Five Candles for Five Decades: Celebrating James Bond’s 50th with Five Faves

On October 5th 1962, the cinematic incarnation of British secret agent James Bond hit the screens with Dr. No. The film, budgeted at $1.2 million dollars, went on to become a tremendous success with a box office haul totaling nearly $60 million. As portrayed initially by screen legend Sean Connery, James Bond’s ability to balance his dashing physique, sense of style, skills as a cunning linguist, violent duties for England, and the women on his arm quickly provided the blueprint for a formula. This formula was slightly modified to include fancy gadgets (particularly in Goldfinger) and its success was quickly mimicked both by the Bond series’ almost yearly offering and by television espionage knockoffs like Get Smart and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  To celebrate James Bond’s 50th birthday, MGM has released all 22 Bond films on DVD and Blu-Ray in an extravagant package so that old fans and newcomers alike can get caught up with the super spy before his latest film, Skyfall, which hits theaters Friday, November 9. Given that there is a lot of chaff to separate from the wheat, we at CT thought it best to line his cake with five candles instead of fifty.

1.  Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger, the third Bond film, is the first to find the appropriate mixture of the ingredients we equate with the franchise. Dr. No, the spy’s first cinematic outing, is restrained in its scope because of its relatively low budget. Thus, we get a prolonged scene, albeit suspenseful, of Bond (Connery) facing off with a killer tarantula in his room. Goldfinger (which cost three times what Dr. No cost), on the other hand, finds Bond in the midst of a car chase with an Aston Martin DB5 loaded with a smoke screen, ejection seat, machine gun turrets, and other bells and whistles. The plot, which comes off as being even more flimsy in the wake of the Austin Powers films, is almost secondary. Bond must find out what a gold-obsessed Austrian (Gert Fröbe) has up his sleeve while dealing with his deadly team, which includes a deadly assassin armed with a killer bowler hat (Harold Sakata) and the gorgeous pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). In Goldfinger we get the sexy women with double entendre names (yes, plural), pimped out inanimate objects, over-the-top action sequences (again, plural), a villain with an odd fetish, and Connery at his finest.

2.  From Russia with Love (1963)

While Goldfinger brought the franchise into its own with an emphasis on excess, From Russia with Love is one of the franchise’s best glimpses at the road less taken: relative restraint (see also Dr. No). The second film of the franchise opens up with a memorable tease:  The assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw) chases Bond (Connery again) through a twilight lit garden and kills him with a wrist watch that encases a piece of piano wire. Grant reaches down to the dead man’s face and removes a rubber mask. It has all been a training exercise furnished by Bond’s corporate nemesis SPECTRE, who is on the trail of a cryptographic device so that they can ransom it off to the Soviets while drawing James Bond out of the metaphorical shadows to his death. From Russia with Love dials down the gadgetry (although Bond does get a pretty amazing kit that modifies a handgun into a sniper rifle) and narrows down the hero’s selection of women to one main squeeze, a Soviet agent named Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi). The smaller canvas of From Russia with Love, in addition to the performances of Connery and Shaw, allows us to actually feel a range of emotions beyond amusement and exhilaration. There is actual romance, bizarre humor (you’ll never look at an Anita Ekberg poster the same way again), suspense (the latter half of the film, which finds the characters confined on a train, almost becomes a Hitchcock thriller), and emotion to be found here.

3.  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

The sixth film in the franchise and the first to not star Sean Connery would be one of the series’ best entries if it wasn’t for Connery’s replacement, George Lazenby. To be fair, I found Lazenby’s Bond much easier to stomach than Roger Moore’s comedic-driven, one-note depiction (I can smirk and talk at the same time, everybody! I can smirk and talk!), but it just isn’t as assured as Connery’s performance. In my opinion, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is unique for two specific reasons. First, director Peter Hunt, who edited many of the other Bond films, goes formalist with some of his editing choices. For instance, the opening scene finds Bond saving Countess Teresa di Vicenzo (Diana Rugg) from suicide before getting into a fist fight on a beautifully lit beach. The cutting seems to be borrowing from the abstraction of French and British New Wave filmmakers here (and appears to have been an inspiration to Steven Soderbergh, who included a similar scene in Haywire). Secondly, OHMSS is notable for having Bond fall in love (he spends the first ninety minutes of the film wooing Teresa, one of the few female characters in the Bond universe to hold her own next to the hero), get married, and lose his wife to an assassination attempt. Essentially, the film gives the character a revenge narrative that provides a refreshing deviation on the formula that was established by the first five films. Sadly, the back story and the arc, along with Lazenby, would completely disappear by the time Connery came back for more with the awful installment Diamonds are Forever.

4.  You Only Live Twice (1967)

I’m hard pressed to say much about You Only Live Twice beyond the observation that it takes the tropes established by Goldfinger and cranks them up to eleven. After the long haul of Thunderball (a 130 minute glacier of a film that finds Connery battling underwater in a wet suit for most of its run time, so you’re not even sure what you’re looking at for half the film), You Only Live Twice finds Bond with more gadgets (a foldable helicopter!), more ladies (this time, as James points out, from non-Western regions of the world), and a school of ninjas. The set design by Ken Adam—particularly the villain Blofeld’s (Donald Pleasance) volcanic lair—is also top notch in this Roald Dahl—yes, the Roald Dahl behind all those children’s books you love—scripted entry. The only downside to YOLT is its racial awkwardness, exemplified by Bond’s quip, “Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls,” and a prolonged sequence in which Connery masquerades as a Japanese man. Still, it’s worth watching for the helicopter sequence alone.

5.  Quantum of Solace (2008)

The penultimate entry in the Bond series, my selection of Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace will undoubtedly raise a few eyebrows. I can already hear the frustrated cry, “How could he not pick the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale!?” Let me start off by saying that Casino Royale has some great set moments (the entirely physical and non-gadget enhanced chase sequence that opens the film, some of the poker showdown footage, the torture via testicle flick, and Caterina Murino), but it is also one of the most overlong films in the series with a run time of 144 minutes. For every five minutes of thrills, there are also fifteen minutes of ESPN Texas Hold ‘Em stare downs. Admittedly, most James Bond films are overlong but what makes Quantum of Solace so unique is that it’s under two hours and is as lean as it is mean. Quantum of Solace takes Royale‘s lead and follows Bond as he attempts to track down who killed his lover (in its own way, Quantum of Solace returns to the revenge arc hinted at by On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). This Bond is not interchangeable; there is some continuity that is sorely lacking in the other films. Moreover, he is human and finds companionship of the physical and emotional sort with Olga Kurylenko’s Bolivian agent. Moreover, lest the film be confused with a Death Wish entry, QoS features as many beautiful women (Gemma Arterton as Strawberry Fields and Kurylenko would tie Famke Janssen’s sexual sadist in my ranking of Bond babes, which my wife also seems to agree with) as it does action sequences. The opening car chase is a prime example of chaos cinema, taking that New Wave abstraction of OHMSS one step further. Overall, QoS finds emo Daniel Craig in a Bond film that Jean-Luc Godard could have edited (see the opera sequence as another example). That is high praise indeed.

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