"Secret agent man, secret agent man. They've given you a number and taken away your name. -- Johnny Rivers
I am inspired by Facebook friend Matt Krause and a few days surrounded by an assortment of British accents to offer up a detailed analysis of the genre of cinematic excellence known as James Bond films. I must make a couple of disclaimers up front. First of all, I have not watched the Daniel Craig movies. I will - I promise. But I've been busy and it took me awhile to get past the idea that he doesn't LOOK like Bond, even if he really acts like Bond. That leads to the second disclaimer: I have read several of Ian Fleming's books which definitely colors your opinion of some of the films. It affects me, of course. So take all of this with a grain of salt - feel free to disagree or scoff or whatever. It's supposed to be fun.
I'm going to talk about my favorite elements throughout the series starting with the minor aspects and working up to the big ones. And so, I present Category Number 1:
In this case, I'm not referring to the theme song but rather to how the entire movie is scored. Sometimes you get craziness like the overall Caribbean/Calypso funk that permeates the films every time they hit the West Indies. But most of them have a fairly decent symphonic power worked through the film that demands a certain amount of gravitas. There are several that are passable but in my opinion, the best was 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'. The dramatic power of 'Escape from Piz Gloria' pairs with the poignant sadness of 'We Have All the Time in the World' to make this one of the few Bond soundtrack albums anyone would want to buy.
Here, I'm going to discuss the singer more than the song. The Bond films have drawn a cornucopia of amazing vocal talent and to be frank, some of it was completely NOT fitting for this franchise. A Bond theme, for me, has to capture the essential qualities of Bond - his dark charisma, his sexual presence, and the underlying hint of macho violence. Now, lest you think I am setting this up to be preferential to male vocalists, let me say at the very start - there are a TON of female singers who can pull that combination off and do it quite well. Admittedly, it's hard to get that out of Carly Simon or Sheena Easton. I wanted to believe you COULD get that out of Nancy Sinatra but her 'You Only Live Twice' performance was disturbingly … peaceful. So in the end, I was left with three really awesome theme song performances:
3. Lulu. Her performance in 'The Man with the Golden Gun' is a dandy. Lulu always had an amazingly perfect ability to blend little girl innocence with a worldly husky tone. Her vocals go from sweet to salty with deft precision. She may not ever quite get to the macho toughness of Bond, but the playful charisma and the sexuality are definitely there. I thought this one was awesome.
2. Shirley Bassey. Okay, to be honest, this could easily be number one. Hell, if I was looking for a singer to do a Bond movie at any time in history, she might very well be the first person I would ever call. Because no matter how bad the movie or how poorly written the song, she'd kick the daylights out of it and make it swaggeringly macho and carry enough smoky sexuality to drive it over the top. She did it in 'Goldfinger' and even made 'Diamonds Are Forever' look good. If you ask me to rate the top two again tomorrow, she could easily end up number 1. But for the moment, I give that to:
1. Tom Jones. Look, I realize the lyrics to 'Thunderball' are arguably stupid. "Strikes like a Thunderball" is a moronic phrase. Lightning strikes. Lightning comes in balls. Thunder rolls or peals or blasts or booms - it does not form a ball. Not ever. But here's the thing - when Tom Jones sings it, you understand we're talking about some sort of crushing menace that has to be dealt with and he has all the necessary Bond ingredients - playful charisma, macho swagger, and pervasive sexuality not to mention the essential British-ness of him. (And for the record, Shirley and Lulu carry that British essence just as well).
Yeah, there are some other good performances. You can throw a lot of pop stars into that role and they have - besides the ones above, we had Rita Coolidge and Simon Le Bon (who was admittedly better than I expected in 'View to a Kill') and Madonna (who was more disappointing than I expected.) I still see my top three as the very best. Though I would toss out honorable mention for Tina Turner's 'Goldeneye'. And yes, I have heard Adele's 'Skyfall' and if I expand to the current run of Bond films someday, she will get strong consideration.
The opening titles of the films are famous (or infamous) for the barely disguised nudity that frequently appears. Or actually, almost appears since silhouetting, cleverly placed graphics, or dim lighting always make it not-quite obvious that you're seeing naughty bits on display. I honestly don't know how to make one of these the 'best' of them all. So I will recount the one that, to me, is most memorable.
When I was in college, I was dating a delightful redhead named Abby. Abby was rooming with a gorgeous knockout of a blonde named Alice. Now, Alice had moments of hilarious blonde-ness despite the fact that she was actually pretty smart. I tutored her some when she was taking chemistry so I know she was smart but she actually once said, and I have witnesses because this was at a cafeteria lunch table, "Come on guys, just because I'm dumb doesn't mean I'm blonde."
Anyway, I had made a date with Abby to see a movie one Saturday night and at the last minute, she had to run home to her family in Kansas City that weekend. Abby innocently suggested I should take Alice since her boyfriend was out performing that night with his band in some eastern Kansas dive and both Alice and I sort of said, 'What the heck' and agreed. But here's the thing - Alice was drop-dead gorgeous and I had a hopeless (and utterly harmless) crush on her. Still, taking her to the movies was a nervous moment for me - I'm not the kind to cheat on a girlfriend or significant other or wife, and there was never any danger Alice would allow that to happen but I would have been tempted. Anyway, the movie we went to see was 'For Your Eyes Only' which had opening credits with berely hidden nudity explicit enough that a few more lumens of light would have earned the movie an instant R rating. Add that to the fact that Sheena Easton's opening theme was certainly one of the most romantic Bond themes ever and you got this horribly awkward opening to the movie in which it suddenly looked like I had taken my girlfriend's roommate to a very romantic flick. Fortunately that was rapidly followed by a British spy ship getting sunk by a mine which sucked the romance back out of the room so everything was okay.
All said, the circumstances made that the opening title that sticks most in my mind.
Okay, throughout the films, there were a lot of characters - many of them the recurring characters that would appear in multiple incarnations - that we loved. I thought Bernard Lee was pretty decent as M - no-nonsense, authoritarian, all-business - but in the end he kind of came across as a bit too grandfatherly to be a real spymaster. As it happens, I came to like Judi Dench better. First of all, she arguably brought the most acting talent ever to be seen in a Bond film - she is utterly brilliant! Here's the thing - M is the head of the entire agency - Her Majesty's Secret Service is run by this woman and we have to believe she is smart enough and ruthless enough to send agent like Bond out to potentially kill or be killed and with her, we absolutely believe it. With Lee's M, we got a bureaucrat who was only interested in results and didn't want to be bothered with messy details. In Dench's case, we can easily imagine her demanding every disgusting detail of the mission so she could critique it and assign remedial training.
The traditional Q, played by Desmond Llewelyn, was one of my absolute favorite secondary characters. Q was part Edison, part Tesla, part Einstein, part Rube Goldberg, and part Wile E. Coyote. The gadgets he designed were, at times, so silly you had to stifle a laugh. And he took them SO seriously. Bond, of course, did not. He cracked sly jokes and clever puns at every ridiculous gadget to which Q sighed, rolled his eyes and pleaded, "Try to be serious, 007!" And we loved him for it. Q was a splendidly marvelous character.
Admittedly, James Bond is very much a lone wolf. He is a nearly-super hero without a sidekick. He works best without a sidekick to slow him down, and admit it; we've all suspected Batman would be the same way. Most of the time, Robin is just dead weight. But at times, Bond managed to acquire some key allies who really stepped up and delivered important assistance. Of course, they were always second-best to Bond and always just a trifle (or more) in his shadow because these are stories about James Bond.
In the books, one of Bond's key allies is Felix Leiter of the American CIA. In typical British condescension, Leiter is always a touch cruder, less sophisticated, less intelligent, and overall slightly less effective than Bond. That just stand to reason - he's a bloody Yank! But in the books, Leiter also has a long-standing relationship with Bond. He saves Bond's bacon on multiple occasions and so in the canon, when Bond takes on a heroic quest to save Leiter, it makes perfect sense. In the movies, even if you watched them all from the start, you never sense the depth of that relationship. Anyway, Jack Lord played Leiter and he was a perfect for Ian Fleming's version of the CIA cohort. He was typically American - slightly brash, a bit less clever, but faithful and dependable to the end. If you happened to be a veteran of the British military in World War II (and Ian Fleming was, of course) that was exactly how you saw Americans.
In the 70s, Bond began occasionally having female allies - a step up from Bond girls for the women in his films. The first of these was the Russian Agent XXX, Anya Amasova played by Barbara Bach in 'The Spy Who Loved Me'. Bach is an attempt to break out of a disturbingly misogynistic pattern in Bond films in which women are largely sexual toys and damsels in distress. While Anya is a little bit Bond girl, she is much more a rival-turned-ally for Bond. Bach carried the role very well, all things considered. There was still enough pervasive sexism in the film that she couldn't avoid becoming another notch on Bond's bedpost, but she also saved his butt nearly as often as he saved her which was a huge step upward.
One of the strongest of Bond's allies was also a woman and tends to be my favorite of them all - Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin in 'Tomorrow Never Dies'. Yeoh was a step farther away from the Bond girl stereotype and was much closer to being Bond's equal as a strong, independent spy. Her capabilities as a fighter were possibly even stronger than Bond's and that made her an outstanding ally - possibly the strongest one Bond ever had.
Diversion: About Michelle Yeoh; born in Malaysia, she has been famous for playing Chinese characters. In fact, Cantonese is actually her third language and her Malaysian accent is strong enough to apparently be troublesome for Chinese audiences though I obviously can't detect that myself. I loved her in 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' which is an all-time favorite film of mine. That film's story is actually centered around the characters of Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen. The moral center and heroic lead of the film is actually Chow-Yun Fat, but for my money, the role that carries the film is that of Yu Shu Lien played by Michelle Yeoh. I loved her character so much in that film that I have longed to see a sequel centered on her character. As it happens, there IS a sequel and Michelle Yeoh is in it. Last I heard, it will be released on Netflix sometime soon and this makes me quite happy.
The best ally, I think, is one who is perfectly capable of standing up to Bond, who saves his ass and has his own ass saved by Bond, and who is perfectly capable of working alongside Bond without ever showing the slightest bit of jealousy or envy. That is why I think my true favorite among his allies has to be Topol in 'For Your Eyes Only.' He is clever, he is a bit of a rogue, he brings his own army of devoted followers - and he's Topol! Come on, this is the first guy you would turn to if you had to invade an impossibly remote and difficult enemy villainous lair!
Okay, let's be honest - in Bond's world, women are sex toys and distractions. They exist in most of the films for three purposes - for Bond to bed them, for the villain to capture them, then for Bond to rescue them. They have to be sexy, slightly dim, and utterly incapable of escaping the villain's lair on their own. I will not apologize for Ian Fleming's sensibilities. He was a covert operative for British intelligence in the days when their empire still consisted of Englishmen and wogs - those who were not. Women were not leaders - they were dutiful wives and occasionally useful factory workers and stenographers. That was Fleming's world so it was by default, Bond's world. That said, their role in the entertaining world of Bond films is somewhat varied and worthy of discussion.
Some of them were clearly stronger and more capable than others. In Dr. No, we first see Ursula Andress rising out of the sea in a bikini and wielding a wicked knife - beautiful AND dangerous. A lot of the Bond girls were like that - they had some strength and capability, but they always succumbed to Bond's charms. One of the most iconic was Pussy Galore in 'Goldfinger' but that is arguably the one that troubles me the most. The movie subtly implies that Pussy is actually into women. The book, in contrast, states it outright - she is a lesbian and her flying circus of stunt pilots are ALL lesbians. But Bond's male charisma turns out to be too much for her and she falls in love with him. One night of being shaken AND stirred by James and she switches teams -sexually AND politically. Bond convinces her to betray Goldfinger and help him save the day. It is utterly inconceivable and insanely insulting to women everywhere. It is played down a bit more in the movie than in the book, but still - it makes me dislike her character because she is written to be so weak.
For my money, the best Bond girl - actually THE Bond girl - has to be the one and only who convinced him to put aside his playboy ways and marry her. And that, my friends, is the incomparable Diana Rigg. Like Dame Judi Dench, Dame Diana Rigg has been honored by the crown with a title ironically demonstrating that the two greatest acting talents in the entire Bond franchise were arguably women. But I digress.
Rigg's Tracy di Vicenzo is in equal parts, vulnerable, strong, childish, romantic - everything we want a movie love-interest to be. But she also never quite seems to be a conquest. You get the sense throughout the film that maybe, just maybe, if you play your cards right - if you get the perfect hand in baccarat, you can have her. But there will definitely be a steep price exacted somewhere along the way. And of course, the fact that Bond marries her means there HAS to be something extraordinary about this woman compared to all the also-rans in the Bond universe. In the film, George Lazenby's Bond is really rather hopeless as an actor. His ability to emote is just not there at all. Yet somehow, in Diana Rigg, we are compelled to actually believe this romance is happening! When you see an actor cry on screen, you sometimes idly wonder how many onions or menthol capsules it took to drag out those tears. With Rigg, you feel like crying yourself, the emotion is so real. By God, she's truly fighting those tears and now I'm fighting them, too!
When I saw that movie in the theater at age 10, I fell hopelessly in love. If I'd had a VCR, I swear I would have been taping the Avengers and playing back Emma Peel's fight scenes frame-by-frame - watching that leggy brunette in the leather catsuit doing kicks … okay, cold shower time!
In the Bond movies, every Villain has his own hired man, an absolutely ruthless and fanatically loyal henchman. So much so, that in Mike Myers' Austin Powers parodies, he had an entire staff of them. You simply have to have henchmen - hired muscle, spear carrier, plausible deniability, whipping boy … they have dozens of uses!
One of the best will always be Richard Kiel's 'Jaws' from several of the Roger Moore films. Kiel has had a long career of being a frighteningly large bad guy. He was used effectively as the giant neck-breaker in 'The Longest Yard' (apologies for the language). But I think he may be best remembered as Jaws with a mouth full of metal-chewing teeth. He did convey menace, but he also showed a typical henchman's weakness of being all-too-easily outsmarted by Bond. Time and time again.
I think the most menacing and iconic of all the Bond Villain henchmen had to have been Harold Sakata as Oddjob in 'Goldfinger' Oddjob wasn't just scary - he was dangerously effective. Between crushing golf balls, breaking necks, and decapitating statues with his Bowler-hat Frisbee, you knew this guy would be tough to beat and in the penultimate fight scene with Sean Connery, it is worth noting that Bond was clearly no match whatsoever for Oddjob in hand-to-hand (or hat-to-hat) combat. Lucky application of voltage and ingenuity is all that saved Bond's British butt!
I heard someone one say you tell which Bond villains are the most iconic by which ones are most parodied. That's an interesting thought and I'm not entirely sure it's true, but it might weigh into my own list. I will once again give you a reverse ranking:
5. Telly Savalas as Blofeld in 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'. Okay, truth be told most critics give Savalas pretty high marks for this version of Blofeld. I admit my evaluation has always been a bit tainted. I remember Telly Savalas as Kojak on TV and also as Big Joe in 'Kelly's Heroes' both of which were the kind of tough guy, street-talking Telly and I really liked that kind of character for him. It's not really the kind of personality conducive to being a Bond villain so I guess part of me strains to see him making that leap - which he actually does pretty well. The most unfair part of my evaluation is that I tend to compare him to Donald Pleasance - the best Blofeld - and that's not fair to Telly.
4. Christopher Walken. I really didn't think all that much of 'A View to a Kill' but you have to admit, the villain in the pic - Max Zorin - is a writer's mad concoction of villainous traits perfect for an actor so capable of madness as Christopher Walken. He's a millionaire out to destroy the most profitable industry in the world, he's the result of Nazi genetic experiments, he employs psychopathic assassins - what's not to love about this guy!
3. Gert Frobe. He is not an actor whose career is well known here in the states though he was a very prolific actor throughout the 50's, 60's, and 70's. His appearance as Auric Goldfinger in the eponymous Bond adventure 'Goldfinger' is one of the most parodied and quoted performances of all. "No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!" a line that makes perfect sense and evokes reverent re-quoting for decades.
2. Donald Pleasance. If mockery is the key indicator, then Donald Plesance's facially scarred, cat-stroking Blofeld is the one to choose. After all, despite the Austin Powers films borrowing mainly from 'Goldfinger' the character of Dr. Evil is extremely derivative of Pleasance's Blofeld. If you're thinking it is also derivative of Charles Gray's Blofeld - all I can say to that is that Gray was copying Pleasance so, come on.
1. If there was a Rolodex for actors who play super villains and you had to red-tag the one you ALWAYS go to first, it would be the card for Christopher Lee. I don't care what kind of villain you want - mad scientist, vampire, evil wizard, or internationally infamous hit man, Christopher Lee is the epitome of what you want on the screen. His Scaramanga in 'The Man with the Golden Gun' might be the best Bond villain of all. And on this Saturday morning, for me he IS the best, but if you ask me tomorrow, the order might change. Still, he is also one of the best actors who ever graced a Bond film - right up there with Dench and Rigg, in my book.
Bear in mind, I have NOT seen the Daniel Craig films. So, I'm having to rate the rest. In my mind, there are a lot of them that were good right up to a point where things might have broken down a bit. 'Thunderball' was like that - doing pretty well until the third act then it kind of went off the rails. 'For Your Eyes Only' was one I really liked except for Lynn Holly Johnson's ice skating Lolita who just … made it all more awkward. There were a few whose plots just left me numb due to the sheer stupidity. 'Diamonds Are Forever' and 'Moonraker' both just went too far into the absurd.
The problem is that a Bond film has key ingredients that make it watchable. But just a tiny bit too much of any one of those ingredients and things get out of whack. There really is a science to making a good Bond film. Everything I listed above - the music, cinematography, the casting, the story's characters - all those things are essential to get just right. If there are too many bad puns it can ruin the film (aka the Roger Moor syndrome). If there is too much misogyny, it gets painful to watch (aka the Sean Connery syndrome). If the gadgets get too silly, well, it's hard to take the film seriously. So in the end, it is a delicate balancing act. It's possible to take the entire franchise too seriously, as happened in the Timothy Dalton Bond films, and lose the charm that made the movies so fun. Tough thing for a Producer and Director to navigate, when you get down to it.
3. I felt like for sheer plot, 'From Russia With Love' was one of the best. It was also pretty close to the Fleming book which probably is the reason. As a spy story, it is very well executed and the plot unfolds very well and very organically within the acting of Sean Connery. He is the glib, charming Connery Bond, but he has it dialed back a bit compared to what we would come to see in other films.
2. 'Goldfinger' is probably the most iconic. It had one of the best villains, the very best henchman, some decent supporting characters, some awesome gadgets, and the evil plot - irradiating the US gold supply and crashing its economy - was one of the smarter ones to throw into the mix.
1. Though critics are very divided on this, I still consider 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' to be my favorite. Look, Austrailian model George Lazenby is not a good actor and he was not a good Bond. He had the looks - he filled out a tuxedo very well - but he was wooden. He did all right in the fight scenes but in dialogue, he was almost painful to watch. But put that aside for a moment.
Here's what OHMSS does right - it is arguably the best-written and best-paced of all Bond films. The first act puts the pieces out there for us to see the film being assembled. The second act features one of the best filmed chase scenes - a ski chase in the Alps - that appears on film. The third act culminates in an absolutely breathtaking helicopter assault high in the Alps in which our hero has to rescue his true love - honestly, this is fantastic movie writing. It is 'Princess Bride' transferred into the spy genre!
The cinematography is gorgeous. That dawn helicopter assault in the Alps just takes your breath away. The John Barry score is one of the very best in all the Bond films. The supporting cast, featuring Telly Savalas and Diana Rigg, is arguably the strongest combination put into any of the series. And the ending - so tragically poignant it tears your heart out … sorry for the spoiler, but come on - this is really a well-made movie of ANY genre, let alone the action adventure goldmine of James Bond.
Gonna say this once - I'm telling you MY favorites for MY reasons. Feel free to disagree to your heart's content.
4. Roger Moore. Let's talk about this a bit. He was a good actor - no question about it. Moore had a dashing charm and could deliver witty dialogue with the best of them. I think if you watch enough of these, you begin to notice that in action sequences - whether shootouts or fistfights - he just isn't as convincing. You begin to realize he's a bit old to really be Bond and on top of that, he's just not … fast. He moves slowly, takes his time, and just doesn't seem to have cat-like reflexes or any other physical quality he ought to have. He's very likable and with the occasional comic bits, he's quite good. But as the secret agent deadly man of action, he's a distant fourth to the others listed here.
3. Piers Brosnan. In many ways, he's extremely Bond-ish. He's handsome and charming and he can definitely carry the action scenes. Brosnan always had a way of shifting rapidly from engaging smile to deadly anger that was quite convincing in all his roles. But we have to remember that he came to the Bond after rising to popularity in the series 'Remington Steele' in which he was used as a figurehead for a woman's detective agency - in short, he was hired to look like a detective. And in a way, I can't help feeling he was hired to play bond because he really looks like a secret agent. Hey, I get it - he kind of epitomizes a unique blend of what Bond was in the books and what he became at the hands of Sean Connery, but still he wasn't quite either one. Further, the deeper you got into his run in those films, the more he started to look like he actually disliked the role. He was kind of phoning it in by the end.
2. Timothy Dalton. I think Dalton is judged unfairly as a Bond actor. His movies didn't do as well and he tends to get more than his share of the blame for that. In fact, there were several reasons why his two appearances aren't considered great films in the series. However, both did rather well at the box office and also garnered decent critical reviews. So it becomes difficult to understand the overall perception that they were sub-standard films and Dalton by association, a sub-standard Bond.
The franchise had transformed somewhat from its beginnings and in the Roger Moore films, there was less action and a little more tongue-in-cheek humor and even sight gags. That comedic tone contrasts sharply with Ian Fleming's books. Fleming paints a visual image of Bond as darkly handsome, roguish, looking slightly untamed - you can see in him a smoldering sexuality but also a hint of barely restrained violence. In short; when you see James Bond you know at a glance that this is a dangerous man, no matter how civilized he looks at the moment.
Well, in 'The Living Daylights', the writer, director, and producer took the film back in that direction and away from the puns and gadgetry that peaked during the Moore years and some fans felt that took away the charm of James Bond. For anyone who had actually read the books, it really was truer to what Ian Fleming wrote than anything since 'From Russia with Love'. So in the end, I felt Timothy Dalton was a very good James Bond and possibly the most completely in sync with the books of all the actors to grace that role.
1. Sean Connery. Let's face it; at the end of the day, when you hear the line, "Bond. James Bond" it is Connery's voice you hear. That hint of Scottish not quite hidden in the British accent was Connery's signature. So much so that it was perfectly natural to see Zachary Levi in 'Chuck' doing a spot-on Connery imitation as he tried out his spy pseudonym, "Carmichael. Charles Carmichael." Connery was a terribly convincing Bond because he had the sex appeal and charm, but at the same time, he could carry the fight scenes quite effectively. While he did occasionally fire off a witty remark at the bad guy's expense, you never felt he had to work at it and he never overdid it. All in all, I always felt he wore the role like a well-fitted tux. While the rest of us were sweating to death and trying to figure out what to do with a cummerbund, Connery was as comfortable as if he'd been born in it.
So there it is - my review of the Bond oeuvre (a fancy French word Matt taught me) with my assorted likes and dislikes.
Remember, it's just for fun. Now, I have about half those films on DVD - time to re-watch a few.