Dr. No was a little known, low-budget thriller when it was released in 1962, introducing a secret agent that had style, strength and panache. The series survived successfully by adapting to the times, reflecting social changes, popular culture and new technology.
The suave playboy of the early 1960’s was evident in the way James Bond dressed and behaved in that first movie. He was a British insider who became an outsider after landing in Jamaica. The villain’s empirical ideology was set up in Dr. No and became a staple of the franchise.
Whereas the novel portrayed the Soviet Union as the antagonist, the movie switched to a more neutral terrorist organization, SPECTRE, given the tense political climate of the early 1960’s. Dr. No pushed the envelope by revealing sexy girls and seeing the hero ruthlessly kill a bad guy. It was the beginning of how the 007 movies changed the cinematic landscape.
From Russia with Love (1963) turned out to be an indirect sequel in that some of the same characters reappeared and the tension of the Cold War continued to permeate the world of 007. Both the Russian and British governments were searching for a decoder machine. The film’s mix of adventure, romance and characterization elevates From Russia with Love as one of the best Bond films.
By the time Goldfinger (1964) was released, President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated and the civil rights movement in the United States was in full force. The world had become a more dangerous place. Goldfinger’s plot of destroying gold for power and big fortune seemed like a perfect escape from the present day horrors.
Thunderball (1965) was the fourth Bond movie in as many years returning to SPECTRE and its threat of global catastrophe. In You Only Live Twice (1967), SPECTRE’s plan included rockets in outer space, reflecting the race to the moon at the time it was made.
By then, Sean Connery was a huge international star and had grown tired after making five Bond movies in six years. When he left the world of 007, the producers curiously decided to film one of the most defining novels from Ian Fleming’s series. With unknown George Lazenby in the title role, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) didn’t click with audiences at the time of its release.
Even though SPECTRE threatened the world with biological warfare, the movie felt more intimate than previous Bond films. The movie benefited from the emphasis on characters, including a quietly menacing Telly Savalas as Blofeld. But it was the influence of women’s liberation and Fleming’s excellent novel that gave Diana Rigg one of the best female roles ever created for a Bond movie. She is defiant, charming, and fiercely independent, giving Bond all he can handle. With its solid storytelling, excellent action sequence and potent ending, OHMSS is now considered one of the best Bond films.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971) marked the return of Connery as 007. Unfortunately, the movie ended up more like a cartoon with idiotic characters, ridiculous plot (even for Bond) and absurd dialogue. In particular, Blofeld became a silly version of the previous interesting incarnations.
Roger Moore took over the franchise in Live and Let Die (1973), in which the producers decided to use blackploitation as inspiration for the film’s plot. With a little bit of The French Connection thrown in, the movie found Bond in Harlem dealing with voodoo and supernatural elements.
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) used the popularity of Kung Fu as background to a rather typical Bond plot involving Christopher Lee and a laser gun. Bond watches in amusement in one scene as two young girls fight a bunch of thugs. The series was at an all-time low.
The producers returned to a safe bet for The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) going back to a Cold war plot that had Bond working with a sexy Russian spy. Barbara Bach had the best female role since OHMSS and the more Bondish plot worked in the movie’s favor.
The huge success of Star Wars (1977) begat Moonraker (1979) which had little to do with Ian Fleming’s novel and everything to do with the popularity of science-fiction at the time. They even returned to the Jaws character, as portrayed by Richard Kiel.
After Bond finished fighting off bad guys in outer space, there was nowhere for him to go but back to Earth in the grittier For Your Eyes Only (1981). The plot involving some communicating device was rather quaint but the old-fashioned style was reminiscent of Dr No in some ways. The movie even opens with Bond visiting his wife’s grave, a link to OHMSS.
Octopussy (1983) turned out to be an excuse to film in India. The producers admitted it was the primary reason in developing the story, which is really about some silly egg! It showed yet again how successful the series has been in taking the audience to exotic locations.
The influence on A View to a Kill (1985) was the growing world of computers. On paper it must have sounded good. The final result on screen, not so much. The movie is over the top in every way, especially Christopher Walken’s performance as the villain Zorin, who enjoys shooting people a little too much. Having an aging Moore in the title role didn’t help. It was time for change.
A new 007 emerged in 1987 in the form of classically trained actor Timothy Dalton for The Living Daylights. By then, AIDS had become a serious issue, which was reflected by having Bond bed only two women. The romance with Maryam d’Abo’s Kara mirrors the one in OHMSS to some extent. The story for The Living Daylights brought back the threat of nuclear attack and felt like a throwback to the early Bond movies.
By the late 1980’s, action movies were a worldwide phenomenon, creating stars out of Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Licence to Kill (1989) reflected the popularity of these violent films with a revenge plot that sees Bond losing his license and going after a drug lord. Ironically, Dalton predated Daniel Craig in delivering an intense performance closer to Fleming’s Bond in his novels.
After several years dealing with bankruptcy, the series returned with Goldeneye (1995) featuring Pierce Brosnan as the new Bond. Brosnan had originally been selected for the role in 1987, but became unavailable at the last moment when NBC extended the option on his Remington Steele TV contract. What makes his ultimate debut in the role effective is having his former friend, 006, as his enemy. Satellite became the new weapon of choice to control the world. This was further explored in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) as villain Elliot Carver used his media empire to try and control events for profits. The media landscape was changing rapidly with the popularity of the Internet and cable TV.
The battle for oil in many parts of the world would provide the basis for The World Is Not Enough (1999). Sophie Marceau’s conniving Elektra turned out to be more ruthless than Robert Carlyle’s physical villain Renard. It was a first in Bond’s history that a woman was the lead baddie.
Die Another Day (2002) brought the threat of nuclear war to the forefront again. What started promising with Bond as a kidnapping victim soon degenerated into yet another mega-maniac trying to take over the world. Add bad CGI effects and an invisible car and the franchise desperately needed a reboot.
Casino Royale (2006) dared to explore the beginnings of James Bond as 007 and how he earned his license to kill. Daniel Craig delivered a different and more “real” take on the title role. The success of the movie had as much to do with the faithful adaptation of Fleming’s novel as it did with modernizing the character for the new millennium, using good influences like Batman Begins (2005), which also dealt with an origin story. And like OHMSS, Casino Royale relied on solid characters to go with excellent action and solid storytelling. The scene in the train where Bond and Eva Green’s Vesper psychologically “undress” each other was a prime example.
Quantum of Solace (2008) suffered in being officially the first sequel ever in the Bond series. The convoluted plot about an environmentalist’s attempt to control valuable resources had the right idea but the wrong execution. Still, the movie typified the Bond franchise that, even when he’s average, James Bond remains an entertaining icon.
Using The Dark Knight (2008) as an influence, the latest Bond adventure Skyfall (2012) explores the dynamics between characters to create tension. It also returns the series to a successful formula in which Bond and his opponent share a past. Pitting such characters against each other has always brought the best out of the Bond films.
When the James Bond movies focuses on characters and explore relationships, such as the one between Bond and his boss M, it proves that, even after 50 years, 007 remains a vibrant franchise and continues to enthrall audiences with a lethal combination of action, characters and story.
- Mario Boucher