Ten Mod Bonds: Alexander Miller’s Top Ten James Bond Movies
The legacy of James Bond is inherently problematic. The misogyny and flickers of racism date the material, and while some of 007’s adventures are rousing and action-packed, others are clunky, talky hamfests that veer on unwatchable. With so many actors picking up the PPK and so many entries in this iconic series James Bond has made multiple evolutions and has changed so much over the years it’s hard to decipher for casual viewers and downright off-putting for newcomers.
Where I grew up, there was a video rental store in the Stop N’ Shop supermarket. Naturally, when my poor mother had to drag me to do the shopping, she had the instinct to dump me off while going about her business. To evoke a cliche, I was better off than a kid in a candy store; I was a movie thirsty kid in a video shop. There was a section dedicated to the Bond run, and I remember with the utmost clarity the evocative, vintage tape covers in their plastic display cases; they jumped out at me with all the vitality a young mind could handle. The smoking gun barrels, parachutes, scantily clad women, 60’s and 70’s art deco covers, explosions, and machine gun-toting skiers, and smoking gun barrels.
1. From Russia With Love
Dr. No set the tone and introduced James Bond to the masses. Still, the second in the burgeoning franchise is rightfully championed as the best because premier director Terrence Young elaborated on the formula and cranked it up to 11. Everyone and everything is evolving into what would become trademarks; the Bond villain would be brilliantly portrayed by Robert Shaw (who was once considered for the role of Bond), aided by the fiendish Lotte Leyna as the cartoonishly evil Soviet villain. The character’s not-so-subtle lesbian characteristics miraculously didn’t ruffle the censors feathers, and Italian model Daniela Bianchi was the highly publicized “Bond Girl.” Furthermore From Russia With Love is the first Bond film to feature a pre-credit action scene, a trend that would define the subsequent titles moving forward. Sean Connery was settling into his role as the playboy, superspy with relative ease. Flemming might have penned the debonair secret agent, but Young schooled Connery on how to be Bond, and given the actor’s legacy, it’s safe to say he was an excellent student to a learned teacher.
In tow, we see the increase of gadgets, globe-trotting and quips but Young proved to be a perfect fit as the premier director. A former tank commander, he embodied the military machismo that was reflected in the material without defaulting to transparent mannerism.
The story of Soviet intrigue is subordinate to solid set pieces and, as time moves on, From Russia With Love holds up as a staple entry alongside the many spy films that would come after it. Even if the treatment of women and varying cultures certainly dates the material.
Trivia: JFK was a fan of the Fleming novels and this was the last film he saw before flying to Texas before his tragic assassination.
2. Casino Royale
While Skyfall is often hailed as the best of the recent Bond cycle, I find myself frequently allied with those who believe Craig’s maiden outing stands as one of the best of the series; not just the Daniel Craig thread but the Bond movies altogether. Like so many enduring franchises, the Bond films have a pendulumatic effect. Once the Bronson films quickly devolved to shakily self-conscious parody, it was time to take Bond back to the basics. Going to the first of Ian Flemming’s novels (filmed once before in 1967) chucking the gags and gadgets for a more lean-mean delivery, Casino Royale is the perfect marriage of reinvention and tradition.
Campbell, who helmed arguably the best of the Bronson era, Goldeneye (more on that later), ages James Bond in the best possible way, taking him into the 21st century without sacrificing the sex, violence and mature wit that are inarguably the leading three hallmarks of the series. However, the sexual politics aren’t creepy; in fact, the film flips the trope of the “Bond girl” and inverts the male gaze theory. Making Bond’s physique the subject of exhibition (one scene, in particular, recreates the famous Ursula Andress moment from Dr. No is staged with Craig emerging from the ocean) epitomizes the film’s evolution by deconstructing gender binarism. The minutia is swift, and the execution is tough, Craig’s tear-your-head off, blunt instrument portrayal is brilliant in that he’s both suave and scary.
This guy carries a license to kill and you know he’ll use it.
Trivia: The scene where Bond orders his martini is exactly as Flemming wrote it in his novels.
Dr. No started the series and From Russia With Love cemented Bond as a force to be reckoned with but Goldfinger is the movie that solidified the Bond brand as we know it. The action is more prominent, the villains more colorful, the gadgets are stepped up, the playful tone and high-stakes narrative play off the chemistry and campiness that remain consistently fun. Becoming one of the most referential of the lot, whether it’s titular villain’s crotch laser, the tricked-out Aston Martin, and deadly hats. Goldfinger is one of the most iconic of Bond movies that, for better or worse, set the mold moving forward. While the name “Pussy Galore” made me giggle in grade school, it all seems rather stupid (and pointless) now, the long term benefit is the world play that we’d later see in Austin Powers.
Trivia: Orson Welles was originally considered for the role of Goldfinger.
4. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service came into the world with the odds stacked against it. In the public’s consciousness, Sean Connery was James Bond and his reputation to this day is still associated/predicated on those noted words, “Bond, James Bond.” Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman put all their chips on an unknown Australian model with precious little acting experience to replace the revered and endeared Sean Connery. Who, having recently left the role (for the first time), charmed the public and created an international phenomenon with five massively successful movies. The fresh-faced model from the land down under was George Lazenby. And in the spirit of Broccoli and Saltzman’s production company (EON, Everything or Nothing), their gamble worked, and the bold move that was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a success. Audiences and critics were divided on Lazenby’s performance; however, his contrasting screen presence has both a self-assured swagger and a boyish vulnerability. There’s a compelling otherness to the film; the chase sequences are expertly choreographed, director Peter Hunt delivers wonderfully in terms of scape tone and pacing.
Telly Savalas is one of the best Blofelds in Bond history and Diana Rigg has a rare distinction among the many women that have the unforgiving task of falling for James Bond: She marries him. Rigg offers a regal quality that is all the more crippling when we reach the now notable (and tragic) climax.
Trivia: Because Lazenby was a model, the producers were concerned that he was gay and sent a call girl to his room to see if he would bed her. How do you think these guys would hold up post-#MeToo?
5. Dr. No
The one that started it all, Dr. No is one of the most grounded, unpretentious and least self-conscious of the lot.Considering how self-conscious the Bond franchise would turn out, that’s quite an achievement. But it’s not just hindsight, and comparative accolades that make Dr. No a standout title in the Bond series, Terrence Young and Sean Connery set the tone and style for the iconic secret agent. All the tropes are there, the megalomaniacal villain, the elaborate scheme for world domination, the remote art-deco-bad-guy lair, the puns, right down to the now-famous utterance, “Bond, Jame Bond” pop-off the screen without hyperbole or overstatement in this stellar debut. Of course, some elements don’t age so well, the gender politics go without saying (a source of contention now synonymous with series itself) as well as some not-so-subtle racism as well.
Trivia: Noel Coward replied to Fleming’s request to play Dr. No with a three word reply, “No, no, no.”
In the early to mid-90s, there were two big questions on the minds of Bond fans: When is 007 coming back and who is going to play him? Timothy Dalton was enthusiastically attached, but the upcoming Bond movie was wrapped up for years in legal disputes, the end credits of License to Kill promised “James Bond Will Return,” but how long would they make us wait?!
Well, good things come to those who wait and the movie gods answered our silent prayers as GoldenEye hit theatres on November 17th, 1995 and the film was and is a blast. Pierce Brosnan (or Remington Steele as we knew him back then) proved to be an ideal fit for the coveted role. They hung every Bond accessory on him, and whether it was the tuxedo, dry martini, Aston Martin, or a silenced PPK, Bronson rocked it with style and kicked plenty of ass along the way. Goldeneye brought the philandering agent into the 20th century with style and grace without overreaching or breaking the mold. The (at the time) daring casting of Jedi Dench as M became a staple for the series and punctuated the films revisionist bent.
Contemporizing the material and addressing the franchise’s tendency to glorify philandering wasn’t just pandering to a politically correct 90s climate but an intelligent, creative decision that introduced Bond to a new generation and ushered in one of the coolest first-person shooter games ever.
Trivia: The first Bond film to exist independently of any Fleming works, it’s also the name of Fleming’s island in Jamaica.
7. The Spy Who Loved Me
One of the best Bonds is one of the biggest (while spectacle can often come with wavering stupidity, it’s a fine line). The Spy Who Loved Me goes all in and it pays off in spades. From the stellar opening act to the rousing showdown, this thumping blockbuster is another high point for the franchise during the Moore period. The massive set-pieces, larger (literally) than life villains, and a rousing, rightfully famous opening act put this entry head and shoulders above any of the other films starring Roger Moore. Technical marvels aside, The Spy Who Loved Me features a terrific cast; Moore is at his debonair apex, Barbara Bach is terrific, Curd Jurgens is a natural heavy as he’s teeming with ubiquitous Europeanness, and who can forget Richard Kiel’s performance as Jaws?
Trivia: Reclusive Stanley Kubrick clandestinely helped light a scene since the production designer Ken Adams once worked for Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove.
8. The Living Daylights
Timothy Dalton was a case of too much too soon. His Bond was swift, fierce and muted. The model that Daniel Craig would run off with years later (with much acclaim from critics and audiences alike) Dalton wasn’t a hot ticket in 1987. Dalton’s Bond was looked at cold, humorless, and lacked the kitschy, jocular vibe popularized, and ran into the ground during the Roger Moore years. And yet, his cold authority sustained his two lone features over the years with surprising resonance. The Living Daylights might be a tonal change for the Bond movies, but it retains the playful tone (albeit at a reduced rate) provides the requisite level of explosive and ambitious set-pieces.
Given the period in which the film was made–in conjunction with the impending decline of the Soviet Empire–the story gets an added jolt seeing as it has a rather compelling insight into the occupation of Afghanistan, the drug trade and the overall effects precipitating anglo intervention during Afghan/Soviet Cold War relations. John Glen flex’s some commanding directing chops; action sequences are superb with entertaining interludes along the way. Not to mention, The Living Daylights gave Bond a stronger female character as Maryam d’Abo’s assassin turned, love interest has more depth than preceding “Bond girls.”
Trivia: Because of the buzz precipitating Bronson initially being in consideration for the part, Remington Steele producers wouldn’t let Bronson out of his contract. He wouldn’t appear in a Bond movie until GoldenEye, despite being in line before Dalton.
Roger Moore fans might bemoan this statement as his period yields more jeers than cheers. But his prolific output is commendable and, amid his run, Octopussy turned out to be one of his finest efforts.
There’s some of the camp we commonly associate with this period. Still, the intrigue has more of an edge, and the story rounds out with a crisp and riveting tale that feels like an ideal continuation of the tenets the movies were built on. The McGuffin laden narrative, the hammy villains, the over-the-top titular femme fetale, and the gadgets, all wonderfully wind up under John Glen’s sturdy direction. Roger Moore’s stately confidence plays out with his characteristic charm; you can tell he’s having a great time and camera captures that action laden merriment, and it’s transmitted out to us time and again over the years.
Trivia: Due to a dispute between Sean Connery, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the former star went rogue with the production of the non-EON Bond film Never Say Never Again. Octopussy and Never Say Never Again would compete as the two bond films of 1983, needless to say Octopussy beat Never Say Never Again.
10. Licence to Kill
The Dalton duo doesn’t seem to garner much love but his two outings contain some of the punchiest moments for the famed double-O agent. Stepping outside the traditional spy intrigue, Licence to Kill isn’t concerned with sleeper agents, Soviet assassins, or world domination. John Glen delivers a savage revenge story where Bond goes rogue to avenge his trusted associate Felix Leiter in taking on sadistic drug lord Sanchez and his sociopathic henchman Dario.
Dalton’s austere performance is utterly convincing while Robert Davi and a young Benicio Del Toro are captivating as a frightening pair of villains. And, like The Living Daylights, the female lead, Carey Lowell, emits a capable Bond companion with her portrayal as CIA informant Pam Bouvier. One of the most sobering and violent of the lot, Licence to Kill, is no joke, and time hasn’t taken any edge off of this sobering picture.
Trivia: At age 21, Del Toro is the youngest actor to have ever played a Bond villain.