(To clarify a point from the last post on this: I watch these when I’m on the treadmill, but that watching is spread over multiple nights. I’m getting better, but a half hour is about my limit on the hamster wheel.)
I’m about to commit an act of blasphemy. Sean Connery was not the ideal embodiment of James Bond, even if such a thing could be said to exist.
Connery was, however, perfect for the movies that the Bond Films became. Watching them in a short time span really drives home that point. The movies evolved to better suit Connery’s performance: his dry wit, his confidence, his skill in making the most ridiculous action scenes believable. The man and the movies became inseparable, which is why they struggled to find a voice once he was gone.
The Connery years simply had style. That’s all there is to it. The rhythms of the movies — jazzy score, solid action, beautiful girls, sexual politics, gadgets — were a rhythm the series would lose after Connery left and never recover. The recent films quit trying and went with a different aesthetic, which is probably wise. The Connery films simply wouldn’t work today. When you watch them, you instantly know when they were made: the inventive 60′s when the Hayes Code was collapsing and film-makers were stretching their wings.
Going film by film:
Dr. No, which I rate 8/10 and IMBD rates as the fourth best of the series is probably the most true to the Bond of the novels. I like it because it is built around a spy adventure, rather than action sequences. Bond kills in cold blood and is focused tightly on the mission. The sex and drinking are a manifestation of his nature, not a distraction from it.
Everyone talks about Ursula Andress as the ultimate Bond Girl. Well, fair enough. But I always preferred Zena Marshall as the beautiful traitorous Miss Taro. And she is at the center of one of the most interesting sequences in the film. A remarkable thing about the 60′s Bond movies was just how coldly Bond and his opponents used sex as a weapon. There is a sequence where Taro invites Bond to her house for a liason so that No’s gangsters can kill him on the way. Once he gets there, they have sex twice — her to delay him long enough for another attempt on his life; him … well just to have some fun before he turns her in. It’s almost jarring. You would almost never see this today.
From Russia with Love, which I rate a 9 and IMDB rates as the third best Bond, is what every Bond film should be. It has a great spy story, a gorgeous Bond girl in Daniela Bianchi and not one, but two awesome villans in Robert Shaw and Lotte Lenya. It adheres close to the novel, has dynamite action scenes and more tension than the entire Moore years combined. The final fights between Bond and Grant and Bond and Klebb are visceral in a way later films would try and fail to reproduce. If I ever took over the Bond series, I would tell everyone to watch From Russia with Love for inspiration.
Russia also continues the theme of using sex as a weapon. SPECTRE tries to use Romanova as bait for Bond and he cooperates because … well mainly because Daniela Bianchi is so beautiful.
By the end of Russia, all the pieces of the next decade are in place. Lois Maxwell and Bernard Lee show up i No. Desmond Llewelyn first appears here. SPECTRE is an established villain. The great music and action rhythms and glamorous Bond girls are ready to become a staple. It would all come together the next time out.
Goldfinger, which rates as the second best Bond movie and which Ebert included in his great movies is a step down, I think, even though it’s the film were all the elements finally came together. I rate it a 8/10. I’m not dissing it; it’s great. And I won’t argue with people who think this, rather than Russia was the pinnacle of the Connery era if not the entire series. It has a great score, an iconic villan, great action scenes, even a dazzling theme song from Shirley Bassey. It has the style I referenced above, which is something the later films lacked. Honor Blackman was never one of my favorite Bond Girls, even if she was the most infamous. And again, we see he naked sexual politics of the early films — Bond saves the world by seducing Goldfinger’s henchwoman.
So why do I rate it below Russia? Well, it’s praising with faint damnation. It’s not that I dislike Goldfinger, I just like Russia more.
Thunderball: IMDB ranks this as the 7th best Bond film and I gave it an 8. A step down from Goldfinger, it still has its pleasures. SPECTRE is in full flower, not as faceless enemy but as a fully realized organization. The underwater battle scene is still thrilling after four decades and Claudine Auger and Luciana Paluzzi are two of my all-time favorite Bond girls.
As before, the use of sex as a weapon is front and center in the tryst between the villainous Volpe and Bond. As with No, she’s delaying him for the bad guys to arrive; he’s having fun and maybe hoping to flip her against SPECTRE. He clearly knows who she is and doesn’t care because she’s hot.
One last thing. There’s is apparently some debate over whether Bond deliberately turned Volpe into the path of the bullet when her henchman try to shoot him. To me, this isn’t even a question. He spots the gun, turns her into it, then casually lays her dead body in a chair. There’s no shock or sadness from him at all. It’s obvious it was deliberate. And utterly consistent with his character.
You Only Live Twice: IMDB ranks this as the 8th best Bond, I give it an 8. What amuses me is that the plot of the film — which is the first to basically ignore the book — is utterly absurd. The idea that SPECTRE could put together its own space program AND keep it quiet is pure silliness. But the movie forges ahead with such confidence and style in its ridiculous plot that I don’t mind at all. It remains one of my favorites, even if it doomed future films by raising the bar on silly plots.
(Ignoring Fleming’s novel would create problems down the road for The Man With The Golden Gun. But I’ll address that when the time comes.)
Diamonds are Forever: IMDB ranks this 13th, I give it a 7.0. I like it more than it deserves, probably because I like Lana Wood and Jill St. John more than I should. But it has other highlights as well, notably Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint. I read some review that described them as terrible villains, but I found them wonderfully menacing.
Interesting point about Kidd and Wint. In the novel, they are explicitly gay. This is hinted at in the movie, but even those hints were excised on TV. Back then, people objected to the portrayal of homosexuality. If it aired now, people would object to the portrayal of homosexuals as villains.
As a sendoff to Connery, it’s serviceable. And the ridiculous moon buggy chase demonstrates perfectly why Connery was so well-suited to the movies. Put any other actor in that scene and we’d be laughing. Put Connery in it and … it works.