Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Twenty Four James Bonds

We recently saw the latest James Bond - SPECTRE, with Daniel Craig. It’s a fine movie. It is the usual combination of extreme violence, sex, intrigue and travelogue. The scenery includes Rome, London, the Moroccan desert and the Austrian Alps. I won’t reveal the plot because I don’t want to be a spoiler, and because I don’t think I can figure out the plot. It doesn’t matter, because most of the pleasure is visual, including spectacular fights on trains, boats, helicopters and buildings, and gorgeous women such as the Italian Monica Bellucci (who happily makes love to Bond after he murders her husband) and the French Léa Seydoux (as the daughter of a terrorist but now an ally and lover of Bond’s).

As you see, much of the plot is nonsensical, and requires suspension of judgment, but this has always been so with Bond movies, and it hasn’t been detrimental to their enjoyment.

What made this one particularly fun was also the fact that it provided a trip down memory lane, something that is meaningful to those of us who are old enough to remember many of the past editions. There was a cameo appearance (a video) by Judy Dench. She had been the previous impersonation of M, the head of SIS (M16), the British equivalent of the CIA, and Bond’s perennial employer. Dench had appeared in four previous James Bonds between 1995 (Golden Eye) and 2012 (Skyfall), at which point she was killed and therefore written out of the script. In Spectre, she is replaced by Ralph Fiennes. (who previously, in Skyfall, was a high government official hostile to Judy Dench as M.).

We also got to see Bond drive the classic (but upgraded) Aston Martin first introduced in Goldfinger (1964), with the familiar gadgets (tire slashers, smoke screen, ejector seat, etc.) plus a new one: a reverse flamethrower.

Alas, I missed the old Q (= quartermaster): This is the head of the research and development division of SIS, responsible for all of Bond’s gizmos. This part had been played in seventeen (!) Previous Bond movies by the inimitable Desmond Llewelyn, starting with From Russia with Love (1963) through The World is not Enough (1999). I’m sure many of you can remember the aging, cranky, impatient technological genius who was always so dismissive, almost contemptuous, of Bond and his playboy ways. In Spectre, Q’s new incarnation is a youngster.

Another fixture is Miss Moneypenny. This role has also been played by one memorable person during the bulk of the Bond franchise: Every one of the first fourteen (!) Bond movies featured Lois Maxwell in this role - starting with Dr. No in 1962 and ending with A View to a Kill n 1985. Moneypenny always had a crush on Bond, be he played by Sean Connery, George Lazenby or Roger Moore. Maxwell has had several successors. Since Skyfall (2012), the part has been played by the beautiful and young black actress Naomi Harris.

The very title of this latest edition elicited nostalgia: SPECTRE has been the perennial enemy since the very first James Bond movie - Dr. No (1962), even though the nefarious organization sometimes assumes another name, for example the Russian “Smersh” in Thunderball (1965).

And speaking of Russia, it has to be emphasized that without “evil Russia,” there could not have been a James Bond: The relationship between “us,” (the good guys, the West, protected and defended by James Bond ) and the commie Russkies is always one of ambivalence. There are actually three parties, namely us and the Russians, the two cold-war protagonists, PLUS a third much more nefarious party, namely free-lance terrorists such as Spectre. In many Bond movies, the cold war almost turns into World War Three (You Only Live Twice, 1967; For Your Eyes Only, 1981; Octopussy, 1983, The Living Daylights, 1987), but just as often, the West and the Soviet Union end up working together to defeat the gigantic private terrorist organization (usually Spectre) that is bent on conquering or destroying the world.

Once the cold war ended and there was no Soviet Union any more, the James Bond franchise had to find some other protagonist(s). This happened during the Pierce Brosnan era: In Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), China is the enemy. In Die Another Day (2002), it’s North Korea. One can speculate about the future, as the West’s relationship with Putin’s Russia is once again souring.

Also persistent and amusing throughout all twenty four Bond pictures is his love-hate relationship with his employer, be it Judy Dench or Ralph Fiennes in the role of M, Desmond Llewelyn in the role of Q, or anyone else. Bond is always in trouble, always getting fired and getting rehired. He always goes rogue, but he is always forgiven after he saves the world.

My wife and I were happy to see that the theater was almost full, and that people seemed to enjoy this longest ever James Bond picture (two and a half hours).

The twenty four James Bonds over the past fifty three years have got to be the most successful movie franchise in history. Six actors have had the privilege of playing the part. How would you rank them?

There can be no doubt that Sean Connery (six Bond films) towers above all others. After that, I personally like Daniel Craig (four Bonds so far), and also Timothy Dalton (only two movies). I found Pierce Brosnan (four Bond movies) less impressive, and Roger Moore (seven Bond pictures) even less so. As to George Lazenby (one Bond movie, 1969), I can’t remember him.

Which movies are the most memorable to me? I’ll mention eight, chronologically, not in order of preference:

1. Dr. No (1962): Who can forget Ursula Andress, the Swiss beauty rising out of the sea (not unlike Bo Derek in “Ten” by the way, seventeen years later), the goddess of love emerging the way Botticelli’s Venus rises out of her shell. Sean Connery’s inaugural struggle, here teaming up with the CIA against the evil Dr. No, remains a classic sans pareil.

2. From Russia with love: (1963): This one also deserves the highest marks. It features Spectre already, as well as the cold war rivalry with the Soviets. I loved Lotte Lenya (of Three Penny Opera fame), as an ex KGB agent.

3. Goldfinger: (1964): To me, Gert Fröbe remains the most memorable bad guy. Plotting to steal all of Fort Knox’s gold is a far-out idea.

4. Thunderball (1965): Another one in which Bond saves the world from nuclear annihilation. Incredibly entertaining.

5. Diamonds are Forever: (1971): I remember this one well, the diamond smuggling, the Las Vegas scenes, beautiful Jill St. John. Still one of my favorites, even though the reviewers liked it a bit less. 

...and then, there is a great hiatus in my brain. To me, most of the Roger Moore Bonds are much more forgettable, as are the two made with Timothy Dalton (even though I liked him as an actor), and also most of those with Pierce Brosnan. I vaguely remember details from different movies blending with each other. Both The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979) had Richard Kiel as “Jaws,” the giant with scary teeth. The former movie takes place in submarines and the latter in outer space. It is especially during this Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton era that many of the Bond movies are about the bad Soviets and the near-World War Three scenario (For example For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983) and The Living Daylights (1987). There was also A View to a Kill (1985), not very good, but remembered by me because it was about the imminent destruction of Silicon Valley, and it featured Christopher Walken, who is incapable of being boring.

But once Daniel Craig assumed the Bond role, the franchise was revived.

6. Casino Royale: (2006), where Bond saves the world in a game of poker, got rave reviews, and rightly so.

7. Skyfall (2012): Here, the intrigue penetrates deeply into M16 itself, with Judy Dench and Ralph Fiennes arguing a lot, and Dench dying. This one also deserves its good reviews.

8. Spectre: and so now we have another good one.

In conclusion, it appears that the early ones are the overwhelming winners. I’ll admit that one reason for this is that they came first. That is, they were the formative ones. They are the ones that had the greatest impact; the ones we tend to remember. But the other reason is that they were, indeed, the best.

(For a list of all 24 James Bond movies, see Full List).

© Tom Kando 2015
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