Bond films – more than just entertainments, they are a way of life. What follows are my top five choices. This is one of those supposedly controversial lists where every film has been listed as great elsewhere even when the perception previously was that these films are misfires. I am as clichéd as any other person. Just be glad I didn’t go into any detail about my love for a-ha’s theme to The Living Daylights (1987).
- Moonraker (1979 – Lewis Gilbert)
Roger Moore Bond films are massively neglected. A huge appeal of this film series is the fact that they are family entertainments, and Moore never forgot this. He led the films into a period of big budget cinema with spectacular stunts and moments of genuine humour; a style of filmmaking that was particularly popular and influential (almost all of eighties cinema is in this vein – found in its zenith in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)). So as much as we seek to typify Bond films as following whatever trend was in fashion at the time of production, be that kung-fu movies = You Only Live Twice (1967) or blaxploitation = Live and Let Die (1973) it’s important to remember that throughout the seventies they were setting a trend (Casino Royale (2006) breaks this pattern by kickstarting the trend for reimaging franchises rather than simple sequalising – both Batman and Star Trek would follow suit).
Moonraker is a beautiful film as Gilbert was the first director of the series to take into account true widescreen composition. It also features my favourite line reading of all time by Moore… ”A woman?” is his surprised response when he realises that Dr. Goodhead is in fact female. The innate sexism of the scene is dampened by his shameless befuddlement. His charm was enough to keep him playing the part into old age.
- From Russia with Love (1963 – Terence Young)
The last time a Bond film was a pure thriller. Daniela Bianchi is one of the most rounded Bond girls as she chose to perform her part with considerable playfulness. Terence Young invents modern cinematic violence on screen here – after this film was released a karate chop would no longer be acceptable. Fights would be long and messy and realistic (in their sadism, not so much their length. We live in a world where most people don’t realise you can die from a single punch to the head.) It’s a fairly pure adaptation of a compelling novel that goes and nicks a bit from North by Northwest (1959) and adds a speedboat chase at the end. The film is all the richer for it.
- Licence to Kill (1989 – John Glen)
Timothy Dalton is a superb James Bond. His severity, his monogamy, his casual cruelty, his highly physical performance, his uncomfortableness with humour were all adopted by Daniel Craig and praised to high heaven. He just isn’t as sexy, and that is a crucial part of the Bond character (less so in the novels – my favourite aspect of those books that was not translated to the screen was his appetite for sleeping with middle-aged housewives – Bond’s justification being that they were less likely to cause drama. Whatever Jimmy, we know your mum died as a child.)
Licence to Kill is a brutal, ruthless Bond film. It has one of the most inventive car chases ever committed to screen at the end of the film. I have a theory that John Glen is the true genius behind On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – I believe he was a more substantial editor than Peter R. Hunt – watch the climax of Gold (1974) or the whole of Sitting Target (1972) – neither Hunt nor Douglas Hickox were able to produce as dynamic a film as these without him.
- Quantum of Solace (2008 – Marc Forster)
Quantum of Solace is a Bond film reduced to its bare essentials. It is cinema at its pulpiest – set pieces every ten minutes to keep the film thundering along. The structure and suspense of the opera sequence is exquisite. It is a story of a blunt, brutal man desperate to resolve his inner trauma by committing acts of total destruction. We are truly exposed to the collateral damage people suffer from being drawn into his orbit. Bond was always a thug, a vicious rugby player from a grammar school with a taste for the finer things in life that lay above him and he possessed just enough danger and luck to be drawn into that higher-class world. This is the film that lays the character of Bond bare.
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969 – Peter R. Hunt)
It is the Bond film we all think of when we think of Bond films. By this stage in the series all the elements were in play; sex, theme songs, quips, outrageous villains and spectacular gadgets. They were all tied into the last decade of British cultural relevancy; the sixties – the dying of the Empire replaced with love and music and the free individual. By Diamonds Are Forever (1971) the world has become a different place, and the gloss of the previous six films is never seen again.
In Diana Rigg you have the greatest Bond girl of all time; the only one who was as transparent with her violent mental health as Bond was himself. It was with this in mind that they were able to understand each other and find love. The film found a new environment for Bond; the snowscape, where the surroundings were as hostile as the sadism seen on screen.
George Lazenby is a substantially weaker actor playing the part than any of his peers. Except in one regard. As an ex-model, he knew how to move, and the Lazenby Bond is the only one who you believe could have been in the Navy.
Its rapid-fire approach to editing (like the ending of Rear Window (1954) on speed) as if Hunt was proving that editors were the most intuitive filmmakers and ultimately proved to be highly influential on action cinema that followed. It is a beautiful, devastating piece of filmmaking and one I love to pieces.