Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: the cinematic canon of Ian Fleming’s super-spy.
Bond Films 101
Models of taut espionage fiction anchored to a memorable protagonist, Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels would have a firm place in pop-culture history even if they’d never been put to film. But the name “James Bond” has become synonymous with the movie hero inspired by Fleming’s fiction for a reason. Launched 50 years ago with Dr. No, the James Bond film series made by Eon Productions (others are discussed briefly below), made an icon of MI6 agent 007 and launched a mania for spy films that lasted through the ’60s. Produced initially by Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman—Saltzman departed in 1975 and members of the Broccoli family took over producing duties after Broccoli’s death in 1996—the film series has lasted even longer, outliving imitators and trends to become an institution. How? Consistency. Not that the films are artistically consistent. Some are great, some pretty lousy. But all feature variations on the same expected and, at this point, beloved elements: supervillains, stunts, beautiful women, gadgets, luxurious locations, haute fashion, vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred), and so on. Even when a Bond film discards some of those elements, they’re notable for their absence.
Watched now, Dr. No, the first film in the series, feels like it’s still figuring out what a James Bond film is supposed to be, even though many of the familiar elements are already place, with two key pieces established in the hero’s first scene: Bond introduces himself with the line “Bond… James Bond” as the famous guitar theme written by Monty Norman and arranged by John Barry plays beneath him. Also on hand: Bernard Lee as Bond’s boss M and Lois Maxwell as M’s loyal secretary, the Bond-besmitten Miss Moneypenny, a Maurice Binder title sequence, and production design from Ken Adam, who defined the look of the films through the ’70s. Most importantly, the film cast the right man as Bond: Sean Connery, a Scottish actor who brought the proper mix of bravado, style, humor, and cruelty to the part. The film moves a bit more leisurely than later entries, but it’s one of the series’ strongest, thanks also to the work of Ursula Andress, who set a high bar for future “Bond girls” to clear.
Released the following year, From Russia With Love is a different sort of James Bond film, a tougher movie more deeply connected to Cold War politics than Dr. No. It didn’t so much advance the formula as offer an alternate take on what Bond could be, while still retaining many of the elements introduced in the first film. Set largely in Turkey and aboard the Orient Express, it’s a tight, self-contained thriller with some of the most intense fight scenes of any Bond film. (Plus, it has Lotte Lenya and Robert Shaw as bad guys.) Alfred Hitchcock helped provide a model for the Bond movies with North By Northwest, and this entry’s taut suspense comes closest to matching the master, while throwing in some bare-knuckled action and Cold War fears distinctly its own. (From Russia With Love also features the first appearance of Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE who would serve as Bond’s antagonist in several films, though he’s seen only in shadow here.)
Though the film was a hit, 1964 follow-up Goldfinger plays as if its makers were worried Bond had gone too far in the wrong direction. It’s a big, globetrotting, occasionally cartoonish take on Bond that set the template for most of the films that followed. All the excesses of lesser Bond films (and their imitators) can be found here, except here they work, from the over-the-top villains to the narratively convenient spy gadgets. It skirts ridiculousness, but it’s also as good as Bond gets.
Or almost as good. Connery left the series after You Only Live Twice in 1967, then returned again in Diamonds Are Forever in 1971. Between those two films is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starring George Lazenby. As Bond, Lazenby is merely serviceable, delivering a performance that suggests he might have grown into the part given time. Both he and the film get off to a terrible start in an opening scene that finds him turning to the camera and complaining, “This never happened to the other fella.” But it gets much better from there, following Bond to some high adventure above the Alps while also giving him a real romantic interest played by Diana Rigg. By Bond standards, it’s a film of rare emotional depth, developing the character into a three-dimensional figure then breaking his heart. Like From Russia, it takes Bond down a fascinating avenue that turns out to be something of a dead end, though the current, Daniel Craig-starring entries have similarly remembered that Bond is a human being beneath it all.
First of all: Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” is the best James Bond theme, and to heck with anyone who says otherwise. Second of all, the film it’s attached to, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, may be just as good, one of the definitive examples of what a Bond movie can do when it’s firing on all cylinders. Roger Moore took over for Connery with Live And Let Die in 1973 and his third Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me, incorporated some of the more gimmicky excesses of Live And Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun while leaving behind the eager genre-aping (unless the genre being aped here was just “Bond movies”). Like From Russia With Love, Spy perfectly harmonizes its Cold War backdrop with pulpy escapism, pitting 007 against Barbara Bach’s seductive KGB agent and Curd Jürgens’ Stromberg, a supervillain bent on fashioning a new underwater civilization. It also introduces Richard Kiel as fan favorite mini-boss Jaws, a giant with metal teeth whose twin deformities render him legitimately menacing.
As in the best Bond pictures, the trekking between countries (Austria to Egypt to Italy to Stromberg’s subaquatic haven) provides the film with a true sense of variety, while Marvin Hamlisch’s funked-up score (including a reworked theme) brings Bond out of the swinging, surf-rock ’60s and square into the disco daze of 1977. Moore was never as gifted a physical actor as Connery (or Craig, or Lazenby), but Spy sees him at his own, distinctively Moore-ish peak form: making daring, rear-projected alpine escapes, playing it cucumber-cool with his sundry female consorts, and developing some credible chemistry with Bach’s conniving rival agent. The Spy Who Loved Me is Moore-vintage Bond at its best.
Released in 1995, GoldenEye bore a heavy burden. It was first Bond film since 1989’s License To Kill, following the longest gap between series entries since its inception, as well as the first to not use elements from one of Fleming’s novels or stories. It also introduced an all-new Bond in the form of Pierce Brosnan (previously tapped to replace Moore in the mid-’80s, but unable to sign on due to commitments to the TV series Remington Steele), as well as a new, female M (Judi Dench). Even more significantly, GoldenEye was the first Bond to be produced and released after the Cold War, a conflict that served as the backdrop for the series for 30-plus years.
GoldenEye’s fairly clever solution to the problem of the Cold War’s thawing was to reignite it, with a story of a rogue MI6 agent (Sean Bean) who fakes his own death, gains control of the titular satellite weapon from a facility in St. Petersburg, and plans an attack on London. So not only does GoldenEye amp up waning East/West tension, it explicitly brings England—previously an intermediary bagman between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.—into the center of the newly kindled conflict. GoldenEye didn’t so much suggest a new direction for the series (apart from product placement and licensing arrangements) as revisit old pleasures, setting its new, smirking, decidedly Moore-ish 007 against ex-communist criminal syndicates.
When it came time to revamp the franchise yet again, Eon Productions committed to nothing less than a complete overhaul. Ducking the abysmal CGI excess that dogged the last Pierce Brosnan films, Casino Royale was intended to be tough and gritty, a callback to the spirit of Fleming’s novels. GoldenEye’s Martin Campbell—one of the franchise’s leanest, meanest directors—was brought on to invest the film with an edge that rivaled the popular Bourne series. The casting of the stocky, square-jarred, and (controversially) blonde Daniel Craig caused an outcry in some quarters of the fan community, with many diehards threatening to boycott the film.
Upon its release in 2006, Casino Royale assuaged any trepidation. A full-on reboot of the franchise—though Dench returned as M, further confusing the already exceptionally byzantine Bond timeline/continuity—the film brought new life to the series, (mostly) ditching the cartoony super-villainy and sexed-up globetrotting. Instead, Casino Royale follows a rough-around-the-edges, recently licensed-to-kill Bond as he chases a terrorist financier to a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro, seizing on the public’s piqued fascination in televised Texas Hold ’Em. The film may stagger through its overstuffed last act, as the main baddie (Mads Mikkelsen) is chucked out of the way to reveal a larger criminal conspiracy, but Casino Royale nonetheless stands as a high-water mark for Bond. The refusal to indulge catchphrases, and even holding off on deploying Norman’s classic Bond theme until the film’s last scene (the soundtrack is instead built around Chris Cornell’s theme song, “You Know My Name”), helped Casino Royale and Craig establish their own personality without leaning on tired formula.
The only trouble with Goldfinger is that subsequent Sean Connery Bond movies had a hard time topping it, not that they didn’t try. Made much in the mold of Goldfinger, Thunderball features Bond flying a jetpack in the opening scene, and that’s just a preview of the over-the-top action to come in a story that finds Bond pitted against SPECTRE (again) with nothing less than the course of the world at stake. It’s a memorable outing, thanks especially to its underwater sequences, but it’s the first time the series feels like it’s marking time rather than moving forward, though with time-marking this entertaining, it’s hard to complain. (A side note: Thunderball is based on a Fleming novel that was in turn based on a never-produced screenplay, a pedigree that made it the subject of legal disputes for years, and which led to it being remade by a competing company in 1983. More on that below.)
It may have been unfairly overshadowed by Paul McCartney’s theme, but Live And Let Die is, in many ways, classic Bond. It certainly exemplifies the Roger Moore era, which seemed to cast 007 in bankable genre boilerplates of the time, in hopes of cheaply replicating their success. With Live And Let Die, the franchise rode the blaxploitation wave of the early ’70s, pitting Bond against a Harlem drug lord (then a Caribbean dictator, then an undead voodoo priest) while draping the sets with big hair, wide lapels, and decked-out pimpmobiles. In his first go-around in the lead role, Moore brings a smirking, wiseacre charm that has long endeared him to fans on his side of the enduring Moore/Connery schism. An instantly classic intro (“Whose funeral is it?” “Yours!”), a cast of notable villains (including Yaphet Kotto, hot off of Across 110th Street and lending the film’s blaxploitation textures some undue credibility), and a memorable, or at least memorably long, speedboat chase round out one of the series’ best films, perfectly capturing the balance of silliness and genuine stakes that define the better pictures of Moore’s tenure. Just bracket all the colonial implications of a British spy in a safari jacket bailing out the black community.
The Moore era had films influenced by blaxploitation (Live And Let Die), kung-fu movies (The Man With The Golden Gun), and science fiction (Moonraker), but with For Your Eyes Only the series decided it needed to make a proper James Bond movie again. It worked, too, with Moore adapting well to his relatively more realistic environment and a darker story that includes a heroine driven by revenge and an acknowledgment that Bond hasn’t forgotten the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (even though that was 12 years and two actors ago). After Moonraker, it helped bring Bond back to basics, though it wouldn’t be long before the series would need to make another course correction.
After Moore descended full-speed into camp (and approached senior citizenhood) with A View To A kill, Bond needed a reinvigorating shot in the arm. Enter Timothy Dalton, taking the reins for 1987’s The Living Daylights, armed with a strong, silent-type attitude and propelled into action by an A-ha theme song. The Living Daylights coincided with the fading of the Cold War, an absence the franchise has grappled with since, with Bond chasing a KGB defector across Europe and the Middle East. Lacking the wry humor that marked Moore’s films, Dalton read the Fleming books closely and reimagined Bond in a mold closer to Connery’s rough-and-tumble characterization, even performing many of his own stunts. As a result, Dalton’s Bond is often regarded as the most “Americanized” take on the character: a vigilant man of action, often openly contemptuous of MI6 standards and practices.
Some of the excitement generated by Casino Royale and the fresh start of the Craig era dissipated with Quantum Of Solace, and it’s not hard to see why. It has a rushed script thanks to a writers’ strike, and director Marc Foster brings a heavy, edit-happy hand to the action scenes. Craig matches its grim tone well, however, and it’s more a disappointment when compared to its predecessor (and its successor) than an objectively bad film.
With 1967’s You Only Live Twice, the Goldfinger formula started to harden into predictability, the line dividing Bond movies from campy Bond-inspired knockoffs was wearing away, and the series began to seem a little behind the times. Released in the Summer Of Love, Bond started to look like yesterday’s idea of cool rather than the spirit of the times. That’s not that big a problem, though, since Connery remains a commanding Bond and the formula still works. (That it features one of Ken Adam’s best bad-guy lairs doesn’t hurt, either.) After stepping out for one film, Connery stepped back in with Diamonds Are Forever in 1971, which had all of the above problems and fewer compensating virtues. Still, there’s not really a bad film in the Connery era, just some that are better than others and a pattern of decline over time.
Moore followed up Live And Let Die a year later with The Man With The Golden Gun, a film that cashed in on the popularity of martial-arts cinema. Christopher Lee co-stars as the assassin Scaramanga, an elusive figure famed for his solid-gold bullets and, even stranger, his superfluous third nipple. Golden Gun sees Moore at his most affably lackadaisical, floating through the film with a tactically raised eyebrow. It’s hard to take super-seriously a film that casts Hervé Villechaize as the hitman’s dwarf assistant—or that reintroduces Clifton James’ good ol’ boy sheriff from Live And Let Die for no apparent reason—but Golden Gun’s ample cheesiness is at least fun. It also has a great pre-credits intro, laying the scene for Lee’s scowling Scaramanga, with his miniature man-at-hand luring an attacker into a hall of mirrors to meet his fate before the fabled golden gun.
Apart from its snicker-inducing title, Octopussy is a pretty compelling watch. Yes, Roger Moore was getting a little long in the tooth by 1983, making his sultry come-ons extra unnerving, but the film is so tonally manic (featuring a high-stakes nuclear-war plot, but also Bond in a clown costume) that watching it feels like being popped around in a 007-branded pinball machine. Octopussy is Moore’s Indiana Jones movie, built around a Soviet general colluding with an Afghan prince to smuggle priceless treasures out of Russia. While retaining the Cold War subtext, Octopussy aims for the adventurous heights of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ whip-cracking series, with Bond escaping elephant caravans, getting snagged in spider webs, howling like Tarzan as he swings around on jungle vines, and (most ludicrously) infiltrating a palace in an elaborate crocodile costume. Octopussy is one of the series’ more obvious self-parodying entries, but of all its jokes, there’s none quite as funny as that title.
GoldenEye found a clever workaround for dealing with the Cold War by not dealing directly with the Cold War. Its follow-up, Tomorrow Never Dies, was forced to stand on its own merits, ditching Soviet iconography for the type of topical story that defined the bulk of Brosnan’s outings. This time, the bad guy is Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), a psychotic media mogul with shades of Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch. Carver’s plan is to use a stolen GPS encoder to kick off a war between China and the U.K., as a means of both selling more newspapers and installing a new Chinese authority more accommodating to Carver’s plans of global media supremacy. In addition to a welcome appearance by preeminent illusionist and actor Ricky Jay (playing a “techno-terrorist,” which is what they called terrorists in 1997) and a nifty handcuffed dirt-bike getaway, Tomorrow Never Dies is distinguished most by its showcase of one of the more milquetoast onscreen couples in cinema history: Pierce Brosnan and Teri Hatcher, a pair fit for a mood-lit Zales commercial. Also notable for a franchise-worst line reading, in which Dench pronounces “Pentagon” as “Pentigun.”
1989’s License To Kill is the unlikeliest Bond movie, standing distinctly apart from the rest of the series. In The Living Daylights, Timothy Dalton distinguished himself by ditching the sneering one-liners and focusing on the job at hand. License To Kill lost a lot of fans by building an American-style caper around this Americanized Bond. After the wife of his best friend (David Hedison, returning from Live And Let Die as CIA agent Felix Leiter) is killed, Bond sets out on a this-time-it’s-personal vendetta to track down a vicious drug lord (Robert Davi). License To Kill boasts a few cracking action sequences, including a climactic tractor-trailer getaway down a winding mountain path, and oddball appearances by Wayne Newton and a young Benicio Del Toro that make it well worth a watch, even if it still feels like a curiosity.
Brosnan’s run as Bond never lived up to the promise of its first entry, but his third film, The World Is Not Enough, falls squarely in the “not bad” category. Sure, it features Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist named Christmas Jones, just one of the camp touches that had crept back into the series, but it finds a decent villain in Robert Carlyle, and director Michael Apted is a sure hand behind the camera. But memorable it’s not.
The problem with the Roger Moore-era films is that, as much as they tread that tightrope of self-parodying camp, they can pretty easily lose their bearing and slip into out-and-out stupidity. Exhibit A: Moonraker. Roger Moore’s fourth crack at the canon attempted to ride the coattails of successful science-fiction spectacles like Star Wars (and even the less successful Star Trek: The Motion Picture). But its cheeseball effects and farcical plot (a wealthy industrialist with his own space station schemes to create a new master race) seem ripped out of the mid-’50s, when Fleming wrote the freely adapted—to say the least—source novel. Any attempt to ground Bond in reality is sent careening out of orbit as Moore bounds through space on zero-gravity wires. And perhaps even more egregiously, the film pointlessly reintroduces Richard Kiel’s Jaws as an unlikely ally. This time around, the toothy behemoth even has a tiny girlfriend named Dolly (Blanche Ravalec). He’s tall! She’s short! It’s hilarious.
And, Exhibit B: A View To A Kill. The 1985 entry marked Moore’s last appearance as Bond, after a 12-year run of the store. It came a tad too late, however. Moore, 57 at the time, is simply too old to play a convincing action hero/sex icon, with some apparent plastic surgery around his temples making him seem practically dead behind the eyes. Add to this plot elements involving razor-sharp butterfly-kite things and a remote-controlled horse, and not even Christopher Walken’s scenery-chewing appearance as a microchip manufacturer plotting to destroy Silicon Valley can save A View To A Kill from its own silliness. (Great theme song, though, courtesy Duran Duran.)
As campy, excessive, and plain stupid as Moore’s Bond films can get, they have nothing on 2002’s Die Another Day, the last entry to feature Pierce Brosnan and the most bloated in the franchise. It starts promisingly enough, with 007 captured while infiltrating a North Korean military base, resulting in over a year of steady torture, and plenty of scenes of Pierce Brosnan looking scraggly, beat-up, and bearded. But from there, Die Another Day’s limp stabs at ripped-from-current-headlines weightiness—North Korea! DNA restructuring! Conflict diamonds! Hovercrafts!—are sunk by the film’s inflated, heavily CGI’d action sequences, including a finale on a super-airplane that sees the $142 million budget go up in flames. It’s no wonder the franchise required a full-blown genetic rearrangement in this film’s wake.
Of the two Bond films made away from the Eon banner, the less said the better. Released in 1967, the first stab at Casino Royale is a madcap comedy that chewed up five (credited) directors—including John Huston—along with a cast that features Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, David Niven, and others, then spit out a barely comprehensible Bond.
Made possible by the legal vagaries surrounding Thunderball, 1983’s Never Say Never again returned a conspicuously older Connery to the part that made him famous. It appeared in time to compete with Octopussy at the box office and performed reasonably well, though it’s largely been forgotten over the years, and justifiably so. Irvin Kershner, fresh off The Empire Strikes Back, provides reasonably assured direction, but it plays like what it is: a second-rate attempt at a Bond movie. (Another Thunderball remake, possibly starring Timothy Dalton, was threatened in the late ’90s but never came to anything, and MGM has subsequently gobbled up the rights to any outlying Bond properties.)
As much as the Pierce Brosnan films—and endless TBS movie marathons—were instrumental in introducing Gen Y to the franchise, the tie-in Nintendo 64 game GoldenEye 007 proved even more instructive. The centerpiece of console gaming in the late ’90s (it’s the third-best-selling N64 title ever, and the only one of those three to not have “Mario” in the title), GoldenEye 007 is built around then-innovative multiplayer-deathmatch gameplay, and is often credited with revolutionizing the genre. Anyone who played it played it a lot, with the spatial geography of its levels becoming as familiar as the floorplans for childhood homes and high schools. The game also expanded the frame of reference of many players and budding fans only superficially familiar with Brosnan’s Bond by introducing back-catalog Bond rogues like Oddjob, Jaws, Mayday, and Baron Samedi as playable characters in the multiplayer mode.
Videogames are just one back channel by which Bond has crept into the culture. Kids of the ’60s played with Corgi’s popular toy cars and other model versions of Bond’s car collection, while other writers have carried Bond forward in novels following Fleming’s death. There’s a long tradition of Bond music, too, with John Barry’s scores for early films setting a lush, majestic tone that others have seen through. A number of opening-titles songs have had second lives, too: Some came courtesy of contemporary hitmakers delivering songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on their latest albums, like Paul McCartney’s “Live And Let Die” and Duran Duran’s “A View To A Kill.” The best, however, find a middle ground between the romantic, bigger-than-life tradition of Bond music and the demands of the pop charts. Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever” set the gold standard (she whiffed with “Moonraker,” though). Others have either risen to the occasion (Nancy Sinatra, Carly Simon, Sheena Easton, Adele) or proven unfit for the task (Chris Cornell, Jack White and Alicia Keys). It’s a challenge best not taken on lightly, but a great Bond theme assures a rare sort of immortality.
1. From Russia With Love (1963)
The pleasures of Connery’s best Bond entry are many, even if the series struggled to find this level of unforced intensity again. It’s a great action film that doubles as a quintessential relic of the Cold War.
2. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Moore’s best outing as Bond lands just on the right side of excess, bringing out its lead’s roguish charm as he goes through a globetrotting adventure. Moore was in so many of Bond’s worst films it’s sometimes tough to see why he has ardent defenders. Look no further.
3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
No Bond movie has inspired so much speculation about what might have been: What if Connery had stayed on board for this dark, stylish film? What if George Lazenby had been able to grow into the part? What if the series had continued to go in the direction suggested by its grim finale? We’ll never know the answer to any of those questions, but the film itself is splendid, in spite of its weak lead.
4. Goldfinger (1964)
Too many subsequent Bond films took the most outré elements of Goldfinger—laser cannons, last-minute bomb defusions, grotesque bad guys—and leaned on them much too hard, but the film itself remains breathlessly entertaining. There’s a reason it’s been borrowed from and knocked off so often.
5. Casino Royale (2005)
Craig proved himself the perfect Bond for the instability of 21st-century geopolitics with his first Bond film, an attempt to hit the reset button and bring Bond back to earth that worked. His is a tough, damaged, vulnerable Bond who’s great in a crisis but far short of superhuman.