Forty Years of 007

Just about everyone knows that the James Bond franchise turns 40 this year. But stop and think about how remarkable a run this is. When Dr. No, the first Bond film, played in America it was competing against films such as Hud and Cleopatra. Die Another Day, the 20th "official" Bond film, will play opposite Harry Potter and The Two Towers. No other franchise has shown the durability or sustained popularity of 007. The Star Wars franchise is 25 years old, and that included a 16-year break. The Alien franchise has been around since 1979, but has only produced four films. The only one that even comes close is the Star Trek franchise, with ten films (if you include the upcoming Star Trek: Nemesis) in 23 years. But even that's a far cry from Bond. A new Bond film has opened an average of once every two years since 1962, and the longest break was only six years. The last three Bond films have averaged nearly $120 million in U.S. box office alone and much more overseas.

The Bond franchise has endured and prospered through five different leading men and many different directors. Why? Many have written of the fantasy/identification element - Men want to be Bond, women want to be with him. True enough, but what else is there? Why is a 40-year-old film character (even older if you go back to the Ian Fleming novels) still popular? Is it because Bond and the films have changed to meet the times?

Yes, Bond has shifted, but only on the surface. He's still basically the same - a man who can fight anyone, speak any language and get any woman. He's an expert at every form of technology and science. He's a superb driver, escape artist, marksman, pilot, and is even a good cook. Ironically, the only area in which he consistently fails is being a spy. The villains always catch him. Even when he goes by an assumed identity his friends and foes quickly find out who he is. But who cares? - this is fantasy. True, Bond has adapted slightly over the years. The first time we see Bond in Dr. No there's a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. In Tomorrow Never Dies he admonishes a bad guy that smoking is "a filthy habit." In Goldfinger, Bond dismisses his female companion with a pat on the behind telling her it's "man talk." That wouldn't fly today. Bond has grown slightly less chauvinistic, but he still sees women as conquests. In GoldenEye, a psychiatrist tries to analyze him and he seduces her. He still thrives on danger. He still satisfies his own desires while remaining loyal to the Queen and the free world. He still has the wit and style that separate him from most other action heroes.

What about the Bond women? Certainly they've changed more than Bond has. Honey Rider (Ursula Andress) in Dr. No did little more than stay at Bond's side and look stunning in a bikini. Many of the others from the early years were also just beautiful damsels in distress. Slowly the women's roles improved in response to the changing times. Chinese agent Wai-Lin (Michelle Yeoh) in Tomorrow Never Dies, was Bond's equal in every way. Reportedly, so is Jinx, an American agent played by Halle Berry in Die Another Day. But even today, the women co-stars are mostly there for sex appeal. If they can contribute more, that's an added bonus. It's not a requirement. Does anyone think that Denise Richards got her role in The World is Not Enough based on her acting skills?

Perhaps the most change can be found in the films themselves. Many of the first Bond films played upon Cold War themes. The enemy was S.P.E.C.T.R.E., which had the main goal of triggering a US-Soviet war. In the 1970s the tone became lighter, and the villains were more often megalomaniacal billionaires who wanted to rule the world. The tie to any form of reality grew more tenuous. In the late 80s and 90s, the series tried to be somewhat topical with villains that included a drug lord and a Rupert Murdoch-like media tycoon. The recent films have featured bigger and more spectacular action scenes, and the editing is faster. But even here, isn't the basic formula the same as the paradigm set in Goldfinger? Opening teaser, title sequence, flirtation with Moneypenny, assignment from M, gadgets from Q, initial engagement of villain, Bond meets and beds first woman (who usually dies), more action scenes, Bond discovers initial part of villain's plan, he meets up with second woman, invades villain's lair, gets captured by villain, villain explains entire plan, Bond escapes, defeats henchman, defeats main villain, destroys lair, hides away with second woman as superiors try in vain to contact him, end credits. Not all of the Bond films follow the formula completely, but it's usually pretty close.

Surely movie audiences have changed since 1962. Why then do people flock to films with parameters set before many of them were born? It might be the same reason people still watch "Saturday Night Live." Both are still entertaining, but they have also become institutions. There were certain points when the Bond franchise's future was in doubt, but it made it and because it has survived so long, it's become timeless. You can see an old Bond film on DVD or see the new one in theaters. The core elements are still there and we can anticipate how they will be tweaked ever so slightly in the new film. You expect a Bond film every 2-3 years. When Pierce Brosnan leaves we expect that someone new will replace him. Bond films still contain the fantasy, action and sex appeal that are prefect escapist entertainment. We keep coming back not for the way these films have changed, but for the ways they haven't.

With that, here's a look back at the best and worst of some of the signature 007 staples over the past 40 years:

Best Bond - Sean Connery
Easy call. He established the character and the franchise. Connery embodied sophistication and charm, but also had a fierceness many of the other Bonds lacked. You knew from his body language that he could handle himself in a fight. Connery's Bond could attract women though sheer presence.

Worst Bond - Timothy Dalton
Another easy call. The Bond producers clearly wanted to make Bond more "serious" and move the series away from the perceived playfulness of the Roger Moore films . But they went way too far. Dalton tried to play Bond like it was Shakespeare. He delivered the one-liners as if they turned his stomach. He barely showed interest in his leading ladies. Dalton forgot that Bond has to enjoy being Bond. No one wants a dark and brooding 007.

Best Bond Girl - Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) in
The Spy Who Loved Me

No Bond girl is sexier than Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) in Dr. No. None is more capable than Wai-Lin (Michelle Yeoh) in Tomorrow Never Dies. I'm going with Major Amasova in The Spy Who Loved Me because she best combines beauty and brains. Bach's smoldering good looks register immediately. But what makes The Spy Who Loved Me memorable is how Major Amasova and Bond could match wits as well as charm. Major Amasova is also as dedicated to the Soviet Union as Bond was to England. She has her own life, her own career, and did not live or die for Bond. Bach helped create what was arguably the first "modern" Bond woman.

Worst Bond Girl - Agent Goodnight (Britt Ekland) in The Man with the Golden Gun
Granted, most of the Bond women didn't go to any Mensa meetings. But even by this low standard, Agent Goodnight is a complete numbskull. She does one stupid thing after another, culminating with her accidentally locking herself in the trunk of the bad guy's car. Maybe we could put up with this if she weren't so annoying. Surely 007 can do better.

Best Villain - Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) in You Only Live Twice
True, it's hard to see him now without thinking of Dr. Evil. But he is a perfect match of material and manner. Remember, Blofeld was heard but not completely seen in Thunderball. Blofeld's face -- bald, with a huge scar running down the left side, epitomizes everything we expect in a Bond villain. He's intelligent, ruthless, and wicked. When Pleasance speaks, his words drip with refined malice. We completely believe it when he feeds his assistant to the piranhas. One of the few Bond villains that is truly frightening.

Worst Villain - Blofeld (Charles Gray) in Diamonds are Forever
Even though he is ostensibly playing the same part as Pleasance, Gray could not have been more different. Gray plays Blofeld without any style, grace or real fiendishness. He might as well have been playing an antagonistic English butler.

Best Henchman - Oddjob (Harold Sakata) in Goldfinger
Oddjob was simply the perfect henchman. Physically imposing and scary, but with style. Never grew cartoonish (like Jaws did). And don't forget the flying hat.

Worst Henchman - Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize) in The Man with the Golden Gun
Any henchman that Bond can eliminate by locking in a suitcase is not much of a threat. It's not that he's short. So was Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love. But she was dangerous, If you didn't respect her she would stab you with her boot. Villechaize could not convey any sense of menace. Besides, the whole film I'm waiting for him to shout "De plane Bond, de plane!"

Best Bond Helper (non-recurring character) - Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendáriz) in From Russia with Love
Many of Bond's colleagues make little impact before their eventual death. Bey is different. The film gives you glimpses into Bey's own life outside of Bond. Bey and Bond develop a true friendship as they work together. Armendáriz carries the role off with zest and flair (despite suffering from cancer during filming). When Bey dies you feel a real sense of loss. A whole film could have been made about him.

Worst Bond Helper - Chuck Lee (David Yip) in A View to a Kill
This really could have been any of the nameless doomed people who try to help Bond. (Would you like to have that job? It's equivalent to wearing one of a fatal red shirt on the original "Star Trek" series.) I'm picking Lee because the film does absolutely nothing with him. He introduces himself to Bond, gives him some information and is murdered. Zero impact.

Best Gadget - Ejector Seat in Goldfinger
Q supplied 007 with much more advanced equipment, but nothing beats the elegant simplicity of the Aston Martin ejector seat. How many times have you wished you had one in your car?

Worst Gadget - Exploding Pen in GoldenEye
We know all too well that a bomb can be configured to fit in just about anything. So an exploding pen or an exploding key chain (from The Living Daylights) just feels uninspired and banal.

Best Opening Teaser - Goldfinger
Close call over Tomorrow Never Dies, which is the most exciting. Goldfinger is my choice because of its wit and small touches. Bond steps out of a wetsuit in a tuxedo - perfectly pressed no less. He sees the attacker from the reflection in a woman's eye. Having no gun, he tosses an electric fan into the bathtub, frying his assailant. And of course the one-liner: "Shocking, simply shocking." Other notables - The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy.

Worst Opening Teaser - For Your Eyes Only
Dropping a wheelchair-bound man from a helicopter feels cruel, even if it is supposed to be Blofeld.

Best Theme Song - Live and Let Die (written by Paul and Linda McCartney, performed by Wings)
Agonizingly tough call over Goldfinger. Both songs convey real danger. The melody in "Live and Let Die" is as exciting as and Bond action sequence. Only Bond theme later covered by Guns N' Roses.

Worst Theme Song - The Man with the Golden Gun (written by John Barry, performed by Lulu)
"He'll shoot anyone . . . with his gun." As opposed to what, his Polaroid? The song's inane lyrics are matched only by it's dull, methodic melody.

Best Line - Fatima Blush: "I made you all wet." Bond: "Yes, but my martini is still dry." from Never Say Never Again
Yes, I know Never Say Never Again is not an "official" Bond film. But I don't care. This line perfectly captures Bond. Cool with the ladies, witty and unflappable.

Worst Line - Bond: "I thought Christmas only comes once a year." from The World is Not Enough
A cheesy, groan-inducing line even by Bond standards. Even if you haven't seen the film, you probably know the context. If you don't, I'm not going to be the one to tell you. Bond should have more class than this juvenile line, which was better suited for the next American Pie film.

Best Action Sequence - Helicopter/Motorcycle Chase in Tomorrow Never Dies
Much to choose from, both from the series and from this film, which has several outstanding action scenes. The helicopter/motorcycle chase is the most exciting and inventive. We have Bond and Wai-Lin handcuffed to each other on a motorcycle racing through a Vietnamese village with a chopper in close pursuit. The two agents have to work closely, as Wai-Lin can't look forward and Bond can't move back. Our heroes move through the streets, through the buildings and top it all off with leaping the cycle from one building to another. These days many of the action scenes seem repetitive (how many Bond skiing scenes have we seen?) But this one feels new and inspired.

Worst Action Sequence - Tractor-Trailer Chase in License to Kill
Who came up with this one? It's not that tractor-trailers are inherently unexciting (anyone who thinks so should watch Duel). But this one has these behemoths lumbering around a mountain. The whole sequence moves as slowly as the vehicles. When it ends, there's no satisfaction in the villain's demise. We're just glad it's over.

Best Bond Film - Goldfinger
Yes, this is the one everyone picks, but sometimes the consensus is right. Goldfinger excels in all the areas we look for in a Bond film. Clever opening sequence, memorable theme song, devious villain, witty lines ("Do you expect me to talk?" "No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die"), cool henchman, great gadgets, and luscious women (including the infamous Pussy Galore). Goldfinger also features striking visual imagery -- the dead woman completely painted gold. Goldfinger made 007 a cultural icon, and it's still the standard against which all other Bond films are measured.

Worst Bond Film - Diamonds are Forever
Diamonds are Forever is so uniformly awful in so many ways. Sean Connery looks bored as he goes through the motions (not surprising since he did not want to come back to the series and did so only after receiving a king's ransom). As noted earlier, Charles Gray's version of Blofeld is the dullest villain in the Bond series. Jill St. John brings nothing to the table as Tiffany Case. The henchmen, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, grow tiresome and their fey portrayal (by Bruce Glover and Putter Smith) smacks of homophobia. And what in the world is Jimmy Dean doing in a Bond film? I keep expecting him to sell sausage. Worst of all, the film has no style as it shows Las Vegas at it's absolute tackiest. A complete waste all around.

Adam Spector
November 22, 2002

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