There’s no one quite like James Bond.
For 50 years, 007 has been thrilling folks like you and I with his trademark style of action, coolness, and panache. Six different actors have filled the role of Bond over the course of 22 movies with number 23, Skyfall, releasing in just a few days. While I will happily watch any 007 outing and every one has had it’s thrilling moments, not all James Bond movies are created equal. For every Goldfinger, there’s a Moonraker to match. In celebration of Skyfall and the Bond 50th anniversary, I have set out to separate the great flicks from the not so great. This isn’t a mere 1-22 ranking; rather I’m going to separate the movies into four different tiers. We’ll be showing off one tier per day leading up to the much-anticipated release of Skyfall on November 9.
After 3 days, we’re at the last leg. Only four 007 films left to go, and these are the best. All four of these not only are the best Bond films of the bunch, but are amazing movies in general and worthy of the praise about to be lavished on them. Unlike the previous three days, these will be listed in order of their awesomeness, from four to one.
Tier 1: “Nobody does it better.”
Dr. No (1962)
The very first Bond film, and what a way to start this legendary franchise. You knew from the very beginning, when a white dot flashed across the screen to zoom into the look down the barrel of a pistol that you were in for something unique. From there, you hear the “James Bond Theme” for the first time in front of a flashy and bright title sequence. It’s an iconic beginning, and those two elements have sustained in the series to this day.
There’s so much to love in Dr. No. The Bond intro scene in the casino stands out still as one of the best-known moments in cinema history. I always have a wry smile when watching Bond’s first interaction with M, especially when Bond attempts (unsuccessfully) to smuggle out his old Beretta under his superior’s nose. There’s so much subtle coolness in Dr. No exhibited by Bond. Note the scene in his hotel room early in the film. Before leaving, Bond sets tiny “trip wires” to see if his belongings would be tampered with while he was gone (a hair over a closet door, talcum powder on his briefcase clasps). Also how he calmly hides his face from having his picture taken by “Freelance” upon arriving to Jamaica before finding out that the driver sent to pick him up was not who he seemed. Connery plays the role more smoothly than in any other movie he did, and it instantly endears you to the character.
It also helps that Dr. No follows a genuine mystery unfolding with Bond needing to do some honest to goodness detective work to find out what’s happening on Crab Key. Dr. No himself is played up with great effectiveness as a fearsome adversary. Who doesn’t empathize with Professor Dent as he sits in the unsettling interrogation room? In a world we live in with primarily violent psychotics being the bad guys in action films, it’s always fun having the Bond films give us “gentleman villains,” of which Dr. No was the very first. You have to enjoy Dr. No calmly deflecting Bond’s constant attempts to dig under his skin during their dinner; able to be menacing while remaining unemotional.
Many wave off Dr. No in this day and age, as it looks very much like a movie that was made in the early 60’s. The effects are laughable by today’s standards, and some of the fight scenes are pretty lame, even when compared to the next film in series (From Russia With Love). I barely notice these things, because the rest of the movie is so well done. You get to see so many sides of Bond’s character in Dr. No: his warmth in his relationship with Honey Ryder and instant friendship with Felix Leiter, his coldness in the way he executes Professor Dent, his callousness in how he uses Ms. Taro. You get Bond’s staples for the first time here: the death quips, the Moneypenny flirtation, the “Oh James” moment at the end. Dr. No set the foundation for all the Bond movies to come, and it did so with a strong script and engrossing story.
Goldeneye will always hold a place in my heart, as it was the first Bond movie I ever saw. For a long time, Pierce Brosnan was the only James Bond worthy of the mantle to me. He was able to make the role his very own almost immediately in the film, right from his very first appearance where he “forgot to knock” in the chemical facility bathroom. I talked about Connery’s performance in Dr. No exuding coolness. He can’t hold a candle in that department to Brosnan. I can only picture Brosnan’s Bond being the one to calmly wipe his brow with a towel after dispatching an attacking thug; to casually straighten his tie after stopping a couple of cop cars pursuing him while he’s piloting a tank through the streets of St. Petersburg.
One common theme you’ve seen with this feature is that the quality of a Bond film is heavily influenced by its villain. Sean Bean kicks ass in Goldeneye as the former 006, Alec Trevelyan. I don’t remember a Bond adversary previously that really shook Bond down to his core. The fact that he, and MI6, were betrayed by “Mad Little Alec” is a genuine shock, and you feel a real sense of satisfaction as he drops Trevelyan to his doom in the film’s climax. You’d think “rogue MI6 agent” might have been an idea tapped in the past. It works well here, with Trevelyan easily anticipating 007’s every move throughout.
Bean isn’t the only standout actor that really drives Goldeneye. This was Judi Dench’s first term as M, and she was very much on point as a new type of mentor for Bond. Who didn’t chuckle a bit when she refered to Bond as a “misogynistic dinosaur?” Samantha Bond is very entertaining as a more “modern” version of Moneypenny who gives as good as she gets from Bond. Famke Jenssen and Alan Cumming are scene stealers as Trevelyan’s henchmen; Jenssen in particular as Xenia Onatopp, probably one of the most sexualized Bond characters ever (no small feat to be sure). You can tell the actors really put a lot into their performances in Goldeneye, and it’s evident in how emotionally charged this film is.
Goldeneye is just so much fun to watch. You get to see an ingenious way to infiltrate a chemical facility beneath a dam, Bond’s free fall chase after a falling plane, Xenia’s, uh, “breathtaking” bedroom habits, two massive satellite explosions, the nightclub scene where Zukovsky attempts to extend Bond some “professional courtesy,” the steam room meeting, the “lost art of interrogation,” Bond taking a tank through the streets Russia like it’s no big deal, the jungle fight against Onatopp. Whew! It’s exhausting just trying to mention it all! Goldeneye hooked me as a Bond fan for life, as I’m sure it did many of my generation. Of all the Bond movies there are, Goldeneye is the most fun to watch, and it will always find its way into my blu-ray player more often than any other Bond movie.
Casino Royale (2006)
Bond was in need of some serious shaking up after Die Another Day was a huge misstep for the franchise, and long time fans were starting to grow disenchanted. Producer Michael Wilson wisely thought it best to essentially “reboot” Bond, and he did so by visiting the first Flemming novel: Casino Royale. He helped choose a grittier, more hard-edged Bond in Daniel Craig, and took things to a very basic level, which meant no unbelievable Bond gadgets. People were skeptical leading up to the release. People were dead wrong in their skepticism. Casino Royale is an unabashed triumph and just the shot in the arm 007 needed to be relevant and stand out on its own in the 21st century.
We never got to see Bond’s beginnings, as Dr. No was one of the middle books in the original Flemming series. Getting to see Bond achieve his double-0 status was a nice touch, and a nice stylistic decision to film that section in black and white, instantly conveying the point of the scene. Making Bond a more human character makes him much more relatable, and we get to see many of 007’s growing pains as he eases into his new status as an elite agent. I love when Bond has to do serious spy work to unravel the web in front of him. He certainly has to do plenty of that in Casino Royale, even going as far as to break into M’s home to access her personal computer! No other Bond would have been so bold! And for any who doubted Daniel Craig in the role, I’d imagine most of those doubts faded away the moment he appears on-screen in the trademark black tuxedo.
As interesting as the Bond character is in Casino Royale, it’s the relationships Bond has with his (supposed) allies is really what makes this film click. Bond takes a liking to Rene Mathis immediately, and the audience falls in love with him as a result. This makes it that much more of a blow to the stomach to Bond, and the audience, when Mathis is revealed as a double agent (but not really!). It’s not hyperbole to say Vesper Lynd is the most interesting Bond girl in the series; I almost feel like I’m devaluing the character by hanging that term on her! Eva Green steals the entire film in my opinion with her terrific portrayal of the character. You know there is something different about this relationship over any other you’ve seen between Bond and anyone else right from their first scene together on the train. There’s a real genuine feel in many of their scenes: the moment where she can’t help but smile at Bond as he impresses himself with how he looks in a tux, or their moment in the shower as Bond attempts to console her as she is in shock from the visceral violence she just witnessed. Bond truly lets his guard down around this woman, and his angst upon her death/learning of her betrayal is just as much from his anger at himself for allowing his feelings to betray him as it is from losing a woman he truly loved.
I’ve gone all this way without mentioning Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as Le Chiffre. He was excellent, but I feel the way the character was written was the only weak part of the film. Where Mikkelsen is at his best is in the signature scene in Casino Royale: the torture scene. Is there any man watching that scene who doesn’t wince every time the bull rope hits home? It is by far the most brutal scene in any Bond movie to date, and a true paradigm shift for the franchise.
I couldn’t have been happier with the end result of Casino Royale. No pun intended, but the keepers of 007 took a huge gamble taking Bond in a new direction and what we got was a bold new beginning for one of our favorite cinema heroes.
From Russia With Love (1963)
Where do I even begin with From Russia With Love? It’s a perfect Bond film. It has style, it has mystery, it has humor, it has lots of action. You get the first ominous appearance of (good) Blofeld: Bond’s greatest adversary. You have one of the best, and dare I say underrated, Bond foes in Red Grant. You have the best fight scene in the history of the franchise. Kerim Bey is the most fondly remembered Bond ally, even more so than Felix Leiter. You get the first appearance of Q, and Bond’s first gadget (and a practical one, no less!). Dr. No set a solid foundation for the franchise, but From Russia With Love manages to perfect it.
Start with the pre-credits sequence. Here you have Bond sneaking around a hedgemaze with Red Grant silently stalking our hero. Grant then strangles Bond to death, only to find that it (of course) isn’t Bond; rather a SPECTRE training exercise. You immediately realize Bond touched a nerve in Dr. No, and sure enough you discover the syndicate’s plan to not only steal a much-desired decoding device, but embarrass Bond and MI6 in the process. The plan? Convince a Russian embassy agent to appear to defect and help Bond acquire the Lektor decoder, have her sleep with Bond while SPECTRE unknowingly video tapes that liaison (voyeurism in a mainstream movie in the 60’s?!), and then kill Bond and the agent making it look like a murder/suicide in the process. What a huge jump over Dr. No’s scheme to simply topple American missiles!
Daniela Bianchi is pretty good as the innocent Tatiana Romanova, though you never really feel like Bond is as into her as she falls madly in love with him. As I mentioned though, Kerim Bey, played by Pedro Armendariz, is without a doubt the best Bond ally in this film. You really get the sense Bond really admires Kerim like a father, and Kerim likewise has a genuine fondness for 007 immediately. Pedro Armendariz’ performance is all the more impressive when you learn he had terminal cancer throughout the filming of the movie, and he tragically took his own life shortly after completion of his scenes.
I mentioned action, and From Russia With Love has its share. The Bond series gets its first massive battle scene in a Gypsy camp 007 has traveled to with Kerim Bey. Bond casually drops into the Russian embassy in Istanbul as he waits for a bomb to explode, giving him the opportunity he needs to take off with the Lektor. All the while, Grant tails Bond’s every move, stalking him all the way to the Orient Express, where he then attempts to fulfill SPECTRE’s plot by impersonating an MI6 contact. This leads to a dramatic and tense confrontation between the two men on the train which Bond may well have lost if not for his cunning and cleverness, as a Q gadget saves his behind for the first time. The fight in the crowded train car is a shining example of beautiful choreography and sound design, as all you hear during this brutal scene is the train and the punches. As if this wasn’t enough, you get a North By Northwest homage helicopter battle, Bond blowing up four SPECTRE boats, and a hotel room battle against a SPECTRE agent with a poison-tipped shoe!
I’ve rambled on about From Russia With Love, but if any Bond is worthy of this much praise, this would be the one. I told you yesterday I’d show you Bond’s Final Fantasy VI, and From Russia With Love is that to Goldfinger‘s Final Fantasy VII. As far as Bond films go, From Russia With Love is pure perfection, and in my humble opinion, the Bond movie that serves as the measuring stick for 007 movies.
It’s been a fun few days chronicling the Bond franchise, and I hope you guys have enjoyed reading this retrospective as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. It’s been a fantastic 50 years for 007 so far, and here’s hoping that James Bond is a part of our lives for 50 more to come.
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