It’s hard to believe that it’s been 50 years since Dr. No, the first James Bond film, was released. How is that possible? Am I that old? Then again, it feels like Bond has always been on the scene, part of the pop culture landscape. Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953, but the series got a big boost in this country in 1961 when President Kennedy said in “Life Magazine” that From Russia with Love was one of his ten favorite books. The movie versions took off, and were hugely influential, though they quickly became formulaic and over the top. Dr. No’s popularity and financial success created its own genre and unleashed a flood of Cold War spy films and TV shows in the 1960s.
The IFC Center in NYC just finished a week of showing all seven of the Sean Connery Bond films, including the “unofficial” Never Say Never Again (1983), which is basically a remake of Thunderball (1965). For many of us, I think, Connery is the best Bond, our favorite Bond. And not just because he was the first. That’s definitely a factor, but more importantly, Sean Connery really nailed the role. All subsequent Bonds have been versions of Connery’s. I never much liked the Roger Moore films, with the exception of For Your Eyes Only (1981), which seemed less jokey and more serious, grounded in a somewhat believable reality. Timothy Dalton brought intensity and brutality to the role, but was probably too dour a presence for wide acceptance, and only lasted two films. Like many, I felt that Pierce Brosnan was the “best Bond since Connery,” but only liked the first of his four Bonds, Goldeneye (1995). And with Daniel Craig, Bond has been effectively reinvented for the new millennium. Casino Royale (2006) is tough and gritty, with a physicality that has some heft to it. But I felt badly let down by the follow up, Quantum of Solace (2008), though I still like Craig in the role. The truth of it is, I can recall very little from the later films, while many scenes from the first three are still very vivid for me. For me, Bond will always belong to Sean Connery.
(Trivia footnote: Sean Connery was not actually the first actor to portray James Bond. Barry Nelson played Bond in an adaptation of Casino Royale, broadcast live in 1954 on the CBS television series “Climax!”, which recast Bond as an American [!] intelligence agent, and co-starred Peter Lorre as the villain, Le Chiffre. Nelson apparently made little impression as “Jimmy” Bond, as he was called in this version. Somehow “Jimmy” doesn’t work.)
I saw the first three films last weekend. I had intended on seeing them all together, a back-to-back triple feature, just to see what that would be like. But while the spirit was willing, the flesh, as they say, was weak. So I settled for a double-feature on Friday, and the third film the next day. And here they are.
Dr. No (1962) Director: Terence Young. I remember seeing this twice in the space of a week in the summer of 1963 at a small theater in Iowa, so something about it obviously got my attention. As far as I know, there hadn’t been many secret agent/spy movies before Dr. No, and certainly none like this, with a chain-smoking protagonist who enjoyed booze, women, casinos, fast cars, beating the crap out of bad guys, and to top it off, had a license to kill. There’s a scene in Dr. No where Bond executes a man who has come to kill him. It’s very cold-blooded and matter of fact. I doubt that Bond’s pulse rate increases a single beat. I also don’t remember Bond ever being quite this ruthless in the subsequent films (though he seems just as tough in From Russia with Love). What got my attention was when he fires a second slug into the guy, who seems quite dead already. Here’s a clip of the scene. The sound is low, but it was the best one I could find.
And who can forget (at least if you were a teenage boy) the first sight of Ursula Andress as she emerged from the sea, like a goddess. Her bikini caused a serious increase in the sale of two-piece swimwear, though I’ve always thought there was something odd about the wide belt that held her knife sheath. Maybe it was the buckle, I don’t know.
Many of the elements that became regular features, catch phrases, in the subsequent films were introduced here. For example, Bond’s way with those came to be called “Bond girls” is established almost immediately; a supremely self-confident, wise-cracking command of women, most of whom are beautiful, some deadly and trying to kill him, but almost all sooner or later susceptible to his somewhat thuggish, heavy-lidded charms. These were definitely pre-feminism years. We see for the first time Bond’s flirty banter with Miss Moneypenny when he comes to M’s office to get his new assignment, which is repeated in nearly all the films. His relationship with M is also established, that of an errant schoolboy always in danger of being dressed down by the headmaster. Desmond Llewelyn as “Q,” the head of Q Branch, doesn’t appear until the second film, but his sarcastic disapproval of Bond was a fixture from then on.
Of course, one of the most iconic trademarks of the series occurs in Dr. No when we first see Bond in the casino and he delivers the line, “Bond… James Bond,” which cues the “James Bond Theme” to rise in the background. This line, endlessly quoted and parodied, was voted the “best-loved one-liner in cinema” by British filmgoers in 2001. And in 2005, it was picked as the 22nd greatest quote in film history by the American Film Institute. Something I hadn’t picked up on before, until seeing it noted in a Wikipedia entry on Dr. No, is that Bond actually seems to be mimicking the woman across from him at the baccarat table, who introduces herself as “Trench… Sylvia Trench.” But Connery saying it had a terrific impact in the film. It sounded great, and was used thereafter by all the Bonds. Here’s a compilation of the Bond actors saying the line. This gets old fast, but it’s nonetheless interesting to see the differences.
From Russia with Love (1963) Directed by Terence Young. This is the one. Many people consider this to be the best Bond film, and I’m inclined to agree. After From Russia with Love the films began to get bigger and jokier, more outlandishly spectacular. The story takes place in something like the real world, and is somewhat more believable. Ken Adams’ sets are starting to get bigger, but nothing like the incredible spaces they’ll be in later films. The nominal mastermind behind a plot to steal a Russian decoder device for SPECTRE is referred to only as “Number One” (he’s Blofeld in later films). His face is never seen in the early films, though we do see him slowly stroking a large, long-haired white cat that sits smugly in his lap. He’s not larger than life in the way that Auric Goldfinger is in the next film, but Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb, and especially Robert Shaw as the assassin Red Grant, more than make up for that. When you consider Lotte Lenya’s background as a well-known stage and film actress in Germany during the 1920s, often in Brecht-Weill plays (she was married to Kurt Weill – twice!), her appearance in a James Bond film seems almost surreal.
My most vivid memory from this film has to be Bond’s fight to the death with Red Grant in a cramped train compartment. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen Robert Shaw, though it felt like it (I’d forgotten until recently when I looked up his credits that he’d been in a 1956-57 British TV series called The Buccaneers, which I watched as a kid). He doesn’t say a word in From Russia with Love until he meets Bond on the train. I remember being jolted by his voice, which didn’t sound right for the lethal figure we’d followed through the film. But the fight itself was amazing. We know Bond will survive, because he has to, but this fight really takes him to the edge. There may not have been anything quite like it in movies before, nothing this brutal and claustrophobic. It still packs a punch.
Goldfinger (1964) Director: Guy Hamilton. This is the Bond film that really sets the tone and style for the ones that followed. In the pre-credit sequence, Bond emerges from the water of a marina in frogman gear with a prop seagull attached to the top of his head as “camouflage.” After attaching explosives to something that needs blowing up, he unzips his wet suit to reveal that he’d been wearing a white dinner jacket and evening wear underneath, ready to go to the nightclub next door to check out the ladies and light a cigarette. This can only be taken as a joke. With Goldfinger, overt humor and satire become frequent features.
Goldfinger has a killer theme song, though, maybe the best of all the Bonds, and a great score throughout. The main title sequence is also one of the best, incorporating many images from the film itself, which creates a sense of expectation for what’s to follow.
Though From Russia with Love is, for me, a much better film, I’d bet that Goldfinger is the one that comes most immediately to mind when people think of Sean Connery and the Bond films. As portrayed by Gert Fröbe, Auric Goldfinger is one of the stronger Bond villains, a powerful, threatening presence, down to his gold-plated pistol. Yet also someone who cheats at cards to make sure he wins. Memorable scenes and images from the film include Goldfinger’s Korean bodyguard, Oddjob, his deadly bowler hat, and the way he rattles Bond by crushing a golf ball to dust in his bare hand; Shirley Eaton covered in gold paint, dead on the bed, one of the most iconic images from any Bond film; the introduction of Honor Blackman’s character, Pussy Galore, and wondering how they got away with that. But perhaps the scene that comes most to mind is Bond captured by Goldfinger, strapped spread-eagle to a metal table with a laser beam burning its way through the table toward his crotch, capped by one of the greatest Bond dialogue exchanges. Bond: “Do you expect me to talk?” Goldfinger: “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”
It’s interesting that in 1963, in the midst of the releases of Dr. No and From Russia with Love, John Le Carré’s novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was published. Two years later, 1965, a film version was released, directed by Martin Ritt and starring Richard Burton in one of his best performances. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold could not have been any more different from the James Bond world. And it was great. In it, the work of a spy was plodding and grubby, and likely to end with a bullet in the back. This may not have been any more “real” than Bond’s world, but it felt like it was. The same year saw Michael Caine as secret agent Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File. While not as bleak as the world of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Caine’s Harry Palmer nonetheless turned the image of James Bond on its head.
Seeing the first three films over two days was an educational experience. I realized that, with the strong exception of From Russia with Love and parts of Goldfinger, the Bond films, even the later ones with Sean Connery, are pretty disposable. After Goldfinger, the films came more and more to resemble theme park rides. Still, by now the James Bond films have the weight of a cultural insititution. My favorite Bond will always be Sean Connery. For me, he’s the real deal. For younger filmgoers, their first Bond may have been Roger Moore, or Pierce Brosnan, or Daniel Craig. Sean Connery may not mean the same to them as he does to someone with my point of view. But whoever your Bond is, I’m sure we’ve all practiced, at one time or another, saying the line. You know how it goes: “Bond… James Bond.” – Ted Hicks