For reasons that are not really clear to me, I’ve recently watched all 22 of the pre-Skyfall official James Bond movies. I also watched Never Say Never Again, and made a fairly serious attempt to watch the non-EON 1867 Casino Royale with David Niven, but couldn’t force myself to watch that one all the way through.
I watched them in a rather oddly shuffled order(*), but nevertheless came away with some fairly coherent impressions. I’ll share these in a short series of posts in roughly chronological order.
This first one covers the first five Sean Connery films, through to You Only Live Twice. (I’ll take the sixth, Diamonds are Forever, in the Lazenby article; and the stray Never Say Never Again along with the Moore movies that it punctuated.)
Dr. No (1962)
One of the key things that a Bond movies stands or falls by is the quality of its Big Bad, and in general they are much more memorable in this early Connery run than in later films. (Quick! Who was the Big Bad in The Spy Who Loved Me? In The Living Daylights? In Tomorrow Never Dies? No, me neither.) Dr. No scores highly here, with the eponymous villain looking and sounding very distinctive. It’s a disturbingly impassive performance by Joseph Wiseman.
Which is just as well, since most other respects, this movie is a bit of a disaster. Dr. No has no henchman worth mentioning, and Bond has no gadgets. Although the Bond-girl, Ursula Andress, is considered iconic, it can only be because she was first: she doesn’t really act, and her character doesn’t actually do anything. Bond himself is not especially magnetic in this film either: Stephen Dutch’s assessment that “Connery’s Bond radiates all the charisma of formica” is perhaps a tad harsh, but he certainly doesn’t command the screen here the way he does in the later films.
Worst of all, though, is the astonishingly slow pacing. Endless scenes consist of nothing more than Bond wandering around his hotel room, checking out how the lights work and pocketing the complimentary toiletries. It’s always amazing to me when I watch old film and TV, to see how slowly it moves — classic era Doctor Who is guilty of this, for example, with the endless scenes of running along Paris streets in the highly regarded (and terribly misnamed) City of Death. We must all have had much lower boredom threshholds back in the day.
Dr. No has a critical reputation that I find baffling. It’s often described as “the original and the best”, but it’s actually a stumbling first step, nothing more.
From Russia with Love (1963)
Small steps here. The story is more coherent than in Dr. No, but still moves rather slowly — it doesn’t really feel like it gets going until they’re on the Orient Express, and some of the side-missions in Istanbull are bafling.
There are actually three well-drawn bad guys in this film: a half-glimpsed early appearance of arch enemy-to-be Ernst Stavro Blofeld is one, and the principal adversary is Red Grant. But the real nightmare-fodder is Lotte Lenya’s repulsive Kosa Klebb, with her dagger-tipped shoes. I’ve recently claimed that the single greatest thing about Star Wars is the iconic visuals, and that’s hugely important in James Bond, too. The toad-like Klebb sticks in the memory in a way that Red Grant just doesn’t.
Still, it’s another film that seems to have an inflated critical reputation. I enjoyed it more for its historical significance than for its actual qualities.
And here is where, suddenly, it all comes together. It has one of the most memorable Big Bads (Auric Goldfinger himself), together with arguably the greatest henchman of them all (Oddjob). Goldfinger’s plan is one that captures the imagination (irradiate all the gold in Fort Knox with a nuclear bomb), and along the way we get the iconic Bond-girl death: that of the gold-painted Jill Masterson.
Better still, we have the greatest Bond gadget of then all — the Aston Martin DB5 with the ejector seat and the wheel-spikes, which we all had the Corgi toy of. Seriously challenged only by the submarine Lotus Esprit of The Spy Who Loved Me, the DB5 of Goldfinger remains the definitive Bond car nearly half a century on.
All this, and the best dialogue exchange anywhere in the series. Bond has been captured, and is strapped to a table, with a laser-beam slowly and inexorably working its way upwards between his legs:
Bond: Do you expect me to talk?
Goldfinger: No, Mister Bond! I expect you to die.
Poor Thunderball. It’s not a bad film, but it suffers badly by comparison with those before and after it. It also doesn’t help that so very much of it is filmed underwater. I assume the director was so pleased that they’d got all that underwater footage that he couldn’t bear to cut any of it out. As a result, the final climactic battle lasts at least twice as long as it should. (Never Say Never Again, which was largely a remake, was wise to relocate the first half of this battle above the water-line.)
Bond is essentially gadget-free this time. We see more hints of Blofeld, who is the mastermind behind the nuclear-ransom theme, but the main bad guy is Emilio Largo, a relatively unthreatening one-eyed man — played by Adolfo Celi, looking much older and frailer than his 43 years.
Michael G. Wilson, co-producer of the current series said in 2008 “We always start out trying to make another From Russia with Love and end up with another Thunderball.” That may be harsh (especially since they should be trying to make another Goldfinger) but it’s not entirely unfair.
One other area of Thunderball that has aged extremely badly is the sexual politics. I don’t generally have a lot of patience for revisionist discussions that castigate old art — and remember that Thunderball is 47 years old — for not meeting modern standards, but Bond’s behaviour in this film crosses the line from sleazy to abusive. Early in the film, at the health clinic, he first physically forces a kiss on Patricia Fearing, then threatens to have her fired unless the sleeps with him. Not pleasant to watch, especially from our supposed hero.
You Only Live Twice (1967)
This one wins big in two respects. First, it has Bond’s nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, in his most sinister incarnation as played by Donald Pleasence. And second, it has that glorious lair, hidden under the volcano. Plus I like Japanese things in general, so the setting has some appeal for me. Admittedly lots of what actually happens in YOLT doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but I think we can forgive it that. Come on. It has Blofeld in a volcano. Are you not entertained?
Looking at this block of films as whole, one aspect I’ve not drawn out is how compelling Connery is once he’s shaken off the uncertainty of Dr. No. By the end of You Only Live Twice, he is effortlessly convincing as the nasty piece of work that he is, with a callous aspect to his personality that we wouldn’t really see again until Daniel Craig, 39 years later. In this respect, Connery’s Bond is much closer to the agent in Fleming’s novels than his successors — most especially Roger Moore, who even at his best was playing a completely different character from Connery.
Despite some weaknesses, these films work due to Connery’s sophisticated brute presence, a sequence of memorable Big Bads and henchmen, and maybe most important of all, a sense that the films took themselves basically seriously. That last quality of integrity went badly missing in the Moore era … but we’ll get to that another time.
(*) Casino Royale, Die Another Day, Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, The Living Daylights, License to Kill, Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, Dr. No, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, Quantum of Solace, Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Never Say Never Again, Octopussy, A View to a Kill. Looks like I started with the best and ended with (what many people consider) the worst.