I first got interested in James Bond when I was in Jr. High School. When I got bored with what my family was watching on TV, or when I just wanted to get away from them, I would sneak into the back room and turn on our spare TV. There was a nearby Canadian TV station that I could actually pick up on the rabbit-ear antennae. Along with the other interesting programming they aired, they regularly played all the old James Bond movies. I got hooked on them right away. The intrigue of these films was augmented by the fact that I would steal away to watch them in private, usually in the dark.
The whole James Bond milieu was incredibly appealing to me as a young teenage boy. I loved the Bond character of course because he was smooth and confident and knew how to handle himself, but also because he wore tuxedos, drove fancy cars, and hung out in casinos and upper-crust social circles. It was great fodder for my coming-of-age fantasies.
In my English Literature class in High School I chose Ian Fleming as the subject of my term paper and read a number of the original novels. It was interesting to also get the James Bond story from that perspective. The best part was being privy to Bond's internal dialog. We knew what he was thinking when his weapons specialist took away his Walther PPK, or when he was hiding from the bad guys in a swamp and struggling to breath through a reed, or when he really wanted a cigarette but couldn't allow the smell to give away his position. The novels were good, but they didn't seem to measure up to the movies. Usually it's the other way around, but the books didn't really convey the sense of action and scale that came across on the big screen.
But still, Ian Fleming created an unforgettable character. Actually when he wrote the first novel he never expected it to be as successful as it was. He had no idea that this one book would turn into an ongoing series. He didn't pioneer the genre of spy novel, but he did nail a couple of things right off the bat. First of all was the name, "James Bond." It's a simple name, just two syllables first and last, and yet it still has an air of sophistication about it. This was a deliberate act on Fleming's part. He wanted the name to be short and sweet, but not be simplistic or humdrum. He really nailed it with "James Bond." It's no coincidence that the copycat character of "John Steed" also had a simple, two-syllable name.
And then there was his secret agent code number, 007. It has such a ring to it. "Double-Oh Seven." In contrast to the simple name, this was a complex number. Any mathematician will tell you that zero zero seven should be reduced simply to seven. But it's that "double-oh" that makes it sound so cool. And the number seven is no coincidence either. It's the only two-syllable digit. "Double-Oh Three" or "Double-Oh Nine" just wouldn't carry the same impact. Beyond that, it looks cool visually. Those two round zeros followed by the straight and angular seven looks interesting.
These may seem like two seemingly insignificant details, but it's little details like these that can separate a good but forgettable story from a legend.
Generally speaking, I consider movie formulas to be a bad thing. The Bond films are my one exception to this. There are certain key elements that are essential to the success of the Bond movies. The more that the script incorporates these ingredients, and the closer it adheres to the way in which they should be employed, the more successful it is as a Bond movie. They could be considered clichés, but let's face it. The whole movie franchise is basically one big cliché anyway.
The Arch VillainThe single most important element of a successful Bond movie is the bad guy. This was established early, with the title character of the first Bond film, "Dr. No". But while Dr. No had a lot of the characteristics of a great villain, he wasn't the primary focus of the film. In fact, he wasn't introduced until quite late in the story.
The third film, "Goldfinger," on the other hand, was entirely centered around the Goldfinger character. It elevated the role of the arch villain to one of great prominence. The film wasn't just about Goldfinger's evil scheme. It was about the kind of man he was, what he liked and disliked, and what really made him tick. From that movie on, the arch villain always played a prominent, central role.
The most prominent and only recurring arch villain was Ernst Stavro Blofeld, founder and chairman of SPECTRE (the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). He appeared in several movies, either as a faceless taskmaster, or as Bond's direct antagonist. He was played by Eric Pohlmann (From Russia With Love, Thunderball), Donald Pleasance (You Only Live Twice), Telly Sevalas (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), Charles Gray (Diamonds Are Forever), and finally by John Hollis in For Your Eyes Only when he was finally knocked off once and for all in the opening sequence of the film.
The Evil SchemeThe villain is only one part of the equation. He's always perpetrating a dastardly scheme. The villain and his evil plan go hand in hand, making the core of each Bond film, and what fundamentally sets one apart from the others.
The early films tended to revolve around SPECTRE holding the world at ransom for huge sums of money. I always thought that was kind of a cop-out. The bad guys go to all this trouble, and it's just to cash in on a humongous payday. Their motivation is not power or control. It's just good old fashioned greed.
Goldfinger deviated from this pattern. First of all he was not affiliated with SPECTRE in any way. And while he was motivated by greed, his plan was no idle threat to carry out if the world didn't pay up. In fact, no one knew what he was up to at all until Bond stumbled upon it. And beyond that, the scheme itself was remarkably clever. His ultimate goal, detonating a nuclear device inside Fort Knox, was masked behind the ruse of attempting to steal all the gold from inside. It was great storytelling.
Below is a summary of all evil schemes:
The Nasty Henchman"Dr. No" didn't really have a nasty henchman. A couple tough thugs went into town to try to mess up Bond, but that was about it. "From Russia With Love" was nothing but henchmen. There was the nasty, ugly bitch who set everything up, and there was the big blonde guy who followed Bond around for the whole movie.
Yet again, "Goldfinger" established this critical plot element. Oddjob was the prototypical henchman. He was mute, menacing, and very scary. He had a special weapon, which in his case was the hat that he could throw like a frisbee and chop people's heads off. Of course, in the end, it became his undoing.
In my opinion, Jaws was the best henchman of them all. He was very big, and very menacing, and had a cool gimmick. All the best henchmen had some sort of physical oddity. Jaws' metal teeth looked great, and the fact that he bit his victims to death put an odd, intimate touch on his menace.
The Fortress RetreatDifferent villains had different lairs. Dr. No really hit the series off with what I've come to call the "fortress retreat." He was on his own private island that housed his extensive laboratories. It was large, heavily fortified, and set far away from prying eyes.
Some villains, like Goldfinger, just traveled around from one location to another, with none being particularly impressive. The fortress retreat is not essential to the Bond formula. Some of my favorite Bond films of all time do not employ it. But in my opinion it makes the movie all that much more exotic and fun. It also provides something big and impressive to blow up at the end of the movie.
In addition to Dr. No's private island, some other villains have had particularly impressive fortress retreats. Perhaps the best was in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." Blofeld had a beautiful alpine resort high atop a jagged peak in the Swiss Alps. Deep below, in the rock and ice, was his laboratory. The complex was well guarded, extremely isolated, and very picturesque to boot.
In "The Spy Who Loved Me," Stromberg's retreat was okay, but what was cool about that movie was that we got to see two locations totally blown up. First of all, Bond and the captured submariners destroy the freighter that secretly housed the stolen subs, and then Bond got to go and destroy Stromberg's floating laboratory as well.
The Cool CarThe cool car is an essential part of any Bond film. It serves many purposes. First of all, as a secret agent, Bond has to move around a lot. He needs his own set of wheels. And by showcasing exotic and fancy cars, it adds to the sense of glamour that goes along with the character. But beyond that, it's a great place to stash lots of nifty gadgets.
Once again Goldfinger set the stage with the unforgettable Aston Martin DB5. It established the use of oil slicks, smoke screens, and the ejector seat, all of which have since become spy car standards. It also did wonders for Aston Martin as a name brand. If their car hadn't been featured by the Bond films, they would probably have gone under in the 70's along with a host of other low-production British manufacturers.
Another Bond car that is particularly worth noting was the Lotus Esprit submarine from "The Spy Who Loved Me." First of all that model of Lotus is just absolutely gorgeous. Lotus is renown for a lot of automotive accomplishments, but appearance has never really been one of them. Lotus's tend to look really weird. But the Esprit is beautiful from stem to stern. I consider it to be the most perfectly styled mid-engine GT in the history of automobilia. It's conversion into a submarine, however, probably sets the record for the most unrealistic auto transformation of any bond car. There was just no way that the wheels could fold up into the body like that. And where did the window louvers and that propeller rack on the rear bumper come from? But still, it was unbelievably cool. What I wouldn't give to bob around underwater in something like that. And let's face it, we don't watch Bond films for the realism.
The distinction for the most stupid Bond car conversion of all time goes to the flying Matador in The Man With The Golden Gun. First of all, why an AMC Matador of all cars? That's about as glamorous as a plaid leisure suit. Clearly AMC had a product placement deal for that picture, as Bond was chasing the Matador in an AMC Hornet. Okay. So what brilliant screenwriter thought it would be a good idea to strap wings on the top of this corpulent conveyance and make it take to the air? And all it did was fly off into the sunset. No chase. No air-to-air missiles. No loop-the-loops. Big deal...
The Sexy GirlThis is one plot element that was firmly in place from the very first film, and has been firmly in place ever since. In each and every Bond film, there is some innocent helpless, beautiful girl that Bond winds up saving, fucking, and floating into the sunset with as the credits roll.
As a gay man, I've never been terribly captivated by this aspect of the Bond films, but I acknowledge it as part of what makes them special. The films are geared for a heterosexual audience, after all, and the "damsel in distress" paradigm makes Bond more masculine and heroic.
The series got off to a great start with Ursula Andress as the first Bond girl. She's one of the few female stars that I thought was really hot. "Pussy Galore" clearly had the best name. They probably wouldn't have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for the fact that this was the character's name in the original novel. She was played by Honor Blackman, the original female lead in the old Avengers TV series. My favorite bond girl was Diana Rigg, the latter and better known female lead from the Avengers. She had great credibility from that role, and she was also a remarkable actress and brought great depth to what was often merely a titillating supporting role.
Perhaps the most intriguing Bond girl relationship was with Barbara Bach in "The Spy Who Loved Me." This was one time that she wasn't some hapless female who happened to become ensnarled in Bond's mission. She was a fellow agent, and was strong, independent, and actually had it in for Bond until the very last scene of the movie.
From there I think that the Bond girls started to lose character. Or maybe I began to lose interest in the Bond girls. Or maybe they haven't made a decent Bond film since The Spy Who Loved Me. Who knows.
Sean Connery was the first Bond. He was also my first Bond. All the movies I watched in the back room all those years ago were Connery films. Being the first Bond he had the luxury of being able to do with the character whatever he wanted to. Of course at the time he had no way of knowing that he'd be the first of many actors to play Bond. There was nothing to compare it to. He had no shoes to fill. This allowed him to just have fun with it. And I feel that it shows in his performances. Bond himself was having fun. When things got tense he was all business. But the rest of the time he was basically goofing off. He was even a bit of a prankster.
This multidimensionality is what I feel is the strongest aspect of Connery's performance. His Bond was tough and competitive, but he was also jovial and witty, naughty, gracious, cocky, humble, clever, sarcastic, and even vulnerable at times. Much of this came from the writing, but Connery himself must be given a lot of credit. It was his idea to toss out the wry one-liners, like saying "He had lots of guts" when a bad guy got disemboweled. The screen writer was on the set at all times, and Connery would make these suggestions directly to him. Sometimes they were included. Sometimes they weren't. But the point is that Connery had a lot of input into the personality of the character.
George Lazenby was brought in to replace Sean Connery for "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." He's been pretty much universally panned for his one performance, but I think that this is wholly undeserved. In my opinion he did a fine job. If I had one criticism it would be that he didn't bring anything new to the performance. He basically cloned Connery's character. But in his position I think that this was the best way he could have played it. Replacing the likes of Sean Connery as one of the most legendary and successful screen characters of the day was a tall order. Lazenby couldn't quite match Connery's charisma, but then who could?. What he did do was to preserve and respect the multidimensionality that Connery had established in the character. Lazenby could successfully play it both serious and at ease, strong and vulnerable. And this particular story, with Bond actually finding true love only to lose it in the end, called for the broadest emotional range of any Bond film.
Lazenby was also fortunate to have one of the best Bond scripts to work with. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" was one of the all-time best Bond films. It had a great cast (Telly Sevalis, Dianna Rigg), wonderful settings, good action, and a robust storyline. But the important thing was that Lazenby didn't fuck it up. He put in a strong, understated performance, true to the spirit of the character as it had been established. Considering the tremendous pressure that must have been on him, I think that it was an amazing accomplishment.
I would have liked to see Lazenby do more Bond films, but Connery was brought back to reprise the role for "Diamonds Are Forever." Conventional wisdom is that Lazenby was given the boot, although he claims to have walked away from the role. It's a moot point. From that point on the character and the films changed forever. Personally I feel that Connery was phoning it in during "Diamonds Are Forever", but I can say objectively that the script really sucked. The evil scheme was good enough, but the storyline was aimless and meandering, and the stunts were slapstick and goofy. In my opinion, it was the first "bad" Bond film.
The next actor to take up the reins was Roger Moore. He had great credibility as Bond based on his long-running show "The Saint" where he played European crime-fighting playboy Simon Templar (not to mention his short-lived show "The Persuaders" where he played European crime-fighting playboy Brett Sinclair, alongside Tony Curtis's American crime-fighting playboy Danny Wilde). Moore looked the part and was well-received by audiences. He had a long run, and I would expect that he would probably win surveys as people's favorite Bond.
I, personally, never cared for his portrayal of Bond. Gone was the character's multidimensionality. Moore could only play it one way: smug. All his facial expressions, all his intonations, all his gestures were pretty much the same. And if you look back at his previous series, you'll see that those characters come off an awful lot like his Bond, as well as being an awful lot like each other.
Moore also didn't have a lot to work with in the script department. "Diamonds Are Forever" wound up being a prototype for the approach to the Bond films of the 70's and early 80's. The writers were still respecting the elements of the formula, but they weren't putting them together well. They were just going through the motions. They would pop Bond from setting to setting to setting with some facile and contrived storyline in a vain effort to tie it all together, rather than have a cohesive and hearty storyline that took Bond from place to place to place. And as with "Diamonds Are Forever," there was a new proclivity for goofiness and slapstick. A perfect example of this was the annoying and ridiculous redneck sheriff character that appeared in both "Live and Let Die" and "The Man With The Golden Gun." Once was already too much for me. Twice was jump-the-shark territory.
The one exception to this was "The Spy Who Loved Me." This did have a complex and well-developed storyline in addition to bulls-eyes on the rest of the formula, and an absence of the goofiness and slapstick. It doesn't make me like Moore any better, but I will hail it without prejudice as one of the best Bond films of all time. Unfortunately it was immediately followed by perhaps the worst Bond film of all time, "Moonraker." The villain was okay, but his evil scheme was utterly preposterous, and the storyline was the most pointless and meandering of all, the gondola hovercraft was just plain stupid, and when Jaws fell in love with the pig-tailed Swiss girl, I knew it was over. The remainder of the Moore bond films were not as bad, but by the same token they weren't very good. Moore got older and older, but the storylines stayed pretty much the same.
When Roger Moore was (finally) retired as James Bond, the rumors were that Pierce Brosnan would be the new Bond. Everyone was surprised when the relatively unknown Timothy Dalton was chosen. My initial impressions were good. He had a good look (although he needed a fucking HAIRCUT!). I found him to be a fresh change from Moore, and felt that he was trying to bring some of that old multidimensionality back to the character. The problem was that he was lacking in charisma. Ultimately he came off as rather ordinary. He wasn't bad, really, but to play Bond you need to be exceptional. And he wasn't exceptional.
Unfortunately neither were the scripts. I give the writers credit for trying to make a break with the Moore era, but it was not a change for the better. Well, I guess the scripts were better than the trash they'd been giving Moore. But still not nearly good enough. I think that the producers felt that the plots had gotten a little out of control, and they instructed the writers to rein it back in. In my opinion they had the correct evaluation of the state of Bond films, but took the wrong approach to fix it. The movies weren't really about anything. It was just James Bond running around the screen for a couple hours going through the motions.
I wasn't surprised when Dalton was replaced after only two movies.
Soon the rumors came true and Pierce Brosnan was finally given the nod. He had a modicum of credibility from his TV role as the British private detective Remington Steele. At first I liked Brosnan as Bond. He had more star quality than Dalton, and brought back a certain level of confidence that Dalton could just never pull off. But it didn't take long for me find flaws in him.
I had thought that Moore's portrayal was one-dimensional, but Brosnan seemed to flatten the character even further. It was all tough-guy and nothing else. No wit, no charm, no playfulness, and certainly no vulnerability. He actually reminded me of an English Charles Bronson. I would actually rank him at the bottom of my list of Bond actors. He's reduced James Bond to a cartoon character.
And with this change of actors also came a change in the approach to the scripts. The evil schemes were totally over the top again. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I think that the plots should be over the top. But along with that, the action sequences now went totally over the top. In fact, each Bond movie had become really nothing more than a showcase of bigger, louder, and more outrageous stunts and explosions. And they're not even clever anymore. They're just bigger and more impressive. The one exception to this was in Goldeneye when Bond was in a chase scene driving a tank. That was a hoot, and about the only original thing I'd seen in a Bond film in a generation. To sum it up, the Bond films have gone from exciting and intriguing spy thrillers to run-of-the-mill bang, bang, shoot 'em up, blow 'em up action flicks. Frankly I think that Vin Diesel's "Triple-X" was more exciting and interesting than any Bond film since Connery's reprise of the role in "Never Say Never Again."
Once Pierce Brosnan had run his course it was time for them to find new blood. After a lengthy search they settled on Daniel Craig. This was a controversial pick, and with it a controversial approach to the Bond timeline. They decided to do a "reboot" of the story, where they started over from the very beginning with Bond's recruitment and first assignment. Interestingly enough, and conspicuously nonsequitir in my opinion, it was still set in the present day. It was like they said, "Okay, those previous 20 movies never happened."
It was an interesting approach, and opened endless possibilities, but ultimately the Craig movies were just bang-bang-shootem-up action porn anyway. Beyond the opening sequences of the first one, the whole reboot concept really had no impact at all. But what they did try to do with this fresh beginning and fresh face was to establish a different tone to the films. The Bond character was more sullen and gloomy, dark and disturbed. While Brosnan's Bond was stoic and dispassionate, Craig's was downright stone-faced. You would think that would make him a one-dimensional character, but in practice it made him more mysterious as audiences wondered what was behind that unmoving exterior. It gave the character depth in that still waters run deep.
But still, like the reboot concept, it didn't change the fact that the movies were primarily composed of chase scenes and shootouts. The settings, villains, and evil schemes didn't have the richness and complexity of "Goldfinger" or "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." Those glory days of the Bond franchise are likely gone for good.
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