Saga Review: James Bond (No.1 – No.5)

That’s right, with Skyfall releasing later this year I am opting to give you my thoughts on all of the Bond films! There’s twenty-two films, and when I started this challenge there were twenty-two weeks before Skyfall, sounds good to me!
I grew up in the six year drought of Bond films, between the Dalton and Brosnen Eras, so my definition of Bond is Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights and License to Kill, while Goldeneye is one of my top favourites. It took me a little while to watch all of the other James Bond films, but they were regularly shown on television, and while the Brosnen films quickly worsened I would never grow to like the Roger Moore era. At least not yet.

Because there are twenty-two films I am breaking my reviews down into eras as best I can. Today’s post is all about the original Bond, Sir Sean Connery, and the first five films.

So without further ado, let’s find out what bowler hat throwing, jet-packing and scuba-diving excitement we can expect!

Dr No (1962)

I hadn’t appreciated how the “first James Bond film Adventure” had aged until now!

Oh it is still Bond, wonderfully so, all the classic elements are here; car chases, double-crosses, world-domination-obsessed villains, beautiful women around every corner. Less on the gadgets mind you.

While sent on a rather simple assignment to locate the whereabouts of a missing operative, secret agent James Bond uncovers a secretive mastermind bent on controlling the world. With few allies, Bond must use his wits and cunning to find out what is going on.

The film itself is remarkably slow paced (by today’s standards) much of the film has Sean Connery’s Bond sneaking about on his own, which has a convincing atmosphere to it. He is a spy after all. But Connery is an excellent Bond, aggressive, sophisticated and more than a little selfish.

Despite how I knew it was coming, the soundtrack to the film still irks me. I guess I am too accustomed to the later, flashier Bonds, but Dr No’s opening with Three Blind Mice, and the constant use of “Underneath the Mango Tree” throughout the film really bewilders me!

But still, it is classic and I have no overwhelming problems with it at all. Bond couldn’t have had his debut any better.

From Russia with Love (1963)

Certainly compared to Dr. No, From Russia with Love has a much stronger identity and personality; it is clear that the future films’ formula began with the second film.

After the defeat of Dr. No, the criminal organisation S.P.E.C.T.R.E plans to entrap James Bond by baiting him with a decoding machine. Bond must go undercover, yet the woman he is accompanied by (and the assassin pursuing him) works for S.P.E.CT.R.E, and could get the better of him.

The film’s pacing maintains the first film’s slower structure; most of it takes place onboard a train where Bond and Tatiana are undercover as a married couple. Earlier scenes include a detour to a gypsy camp (with included a cat-fight and belly dancing) and the first appearance of “Q division” at MI6.I like the supporting characters here a lot more here than in Dr. No, Tatiana actually has some depth and loyalties (unlike Honey Rider) and Bond’s associate Kerim is great at parrying Bond’s transparent womaniser nature. However I have to say the actual storyline isn’t too memorable; there aren’t set pieces and it is heavy with espionage, probably the most spy-like Bond movie ever made! It also started with a terribly deliberate false surprise.

But, it is a solid spy movie. The pride in the Bond theme is apparent; they really enjoy using it here! It is slow, but it is intelligent and feels more honest than most (even with some of Bond’s first proper quips!)

Goldfinger (1964)

was always one of my favourites from the early Bond eras, although watching it again… it is the template for future Bond films, even more so than From Russia with Love.  For the Connery films though, it remains one of the strongest, breaking and turning Bond’s established character traits against him.

When a young girl is killed by a gold smuggler Bond had been tracking, the secret agent takes on a personal grudge. Bond must find out what cunning schemes Auric Goldfinger has in store, and prevent them before it’s too late.

The film has a darker tone than Dr. No (Bond does seem to get captured a lot!) but it also has the beginnings of goofier traits that will be exaggerated in future films; the Korean assassin Oddjob, with his deadly bowler hat, ace pilot Pussy Galore, and a stream of one liners quipped by a seemingly carefree Bond.

It is the definitive Bond, paving the way for the franchise; including the first full opening theme song, Q and his gadget laden Aston Martin DB-9 (“An ejector seat, yer joking!”) car chases and more Bond girls than you can shake a martini at. But is it possible some of From Russia with Love’s serious espionage is lost from the series at this point, in favour for more accessible action story telling?

Personally, I do enjoy it, it feels complete and very confident – how many third entries in a film franchise can you say that about??

Thunderball (1965)

Thinking back, I remember disliking Thunderball, but watching it again makes me realise it simply has a slower pace than the popular Goldfinger.

Bond is back in action when S.P.E.C.T.R.E’s second in command, the eye-patch wearing Largo, steals a bomber carrying two nuclear weapons. While S.P.E.C.T.R.E demands money, Bond must go on the hunt for the missing plane and stop Largo.

Thunderball is an underwater adventure, and surely for the 1960s the sights of marine vehicles and combat must have been unique. It still is, but today’s audiences may find it a little slow. The initial investigation takes a little time to get going: Bond has some random encounters; uses a jetpack; is nearly killed on a traction machine (wait, what?) and the investigation is simply “finding the bomber” anyway. Naturally this requires several Bond girls, although I did feel this movie presented one of the first true Bond femme fatales, and a good one too; a girl unmoved by typical Bond charms.

I enjoyed the soundtrack here too; John Barry really used the Bond theme and music library well here, adapting it to suit different scenes and moods (rather than the same song blaring over and over ala From Russia with Love!)

Overall, I enjoyed this more than I thought I would, it wasn’t as silly as I remember and something of a grand mix of the previous Bond movies.

Additional Marshmallows: Unfortunately live sharks were harmed in the production of the underwater sequences of Thunderball.

You Only Live Twice (1967)

As Sean Connery becomes more and more reluctant to play the role, we get a rather lacking “final” entry to his Bond era.

You Only Live Twice tells of Bond’s tracking down and identifying of the leader of S.P.E.C.T.R.E after numerous space craft from different countries across the globe are captured, threatening all out world war.

The film opens with Bond “dying”. But luckily the film’s title neutralises the threat even quicker than From Russia with Love’s opening scene. The film has less of James Bond’s traditional investigation and plays out more like a collection of brawls and set pieces stitched together, secondary characters and even Bond girls come and go with little to no development.
There’s the strangest of plot developments later in the film where Bond must “become Japanese” and learn the ways of the Ninja to lead a Ninja army. Isn’t an MI6 operative the British equivalent of a ninja, would Bond even need those skills? This replaces most of Q’s involvement; his only addition to the film is the zany mini-helicopter Bond flies in a throwaway reconnaissance mission.

While featuring a great over-the-top volcano base of operations (complete with monorails and rocket launch pad) the reveal of S.P.E.C.T.R.E’s commander, Blofeld (played well by Donald Pleasance) is surprisingly mediocre. He’s really quite stupid for the leader of one of the most powerful criminal organisations ever created. The payoff did not live up to the build up.

For the effective end of an era, and the culmination of the previous films’ mysteries, You Only Live Twice is pretty forgettable.

Additional Marshmallows: You Only Live Twice breaks the cycle of a Bond film being released every year, with the first four films being 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1965.

Bond will return, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds are Forever!

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