Among the hundreds of film series in the history of Western cinema, the James Bond movies tower over all rivals when it comes to cultural influence, financial success, and enduring popularity. Over a quarter of the world’s population has seen at least one of Secret Agent 007’s cinematic adventures. Based on Ian Fleming's widely-read spy novels, the official series has run for more than fifty years, across twenty-three pictures and six leading actors. Each new entry has attempted to simultaneously outdo its predecessors while maintaining tradition and continuity. Changes buffet the real world, but decade after decade the Bond series has remained fashionable, despite the fact that its subject, style, and attitudes are firmly rooted in a now long-gone time and place—Great Britain during the Cold War.
I saw my first Bond movie in 1981, when I was ten years old. It was For Your Eyes Only, and it was a good place to start, as it remains one of the better films of the series. I was hooked from the first frame of the pre-credit sequence, and I've never missed a Bond picture since. Even during the tedious Pierce Brosnan years, I still showed up at the first screening on opening day whenever possible. Of course, my double-0-philia is directly connected to my passion for movies in general. The first video rental store in my town was a Rent-A-Center that offered washer/dryers, vacuum cleaners, TVs, VCRs, and a "massive selection” of about 235 VHS cassettes, including all the Bond movies. Before our town got a proper video store, I rented every tape on that shelf about twenty times. I devoured the 007 films in short order, internalizing their dialogue, editorial rhythms, and visual style, and promptly moved on to Fleming's novels and short stories, and then behind-the-scenes magazine pieces, books, TV specials, and all manner of Bond production histories, anecdotes, and tall tales about the casts and crews.
Like most Bond fans, I was partial to the first actor I saw play 007, which in my case was Roger Moore. To a young and uninitiated 1980s kid like me, Moore seemed like the real James Bond, the one in the newer, cooler films. But like practically everyone else, I soon came to view Sean Connery as the true James Bond. The Connery movies looked old and dated on my badly transferred, overplayed VHS cassettes, but once the Criterion Collection released the original pictures on laserdisc, and, later, when MGM released them on DVD and Blu-ray, anyone could see that the early Bond films were the quintessential Bond films. Not only was Connery’s characterization superbly entertaining, but the original power and allure of the James Bond mystique, style, and tone were an indisputable part of the 1960s British invasion, and the pictures of that era are simply more resonant and iconic. For the most part, they are also closer in spirit to the original novels.
Fleming’s Bond tales, which comprise eleven novels
and two short story collections, are better reads than they are usually given
credit for. While he never rises to the level of Graham Greene, Raymond
Chandler, or Patricia Highsmith, Fleming is certainly the equal of authors like
Mickey Spillane, Dorothy Sayers, and even Dashiell Hammett. Fleming’s
strongest suit is his descriptive prose. Reading passages about Jamaica, his adoptive
home and the setting for many of his books, you feel as if you could visit the
island and know your way around (if you went back in time). But he is
equally gifted at describing places he never actually saw, like Istanbul. In
fact, Fleming convincingly invents much about the countries that James Bond visits purely
out of his imagination—like the non-existent feudal castles of Japan in You Only Live Twice.
Fleming’s books bear out his reputation as a chauvinist with colonialist attitudes about white, English, male superiority. Yet while these inescapably unenlightened attitudes underlie most of his novels, he nonetheless dreams up a fair-sized array of heroic, multilayered characters, several of whom are women and people of color. Many of the stories feature vibrant, capable, and deeply sympathetic female characters like Honey Rider in Dr. No, Judy Havelock in For Your Eyes Only, and Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Perhaps these physically and intellectually stimulating members of the opposite sex represent a type of woman Fleming longed to meet but never actually did, immersed as he was in an intentionally isolated lifestyle. Though admittedly not an exact analogy, the smart, sexy, adventurous women Fleming envisioned can be seen as bearing some relation to the rich, sensitive, honorable male suitors Jane Austen fashioned in her novels; both writers, though on different literary levels, created idealized members of the opposite sex who were perhaps not as plentiful in the daily reality of their lives.
A critical theme of comradeship runs through all the books. James Bond’s respect for, and loyalty to, the allies and colleagues he teams up with in each adventure is formed by their shared experience, not their nationality. The Turkish station chief Darko Kerim in From Russia, with Love, the redoubtable Cayman Islander Quarrel in Live and Let Die and Dr. No, the Japanese agents Tiger Tanaka and Kissy Suzuki in You Only Live Twice, and the American CIA operative Felix Leiter in several books, are all savvy and courageous individuals in whose hands Bond places his life on many occasions. If harm comes to these friends it causes him deep pain and often instigates ill-advised ideas of revenge. While clearly part of a longstanding convention of male bonding in high-risk situations, such as appears in Moby Dick's Ishmael and Queequeg, Bond’s allegiance to those he works with as well as to the innocents who are often enlisted in his missions is a major part of what endears us to him.
Of course the Russians and members of other communist nations are always antagonists in the 007 novels, but Fleming paints them as skillful and worthy adversaries. The foreign agents Bond goes up against are sharp, deadly foes, often with complex views about their government that mirror Bond’s about his own. Interestingly, Bond (and Fleming) often seems more contemptuous of America than any other nation. Though the United States was England’s greatest ally during the Cold War, the books display a decidedly condescending attitude towards the superpower that was rapidly eclipsing Great Britain.
While Fleming did serve in Britain's Naval Intelligence Division during WWII, and though he based many of Bond’s specific tastes and attributes on himself, his novels were not autobiographical. The author always claimed that his original intention was to write stories about a relatively dull man to whom interesting and exciting things happened. He even lifted the character's name from the author of his favorite book of ornithology, Birds of the West Indies, because it sounded so bland and forgettable. But the novels evolved as they progressed, and Bond's character did too.
Fleming’s books typically begin with absorbing introductory chapters, in which 007 becomes involved in a mission that seems more casually curious to him than of dire import to his country. Frequently, he tangles with the principal villain early on, often over some sort of game. These passages are reliably good reads, but the narratives tend to falter by their big action climaxes, which often grow tiresome rather than exhilarating. The third novel, Moonraker, best illustrates this downward progression. In Moonraker, 007 is assigned to determine how a wealthy industrialist named Sir Hugo Drax is cheating at bridge. The first half of the book is devoted to Bond getting into the card game, sizing up his opponent, and outplaying him. The pleasure in these pages is unwavering. But the second half, in which Bond tries to stop Drax from destroying London with a nuclear-armed rocket, is pretty silly.
The film adaptations frequently follow this pattern of starting out stronger than they finish, but there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. The movies are entertaining on a much bigger and resplendent scale than the novels, and they range in quality from exceptionally good to unbelievably awful. The initial Bond pictures improved on many of Fleming’s books, fixing plot holes and finding humor. The middle films devolved away from their source material, with mixed results. And the later entries strived to reboot the series into something applicable to times vastly different from the era that birthed the character.
The films enable a kind of virtual travel for moviegoers who rarely, if ever, get to visit any of the far-flung locations where 007's adventures take place. Like the books they’re based on, the movies take place in exotic countries far from England or the United States, showcasing performances by actors indigenous to those nations and featuring inventive action sequences built around the prominent landmarks of major foreign cities. These tantalizing glimpses of a wider world meant a lot in the 1960s, when air travel was more of a luxury. Even today, few could ever dream of seeing all the marvelous places Bond visits.
At their best, the Bond films are a stylish mix of fun and danger, not to mention a tongue-in-cheek commentary on both themselves and movies in general. Many of the pictures, especially those from the 1970s and 1990s, exhibit adolescent preoccupations, but plenty of them are far more dramatic and character-driven than their reputations suggest. The best in the lot have either a great villain or a great female lead, and often both. Even more than the 007 character, the outsized personalities of his counterparts, and the actors who portray them, are what make the movies so memorable. The caricature of a Bond villain is a larger-than-life madman with a palatial secret lair from which he can hatch and launch fiendish schemes for world domination. But most of the antagonists' goals are less loony, if still diabolical: smuggling, extorting, controlling the media, pitting governments against each other. And while some Bond girls deserve their reputations as vacuous sex objects, just as many are complex, independent women. All the female characters in the series exist in a male-controlled world: one we all inhabit. What make these women so compelling are the ways they manage to thrive in, escape, or otherwise transcend their situations. This doesn’t necessarily make them role models, but it does make them great movie characters.
Finding the line that delineates where the James Bond pictures are a reflection of societal sexism and where they perpetrate the attitude is more difficult than one might initially think. With some key exceptions, the most blatantly sexist films have also been the most popular, and therefore the ones that stick most firmly in our memories. But they represent less than half the overall output. The 1970s pictures aggressively pushed back against the growing power of feminism, which threatened and confused many men. And while the series enjoyed tremendous box office success during this time, these are the films that now appear the most embarrassingly dated. The strongest female characters are found in the films of 1960s—surprisingly, since we assume it to be the most chauvinistic period—and in the films of the new millennium, when the series found new footing by appealing to both its traditional young male demographic and a more mature and diverse audience.
Of course, the ways in which these movies have been marketed and perceived in our collective conscious have always been unquestionably misogynistic. The term “Bond girls” itself was coined not by the filmmakers, but by tabloid journalists looking to sell newspapers and studio advertisers looking to drum up interest in each new release. Most of the lead female characters in the actual movies are far more nuanced than the scantily clad sex objects depicted on the posters, billboards, and magazine covers. But there is no question that the Bond pictures perpetuate an exaggerated male fantasy, not only with their abundance of beautiful, accessible girls but in the form of their violent yet principled hero. 007 is a man of contradictions. He's rough but sophisticated; a rebellious loner yet someone who belongs to the consummate clandestine team of a great Western superpower. He is a man caught between the bureaucracy of his government and the evil of those who wish to do harm to that government and the society it represents. Most moviegoers, not just men, get swept up in the escapism of a character who fights the good fight, overcoming tremendous odds, using his wits, bravura, and state-of-the-art technology. Throughout the decades, Bond has appeared all but indomitable—unlike his audience, and England, and America. This fantasy has sustained a cultural phenomenon longer than even its creators could have imagined.
This most British of series began at an opportune period in American cinema history. By the 1960s, US anti-trust laws were bringing about the demise of the Hollywood studio system. The resulting changes meant that independent producers were looking to finance films with international money for worldwide markets, which necessitated taking a fresh look at old assumptions about production and marketing. Since theaters were no longer restricted to the output of their parent studios and could now book whatever films they wanted, moviemakers from Europe found distribution in venues that had previously been unavailable to them. Freed by these emerging patterns of funding, development, and casting patterns, the makers of the Bond pictures hit upon a formula that proved instantly lucrative and indefinitely replicable. The massive amount of money that the Bond films immediately began generating meant that more resources and talent could be poured into each new entry in the series, creating a buzz of audience expectation. Prior to Bond, sequels were mostly viewed with derision, and long-running film series for adults, like The Thin Man, Charlie Chan, or the Philo Vance mysteries, were rare. But after 007's success, the rest of the cautious and conservative industry caught up and realized that movie franchises could be both smart business and artistically satisfying.
The triumph of the James Bond films is attributable to the seven individuals who came together to create the initial picture, Dr. No. The first two figures were Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, respectively an ex-pat Canadian and ex-pat American living in England. A mutual friend who knew of their competing interests in Fleming’s properties introduced them. The two men seemed an unlikely pair. Broccoli was an experienced producer while Saltzman was a relative novice, and they had notable differences in personality that would occasionally bring them into conflict over the course of their partnership. But each recognized in the other an honorable man with lofty but realistic ambitions, and they knew they would have a better chance of long-term prosperity by combining their resources and acquiring the rights together. Within a week of their first meeting, Saltzman and Broccoli formed the production company EON (Everything Or Nothing). The following year, with most of the rights secured, they formed the holding company DANJAQ (named after their wives, Dana Broccoli and Jacqueline Saltzman). These entities were true family affairs. Both wives had a financial interest in the early productions and participated in much of the decision-making, and Broccoli’s daughter Barbara and son-in-law Michael G. Wilson would take over the lucrative family businesses in the 1990s.
In the 1960s, most film distribution companies with the capital needed to bankroll large-scale projects saw the James Bond material as risky, and the EON team initially had difficulty finding backing for their first project. American studios saw Fleming's novels as outlandish, overtly sexual, and simply too British. But United Artists, led by the wisest and most hands-off of all studio heads, Arthur Krim, took a risk and put up the budget for the first picture: one million dollars, a fairly modest sum even in 1962. Saltzman and Broccoli came from the “bigger is better” school of producing, and Dr. No would be their only Bond movie with a small budget. But given the producers' limited resources, the film represents a major achievement that has aged remarkably well.
The next two principal figures behind Dr. No’s success were its director, Terence Young, and its star, Sean Connery. Neither man was the first choice of the producers, who wanted Ken Hughes, Val Guest, or Guy Hamilton to direct and Cary Grant, David Niven, Patrick McGoohan, or possibly Roger Moore to play Bond. But Young, a dependable director who had worked with Broccoli before, was erudite, dashing, well groomed, and widely travelled, just like Bond himself. And when the producers chose the relatively unknown and (at the time) rather scruffy young Scottish actor to play 007, it was Young who took Connery under his wing and schooled him in the ways of an upper-class English gent. Many people involved in the production believe that the big-screen James Bond contained as much of Terence Young as Ian Fleming. There was also, of course, quite a lot of Sean Connery, who had considerable charisma and sex appeal. The young actor was far more impish than the solemn loner of Fleming’s novels, and these brash, insouciant qualities endeared him to audiences, who embraced the on-screen character of the cool but charming secret agent.
The fifth key figure was the prolific American screenwriter Richard Maibaum, a veteran Broadway actor and playwright who penned the 1949 version of The Great Gatsby and the brilliant 1948 noir thriller The Big Clock, as well as several early films for Broccoli. Maibaum wrote or co-wrote all but three of the first sixteen Bond pictures, and he contributed an American pragmatism that provided a balanced counterpoint to the wild flights of fancy that the British-based producers and directors encouraged. It’s telling that of the first sixteen Bond films, Maibaum had little to no involvement in the movies that faltered or devolved dangerously close to self-parody, and that every time the series righted itself after these stumbles, the script was authored solely by Maibaum or in conjunction with Broccoli’s son-in-law Wilson, whom Maibaum encouraged to become a screenwriter and with whom he wrote all five Bond pictures of the 1980s.
Dr. No’s editor, Peter Hunt, was the sixth crucial contributor. His stylistic sensibilities aligned seamlessly with the producers and directors. It's fair to describe many of the film craftsmen in England at that time as old fuddy-duddies, especially the editors and sound mixers, but Hunt, a seasoned but innovative film cutter, possessed a devilish sense of humor. He had a clear understanding of Young’s desire to give Dr. No an exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek feel, and this light approach to the material had the dual advantage of making the movie stand out while also appeasing the censors of the era. As Young correctly surmised, the filmmakers could get more of the story’s sex and violence past the powers-that-were if they played those aspects for laughs, rather than for pure dramatic effect. Through judicious cutting, sound mixing, and scoring, Hunt was able to push Young’s ideas even farther. He found all kinds of opportunities for humor in the post-production phase, as when he asked composer John Barry to create musical stings for each time Bond hits an approaching tarantula with his shoe. The audacious Hunt also gave the overall picture an unprecedentedly rapid tempo, thinking nothing of cutting several frames out of a shot if an actor didn’t shoot a gun or throw a punch fast enough. Even though this practice resulted in jump cuts, Hunt felt the jolts would make the action more exciting, and he knew how to use sound effects to smooth over the jarring transitions. The style and pace of Dr. No are major reasons why the movie holds up so well, more than half a century after its release.
Hunt also supervised the dubbing of all the early films. Because these international productions prominently featured actors who spoke little to no English, the stars required additional actors to revoice their lines. Hunt’s casting and directing of these anonymous voice actors were crucial steps in the filmmaking process. Principal heroines and villains of the initial pictures, including Ursula Andress in Dr. No, Daniela Bianchi in From Russia with Love, Gert Fröbe in Goldfinger, and Adolfo Celi in Thunderball, all required overdubbing by English-speaking actors supervised by Hunt. If the vocal performances didn’t measure up to the physical ones, the films would have fallen apart, but Hunt always found the right voice actors to match the on-screen personalities. I saw these movies dozens of times before realizing that the voices I was hearing didn’t always belong to the actors I was watching.
Hunt was equally indispensable for his ability to cover continuity errors and plot problems through editing. Young tended to pay more attention to the cut of Sean Connery’s suit or the amount of handkerchief sticking out of the star's breast pocket than he did to making sure all the shots matched, and he was similarly not overly concerned with getting all the coverage needed to make a scene work. Hunt therefore directed a second unit to pick up material that Young didn’t have the time or inclination to shoot himself. Hunt also supervised re-shoots with the actors when script changes were made during the editorial process. He would even, at times, fabricate new shots by appropriating Young’s footage and altering it in an optical printer. Hunt was an editor far ahead of his time, the most unsung of the original James Bond creative team.
The last major contributor to the success of the series was the exceptionally talented John Barry, a former jazz trumpet player who became one of the most celebrated film composers of all time, creating exquisite soundtracks for Midnight Cowboy, Body Heat, Out of Africa, Dances with Wolves, Somewhere in Time, The Cotton Club, and dozens of other films. He was not credited as the composer of either Dr. No or the signature “James Bond Theme,” both of which were written by Monty Norman, but he did arrange, develop, and conduct these pieces, and he also provided the scores, songs, and orchestrations for eleven of the first sixteen Bond pictures. Barry, who was twenty-nine at the time, wrote and arranged with a youthful, raw, rhythmic energy that complemented Peter Hunt’s quick-and-dirty editing style. Hunt ended up inserting Barry’s variations on the “James Bond theme” throughout Dr. No, linking the music inextricably with the character. It's impossible to think of James Bond without thinking of Barry's music. And while his ‘60s themes are specific to the decade that gave rise to the series, his later scores feel as timeless as the Bond franchise itself.
talents created a series of films whose renown far surpassed that of the novels
that were their source. But as with so many of cinema's greatest success
stories, the artistic and commercial triumph of the Bond pictures has as much
to do with timing as with the abilities of the people involved in their
inception. The movies were produced and released in the early 1960s, when the
youth of Great Britain was throwing off the austere attitudes of the post-war
generation and embracing lifestyles of optimistic, pleasure-seeking excess.
British bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones took American music and
reinvented it, and much the same can be said of the first James Bond films. At
the time, movies, like rock music, were a distinctly American export. But by
loosening up the formulas, casting international stars, making the plots and
set pieces more extreme, and adding an unmistakably English sense of humor, the
men who made the Bond films were creating more stylish, action-packed
entertainment, and beating the Americans at their own game.
This voguish reimagining of familiar cinematic storytelling is the primary reason that the James Bond films of the 1960s are the best in the series. In the 1970s, Bond became campier, sillier, and more overtly self-conscious. The movies were still entertaining, but they lacked the cultural significance of their predecessors. While the 1980s pictures were more grounded and satisfying, the 1990s saw repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to make the character palatable to post-Cold War, post-feminist, post-politically correct audiences. (The attempts were unsuccessful in my opinion, that is; the box office receipts tell a different story.) In the first two decades of the new millennium, the franchise adapted once more, working to win for itself to a new generation of viewers. After a shaky start, it has managed to achieve a triumphant return to artistic and cultural significance. Throughout these fluctuations in quality, from strong to weak, light to dark, groundbreaking to cliché, with many gradations in between, the box office receipts remained robust. The roster of antagonists reflects the changing nature of threats faced by Western civilization, and the supporting players and cutting-edge technologies chronicle our society’s evolving conventions, tastes, subcultures, and attitudes. As a result, the series has managed not only to survive, but to maintain its value and relevance over an extraordinary span of time. The James Bond movies encompass a body of work that is thrilling to watch, study, and experience from different perspectives.
THE FILMSDr. No | From Russia with Love | Goldfinger | Thunderball | You Only Live Twice |
On Her Majesty's Secret Service | Diamonds Are Forever | Live and Let Die | The Man with
the Golden Gun | The Spy Who Loved Me | Moonraker | For Your Eyes Only | Octopussy |
The World Is Not Enough | Die Another Day | Casino Royale | Quantum of Solace | Skyfall
The first James Bond film remains one of the best, if not the best, of the series, despite its age and relatively small budget. Although it establishes the tone and style for many of the elements that would form the Bond template, it is more of a mystery thriller than a Cold War espionage tale. The heroic 007 is depicted more as a steely detective than as a globe-trotting secret agent. Bond's mission is to investigate the disappearance of a British officer in Jamaica, which leads to the discovery of a plot to interfere with the American space program.
Producers Saltzman and Broccoli had hoped to make Thunderball as their first James Bond picture, but the screen rights to that novel were tied up in a legal dispute between Ian Fleming and Kevin McClory, the first producer to try to bring Bond to the silver screen. It is just as well that the EON team didn't succeed, since the massive scale of Thunderball would have been unachievable on the $1 million budget that United Artists ponied up for the first production. Dr. No was a much better choice. The novel began as an idea for a TV series called Commander Jamaica that Ian Fleming was commissioned to write, after he had seemingly killed off James Bond in the novel From Russia With Love. When the TV series didn’t pan out, Fleming resurrected 007 and turned his Commander Jamaica script into the basis for his next novel, Dr. No. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable reads in the series and ensured a future life for Bond in print.
The film opens with the signature gun barrel graphic created
by Maurice Binder, who also designed the animated title sequence. Special
titles were not yet commonplace in the early '60s, and Binder’s idiosyncratic
credit sequences, which included all the opening titles from Thunderball (1965) to Licence to Kill (1989), are part of the series’ inimitable
style. While Dr. No’s animated words
and colored dots do not begin to rival Binder’s later sequences, in which the
silhouettes of James Bond and bevies of naked women run, swim, fly, and perform
gymnastics in an abstract playground featuring giant guns that shoot credits, it
is still an attention-getting way to start a picture.
The writer originally hired by Albert Broccoli to adapt Fleming's novel was Wolf Mankowitz. The wild liberties he took with the material (at one point apparently making the title character into a chimpanzee) kept many of the best directors away. But Broccoli managed to convince his frequent collaborator Terence Young that the script would get sorted out by his next hire Richard Maibaum, and Young signed on as director. Harry Saltzman brought on Johanna Harwood and Berkely Mather to do another script that was more “English” than what Maibaum devised. Young claims that it was he, with Harwood’s help, who wrote the final draft, which adhered far more closely to the novel. Whatever the sequence of screenplay authorship, the final version of Dr. No is a faithful adaptation of Fleming’s excellent book. Fleming was alive at the time of the film’s production, and he hoped that his close friend Noel Coward would play either Bond or the titular villain, but Coward’s characteristically whimsical reply to Fleming’s letter of request read simply: “Dr. No? No, No No!”
At the time they were cast, the movie’s lead actors were
essentially unknowns, which is part of what made the picture feel so fresh.
Sean Connery’s biggest credits to date were for co-starring in the enchanting
live-action Disney film Darby O'Gill and
the Little People and the forgettable melodrama Another Time, Another Place. He also played minor roles in the
British movies A Night to Remember, Hell
Drivers, and Action of the Tiger
(which was directed by Terence Young). A
young Jack Lord, who went on to star in the TV show Hawaii Five-0, plays
Bond's ally Felix Lieter, an American CIA agent. Lord, with his white suit and jet-black Ray-Ban
sunglasses, is still the coolest actor to take on this role. Joseph Wiseman is appropriately sinister as
the half-German, half-Chinese Dr. Julius No. But aside from Connery it is the women
in this first production who really stand out. Of these three “Bond girls,” only
one fits the common stereotype.
It is impossible to think of either Eunice Gayson or her character Sylvia Trench as a mere bimbo for Bond to toy with. Trench was intended as a recurring part of the series, the steady girlfriend to whom 007 would always be saying good-bye at the top of each film before jetting off to whatever exotic country his mission called for. According to interviews with Gayson, the plan was eventually to set a movie in England in which Trench would be Connery’s leading lady. But this notion was abandoned when Terence Young dropped out of directing Goldfinger, and Sylvia Trench wound up appearing in only the first two pictures.
We meet 007 for the first time through the character of
Sylvia Trench: she is admiring his luck at the baccarat table in a swanky nightclub.
This iconic introduction sets Bond up as the ultimate sophisticated English
gentleman, wearing tailored clothes and deftly playing cards while casually lighting
a cigarette from his gunmetal case. It is a nod to Bond’s introduction in
Fleming's first novel Casino Royal,
but the scene is shot in an even more distinguished manner. At first, we only
see Bond from the back, and it takes a while before we get a glimpse of his
face. Director Young claimed he was riffing on the 1939 film Juarez, in which director William
Dieterle introduced Paul Muni in a similar way. Young apparently found Dieterle's
slow build up rather pretentious and mocked it with his own protracted reveal. But whether this presentation is an
advantageous steal or a sly inside joke, the minute we see Sean Connery
introduce himself as “Bond . . . James Bond,” and we hear John Barry’s music
begin to underscore the moment, we know we are in for a good time. This
immortal introduction has aged marvelously. The expert linking of a protagonist
to his theme music, as Bond exits the casino with the alluring and aggressive Trench,
is one of the key reasons this film is such a classic.
The second Bond girl in Dr. No is Zena Marshall’s Miss Taro, who lures 007 into a potentially lethal car chase. Although Taro is the least important of the film’s three leading ladies, she holds the distinction of being the only woman to spit in James Bond’s face (at least on screen). As a seething and aggressive gesture, it anticipates the feelings of many future women characters that interact with Bond over the next fifty years.
The most imposing actress and the most indelible female part
in Dr. No—and arguably in all of the
Bond films—is Ursula Andress's Honey Rider. This character, which Fleming had named
with one of his typical sex puns, is a resourceful and fiercely independent
beachcomber who becomes entangled in Bond’s mission. Rider is less worldly than
Bond, but she is very much his equal in terms of intelligence, resourcefulness,
and sex appeal. The movie shifts gears dramatically when she and Bond meet.
Andress’s introduction at exactly one hour into the picture is every bit as revered
as Sean Connery’s at the beginning. The legendary director and estimable
raconteur Orson Welles once commented that the two greatest entrances in all of
cinema history were Omar Sharif’s in Lawrence
of Arabia and Ursula Andress’s in Dr.
No. It isn’t just that she looks so
striking in a white bikini with a giant knife strapped across her waist, it is
how her first appearance changes the dynamics of the film. At this point in the story, she is the last
thing Bond (and the audience) expects to see.
The fast-paced picture stops and lingers on her when she emerges from
the ocean like Botticelli‘s Venus, humming Monty Norman’s “Underneath the Mango
Tree,” with the sun glistening on her long, wet, blonde hair. A film can’t spend the kind of time on
backstory that a novel can, and the movie version of Honey Rider is not the
exotic, broken-nosed, almost feral character that Ian Fleming envisioned. But
the screenwriters manage to give Andress an excellent scene in which Rider tells
Bond about her life.
Two other fine actors in the movie are Anthony Dawson and
John Kitzmiller. Dawson, a Scottish bit
player best remembered for his role as the killer in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, was a favorite of
Terence Young and appears in nearly all of the director’s pictures. In From Russia with Love and Thunderball, his hands depict those of
the unseen evil genius Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
In Dr. No, he plays Professor
Dent, Dr. No’s sinister but weak-willed henchman. Kitzmiller, an African-American actor who
moved to Italy after serving there in WWII, was a veteran of over fifty
European films including Fellini's neorealist classic Without Pity. Here he plays Quarrel, a Cayman Islander who becomes
Bond’s right-hand man. Quarrel is the first in a long line of characters whom some
fans call Bond’s disposable helpers or sacrificial lambs. As a result of assisting 007, these endearing
individuals suffer violent deaths in the second acts of many films in the
series. But the dismissive monikers are
unfair. Quarrel, like many of the sidekicks
to come, is anything but disposable or lamb-like, and his death, both in the
novel and the movie, gives us our first glimpse of Bond's emotional and
This film also inaugurates many of the recurring roles in
the series, including Bond’s Secret Service Chief, known only as M and
portrayed by the wonderful English character actor Bernard Lee (The Third Man, Beat the Devil), and M’s
secretary Miss Moneypenny, played by the lovely Lois Maxwell. Maxwell’s playful banter with Connery, which
always hinted at a fondly remembered long-ago fling between their characters,
was so charming and successful that she carried on in the role in fourteen
consecutive films. Peter Burton plays Q,
the MI5 armorer. Burton could have had a job for life if he had wanted to
continue in the role. Instead, he turned down From Russia with Love and was replaced by Desmond Llewelyn, who
would appear as Q in sixteen subsequent pictures.
The cast and crew work magnificently together, and the stylish blend of exotic location shooting and virtuoso British studio work dazzles the eyes and ears. One invaluable member of the Dr. No production team who should not go unmentioned is the German art director Ken Adam. Adam’s ingenious sets, as much as Peter Hunt’s editing and Terence Young’s direction, make the early Bond pictures stand out among other impressive but more conventional adventure films of the period, like John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns Of Navarone, and Howard Hawk’s Hatari!. Adam’s large, sparse rooms, which combine modern technology with old-fashioned furnishings, gave the picture a look unlike anything seen before in movies. Adam also knew how to stretch the limited budget of the first film, making it appear far more expensive than it actually was. For example, in the scene in which Professor Dent receives orders from Dr. No to kill Bond with a tarantula, Adam’s highly stylized yet cost-efficient two-wall set with its grated ceiling and undersized chair, gives the professor the look of a tiny insect trapped in a spider’s web. Adam would go on to design seven of the most visually magnificent James Bond pictures of the '60s and '70s, as well as two more of the movies in my Top 100 Favorites: Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove—which was Adam's next assignment after completing work on this picture.
Dr. No is a legendary movie that inaugurated one of the most celebrated and long-running international film series of all time. But it’s also enjoyable when viewed as the hastily produced, low-budget B-movie that it is. Shot mostly in Jamaica—not a place where films are commonly made—it has the winningly ragtag aesthetic of a little picture made by a small group of enthusiastic and unified people. You can tell that Sean Connery is always driving his car himself, even in distance shots which would normally use a double, and you get the feeling that cinematographer Ted Moore and director Terence Young are behind the camera at all times, rather than farming out major shots to second units. It is the only James Bond film that has this quasi-indie vibe, and watching it gives you the distinct sense that it must have been incredibly fun to make. While the movies got bigger and more extravagant as the series went on, they rarely, if ever, bested this one.
The second James Bond picture, made one year after Dr. No by mostly the same production
team, improved on many aspects of the first.
Though still larger than life and tongue-in-cheek, From Russia with Love is the most straightforward of 007’s
cinematic adventures, playing almost like a John le Carré spy story that happens to
indulge in a few amusing flights of fancy.
It is based on one of the best of the Fleming novels, features two of
the most entertaining villains in the entire series, and stars Sean Connery in his
most confident and commanding performance.
Fleming’s novel, the fifth in the series, is inventively structured, with the first third of the book devoted entirely to the agents of SMERSH, the Soviet counterintelligence service that appears in several 007 novels. The reader learns all about the story’s villains and heroine before James Bond even makes an appearance. This sequencing would not suit the producers of From Russia with Love, who were eager to make a star out of Sean Connery, so the film follows the same basic structure as Dr. No. But screenwriter Richard Maibaum manages to work almost every noteworthy sequence from the novel into the movie, in addition to making a number of major improvements to the narrative.
One such change involves replacing SMERSH with the international terrorist organization SPECTRE, which Fleming did not introduce until Thunderball, his ninth Bond novel. Broccoli and Saltzman had hoped to make Thunderball as their first James Bond picture, but when that proved impossible they took the concept of SPECTRE and added it into Dr. No, figuring that setting up the fictional organization in this film would pay off if they were eventually able to make Thunderball. Also, by the time From Russia with Love went into script development, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and Great Brittan was thawing. The filmmakers saw political and narrative advantages in making the principal antagonist in this second movie SPECTRE rather than SMERSH, and having the terrorist network toying with the two great powers of East and West strictly for its own pleasure and profit.
The story of SPECTRE’s plan to steal a Russian cryptographic device and sell it back to them while at the same time exacting revenge on James Bond is a more complex narrative than the one in the novel. It is also more credible, since Fleming’s original conception of this plot being hatched by the Russian Secret Service is farfetched, and it’s also more fun. The formidable villains of the book lose none of their prowess when overseen by the mysterious Blofeld, the mastermind behind SPECTRE. These villains are the sinister SMERSH colonel Rosa Klebb and the brutal assassin Donald "Red" Grant. The infamous Austrian singer and actress Lotte Lenya (iconic star of her husband Kurt Weill’s Socialist masterpiece The Threepenny Opera) plays Klebb. Relishing the role, she embodies every bit of the 1960s stereotype of an evil lesbian Soviet agent. She's a squat, slimy, almost reptilian creature in an uncomfortable looking military uniform. Lenya’s portrayal of the harsh, heartless Klebb, with her braying voice, brass knuckles, and poisoned switchblade shoes, set her apart from the suave and sophisticated villains of the Bond series. It is a memorable role made all the more masterly by its limited screen time.
The English actor and playwright Robert Shaw plays Red Grant. Shaw, later known for his signature performances in A Man for All Seasons, The Sting, and Jaws, is so young and fit in this movie that he seems like he could kill Sean Connery just by looking at him. Shaw’s physical prowess, along with his chiseled, masculine attractiveness make him an exciting antagonist, and his clash with Bond on the Orient Express is arguably the most outstanding fight sequence in the entire series.
The revered Mexican-American actor Pedro Armendáriz, star of John Ford’s films The Fugitive, Fort Apache, and 3 Godfathers, plays Bond’s Turkish ally Ali Karim Bey. Armendáriz is one of the most appealingly macho actors to appear in a Bond picture. His warm, humorous presence lights up the screen in all of his scenes. Ironically, Armendáriz was in terrible pain while shooting in Istanbul and was diagnosed with inoperable kidney cancer during filming. It is believed he contracted the disease in the same way as John Wayne, Agnes Moorehead, and Dick Powell did, by working on the 1956 epic The Conqueror, which was shot downwind from the site of America’s aboveground nuclear weapons tests in Nevada. A great admirer of Ernest Hemingway's decision to shoot himself rather than to waste away in a deathbed, Armendáriz committed suicide with a gun once his scenes were finished, confident that his participation in From Russia with Love would secure his family’s financial future. In the few retakes that were necessary, director Terence Young stood in and doubled for the late actor.
As Bond’s love interest, Daniela Bianchi was just 21 years
old when she played Soviet Embassy clerk Tatiana Romanova, who is engaged by
SMERSH to entrap 007. She's the youngest actress to play the female lead in the
series, which makes her character’s naiveté all the more convincing and
charming. Bond first meets her when she
turns up naked in his hotel room bed, one of the key episodes in the movie, and
it features one of the most overtly sexual double entendres in the entire
series. The line comes across as a
fairly subtle joke since Connery delivers it without any overt mugging to the
camera and it slipped right past the censors of the day.
Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, and Eunice Gayson all return in
their roles from Dr. No, and Desmond
Llewelyn makes his first appearance as Q.
Llewelyn would continue on as the beleaguered armorer in seventeen films—more
than any other actor in the series. But
it is Connery who owns this picture. From
Russia with Love showcases his best
performance as 007. He is cooler and more self-assured than he was in Dr. No, but not yet bored with the
character, as he seems to be in some of his later outings. His ruthless side is on full display, as he
slaps several people in the face and shoots his enemies in cold blood, but he
is also tender and sensitive in many moments with Bianchi. Early in the film, Bond walks into his
Istanbul hotel room and catches himself in the act of dropping his hat on the
bed. He hesitates for a second, aware of
the superstition, and then aggressively tosses the hat squarely onto the bed as
if daring the bad luck to take him
on. It is non-verbal moments like this one
that make his performance and this picture so stimulating and endlessly
The James Bond formula fully gelled in Goldfinger, the first movie to possess nearly all the components people associate with a 007 picture. It does lack a few key ingredients, however, most notably an exotic, far-way setting—the film was intended to be a blockbuster aimed squarely at the US market, and accordingly much of it takes place in American locations like Miami Beach and Kentucky. While many consider Goldfinger the best Bond movie and a cinematic classic, it also contains an abundance of the series' least appealing facets, including misogynistic overtones, painfully overt jokes and gags, Bond's reliance on gadgets and gimmicks rather than wits and strength, and the uninspired casting of certain supporting roles. Most of these drawbacks are more odious to contemporary viewers than they were to audiences in 1964 and are outweighed by a well-crafted script and some stand-out performances. The producers had hoped to score Orson Welles for the title role, which would have been wonderful, but he wanted too much money. (Welles would go on to play the Bond villain Le Chiffre three years later in Casino Royale, Charles K. Feldman’s nearly-unwatchable James Bond spoof, when the cash-strapped auteur had become less choosy about the acting roles he was willing to take.) Instead, Broccoli and Saltzman hired German actor Gert Fröbe after they saw him portray a child molester in the film Es geschah am hellichten Tag. The fact that Fröbe spoke no English was of little concern to them, as he looked ideal for the role.
For Goldfinger's henchman Oddjob, director Guy Hamilton cast the Korean Olympic weightlifter Harold Sakata after seeing him win a wrestling match. Fascinated by the way Sakata moved, Hamilton incorporated many of the large man’s attributes into the character. Though Oddjob has no lines in the picture, he too makes one of the most indelible impressions of all the Bond villains. As distinctive, twisted, and potent adversaries to 007, Goldfinger and Oddjob are, perhaps, second only to Rosa Kleb and Red Grant in From Russia with Love.
As in Dr. No, three Bond girls grace Goldfinger: two minor roles in the first half, and one more substantial one in the second. Shirley Eaton has the smallest but most iconic part as Jill Masterson, a gorgeous young woman who works for Goldfinger in various capacities. We don’t know if she's in thrall to Goldfinger or if she is using the big man as much as he is using her, but either way, she’s no bimbo. Jill Masterson represents an important, though often dismissed type of Bond girl. She may be trapped under the thumb of a powerful man, but she is as smart, self-interested, and sexually aggressive as James Bond himself. When she helps him spoil Goldfinger’s card cheating scam, the villain has her killed and covered in gold paint. Her glittering corpse became the main image of the film’s marketing campaign and one of the most striking in the series. Tania Mallet is neither as skilled nor as attractive an actress as Eaton, but her character Tilly, Jill's avenging sister, is well-written, and Mallet is able to hold her own with Connery.
Honor Blackman deftly takes on the most memorably named Ian Fleming creation of all time: Pussy Galore, Goldfinger’s personal pilot and accomplice. Blackman is five years older than Connery and, at thirty-nine, was the oldest actress to play a Bond girl until fifty-one year-old Monica Bellucci in the 2015 film Spectre. Blackman was a major star in England from the television series The Avengers. Delighted to undertake this part, she particularly relished bringing up her character’s name to dignitaries and members of the press whenever possible. The producers feared they might have trouble getting the name past censors, but when a London newspaper ran a picture of Blackman and Prince Charles with the caption “Pussy and the Prince,” all concerns instantly vanished.
In Fleming's novel, Pussy Galore is a tough, butch gangster who runs an all-lesbian Harlem crime syndicate called the Cement Mixers. For the film, the more extreme aspects of her personality had to be toned down, but we get a few hints about her sexual orientation, not the least in her illustrious line to Bond: “You can turn off the charm, I’m immune.” After sparring with Pussy in a hay-barn, Bond forces himself on her until she submits. Many found this notorious episode objectionable at the time, and even more do now. While the scene is a little cringe-worthy, Pussy Galore is a woman whose interests and desires are established as running the gamut. It is therefore not inconceivable that she might fancy both a fight and a sexual tryst with James Bond, or that she might find it strategic to choose to switch her allegiance from Goldfinger to 007. Nevertheless, many critics of the era called out the film for implying, via this scene, that Bond’s sexual magnetism is so supernaturally powerful that he can turn a lesbian straight—something the writers of the next picture, Thunderball, would amusingly address with the character of Fiona Volpe.
Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, and Desmond Llewelyn all return
as the MI5 staff. Llewelyn, as Q, steals
the show when he explains the “rather special modifications” of the Aston
Martin DB5 car that has been specially prepared for 007, which include machine
guns, an oil slick, an ejector seat, and, with great prescience, a GPS device.
The scene in Q’s lab became a staple of the series henceforth, and James Bond’s
car became as famous as the character himself.
The rest of the supporting cast is less successful, especially Cec
Linder as Bond’s CIA buddy Felix Lieter. Linder, who seems about twenty years older
than Connery, took the part when Jack Lord demanded equal billing and a larger
salary to reprise the role. It is too
bad the filmmakers didn’t just find a Jack Lord lookalike, as they did in the
Terence Young, who oversaw the first two Bond outings, chose to make The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders over Goldfinger, so Broccoli and Saltzman turned to Guy Hamilton, one of their original first choices to direct James Bond. Hamilton would go on to do three other Bond pictures, and not three of the strongest. He tends to exaggerate too much and overplay the humor, although he does come up with some adroit comic touches in Goldfinger worthy of Alfred Hitchcock—such as a scene at a gate house when a little old lady bows, scrapes, and smiles at Bond in one moment and returns blasting a Tommy gun at him in the next.
The film was
budgeted at three million dollars, the cost of the first two pictures combined,
but it looks sloppy and piecemeal. Though
Ken Adam’s sets are magnificent, much of the movie’s connective tissue feels
tossed together at the last minute by editor Peter Hunt. The heavy use of doubles, back projection,
redubbing, and other post-production techniques stand out less forgivably in
this spectacular, higher-budget picture than in the first two comparatively
The novel Goldfinger is one of the better books in the series. Fleming delves more deeply into Bond's psychology than he had in any story to date, in addition to dreaming up a dastardly villain and some gripping set pieces. Screenwriters Paul Dehn (author of the scripts for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Murder on the Orient Express, and all the Planet of the Apes sequels) and Richard Maibaum dispense with the psychologically complex, internal aspects of the character, but they also fix huge holes in the novel’s absurd narrative, which concerns Goldfinger's plot to steal all the gold in Fort Knox.
This well-structured film contains perhaps the most absorbing first act in the
entire series. James Bond meets the main
villain twice during the first half hour, which is quite unusual. The early golf sequence, in which Bond and
Goldfinger play a leisurely eighteen holes and 007 tempts his nemesis with a
bar of Nazi gold, is one of the true joys of the picture. Though I’m not a golfer, even I get sucked
into the idea of the game when watching this beautifully-constructed and photographed
sequence. It was while shooting this movie that Connery developed his passionate
and enduring love for the sport, and it’s hard to blame him.
Forty minutes into the picture, Bond seems to have solved
the mystery and completed his mission, until he stumbles onto a much more
elaborate plot after being captured. The
sequence in which Goldfinger threatens to slice a bound Bond in half with a
laser beam is yet another revered scene in this classic film, and it contains
the most celebrated verbal exchange between 007 and a baddie. The first half of the movie, which also includes
a high-octane pre-credit sequence and a car chase where we see the tricked out
Aston Martin in action, is so chock full of unforgettable and beloved moments
that it’s no wonder this picture is so many people's favorite. But the second half doesn’t quite live up to
what comes before it. While it has dozens
of great moments, among them Goldfinger’s explanation of his master plan and
the outlandish Fort Knox climax, the humor and goofiness undercut their potency,
and they don't hold up as well upon multiple viewings. This film, more than Dr. No, established the big action sequence climax of the Bond
formula, complete with a ticking bomb, hundreds of extras in army uniforms or
matching jumpsuits, and a nail-biting confrontation with an impossibly muscular
henchman. Indeed, Bond’s mano a mano
with Oddjob inside the golden fortress is thoroughly satisfying. The restrained tension of this small fight
helps to ground the wild silliness of the larger battle outside. Still, this
big action climax can’t touch the golf sequence as an outstanding piece of
Goldfinger was the first Bond movie to be scored entirely by John Barry,
whose first swing at a theme song became the undisputed greatest of the entire
series, not to mention one of the most lionized title tunes in all of cinema. The instrumentation is raw and raunchy and
prominently features brass instruments to accentuate the metallic nature of the
villain’s obsession. Barry and lyricist
Anthony Newley drew inspiration from Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht’s villain
song, “Mack The Knife,” from The Threepenny Opera. Shirley Bassey's aggressive vocal permanently sealed the song into both film and music history.
This Bond title song is one of the only ones that is still frequently played
and performed today.
The third 007
picture turned out to be the massive hit the producers were hoping for, and it
fully activated and inspired James Bond mania all over the globe, especially in
the US. The first two films were
re-released worldwide and proved to be tremendous successes, while Desmond
Llewelyn and the Aston Martin went on an international tour, drawing droves of
people who wanted to see James Bond’s car up close. Ian Fleming, sadly, did not live to see the
series become a phenomenon. The
life-long smoker and heavy drinker died of a heart attack at age 53, before Goldfinger was released.
In 1959, producer Kevin McClory hoped to be the first man to bring James Bond to the silver screen. He and screenwriter Jack Whittingham collaborated on a script with Ian Fleming with the working title James Bond, Secret Agent. But after the lackluster reception of McClory’s movie The Boy and the Bridge later that year, Fleming got cold feet about their collaboration. When the James Bond, Secret Agent picture (also known by the title Longitude 78 West) began to fall apart, Fleming did what he had done with other failed television and film projects: he adapted the unused screenplay into his next James Bond novel. But when Fleming wrote the book, which he named Thunderball, he neither consulted his former collaborators nor gave them any credit as co-authors. Accordingly, McClory sued Fleming shortly after Thunderball’s publication. The eventual settlement ensured that subsequent editions of the book would credit McClory and Whittingham, and it awarded McClory control over the screen rights.
Saltzman and Broccoli feared having any rival Bond films made from the two titles they did not control, Thunderball and Casino Royale. So as soon as McClory’s lawsuit was settled, they decided to bring him into their fold and make Thunderball with McClory serving as producer and themselves as executive producers. As part of their deal, McClory would retain the screen rights to the novel, with the provision that he not remake the film for a period of at least ten years. It would take nearly twenty years for a Thunderball remake to come to fruition, as Never Say Never Again (1983), for which McClory was able to lure Sean Connery back for one last performance as 007.
Terence Young, who had directed the first two James Bond pictures, returned to direct the fourth. Young always said his favorite Fleming novels were Thunderball, From Russia with Love, and Dr. No, and they were the three he ended up making, albeit in reverse order. The scale of this film is enormous compared to the first three movies, and the running time substantially longer. Though somewhat bloated, it doesn’t feel overly-ambitious and its tone is much more in line with the first two movies—still playful and over the top, but far less goofy than Goldfinger.
The novel returns James Bond to Fleming's best-loved location, Jamaica, but first the macho secret agent is sent by M to a trendy health clinic in the hope of breaking him of some nasty habits—mainly the heavy drinking and smoking, vices to which Fleming was also addicted. Screenwriters Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins make the most of Fleming's lively first chapters and turn one of the most enjoyable reads in the Fleming catalogue into one of the better James Bond screenplays. The plot, in which the villainous SPECTRE organization steals two nuclear warheads and uses them to hold the United States and England hostage for ransom, makes for an adventure story on a much larger scale then most of the other novels. Maibaum and Hopkins are able to make better use of key connections between the characters than Fleming does in the novel. For example, the mastermind behind the SPECTRE plan, Emilio Largo, uses the brother of his lover Domino to hijack a plane carrying the warheads. Domino’s relationship to the pilot, whom Bond remembers seeing during his time at the health clinic, is what enables 007 to uncover much of the information he needs to foil the caper. The screenplay is defter in its use of the innocent Domino’s various attachments to the sinister characters involved in the hijacking and ransom. However, there are several memorable moments in the book that don’t survive the transition to film because they are too overtly sexual.
Adolfo Celi’s Largo continues the tradition of villains who are simultaneously amusing, imposing, charming, and deadly. Like Gert Fröbe, Celi’s voice is dubbed by another actor, which gives Largo a distinctively understated, almost whispered, style of speaking his disquieting dialogue. Desmond Llewelyn returns as Q who, in an unusual change of structure, travels to equip Bond in the field. Even more than in Goldfinger, in Thunderball the amusing and irreverent relationship between the two characters becomes firmly established.
Broccoli hoped to land Julie Christie, Raquel Welch, or Faye Dunaway as his leading lady, but none of them panned out, and he eventually narrowed down his search to the French beauty queen Claudine Auger and the Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi. In the end, both were cast. Auger plays Largo's mistress Domino with strength and tenderness, unaware of the extent to which the villain is manipulating her. Her Domino is a smart, damaged, and sympathetic Bond girl whose eventual union with 007 does not seem like a foregone conclusion, as is so often the case in this series. Paluzzi, for her part, is one of the film's high points, as the fiery and voluptuous SPECTRE agent Fiona Volpe. Volpe is the most compelling and amusing of all the villainous Bond girls. Physically imposing, verbally sharp, and sexually aggressive, she is every bit James Bond’s equal. In one of her best lines she mocks 007's supposed ability to win women over by the sheer power of his irresistible sexuality. In doing so, she uses dialogue that quotes verbatim from one of the most scathing critical reviews of Goldfinger. This type of unobtrusive inside joke—which takes nothing away from the drama of the scene—is an example of Terence Young’s skill at creating entertainment that works on multiple tiers. Later directors in the series would be less successful at finding this balance between credible storytelling and winking at the audience.
The third Bond girl in Thunderball also discredits 007’s presumed magical ability to seduce any woman he wants, though in a manor more unfortunately true to life. Molly Peters plays Patricia Fearing, a physiotherapist at the health clinic in the early section of the film. Fearing finds Bond a boorish pest who won’t take her, or the therapy she’s trying to administer, seriously. She fiercely rejects his numerous sexual advances. In the end, the only way Bond can have his way with her is through implied blackmail and taking her by force. It’s all played for laughs, but is undoubtedly the most flagrant act of brutal misogyny in the entire series. Fearing doesn’t instantly melt into a tamed, adoring sex kitten sighing, “Oh James,” after the encounter—in fact she gets in a few potent verbal jabs at Bond in their next sequence together—but by her final scene, the transformation is complete. She bids Bond farewell telling him she’d love to see him again, “any time, any place.” The line is another inside joke, referring to Connery’s earlier film Another Time, Another Place, but it firmly establishes the attitude that women who say “no” will eventually come around to “yes” even if it requires force. This perspective is reflective of the times the film was made, but is certainly guilty of perpetuating and reinforcing the unacceptable notion because, by now, Bond was such a major masculine hero whom men in the audience wanted to emulate. Far more than the much discussed and debated fight-turned-love scene with Honor Blackman in Goldfinger, the sequence with Molly Peters in Thunderball stands as the true misogynist legacy of the screen incarnation of James Bond.
Thunderball was the first James Bond picture to be shot in the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, which contributes to its epic texture. In addition, John Barry went all out with his musical score, including a title song with a high note that pop superstar Tom Jones holds for so long that he reportedly fainted during the recording session. Maurice Binder returned for the opening titles, which feature his signature silhouettes of Bond, naked women, and lots of guns, as would the titles of the next twelve movies in the series. Here, Bender's girls are swimming and shooting harpoon guns, which is appropriate since nearly twenty-five percent of Thunderball takes place underwater. All that undersea action makes the film unpopular with many fans and critics like Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who complain that it is slow, boring, and frustrating, in the sense that it’s difficult to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys when all the actors' faces are obscured by masks and diving gear. While these underwater sequences are a bit indulgent, they are visually breathtaking and quite advanced for a picture of this vintage. And for anyone confused by who's fighting who, here's an easy way to tell the difference: the good guys wear orange wetsuits, and the bad guys wear black ones.
Thunderball cost as much as all three of the preceding movies combined, but the investment paid off: adjusted for inflation, it is still the highest-grossing James Bond picture, not to mention the twenty-seventh biggest box-office hit in all of film history. The production, however, marked a turning point in the attitude of the man in the starring role. Although Sean Connery called his performance in Thunderball his best in the series, the constant attention from press and admirers made shooting unpleasant. He began to tire of the role that made him famous. He wasn't even sure he liked being such a huge star in the first place. After Thunderball, Connery began to make noises about being fed up with the whole Bond enterprise. However, he would return to the role in the following film, and for two more movies, before finally calling it quits.
Saltzman and Broccoli had planned to make On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as their fifth James Bond film, but Switzerland’s unusually warm weather in 1966 meant a problematic lack of snowy mountains for that production. Knowing this, the producers hastily removed the traditional teaser line of text that ended their films (“James Bond will return in . . . ,” followed by the title of the next novel they planned to adapt) from the end credits of Thunderball just before it was released. Instead of the Swiss-set On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, they decided that You Only Live Twice, which takes place in Japan, would be made next. Richard Maibaum, who had co-written all of the prior James Bond films and had nearly completed his screenplay for OHMSS, was unavailable to generate an entirely new script on such short notice, so the producers hired Harold Jack Bloom (The Naked Spur).
Unhappy with Bloom's work and with an increasingly pressing need for a script, they turned to, of all people, the notoriously prickly British writer Roald Dahl (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox, My Uncle Oswald, and countless other novels and short stories). Why Dahl, who had never before worked on a screenplay, would be entrusted with the Bond legacy is a bit of a mystery, other than the fact that he was a friend of the late Fleming and shared his background in intelligence work during World War II. However, Dahl considered You Only Live Twice to be Fleming’s worst novel, dismissing it as a glorified travelogue with no plot. For his screenplay, Dahl cannibalized many elements of Dr. No, including a single exotic setting, a SPECTRE attack on the US space program, a villain with a fantastic secret lair in which he explains his fiendish scheme to James Bond, the one man he considers capable of appreciating his genius, and three Bond girls: an ally and an enemy who each get killed off in the first half, and a lead who winds up with 007 in the end.
There are numerous seemingly Dahlesque details to the movie. The pre-credit sequence features a space capsule that swallows other space capsules, which is a quintessentially Dahl image. And the hollowed-out volcano that serves as the villain’s hidden base of operations is much more like something out of a Roald Dahl story than one of Fleming’s books. In fact the volcano base does not appear in the novel, and only came about after the Bond team spent three weeks in a helicopter flying around Japan in search of a great castle on a sea cliff, like the one Fleming had written about. When the Japanese government informed them that such castles did not exist (and had never existed), production designer Ken Adam hit upon the notion of utilizing the dormant volcanoes they had seen during their helicopter scouting trips.
The volcano base—arguably the most iconic and grandiose gadget of the James Bond film series apart from the tricked out Aston-Martin—is one of Adam’s most impressive pieces of production design. It was far larger than anything ever constructed at England’s historic Pinewood Studios and it set the standard for secret lairs in countless adventure movies to come. The scale, function, and utter preposterousness of this set are delightful. Adam also designed a number of other eye-catching interiors for this picture, mixing his classically spare style with the Eastern aesthetics of the location.
To helm the project the producers approached Lewis Gilbert, the
genteel director of Reach for the Sky,
Sink the Bismarck! and the previous year’s surprise hit Alfie.
Gilbert was reluctant to take on the now-enormous James Bond series and
all of its accompanying expectations, but he liked the producers well enough to
fly to Japan to help them scout locations and brainstorm ideas, and once there
he was hooked. It was his suggestion to
hire the masterful British cinematographer Freddie Young, who had shot Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago for David Lean, to make the
picture more visually opulent. The result is the most sumptuous-looking James
Bond film until Skyfall in 2012.
Peter Hunt, who had lobbied the producers for the job of directing the next Bond movie, was asked to direct the second unit, which he accepted, figuring it would be a step towards getting to direct a film of his own. In addition to overseeing many of the action sequences, Hunt was later brought in to re-edit the feature when the almost three-hour initial cut delivered by Gilbert’s regular editor Thelma Connell tested badly with audiences. Hunt saved the picture in post-production, as he had done in one way or another on all four prior Bond films, and he was indeed rewarded, as expected, with the job of directing the next Bond entry.
With a new director, a fledgling screenwriter, and a weary, reluctant star, You Only Live Twice often feels labored and unsure of itself. The Japanese leads are uninspired, and the movie doesn’t heat up until the third act, where we finally go inside the volcano and see the face of super-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Oddly, the actor originally cast in the role was Jan Wreich, whom Lewis Gilbert described as a “kindly old Father Christmas” and who was hardly convincing as the megalomaniac mastermind behind so many sinister plots. After several days of shooting, Gilbert convinced Broccoli that Wreich was not going to work as Blofeld, and he was quickly replaced with the English character actor Donald Pleasance, who had recently appeared in The Great Escape and Fantastic Voyage. Though other actors would portray Blofeld in subsequent films, Pleasance's characterization is definitive. When comedian Mike Myers developed the character of Dr. Evil for the satirical Austin Powers movies, the former Saturday Night Live star famously parodied Pleasance’s look. Indeed, You Only Live Twice serves as the basis for numerous scenes and jokes in those Austin Powers films, as well as for many other James Bond send-ups.
As the success and popularity of the Bond series grew, so also grew the number of parodies. 1967 was the year that Casino Royale, the one remaining Ian Fleming title that Saltzman and Broccoli did not control, was first made into a film. The legendary talent agent and movie producer Charles K. Feldman acquired the rights to the novel long before the EON partnership was formed. Saltzman and Broccoli had considered doing a similar type of deal with Feldman as they had done with Kevin McClory on Thunderball, but they failed to come to an agreement with the eccentric Hollywood insider. Feldman, in turn, knew he could never produce an action picture capable of competing with the official EON series, so he opted to make Casino Royale as a spoof. Its star, David Niven, had been at the top of Saltzman’s, Broccoli’s, and Ian Fleming’s wish list to play James Bond when they were casting Dr. No. In addition to Niven, Casino Royale features such notables as Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, John Huston, William Holden, Jean Paul Belmondo, George Raft, and Ursula Andress. It was directed by a roster of well-known filmmakers, including Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, Val Guest, and, again, John Huston. But despite all the A-list talent involved in the picture, Casino Royale is an almost unwatchable mess, clearly made under the influence of all sorts of recreational pharmaceuticals. Critic Roger Ebert called it "possibly the most indulgent film ever made.” In no way did it interfere with the momentum of the official series, and, in fact, its release only stoked the James Bond mania that by then had taken such firm hold of popular culture. In a similar class with films like Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space, I think Casino Royale is a picture that every movie lover should see at least once, but I offer this caveat: It must be seen on a big screen with an audience, or else it will make little sense (not that it makes much sense anyway) and will be all the more challenging to suffer through.
Opinions on You Only Live Twice split James Bond fans and critics at the time of its release and continue to do so decades later. Many consider it an invigorating change of pace from the first four films, while others find it slow and unconvincing. I know more than one person who ranks it as their favorite of the series, but I'd put it somewhere in the middle, specifically (I am a list guy after all), at number 11 out of the first 23 films. There is a lot to like about the movie, especially Ken Adam’s sets and John Barry’s ethereal, dreamlike music, which features the first-rate title song, sung by Nancy Sinatra. But there is also much that disappoints, including Connery’s lackluster performance. After wrapping the picture, Connery stated that he was done with Bond. Though he did not ultimately stick to that resolution.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service was the first Ian Fleming novel published after the Saltzman/Broccoli series began. Fleming wrote much of the book at his Jamaican estate GoldenEye while the production company was filming Dr. No close by. After initial meetings, the creator of James Bond had been underwhelmed by both star Sean Connery and director Terence Young, but by the time they all reached Jamaica, Fleming had changed his tune, and he began to write the character with Connery in mind. In this book, Fleming gives Bond a Scottish heritage like Connery’s and makes him more human and less cold-blooded than in the previous novels. Of course, by the time the movie was made, Fleming would be dead and Connery would no longer be playing the part.
When Connery first retired from the role that made him a star, the Bond team began an international search to find the next 007. During production on You Only Live Twice, Saltzman and Broccoli hatched a plan to cast Roger Moore in an adaptation of the most recent (and final) 007 novel, The Man with the Golden Gun. But Moore went off to do another year of his TV show The Saint, and the producers abandoned TMwtGG in favor of returning to OHMSS, which would be set in the now-snowy Swiss Alps. They considered countless unknown actors from all around the globe, but Albert Broccoli eventually settled on the Australian model George Lazenby, whom he deemed suitably imposing physically.
Lazenby basically lied is way through the mammoth vetting process. Convincing each casting person he met for the role that he had lots of experience in Australian features. His cocky bravado won both producers over instantly and they never questioned his credentials. When he first met with director Peter Hunt, he confessed that he was not an actor at all and had no idea what he was getting into. Hunt was so impressed that Lazenby had pulled the wool over the eyes of Saltzman and Broccoli, two of the toughest and shrewdest men Hunt knew, the director assured him he’d be fine. According to Lazenby, Hunt said, “If you can fool them then don’t worry, you’re an actor. Keep up that confidence and leave the rest to me.”
stories circulate about the making of this movie. Several focus on Lazenby's
arrogance and prima-donna-ish behavior. Others convey how the inexperienced
leading man was overwhelmed with the responsibility of taking over the gargantuan
role, and how unhelpful Peter Hunt and the other actors were to him. Lazenby was an unknown, while his co-star
Diana Rigg was a major TV star, well-known as Emma Peel on the British spy show
The Avengers (which had also made a
star of Honor Blackman before she took on the role of Pussy Galore). Both Rigg and Lazenby have denied that they
didn’t get along and claimed that a tabloid journalist started the rumors of
their mutual dislike after witnessing them joking about eating garlic before
shooting a love scene. Whatever the case
may be, it is clear that the crew of this movie did not enjoy working with
Lazenby as much as they had with Connery.
As one backstage anecdote has it, Albert Broccoli and his wife Dana once
found Lazenby sulking by himself during a cast and crew party to which he had
not been formally invited. Lazenby, who
felt snubbed, complained, “After all, I’m the star of this film.” Broccoli
replied, “You’re not the star just because you
say you are. You’re not the star just because I say you are. You are only the star when the audience says you are.”
That audience was not kind to the new James Bond when On Her Majesty's Secret Service was released. It was successful at the box office, but nowhere near as profitable as You Only Live Twice. While reviews were mixed, most critics were unified in their dislike of Lazenby. It is commonly assumed this opprobrium is the reason that Lazenby made only one appearance as James Bond, but he had in fact decided to leave the franchise long before shooting on OHMSS wrapped. Broccoli and Saltzman had offered the actor a seven-film contract, and Peter Hunt has always maintained that he would have returned to direct Diamonds Are Forever if Lazenby had continued in the role. But Lazenby’s agent had convinced him that movies like the Bond series would not be taken seriously in the 1970s and that directors like Arthur Penn and Dennis Hopper would be “where it’s at” in the coming decade. While this might have been a canny observation on the agent’s part, leaving the series after only one badly reviewed film was a huge mistake for the actor. Lazenby did go on to have a modest career, but his reputation suffered. His name is invoked whenever an actor takes over a popular role and fails in it, like George Clooney in Batman and Robin or Paul McGann in Doctor Who.
But despite its defamed reputation, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of the most satisfying Bond movies. True, it lacks Sean Connery, but I am not of the camp that believes this film would have been perfect if it had only starred the original 007. For one thing, the James Bond of OHMSS is not the ultra-cool, unflappable killer of the earlier pictures. He is at times insecure and vulnerable, and there are points in this film where we feel afraid for him. He is also an emotional character capable of falling deeply in love and settling down with one woman, even needing to be rescued by that woman at one juncture. It is as difficult to imagine Sean Connery’s James Bond being saved by the girl as it would be to accept the idea that he could pass for a homosexual academic, as Lazenby's Bond does in this story when he goes undercover as a genealogist. Lazenby pulls off these new dimensions to 007 with aplomb.
But the real stars of On Her Majesty's Secret Service are the writer and the director. Unlike You Only Live Twice, which used almost none of Fleming’s novel, Richard Maibaum’s screenplay for this movie follows the book almost beat for beat. Maibaum, Hunt, and the producers all believed that OHMSS was the best James Bond book and should be treated accordingly. They had also taken to heart some of the criticism that the films from Goldfinger to You Only Live Twice had relied too heavily on gadgets, gimmicks, and glibness and that the stories were too fantastical to be taken seriously. This picture, they agreed, would be much more realistic and have a more relatable human character at its center.
Though the narrative and action in this film are somewhat more believable than any other Bond movie other than From Russia With Love, the picture is heavily stylized and teeming with late-'60s wackiness. But the film is not undermined by any of its eccentric period trappings. In fact, these aspects actually contribute to its strength. Peter Hunt’s direction is the most assured of any Bond picture, and it’s a shame this was the only movie in the series that he got to make. Hunt wanted all the interiors to seem like real places, rather than incredible sets. He was aiming for (and achieving) what he called “the simple, but glamorous look of the 1950s Hollywood films I grew up with.” A brilliant editor, he was able to design and shoot the action in ways that fit effortlessly with his editorial style. From the first fight scene in the pre-credit sequence, we sense that we are in for a high-energy, skillfully directed movie.
films he had edited get cropped and “panned and scanned” for television, Hunt
also worked closely with cinematographer Michael Reed to create the most dynamic
widescreen compositions for every shot, while also considering how each frame
would appear when the movie was eventually transferred to TV's 1.33:1 aspect
ratio. These considerations represented advanced
thinking on Hunt’s part; mainstream Hollywood directors didn’t start taking these
concerns into account until long after the VHS revolution in the
mid-1980s. Stepping into Hunt’s role as
the editor and second unit director on OHMSS
was John Glen, who would also make the jump to director in the ‘80s and
become the only director to do more than four Bond pictures. Glen had no trouble working with Hunt’s
rapid-fire technique. Consequently, the jump cuts, optical speed effects, and
other editorial tricks in this movie come across as intentionally exhilarating choices,
rather than as the last minute, “we’ll-fix-it-in-post” decisions they sometimes
feel like in the previous five films.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service was the first Bond picture to be mixed and released in stereo, and also John Barry’s first score to combine his signature brass-centric orchestral compositions with new electronic instruments. Claiming that only Gilbert and Sullivan could write a song with the title “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” Barry convinced Hunt and the producers to let him do an instrumental title theme, in the tradition of Dr. No and From Russia with Love. Barry used a Moog synthesizer, which gives the theme and much of the film’s music a radical new sound. Barry and lyricist Hal David did craft a hit single for the soundtrack, the love ballad “We Have All The Time in the World,” sung by an aging Louis Armstrong. The legendary singer was apparently already quite ill at the time, and he recorded the track in one take. His cracking and somewhat halting performance creates an ironic and moving counterpoint to the upbeat lyrics. This recording, so appropriate in its sound to the tragic love story at the center of this movie, was the last song Armstrong recorded before his death.
The romance is another major reason why this film is unique. Countess Tracy di Vicenzo is certainly the best-written female character in the entire series, and Diana Rigg, playing her, is second only to Ursula Andress as the most impressive Bond girl. Tracy is, after all, the one woman James Bond chooses to marry. The early part of the picture focuses almost entirely on the love story, complete with a romantic “falling in love” montage—a remarkable change of pace for this action-packed series. Tracy is a wild and troubled soul, and Bond initially enters her life in the role of protector and domesticator. Her father, an Italian gangster, offers him a fortune to marry the girl, whom he claims “needs a man to dominate her! To make love to her until she obeys!” At the time of this exchange, Bond loves his freedom far too much to consider the offer. Eventually, however, he comes to rely on Tracy and to see her as more than a conquest in need of taming. It is in these later scenes that the love story really takes hold. By the end, when they do get married, we feel the intense emotions these lovers share.
The filmmakers considered beginning On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with a scene of James Bond undergoing plastic surgery. This operation would both explain the change in actor and the fact that the evil Blofeld, whom Bond met face-to-face in the previous picture, doesn’t recognize him when he is undercover as genealogist Sir Hillary Bray in this movie. (The sequential order of the novels is reversed. Blofeld appears in only three Fleming books: Thunderball, where he and Bond never meet; On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where he meets Bond undercover; and You Only Live Twice, where they know each other well.) In the end, Hunt and the producers opted not to worry about these discontinuity issues, which were eased somewhat by the casting of Telly Savalas as Blofeld instead of Donald Pleasance. Savalas, who was known for tough guy roles in American war pictures like The Battle of the Bulge and The Dirty Dozen, was offered the part when Hunt felt that Pleasance wouldn’t be an imposing enough physical presence to sustain all that was required of the villain in this story.
Lazenby was, without question, in a challenging position, taking over the iconic role. Sometimes he comes off poorly, such as in his goofy first close up where he says, “My name is Bond, James Bond,” or the audience-winking line that concludes the pre-credit sequence. But for me, the proof that Lazenby was a success is the moment shared between him and Lois Maxwell at Bond and Tracy’s wedding. The wordless exchange between Bond and Miss Moneypenny just before 007 and his bride drive off to their new life together is quite moving, and it wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t become convinced somewhere along the line that George Lazenby was James Bond. Lazenby’s performance in the final scenes of this picture more than make up for the few awkward moments up front.
All of the casting changes, narrative inconsistencies, and stylistic shifts in this picture must certainly have been difficult for viewers to digest when the movie was released. Still, it's these aspects that make the film stand out so crisply among the other entries in the series. If On Her Majesty’s Secret Service were the first or the only James Bond picture ever made, I’m sure it would be held in much higher esteem. The film now receives much more respect from fans and critics than it did when it was released. Its ending is infinitely more meaningful than the simple, sexually flavored gags that concluded the previous movies. Hunt had originally planned for the ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to function as the pre-credit sequence for the next film, Diamonds Are Forever, but when it was clear Lazenby would only be doing one picture, the director and producers elected to conclude the movie as the novel ends, with Tracy’s death. The inclusion of this final scene makes for a more emotionally complete story and a deeper, richer film in terms of the hero’s inner life than anything yet seen in the series.
Diamonds Are Forever is the first “camp” Bond picture. While not as extreme as the Charles K. Feldman spoof, Casino Royale, it certainly represents a major shift in tone from the serious nature of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and a sharp delineation between the tongue-in-cheek fantasy of the 1960s Bond movies and the all-out nuttiness of the series in the '70s. George Lazenby had insisted he wasn’t going to do another Bond film, a decision he emphasized by showing up to the premiere of OHMSS sporting a full beard and long hair, looking more like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider than Ian Fleming’s 007. Saltzman and Broccoli again began to test new actors for the lead role, including the English actor Michael Gambon and the Americans Adam West and John Gavin. Gavin, who had appeared in several supporting roles in preeminent features like Imitation of Life, Psycho, and Spartacus, did in fact sign a contract to play 007 in this picture, but United Artists, the company that distributed the Bond films, took what was for them a rare intrusion into the development process when studio chief David Picker insisted that Sean Connery return. UA offered Connery a record-setting $1.25 million to reprise the role one last time. Connery eventually accepted, using the money to set up his charity, The Scottish International Education Trust, and sweetening the deal by securing UA's commitment to finance two non-Bond films of his choice. This huge acting fee was all the more costly because the studio had to honor John Gavin’s contract and pay him for not being in the movie.
According to screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz’s autobiography My Life as a Mankiewicz, Connery hated Harry Saltzman by this point, and a major reason he didn’t want to continue with the Bond enterprise was his belief that Saltzman cheated him out of money he was owed from the earlier movie’s profits. Apparently when Connery did sign the contract, he insisted on a clause stating, “Mr. Connery is never to see Mr. Saltzman while he’s working.” This lack of contact was feasible because, by this point, Broccoli and Saltzman were essentially trading principal producing duties back and forth on alternate pictures, and Diamonds was Broccoli’s turn.
Since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had fared less well at the box office than the other Bond films, the producers opted to return to the lighthearted tone of the much-loved Goldfinger, going so far as to sign up the director of that picture, Guy Hamilton. The desire to replicate Goldfinger’s success was so intense that the original Diamonds are Forever script used almost nothing from Fleming’s novel and instead featured a new story about Goldfinger’s twin (presumably to be played by Gert Fröbe) seeking revenge for his brother’s death. The idea was abandoned in favor of bringing back the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and giving Bond a final showdown with the super-villain. This decision reopened the legal case between Kevin McClory and the estate of the late Ian Fleming. Britain’s High Court reinforced McClory’s claim that it was he, not Fleming, who had created the character of Blofeld and the organization SPECTRE. The James Bond filmmakers had been adding these creations into their adaptations of Fleming’s novels, and McClory, who still dreamed of making his own James Bond pictures, demanded the practice stop. As a result, Diamonds are Forever would be the last time that either SPECTRE or Blofeld would be seen (or at least named) in a James Bond movie until the McClory-produced Never Say Never Again in 1983.
Broccoli was convinced that the next film needed the light touch of a young American writer. Studio head David Picker suggested Tom Mankiewicz—the son of legendary director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and nephew of the even more legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Picker had just seen the young writer's first Broadway show, a musical version of the British movie Georgy Girl, and was impressed by the play’s ability to appeal to American audiences while still retaining the “Englishness” of the source material. Broccoli offered Mankiewicz a small fee to rewrite the first fifty pages of Maibaum’s script. The young Hollywood insider voraciously took on the challenge, believing that all the small jobs he’d previously gotten in the film industry were due to his family connections, but that “no one ever hires a screenwriter because of nepotism—they only want you if you can deliver the goods.”
Mankiewicz retained a few elements of Fleming’s novel in his script, specifically the Las Vegas setting and the lead female role of Tiffany Case. However, the Tiffany Case character in the book is much less of a lightweight than she is in the movie. As scripted by Mankiewicz and played by Jill St. John, Case is a shrill, tough-talking, American broad. St. John is an exceptionally attractive and experienced actress, but with this performance she initiates the helpless, eye-candy Bond girl of the ‘70s who would replace the self-assured and sexually aggressive Bond women of the ‘60s. St. John had initially been cast in the smaller part of Plenty O’Toole, but Hamilton was so impressed with her screen tests that he gave her the starring role when the producers were unable to sign any of the big name actresses they went after.
Broccoli was a close friend of the billionaire Howard Hughes, and the producer hit upon the idea that Blofeld could easily impersonate Hughes and take control of his empire, since hardly anyone ever saw the famously reclusive tycoon anymore. Mankiewicz devised the Hughes-like character Willard White, played with southern-fried charm by country singer, TV star, and sausage magnate Jimmy Dean. Though most of Fleming’s gangster villains don’t make the transition from novel to screen, two of his creations, the gay henchmen Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, do appear in the picture. They are memorably personified by jazz bassist Putter Smith and the oddball TV actor Bruce Glover, who would go on to appear with Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and sire the even odder actor Crispin Glover. Their amusing performances as the fey killers contribute greatly to this movie's campy quality.
An odd assortment of personalities rounds out the cast of quirky characters. Lana Wood’s Plenty O’Toole would qualify as possessing the funniest Ian Fleming character name were it not a Mankiewicz invention. Wood got her start in the opening scene of John Ford’s classic western The Searchers as the younger incarnation of her sister Natalie Wood’s iconic Debbie. (The part of Plenty O’Toole is not as endearing.) Film veteran Bruce Cabot, star of the original 1933 King Kong, plays White’s right hand man Bert Saxby, and while it is great to see him back on screen, his role is forgettable. A roster of distinctive-looking, tough-guy actors appear as an assortment of Vegas gangsters. They come across more silly than intimidating.
The strangest choice of the entire production is the casting of Charles Gray as Blofeld. The fourth man to play the role (assuming you count Anthony Dawson’s hands in From Russia with Love and Thunderball), Grey is not only one of the least threatening actors to portray a Bond villain, but he had already appeared in a Bond film, as 007’s ally Henderson in You Only Live Twice. Granted, five years had elapsed between these two movies, but the James Bond pictures were being regularly re-released and seen on television by this point, and the producers certainly could have found another actor for the critical role in Diamonds are Forever. I once saw these two films on a double bill in the wrong order, with Diamonds Are Forever shown before You Only Live Twice. You can imagine the confused reaction of audience members—those unfamiliar with the series—when James Bond arrives in the Far East in You Only Live Twice and opens a door to find Charles Gray, whom they naturally assumed was the sinister Blofeld rather than MI5’s “man in Japan.” Even without this confusion, Gray’s depiction of the super villain is all wrong for a principal antagonist in a Bond picture—favoring too much pseudo-comedic lightness and forced humor. The script and director do not help matters. At one low point Gray’s Blofeld is required to dress in drag, looking not unlike Milton Berle.
While the movie has some stand-out set pieces, it has a woefully weak ending on an offshore oil rig. Both Maibaum’s and Mankiewicz’s scripts featured high-powered finales, but the filmmakers did not have the budget to attempt either of them, presumably having spent all their money on Sean Connery’s salary. The result is that Diamonds Are Forever holds the dubious distinction of being the only Bond picture with a soft climax that feels flimsy and unimpressive in all ways.
For the title song, John Barry and lyricist Don Black wrote a song so loaded with sexual innuendo that Harry Saltzman found it offensive and got into one of his many fights with Albert Broccoli about its use. Shirley Bassey, who had made “Goldfinger” such a hit, returned to sing the vocal, and Barry reportedly directed her to imagine that she was singing about a penis. Suffice to say, the James Bond series had entered the decade of the 1970s. Everyone associated with the franchise had embraced the liberated and indulgent culture that surrounded them. For the next ten years these movies would stoop to new lows of camp and misogyny as well as soar to new heights with clever plots and inventive stunts. After this film, Connery said he would “never again” play James Bond. This time, that resolution was almost true.
After the success of Diamonds Are Forever, the recalcitrant Sean Connery made it clear that he was done with James Bond, so again the question arose: Who was the right actor to assume the role’s responsibilities and risks? Since United Artists wanted a big American star to take over, the producers had considered John Gavin, to whom they had offered the previous picture, and several other Americans, including (apparently) Clint Eastwood. But Saltzman and Broccoli felt that an Englishman should play James Bond, and they had always been keen on the suave, sophisticated, and exceedingly British actor Roger Moore. Moore was already a major star in England from his television series The Saint, in which he also played a spy. Although Roger Moore is three years older than Sean Connery, in Live and Let Die he looks about twenty years younger than Connery does in Diamonds Are Forever. Moore’s easy confidence and elegance endeared him to viewers, making his first outing as 007 much more favorable with fans and critics of the day than George Lazenby’s.
Moore would play 007 in more official EON films than any other actor. The secret to his success in the part, and the reason his on-screen smarminess never sank him, was his utter lack of pretension off-screen. Moore’s self-deprecating nature was on full display from the first press conference he held after signing up for the role. When asked why he was taking on Bond, Moore replied, “When I was a young acting student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts I was in a play, and we were lucky enough to have Noel Coward in the audience. After the play was over, Noel came backstage and said to me, ‘Young man, with your devastating good looks and your disastrous lack of talent, you should take any job ever offered you. And in the unlikely occurrence that you are offered two jobs simultaneously, take the one that pays you the most money.’ And here I am. A pity Noel couldn’t be here to watch me as Bond, because when he saw me in the play I only had four expressions; now I have six.” It was hard to dislike the self-effacing Moore after that.
The choice of Live and Let Die as the next film was the suggestion of Diamonds Are Forever co-writer Tom Mankiewicz. By 1971, the Black Power movement and groups like the Black Panthers had become highly visible and influential in the US. The year of Diamonds Are Forever had also seen the release of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Gordon Parks’ Shaft—the two pictures that essentially created the blaxploitation genre aimed at the lucrative African American movie-going demographic. Mankiewicz pointed out that Ian Fleming’s second novel featured a predominantly black cast of characters and that it would be an invigorating change of pace to set a James Bond movie in an urban American milieu. Mankiewicz had visions of Diana Ross as the novel’s principal Bond Girl, Solitaire. But United Artists head David Picker wanted him to stick with the character as written in the book, so lily-white Jane Seymour was given the role. Picker’s concern was primarily a financial one. An interracial love story would hurt the film’s box office in several key markets, notably Japan, South Africa, and the southern United States. But he was also looking out for his new Bond. Ross was a superstar who had just successfully crossed over into movies playing Jazz legend Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. Since it was assumed she would sing the title song as well as play the female lead, Picker feared she would upstage the novice 007 on his first time out.
Mankiewicz wrote Solitaire as a white woman, but made the secondary Bond girl, Rosie Carver, an African American. He didn’t follow much of Fleming’s storyline, dropping the Russian espionage aspect of the novel in favor of a more contemporary narrative about heroin distribution in Harlem. Live and Let Die takes place in New York, New Orleans, and a fictional Caribbean island, much like the Jamaica of the novel. One of the movie’s most interesting aspects is how it plays like a mash-up of the extravagant James Bond spy thriller and the more modestly budgeted but equally over-the-top blaxploitation genre.
Fleming’s novel had been released in 1954, the year public schools all across America had been forced to integrate and just prior to Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycotts. The book captures some of the white paranoia of the time, as well as the English fascination with how black culture was supposedly organized. It is indeed fascinating to read Fleming’s fanciful depiction of an intricate network of African American operatives who lurk in the shadows of streets, hotels, bars, and railroad cars. The movie, which was made at a different point in American race relations, doesn’t delve into the mysteries of this network or the phenomenon of 1950s white racism and its specific fears about well-organized black men. It is much more comedic and playful, with its depiction of zoot-suited hitmen who call Bond a “honky” and a “cue ball.”
The best thing Mankiewicz does in his screenplay is to expand the role of the novel’s villain, Mr. Big, into the dual role of a Harlem drug kingpin and a Caribbean island diplomat. For this villain, the producers cast the great Yaphet Kotto, fresh off of his leading role in the blaxploitation classic, Across 110th Street. Kotto—who would go on to star in such films as Paul Shrader’s Blue Collar, Ridley Scott’s Alien, and Martin Brest’s Midnight Run—is an terrific Bond villain. In many ways he is a black, American 007—just as suave and sophisticated in his diplomat persona of Dr. Kananga, and equally ruthless and deadly when he is Mr. Big. You can sense the pleasure Kotto takes in playing up this comparison. Surrounding Kotto are a number of notable black character actors in henchmen roles including, Julius Harris (Nothing But a Man, Super Fly, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), Earl Jolly Brown (Black Belt Jones, Truck Turner), and the tall, bald, exotic Trinidadian actor, director, singer, dancer, choreographer, costume designer, painter, and Un-Cola pitchman, Geoffrey Holder. Holder also appears as the voodoo high priest Baron Samedi, to whom he lends his one-of-a-kind laugh.
Voodoo plays a much larger role in the movie than in Fleming’s novel, and we get to see several private rituals, as well as ceremonies that are enacted as stage shows for tourists. The pseudo-traditional spiritual elements woven into these genuinely creepy and unsettling sequences keep the film from feeling too dated. Mankiewicz expanded the part of Solitaire for Jane Seymour, but the role and her performance are far from exceptional. Solitaire isn’t an embarrassing Bond Girl, but she isn’t an enthralling one either, apart from the amusing conceit that she is a fortune-telling mystic whose psychic powers are linked to her virginity. Gloria Hendry's Rosie Carver makes a somewhat bigger impression because she is the first black Bond girl, and the film features an interracial sex scene—or at least a kissing scene—between her and 007.
David Hedison plays Felix Lieter as the type of tough-talking, white cop seen in countless movies and TV shows of the era, and it’s fun to watch him deliver lines like, “Get me a make on the white pimpmobile!” Hedison would reprise the role of Lieter sixteen years later in the Timothy Dalton film, Licence to Kill, making him the first actor to portray this role more than once.
Guy Hamilton, director of Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever, returns for this picture which falls somewhere between those two movies in terms of quality. Thankfully it is not as campy as Diamonds, despite its many blaxploitation tropes and clichés, but it’s no Goldfinger. Hamilton and Mankiewicz wisely tailor the character of James Bond to fit Roger Moore, rather than trying to alter Moore into a Connery clone. As a result, the film has a distinctly lighthearted touch. Moore plays 007 as more of a wisecracking gent than a cool killer. A few concessions were made to help the transition from one James Bond to another. After a pre-credit sequence in which Bond does not appear, the picture begins with M and Miss Moneypenny paying a late night call on 007 at his home to give him his mission. This opening allows Live and Let Die to bypass the usual scene in M’s office, and to omit Bond’s expected interaction with the character of Q, who, here in this film, is only referred to.
Mankiewicz wanted to make sure that the movie’s black characters were not just an offensive collection of stereotypical villains and buffoons—and inversely to make sure that some white actors took on these roles. He concocted Sheriff J.W. Pepper—a fat, racist Southern sheriff personified by Clifton James. This extreme caricature, not exactly a villain but definitely a buffoon, provides comic relief that, amazingly, went over as well with white Southern audiences as it did with blacks and non-American moviegoers. J.W. Pepper was such a hit that he was brought back in the next Bond film, and a virtual carbon-copy was played by Jackie Gleason in the popular Smokey and the Bandit series that began in 1977. However, the broad, farcical nature of Pepper is out of place in the James Bond milieu, and he hasn’t helped the movie age well.
The overtly comic aspects and a fairly weak climax make Live and Let Die a mixed bag—it comes in
around number sixteen on my ranking of the first twenty-three Bond pictures. It does include some well-orchestrated action
sequences and quirky use of locations.
It’s also, as Vincent Canby pointed out in his New York Times review, "no small accomplishment that a movie in
which all the heroes are white and all the villains are black could be such a
universal hit in 1973". Perhaps the best
part of the film is its music. This was
the first Bond picture for which John Barry was not available. Broccoli and
Saltzman hired Paul McCartney to write the title song and the Beatles producer
George Martin to compose the score. The
song “Live and Let Die” by Paul and Linda McCartney, is outstanding and, as arranged
by Martin and performed by McCartney’s band Wings, incorporates all the themes,
rhythms, and leitmotifs required for the entire soundtrack. Live
and Let Die is the first Bond film to have a rock and roll song as its
opener. It set the encouraging trend from this point on that whenever new composers
were brought in to work on the series, they nearly always took bold risks that
paid off handsomely—like Marvin Hamlisch’s score for The Spy Who Loved Me and Bill Conti’s for For Your Eyes Only.
Astoundingly, Harry Saltzman didn’t want to use the Paul McCartney and Wings version of the song, and a battle between the producers erupted. Saltzman felt that the title song needed to be sung by a black female singer like Shirley Bassey. George Martin wrote him a rather derisive and sarcastic note saying, “If you want the song you have to use Paul.” Saltzman acquiesced but insisted that a black female nightclub singer deliver the song in the body of the film, when Bond is at a club in Harlem. The recurring arguments between the two producing partners were coming to a head, and next James Bond picture would be the last time they would work together.
The Man with the Golden Gun was the last full-length novel written by Ian Fleming, and it is almost universally considered his weakest book. The film version, though it doesn’t retain much of the novel, reflects little improvement. While this movie is nowhere near as bad as its reputation, it’s not as good as Live and Let Die—itself not exactly a highpoint in the series. One major thing TMwtGG has going for it is Christopher Lee, who takes on the title character Francisco Scaramanga. Best known for playing Count Dracula and other great villains in a slew of low-budget horror pictures for Hammer studios, Christopher Lee is an ideal choice. Scaramanga is a kind of villainous counterpoint to 007—a man with similar marksmanship and sexual prowess, but someone who kills for the price of one million dollars a hit, rather than in the honorable service of his Queen and Country.
Cast in the female leads are two Swedish models, Britt Ekland and Maud Adams. Ekland, who dreamed of being a Bond girl ever since she first saw Dr. No, had co-starred with Christopher Lee in the previous year’s cult favorite The Wicker Man. She plays Bond’s assistant and lover, Mary Goodnight—and her performance is as uninspired as her character’s name. Maud Adams is a bit better in the smaller role of Scaramanga’s imprisoned lover, Andrea Anders
Director Guy Hamilton returned for what would be his last entry in the series. He and Tom Mankiewicz were not getting along by this point, so he brought Richard Maibaum back to rewrite Mankiewicz’s script. The novel is set in Jamaica, like so many of Fleming’s books, but for the movie, the filmmakers planned to shape the story to fit a new location, somewhere the James Bond company hadn’t yet been to. Thailand and Hong Kong were chosen as the settings, capitalizing on the current martial arts mania that had hit cinemas, in much the same way the preceding picture had hooked into the blaxploitation craze. The mostly original plot, which concerned the quest for solar power, made the film especially timely as the Western world was grappling with a serious energy crisis at that point.
The movie features some dreadfully implausible sequences and some abysmal dialogue. It also unwisely brings back Clifton James’ comically oafish southern sheriff, J. W. Pepper. How we’re supposed to buy into the notion that this racist Louisiana policeman would take his wife on a vacation to Thailand, where he just happens to bump into James Bond again, is beyond me. But that audiences are expected to believe that Pepper would test drive a car while on vacation in Asia, and that James Bond would happen to jump into that car while running from bad guys, is a bridge too far. These contrived plot points require such a leap beyond the healthy suspension of disbelief always required when watching these films that they are simply embarrassing. The J.W. Pepper sequence is capped with an amazing car stunt in which Bond and the sheriff flip their car 180 degrees while jumping over a river via a broken bridge. But even this impressive feet is undercut by John Barry’s use of a comical solo slide whistle as it’s only underscore—a music cue the composer deeply regretted in hindsight.
The Man with the Golden Gun represents what may be the most uninspired soundtrack in John Barry’s career, and it showcases the single worst title song in the Bond series until Madonna’s "Die Another Day" in 2002. Also, as with Live and Let Die, Guy Hamilton chose to shoot the film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, making both the first and second of Roger Moore’s entries in the series feel more like modest-budget entertainments than epic adventures. Moore is quite boorish in this picture and not as much fun as he is in Live and Let Die. He seems unable to play either breezy and charming in his scenes with Ekland, nor cold and ruthless, as he is required to be with Maud Adams.
But while many consider this film to be the lowest of the low, I think it is still superior to most of the Pierce Brosnan pictures. In addition to Christopher Lee’s performance, there is a lot to like in this movie. The sequences on Scaramanga’s island—where he lures his enemies for deadly cat-and-mouse showdowns—are beautifully photographed, and the wacky funhouse that Scaramanga forces his rivals to go through while they are hunting him is a neat, though ridiculous, concept. The 3-feet and 11-inch French actor Hervé Villechaize plays Scaramanga’s henchman Nick Nack in a memorable supporting turn. Villechaize’s performance in The Man with the Golden Gun led television producer Aaron Spelling to create the iconic role of Tattoo for him on the hit show Fantasy Island.
One of the best concepts in the film is the use of the half-sunk RMS Queen Elizabeth as a base for MI5. Albert Broccoli apparently hit upon the idea during a scouting trip where he saw the giant cruise ship beached on its side in a Hong Kong harbor and realized it would make an incredible hidden base of operations. The slanted interior sets of the ship are so inspired and the scenes inside them so clever that, all on their own, they make this movie worth seeing.
The Man with the Golden Gun would be the last Bond movie to involve co-producer Harry Saltzman, whose other financial ventures had not panned out as well as those of Albert R. Broccoli. The two men had not seen eye-to-eye for a long time, and when Saltzman needed money, he elected to get out of the Bond business. He sold his half of their holding company to United Artists. This sale would leave Broccoli in sole creative control of the series for the next picture, and he planned to go all out. While the following film, The Spy Who Loved Me, is not a great movie, it is a major improvement over The Man with the Golden Gun.
The tenth entry into the James Bond cannon rescued the series from the downward slide it had been on and secured a bright future for the franchise. The film would become Albert R. Broccoli’s favorite, most likely because it was the first one he had total artistic control over. However, it was an uphill climb to get the movie made, causing the longest delay between pictures in the series up to that point. The novel The Spy Who Loved Me is totally different from all of Fleming’s other James Bond books. Ostensibly written in the first person by a young, sexually liberated Canadian woman named Vivienne Michel, the book is split into three sections, each recounting her various escapades. James Bond, the spy with whom she has an affair, does not appear until the final third of the novel and is really a supporting player in this woman’s story. Critics were not kind to Fleming when the book was published and as a consequence he was embarrassed by it. His deal with EON Productions was that they could use the title of this novel but none of its actual content. His credit on the movie would simply read, “Based on James Bond by Ian Fleming,” a credit that would become commonplace in the ‘80s when the films began to use barely more than the titles of Fleming’s short stories.
Consequently, The Spy Who Loved Me is the first James Bond picture to have an entirely original story, and generating a satisfactory screenplay took a long time. More than twelve writers were brought on to have a go, including A Clockwork Orange scribe Anthony Burgess and future American comedy director John Landis. Eventually Richard Maibaum was brought in to try and pull portions from all fifteen of the various commissioned scripts into one cohesive draft. However, at that stage all the proposed scripts were about SPECTRE and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and Kevin McClory once again filed an injunction against the production. By that time Guy Hamilton pulled out as director after being offered the job of making Superman for producer Alexander Salkind (an assignment that eventually went to Richard Donner, with Tom Mankiewicz penning the final screenplay). Lewis Gilbert, the director of You Only Live Twice, signed on and brought with him screenwriter Christopher Wood. Wood rewrote Maibaum’s script, removing all references to Blofeld and SPECTRE, and created a new arch villain in the form of Karl Stromberg, played by the German star of The Enemy Below and The Longest Day, Curd Jürgens.
The script for the movie (the last draft of which unofficially went through Mankiewicz’s typewriter) is a blend of almost every element that had worked from every previous James Bond picture. However, this time there is only one principal female, and she is Bond’s equivalent in the KGB. Wood makes the best use of the title The Spy Who Loved Me with his inspired pairing of 007 and a beautiful and resourceful Soviet agent who uses her sexuality in the service of Mother Russia in much the same way Bond uses his for Queen and Country. In the film, the British and Russians must team up in order to foil the sinister Stromberg’s fantastic scheme to destroy the world and establish a new society underwater.
In deciding who would play the opposite-gender counterpoint to James Bond, Broccoli first went after Lois Chiles, a featured actor in Sydney Pollack's The Way We Were. However Chiles had been so stung by critical reviews of her performance that she had temporarily retired from movies so that she could study acting. (She did star in the next Bond film, Moonraker, and I don’t think those acting lessons did her much good.) Catherine Deneuve expressed interest in doing a Bond picture but asked for more money than Broccoli was willing to pay, which seems extremely unfortunate. Easily able to go head to head with any actor playing 007, Deneuve would have been amazing as James Bond’s feminine equal.
Barbara Bach had auditioned for a small part in the movie and was shocked when she was offered the female lead just four days before principal photography began. Bach, the future Mrs. Ringo Starr, is quite unconventionally attractive, and her distinctive beauty goes a long way in making up for her less than stellar acting chops. She makes a decent pairing with Roger Moore, who is more bearable in this film than in The Man With The Golden Gun, although his growing stiffness and arrogant conception of 007 are off-putting. The movie also introduces the characters of KGB General Gogol (Walter Gotell), the British Minister of Defense Fredrick Gray (Geoffrey Keen), and Admiral Hargreaves (Robert Brown). All of these roles, and the actors who portray them, would continue on in the series through the end of the 1980s.
The Spy Who Loved Me sends 007 and Russian agent Triple X all around the globe, to Egypt, Malta, Scotland, Okinawa, Switzerland, and Canada. This decadent use of multiple far-flung locations would set a new standard for subsequent James Bond films, as would the jaw-dropping stunt at the climax of the picture’s pre-credit sequence. After the amusing introduction of Barbara Bach, who plays Triple X—or Anya Amasova as she’s called once Bond gets to know her—the movie launches into a rousing ski chase that ends with 007 skiing right off the face of a cliff and seeming to fall to his death, until we realize he has been wearing a parachute the whole time. Like all the stunts in the first eighteen Bond films, this breathtaking feat, in which Bond freefalls for several seconds before kicking off his skis and opening his chute, was done “for real,” long before the advent of digital technology. The daring nature of this cinematic achievement, combined with its humorous use of a Union Jack parachute that unfurls to the instantly recognizable notes of “the James Bond Theme,” make this opener a highlight of the series. From this point on, all of the pre-credit sequences and stunts in the Bond films would be measured against this one.
The opening sequence also introduces the Bond audience to a totally different kind of musical score. As John Barry was not available, Broccoli engaged Marvin Hamlisch, who had written the Oscar winning title song for The Way We Were. Hamlisch was the first American to compose the music for a Bond picture, and his disco-pop, synthesizer-driven grooves announced that The Spy Who Loved Me would not be the same James Bond movie that viewers were starting to tire of. The timely score is the best example of the Bond music during this decade, and the title song, an exhilarating ‘70s power ballad that Hamlisch wrote with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, became a huge hit for singer Carly Simon. This title song, “Nobody Does it Better,” was the first in the series to not share the same title as the film—though Bayer Sager adroitly worked the phrase into the lyrics. It was also the first Bond song to be nominated for an Oscar. Along with “Goldfinger” and “Live and Let Die,” it is the only song still frequently performed and covered to this day.
Everything was done bigger and better in this movie. Production designer Ken Adam was given one million dollars for the interior set of Stromberg's supertanker, which had to hold two full-sized submarines. This single set was so enormous it required the construction of an entirely new soundstage at Pinewood Studios. With its 1.2 million gallon water tank, it would become the largest soundstage in the world—so big and cavernous that cinematographer Claude Renoir (nephew of the great director Jean Renoir) did not know how to light it. Ken Adam convinced his old friend, the legendary and reclusive director Stanley Kubrick to come in and devise a lighting scheme for the monstrous set, which he apparently did under the condition of complete secrecy.
In the end, Albert R. Broccoli had invested $13 million into this one movie, a huge gamble considering the disappointing box-office of the previous picture, but the risk paid off in spades. The Spy Who Loved Me became a monster hit and secured the future of the Bond films for more than another decade.
The hugely successful The Spy Who Loved Me ends with a title card reading “James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only,” but another film came out in 1977 that would change not only the producer’s intentions but all of mainstream cinema itself. George Lucas’s Star Wars reached a level of box-office success unequalled by any other movie in history, and before long, all of the studios were jumping on the sci-fi bandwagon. After the triumph of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1978, Albert R. Broccoli was determined not to miss out on the public's space fascination. Even though James Bond does not even board an airplane in Fleming's third novel, Moonraker, the savvy producer resolved that the next Bond picture would use this sci-fi sounding title. The rush was on to develop a new story that would take 007 into outer space.
Tom Mankiewicz wrote a screenplay that never gained much traction, although many of his ideas were used in later Bond movies. Eventually Christopher Wood returned to pen a script using nothing of Fleming’s novel except for the name of the main villain, Hugo Drax. Wood’s plot is so close to the one he devised for The Spy Who Loved Me that it’s hard to call this an original story. Drax's plan to destroy the world is virtually identical to that of Karl Stromberg’s in The Spy Who Loved Me, except while Stromberg dreamed of a post-apocalyptic civilization under the sea, Drax intends to rebuild in space. Wood wrote and published a novelization of Moonraker, as he had done with The Spy Who Loved Me, and both books sold alongside Fleming’s originals.
The movie was filmed primarily in France and stars the revered French actor Michael Lonsdale as Drax. Lonsdale was best known to American audiences of the time from The Day of the Jackal, Fred Zinneman's 1973 espionage picture. While I'm an admirer of Lonsdale, his Drax is one of the most effete and passive villains in the entire series. As Dr. Holly Goodhead (the Flemingesque names were becoming less and less subtle), Lois Chiles is one of the most forgettable Bond girls. Richard Kiel, reprising his role from The Spy Who Loved Me as the giant henchman Jaws, is a welcome return, but the character is played even more for laughs in this campy picture.
Vindicated after the big payoff of The Spy Who Loved Me, Broccoli believed Moonraker would be an even bigger hit. He squired the Bond company to many expensive locations, among them London, Paris, Venice, Port St. Lucie, and Rio de Janeiro, and wound up spending a whopping $34 million on the film: twice the budget of TSWLM, and almost triple the final cost of Star Wars! It was a risky but ultimately smart gamble, as the movie became the (unadjusted) highest-grossing Bond picture of all time until 1995's GoldenEye, the first Pierce Brosnan film. But in order to pay for his extravagant productions, Broccoli had by now become so reliant on product placement in his films that watching Moonraker is a little like looking out a windshield while driving down an American highway; it can be hard to enjoy a journey when your view is littered with billboards and advertisements. Bond is also more off-putting here than in any other film in the series. Roger Moore's 007 treats every woman he sees as a sexual object, smugly assuming that they all want to sleep with him the minute they meet him.
On the upside, the movie, as usual, features some spectacular action sequences and stunts. Second unit director John Glen goes all out with his thrilling set pieces, including an opening in which Bond and Jaws jump out of a plane without parachutes and exchange blows while freefalling through the sky. Even though it is not hard to tell that the stuntmen have small chutes under their costumes, it is still exhilarating to see the stunts clearly executed “for real” in mid-air.
The film becomes truly “far out" when it finally launches itself into space in the third act. Many fans and critics think the zero-gravity fight scenes that follow are slow and absurd, but I find this third act thoroughly entertaining. Ken Adam’s space station set is as otherworldly as one would expect from the great designer, and no one can compose space music like John Barry. (In fact, considering the themes in Moonraker, the space sequences in You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever, the Walt Disney movie The Black Hole, and the sci-fi music in Midnight Cowboy that plays while Bob Balaban performs oral sex on Jon Voight in a 42nd Street theater, I consider Barry to be the unrivaled master of writing original music that evokes the weird, airless, zero-gravity vibe of outer space.)
Broccoli approached Kate Bush, Frank Sinatra, and Johnny Mathis to sing a title song, but nothing came together until the last minute, when Shirley Bassey was hired for her third and last James Bond theme song. The “Moonraker” song is slow and melancholy, considering the sensational action movie it is supposed to be setting up, but the disco version that closes the film is undeniably catchy. It was with this picture that John Barry transitioned from his brass-focused jazz roots into the lush orchestral sound that would dominate the Oscar-winning output of the second half of his career, in films like Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves.
Moonraker would be the third and final Bond picture directed by Lewis Gilbert and the last in which Roger Moore would play 007 as a repellant, sexist cad. Despite the unprecedented financial success of Moonraker, Albert Broccoli wisely decided to bring James Bond back to Earth (literally and figuratively) in the next film, and for the decade to come. With Moonraker, the 1970s Bond era came to a welcome close. As amusing as the dated excess of these movies can be at times, the 1980s would usher in a much higher caliber of James Bond pictures.
Although For Your Eyes Only differs significantly in style and tone from its four predecessors, it fits comfortably in the same family of films. The adroit tweaks to the familiar formula could be described as a refreshing of the series rather than a rebooting. Albert R. Broccoli rightly concluded that Moonraker, though highly profitable, had pushed the franchise as far as it could go in the direction of outlandish, high-concept entertainment. If the series was to remain viable, he needed to rein in the next production, not try to outdo the last one's extremes. John Glen, who had served as editor and second unit director on previous pictures, was promoted to director on For Your Eyes Only, a position he would hold for a total of five Bond films (more than any other director.) Except for the spectacular comedic misfires that Glen regrettably included about once per movie, his restrained approach and eye for detail would serve the property well for the next decade.
To write the script, Broccoli went back to Richard Maibaum, the series’ most venerable scribe, who would end up co-authoring all the Bond screenplays of the '80s, along with Broccoli's stepson Michael G. Wilson. Wilson grew up doing various jobs on all the Bond pictures since Goldfinger, and Maibaum had encouraged him from an early age to pursue screenwriting. The collaborators, in conjunction with Broccoli, Glen, the actors, and the stunt designers, made the ‘80s Bond movies closer in tone and scope to the original Ian Fleming novels and the initial Sean Connery pictures. They mostly opted for small-scale, Cold War-inspired adventure stories, rather than epic tales of evil geniuses trying to destroy the world. Roger Moore wavered as to whether or not he would return for a fifth outing. But no matter who wound up in the role, the writers planned to craft the next Bond incarnation as more measured, and less glib than he had been during the films of the prior decade.
The plot incorporates elements from many of Fleming's works, including two of the short stories in his collection For Your Eyes Only. The female lead comes from the title story, about a young woman seeking revenge for her murdered parents. The main villain and Bond’s sidekick come from the story “Risico.” Supplemental sequences and ideas were taken from the books Live and Let Die, Goldfinger, and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The dominant storyline, which concerns Bond’s mission to recover a decoding machine before it falls into Russian hands, is similar to the plot of From Russia With Love. For Your Eyes Only is also reminiscent of FRWL and OHMSS in its more serious tone, though it retains some of the light humor from the previous Roger Moore pictures.
The movie opens with Bond visiting the grave of his wife Theresa, a nod to the character’s history and a reminder of the more serious aspects of the original films. The opening seems like it could have started out as an attempt to forge a link between a new actor and the James Bond of the 1960s, but it works just as well at establishing a more earnest and mature Roger Moore in the role. The pre-credit sequence appears to feature 007’s nemesis Blofeld, or, at least, a bald man dressed like Donald Pleasance and sounding like Telly Savalas, stroking the SPECTRE mastermind’s signature white cat. Of course, after the Kevin McClory legal case, the actual appearance of Blofeld in a new Bond picture would have been out of the question, and the disrespectful treatment the bald villain suffers in this teaser could be interpreted as a middle finger from Broccoli to McClory. This opening sequence, with its somber, graveside moment followed by a tongue-in-cheek remote control helicopter fight between Bond and the Blofeld doppelganger, makes for a seamless blending of the styles of the '70s and the '80s. Bond is still played by Roger Moore, and there are still some silly jokes, but the analogy between this Bond film and the original run of pictures is clear, and the rest of For Your Eyes Only is every bit as entertaining as this sequence without indulging in the opener’s level of goofy humor.
In the roles of competing smugglers, Kristatos and Columbo, Julian Glover (The Empire Strikes Back) and Topol (Fiddler on the Roof) provide a refreshing change from the cardboard characters found in Moonraker and The Spy Who Loved Me. The sequences with Bond and Columbo allow us to experience the escapist fantasy of being a secret agent without glossing over the risk and danger inherent in the job. Glen manages to bring out a more ruthless side of Moore's 007, as in the incident in which Bond kicks a car over the edge of a cliff—along with the assassin inside it. Moore, famously, balked at shooting this scene, but it winds up being one of the picture's best moments, presenting us with a more sober and deadly James Bond than we have come to expect.
Moore, however, did get his way in terms of how the film’s sex and romance was handled. He was fifty-four when he made For Your Eyes Only, and beginning to feel uncomfortable when called upon to passionately kiss actresses who were twenty-five years his junior. His reluctance to play James Bond as an aging lothario is one of the main reasons why the Bond movies of the ‘80s are so much less misogynistic than their forerunners. Many fans and critics object to Lynn Holly Johnson, the former Olympic figure skater and star of the 1978 romantic ice-skating drama Ice Castles, in the role of the secondary Bond girl Bibi Dahl. But by casting the shrill, grating Johnson as a frivolous and immature figure skater desperate to bed 007, the filmmakers can show that Bond has grown more discriminating as he has grown more distinguished. When a ditzy young thing like Bibi Dahl throws herself at him, he pushes her back in the most gentlemanly way possible.
In the principal role of the vengeful Greek beauty Melina Havelock, Broccoli settled on Carole Bouquet, a French model who had acted in Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. With her long black hair and catwalk gracefulness, Bouquet is one of the most striking actresses ever to play a Bond girl, and Havelock is unique among the female characters in the series. For one thing, she is single-mindedly focused on avenging her murdered parents—seeming to have neither a sense of humor nor any romantic interest in Bond. Indeed, it takes her the entire movie to warm to him, and they never sleep together, although the picture ends with a romantic sequence implying that they will. Their moonlight swim at the conclusion comes across as far less adolescent than the wrap-ups of Moonraker and The Spy Who Loved Me, even though it is essentially the same comical situation, just skewed slightly in a more mature direction. The ending once again illustrates the smooth transition from the ‘70s films to the ‘80s, and Moore’s segue from the excessive, campy, misogynist Bond to a more classy and urbane incarnation. Yet it's still an undeniably funny ending, with a cameo from Margaret Thatcher impersonator Janet Brown.
Closing the picture with a naked nighttime swim also makes
the usual underwater imagery of Maurice Binder’s opening titles all the more
cogent. For Your Eyes Only’s title sequence further stands out as the first
and only occurrence of the title-song singer appearing in a Bond film’s credits.
Scottish pop star Sheena Easton looks like a Bond girl, which inspired Binder
to photograph her singing the song in his title sequence. (Binder's foresight is notable: 1981 also
happened to be the year that MTV was born, and music videos featuring pop
singers lip-synching into camera were about to revolutionize the music
industry.) Bill Conti, who composed the
Oscar-winning theme for Rocky, scored
the film, and his title song evokes the experience of being underwater, appropriate
for the movie’s numerous aquatic scenes and the visuals of the credit
Conti, like George Martin and Marvin Hamlisch before him, delivers a conspicuous soundtrack that makes no pretense in trying to sound like John Barry. Whereas Barry's scores are timeless, Conti, like his predecessors, fashions a soundtrack very much in tune with the pop music fads of the decade, while still nodding to precedent by incorporating many of Barry's compositions, leitmotifs, and instrumentations. Conti’s music is infused with funk and disco, which could have sabotaged the film's attempts to recall the tone and conventions of earlier entries in the series. But like Barry’s own use of the Moog synthesizer in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the distinctive disco-pop orchestrations of Barry’s themes make the picture feel fresh and modern yet still identifiable and traditional.
This quality, in which the classic tropes of the Bond movies appear in recognizable but divergent forms, persists throughout the entire picture. For example, For Your Eyes Only prominently features a ski and bobsled chase. While the action doesn't top the iconic wintry episodes of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the particulars of this central set piece are so distinct from those of the earlier film that you barely think of it. Likewise, the first act’s car chase dispenses with Bond’s gadget-equipped Lotus and forces the action hero to make an escape in the heroine’s tiny Citroën. This comical and well-staged pursuit demonstrates that the Bond of this movie relies on his wits and strength rather than on high-tech gizmos and special equipment. Similarly, the climax is a change of pace from the typical Bond ending. Instead of an army of good guys and bad guys in jumpsuits and uniforms attacking, defending, and destroying an impregnable fortress, we're treated to a hushed and suspenseful mountain-climbing showdown, with a couple dozen armed guards squaring off against Bond’s small group of five men (“and one woman,” as the capable Havelock rightly points out.)
For Your Eyes Only is the first Bond picture not to include an appearance by Bernard Lee, who died of cancer before he could shoot the scenes in M’s office. Not wanting to replace him, the filmmakers rewrote the script so that James Bond receives his orders from the MI5 Chief of Staff (James Villiers) and the Minister of Defense (Geoffrey Keen). Once again, this change results in the film coming across as both reassuringly familiar and excitingly novel at the same time. It is a quality that makes For Your Eyes Only my favorite James Bond movie of the Roger Moore era.
After For Your Eyes Only, Roger Moore announced that he was done playing 007, so yet another search for a new James Bond began. Albert R. Broccoli approached two prospects: Timothy Dalton, an Englishman, who turned down the role for at least the second time, and James Brolin, an American, who jumped at the chance. Brolin, the star of Westworld and The Amityville Horror, impressed Broccoli through several screen tests. Brolin would have become the first American in the role were it not for a rival James Bond picture that was simultaneously going into production and intended for a concurrent summer 1983 release. That competitor was Never Say Never Again, produced by a team that included Kevin McClory, the co-writer and rights-holder of Thunderball, and starring Sean Connery, the original James Bond. Broccoli had no intention of putting an untried actor up against the man who was still, in most people's minds, the definitive 007, so he went back to Roger Moore, offering him a huge salary to take up the role one last time. Moore understood Broccoli’s predicament, and he signed on for a box-office match-up between the two most famous Bonds.
Pre-production had begun on the new film before the title card stating that James Bond would return in Octopussy came up on screen at the end of the For Your Eyes Only premiere. Octopussy required an entirely original script, as Bond is only a minor character in the Fleming short story from which the movie takes its title. Broccoli turned to George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman novels, who had just cut his screenwriting teeth on Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers pictures. Fraser suggested setting the new film in India, a country he knew well, as it had never before appeared in a Bond picture. Fraser’s story, co-authored by Bond scribes Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum, incorporates elements from another Fleming short story, “Property of a Lady,” as well as various unused sequences from discarded Bond scripts. The resulting screenplay intricately intertwines the numerous villains and narratives of the various source materials, luring the audience into believing that each intriguing subplot is actually the main one, although the full extent of the connections between the various stories does not become apparent until well into the second half of the picture.
When Roger Moore, now fifty-six, signed on to return as Bond, the filmmakers rethought their initial plans for the title role. They withdrew their offer to the Austrian bombshell Sybil Danning, who was not yet thirty at the time, in favor of pairing Moore with a more age-appropriate leading lady. Broccoli wanted to cast an Indian actress, but could not find anyone he was happy with, and as the start date drew closer, he decided to cast someone who had already appeared in the series as a different character. Maud Adams' secondary role in The Man with the Golden Gun was one of the finer points of that film, and she had remained on the producer's radar since then, performing in screen tests with the various candidates for Moore's replacement. Broccoli, Wilson, and Glen all liked Adams, and they felt enough time had passed since her last role for her to appear again.
The decision proved sound. Recasting Adams works much better than other instances of actors like Charles Grey and Joe Don Baker who played more than one role in the series. Adams's glamorous Bond girl is more in line with Carole Bouquet’s Melina Havelock character from the previous film than with the vacuous beauties of the other Moore pictures, and Adams is a more dynamic screen presence than Bouquet. Notwithstanding the screenwriters' astute borrowing from Fleming's short story to provide for her an intriguing background, Octopussy herself is underdeveloped, behaving in ways that seem too naive for the cultured and sophisticated businesswoman she is meant to be. But whereas a scantily clad young starlet would have been embarrassing in a part this underwritten, Adams redeems the role with a maturity and grace that bring credibility to a woman with a name as ribald as Octopussy.
Bond also tangles with a femme fatal named Magda, played by the striking Kristina Wayborn. Like Adams, Wayborn is a Swedish model, and her unusual features make her stand out among the typical Bond beauties. Many characters say the word “Octopussy” over the course of the movie, but Magda's utterance while lying in bed with Bond is the most momentous.
The villains in Octopussy all acquit themselves marvelously. Charming French actor Louis Jourdan (The Paradine Case, Gigi, Three Coins in a Fountain) plays Kamal Khan, an Afghan prince and black market jewelry dealer. He's just the sort of elegant, sophisticated criminal we like to see Bond go up against. Kabir Bedi memorably personifies Kahn’s Indian bodyguard, a silent, Oddjob-like henchman named Gobinda. The twin Russian circus performers, assassins Mischka and Grischka, played by David and Anthony Meyer, are appropriately Flemingesque in their colorful lethality. But the true standout is Steven Berkoff as General Orlov, a power-mad Soviet general who rejects the thawing of the Cold War and believes instead that the Soviet Union should expand its reach. Whereas Khan is cool and collected, Orlov is a raving, bug-eyed madman. The contrast could have been jarring, but the construction of the film is so elaborate and diverse there is room for both extremes. The arguments between the renegade Orlov and Walter Gotell's General Gogol (who by now has become a kind of Gorbachev figure) entertainingly capture many Westerners' worst fears about the potential debates going on within 1980s Russia.
Robert Brown takes over the role of M, and Geoffrey Keen returns as the Minister of Defense. To have Bond briefed by both of these older gentlemen is a wise choice, as fans of the movies would have had a hard time accepting any one actor as a replacement for the late Bernard Lee. This picture also contains the unexpected addition of an assistant to Miss Moneypenny. Before we are officially introduced to Michaela Clavell as Penelope Smallbone, there's a brief moment of concern that the venerable Lois Maxwell has been replaced with a younger actress. Fortunately Maxwell reassuringly pops up, and we are treated to one of the better Bond/Moneypenny exchanges of the Roger Moore era. This new character of the assistant might have been an attempt to ease the aging Maxwell out of the franchise, but thankfully neither Clavell nor Smallbone ever appeared again, and Maxwell would not retire from playing Miss Moneypenny until Moore ended his tenure as Bond. The young Indian tennis star, Vijay Amritraj, plays Bond’s disposable helper. After Lynn-Holly Johnson's nails-on-a-chalkboard turn in For Your Eyes Only, the filmmakers might well have been reluctant to cast another young athlete in a major supporting role, but Amritraj’s endearing screen presence is a most welcome addition to the picture.
John Barry signed on to compose his tenth James Bond score. His lush, romantic music lends a majestic grandeur that, like the inclusion of Maud Adams, helps dignify a movie with a title like Octopussy. Barry’s song, “All Time High,” with lyrics written by Tim Rice and performed by Rita Coolidge, does not incorporate the name of the film in the lyrics. I personally would be tickled to hear any initial stabs at creating a song called “Octopussy” that could have played on 1980s Top 40 radio, but as far as I know, no such attempt was made.
The movie begins with Bond launching a mini-jet out of the back of a horse trailer and piloting the craft expertly to evade a guided missile. This episode, which Tom Mankiewicz conceived in his unused screenplay for The Spy Who Loved Me, represents the apotheosis of a James Bond pre-credit opening. The novelty of the homebuilt, single-occupant jet, the excitement of the aerial stunt work, and the light touch of the humor make an utterly winning combination. With the exception of the rear-screen photography (Moore never really seems like he is part of the stunts in any of his movies), it's a flawless sequence. It builds to an immensely satisfying visual gag, culminating in a punch line that provokes smiles and cheers, rather than shrugs and groans from the audience.
Despite his age, Roger Moore gives his finest Bond performance in this movie. While the more somber For Your Eyes Only is an overall superior picture, the light-but-not-camp tone of Octopussy is a better fit for Bond as Moore embodies him. Some of the sexism of the 1970s films makes an unwelcome return here, though it is more playfully sophomoric than overtly misogynistic. Many fault the comedy in Octopussy for being too broad and indulgent. At various points, Bond dresses up as a clown and hides in a gorilla suit, an assassin wields a buzz saw blade on a giant yo-yo, and 007 and his Indian contact Vijay use the “James Bond Theme” as a code. But these choices are consistent with the high-spirited yet semi-plausible tenor established at the top of the picture. There is one moment, however, where this balance of tone is unforgivably knocked off kilter. During an elephant hunting sequence, Bond escapes death by leaping through the jungle, emitting the Tarzan yell as he swings from vine to vine. It is hard to fathom how this excruciatingly clumsy and ill-fitting gag got past every decision maker on the Bond team.
In the end, all the concern over the rival Connery picture and the hype around the summer of ’83’s “Battle of the Bonds” was unwarranted. Never Say Never Again proved to be no threat to the official EON series. Not only was its release date moved to the fall, leaving the lucrative summer season all for Octopussy, it was not as good a movie to boot. Never Say Never Again is fun, but with the exception of a fine turn by Austrian star Klaus Maria Brandauer as the villainous Largo, it doesn’t live up to expectations. It’s not much more than a modest remake of Thunderball, featuring a pudgy, toupee-wearing Sean Connery who, though younger than Roger Moore, looks considerably older than the Sean Connery we remember from his heyday. Octopussy surpassed Never Say Never Again at the box office, and Broccoli believed that his star deserved much of the credit for the film's success. He beseeched Moore to return for yet another picture.
Many people, including Roger Moore himself, have expressed the opinion that the actor's seventh appearance as 007 was one too many, but I think A View to a Kill is superior to Moore's first four films, though not his fifth and sixth. While the picture is far from an unqualified success, it does have its high points, among them action sequences that stand up against any in the prior series and, for the first time, a villain played by an Oscar-winning actor. Screenwriters Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum used nothing from Ian Fleming’s short story “From a View to a Kill” besides its Parisian setting for the movie’s first act. Instead they went back to the standard practice of borrowing most of the key plot points from Goldfinger.
A View to a Kill launches itself out of the gate with a Siberian set pre-credit sequence that introduced much of the world to the then-obscure sport of snowboarding. It's a gripping set piece that concludes with a smash cut to the opening titles just as the theme song, performed by the British pop group Duran Duran, begins to pound. The combined effect is electrifying. Not since Goldfinger has a Bond film kicked off so dramatically. Even Duran Duran's preposterous, incomprehensible lyrics can't dampen the anticipation stirred by the rousing music, along with Maurice Binder’s glow-in-the-dark visuals.
After this buoyant beginning, the film downshifts as Bond and the MI5 staff attend a horserace. Everyone looks elderly here: the fifty-seven year old Roger Moore appears to be nearly the same age as his superiors Robert Brown and Geoffrey Keen, both well into their seventies, and Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny seems more like a kindly old grandmother than a chic and sexy secretary. Adding to the cast of graying warriors is sixty-five year-old Patrick Macnee, star of the British TV show The Avengers (which also featured former Bond girls Honor Blackman and Dianna Rigg). But while the spies have become long in the tooth, the age-appropriate settings help rescue the series and Bond himself from feeling uncomfortably past their primes. What's more, tony backdrops like the Ascot Racecourse and the luxurious estate where millionaires buy and sell horses, showcase Bond's upper-class sophistication, terrain under-explored in the Roger Moore pictures.
We're next whisked off to Paris for a first-rate chase sequence and a stunningly photographed stunt in which Bond's quarry leaps off the Eiffel Tower and parachutes onto a boat. The action then shifts to a posh estate, where 007 goes undercover as a wealthy twit, and Patrick Macnee’s character must pose as his valet. The ensuing banter between Moore and Macnee, who were good friends long before they made the film, is a pleasure to watch. It is at this point that we meet the most unnerving Bond villain of all, Max Zorin. Broccoli had hoped to land singers David Bowie or Sting for the role, but when both were unavailable he turned to Christopher Walken, the Oscar-winning star of The Deer Hunter. Walken's Zorin is a Nazi engineered psychotic, far more disturbing than the typical erudite cat-stroking Bond antagonist.
Walken's unsettling performance stands in stark contrast to that of Tanya Roberts, star of Beastmaster, whose Stacey Sutton may be the dullest Bond girl in the entire series. Not only is Roberts a bad actress, she and Moore share no onscreen chemistry whatsoever. This lack of rapport may be attributable to Moore's obvious discomfort playing opposite someone so young. (Moore claims he was devastated to learn that he was older than Roberts’ mother when he met her on set.) The picture supplies Bond with several other ladies to romance, most notably the Jamaican New Wave singer and model Grace Jones as Zorin’s girlfriend and henchman May Day. Bond's conquests also include the Russian spy Pola Ivanova (Fiona Fullerton), not to mention the iceberg sub captain of the pre-credit sequence (Mary Stavin). Four is a record number of sexual conquests in a single movie for 007, unless you count the previous year’s Never Say Never Again in which Sean Connery also bedded four Bond girls. We get the sense that the film-shaped makers were maybe trying to prove something about the virility of these aging actors.
With no sizzle between the two leads, it is up to the set pieces to carry the picture. The action shifts to San Francisco, where Bond must escape from City Hall after Zorin sets it on fire. It is an energetic and well-directed sequence, but the car chase that follows is disappointing. While the screenwriters manage to avoid the clichés of a typical San Fran street pursuit by having Bond commandeer a fire truck, director John Glen plays the comedy too broadly, with bumbling cops in hot pursuit. The film's third act is darker and more brutal than usually shown in the series, with Walken’s Zorin gunning down his own men in cold blood while attempting to provoke a major earthquake in Silicon Valley. A brilliantly staged fistfight on the Golden Gate Bridge follows, featuring a seamless blend of stunt work, process photography, and miniatures. Though many fans dismiss this picture, it contains one of the five best climax sequences in the entire series.
Much has been made of the fact that James Bond prepares and eats quiche in this movie. Those in the audience who want their 007 to be a cool, tough, masculine action hero were not pleased by this turn of events. But I think the revelation that, in addition to all his other talents, Bond also happens to be a great cook—who can capably whip up a tasty omelet for his lover using only leftovers from her fridge—nicely rounds out his skill-set.
As usual, director John Glen does a more than competent job, although he once again demonstrates an unfortunate soft spot for ill-advised jokes that pull viewers out of the action (like the Tarzan yell of Octopussy). In the otherwise exhilarating and innovative snowboarding sequence that opens the movie, Glen can't resist playing “California Girls” as Bond surfs down the snowy slopes—a terribly unimaginative musical gag whose cheapness is magnified by the refusal of the producers, who usually spare no expense, to shell out for a license to the original Beach Boys’ version. In spite of this jarring note and the movie’s myriad other flaws, there's too much to enjoy in A View to A Kill to write it off entirely. It is a good thing, however, that Roger Moore didn't continue as Bond into his sixties. When this picture wrapped, he finally retired from the role of 007.
After A View to a Kill's
discouraging commercial and critical reception and the aging Roger Moore's
emphatic declaration that he would not remain in the Bond role, producers
Albert R. Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson needed to introduce a new 007 for the twenty-fifth
anniversary of the series. This time
around, an international search for a new leading man was not required, since Broccoli
had been accumulating a file of potential successors during the last nine years
of Moore's film-by-film commitment to the role.
There were three main contenders: Timothy Dalton, a classically-trained
veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company who at a young age had costarred with
Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter;
Sam Neill, a New Zealander who rose to fame in Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career; and the debonair
Englishman Pierce Brosnan, who had starred in the American television show Remington Steele until its recent
Broccoli’s first choice was Dalton, to whom he had offered the role on at least two previous occasions (some say as many as five), beginning with On Her Majesty's Secret Service in 1967. Director John Glen’s preference was Sam Neill, who was also Roger Moore's favorite. Prevailing popular opinion, however, tilted towards Pierce Brosnan, who had long been rumored as a possible heir apparent to Roger Moore. Broccoli, never one to deny his audience what they asked for, offered the role to Brosnan, who readily accepted. Then came a snag. When NBC saw the surprisingly enthusiastic American reaction to the announcement that Brosnan would be the new Bond, they rethought their cancellation of Remington Steele and quickly renewed the program for an abbreviated final season. Brosnan was contractually obligated to return to the show. Broccoli was not interested in hiring a 007 actor who was simultaneously playing another role on television. But after witnessing the extremely positive fan reaction to the Brosnan announcement and the accompanying lackluster reception when the other contenders were floated in the press, Broccoli was reluctant to offer the role to Dalton or Neill. At this juncture, Broccoli's wife Dana a strong advocate for Dalton, apparently convinced her husband that the accomplished thespian was the best choice for this twenty-fifth anniversary picture. So, after decades of dancing around the role, Timothy Dalton finally came onboard as 007.
Dalton had turned down the part before, at first because he considered himself too young and was reluctant to replace Sean Connery, and later because he did not like the comical tone the series took during the Roger Moore years. But when Dalton ultimately did sign up for the role, his commitment was absolute. He devoured all of Fleming's novels and determined to play the part more faithfully to the author’s characterization than any of his predecessors. While no actor will ever best Sean Connery's original 007 from the Terence Young pictures, Timothy Dalton’s Bond is indeed much closer to the character that appears in the novels. His Bond is a cold and ruthless killer who is also distinctly human in ways that feel simultaneously genuine and calculating. In my opinion, he’s also the most attractive of all the actors to take on the role. He has neither Connery’s out-of-control eyebrows, George Lazenby’s oversized chin and ears, Moore’s gangly stiffness, Brosnan’s flat affect, nor Daniel Craig’s odd, puckered mouth and squinty eyes. Dalton also wears his clothes—both the formal and casual attire—better than any other actor in the series, which is no small detail in this extremely fashion-conscious franchise. Many fans consider Dalton’s performance too serious or too “actorly” for the larger-than-life figure of James Bond, but I think he creates a stimulating and credible fantasy figure.
Broccoli and his team briefly considered making this new movie a prequel, in order to re-launch the series with a new actor (as they would go on to do nearly twenty years later when Daniel Craig took over the role). But since the core creative lineup and supporting cast was not going to change, the filmmakers opted to keep the distinctive form and style of the last three Bond pictures, albeit with a noticeably less comedic tone. The pre-credit sequence follows 007 and two other agents engaged in a dangerous field exercise on the Rock of Gibraltar. One by one the men appear, and each time we think we might be seeing the face of the new Bond, until he gets bumped off. The delay of Dalton’s eventual reveal echoes Connery’s introduction in Dr. No.
This new start to the film series draws its inspiration from the final short story in Fleming's last collection. In it, Bond’s assignment is to shoot a sniper who, MI5 has learned, will attempt to assassinate a defecting Russian agent near a concert hall in East Berlin. When Bond discovers the that sniper is none other than the beautiful cellist whom he had seen through his rifle scope and fantasized about every day leading up to the job, he defies his orders to kill and merely wounds her. Using this story as a jumping-off point, screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson craft the most dramatically satisfying script of the five pictures they wrote together.
Associate producer Barbara Broccoli lobbied for the actress Maryam d'Abo to play the cellist, Kara Milovy. D'Abo had auditioned for the KGB agent with whom Bond shares a bubble bath in A View to a Kill, and her Eastern European features made her an obvious choice for this role. This was the first Bond film of the AIDS era, and much was made of the observation that 007 remains monogamous throughout it (apart from a vacationing beauty we assume he sleeps with after the pre-credit sequence). But Bond's romance with Kara is most interesting because of how well it serves the plot, and how successfully it showcases Dalton’s specific talents. Bond uses his sexuality to collect information that will further his missions, but here he seems genuinely interested in the woman herself. Maibaum and Wilson devise a believable, empathic backstory for Fleming’s female assassin that renders her relatively innocent in the ways of the world. While not virginal, she is young and inexperienced in much the same way Ilsa Lund was before she met Rick Blaine in Casablanca—quite different from the superficial babes on whom Bond has forced himself on in the past, or the more equally matched and self-interested villainesses he has jumped into bed with. Also, while Dalton’s Bond is capable of harshness and even cruelty when lives are at stake, he is tender and gentle with Kara, making it easier to believe she would quickly fall in love with him, despite her confusing circumstances and her feelings for the defecting Russian agent. This relatively complex and sensitive subplot is engaging from a romantic perspective and also provides intriguing insight into the professional aspects of 007. The screenwriters handle the relationship with more subtlety than the love story in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Dutch leading man Jeroen Krabbé plays the Russian defector Georgi Koskov in an endearingly bubbly performance, but his incessant prancing, joking, hugging, and kissing do make him the most effete Bond baddie since Michael Lonsdale in Moonraker. He also has an accent that couldn’t possibly have originated from anywhere inside the Soviet Block. Joe Don Baker is Brad Whitaker, a blustery American arms dealer who fails to exude any real sense of menace or danger. Andreas Wisniewski appears as the blond, Speedo-wearing Eurotrash henchman Necros, whose signature move of strangling victims with reinforced Walkman headphone wires makes him an appropriate killer for the late-‘80s. None of these villains qualify as the larger-than-life megalomaniacs we expect in a Bond picture, and the lack of a consequential heavy is one of the film's few drawbacks.
But the beloved character actor John Rhys-Davies (Sallah of Raiders of the Lost Ark, to name just one of his many roles) is well cast as the KGB general Leonid Pushkin, a replacement for KGB chief General Gogol, played by Walter Gotell in the last five movies. Gotell was supposed to be back again for this film, but poor health prevented him from taking on this more prominent role. (He does get a welcome cameo at the end of the picture.)
Robert Brown, Desmond Llewelyn, and Geoffrey Keen return as M, Q, and the Minister of Defense, respectively, and the only familiar roles embodied by new actors are Ms. Moneypenny and Felix Leiter. After playing Moneypenny in all fourteen preceding films, Lois Maxwell retired from the role and was replaced by the much younger Caroline Bliss. This casting severs the implied past relationship between Bond and M’s secretary that had always been one of the series’ charms, but their playful banter remains intact. Bliss’s Moneypenny is cute and bookish, with thick glasses and a taste for the music of Barry Manilow. The movie’s weakest link is John Terry. He portrays Felix Leiter as if Don Johnson’s Sonny Crockett character from the TV show Miami Vice had been captured by a Bond villain with a machine capable of sucking all the life and personality out of a man, leaving nothing but a leathery shell and an embarrassing polyester outfit. Fortunately, Leiter appears in only two scenes, so we aren’t subjected to much of Terry’s stilted performance.
Bond’s Aston Martin also makes its first appearance since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The wintry chase sequence with the new V8 Vantage manages to outdo the original car chase in Goldfinger, working both as a tribute and a link to the past pictures in the series. But the set piece that really shines is a climactic aerial combat sequence, in which Bond and Necros go hand to hand while hanging out of a cargo plane high above the Afghan desert. The filmmakers resist the temptation to undercut the drama with glib humor, and the result is absolutely thrilling—one of the most exciting fight sequences not only in this movie but in the entire series.
This film is one of a handful of action movies made at the brief cinematic sweet spot when photochemical techniques had reached their zenith but digital effects had not yet taken over. Everything onscreen looks authentic, and there is none of the obviously faked-in-the-studio trickery of older films or the computerized mendacity of contemporary movies. Each of the previous Bond pictures had featured amazing stunts that were clearly done “for real,” but close-ups of the actors always required conspicuous process photography, creating a major disconnect between the stars playing the roles and the stuntmen executing the tricks. By the time Pierce Brosnan stepped into the role, entry level CGI was in vogue, and 007's daring feats bore no resemblance to anything that could be accomplished on Planet Earth. For the two Dalton pictures however, there is a perfect blend between the actors and the breathtaking exploits accomplished by the unenhanced stuntmen. Dalton also did as many of his own stunts as possible, permitting frequent close shots where we can see that it really is him running, jumping, falling, and fighting. These physical abilities are yet another reason why he made such a great Bond.
007's mission in this story takes him to exotic lands including Vienna, Bratislava, Tangier, and Afghanistan. Glenn, Maibaum, and Wilson never miss a chance to slow the picture down a little so we can bask in the scenery of these locations, as when Dalton and d'Abo ride on the huge Prater Ferris wheel, made famous in Carol Reed’s 1949 classic The Third Man. Bond also rides with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, reminding us not only that the Cold War was still going at this time but also that the Afghan resistance was still allied with the West against the Soviets.
The Living Daylights would turn out to be John Glen’s best outing as a director. The film has a more sober tone, and its straightforward Cold War espionage plot has just the right amount of humor mixed in. One sequence the producers feared would be too over-the-top is a chase in which Bond and Kara escape from skiing gunmen on a snow-covered mountain by using her cello case as a toboggan. Glen was right on this call; the sequence fits harmoniously with the tone of the movie and is one of the best of the film’s many remarkable action sequences. Dalton was less than keen on the script's zinging one-liners, but, with Glen's assistance, he found ways to make them work, dispatching them offhandedly, or being interrupted mid-sentence by some new distraction or danger. The quips became less conspicuous while still contributing to the overall charm.
In addition to being the last James Bond picture with an Ian Fleming title (until nineteen years later when EON Productions was finally able to make a film from the first novel, Casino Royale), The Living Daylights was the last James Bond movie scored by the peerless John Barry. Fittingly, it is a sweeping soundtrack that fully integrates the original songs composed for it. Barry had been pushing the producers for years to showcase more than one pop song in each film, and with this picture he got his way. The American rock band the Pretenders was enjoying a run of commercial hits the time, and Barry began working with lead singer Chrissie Hynde on a title song. However, after the unprecedented success of Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill,” Broccoli wanted to go with another international pop group in the hopes of scoring another chart topping hit. Barry wrote a title song with the Norwegian band a-ha, best known for their hit “Take On Me,” which spawned one of the most famous and innovative music videos of all time. The title song is decent, though the lyrics are nearly as unfathomable as those of “A View to a Kill,” and the music is much less catchy. More successful are the two songs Barry co-wrote with the Pretenders: “Where Has Everybody Gone?” the song always playing on Necros's Walkman, and “If There Was a Man,” a love theme that underscores the romance between Dalton and d’Abo, which also accompanies the closing credits. This is the first time an alternate song is used for the opening and closing titles, and the lush, dreamlike ballad works beautifully in wrapping up this most romantic of Bond pictures. Barry delivers yet another strong orchestral score, overdubbing sequenced electronic rhythm tracks and using the melodies and motifs of the film’s three original songs in combination with the traditional James Bond themes.
The Living Daylights was the best-reviewed Bond picture since For Your Eyes Only and a big box office hit. Critics appreciated the return to an old-school espionage story, and audiences who had clamored for Pierce Brosnan as 007 nevertheless embraced Dalton in the role. It seemed like a victorious re-launch of the series that would enable smooth sailing for another twenty-five years. But much would change after the next film, which would unfortunately mark Dalton's last appearance as Bond.
After fans and critics responded favorably to Dalton’s more serious portrayal of 007 in The Living Daylights, Broccoli and Wilson elected to take the next Bond film in an even darker and more sober direction. The resulting picture, in which 007 leaves MI5 to pursue a personal vendetta, is an uneven mix of tone and style. Initially titled Licence Revoked, it would be the first Bond movie not to share its title with any of Ian Fleming's books (although the novels Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun, as well as the short story “The Hildebrand Rarity,” provided source material for some of the plot points and characters). When the Writers Guild of America went on strike in 1988, Richard Maibaum was forced to stop working on the script at the treatment stage, leaving the less experienced Michael G. Wilson, who by now was also officially co-producing the Bond films with Broccoli, to write the screenplay alone. Consequently, the script seems unfinished. In fact the entire picture feels oddly unpolished. Licence to Kill wound up as a potentially great Bond movie hobbled by bad choices unwisely committed to at every stage of development.
The settings, such a crucial part of any Bond movie, are the first major problem. The producers originally announced their intention to make Licence to Kill in China. 007 had not yet had a full-scale adventure in that vast country, and the Chinese government welcomed the Bond team with open arms, even seeming receptive to a major chase scene to be shot along the Great Wall. But the unexpected success of Bernardo Bertolucci’s multiple Oscar-winner The Last Emperor made China appear less exotic to the filmmakers. They nixed the idea in favor of setting the story in Miami, Florida, and the fictional Republic of Isthmus (a thinly-veiled stand-in for Panama shot in Mexico). These type of backdrops appeared in just about every American TV show and action movie of the late ‘80s and so held little mystery or allure to audiences. To make matters worse, the story revolves around cocaine smuggling—a subject that was overrepresented in popular entertainment at the time. Narcotics trafficking in China would have been far more novel.
Robert Davi plays the villain, Franz Sanchez, and he's excellent in the role. His dark, pock-marked features bear an unmistakable resemblance to Manuel Noriega, Panama’s military governor for most of the 1980s. As written and acted, Sanchez is a sinister and menacing heavy—well in line with the more realistic tone of the film and a fitting counterpart to Dalton’s sober interpretation of 007. Still, the threadbare ‘80s cliché of an evil drug lord with a name like Sanchez prevents us from unreservedly appreciating Davi’s fine performance.
Casting David Hedison as Felix Leiter, Bond's CIA buddy, is another promising notion that fails to pay off. Hedison played Leiter sixteen years earlier in Live and Let Die, Roger Moore's first Bond film. Licence to Kill begins with Bond serving as Leiter’s best man, and the story is set in motion on Leiter's wedding night, when Sanchez critically wounds him and murders his bride. Bringing back an actor who had already appeared in the role makes a lot of sense, but while Hedison’s goofy characterization of Leiter in Live and Let Die was amusing in the context of that rather comical picture, he fails to make a connection with Dalton or the audience in this more serious film. There is a tonal incongruity between the two actors, made worse by the fact that Hedison is much older than Dalton and that they had never appeared together before. Finding a solid actor of approximately Dalton’s age and more in the mold of Jack Lord, the original Leiter, would have better suited this movie.
The Bond girls—Carey Lowell as 007’s CIA accomplice Pam Bouvier, and Talisa Soto as Sanchez's paramour Lupe Lamora—are beautiful women but terrible actresses. Lowell, who first appears in a bad wig and delivers her lines like she’s reading them off cocktail napkins, eventually manages to relax into the part, and her acting marginally improves by the film's midpoint. Soto, on the other hand, is a disaster from start to finish, only enjoyable in a “so bad, it’s good” kind of way—a major defeat for a movie that strives so hard to be free of camp. Both women seem totally out of their depth in scenes with Dalton and Davi, with these subpar performances dealing a terrible blow to the picture. Bouvier, a tough and resourceful army pilot, could have been a worthy sparring partner for Bond like Anya Amasova from The Spy Who Loved Me, and Lupe could have been fashioned in the vein of Domino Derval from Thunderball, an intelligent kept woman trying to get out from underneath her many bad breaks and poor decisions. But John Glen appears to have directed both actresses to play their roles as if they were fourteen-year-old girls with no life experience to draw on, other than watching Telenovelas.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Anthony Zerbe and Anthony Starke are adequate as Sanchez's accomplices, and a young Benicio del Toro is scarily charismatic as the henchman Dario. Grand L. Bush and Everett McGill oversell their cliché-ridden cop dialogue. Priscilla Barnes, as Mrs. Felix Leiter, fails to make enough of an impression in her short time onscreen for us to care about her murder. Pedro Armendáriz, Jr., has a cameo as the president of Isthmus, but only his status as the son of one of the most beloved actors to appear in a Bond movie (his father played Ali Kerim Bey in From Russia with Love) makes his presence significant. On the plus side, Desmond Llewelyn gets a lot of screen time as Q, and even though the gadgets are toned down here, he makes the most of his beefed-up role as a more active part of the story. In perhaps the oddest bit of casting, Vegas lounge singer Wayne Newton appears as a TV evangelist whose broadcasts contain disguised communications from Sanchez to his international drug buyers. This improbable but clever conceit came about because Newton was a fan and wanted to be in a Bond picture. Wilson's script does a nifty job of working Newton's character into Sanchez’s operation and simultaneously manages to make a droll comment on the '80s phenomenon of charlatan television ministers.
The picture has a well-crafted plot, teeming with unanticipated turns and creative deviations from the Bond formula, but despite the sharp storytelling, curious missteps prevent the film from fully engaging. There's a workable premise: The attempt on Leiter's life and his wife’s murder on her wedding-day so enrages Bond, whose own wife suffered the same fate, that he defies M and strikes out on a personal mission of revenge. That storyline should make this one of the best films in the Bond canon. Instead, its success is undercut by the uneven acting and by the occasionally unforgivable choices in writing and directing. Dalton’s more ruthless take on Bond feels like overkill in a movie that is itself trying too hard to be somber and gritty. And without a decent lead actress, there's no love story to showcase the warmer side of 007 that he created in The Living Daylights. The middle section of the picture, in which Bond goes undercover, befriends Sanchez, and breeds fear and uncertainty about the loyalty of the people in his organization, is where the film really shines. Watching Bond craftily exploit Sanchez's paranoia is exhilarating, and Dalton adeptly conveys 007’s composure and keenness of mind.
If the stunts in the movie are not as spectacular as those in The Living Daylights, they are still possessed of a natural authenticity that makes them stand out in the series, and it’s again clear that Dalton does much of his own stunt work. Still, many of these elaborate sequences have the aforementioned unfinished quality. It’s as if the producers spent millions of dollars on the movie but couldn't come up with the last couple of thousand needed to film the few additional shots that would have elevated important moments, and couldn’t come up with the additional time in the editing room to tighten the picture. Even the sound mix has a curious unfinished flavor with dialogue and effects out of balance. The music, too, is unremarkable. John Barry was too ill to score the picture, so John Glen selected the gifted Michael Kamen, who composed for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the sequels to Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. While Kamen's music is serviceable and honors the Barry legacy, it lacks the originality of the other non-Barry composers, and it sounds imitative rather than distinctive. No less a luminary than Eric Clapton wrote a title song with Vic Flick—the guitarist who originally laid down the famous “James Bond Theme” for Dr. No—but, incredibly, that song was discarded in favor of a relatively generic tune (made passable by borrowing a signature lick from “Goldfinger”) performed by the estimable Gladys Knight.
Although it garnered some positive reviews, Licence to Kill would become the least successful James Bond film of all time. While it is too good a picture to deserve that reputation, its poor showing can be attributed to several factors. For one, when market research showed that Americans associated the phrase “license revoked” with driving privileges, not espionage, the producers hastily re-titled the picture, causing confusion and a delay in promoting the movie. By then the limitations of fan loyalty to Dalton had become instantly apparent when Remington Steel was cancelled for good and supporters began clamoring once again for Pierce Brosnan as 007. Heavy competition that summer from other blockbusters also hurt Licence to Kill, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Back to the Future Part II, Lethal Weapon 2, Star Trek V, The Abyss, Field of Dreams, When Harry Met Sally, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and Tim Burton’s runaway hit Batman. Ultimately, however, Licence to Kill failed to resonate with audiences because of weak actors who seem like they’ve been directed to accentuate the clichés of the script. Add to that the hackneyed drug trafficking storyline and Central American setting, both of which make it feel like just another American action movie, and you’ve got a picture that disappoints on far too many levels.
The timing was bad for such a compromised entry in the series. MGM, the studio that held half the rights to 007, was going under, and a lengthy legal case over ownership caused a seven-year delay between this film and the next, the longest deferment in the Bond oeuvre. By the time the cameras rolled on GoldenEye, the seventeenth movie in the series, most of the members of the original creative team would be absent: Albert R. Broccoli and John Barry would be in ill health; Richard Maibaum and Maurice Binder would be dead; and John Glen would have moved on to other (very weak) films. It’s a shame that Timothy Dalton only got to make two Bond pictures. He had the potential to become the greatest 007 ever. Alas—it wasn't in the cards.
Due to legal wrangling over rights and ownership, the gap between the sixteenth and seventeenth Bond pictures was just shy of seven years long. For those who grew up (or lived their entire lives) with a new Bond movie every two years, that hiatus felt considerably longer. Looking back on the series, the time between the last installment of the ‘80s (Licence to Kill in 1989) and the first entry of the ‘90s (GoldenEye in 1995), seems all the more pronounced because so much had changed in the world during that period. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginnings of a new era in cooperation between Western nations and their former Communist enemies brought into question the relevance, to contemporary audiences, of adventure stories about a British Secret Service agent. The birth of the Internet and the ubiquity of mobile phones revolutionized the speed and manner of human communication, further eroding national borders and the figurative distances between divergent cultures. The film industry also underwent many changes during this period. Digital effects, no longer relegated to sci-fi and fantasy, became standard tools for all Hollywood movies. The ‘90s Bond pictures combined these new techniques, still in their relative infancy, and traditional in-camera effects with mixed results. Methods of advertising to specific demographics began to affect the actual storytelling in unprecedented ways. Casting choices targeted age groups and nationalities, and lines of dialogue seemed tailored for various trailers to run in front of particular audiences. The main hallmark of the '90s Bond movies is a frantic, underlying desire to be all things to all viewers, resulting in pictures that try too hard to be retro and modern, self-critical and self-assured, progressive and old-school. Though I think this attempt to redefine the series gives these films a stiff, self-conscious, and insecure tone, moviegoers of the time ate it up.
Once the lawsuits over ownership were settled and GoldenEye finally went into production, the biggest change was the lead actor. Regardless of Licence to Kill’s poor reception, Albert Broccoli and Timothy Dalton both fully intended to honor their three-picture contract. Several screenplays for Dalton’s next installment were commissioned and subsequently scrapped as the legal wrangling dragged on between EON and the various entities that, due to Wall Street mergers and acquisitions, briefly came into possession of half of the franchise rights. Even as late as 1994, when writer Michael France had completed a first draft of GoldenEye, Dalton was still set to star in the movie. There is some dispute as to whether the actor got fed up and resigned from future Bond projects of his own volition, was forced out by the studio, or bowed out gracefully when critics and fans again began clamoring for Pierce Brosnan, now freed of his Remington Steel obligation, to step into the iconic role. But few Bond buffs dwelt extensively on the circumstances of Dalton’s departure, excited as they were by the prospect of Brosnan breathing new life into the floundering but beloved film series.
Other important personnel changes happened behind the scenes. Albert Broccoli’s health was deteriorating, and by the time GoldenEye formally entered pre-production, the legendarily hands-on producer decided to take a back seat. He turned over control of the picture to his son-in-law Michael G. Wilson and daughter Barbara Broccoli. By now, they were old-hands at nearly every aspect of making a Bond movie, especially Wilson, who had co-produced and co-written the last five installments. Wilson opted out of formal writing duties on GoldenEye, perhaps due to the poor reception for some of the films he had co-authored in the late '80s, and veteran Bond scribe Richard Maibaum had passed away in 1991.
Wilson and Broccoli brought in a parade of young and inexperienced writers in an endeavor to update 007 for a new generation. The first was the aforementioned Michael France, who co-wrote the 1993 action hit Cliffhanger along with its star, Sylvester Stallone. Next was Jeffrey Caine, then a TV writer with minimal credits to his name, who revised France’s script and came up with the pre-credit sequence. Then Kevin Wade, the American screenwriter of the hugely successful rom-com Working Girl took an uncredited pass. Lastly, the American humorist Bruce Feirstein, best known for his whimsical articles in Playboy, SPY, and The New Yorker, and the best-selling book Real Men Don't Eat Quiche, came in to punch up the script with the kind of jokes and double-entendres that the Dalton pictures intentionally avoided. Hiring this ragtag assortment of rookies represented a major change in procedure for an organization that, in the past, had almost always promoted experienced people from within its ranks to key creative positions—people like Peter Hunt and John Glenn, who began as editors and second unit directors; cinematographers Alec Mills, who started as a camera operator; and production designer Peter Lamont who began as a set decorator on Thunderball, became the art director on Live and Let Die, and filled Ken Adam’s exalted shoes as production designer from For Your Eyes Only to Casino Royale.
The decision to look outside the usual team and approach
non-British directors was also unusual. Western audiences had recently
discovered and embraced John Woo’s Chinese-language pictures The Killer, Once a Thief, and Hard Boiled, and MGM lobbied hard for
the acclaimed Hong Kong action auteur to helm GoldenEye. Woo was honored by the offer, but apparently didn't feel
ready to jump into such a well-established international franchise. But director
Martin Campbell leapt at the offer. Hailing
from the immerging film production hub of New Zealand, Campbell had a track
record of mediocre thrillers with generic titles like Criminal Law, Defenseless, and No
Escape. Despite his bland
resume, Campbell had passion for the Bond series and a lucid sense of the
direction in which to take it. His enthusiasm complemented Brosnan's and made
for a happy production when the cameras started rolling.
Needing to win back casual fans, who by this point had largely given up on the series, the new company needed to get a lot right, and they faced some daunting obstacles. For starters, although the filmmakers wanted a catchy, sellable title that maintained some connection to Ian Fleming, every one of the Bond novels had already been turned into a feature, and, unless some marketing genius could figure out a way to sell an action movie called “The Hildebrand Rarity,” hardly any short story titles remained either. They eventually settled on the name of the author’s Jamaican estate, where he wrote most of his novels. GoldenEye also evokes Goldfinger, a title known even by people who have never seen a Bond picture or read one of the books. Screenwriter France chose to assign the odd moniker to a titular pair of weaponized Russian satellites, controlled by a bulky and absurd-looking prop that resembles a golden eyeball. It's difficult to take this goofy and overly literal MacGuffin seriously, and I wish France had opted instead to use “GoldenEye” as a codename or as a description of some colorful villain’s trademark attribute.
However clumsily executed, the concept of a Russian weapon falling into the hands of terrorists is clearly intended to highlight the fact that the Cold War, Bond's raison d’être, was coming to an end, and to use this as the driving force underlying the plot. And by structuring the original story around the transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Eastern Bloc nations, the filmmakers instantly negated Bond’s waning relevance. The chaos that followed in the wake of that political transition inspired a wealth of Bond-worthy characters and situations. The innovations include Bond's primary antagonist, a former “double-0” agent named Alec Trevelyan who fakes his death before the fall of Communism and resurfaces years later as the head of an international crime syndicate. A villain as skilled and as smart as Bond himself is an alluring idea, creating a worthy foil such as Sherlock Holmes had in Moriarty, and casting Sean Bean—at one time a candidate for the 007 role—was a savvy selection. But the two actors share only a few scenes, none of which take advantage of their characters’ similarities, shared training, or prior relationship.
With the role of Valentin Dmitrovich Zukovsky, the writers devised another intriguing possibility for exploring the theme of how allegiances shift and adapt to accommodate new, ever-changing political realities. This ex-KGB officer turned gangster, played by the corpulent British actor/comedian Robbie Coltrane, represents GoldenEye's post-Iron-Curtain context at its best. The producers intended for the opportunistic Zukovsky to be a reoccurring ally for their new Bond. In the end, however, Coltrane gets barely five minutes of the picture’s indulgent 130-minute running time. Similarly, the film’s exotic Russian locations provide more decoration than drama. The most egregious waste of an unconventional setting in GoldenEye is an overblown chase in which Bond plows a Soviet tank through the streets of Saint Petersburg. I’m sure all the senseless destruction gives some viewers a thrill, but the sequence is much, much too long, and worse, it's dull. Bond remains safely inside the tank the whole time, so there's no inkling of danger as we watch him smash to bits the beautiful architecture of this historic city.
Despite my grumblings, the filmmakers do succeed in replacing the series’ Cold War milieu with modern threats and circumstances. A bigger problem for them was the perception that Bond just wasn't cool anymore. The public’s collective memories and impressions of the elderly Roger Moore had transformed 007’s image from the epitome of cool into a stodgy joke—a perception that the two underperforming Dalton movies did little to change. Also, by 1995, the gradual evolution of Western gender politics made Bond’s ‘60s-era lothario behavior feel embarrassingly outmoded. Rather than sweep this concern under the rug, GoldenEye acknowledged these matters head on. Regrettably, although the filmmakers and star consistently stated in interviews their eagerness to develop the Bond character for a new generation and explore the motivations for his signature behaviors, little of this type of development ended up in the picture or affected its story, outcome, or themes.
The most significant attempt to deal with Bond's inherent sexism and dated attitudes was the casting of the new M. Since the real-life MI5 was now headed by its first female chief, Stella Rimington, the writers hit upon the notion of making Bond’s fictional boss a woman. Until now, M's paternal relationship with 007 had been one of the series’ principal hallmarks, making this gender switch a risky but potentially invigorating innovation. Michael G. Wilson hesitated to make such a drastic change, insisting that if a woman played Bond’s superior she would have to be an unimpeachable British star. That big name turned out to be Dame Judi Dench, a venerated thespian and popular star of the National Theatre Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Dench has a commanding screen presence, but her dialogue in GoldenEye is so forced and obvious that her scenes defy credulity. M literally calls 007 “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur” and a “relic of the Cold War,” comments which all seem less about putting Bond in his place than signaling to the audience that the filmmakers are hip to their character's major weaknesses in the public eye. If M were really so disgusted with Bond's outmoded behavior, she could simply dispense with his services. The relationship between M and Bond in GoldenEye, and throughout Brosnan’s tenure, illustrates how the installments of this era fail to achieve the reinvention and deepening of the characters they so desperately try for. Every change is cosmetic, rather than substantive.
M isn't the only character forced to pay hollow lip service to '90s gender politics. The new Miss. Moneypenny, played by the felicitously named Samantha Bond, seems like she won't take any guff from 007 either, but she swoons every time his back is turned, overwhelmed by his manly charms. The primary female villain of GoldenEye, embodied by the Dutch bombshell Famke Janssen, is a sadistic Georgian murderess with the Flemingesque name of Xenia Onatopp. Onatopp might as well been have been named “Overthetopp.” She is such an exaggerated caricature that she seems more appropriate for the satire of Austin Powers than the legitimate 007 canon. Obviously modeled on Luciana Paluzzi’s hot-blooded henchwoman Fiona Volpe in Thunderball, Onatopp is an absurd femme fatale who strangles men between her thighs and can only achieve sexual climax while engaged in the act of killing.
GoldenEye is the sum of both good and bad decisions in almost equal measure, and as a result, I feel more indifferent toward this movie than any other in the series. The opening minutes illustrate well the film’s tendency to move one step forward and one step back. It starts with Brosnan in the signature gun-barrel graphic. For the first time, the animated logo is digitally rendered, giving it the clean, shiny slickness of something new and pristine, but also the cold, dull, sterile quality of most computer-generated imagery of the era. We then launch into a thrilling pre-credit sequence in which Bond bungee-jumps off a gigantic dam. In the well-established tradition of the series, the stunt is real, executed by a stuntman in a single take (during which, incidentally, he set a world record for the highest jump of its kind). But after this feat, with our appetites whetted for seeing Brosnan’s first appearance as Bond, the unveiling occurs during a sophomoric sequence in which he delivers a perfunctory one-liner while hanging upside-down in a toilet stall. No new Bond actor has ever made such a lame debut, and it's a terrible momentum-killer. Still, immediately afterwards, Brosnan does get a proper introduction: he's right side up this time, peering out of a doorway, looking more weathered and age-appropriate than he would have if he had stepped into the role nine years earlier. (The simple, tightly framed shot is so effective that even I, skeptical as I was, thought briefly that Brosnan might just maybe be the perfect actor for the role.)
There’s plenty of humor as well as suspense in the pre-credit sequence, which introduces us to the villain, Alec Trevelyan. This structural choice is noteworthy for a Bond picture; usually, the main villains don't appear until later in the film, their mystique built up by supporting characters that talk about them or carry out their schemes. But the climax of the opening is an inane stunt in which Bond rides a motorcycle off a cliff while chasing a runaway airplane, somehow managing to catch up with the speeding craft, climb in, and take control. It's a ridiculous and oddly unexciting stunt, obviously designed to recall and outdo the teaser climax of The Spy Who Loved Me, in which Bond skis off a cliff, kicks off his skis, and opens a parachute emblazoned with a Union Jack. GoldenEye's pre-credit stunt is so preposterous that instead of the cheer it's plainly meant to provoke; we can only react with a shrug, or even a laugh. I’m not sure why Bond couldn’t have grabbed onto the wing of the plane before going over the cliff, then pulled himself along the fuselage to get to the cockpit in the nick of time to seize control and fly away. That would have been more in line with the series’ legacy of amazing stunts that exists within the realm of slightly exaggerated possibility. This pre-title climax comes off as a blatant attempt to wow us from the get-go, and it reeks of the type of desperate audience pandering that characterizes the Brosnan years.
The opening may leave a bad taste in our mouths, but it's instantly washed away once the innovative, and impactful credit sequence begins. Celebrated title designer Maurice Binder died in 1991. To fill his celebrated shoes, the producers hired the British commercial and music video director Daniel Kleinman, on the strength of his Binder-inspired music video for Gladys Knight's Licence to Kill title song. GoldenEye represents the first use of computer-generated imagery in a Bond credit sequence and, unlike the bland gun-barrel graphic at the top of the film, it demonstrates the era's CGI technology at its most cutting-edge. With infinitely more depth and color than any of Binder’s work, Kleinman’s titles seem light years ahead of their time. The familiar scantily clad women trample, smash, and tear down representations of Soviet iconography: giant hammers and sickles, Russian stars, and stone statues of Lenin and Stalin. (According to Wilson, one leader of a former Communist country would say that this sequence, more than the fall of the Berlin Wall, signified to him the end of his ideology.) Tina Turner delivers the title song written by U2’s Bono and The Edge. As is the case in many Bond theme songs, the lyrics verge on nonsense, but the music is dynamic and invigorating, and Turner is an undeniably worthy Bond vocalist, belting out the words with all the conviction of Shirley Bassey in Goldfinger.
But no sooner do the credits prime us for a sublimely thrilling Bond adventure than we are subjected to a wacky car chase, in another not-so-subtle homage to Goldfinger. Bond drives his Aston Martin along a twisty mountain road when Xenia Onatopp speeds by in a red Ferrari. He takes off after her, terrifying his passenger, a female field officer tasked with evaluating his performance. It's obvious that the filmmakers are trying, in one fell swoop, to show Brosnan off in 007's signature car, memorably introduce Onatopp, and address the potentially negative disposition many in the audience may have towards Bond. All of this could be quite satisfying if the field agent weren't such a lightweight. Her dime-store psychological analysis of Bond exists simply as a way to acknowledge outright what many viewers and critics already thought about the character. The way Bond caddishly and predictably overwhelms this inconsequential simpleton is an off-putting wink at the audience, a spurious attempt to assure us that the character and the filmmakers are more than up to the task of handling this critique.
The music in this sequence also happens to be the worst of any of the compositions in Éric Serra's disastrous soundtrack. With John Berry in semi-retirement, the producers opted for a more modern sound, hoping to re-launch this aspect of the series as well. Serra, an avant-garde French synthesizer player and composer, was most famous for scoring Luc Besson’s movies, including Subway, The Big Blue, and La Femme Nikita. His music for those arthouse thrillers is exhilarating, but here the flinty keyboards and idiosyncratic percussion samples are a terrible match for the aesthetic of the series. They sound as bad as Bond would look wearing a tracksuit and gold chains to a ritzy casino. But once again, the picture manages to recover as Bond (dressed smartly in a tux) walks into a ritzy casino and has his first verbal exchange with Onatopp. The repartee feels worthy of both the characters and the series, and it's a much better sequence than their car race.
The back-and-forth of positive and negative qualities continues for almost the entire movie. Bond girl Natalya Simonova, played by the petite actress Izabella Scorupco, is a smart and capable Russian computer programmer. Most of her lines aren't awful (although at a couple of points she does refer to Bond and the other male lead with the on-the-nose, pseudo-derogative, “boys with toys”). Scorupco handles her role with intelligence and depth, and she doesn't come off at all like a giddy actress excited to be in a Bond film, which is more than can be said for all the other actresses in this picture, even Dench. Simonova isn't a glamorous paramour like most Bond girls. Apart from her unadorned attractiveness and top-secret job, she's an otherwise unremarkable IT drone who becomes reluctantly embroiled in the world of international espionage. Her scorn for Bond and many of the other characters seems totally credible for a Russian woman in her position, and when she gets swept up in the romance of her adventure, we believe that too.
But while Scorupco is the best of Brosnan’s co-stars, and one of GoldenEye’s biggest assets, the rest of the cast is woefully uneven. Alan Cumming overplays his role of Boris Grishenko, a Russian computer mastermind, and he's too flimsy to support major plot points. Joe Don Baker makes his second appearance in the Bond series, this time as Bond’s new CIA buddy, Jack Wade. Only eight years prior, Baker played Brad Whitaker, a principal villain in The Living Daylights, and the decision to recast him in a new, reoccurring role is mystifying, especially considering his limited acting chops. The need to invent a new CIA agent, rather than simply re-imagining Felix Leiter for the new series, is equally puzzling.
The only actor to officially reprise a role from previous movies in the series is Desmond Llewelyn, back in his fourteenth turn as Q. Both the character and the actor are so beloved that it might have seemed sacrilegious to recast the part while Llewelyn was still breathing, but the eighty-one year old, who struggled with technical language even in his prime, speaks too slowly here, and at times is noticeably reading from cue cards. It might have been smart to make his expanded role in Licence to Kill his swansong, and to introduce a new Q along with a new M. In any event, Llewelyn and Brosnan share zero onscreen chemistry, and there's no sense of a shared history between them. This lack of the old dynamic enables Q to have more of a sense of humor and perspective about his work, but the clunky scene comes across as little more than a lame tribute to the actor and his character.
Another unfortunate aspect is the film’s dated use of technology, both onscreen and off. The plot relies heavily on computer graphics and Internet-based intrigue, which look cheesy and primitive, even by the standards of the day. The special effects blend CGI with traditional models, miniatures, and matte paintings. At times, the combination works well, but other times it creates effects that are worse than the weakest bluescreen efforts of the Roger Moore era. The picture’s most lavish set piece is the destruction of the villain’s lair, a giant submerged radar dish that rivals the series’ best mega-sets, like Blofeld’s hollowed-out volcano in You Only Live Twice and Stromberg’s Atlantis in The Spy Who Loved Me. The bulk of the sequences on this installation are achieved with practical physical effects, but digital enhancements make the hand-to-hand fights on the giant dish more exciting and reasonably realistic. With the exception of the tank chase and the opening airplane jump, Campbell and his teams stage the bulk of the action well. GoldenEye is the only movie in the series edited by the great Terry Rawlings (Alien, Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner), and he may be responsible for much of what works about the picture in terms of its pace and energy.
Where GoldenEye fails most profoundly is its effort to explore Bond’s psychological make-up. Despite a profusion of women who dress Bond down, and a villain who knows exactly what makes him tick, the only insight into 007’s psychology is a speech from Trevelyan in which he asks Bond if all the vodka martinis he consumes could ever silence the screams of all the men he’s killed. Instead of revealing interactions that deepen our understanding of 007, the writers insult us with simpleminded scenes like the one in which Bond sits on an impossibly beautiful beach, gazing out at the sea and contemplating the grim fact that he's going to have to hunt down and murder his old friend. Simonova’s bikini-clad crotch enters the frame at his eye level and when she sits down and asks Bond how he can be so cold, he responds, “It’s what keeps me alive.” This hokey self-analysis is completely out of character for the tight-lipped action hero, and it runs counter to everything else he does in the film. The incident only exists to try to infuse the movie with a complexity that just isn't there. When Brosnan initially accepted the part, he repeatedly claimed that he was looking forward to exploring James Bond’s inner life and deepening the role over his tenure. But this obtuse seaside confession is the closest Brosnan ever got to that goal. Not until Daniel Craig took over the part would Bond lovers see a more textured and nuanced 007.
Perhaps Brosnan was saddled with an unachievable task in this and his three other pictures: to embody and combine all the best elements of each previous Bond actor, with none of their drawbacks. The film practically begs fans and critics to attribute to Brosnan all the charisma and edge of Sean Connery, as well as the elegance and humor of Roger Moore. The producers, writers, and star certainly hoped to construct a Bond that appealed to the largest possible audience. But what made Connery and Moore, as well as Lazenby and Dalton, distinctive is that they didn't try to be all things to all people. Brosnan, on the other hand, plays the role like a blank piece of paper, onto which each individual viewer can project whatever the character means to him or her. I find this actor’s take on the role to be almost totally devoid of personality. He's an attractive but wooden action figure, robotically driving cars, shooting guns, jumping off structures, and delivering Feirstein's weak one-liners at the designated moments.
But given the box office receipts, it’s clear that the strategy worked. Regardless of my objections, Brosnan’s mission to rescue the faltering franchise was a huge success. GoldenEye was the first Bond film younger audience members would see in a theater. Far more vivid than the ancient relics they had watched on TV or VHS, it washed away the collective perception that Bond was passé. Reviews were overwhelmingly favorable, although many critics settled for repeating the canned observations the screenwriters had placed in the actor’s mouths, never bothering to question if the movie actually addressed or explored any of the issues it raised. The producers, delighted with the film’s outcome, immediately set about preparing Brosnan’s next outing as 007, determined to get the series back onto its reliable and lucrative biannual pace. Unfortunately, the next three deplorable James Bond pictures would make GoldenEye seem like a cinematic masterpiece.
Tomorrow Never Dies, the first Bond movie made after the death of Albert R. Broccoli, ought to serve as a salute to the beloved producer. Instead, it's a black stain on his legacy. The film is so irredeemably bad that it verges on parody, with a script overcrowded with stale tropes and gimmicks, superficial characters, self-referential dialogue, clumsy humor, and overblown action sequences. In my estimation it's the single worst entry in the entire Bond canon.
After the tremendous financial success of GoldenEye, MGM, solvent once again and now under the leadership of mega-billionaire hotel and real-estate mogul Kirk Kerkorian, rushed the follow-up into production. Money was no object—the lavish $110 million budget was the biggest of any Bond movie to date—but time was of the essence. All parties involved were eager to keep the momentum going. They picked a release date of December 6, 1997, less than two years after Brosnan's debut as 007, and, not coincidentally, the same day as the new MGM's initial public stock offering.
Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli hoped that Martin Campbell would sign up for a second film, but the director didn't relish the thought of working on two Bond pictures in a row, especially with the clock ticking down to the ironclad release date, and he declined. After scoring big with Brosnan and getting the series back on track, the producers might have expected to get their pick of directors—maybe John Woo would be ready to tackle Bond by now. But without the luxury of waiting for A-list directors' schedules to open up, they settled for Roger Spottiswoode. The British-Canadian filmmaker began his career working with legendary directors Sam Peckinpah (as co-editor of Straw Dogs and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and Walter Hill (as editor of Hard Times and co-writer of 48 Hrs.), but his own directorial oeuvre consisted of mostly dubious cinematic works like Turner and Hooch, Air America, and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
With no Fleming material left to develop, the producers needed an entirely original story and screenplay generated as fast as possible. Of the four young scribes hired to write GoldenEye, Bruce Feirstein was the least responsible for the script's structure, plot, and characters. His chief contributions had been polishing the dialogue and penning Bond's feeble one-liners. He had never written a screenplay from scratch in his life. Nevertheless, Wilson and Broccoli made the bewildering decision to assign him the bulk of the dramaturgical duties for the new film. Feirstein, a freelance columnist published in many noteworthy newspapers and magazines, heeded the “write what you know” advice given to all first-time screenwriters and created a story set in the world of journalism. For his main villain, he devised Elliot Carver, a media mogul and mega-publisher in the vein of William Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdoch. The producers wanted Anthony Hopkins for the role, but when Hopkins refused to commit to an unfinished script, they were only too happy to settle for the versatile Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Glengarry Glen Ross, Evita). Perhaps Pryce, a veteran of Terry Gilliam's erratic filmmaking style, assumed that all Bond movies were made as hurriedly and haphazardly as Tomorrow Never Dies. Regardless, Pryce would come to regret his involvement with the troubled picture, as would television actress and pin-up girl Teri Hatcher, who plays Carver's wife, Paris.
The filmmakers' best idea was getting Hong Kong action star Michelle Yeoh (Police Story 3: Super Cop, Yes, Madam) to play Colonel Wai Lin, fellow spy and principal Bond girl. Feirstein’s plot centers on Carver engineering an international war for his own personal gain, much as Hearst allegedly did by provoking the Spanish–American War in his newspapers. Since China was one of the warring countries in the script, the producers seized the opportunity to bring in Yeoh, who was extremely popular with Asian moviegoers at the time. This casting was not only a coup for the picture but for Yeoh herself, who had yet to break into American films. Unfortunately, Western safety regulations and insurance liability restrictions prevented her from performing most of her signature stunt work at the level she was used to. Fans excited by the potential of Yeoh bringing her distinctive athleticism and dexterity to a 007 movie were deeply disappointed to see her so hamstrung. As romantic leads, Yeoh and Brosnan share no onscreen chemistry. Their competitiveness is utterly devoid of any sexual frisson, and their supposedly amusing bickering comes off as the stuff of lame buddy pictures. The fact that English is not Yeoh’s first language and Brosnan is a stiff actor to begin with further dampens the proceedings.
Brosnan’s scenes with Teri Hatcher are similarly wooden, but just as with Price and Yeoh, the fault here lies more with dubious judgments made by the producers and studio than with any specific talent limitations on the star’s part. Hatcher is the first in a string of ill-advised departures from traditional Bond-girl casting. With a few exceptions, most notably Diana Rigg and Honor Blackman, Bond girls were played by relative unknowns. Seeing these alluring ingénues make their big-screen debuts was always part of the fun of each new 007 movie. In the mid-'90s, however, studio executives came up with the idea of casting actresses with marquee value, hoping their established names and faces would sell even more tickets. Young TV watchers knew Hatcher as Lois Lane from Lois and Clark, ABC's romantic comedy take on Superman. She was one of the first celebrities to become an Internet sensation when a promotional photo from the show, in which she wore nothing but Superman’s cape, set a record for the most downloaded image on the Internet for six consecutive months. Slightly older TV viewers remembered Hatcher from her lone guest appearance on the celebrated sitcom Seinfeld, as a woman Jerry Seinfeld dates and then considers breaking up with after he learns she may have fake breasts. Hatcher’s departing line—“And by the way, they’re real . . . and they're spectacular”—became one of the most-quoted catchphrases from a series that had already made multiple contributions to the American pop idiom.
Using a well-known actress as Bond’s secondary love interest brought with it far more headaches than benefits. Within the juggernaut of a 007 movie, the more established the stars that populate the picture, the harder it is to make the changes that are inevitably necessary when going into production without a workable screenplay. Spottiswoode enlisted several writer friends to punch up Feirstein’s unworkable script before and even during shooting, a group of talented scribes that included Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II, IV, and VI) and Daniel Petrie, Jr. (Beverly Hills Cop, The Big Easy). These last-minute revisions did more harm than good. The final narrative is riddled with holes, in part because Hatcher and Price (rightly) took umbrage to the rewrites and demanded their own changes. Everything was further muddled after test audiences reacted with pronounced distain towards Hatcher, which prompted additional cuts and adjustments that made Paris Carver’s motivations laughably illogical.
There's plenty of labored, embarrassing, and ridiculous dialogue in the Bond franchise, but the actors in Tomorrow Never Dies get the worst of it. In an egregious example of inconceivable office banter, Miss. Moneypenny refers to Bond as a “cunning linguist.” This juvenile double entendre would be bad enough, but when M overhears the exchange, Moneypenny says, “Don’t ask,” to which M replies “Don’t tell.”—excruciating repartee that makes me cringe more than any of Roger Moore's chauvinistic quips or Sean Connery's forced sexual encounters. There's a constant stream of these strained exchanges between nearly every character, with enough intentionally quotable lines for six or eight Bond movies. But beyond the abysmal badinage, the writing and plotting feel bizarrely dated—certainly today, but even at the time the film was released. Although the dastardly Carver heads a multimedia empire, he's principally a newspaperman, a form of journalism that was already on the wane even in 1997. When Carver proclaims that “Words are the new weapons,” or, when cackling maniacally about a fabricated news story, he crows, “A billion people around this planet will watch it, hear it, and read about it,” the lines sounds absurdly out of touch with the times.
Worse than the verbal exchanges are the pathetic attempts to make Bond’s famous gadgets and action sequences seem innovative and fresh after seventeen films. There's no more conspicuous offender than Q’s remote control car. In a typically awkward episode, the gadget master presents 007 with a new BMW and demonstrates how it can be driven by remote control. Q has great difficulty maneuvering the car, but Bond masters the controller the second he touches it, an aptitude he puts to use in a tiresome chase set in a parking garage. Typical of the Brosnan years, we never sense that Bond is ever in any actual danger during this sequence, and the logic of the pursuit is so nonsensical it prevents us from sharing any of Bond's delight in his new toy. To make matters worse, we must accept the notion that Q has apparently equipped the BMW to provide consumer-grade, German-accented vocal instructions and warnings to its operator. The humor is as lame as the required suspension of disbelief is gargantuan. To his credit, Spottiswoode makes Desmond Llewelyn appear less decrepit than Martin Campbell did in GoldenEye's agonizing Q scene, covering the aging actor's simplified lines in brief close-ups rather than long tracking shots. But the exchange is a throwaway, and the stiff Brosnan is once again left with nothing substantial to play. This, in a nutshell, is the problem with Brosnan’s James Bond: while the actor brought little personality to the role, the real fault lies with the writers and producers, who placed him in one bland, ill-conceived situation after another. During this era the formerly dashing and quick-witted 007 was reduced to an indestructible android, programmed to be clever and charming by technicians who are neither.
There are other miscalculations in Tomorrow Never Dies. The pre-credit sequence indicated a problematic trend that hobbled the series for years to come. With the help of cell phones, satellite cameras, and immense, all-seeing monitors, M and the entire MI6 support team can now remain in touch with Bond as he undertakes his missions. It's meant to seem up-to-date and cutting-edge, but the digital tether further strips Bond of his independence. It's in the character’s nature to bristle under authority, but since he’s being constantly surveilled, he must either directly disobey his superiors or else fool them when he's compelled to follow his own instincts. Since his instincts usually prove correct, M and the home office inevitably wind up looking stupid.
The filmmakers re-envisioned M when they cast Dame Judi Dench in the role, but they could not stick to their creative resolutions about her. In GoldenEye, a glowering M scolds Bond for his barbaric misogyny and his use of sex as a weapon of espionage, but in Tomorrow Never Dies she outright orders him to seduce Carver’s wife and “pump her for information.” Maybe M warmed to Bond’s unique abilities after he saved the world in the last movie and again in this picture’s preposterous opening, but nothing in Dench’s performance conveys this. In any case, by the next film, M would resume warning 007 against relying on sex to achieve his objectives. Her vacillations on this long-running Bond question add to the schizophrenic nature of the Brosnan years and betray the insecurity of the filmmakers, who sometimes tried to update their material to reflect contemporary social values and sometimes celebrated the archaic male-fantasy traditions of the original movies. They can’t have it both ways, and their inability to commit to one direction or another throughout the 1990s is the single biggest problem with the series during that decade.
Tomorrow Never Dies adheres slavishly to the Bond formula, with every trope firmly in place. There’s a larger than life evil adversary bent on world domination, a secret underground hideout, and a formidable blond henchman. There's a briefing with M, the gadget car from Q, one Bond girl disposed to villainy and another who is a reluctant ally, and abundant gunplay and fisticuffs. But all of it feels implausible and unexceptional, a loud and relentless collection of increasingly bigger explosions. In the film's final scene, ripped straight from the 007 screenwriter’s handbook, Bond and his leading lady are floating in the ocean, waiting to be rescued after destroying the villain’s lair. But Bond's resolve to forgo the rescue in favor of a few more moments of kissyface with his paramour is completely ludicrous. Rather than choosing to float away in a rowboat under the warm Jamaica sun, as Bond and Honey Rider do in Dr. No, here Bond and Wai Lin are clinging to burnt, oily wreckage in the middle of the South China Sea at night—there's just no way they’re not scrambling towards the battleship that’s looking for them. The filmmakers here seem to believe audiences are willing to swallow anything as long as it's the basic fare we anticipate. But the goal in a cinematic enterprise this long-running should be to figure out ways to meet our expectations and then surpass them, not simply repeat the past in a way that's louder, dumber, and lazier.
Even the better choices don't work out because every attempt to improve on one aspect of the material diminishes another. It’s always a good idea to write the Bond girl as tough and resourceful, as 007's talented equal instead of a bimbo for him to rescue. The Spy Who Loved Me mined a great deal of humor in finding ways for Roger Moore and Barbara Bach to one-up each other. But Wai Lin is a vastly superior spy to Bond in every conceivable respect. She's not only a better physical fighter, and more well informed by her government, she's a more capable secret agent, able to go undercover and infiltrate Carver’s network without resorting to the risky tactic of seducing his wife (who, after all, has no reason to betray her husband with a man from her past that she doesn’t really like). It's unthinkable for another agent to best Bond at every turn, but there's no denying that Wai Lin is leaner, smarter, nimbler, and all-around more competent. She outmaneuvers him whether they're competing, collaborating, or simply bantering, all of which just makes 007 seem irrelevant and unnecessary in the modern world.
Apparently the title was supposed to be Tomorrow Never Lies, a reference to Carver’s publication and its motto, but when an MGM executive misread the text on a smudged fax, the studio insisted on changing the name to the edgier-sounding Tomorrow Never Dies. This generic phrase, which has no connection to any of the characters or story elements, is the worst title in the series since A View to a Kill. It’s also the first Bond movie title that isn't somehow derived from Ian Fleming's universe. The World Is Not Enough would have made much more sense: it's both the Bond family motto and an apt slogan for the power-mad Carver. Sadly, that title would be squandered on the next picture, again without any real relationship to anything in that film's narrative. And so, fittingly, all the Brosnan Bonds with the exception of GoldenEye have meaningless, interchangeable titles, which only emphasize the incomprehensibility of their plots and the banality of their characters and set pieces.
The producers commissioned two titles songs for this opus, one by composer David Arnold, sung by Canadian crooner kd lang, and the second written and performed by pop rocker Sheryl Crow. Arnold's song “Surrender” is a superior theme in every way, and its melodies are intertwined throughout the score, but the box-office obsessed studio went with Crow's more commercial song to accompany the opening credits. At least Arnold’s soundtrack is a major step up from Éric Serra’s efforts on the previous film. The thirty-five year-old composer/producer was hired at the behest of John Barry, who was impressed with a 1997 album called Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project, in which Arnold produced modern arrangements of classic Bond title songs and recorded them with contemporary rock and electronic artists. Arnold would stay on to score the next four pictures, with passable if never outstanding results. Daniel Kleinman returned to design the title sequence, but his work on this film had none of the excitement or innovative visuals he brought to GoldenEye.
Critics did not embrace Tomorrow Never Dies the way they fawned over GoldenEye, but it did do well at the box office. Though many fans and non-fans judge the picture harshly, I haven’t found a single reviewer as dismissive of it as I am. Few people rank it among the worst five films in the series, let alone at the bottom of their list. I had only seen the movie once (true of my experience with all the ‘90s Bonds) when I began writing this essay, and I remembered Die Another Day, the final Brosnan entry, as the weakest of the James Bond pictures. (After all, I thought, Tomorrow Never Dies at least has Jonathan Pryce and Michelle Yeoh, right?) But after rescreening all the films, I was amazed at how arduous this one is to endure and how much potential it wastes. The usually redoubtable Pryce is dreadful as Carver: he’s not threatening, he lacks panache, and his dialogue is unforgivably stupid. Barred from showing off her signature stunts to the degree she was capable of, Michelle Yeoh adds little value to the proceedings. Presumably as a consequence of all the mid-production rewriting, Teri Hatcher’s character comes off as a totally artificial construct. Her performance is conspicuously inconsistent from one scene to the next, and she's saddled with such a heap of terrible one-liners that I don't hesitate to declare her the worst Bond girl of all time. (I’ll take Denise Richards as Christmas Jones over Paris Carver any day.) And the supporting actors, including Ricky Jay (House of Games, Homicide, Boogie Nights), Vincent Schiavelli (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Amadeus, Ghost), and Geoffrey Palmer (Dench’s co-star in the BBC romantic sitcom As Time Goes By) are similarly squandered.
But perhaps the oddest thing about the picture is it’s lethargic pace. The fights, chases, exchanges of dialogue, and even the cuts from beat to beat feel like they're happening underwater. The actors move and speak as slowly as if they’ve been weighted down with lead, or injected with Haldol, all of which is especially incongruous in this famously zippy series. The fault can only lie with Spottiswoode, since the rest of the GoldenEye production team remained intact for this film. But it's still difficult to imagine any director making an action movie this frustratingly listless. The closing credits of Tomorrow Never Dies bear a dedication to Albert R. Broccoli. Removing his name entirely from this abomination would have been a far more loving tribute.
After the rock bottom of Tomorrow Never Dies, the Bond series had nowhere to go but up. It was obvious by now that audiences were again willing to pay to see whatever the producers churned out, as long as it delivered the expected tropes. Therefore the company apparently felt like taking some risks. For Brosnan’s third outing, they wanted to explore Bond’s emotional makeup more deeply than in previous pictures. Barbara Broccoli hired Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, a writing team known for the acclaimed British docudrama Let Him Have It and the darkly comedic historical thriller Plunkett and Macleane, to craft the script. Purvis and Wade shook up the 007 formula in a number of ways, most noticeably with the inventive decision to give the heavy and the Bond girl a shared past. The villainous Renard (Robert Carlyle) is a KGB agent turned freelance terrorist who kidnapped oil heiress Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) when she was a teenager and held her for ransom. Elektra's father, Sir Robert King (David Calder), happens to be an old friend of M's, further interweaving the narrative threads and involving 007’s boss more directly in the storyline. When Sir Robert turns up murdered in the halls of MI6, M takes a personal interest in the detective mission she assigns to Bond, even venturing into the field with him to help find the killer.
Casting two talented up-and-comers as Renard and Elektra solidified the writers' bold and innovative choices. The producers chose Carlyle, the fierce, diminutive Scottish actor known for Riff Raff, Trainspotting, and The Full Monty to play Renard, and as Elektra they cast Marceau, the bright and beguiling French star of La Boum, Pacific Palisades, and Braveheart. Steering clear of more traditional options, Wilson and Broccoli brought on Michael Apted to direct. The prolific 58-year-old British filmmaker was best known for a series of documentaries known collectively as The “Up” Series, as well as for performance-driven dramas like Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, and Nell. Hiring an established “actors’ director” seemed like another step towards the goal of turning out a more intelligent, substantial, and satisfying Bond movie. Sadly, the resulting picture turned out to be much less than the sum of its parts.
The film opens with a long pre-credit sequence—the longest in the series, in fact. The World Is Not Enough's storyline is more complex than in the typical Bond film, and so this opening does the work of setting up the main plot and characters, rather than serving as its own mini-adventure. There's a boat chase on the River Thames, with newly built London landmarks like the Millennium Dome and the London Eye as the backdrop. The teaser’s climax has Bond leaping onto the mooring rope of a hot air balloon in pursuit of a fleeing assassin. It's all reasonably entertaining, but what's most notable is the apparent absence of CGI, used to such distracting effect in the previous two pictures' stunts. Even if this beginning isn’t particularly groundbreaking, at least it feels real.
Next up is another uninspired Daniel Kleinman title sequence, evoking, as usual, the iconography and gist of the narrative, which centers on Elektra’s effort to build an oil pipeline and dominate the global energy market. The visual motifs are of oozing petroleum and pumping derricks, which turn out to be even less sexy than the computer chips and circuit boards of Tomorrow Never Dies. And the sequence, in which naked women drown in shimmering pools of oil like birds or marine life in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill, easily ranks as the ugliest of the series. The Scottish-American alt-rock band Garbage performs the theme song, “The World is Not Enough,” written by composer David Arnold and lyricist Don Black (who also wrote "Thunderball," "Diamonds Are Forever," and "The Man with the Golden Gun"). Like the movie, the song is lugubrious, dull, and forgettable.
The script is equally problematic. Like the prior film, TWINE had too many writers addressing too many competing demands, but things are even more snarled this time around. It's puzzling to see the issue resurface, since by now the franchise had a long-standing tradition of employing multiple scribes to revise each other's work. Once again, I can only assume that the majority of the blame lies with Bruce Feirstein, whose final draft is a mess—riddled with structural deficiencies, redundant sequences, and baffling gaps in plot. It's as if Feirstein tossed all the pages of Purvis's and Wade's various drafts into a wind tunnel, reassembled the resulting pile at random, and called it a day. The scenes with ex-Russian Mafioso Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) exemplify this narrative hodgepodge. Zukovsky was great when we first met him in GoldenEye, but his random, drawn-out appearance in this movie makes no sense in the context of the story. In some discarded script draft, the writers must have dreamed up some fraught history between Zukovsky and Elektra and/or Bond, because I can't discern any other rationale for the three character’s encounter in the crime boss's opulent gambling den (besides providing an obligatory casino sequence). It's a payoff with no set-up, and there's no question that the entire interlude should have been excised. The filmmakers presumably shot and included it anyway because Coltrane had already been hired, the set constructed, and the production days scheduled.
The Q scene, which comes completely out of nowhere when the idle, missionless 007 simply strolls into the gadgetmaster’s workshop for a chat, gives a similar impression of narrative disarray. While the film's momentum screeches to a halt while Bond and Q banter, at least in this case there’s a reason to slow down the proceedings: The World Is Not Enough marked the last time Desmond Llewelyn appeared as MI6's iconic quartermaster. The producers wisely chose not to recast another actor as Q, opting instead to introduce his “young assistant,” played by the then-sixty-year-old John Cleese (Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda). The British comedy legend is delightfully fussy while managing to never upstage Llewelyn, inspiring confidence that he'll be a worthy successor to the role of Bond's disgruntled armorer. Incidentally, the 85-year-old Llewelyn had no plans to formally retire after this picture, but he was tragically killed in a car accident shortly after the film’s release, making his unadorned final moments here all the more appropriate and poignant.
So many intriguing moments, strong characters, and rich thematic ideas fail to deliver on their promise. It's possible that all of the various storylines connected in the drafts in which they originated. But Feirstein appears never to have learned one of screenwriting’s principal dictates: each scene must lead directly to the next, with a deliberate, if not always visible, cause-and-effect relationship. Here, key plot points occur off-screen, uninspired action sequences bloat what should be simple exposition, character motivations are deplorably unclear, and even the actors' performances change dramatically from beat to beat as if they’re constantly shifting back and forth among different drafts.
Robert Carlyle's Renard turns out to be an utterly insubstantial villain, so it's fitting that the first time we see him, in a deeply flawed briefing scene, he's a hologram. It’s always preferable to learn about a character by observing them rather than watching other people talk about them, as Bond and his superiors do here. But the excruciating long exposition doesn’t even set up anything that will become vital later in the film. We learn that MI6 has tried to assassinate Renard once before, that the agent assigned to kill him only managed to lodge a bullet in his brain, and that as a result Renard has become impervious to physical pain. “That sounds fearsome,” thinks the viewer. “Bond will need to be resourceful if he's going to stop Renard from wreaking whatever havoc he intends.” And that's why it verges on betrayal when the only time we see Renard's freakish and riveting (if far-fetched) power in action is when he uses his bare hands to casually pick up some hot coals. This insensibility to pain never comes into play at any other point in the picture, not even during the climactic fistfight between Renard and 007 himself. How can we trust filmmakers who squander so toothsome an opportunity, display such a profound failure of imagination, and so egregiously fail to honor the audience's expectations? It's an unforgivable breach of contract between moviemaker and moviegoer.
Elektra King is just as badly wasted. Besides her own rich and troubled psychology, King has history with M and makes an emotional connection with Bond, all of which could have made her one of the most unusual and memorable women in the series. But she too suffers from the convoluted, erratic narrative. Not enough screen time gets devoted to exploring the reasons why Bond is so drawn to her, or the difficult choices he has to make when he learns about her internal conflicts and motivations. More one-on-one scenes between Bond and Electra would have enriched her character, as well as 007, the movie, and the entire series.
It’s a shame TWINE is such an otherwise dismal picture, because the filmmakers' emphasis on story and psychology over empty spectacle is commendable. Purvis and Wade come up with some novel ideas. In addition to the ties between Renard, Elektra, and M, the writers give Bond a physical injury, making him more vulnerable, and he becomes emotionally involved with his leading lady before getting sexually involved with her. Not only do these story elements challenge Brosnan as an actor, they also give Judi Dench as M more to do than merely scold Bond when she’s angry with him or gloat at her colleagues when he does something that makes her proud. Unfortunately, it falls apart in the execution. Dench comes off badly once again, particularly when she ventures out of MI6 and into the field. The problems again arise due to the ham-fisted writing. As in the preceding two films, a chance to define and deepen the M character gets sacrificed in order to make Bond look good, or at least attempt to. M comes off as a bit dimwitted, or maybe blinded by emotion, but certainly less shrewd than the spy chief ought to be. Eventually, she's reduced to waiting around in a jail cell for the hero to rescue her.
This weak and inconsistent rendering of M is one of the biggest blunders of the ‘90s Bond films. Dench never comes across like a sharp, authoritative administrator the way Bernard Lee did in the '60s. The writers and producers of the ‘90s and aughts failed to understand that the original audience didn’t admire James Bond because he was a rebel who flagrantly disobeyed his chief, or because he was smarter, tougher, and cooler than everyone else around him. The appealing thing about 1960s James Bond was that he was the best agent in a grand, mysterious, and highly proficient clandestine network of incredibly skilled individuals. He may have been cocky, and he frequently disobeyed orders, but his ultimate allegiance was to the service, and he respected his chief as an authority figure, someone wiser than himself. TWINE could have deepened the relationship between Bond and M as they helped each other through crises both professional and personal, and developed a mutual appreciation for the other's particular skills. Alas, the filmmakers weren't able to crack the M/Bond relationship until Dench's final appearance in the role thirteen years later.
The most unanimously disparaged feature of this movie is the nuclear physicist Christmas Jones, played by Denise Richards. Although I don't think she does more damage to this film than Lois Chiles’s Holly Goodhead or Tanya Roberts’s Stacey Sutton do to theirs, I do understand the popular consensus that Jones is the worst Bond girl of all time. In keeping with the longstanding tradition of giving Bond two leading ladies, the writers probably created her both to explain thorny plot points and to provide the requisite flirtatious banter. But by shamelessly casting a lightweight starlet in the role, the producers demonstrated their failure to learn anything from Tomorrow Never Dies, in which Teri Hatcher’s casting backfired terribly. At least Hatcher was credible as a billionaire’s trophy wife, but Richards as a nuclear physicist asks too much of viewers. It’s not that beautiful young women can’t convincingly play scientists, engineers, or technicians—as the computer programmer Natalya Simonova in GoldenEye, Izabella Scorupco is one of the most plausible Bond girls of the series. But choosing an actress known as mere eye-candy was asking for trouble. It doesn’t help that unlike the appropriately attired Scorupco, Richards spends the bulk of the movie dressed in a green tank top and hot pants.
Many who love the Bond series consider The World Is Not Enough amongst its worst entries. In addition to all the narrative problems, it showcases some of the weakest action sequences in the entire Bond canon. Apart from the opening boat chase with its hot air balloon showdown, the movie contains the most forgettable of the series' many ski chases, an abundance of uninspired shoot-'em-ups and fisticuffs, and a high-speed escape down an oil pipeline in which Brosnan and Richards are obviously doing nothing more thrilling than sitting in front of a green screen. Again, the lack of excitement in these set pieces probably has little to do with Apted’s limited skills as an action director; the fault lies squarely with the screenplay. And the film's final line easily qualifies as the most childish of all Bond’s “comedic” plays-on-words.
Many who claim that it took both Sean Connery and Roger Moore three pictures to fully own the Bond role hoped Brosnan would completely gel in his third time out as 007. But while TWINE is the best of his four performances, the disjointed script and drudgerous scenes with Richards limited what he could achieve. Few actors could have transcended the limitations of a film franchise that had lost its way so badly. Brosnan simply wasn't sufficiently skilled or dynamic to navigate the competing creative and financial currents of the producers and studio. His four-picture deal meant that he was stuck with the role, and we were stuck with him, for one last dreadful movie.
Brosnan’s last appearance as 007 also marks the series’ fortieth anniversary and its twentieth installment, but Die Another Day goes beyond failing to honor the great entertainment legacy of which it is part and qualifies as a full-fledged disgrace. To direct the picture, Wilson and Broccoli made the untraditional choice of New Zealand filmmaker Lee Tamahori. The director’s début feature Once Were Warriors, a gritty chronicle of the domestic and racial tribulations of New Zealand’s native Māori people, from whom Tamahori is descended, received acclaim for its performances. Critics and audiences were not as kind to the director’s Hollywood efforts, the muddled cop drama Mulholland Falls and the underrated wilderness thriller The Edge. Like the prior three Bond directors, Tamahori received too many conflicting demands as part of his 007 assignment. The plot, concocted by returning screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, at first deviates substantially from the customary Bond template but quickly reverts to formula. In yet another disastrous example of trying to have their cake and eat it too, the producers attempted to accomplish something original and boundary-pushing with the character and franchise while simultaneously paying homage to all nineteen of the preceding films. The result is yet another Brosnan Bond picture that tries to stand out but takes no actual risks.
As with the previous couple of movies, the pre-credit sequence both launches the story and introduces many of the key players, including the villain, a rogue North Korean army colonel named Tan-Sun Moon (Will Yun Lee), and his henchman, the terrorist Zao (Rick Yune). Even after multiple viewings, it’s hard for me to recall a single detail about this bland beginning, apart from the initial images of 007 and his team surfing into North Korea, the series’ most demonstrably fake example of process photography since the cable car fight in Moonraker. What makes this teaser distinctive from the nineteen that preceded it is that Bond is totally unsuccessful in his task. Although he manages to kill Colonel Moon, or at least appears to, Bond is captured by Moon’s father General Moon (Kenneth Tsang), and borne off to a secret prison.
Thus begins the most bizarre opening credits in the entire series. Rather than foreshadow the motifs and imagery of the film’s narrative, this title sequence aims to fill us in on what happened to Bond between the events of the teaser and the story proper. In a breezy, music-video montage fashion, it conveys the horrendous torture 007 experiences for the fourteen months he’s held by the North Koreans. Perhaps to help emphasize the agony he experiences at the hands of his captors, the titles are set to the single worst song in the Bond canon. “Die Another Day,” written by the aging but still formidable pop megastar Madonna and her co-producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï, is entirely unlike all earlier Bond title songs, which tend to feature rich brass or string orchestrations and sonorous vocals. This song, by contrast, is built around a sparse, minimal techno dance groove, an incongruous musical genre and production style that feels all the more inappropriate for this anniversary picture. The vocals are processed almost beyond recognition, using a then-trendy digital pitch correction technique that makes Madonna's voice sound computer-generated. And the lyrics are incoherent and have no relevance to either the story or the credit sequence visuals, which miss the mark just as badly as the song does. Daniel Klienman’s titles are a mishmash of computer-generated nonsense and footage of Brosnan undergoing waterboarding, scorpions, fire, and other forms of enhanced interrogation. Presumably the implied horrors of POW torture can coexist with the usual imagery of sexy silhouetted naked girls, because Klienman mixes both with the credits. Though I doubt it’s what happened, the film footage we see of Bond’s ordeal looks like deleted but still-necessary scenes that were folded into the titles at the last minute. Like the iconic title sequences of the best Bond movies, this failed attempt to bring off something daring and different sets the template for the picture that follows.
When the credits end, we jump forward in time. Bond and Zao are exchanged in a prisoner swap. Then, in lieu of the customary M’s office scene, Bond’s boss visits him in his prison hospital cell. The M from The World Is Not Enough, with whom 007 seemed to get along reasonably well, has been replaced by the more familiar ice-cold, disapproving Judi Dench version. Believing Bond gave up sensitive information while in captivity, M revokes his double-0 status, telling him he's no longer of use to anyone. To prove her assumption wrong, after she leaves, Bond wills his heart to stop beating, prompting his doctors to unlock the door and rush in to attend to him; once they're inside, he somehow restores himself to full strength, overpowers everyone, and escapes, though not before gracing the room with a pithy one-liner. Bond has managed many a spectacular feat of derring-do in his past adventures, but this one simply goes too far. He's a superspy, not a superhuman, and imbuing him with sovereignty over his primary internal organs violates an unspoken contract between the filmmakers and the fans. It's a dismaying and desperate misstep.
Back from the dead, Bond heads to Cuba to hunt for a British double agent whom he thinks set him up. In a tip of the hat to Birds of the West Indies by James Bond (the author whose name Ian Fleming borrowed to give his secret agent an ordinary and bland moniker), 007 disguises himself as an ornithologist. The movie’s writers would have us believe that any and all psychological trauma induced during Bond’s fourteen months of captivity and torture disappear as soon as he shaves and soaks up some warm Havana sun; indeed, he's even randier than usual. The recipient of his ardor is Giacinta 'Jinx' Johnson, a Bond girl played by the undeniably ravishing Halle Barry. When we first glimpse Jinx, she emerges from the ocean with a knife strapped to her waist and wearing a revealing bikini. She looks every bit as stunningly sexy as Ursula Andress did when she rose from the sea four decades earlier as Honey Rider in Dr. No. But the spell is broken once Jinx begins to speak the stale, hackneyed dialogue we’ve come to expect from all characters in the ‘90s era 007 pictures.
Casting Barry was a smart move. Unlike the actresses of considerable repute but limited talent who had been shoehorned into the two previous pictures, Barry brought with her both marquee value and acting chops. She's the first Oscar winner to act in a Bond film since Christopher Walken in A View to A Kill. She’s also the first black leading lady to star opposite any 007 actor (Live and Let Die's Gloria Hendry, the first black Bond girl, was Bond’s expendable sidekick, and Grace Jones in A View to a Kill was the villain’s henchman who becomes Bond’s expendable sidekick).
Wilson, Broccoli, and MGM had such high hopes for Barry that they planned to spin Jinx off into her own parallel series, which Purvis and Wade began writing as soon as they completed work on Die Another Day. But the dream of a concurrent franchise is a classic example of cart-before-the-horse thinking, of which so many producers are guilty, and it was doomed from the start. Yes, Barry was popular, beautiful, and talented, but the EON team gave her almost nothing to work with. Jinx is thoroughly one-dimensional and bland, a slapped-together pastiche of antecedent Bond girls, beginning with Honey Rider (who, as envisioned in Fleming’s novel, could have sustained a fascinating feature spin-off). Jinx, however, is written so slightly she can barely qualify as a Bond girl, let alone carry her own movie series. Brosnan and Barry share as little on-screen chemistry as, well, Brosnan and every other one of his female co-stars. Their flirtatious banter is cringingly forced. I’ve spent plenty of time excoriating Bruce Feirstein’s strained and unforgivably juvenile one-liners and double entendres, but this film, in which Feirstein had no involvement, stoops to new lows. It’s no surprise MGM scrapped the Jinx picture shortly after Die Another Day opened.
After Bond seduces Jinx, they chase Zao to a mysterious gene therapy clinic, where we learn chilling backstory about the unhinged Korean killer. The heroes then part ways, and 007 returns to London, where we meet the movie’s principal villain. Toby Stevens plays Gustav Graves, a British entrepreneur who looks good in a suit and speaks entirely in lame catchphrases. Graves is second only to Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies as the worst villain in the series. Extensive plastic surgery and gene splicing have given him supernatural abilities, the specifics of which are downright laughable. Perhaps only a villain with magical powers could serve as a worthy foil for a hero who can stop and start his heart at will, but Graves feels ripped from a third-rate comic book. His plan to take over the world is convoluted and nonsensical, his physical and emotional scars are ridiculous contrivances, and his dialogue seems plagiarized from discarded fortune cookies. Colonel Moon would have been a much stronger choice for the main villain. Although the filmmakers clearly wanted to exploit Western fears about North Korea, they were either too apprehensive about political-correctness backlash, or too concerned that Western audiences would not be able to tell the difference between characters to commit to more than one Asian villain. Regardless, the generic and forgettable heavy is one more nail in this movie's coffin.
In London we also meet Graves’s assistant Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), who becomes Bond’s second love interest. Pike would go on to have one of the most successful careers of any of the actresses who made their film débuts in a Bond movie, but like Jinx, Frost is a shallow, transparent, and ill-defined cypher. It's the first, and worst, of many over or under written roles that the talented Pike proved unable to transcend in later pictures, including her appearance as Bruce Willis’ wife in Surrogates, her supporting turn as Tom Cruise’s ally in Jack Reacher, and her overblown but Oscar-nominated performance as Ben Affleck’s disappeared wife in David Fincher and Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl.
In terms of behavior, discourse, and action, Miranda Frost is as unconvincing as a crafty double agent as Christmas Jones was a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough and Stacey Sutton was as a qualified State Geologist in A View to a Kill. Nevertheless, in Frost, the writers create a character who makes Bond seem incompetent in much the same way as Wai Lin, the rival spy from Tomorrow Never Dies whose abilities so far exceeded Bond's. One convention of Die Another Day is that 007 possesses a sort of sixth sense and intuition, noticing things normal people can’t. But for some unexplained reason, he's blind to Frost's double-dealings. He doesn’t even notice when she removes the bullets from his gun during a post-coital moment. Maybe Frost scrambles Bond's spidey-sense because the writers made her actions so inexplicable. Her motivations vary from one scene to the next, and if she has a consistent agenda, it's impossible to discern. Frost gives the overall impression of being slapped on at the last minute, as if the producers didn't realize until the cameras started rolling that their movie was one Bond girl short.
It's not exactly a saving grace, but it's worth mentioning that Graves and Frost are both handy with a sword, and they look dashing in their fencing gear. The duel between Bond and Graves might be the film's best scene. Although it makes no more sense than anything else in the plot, the fight is well-staged, drawing us in past the point of caring about whether or not it's realistic. That particular Hitchcockian quality used to be a hallmark of the Bond series, and we get a fleeting glimpse of it here. Alas, after the skirmish ends, things get bad again in short order. A disgruntled M reinstates Bond’s license to kill and reluctantly assigns him to the case he’s already working on, which makes her seem even less sharp and authoritative than she ordinarily does. John Cleese then shows up in his first (and last) solo appearance as the new Q. Although the former Python shoulders the role as well as anyone could, he also bestows on 007 the most preposterous of all his preeminent gadgets: an Aston Martin that disappears at the press of a button. It's literally an invisible car. Believing in it as either feasible or useful is too much to ask of viewers—especially since Bond takes it to snowy Iceland, where his tire tracks are visible even if the car isn't. The customized Aston Martin is yet another attempt to pay homage to the series' past while concurrently one-upping it, and once again it's an abject failure.
When we do finally learn about the villain’s master plan, it turns out to be another disappointing paean: a weapon that recalls the diamond-powered laser satellite from Diamonds Are Forever. While I haven't bothered to count, apparently Die Another Day contains direct visual or spoken references to all nineteen of the previous EON productions, some more obscure than others. But far more distracting than the onslaught of nods to those superior predecessors is Die Another Day's gratuitous and embarrassing reliance on the primitive special effects of its time. The matte paintings and miniatures of the Sean Connery years, and even the crude blue-screen shots and obvious stuntman stand-ins of the Roger Moore era, look comparably more authentic than Die Another Day's sub-par CGI. In the most egregious instance of digital fakery, Bond parasails to safety after narrowly escaping death on a Nordic glacier. Nothing in this utterly ridiculous sequence comes off as credible. The Bond series is renowned for a twenty-year history of dazzling stunts, a combination of actual stunt work, judicious editing, and special effects trickery that made Bond's jaw-dropping escapades believable. It was clear that a real person actually performed most of what we saw, and that it was within the realm of human achievement, even if it wasn't the specific actor currently playing Bond. But the parasailing debacle offers nothing but unconvincing digital backdrops and cheesy CGI. More than anything else, the sequence dishonors the fortieth anniversary it purports to celebrate by violating the very traditions and conventions that made the Bond series so exceptional.
All told, almost everything in Die Another Day epitomizes what a dark stain the Pierce Brosnan years were on the legacy of 007: inept storytelling, imprudent casting, unconvincing special effects, flashy coverage, frenetic editing, a constant stream of meaningless explosions, excessive audience pandering, and the abasement of beloved stock characters (besides M and Q, Ms. Moneypenny is degraded beyond redemption in Die Another Day). I was ready to give up on Bond after this deplorable picture. But after its successful release, various external circumstances enabled the Broccolis to take some bold steps and usher the series into its next, more satisfying incarnation.
After four pictures ranging from mediocre to dreadful in the late nineties and early aughts, the James Bond franchise had become as trivial and irrelevant as many critics had been claiming since 1972. Producers Wilson and Broccoli seemed unable to fashion the characters or the plots in ways that satisfied in the post-Cold War, post-feminist era. The logical thing to do was to start over from scratch and reinvent the series in a more contemporary context. As luck would have it, the opportunity to produce an official film from Ian Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, finally came about, after yet another lawsuit involving Kevin McClory and his continued attempts to use his Thunderball screen rights to make rival James Bond movies. By the time the suit was settled, ownership of entire studios also changed hands. When Casino Royale became an official entry in the series (fifty-three years after publication of the novel) both the MGM and Columbia logos were at its head, but creative control rested solely with the Broccoli kids.
Fleming's short novel is taut and dark, with little action and pronounced 1950’s attitudes; thus many potential pitfalls awaited the producers regardless of how they tried to make the material more palatable for modern viewers. One course of action was to break entirely from the continuity of the film series and forge a stand-alone picture completely faithful to the book. This was the option favored by Quentin Tarantino, who expressed interest in the project once the rights reverted to the Broccolis. The famously verbose filmmaker talked to anyone who would listen about his vision for the movie, claiming he would set the picture in the 1950s and shoot it in black and white. While I love this idea, I have trouble envisioning a mainstream audience embracing it, but considering how well Tarantino adapted and altered Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch into Jackie Brown, I'm intrigued by what a Tarantino Bond film might have looked like.
The Broccolis were less brave (or grandiose) than Tarantino and considered simply doing Casino Royale as the next installment of the Pierce Brosnan series—though they acknowledged that the last of those films relied too heavily on CGI effects and technology-themed plots, and this title provided an opportunity for them to get back to basics. When the producers announced that the script would be authored by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the writers of the last two Bonds, and directed by GoldenEye’s Martin Campbell, I was pessimistic. But as soon as word came down the PR pipeline that Brosnan was stepping down, the script would adhere closely to the novel, and the film was intended to reboot the series, I started paying attention again.
By now, the search for a new Bond had happened so often that the general public found it less exciting or newsworthy than in earlier decades. All the actors under consideration were strong prospects. Future blockbuster stars Henry Cavill and Sam Worthington were both deemed too young, but either Goran Visnjic or Karl Urban would have changed the character in interesting ways. Clive Owen was the natural and expected choice, so it was a surprise to everyone when the announcement came that 007 would be played by Daniel Craig, known mostly for appearing as second banana to Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and for his role as the cold, stoic South African member of Yuval Aviv's assignation team in Steven Spielberg's Munich. From the get-go, enthusiasts and journalists reacted negatively, claiming Craig was too short, too blond, or too bland. Calls for a boycott of the film sprang up on the Internet, and hack journalists began second-guessing the producers in ways now requisite for nearly all blockbuster productions based on pre-existing properties.
But Wilson and Broccoli were smarter than these fans and journalists. Once Craig got the part, the screenwriters began tailoring their depiction of 007 to the actor’s stoic, no-nonsense screen image. This decision more than any other benefited the resulting picture by presenting a dynamic alternative to Brosnan’s glib and shallow take on the role and the smarmy, ageing lothario that still lingered in the audience’s collective memory from the Roger Moore years. Craig’s age (38) enables this picture to restart the series by depicting Casino Royale as Bond’s first assignment as a double-0 agent, though hardly his first mission as a soldier for the British government.
The filmmakers boldly omit many of the signature elements; including the opening gun barrel logo, the iconic “James Bond Theme,” the double-entendres and one-liners, and the well-known characters Q and Moneypenny. But most of the major roles, plot points, and sequences from Fleming’s book survive the update, as does the story’s dark tone. Title designer Daniel Kleinman references the playing-card imagery of the novel’s original British edition book jacket in his credit sequence. With the exception of the faces of the queens on the cards, Kleinman's titles (the first that live up to the promise he displayed in GoldenEye) forgo any female imagery, indicating that Bond's relationships with women in this movie will differ from preceding pictures. Despite the less than spectacular title song by David Arnold and Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell, this title sequence grabs and holds the attention of the viewer. The determination of Martin Campbell and cinematographer Phil Méheux to shoot the brief pre-credit sequence in a 1960s widescreen process with actual black-and-white film stock also helps declare that we are no longer watching the James Bond series of the 1990s.
Indeed, the only constituent ported over from the Brosnan era is Dame Judi Dench in the role of M. Though she is ostensibly playing the same character, her interactions with this novice 007 differ in key ways from the way she dealt with the Bond who pre-dated her in the four previous films. Though I consider it a mistake not to have commissioned a different English grande dame for this otherwise complete series overhaul, I do prefer the stern, maternal relationship Dench has with Craig’s inexperienced 007 to the haughty, scolding, and ultimately ineffectual schoolmarm she is with Brosnan’s older Bond. A female M who becomes Bond’s new boss is not as imposing as one who has been the head of the British Secret Service from the beginning, and the Bond/M dynamic in this picture plays more like Sean Connery’s and Bernard Lee’s in the original films.
Casting Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter proves less successful. Wright is an accomplished actor, with prominent roles in Basquiat, Syriana, and the HBO miniseries Angels in America, but he is oddly at sea here. His Leiter comes across as weak and clueless, the antithesis of the character in Fleming’s novel, and he wanders around the second half of the film as if he’s waiting and hoping (in vain, as it turns out) for a more substantive role in the next movie. As René Mathis, Bond's contact in Montenegro—where the Casino Royale is located—Giancarlo Giannini has the potential to be a great sidekick in the colorful tradition of From Russia with Love's Pedro Armendáriz or For Your Eyes Only's Topol. Unfortunately the screenwriters saddle Mathis with some unforgivably dry exposition to spout and use him too much as a narrative delivery device. The script’s weaknesses preclude Giannini from creating someone truly memorable.
Fortunately, M, Leiter and Mathis are only supporting players in this story. The Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen portrays the villainous Le Chiffre with verve. The earlier television and film incarnations of the novel starred Peter Lorre and Orson Welles in this role, but Mikkelsen bests both of these legendary stars. His Le Chiffre is an astute international terrorist who weeps blood out of a damaged left eye. Fleming apparently based the character on the occultist Aleister Crowley, and Mikkelsen's striking facial features are well suited to Le Chiffre’s sinister nature and bizarre physical ailment. The alluring French ingénue Eva Green possesses a less dynamic screen presence, but this toned-down quality lends credibility to her interpretation of Vesper Lynd, Fleming's original Bond girl. Since Casino Royale is essentially an origin story, we get to see how much Lynd influenced Bond, who, at this early stage of his career, has never worn a tailored tuxedo and doesn’t care if his martinis are shaken or stirred. Vesper plays an instrumental part in establishing many of 007's stylistic flairs, and in the hands of a lesser actress (and a lesser director) these scenes could have seemed corny or obvious. But Campbell, Craig, and Green underplay the origins of these series trademarks, presenting them without embellishment or overt winking at the audience, thereby avoiding a mistake that almost all prequels make.
The filmmakers also make the wise decision to forgo the CGI heavy and physics-defying action sequences of the Brosnan era, opting instead for a more reality based approach to the stunts and fights. The opening chase puts to rest the fears of any young Bond fans afraid that this fifty-year-old novel would make for a dull movie. In an aggressive, high-octane sequence, Bond pursues a bomb maker played by Sébastien Foucan. Foucan is one of the founders of the discipline known as parkour, in which runners approach a given environment as if it were an obstacle course. Craig and Foucan engage in a pursuit of this technique through Madagascar, running, jumping, vaulting, swinging, and otherwise propelling themselves through the jungle, the city and a construction site. At first, this all seems too extreme, as if the Bond team is trying to reinvent 007 as Jason Bourne, and in truth, the first half of Casino Royale does feel too close in style to the popular Bourne trilogy. But the use of parkour in the teaser honors the Bond tradition of utilizing the latest, cutting-edge trends in sports and leisure, from scuba diving and speed boating to skydiving and snowboarding to bungie jumping.
The high-stakes baccarat game at the center of the novel is transformed into a Texas hold ’em tournament at the top of the movie’s lengthy third act. While this trendy variant of poker does come off undeniably less exotic than the Bondish Baccarat, it is a smart move on the writers' part since Texas hold ’em requires a great deal more skill. Casino Royale really becomes a special picture during this long gambling sequence—apart from the totally unnecessary running commentary from Mathis explaining everything that happens to any viewer who might be unaware of the rudimentary rules of poker. Craig, who is very effective in action scenes, proves equally well suited to presenting 007's cooler, more elegant side—all the while maintaining the lack of experience he must possess in this early adventure.
Screenwriters Purvis and Wade, along with Oscar winning writer/director Paul Haggis, who revised much of the script’s third act, wisely keep the novel’s brutal torture episode in the picture. Director Campbell tangibly conveys Bond’s pain and inexperience in this sequence, putting to shame the meaningless and ill-conceived torture scenes in the prior Brosnan installment. One of the most impressive aspects of Campbell’s direction is his ability to make us forget the Brosnan era completely, even when ideas like this one, which were unsuccessfully tried in the aforementioned movies, are tried again without apology.
Much was made of the Dr. No homage in Die Another Day, in which Halle Berry emerges from the sea wearing a bikini and a knife belt like Ursula Andress. The recent memory of that former scene makes it therefore all the more audacious a choice, on several levels, to repeat the homage once again in this film—this time with Craig emerging from the sea in tight blue briefs with the salt water beading down his well-defined pectorals. Advanced photos of this scene provoked even more vitriolic protests over Craig’s casting from fanboys, claiming the image made Bond look gay or self-conscious. But this 007 plays far more sexually confident than Brosnan’s, with his cheesy pick-up lines. Casino Royale’s approach is infinitely better attuned to modern sensibilities and gender attitudes than the pandering, self-conscious dialogue shoved into the mouths of Judi Dench, Samantha Bond, and the leading ladies in the previous four films.
Casino Royale is also much less cartoonish than the Brosnan movies. Though it lacks a dynamic score, a sense of humor, and many of the other primary components that make a Bond film a Bond film, it shakes and stirs the rest of the new and old 007 ingredients into a better cinematic cocktail than any picture since The Living Daylights. While Craig is far from my favorite 007, his overtly physical and psychological portrayal of Bond, his interaction with the other characters, and the way these relationships are written and directed make him stand out. His Bond gets bloody and sweaty, and, though he still seems a bit too much of a superhero in the action sequences, he is certainly capable of getting hurt, both bodily and emotionally.
Casino Royale performed mightily at the box office and scored top marks from both fans and critics. Daniel Craig and the Broccolis had halted 007’s downward slide into buffoon-like irrelevance and gotten the series back on track. In my view, however, they didn’t fully succeed in reinventing the James Bond formula for contemporary times and tastes. Casino Royale worked mainly because the filmmakers stripped away most of the elements that caused the series to appear outdated, labored, and dismissible over the previous twenty years. But in doing so they also removed much of what makes the series distinctive. Casino Royale is a solid thriller but it doesn’t differentiate itself enough from other competent action movies of the period. In fact, when compared to other blockbusters of the day like Kill Bill, The Departed, Blood Diamond, Inside Man, Munich, and The Bourne Supremacy, it comes up short, or at least not very special. Bond devotees eagerly awaited the next installment, considering it to be the real test of whether or not the series was going to survive its midlife crises and carry on confidently into its second half-century. Regrettably, Quantum of Solace falls short of the expectations Casino Royale gave rise to, and it feels even less like a true James Bond picture than its predecessor.
Michael G. Wilson began developing the story while Casino Royale was in production. Wilson’s intention was to make the next movie a more direct sequel than any of the preceding pictures. Up to now, all 007 films were self-contained narratives, with only occasional references to events and characters from past exploits. But this next film set out to pick up right where Casino Royale left off, with James Bond suffering the post-traumatic effects of both torture and a broken heart. In the opening sequence, Bond delivers the villainous Mr. White—the mysterious puppet master he apprehended at the end of his most recent mission—to M, and thus begins this tale of revenge.
In looking for a title Wilson settled on the hard-to-say and harder-to-comprehend Quantum of Solace, from the Ian Fleming short story about a dinner conversation James Bond has with the Governor of the Bahamas. Taking nothing but the title and loose idea behind the Governor’s story, Wilson and Casino Royale scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade developed a criminal organization known as Quantum, with the conception that it could run through the later entries in the series the way the SPECTRE organization did in the original films. At Daniel Craig’s request, Wilson and Barbara Broccoli made the unusual selection of Mark Forster as director. Forster, the only non-Brit and the youngest man to direct a Bond picture, was not a huge admirer of the series nor was he a major action director. His movies were all successful but small-scale features, like Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, and The Kite Runner. Forster steered the story even farther away from the traditional Bond roots in some potentially interesting ways. Not only does Quantum of Solace omit Q, Moneypenny, a lot of gadgets, scantily clad women, any humor, and much use of the “James Bond Theme,” its main villain and leading lady diverge substantially from who we presume to meet in a Bond movie. Forster also wanted to end the trend of longer and longer running times. He aimed for a 007 film that was both a lean and mean action thriller and a cerebral character-driven story.
Forster, Wilson, and Paul Haggis rewrote the script from scratch, creating a Chinatown-like premise about underhanded control of water and power. The evil forces in this narrative are corporate entities that claim to be “green” but are, in reality, the furthest thing from environmentally friendly. Instead of a larger than life megalomaniac with ambitions to take over the world, principal evil-doer Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) is a corrupt businessman. He is a credible antagonist but not a memorable villain. Olga Kurylenko plays Camille Montes, a foreign agent with a personal vendetta similar to Bond’s. Montes is an extrovert who wears on her sleeve the emotions that Bond suppresses beneath his well-dressed shell, thus enabling the film to focus on 007’s inner life via a Bond girl who is not a love interest but rather an ally with similar motives; a mirror image of Bond in many respects.
All these notions and intentions are at play in the picture, but Quantum of Solace still fails to engage or entertain in the ways a Bond movie should. Blurring the lines between good guy/bad guy is a smart way to move the series away from its Cold War beginnings into the geo-political complexities of the new millennium. Forster makes thematic use of earth, air, fire, and water imagery in telling a story about corporate entities exploiting and capitalizing on natural resources. But these lofty ambitions aren’t served well by the escapist fantasy baked into James Bond films. We go to these movies to have fun, and Quantum of Solace is just about the least fun Bond picture of them all. While Forster and production designer Peter Lamont go out of their way to construct the type of massive, Ken-Adams-like sets we love to see in these films, and we do get one Bond girl with an slightly-Flemingesque name—agent Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton)—these aspects, along with an overt Goldfinger homage, feel out of place in such a no-nonsense, humorless picture.
Quantum of Solace is also the most violent of all the Bond films. While still the bloodless, PG-13-rated violence the series is known for, an awful lot of hits, gunshots, and explosions occur in this movie’s short running time. Many critics complained about the overuse of violent action in a picture trying to be more serious and realistic than its forerunners. The filmmakers also return to the annoying conceit of having Judi Dench’s M and the rest of the MI6 team watching Bond remotely on giant screens and speaking with him through cell phones as he pursues his enemies and infiltrates their operations—does anyone really think this is a dynamic way to tell a spy story?
Perhaps the picture was a casualty of the 2007 Writers Guild strike, which caused final screenwriter Haggis to rush through his last draft and prevented the producers from having any writers work on the script during production—something these complex and protracted projects usually require. Wilson, Forster and even Daniel Craig had to do much of their own dialogue polishing as they went along, which no doubt contributed to the uneven tone and lack of narrative focus. Still, the dialogue sequences are the movie’s strong suit, since the action sequences are all executed with the incompetent modern ascetic of shooting everything in extreme close-ups and cutting the shots together so rapidly that it is impossible to follow what’s going on.
Another uninspired score by David Arnold—with a flat title song by Jack White and Alicia Keys—doesn’t help either. But the flaws in this picture go back to its inception. In taking the series even farther away from it signatures, Forster and the producers only succeed in making a generic action film—and not an especially good one at that. Their conventional revenge plot strips the iconic hero of any personality and replaces it with the kind of brooding angst that seems requisite for all modern action heroes. Thus, Quantum of Solace does little to breathe new life into the series and fails to capitalize on the promise of its superior predecessor.
For the fiftieth anniversary of James Bond’s cinematic debut, Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli finally made the first really good 007 picture since the death of their father. Skyfall does far more than pay token homage to the franchise's origins. It is a straight-up, old-school thriller, with the right mix of fun and danger that made Bond movies special in the first place. It is still a self-aware, milestone-marking picture, and the producers don’t tried to make a film as straightforward as From Russia With Love or For Your Eyes Only for this golden anniversary, but in many ways they make an even better choice.
After the disappointing Quantum of Solace, the Broccolis opted to completely abandon the continuous origin-narrative they had begun in the first two Daniel Craig movies and create a film that would restart the series yet again, but this time with Craig playing an older, world-wearier 007 who bears the scars of far more than two previous adventures. This decision brings about a more appropriate picture for the fifty-year-old screen character, and, along with dozens of other smart choices, results in the most exhilarating reboot yet—of Bond or any other film franchise I can think of. In fact Skyfall is the first “reboot” since that term was coined, which actually got me excited about a series again.
The team the Broccoli’s assembled for this film did not initially inspire confidence. Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were responsible for the prior Daniel Craig movies, as well as some of the worst Pierce Brosnan pictures. John Logan, the man who penned Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo and several other unremarkable screenplays, was brought in for the rewrites. At the helm, the producers hired their first Oscar winning director: Sam Mendes, the heavy-handed stylist behind American Beauty, The Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road, and the nearly-unwatchable Away We Go. As the picture begins there are plenty of indications that it will not be anything special. As in the prior Craig outings, the iconic gun-barrel logo is absent, and the opening chase, while much more inventively shot then a typical modern action sequence, comes off as business as usual, with James Bond being far too superhuman for my taste and remaining in constant cellular contact with his superiors at MI6. The teaser makes clear that Judi Dench’s M is again going to play a large part in the film’s narrative. Since I never liked Dench in the M role and was discouraged that the producers didn’t replace her when they restarted the series with Craig, I was not looking forward to more scenes of the two of them sparring.
However, once the title sequence gets underway, all these red flags vanish. We become viscerally aware that we’re in the hands of filmmakers who know exactly what they’re doing. Miraculously, Skyfall takes every single thing I disliked about the previous six Bond pictures and brilliantly uses them all to reinvent the series in the most inspired ways. The movie manages to honor the legacy of the longest continually running string of films in Western cinema history while concurrently telling an original and contemporary story.
The first thing we notice is the absence of David Arnold’s music. In Arnold’s place, Sam Mendes’ frequent musical collaborator Thomas Newman steps up to compose the best Bond score since the death of John Barry. Newman’s rich, intricate and exhilarating music makes for one of those great soundtracks that serve its movie perfectly, yet it can also be listened to as a stand-alone album. For the title sequence we get the best Bond song since “GoldenEye,” featuring a powerful, Shirley-Bassey-like vocal by British pop diva Adele—exactly the right style of singer and song for a Bond picture. The Daniel Craig films all have titles that do not easily ingratiate themselves to lyricists who want to use them in a title song, but Adele and her producer Paul Epworth rise to the challenge and fashion a track that ranks with “Goldfinger,” “You Only Live Twice,” “Live and Let Die,” and “Nobody Does it Better.” Title designer Daniel Kleinman returns to create his most intriguing opening credits yet. In fact, the visual motifs he utilizes (taken from the various sequences in the film to come) instill feelings of dread, in a good way, that this installment might spell the end of James Bond. The musical and visual combination of Skyfall’s titles signal a real return to form for the series.
Another major victory is the casting of Javier Bardem as the Bond villain, Raoul Silva. The character is well conceived to begin with, and then in the hands of Bardem, Silva becomes one of the all-time great Bond antagonists—funny, playful, and even sympathetic, while simultaneously, dangerous and menacing. In place of an official Bond girl, the writers strategically place two striking women, Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe, in 007’s path, yet they cleverly enable Judi Dench to evolve into the picture’s actual female lead.
In welcome contrast to its recent predecessors, Skyfall is neither precious nor smug. There are the usual overblown action sequences that make Bond a little too indestructible to identify with, but there is nothing unforgivable in this film, like there was during the Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore years. And Mendes' shooting style surprisingly blows away that of any previous Bond director. Mendes and editor Stuart Baird build suspense and pace by holding shots for, what seems, astonishingly long in modern editorial terms. Each action sequence is so inventively conceived it makes Quantum of Solace look downright disgraceful. The hand-to-hand sequence in which Bond tangles with an assassin high up in a Shanghai skyscraper is exquisitely photographed in silhouette and shot all in one extended take—how long has it been since a Bond fight was this ingeniously executed? There is also a welcome recurrence of the fun and humor of the series, two qualities sorely lacking in Daniel Craig’s first two outings. Much is made of how old Bond is getting—both the character and the franchise—but these aren’t just the pat in-jokes of past films. Skyfall quite literally (at a scene set at the British Ministry of Defense) makes the case for why Bond is still relevant. The movie demonstrates how satisfying it can be to watch a contained, patient, big-budget spy picture with a formidable villain, intelligent dialogue, and shots that last for more than 72 frames.
Skyfall thoroughly honors the Bond legacy while also taking some genuine risks with it. Delving into the childhood of a character who is supposed to be an enigma could have been a real misstep, but here the results are deeply satisfying. We don’t want Bond's misogyny, or his devotion to Dench’s stern, maternal M, to be “explained” by his childhood, and in places the movie veers in that direction. But the Freudian flourishes are subtle and subtextual, as they should be. While the references to past Bond movies verge on being too self-aware, the filmmakers and cast handle them with aplomb. Although the picture opens up Bond's history and inner life, it’s not afraid to burn that history down to make way for the future of the series. It also creates resonant character backgrounds rather than shallow origin stories, avoiding the “Hey, look, we brought back that guy you loved so much,” aesthetic of so many modern remakes and sequels, like Star Wars, Star Trek, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones. Instead, Skyfall reintroduces us to beloved characters in ways so subtle and imaginative that we don’t realize we already know them until their scenes (or, in some cases, the whole movie) is over. The film works as a prequel, but it also dispenses with past conceptions about the Bond characters and sets a new tone that feels in line with both the original 1960s novels and present-day realities—quite an accomplishment. The picture is such an overt reboot that I almost expected Sean Connery to show up in a cameo role at the end of the film to pass the torch to Craig, despite the fact that Connery’s torch would have burned out forty years and three Bonds ago. But instead of a surprise cameo, the solid ending provides unanticipated dimension to Bond, which is far more substantive.
Skyfall tries hard to hold onto the Bourne Identity and Transformers audience, even though it is much better suited for Spy Who Came in From the Cold types like me, but judging by its box-office take (it was one of the first films to make over a billion dollars during its theatrical release), it pulls off the feat of pleasing nearly everybody. The picture playfully tips its hat to not only the Bond films of old, but also to other classic movies like The Lady from Shanghai, The French Connection, The Silence of the Lambs, The 39 Steps, and The Third Man. Craig comes off now fully comfortable in the Bond role, though he’s still no Sean Connery and fails to top his own performance in the previous year’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in which he was the best thing about the film.
Mendes makes clean and confident directorial choices, and Roger Deakins's cinematography is absolutely marvelous. Skyfall is the first Bond picture to be shot digitally as well as the first to be simultaneously released in both the traditional 2.35:1 aspect ratio and 1.90:1 IMAX presentation. Both of these visual changes could have compromised the movie but Deakins—whose work on films like No Country for Old Men, Prisoners, Revolutionary Road, House of Sand and Fog, The Shawshank Redemption, Kundun, Fargo, Passion Fish, and Sid and Nancy have made him one of the few true artists of contemporary cinematography—makes this the best-looking Bond picture since You Only Live Twice.
By the time the film is over, we have been
treated to a proper story that adds up to much more than a string of cool set
pieces and references to better movies. Skyfall
is arguably the greatest Bond picture since Goldfinger,
and certainly the best of the prior two and a half decades. Ever since The
Living Daylights twenty-five years earlier, the franchise had floundered
desperately trying to reinvent itself both artistically and financially. The
fact that Skyfall outgrossed all previous
Bond films not only gave me hope for the series future, it made me feel good
about the future of Hollywood movies. It was the first major release to herald
2012 as a kind of comeback year for American commercial cinema. Skyfall
more than restarted the Bond series, it finally made it relevant again—perhaps for another fifty