The James Bond franchise turns 50 years old this year, but the thing about James Bond is that he never really ages, does he?
For 23 movies now, the 007 series has survived not on consistent quality but on consistent character. It’s a genre unto itself, one that branded itself from the beginning and never looked back.
Although Bond never aged, he became a mirror of the times as well as a look back at a simpler one. When “Star Wars” was the new hit, Bond went to space. When Japan championed Bond, Bond went overseas. When he needed a makeover, Bond started from scratch. When a new generation of video games was born, he became a First Person Shooter staple.
I first knew Bond as Pierce Brosnan. He came to the series after a six year gap in the franchise (the longest in its history). This Bond had to be reinvented to find his place after the Cold War. Because although the 007 movies were never political, they let us know who our enemies were and just how dangerous a nuclear threat could be. Bond put minds at ease in knowing that there was a hero this cool protecting the world.
You can first see these traces in “From Russia With Love,” a movie that very boldly asserts the presence of a secret shadow government named SPECTRE. Before Bond even shows up, we’re taken to an absurd training facility where they use “live targets too.” The Russian Adonis Grant was precisely the nonchalant face that could so easily be the enemy in disguise. What’s more, this film introduced the absolutely brilliant screen villainy that was SPECTRE’s Number One, a faceless entity who stroked a white cat with ominous delicacy.
As modern as these fears were, Bond first belonged to the classical age of Old Hollywood. Had “Dr. No,” “From Russia With Love” or “Goldfinger” come out after 1967, the campy violence and lack of R-rated sex might’ve made the Bond franchise irrelevant.
But here Sean Connery proved to be an update on the Cary Grant archetype. Connery became an instant star after “Dr. No” because although he had a cool demeanor and suave fashion sense, he also had a steely glare that let you know when he meant business. He wasn’t all camp the way Roger Moore or Brosnan was. He had the power to take who was essentially a blonde Hitchcock girl and turn her into a sex icon.
One thing I’ve noticed about the early Bond girls, all of whom were models or pin-up artists, was that they already had ridiculous, sexy names that the franchise took one step further. “Dr. No’s” Honey Ryder was really Ursula Andress, “Russia’s” Tatiana Romanova was the former Miss World contestant Daniela Bianchi, and the best named of all, Pussy Galore of “Goldfinger,” was Honor Blackman.
The Bond movies had an expert way about branding everything. The patience “Dr. No” shows in introducing Bond is part of what makes him so iconic. Some man is winning handily at a game of cards, and in a quick smash cut we get Connery’s full-bodied mug, proudly declaring his name in front of whatever enemy party might be listening. The invigorating theme music by John Barry plays over the top of his introduction and history is made.
Bond villainy too is often so perfect because most of them are based on visual attributes. Dr. No has wooden hands and can crush figurines with them. SPECTRE’s Number One has fighting fish and a white cat. Oddjob is a mute silent killer, all brawn to Goldfinger’s intellect. “Thunderball’s” Largo has an eye patch. Sadly, this has meant that disabilities are often associated with being bad things for a person to have. Even today, the villain in “Casino Royale” cries blood, and villains are characterized by their visual disabilities.
The girls too exhibit the same iconic motifs. Pussy Galore asserts her name with as much authority as Bond, and he naturally cracks a joke (“I must be dreaming”) to let you know just how silly this all is. Honey Ryder steps onto the beach in a centered long shot with a knife at the side of her two-piece, but because it comes from Bond’s perspective, the image is branded in our minds. And Domino (Claudine Auger) of “Thunderball” matches her name with her fashion, letting her black and white one-piece be forever associated with her character.
All this came just as the British Invasion was overtaking America. Bond was an extension of the swinging London scene, an adult who could appeal to people of any age because of his old fashioned drinks and his contemporary snark. He does date himself a bit when he says drinking a warm bottle of Don Perignon is like listening to The Beatles without earmuffs, but we’ll let that one slide since he eventually let Paul McCartney write one of his theme songs.
But the early Bond movies really do work as complete films, not just collections of iconic moments. The thing people say about “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love” is that they’re actually fairly modest spy films. But that’s in comparison to “Goldfinger,” a movie that takes believability and chucks it out the window. “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love” have plots that are equally bananas.
A turning point for me was about 40 minutes into “Dr. No.” Bond is simply investigating a man who has gone missing and a conspiracy that may surround him, and we’re suddenly taken inside the villain’s diabolical lair. The room we’re in is like a giant rat cage, a low angle shot revealing a massive barred sunroof and the treacherous shadows cast on the ground. They dwarf a trembling man listening to what sounds like The Wizard of Oz if not the voice of God. Who knew this guy even had a lair? Had there been a thing as a super villain before Bond?
When you see something like that, there’s a halfway point between intentionally ridiculous and unknowingly silly. Dr. No’s convex aquarium is powerful imagery, and the radiation decontaminator provides a good opportunity for both leads to take their clothes off, but then there’s the goofy laboratory set pieces where all the machinery is labeled or a moment when a tarantula is crawling across Bond’s face and the musical score is Mickey Mousing his every movement.
In fact for a series that applauds itself on its action, some of the scenes as orchestrated by director Terence Young are a bit clunky. The editing is uneconomical and the fighting is uncomplicated to the point that you see punches thrown and hits being taken in individual shots. The choreography has much improved over the years, but the original Bonds had exciting action sequences based on the inventive ways they used space or the absurd props thrown into each. In “From Russia With Love” a standard shootout is beefed up thanks to all these partially clothed gypsies running around getting in catfights. The opening sequence in “Thunderball” is invigorating because chairs, clocks and flowers are flying all over the room. Again in “Russia,” Bond’s punch-up with the Russian spy on the train never seems claustrophobic, despite the small quarters.
And the difference between these Bonds and many newer action movies is that they are strings of set pieces all cobbled together to make a terrific finale. It’s not one gigantic battle that takes the place of a third act. “Russia” has a fist fight, car chase and helicopter battle all in its final few minutes and all spread out over different locations that still finds a way to appear organic.
But above all, the 007 franchise works because it has attitude. “Quantum of Solace” may not be the worst Bond movie ever made, but it’s one of the most forgettable because the smarmy Bond who didn’t just have sex with pretty ladies but effortlessly seduced them right after surviving mortal danger (In that same vein, sex in the Bond movies is never really about sex. It’s all about the foreplay and the aftermath where a perfectly angelic woman coyly hides her private parts.) had turned into a lifeless, cold blooded killer.
Everything about “Goldfinger” has distinct character and class, and it knows you have to take a villain out to the golf course or the poker table first before you can kill them. It’s the pivotal Bond movie, the first really of its kind to recognize all the tropes of the series so far and invent its own. What’s the first dead giveaway? When Moneypenny, not Bond, throws his hat onto the coat rack. This franchise has become self-aware and seems to know its here to stay, so it’s going to give everything you can ask for.
First you have the villain. Auric Goldfinger, as Bond says, sounds a French nail varnish, and that’s not an accident. Then you have the naked woman covered in gold paint. Some villains kill you, and others leave a trademark. Then there’s the car. The Aston Martin DB5 is perhaps the coolest, most iconic car ever featured in a movie, perhaps only behind the DeLorean in “Back to the Future.” It would not be enough to surprise us with all the gadgets the car has in store. It first has to have Q give us the inner-workings tour of MI6, and only then can it have some fun.
And of course there are the evil lairs. Goldfinger’s command center that he presents to the mafia is one of the most ingenious movie sets in history. It becomes clear this is a room that will only be used once, but it has to show us that it can do it. Models and giant maps rise from the floor and from behind walls, none of it cloaking the fact that Goldfinger’s scheme is plain mad. In fact it flat out tells us what the scheme is, a common cliché of modern action movies that is rarely as self-aware as it is here.
“Goldfinger” is arranged in such a way that it can have its fun. Some popcorn movies today are no-nonsense fun on accident. But there’s no mistaking a laser aimed at Bond’s crotch as Goldfinger cackles, “No Mister Bond, I expect you to die!” There’s no mistaking a woman named Pussy Galore as just a clever accident that became iconic. It’s not a coincidence that the Korean assassin Oddjob is a mute capable of decapitating a statue with his hat. Again unlike the New Hollywood action movies that preceded Bond, this is pure movie fun as it was originally meant to be.
People are always wondering if the Bond movies can really survive much longer. It’s a different time, and even Bond has to start taking things seriously. The threats facing the world are not something Bond alone can handle, or should.
But watching “Dr. No,” “From Russia With Love,” “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball” in succession taught me that the Bond movies will go away no sooner than a comedy, musical or Western. Only a Bond movie is entirely like a Bond movie, and to lose them would be to lose a part of the cinema.