always be revered and remembered for its firsts: the first really larger-than-life villain, the titular Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), the first really memorable “weird evil henchman,” Oddjob (Harold Sakata), the first major Bond gadget, the Aston-Martin DB 5, and the first Bond picture to feature an opening sequence unrelated to the rest of the film — this latter to become a trope that would endure through much of the remainder of the franchise. Yes, Goldfinger cast the mold that would be followed for years, even decades, to come. And it is a brilliantly paced film with an exciting plot and a lot of very memorable photography, particularly the sequences of Bond driving his Aston-Martin in Geneva and the climactic battle with Oddjob inside Fort Knox. However, despite all this and a refreshingly capable female lead (Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore), this film has never entertained me quite as much as the films that bracket it, i.e., Thunderball, From Russia With Love, and Dr. No. Maybe I just like my Bond films a little rougher around the edges and Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton is too polished. Maybe it’s just not dark enough for me—its American settings and largely outdoor action makes it a bit too sunny and primary colored for my taste. Who knows? Still, while I may not love this one as much as many people do, I still acknowledge it as one of the best Bond films, and I certainly think that the final Bond vs. Oddjob fight inside the vault at Fort Knox is one of the best sequences in the entire Bond filmography — check it out!

An absurdly costumed guard protects Blofeld (Charles Gray) in Diamonds Are Forever.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Diamonds Are Forever marks the return of Guy Hamilton (of Goldfinger fame) to the Bond director’s chair, and nowhere does Hamilton’s visceral style pay off more than in some of the fight sequences in this movie: for example, the fight between Bond and Peter Franks twenty minutes in is one of the best fistfights in Bond film history. Further, Connery seems to have a bit more enthusiasm for the role than he did four years earlier in You Only Live Twice. Diamonds Are Forever also features one of my favorite evil henchman duos in the whole Bond filmography: Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (Bruce Glover and Putter Smith). In fact, Mr. Wint delivers one of the funniest and best lines in all of Bond twenty minutes into Diamonds: “Won’t the children be excited?” Despite slow moments, lots of silly one-liners, and an outright ridiculous ending (check out the uniforms on Blofeld’s oil rig guards!), Diamonds Are Forever is a Bond film I return to again and again, and entertainment-wise, it rarely lets me down.

Blofeld’s Swiss mountaintop base in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
George Lazenby may or may not have been the ideal choice for the role of post-Connery James Bond — as an inexperienced actor who was denied the chance to grow into the role over subsequent films, he never had the opportunity to prove it one way or the other — but he certainly played Bond with more seriousness and raw athleticism than Moore ever did, and hence wins my approval as a worthy successor to Connery. What’s more, this particular film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is quite simply one of the best Bond films, in terms of both plot and aesthetics. The bulk of the action takes place in a snowy mountaintop fortress in the Swiss Alps, and Bond and his archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas) maintain a broiling tension between each other that is made all the more edgy by their isolated, near-claustrophobic conditions. The darkest of the Bond films (due in large part to its very grim ending) but one I return to again and again. Not to mention its menacing, pulse-pounding theme song. Check it out and decide for yourself!

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
The best of the Moore Bonds, arguably the only Roger Moore vehicle to harmoniously match its written dialogue and overall playful tone to the tongue-in-cheek stylings of its leading actor. The supporting cast here is pitch-perfect, including Barbara Bach, who plays her Agent XXX with the same gently parodic gusto that Moore brings to Bond, and the unforgettable Richard Kiel as series-favorite hired assassin Jaws. The climactic battle aboard Stromberg’s super-tanker is the best epic battle scene in a Bond film since the volcano base fight that ends You Only Live Twice. (In this sequence I particularly enjoy the American sub captain, played by Bond franchise regular Shane Rimmer.) Add to all this a wicked submersible hideout, sharks, and Bond’s second-most-iconic car ever, the Lotus, and you have one hell of a great James Bond film. And dig the Carly Simon theme song!

Goldeneye (1995)
The only Brosnan film to make the “great” list, 1995’s Goldeneye is a practically flawless James Bond movie. The opening sequence sets the pace, featuring one of the boldest opening stunts since The Spy Who Loved Me’s skiing parachute jump: Bond’s motorcycle plummet off a cliff to catch a diving airplane. Wow! This is followed by the “Goldeneye” theme song, sung by Tina Turner, which is one of the best Bond theme songs in the whole corpus. Further, Goldeneye features a near-perfect supporting cast, with great performances by Izabella Scorupco as Bond sidekick Natalya Simonova, Alan Cumming as Russian computer geek Boris, Sean Bean as the duplicitous Alec, Joe Don Baker (fuck yeah!) as CIA agent Jack Wade, Robbie Coltrane as Valentin Sukovsky, and especially Famke Janssen as the delightfully sadistic Onatopp. In fact, the only sequence in this well-paced film that doesn’t quite work for me is the tank chase through the streets of St. Petersburg — I think it goes a little goofily over the top in an otherwise more “realistic” feeling Bond picture — but that is a trifling concern in a Bond film this good. A great first outing for Brosnan as Bond; in fact, it would (unfortunately) be all downhill from here. But Goldeneye marks a golden moment in the Bond franchise, and always entertains.

Carole Bouquet as Melina Havelock in For Your Eyes Only.

For Your Eyes Only (1981)
It has been said that Roger Moore should have stepped down from the role of Bond after either Moonraker or For Your Eyes Only, and I would agree. Hell, Roger Moore himself agreed, and only reluctantly signed on for his last two films, the horrible Octopussy and the mediocre A View To A Kill, after the producers all but begged him to stay in the role. However, despite its lateness in Moore’s trajectory as Bond, For Your Eyes Only is a nice return to the basics, giving us a somewhat tougher Moore/Bond such as we haven’t seen since Live and Let Die. And despite Moore’s relative (ahem!) maturity and a fairly lackluster main villain (Julian Glover), For Your Eyes Only stands on its own as a solidly entertaining Bond flick, and some even maintain that it is the best Bond film to star Moore. While I can’t go that far, the film does feature superb performances by the magnetic Topol in the delightful role of Greek smuggler Columbo, and one of the best “leading ladies” in all of Bond, Carole Bouquet as the revenge-driven Melina Havelock. Furthermore, For Your Eyes Only’s central ski chase is not to be missed: alongside On Her Majesty’s “avalanche” ski chase it is one of the two best ski chases in Bond. Not to mention the breathtaking finale of For Your Eyes Only, which entails Bond scaling a sheer cliff face to reach Kristatos’s monastery hideout. Well worth checking out!

Topol sez: "I don't show up until an hour into For Your Eyes Only, but I'm well worth the wait, my friend!"

The Bond bonanza will continue in a forthcoming post discussing The Mediocre James Bond Films and The Really Boring James Bond Films.

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* This is one of the main differences between the me of 2008 and the me of now: I have softened a great deal in my stance toward Roger Moore as Bond, and in fact would now name him the second-best Bond after Connery. But my reasons for loving Moore in the role are complex and deserve their own post. Furthermore, my love of Moore-as-Bond does not change the fact that most of the holistically best Bond films still belong to Connery's era.

9 comments:

  1. No room for the original Casion Royale in your list? Am I the only one who likes that film?

    My two favourites are From Russia With Love and Live and Let Die but it's been ages since I've watched all of the films, so my opinions may have changed. I did watch most of the Moore films earlier this year and he's gone up in my estimation, but I need to go back and give Connery a fair shot.

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    1. I have seen the original Casino Royale only once, so should resist saying too much before I give it a re-watch. My memory is that it is more parodic and comical than most of the "official" Bond films.

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  2. Carter!
    Really enjoyed reading this! I'm not a huge Bond fan in the sense that every time one came out I needed to see it. But, I agree that Sean Connery set the standard that no one else could reach. Although, I like Daniel Craig enormously, but the pre-Craig Bonds seem like a totally different universe, even allowing for the different personalities of the post-Connery Bonds. I think I've only seen all the Brosnan Bonds, and I really liked him. I haven't actually seen any of the Dalton Bonds, but from what little I've seen by just catching a scene or two when it happened to be on cable, I think I always found him good but not very charismatic. My wife is fond of Dalton's Bond because she thinks it was closer to the character of the books, and I'm thinking that emphasis seems even stronger since he came right after Roger Moore's stint. And I think I've seen maybe two or three Moore films. In my head, I think I've written Moore's films off entirely as overly gadget-ridden and campy, which probably isn't accurate if I went film by film, but I think whatever I saw last of Moore's run left a bad taste in my mouth. And I liked George Lazenby, too! Although, I admit he seems the most "generic English actor" of the Bonds. I saw ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE when it first came out, but I saw it in the Netherlands at the theater. Fortunately, they subtitled it in Dutch so I could still watch it. And I was a big fan of Diana Rigg, too, due to the AVENGERS on TV, which certainly didn't hurt... oh, it didn't hurt at all...

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    1. "My wife is fond of Dalton's Bond because she thinks it was closer to the character of the books, and I'm thinking that emphasis seems even stronger since he came right after Roger Moore's stint." I agree totally with that. The books are much more serious and nihilistic, and Dalton captured that. I guess the world just wasn't quite ready for a "serious" Bond -- that would come to fruition in Craig's era.

      I think if you want to give Moore a shot but don't like the gadgetry and silliness, try For Your Eyes Only and/or Live and Let Die. Those two are the "rawest" Moore Bonds you're gonna find.

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  3. Oh, and Kelvin, are you talking about the multiple-director, David Niven/Peter Sellers/Woody Allen CASINO ROYALE? I like that film, too, but that seems to be a whole separate consideration from the main series, mostly because it's a spoof, isn't it?

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    1. It is indeed, but it's still very good, and I prefer it to the remake.

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    2. Thanks for clarifying that. I am going to seek it out and watch it again, because as I get older I increasingly enjoy some of the campy, parodic aspects of the first twenty-one Bond films. That is bound up with my growing love for Moore's interpretation of the role. Moore really is looking a bit down his nose at the character -- but once you accept that as the premise of his interpretation, IT'S FUCKING FUNNY. Moore is so dry and controlled in his delivery that it truly is brilliant performance, whether or not you particularly enjoy his interpretation of Bond is another matter.

      But it's not all Moore, either. My love of Diamonds are Forever has to do with its pitch-perfect silliness / camp factor. Wint and Kidd are ridiculous, and need I invoke the moon buggy chase? Even Connery seems to be having a good time that time around.

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  4. I could never really embrace Connery as Bond. Blasphemy, I know. Probably because of Moonraker, which was by far my favorite Bond film growing up, when there were really only the two Bonds to choose from (to this day I haven't seen On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- my dad didn't have that one). But then I was watching them from the perspective of an autistic kid who loved gadgets and SFX and Moore was the "current" Bond all the way back then, so I'm sure there's a lot of "first pizza syndrome" going on there.

    I should really make a point to revisit the films someday. I don't think I've seen more than half of them.

    Also ... "dastardly dyke?" Really?

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    1. I am pleased to find another Roger Moore appreciator.

      I suppose I should clarify that my use of the term "dastardly dyke" there is meant to convey the somewhat crass and exploitative way the film itself depicts and deploys Rosa Klebb. Sadly, she is a homophobic caricature of a somewhat masculine and clearly same-sex-desiring Cold War-era Russian woman. I don't condone that stereotype and should have made that clearer.

      Yet, in one of those paradoxes of film spectatorship, my awareness of Klebb as a clumsily sketched and ideologically damaging stereotype does not diminish my pleasure in watching the character do her thing as a villain in From Russia with Love, nor does it dampen my appreciation for Lotte Lenya's remarkable performance of the role.

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