Now we’re getting to the really good stuff. Here at last is the thrilling conclusion to Alex and Greg’s epic James Bond Movie Power Rankings back-and-forth, counting down the Elite Eight films in the James Bond repertoire. I would exercise caution as you read these — if you haven’t seen one of the listed movies, we will be spoiling it for you. Maybe just take a note of where it wound up on this list, watch it, and then argue with us about where Alex put it (and where Greg contends he should have put it).
Part III Rankings Index
8. “You Only Live Twice” (1967, Bond: Himself)
7. “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971, Bond: Himself)
6. “Thunderball” (1965, Bond: Himself)
5. “From Russia With Love” (1963, Bond: Himself)
4. “Goldeneye” (1995, Bond: Pierce Brosnan)
3. “Dr. No” (1962, Bond: Himself)
2. “Casino Royale” (2006, Bond: Daniel Craig)
1. “Goldfinger” (1964, Bond: Himself)
Alex: “You Only Live Twice” was Connery’s fifth Bond in six years, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him. Even though Connery was, by his own admission, utterly exhausted with the character and the fame sprouting from the movies’ astronomical box office figures, he continues to bring the same combination of menace and sexuality that made his Bond so vital in his prior outings.
The movie itself is not quite as awesome as its star, though. It drags a bit. Particularly during its lackadaisical middle section, where we linger for too long with Bond in disguise as a Japanese man (it’s… not as offensive as it could be,) after faking his own death. And despite scenes of him sleeping with a bevy of pretty Japanese girls in various steam baths and on various wooden floors, things just bog down, as Bond logs some time hanging out watching guys practice karate. There’s also this sub-plot where Bond needs to be married while under such deep cover (in the aforementioned racially insensitive disguise), yielding a long, wholly unnecessary ceremony scene. And, on top of all that there’s far too much needless exposition, as when Charles Gray, playing a secret agent who supplies Bond with just enough information to thread him through to the next, more important abettor whom Bond needs to meet. Said abettor is Tanaka, who in turn explains his plans for both Bond’s overly complicated cover, and training ninja assassins to spring on the mysterious SPECTRE #1, mastermind behind three of Bond’s four prior EON adventures (“Goldfinger” being the exception).
And that SPECTRE #1 reveals himself to be… Ernst. Stavro. Blofeld. Quite the sinister introduction, with the staccato beats between each name. The cool scar, baller suit, fluffy white cat, and soft German lilt of Donald Pleasance’s take on Blofeld would become iconic almost immediately… so of course he was replaced with Telly Savalas for “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” And then Charles Gray for “Diamonds Are Forever.” Too bad.
Did you know that Kato from the Peter Sellers “Pink Panther” movies, Burt Kwouk, spearheads the missile-launch countdown in “YOLT?” His character there is one of Blofeld’s Japanese henchmen, credited as “SPECTRE 3” (not to be confused with the at-that-point-deceased SPECTRE #3 Rosa Klebb). Which is weird, because he’s barely dressed differently here than he was in “Goldfinger,” where he played a Chinese ally of Gert Frobe’s, poised to capitalize on Frobe’s nefarious scheme to obliterate all the gold bullion in Fort Knox.
We also get another Evil Blond Henchman (Ronald Rich) in this one. Bond feeds him to Blofeld’s piranhas, because you’ve kind of got to if they’re just swimming right there. This produces a classy multilingual Bond one-liner: “Bon appetit.”
The Ronald Rich death though isn’t even the BEST perishing-by-piranha-feeding in the movie. That honor goes to Bond Bad Girl and SPECTRE #11 Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), a German riff on Fiona Lupe from “Thunderball.” Brandt, after being seduced by Bond and thus failing to kill him (he has converted many a potential femme fatale assassin with this strategy), later tries to double-cross him, abandoning him in a crashing plane. Of course, he remains somewhat un-killable. After getting a stern dressing-down from Blofeld, she finds herself the initial victim of Blofeld’s strict zero-tolerance-for-failure policy, involving an awesome trap bridge. Blofeld’s utter ruthlessness is kind of a shock when it happens, although it makes sense that the Boss of All Bosses would be so maliciously inclined. It’s also weird though, given all this, that he is empathetic enough towards Bond that the former grants the latter a final (Blofeld thinks) cigarette before being taken out. This of course proves to be a MASSIVE tactical miscalculation. That reminds me, I always like it when Q thinks small with regard to his gadgets, as he did in “YOLT,” outfitting Bond with rocket-firing cigarettes. ROCKET FIRING CIGARETTES. How cool is that?
A LOT of The Good “Austin Powers” Movie is rooted in “You Only Live Twice,” “Thunderball,” and “Goldfinger,” specifically, with sprinkles of “The Ipcress Files” too. From “YOLT,” they crib Blofeld and his pet cat (Dr. Evil and Mr. Bigglesworth), the “in Japan, men come first, women come second” hot tub routine, phallic rockets, pools with killer fish in ’em (fine, fine, this is also in “Thunderball”), and a volcanic hideout. The Girls With Horrible Pun Innuendo Names thing is a trope of basically every Bond movie, so you can’t accredit that specifically to “YOLT.” More on this in a bit.
Greg: I’m ok with this at number 8, although I’d swap this and “Diamonds Are Forever.” Not necessarily from a quality perspective, but I just like ’60’s Bond more than ’70’s Bond. A couple of fun fact about this one: the screenplay was written by Roald Dahl, who was a personal friend of Ian Fleming’s, and hated the book. Also, originally the producers were hoping to shoot “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” at this time, but opted against it because of location issues. Meaning, we were very close to seeing what “OHMSS” would have looked like with Connery in the role. Anyway, I’m glad we got this instead, “YOLT” to me is one of the more fun and complete Bonds as far as hitting all the famous Bond beats that would come to define the character. Those beats though simultaneously make this a top 8 Bond but lower in the Connery lot. It’s no surprise that Austin Powers would pull so much from this one especially, and although now it’s sort of a parody, you have to remember nobody was making action movies like this at the time. Connery by now knows the character so well he can just jump right into it, and it’s genuinely fun to watch. That being said, these tropes are worth parodying for good reason.
As you mentioned, this is Connery’s 5th outing. He was apparently tired of the gig, and the movie seems set on one-upping all the previous films. I’m never a fan of going bigger in a sequel, I know it’s what always happens and producers feel the pressure to out do what they’ve done before, but I tend to think that effort starts to denigrate the characteristics that make a character like Bond exciting. I mean this is basically “Dr. No” remade on steroids. And still, at this point, Connery is so self-assured in the role despite his weariness, that his consistency keeps the film on track. In many ways it’s a step back from “Goldfinger,” but there’s enough in it that’s hooky and makes you want to hang out with Bond for another adventure. I remember being genuinely confused as a kid by the marriage sub plot. It really doesn’t make any sense and I’m wondering what the hell Roald Dahl was thinking when he wrote it in! I guess at the end of the day, me being willing to give this one a pass is a testament to Connery’s charisma, because there’s a lot in it that doesn’t work. But I mean it’s primo Connery, and I totally buy this guy could hang with sexy Japanese women in hot tubs all day and then sneak into volcano lairs at night to foil Blofeld’s plans.
Alex: Honestly, I went back and forth a lot between my rankings for “Diamonds Are Forever” and “You Only Live Twice.” Going into this Listcore, I had anticipated putting “YOLT” ahead of “Diamonds,” for many of the reasons you mentioned — Connery seems more engaged, he looks the part more, it’s got that “Dr. No”-on-steroids vibe right down to the evil lair. But the more that I think about “Diamonds,” the more I dig it. It’s got some great action moments, more original henchmen, that great decadent Vegas desert flavor, better girls, a better theme song (that doesn’t matter much), and the kitsch element is creeping in but hasn’t overwhelmed things yet (it would finally do that in “Moonraker”).
Alex: After the atrocity that was the 25th worst James Bond movie of all time starring The Australian Bond, Sean Connery was convinced to return for one “final” ride as James Bond, for way more money than before (all of which he donated to Scottish charity). If “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” had been made with a good James Bond who could have mustered up real chemistry with Diana Rigg, and if Eon had convinced Donald Pleasance to also return as Blofeld, I could have maybe looked past how horribly it was plotted. I’d imagine Connery would have some say in that too. “Diamonds” is quite the rebound, even if it can’t reach the heights of the best ’60s Bonds due to its high camp factor (the series was by this point already being steered by Broccoli towards Roger Moore-era kitsch and underwhelming villains. Other welcome returnees to the franchise for this go-round: “Goldfinger” director Guy Hamilton and “Goldfinger” title song belter Shirley Bassey. Bassey had another all-timer with her title theme (probably the fourth best theme song after “Goldfinger,” “Live And Let Die,” and “Nobody Does It Better”), sampled awesomely in peak-era Kanye’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.” Connery’s return comes with two big aesthetic changes: some extra padding around the midsection and, more excitingly, ’70s sideburns.
Crispin Glover’s equally weird father, Bruce, plays a creepily sadistic, prejudicially rendered gay henchman in this movie. And really, the Bruce Glover assassin, Mr. Wint (who like most Crispin Glover characters, favors black suits and a penetrating gaze) and his partner, Mr. Kidd (who looks like a pederast session musician for Steely Dan) — with their disturbing love for scorpions, murder, and finishing each other’s fortune cookie aphorisms — are two of the most entertaining things about the movie. Another is television’s Jill St. John, playing wig fan and diamond smuggler Tiffany Case. She has a refreshing women’s lib attitude that gives us a nice clean break from the prior decade’s submissive Bond ladies (note: Pussy Galore or Fiona Vulpe were anything but submissive). Her confident carriage doesn’t feel forced, it feels intrinsic. There’s a fun little moment in the midst of a chase scene, where Connery, in hot pursuit of a perp, tramples through a low-gravity moon-top set and gets tangled up with a faux astronaut. Good stuff.
This movie’s Blofeld at least has the decency to use plastic surgery as the explanation for his new face — he’s Charles Gray, who played Australian operative Dikko Henderson living undercover as an Asian man in Tokyo (in a “disguise” almost as hilarious as Connery’s). But that’s about the only decent part of an otherwise forgettable take on Blofeld. Greg, I know you’re a fan of Charles Gray in this, but for my money there’s nothing sinister or dangerous about him. He’s better than Savalas and probably Waltz (even that is debatable to me) by benefit of being in a really good movie, but he’s no Pleasance. And Pleasance doesn’t even crack my top 10.
Since we are at long last tackling the best Bond movies, it’s only fitting that we stumble upon the best three Bond Babe Double Entendre Names (in movie nos. 7, 6 and 1). WHAT ARE THEY? Well, which name am I referring to in “Diamonds Are Forever?” Well let me reveal it in this winningly stupid pun-heavy exchange. Props to Guy Hamilton for helping Connery go out with a bang in his final EON excursion.
Greg: So first of all I’m not a fan of the Blofeld character or SPECTRE in general. But if I have to take him I want Donald Pleasance with a scar over his eye. Pleasance’s Blofeld is cold, brutal, calculating and reminds me of Erich Von Stroheim (whom you might remember as the butler in “Sunset Boulevard”). I like Gray as a master villain, and if he has to named Blofeld here, then so be it. He’s got this sort of aristocratic ex-Nazi vibe that I think works well, and there’s just something sadistic to me about a blond guy with a baby face. But enough about Blofeld! You know who I want to talk about? One of my favorite supporting characters in the Bond universe: Felix Leiter. A huge plot go-to in the Connery Bonds, is that at some point he’s going to be rescued by Felix, the only real compadre he has who could operate in his own storyline. Upon his character’s inception in “Dr. No,” Felix was played by Jack Lord, a guy so arrogant he demanded equal billing and more storyline when asked to return for “Goldfinger.” Producers opted to go with someone less assuming instead, but Lord’s initial casting goes to show that the character was intended to be a sort of American Bond.
You got the sense there that this guy has his own series of movies in a parallel universe. He sort of drops in when their paths cross, and while there is a mutual respect, it’s obvious they’re only buds because they both just really love running the spy gig. Now by the time “Diamonds” comes around, Leiter has been played by three other actors, and unfortunately “Diamonds” features one of the weakest choices in Norman Burton, who looks more like a juror from “12 Angry Men” than the yin to Bond’s yang. The last time we had seen Felix before this was in “Thunderball,” where he’s played by (best name ever) Rik Van Nutter. Nutter was tall and handsome and really gave you the sense that when he and Bond were together SPECTRE and the honies were in for some real shit. Alas, the ’70s camp zeitgeist called for a more buffoonish version of the character, and Van Nutter was re-cast for Burton.
And I think that move says a lot about “Diamonds” and I’m kind of grateful we didn’t get Connery playing Bond through the ’70s, as sad as it was to let him go. It seems like the camp of the Moore films was inevitable and Cubby Broccoli was very much set on taking the series in that direction. Besides Bruce Glover’s uncanny resemblance to Crispin, I didn’t find his character or his partners’ to be threatening enough to take seriously. And, unfortunately neither does Bond, really. Connery was very much out on the series by this time and it shows. He was ready to make more interesting and important films, and a year after this filmed a favorite of mine, the Sidney Lumet directed cop drama “The Offence.” I’d put this one at the bottom of my Connery Bonds. I think both the series and Connery were ready to move on and it shows.
Alex: Mr. Kit and Mr. Winn were not particularly threatening, but they were fun and weird and somewhat creepy, much like Bruce’s offspring would become. I didn’t find Charles Gray to be all that threatening, either. I wonder why they kept re-casting Blofeld but insisting the new actors be the same character. Maybe contract disputes? Why not revise the scripts, who cares what the bad guy’s named if the actor playing the bad guy isn’t going to carry over into the next movie anyway? I don’t mind SPECTRE because it gave us Dr. No and Red Grant, but certainly it wasn’t missed during “Goldfinger.” That should’ve tipped EON off that the whole SPECTRE plot thread was unnecessary. It’s probably for the best that Connery moved on, but imagine how fun “Live and Let Die” and “The Man With The Golden Gun” could’ve been with him? Seeing Connery go mano a mano with Christopher Lee, especially, would have really elevated that movie. Connery in the ’70s and ’80s took a lot of interesting chances and was in a lot of solid movies, including four with Lumet, whom he had started collaborating with in 1965’s “The Hill.” We might never have gotten “The Man Who Would Be King” or “A Bridge Too Far” if Connery had stuck to Bond and remained typecast.
Alex: I feel like this has aged poorly compared to the other old Bonds that make my top 5. Especially the “that’s not a woman it’s a man, baby” fake-out scene that Austin Powers would forever improve, and the 30-45 minutes of underwater footage. At the time I’m sure it was quite spectacular, but now it’s… incredibly excessive. “For Your Eyes Only” has some way better deep-sea diving scenes. Emilio Largo has a cool eye patch and can rock a tidy tux like no other, but otherwise is kind of a let-down as the main heavy after the gluttonous Goldfinger, the muff-diving Rosa Klebb (EON was a bit homophobic during the Connery years, eh?), and the steely Dr. No. Largo is hulking and cruel, has a good villainous carriage and a slick, hard-to-place European accent, but isn’t otherwise very remarkable. That eye patch would find its way back to Dr. Evil’s own #2, Number Two. My favorite thing about Largo? His trap shark tank disguised as a normal pool (which would be ripped off pretty directly in “License To Kill”). This would mark the first death-by-killer-fish element of a Bond movie, and would be repeated in “License,” “YOLT,” “Octopussy” (you kind of have to, if it’s called “Octopussy”), and probably a few more that I’m forgetting.
Largo’s mistress Domino Derval (Claudine Auger) has a high-level water emergence and some good Bond banter (Her: “What sharp little eyes you’ve got.” He: “Wait’ll you get to my teeth”). Incidentally, she’s the first brunette Main Bond Girl. Our James was really growing up! I love all the moral ambiguity of the Bond girls — the good ones go bad, and the bad ones go good. Domino, who at first just wanted Bond for a quick fuck, begins to turn when she discovers that Largo is responsible for the murder of her brother (that scene also sports a good murder-pun), a French NATO pilot, with a replacement pilot in a cool, pre-“Mission: Impossible” face replacement scheme. The faux Francois Derval, a SPECTRE pilot named Angelo Palazzi, has gotten his face surgically altered to match Francois Derval (both played by Paul Stassino). We first meet bad girl Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi) in bed with the original Derval. They are greeted at the door by Angelo-as-Derval, who kills OG Derval. Volpe and Angelo slaughter the population of a NATO plane, stealing its two atomic bombs on behalf of SPECTRE.
It is only here that we begin to grasp the full scale of Volpe’s ruthless ambition, as she murders Angelo as soon as the mission is done, tying up all loose ends. She strives for another black widow-esque bait-and-switch romp with Bond, in which she would bed him and subsequently have him killed. Bond is down for the bedding and aggressive pillow talk, of course. Her death feels like the end of a chess match, and proves that Bond is almost as merciless as she is — he turns Volpe into a human shield to save himself from a silencer’s bullet. Bond holding her delicate corpse close to him in a gentle slow dance lends it the moment an unexpected poignancy, and I think crystallizes just how thin the line between good and evil is in the universe of secret agents and their prey (JUST LOOK AT HIS PITILESS EYES).
Don’t you think Tom Jones would have been a better fit for the Vegas-set “Diamonds Are Forever?” I would have rather heard Shirley Bassey return for “Thunderball,” albeit with a different song — this one had some pathetic lyrics (“He always runs while others walk?” THAT’S your opening line?). “Diamonds Are Forever” is one of the best Bond songs ever, though, so… maybe they just shouldn’t have gotten Tom Jones involved at all. Or slotted him into one of the bad Moore movies, I don’t really care. Sorry, Tom Jones, that’s just how I feel. The other big drawback to “Thunderball” is its excessive underwater footage, which I’m sure at the time was quite thrilling, but now feels… somewhat bloated. All the guys’ wet suits are rendered in rich single colors, and the fly honies all look great underwater, sure, but it could be streamlined.
Another huge “Austin Powers” moment curbed directly from Bond rears its head in “Thunderball:” the “That’s not your mother that’s a man, baby!” scene. It’s hard to watch with a straight face now, but it still maintains its undeniable coolness, as the fight encompasses many of the surrounding cogs in a great, elegant drawing room set. To recap: Colonel Bouvar (Bob Simmons) fakes his own death, then disguises himself as his own widow at the funeral; Bond discovers the ruse when Bouvar-as-Mrs.-Bouvar opens a car door all by himself (that’s kind of a sexist supposition from Bond, but whatever, this was 50 years ago); Bond punches Bouvar in the face; a knife is thrown; they tussle (Simmons was a stunt man by trade, so the fight had real personality and could finally be captured in protracted wide shots); Bouvar is strangled by a fireplace poker (Bond very thoughtfully lays some condolence flowers on top of him); and Bond escapes via jet pack. Then, as an exclamation mark, Bond’s getaway car — once he launches from the aforementioned jet pack departure — exhumes orange smoke. So cool.
Greg: Firstly, I have to take issue with you going after my man Tom Jones! In 1965, Tom Jones was yet to be associated as just the Welsh-Las Vegas playing-Elvis wannabe that people tend to think of him now. Jones met Elvis in 1965 and only started playing Vegas in 1967. So although it would make sense for him to sing the “Diamonds”opening, he was considered a respectable choice for the “Thunderball” theme. Come on man, have you listened to him belt “A Minute of Your Time?”
Anyway, I love “Thunderball” for a lot of the points you bring up, but you’re right, it does feel more dated. I actually always thought it was the second Bond until we started this count down, and I’m trying to figure out why that is. For one thing, Largo, his henchmen and Domino all seem like they’re out of a spaghetti western. I know Adolfo Celi was dubbed, but was everyone else as well? There’s definitely slow moments and I could do with less underwater stuff, but I do like that the story is pretty much contained to a few locations, and even though it starts slowly, when it ramps up it really has some nice action scenes. Also, as I mentioned before, this entry features my favorite version of Felix Leiter, Rik Van Nutter, seriously how did this guy not get a spin-off series? I didn’t have a chance to re-watch the whole thing, but in my research I found this Playboy interview that Connery did on the set of “Thunderball.” I think it’s pretty great, especially when Connery’s asked if it’s ok to hit women or tell them you love them just to have sex with them. I won’t spoil his answers for you, but you can read it for yourself here.
Alex: Good ears, Domino was also dubbed, yeah — by Nikki Van der Zyl, who also dubbed Ursula Andress in “Dr. No.” The Connery answers are very much in line with his Bond, although they’re pretty depressing now. I’ll forgive him, but oh well. And fine, “A Minute Of Your Time” is pretty classy. Regardless, I associate Jones with Vegas now, and by the time they shot “Diamonds” it sounds like he was already entrenched in that universe anyway. Leiter’s involvement varies a lot depending on the movie, but I’d probably say my favorite incarnation is the “Goldfinger” vintage, Cec Linder. He seemed more paternal than Van Nutter, though, so he wouldn’t have been as spin-off friendly.
Alex: “From Russia With Love,” along with our #1, is traditionally cited as being the best Bond movie. And I can understand why, since it’s damn good. It’s got two fantastic action set pieces (the Bond-Red Grant fight on the Orient Express and the epic SPECTRE boat chase). “FRWL” boasts one of the weirdest (and most effectively, surprisingly sinister) main villains in any movie, the diminutive SPECTRE #3, Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) — the aforementioned older lesbian psychopath — who wields a pop-up knife in her shoe. We’ve got the luminous Daniela Bianchi playing a… devout Soviet agent (her dialogue was dubbed), Tatiana Romanova (not a double entendre, sure, but still a great Fleming concoction, no?), more on her in a bit. There’s a completely superfluous gypsy cat fight, if that’s your bag. If it isn’t, it should be. Desmond Llewlyn makes his inaugural appearance as Q, loading Bond up with his first
awesome gadget, a highly-weaponized suitcase.
An aside on Q — technically, Llewlyn’s Q character is named Major Boothroyd, head of “Q” branch, but starting with “Goldfinger” they primarily refer to him as “Q.” The first Bond movie, “Dr. No,” sported a different Major Boothroyd, Peter Burton (this guy), so forgettable that, well, you probably forgot about it until just now. You’re welcome. Anyway, with apologies to Burton, Ben Whishaw, the Q from “Never Say Never Again” (Alec McCowen, who wasn’t that bad, really), and Basil Fawlty (who was a pretty inspired choice, I’ve gotta say), Desmond Llewyln IS Q. He isn’t nearly as irritated with 007 as he was going to become in ensuing series entires, but the annoyance is there, bubbling beneath the nebbishy surface. Burton’s Q recommended Bond upgrade his gun (fuck Berettas, right?), Llewlyn gifts him a cool attache case tricked out with covert tear gas, a knife, and a sniper rifle. And there’d still be plenty of space for any important documents in manila folders that he may have to transport, so it’s all very practical.
What else does “From Russia With Love” have to offer that makes it so appealing? Well, Bond fucking DIES in the opening (but, you know, not really, it’s just a guy in a Sean Connery mask being used by Red Grant for hunting practice), the first Bond-dies-in-this-one fake-out scene (he also “dies” in the openings of “You Only Live Twice” and “Skyfall”). There’s Red Grant (Robert Shaw — yeah, that Robert Shaw), the washboard-stomached SPECTRE hit man who has devoted a lot of time and resources to building maze simulations where he kills people that he dresses like James Bond. He’s also one of the best Bond baddies of them all (he comes in at #7, the third-highest-ranked henchman on the Bond Baddies list from Part II) and a certifiable rabid, perverted, power-mad psychopath. Oh and then there’s a creepily voyeuristic sex scene between two people essentially whoring out their bodies for their respective countries (the voyeurs in this case are Rosa Klebb smoking a cigarette and some nameless SPECTRE goons)… So much to enjoy.
The plot, if you actually think about it, is kind of dumb. Romanova, a naive USSR clerk stationed in Istanbul, is coerced by Rosa Klebb under false pretenses to defect from the Soviets and send Bond adulatory fan mail. Romanova claims that she only wants to defect into Bond’s care, and with her she would supply a Lektor, a Soviet decoder, fervently coveted by MI6 (and their CIA allies). Ultimately, we discover that SPECTRE and Klebb’s scheme in this interaction is to film their coupling, then kill Bond and Romanova, arming Romanova’s handbag with the film reel and Bond’s jacket with a fake blackmail letter from Romanova. Their deaths would be staged as a murder-suicide at the hands of Bond, framed to appear motivated by the threat of blackmail from Romanova. The goal is simple: stoking the flames of a conflict between England and the Soviet Union. There has GOT to be an easier and less sexually exploitative and sadistic way to do that, though, no? DAMN IT KLEBB. All things considered, “From Russia With Love” is the darkest of the Connery Bonds (that doesn’t preclude it from being totally ridiculous, as you can tell), which could partially explain its popularity as the nominal fan favorite.
Greg: “From Russia With Love” is number 3 on my list! I hear all your points for why it shouldn’t be higher, but I do think it’s more valuable for the darkness it brings to the series. For one, I actually love the plot and how small the goals are of SPECTRE, it almost makes them more believable as an organization. From Russia With Love works to me as the best straight detective movie in the bunch, and I like Bond most when he’s using his wits and trying to very specifically outsmart his opponents. That first scene, when the guy wearing the Bond mask is killed, is actually very chilling, and it does establish Robert Shaw’s Red Grant as one of the best Bond villains. The SPECTRE stuff is (as always) goofy, but it’s mysterious enough here that it sort of doesn’t matter. We’re introduced to Blofeld for example but never shown his face (what we can see of his body here is played by Anthony Dawson, he is voiced by Eric Pohlmann), something I wish the series had kept up throughout. But the very fact that they’re personally targeting Bond lends the film a sense of real danger and urgency.
The train scene has to go down as one of if not the best Bond one-on-one fights. It’s impeccably directed and both Connery and Shaw are big guys who move like panthers that really pull you in and shake you around the confined space of the train cart. You really get the sense that Grant hates Bond and wants to humiliate him, he doesn’t overplay it and I think it’s just perfect. “FRWL” also has my favorite “Bond and gorgeous woman back and forth,” when they start talking about Daniela Bianchi’s mouth…. Bianchi is maybe my favorite Bond girl so I’m definitely going with my heart on this one too. That Bianchi… what a woman!
Worth noting, check out the low budget opening credit sequence to the film. It was the first time Bond films employed the now (sort of out-dated and unnecessary) title sequences of hot women over the credits. It’s clearly just a woman dancing in front of a projection, and despite how basic it looks it’s kind of cool to see the genesis of those openings. “Dr. No” has some graphics to start it but still a step away from what we recognize as the classic Bond opening. It also features the first pre-title sequence which has become a staple of the series, and something I fondly look forward to with every film.
Alex: Bianchi is so damn fine. Did you know she was dubbed for this? They’re so good at dubbing in these early Bond movies that I never know until I do my research. My favorite Bianchi exchange in the movie actually is my favorite because it alludes to a bachelor friendship between Bond and the Bernard Lee M after hours, which would be closer than any subsequent M-Bond relationships. Connery and Bianchi are on a leisurely boat ride to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and Romanova is still pretending to be in love with him for the good of the country (at some point their attraction to each other becomes real — maybe on the train), as he firmly extracts pertinent information on the Lektor from her. He has her speak into a transmitter, on the other side of which the main MI6 bigwigs (M, Moneypenny, and a bunch of random guys in suits) listen in.
Bianchi: “Am I exciting as all those Western girls?”
Connery: “Well, once when I was with M in Tokyo, we had an interesting experience –”
M frantically turns off the radio transmission, curtly dismissing Moneypenny from the room. We can only imagine what they did with those Eastern girls.
To your other points — I think it’s safe to say that the Grant-Bond fight is the best one-on-one tussle in the series’ history, it’s pretty damn cool (and Grant’s creepy reveal of SPECTRE’s scheme functions as a great prelude to it). I always enjoyed the SPECTRE meeting scenes in the Connery Bond flicks before the Blofeld reveal in “YOLT,” I’d have been down to leave the rest of his character to our imagination. As far as the pre-credits sequences go, I’m completely over them. I do like a lot of the Bond theme songs (although I haven’t liked any of the recent ones outside of “The World Is Not Enough”), and it’s nice to get them in full, I guess, but we really don’t need to see a whole music video. Putting them in at the top of the end credits would be totally fine. No need to cling to this, Broccoli and Wilson.
Alex: “Casino Royale” director Martin Campbell is a curious case. After getting his start in the industry as a cameraman, the Kiwi director’s career at the helm started in indie British comedy in the mid-’70s, including two sexploitation movies, “The Sex Thief” and “Eskimo Nelly.” Sexploitation movies were basically X-rated farces with actual plots — not porno’s, mind you, just comedies with way more nudity than would otherwise be permitted. It’s an extinct brand of movie, the closest contemporary parallel would be Verhoeven’s “Showgirls” (if you honestly think that movie was anything less than a total parody, you’re wrong). Anyway, back to Campbell.
In the late ’70s, he graduated from the outskirts of grind-house British comedies to serving as producer for grittier, high-prestige crime movies (“Scum” with Ray Winstone was his first). In the ’80s, he switched back to directing, setting his sights on British TV. then to Hollywood legal dramas (“Criminal Law” with Gary Oldman and Kevin Bacon from MGM, “Defenseless” with Barbara Hershey and Sam Shepard for New Line) and one Ray Liotta sci-fi movie that looks like an unholy allegiance of “The Great Escape” and “Mad Max.” So why did EON pick this guy to helm its first James Bond movie in six years — the first post-Soviet Union Bond, the first Brosnan Bond, the first ’90s Bond, the first post-Cubby Broccoli Bond?
Let’s circle back to that British TV phase. He wasn’t just “a” British TV director, Martin Campbell was THE British TV director, at least when it came to action content. The guy directed “Reilly: Ace of Spies” (1983), a Sam Neil-starring limited-run TV series, centered around the eponymous famed British secret agent Sidney Reilly. It was a massive critical success in 1983, and he followed that up with the wildly successful “Edge of Darkness” (1986), a six-part BBC TV murder mystery centered around Britain’s nuclear practices. He won six BAFTA Awards for his trouble (it’s the British equivalent of an Academy Award or Emmy).
Man oh man, did they get it right with this guy. Martin Campbell was on the come-up, EON knew it, and they pounced at just the right time. Campbell has a great facility for action moments, and for finding the unexpected humor in those moments — as when the director has Bond hide behind a roller loaded with gas tanks to escape a Russian stronghold, or when Bond, after just being shocked back to life by Vesper Lynd during a frenetic poisoning scene in “Casino Royale” (also Campbell’s), asks her if she’s all right. MC also has a knack for creating great Bond characters, and packing them into great Bond set pieces that hit all the beats you want. His two Bonds (two of the top 4 here) take you somewhere simultaneously familiar and foreign in just the right proportions.
“GoldenEye”‘s central hook is a lie: that the only competent non-Bond 00 we’ve ever seen him work with, Alec Trevelyan (Sean “Why Do They Always Kill Me?” Bean), gave two shits about defending England or being James Bond’s friend. Greg, we’ve talked before about how the betrayal of a friendship is an especially appealing topic to you in movies, and Campbell touches on that amidst both his installments of this larger-than-life fantasy. For the first reel, I was almost convinced we’d be getting a buddy-cop movie, one that basically gave us two Bonds for the price of one (Sean Bean had screen-tested for the role in “GoldenEye,” but Brosnan beat him out). Their jokey exchanges were confident and smooth and precise, so it would have probably been tough to sustain that balance over the course of a full movie. Still, though, while watching it for the first time, 7 year-old me was convinced that I was watching the two coolest bad-asses ever for a little while. Then Trevelyan appears to die, and it turns out we’ve been watching a flashback. We move nine years into the future, to the time of the movie’s present, 1995. He meets his new M, who calls him a “sexist misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.” In Monte Carlo, Bond seduces the MI6-assigned psychologist (Serena Gordon) assigned to evaluate him. In the midst of that, though, he gets into a flirtatious sports car race with Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), the 2nd-best Baddie Henchman (hench-woman, really) ever (#1 can be found in our #1 movie, so read on). They meet again and exchange introductory pleasantries at a casino in Monte Carlo. The Brosnan-era Miss Moneypenney (Samantha Bond) explains from headquarters that MI6 expects Onatopp to have ties to their target, a rising underground Russian crime syndicate run by the evasive Janus. In a great scene transition, Moneypenny deadpans her hope that James will stay… “Onatopp of things.”
THEN, in an inspired move, the Bond producers decide to improve upon the “Thunderball” captain-doppelganger scheme, with a new wrinkle. The Bad Girl doesn’t need anyone else to do her dirty work. Instead, she seduces the much older, much portlier Admiral Chuck Farrell (Billy J. Mitchell). Obviously, as in “Thunderball,” we know that he is going to be murdered and replaced by a baddie decked out to look just like him. This time, though, Xenia takes charge — mid-coitus, she strangles the guy with her legs, choking him to death while also getting off. It’s ludicrous, and it’s still kind of hot. Onatopp and the fake admiral commandeer the real admiral’s chopper to a remote Siberian tech outpost, where they kill (almost) the entire staff and steal the code disk to a lethal laser satellite, called GoldenEye. Later, Onatopp also attempts to employ her patented thigh-murder tactic for the first time against Bond in the sauna of an upper-tier St. Petersburg hotel (I wouldn’t watch this scene at the office if I were you). She ultimately dies getting served her just desserts, strangled to death by an exploding helicopter and a tree (you’ve got to watch the whole clip, because Brosnan hits us with a great Dumb Bond Pun at the end of things). Famke Janssen as Onatopp was quite a catch; she chews the scenery to within an inch of its life but the scenery loves the abuse. As a 7 year-old boy, I was incredibly confused as to why my parents skipped her thigh-murdering scenes on the DVD, especially because, for reasons I couldn’t articulate yet, I really, really wanted to watch those scenes. I have since figured that reason out.
But let’s return to that sauna scene, long before the tree/helicopter strangulation. After much prodding from Bond, Xenia Onatopp escorts Bond to Janus himself. AND IT’S ALEC TREVELYAN, who had secretly been a Soviet mole during his entire time with MI6. Trevelyan also earned a nasty scar across half his face as the result of the explosion that capped off the movie’s pre-credits sequence. He’s still kind of sensitive about it. Anyway, Bond and the movie’s Good Bond Girl, Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) — one of the two survivors from that Siberian outpost — are thrust into a host of epic adventures, including fleeing an oncoming train, escaping out of the cockpit of a plane rigged to explode while tied down to its seats, and racing against time to de-code Janus’s GoldenEye programming (Simonova handles this last part herself). Simonova is a solid Bond Girl, but outside of being clever with computer code, she doesn’t have a lot of personality. “GoldenEye” does try to add some dimension and emotional depth to Natalya and Bond’s relationship. Honestly, though, when it dabbles in pop psychology you do feel the strain a bit:
At one point, in front of an impossibly gorgeous beach, she asks him, “How can you be like this? How can you be so cold?”
His retort, “It’s what keeps me alive.”
“No,” she responds as she walks away. “It’s what keeps you alone.” Then he just forcefully pulls her into the sand and makes out with her. Maybe her talking about his emotional distance is a sexual turn-on? I dunno, Bond’s a head case.
The awesome Robbie Coltrane (that’s Hagrid to you “Harry Potter” people) has a memorable little bit as ex-KGB agent and current gangster-about-town Valentin Zukovsky; everything from his little karaoke bar packed with goons and his mistress (a young Minnie Driver)’s off-key caterwauling to “Stand By Your Man” to his great, savvy first line, in response to the sound of the safety of Bond’s gun being clicked off right next to his skull: “Walther PPK. 7.65 mm. Only three men I know use such a gun. I believe I’ve killed two of them.” Shaky Russkie allies (Zukovsky threatens the Bond family jewels not-so-subtly) contribute to the layering of Bond’s world, making you feel like 007 goes on more adventures than there’s time to document in the movies. It’s a nice touch, and the character was such a hit that he returned for “The World Is Not Enough,” as we talked about before.
And Alec Trevelyan is one of the best Bond villains ever, period. Like I said before, he really feels like a true match for Bond, his downfall rooted only in a mild bout of insanity. They are a physical match for each other, and their climactic fight in and around the control booth of the satellite has real stakes for once, because this time, it IS personal. Trevelyan’s ultimate plan: to use GoldenEye for robbing the Bank of England, then using it to destroy all of Britain’s financial records, thus cratering the British economy. So… basically Goldfinger’s plan, but this time with a satellite. Trevelyan’s death comes gives us complete retributive resolution, and it feels good: “For England, James?” “No. For me.” YUHUS. Only 41 at the time, Brosnan was great in this too; I bought him both as a lethal man of action and as a suave sophisticate who likes cars, cards and tits. He would never be in a Bond movie nearly as good as “GoldenEye” again. Peter Lamont’s great production design throughout really shines during the Janus reveal, as we see Trevelyan’s elaborate graveyard of over-sized Soviet statue pieces, scope it.
Greg: So I’d swap this with “From Russia With Love,” but I don’t fault you for having this at number 4. “Goldeneye” was the first Bond I saw in cinemas and it was an unforgettable experience. The pre-credit sequence of Bond bungee-jumping off a damn, and then jumping off a cliff to climb into a falling plane was a really exciting way to bring Bond back. Now looking back, some of those scenes do look sort of ridiculous and there’s some shoddy green screening going on, but nonetheless it was a fun and exhilarating way to bring Bond to new audiences. I love that they kept this one self-contained, and didn’t try to bring Trevelyan back as some later villain. The producers were probably just covering their asses here and not sure the film would be successful enough to warrant a sequel, but it ended up working towards a better movie. Any time a villain’s motivation is just to get money I’m in. It’s simple and plausible. Sean Bean’s Trevelyan is a great match for Brosnan’s Bond. They sort of look like half-brothers and that just adds to the weird, intimate jealousy and anger Trevelyan gears towards Bond.
Haha, oh man Famke Janssen is so hot in this, I remember always hoping that she’d turn good so that Bond wouldn’t end up with the bland Isabella Scorupko. Don’t get me wrong, Isabella’s beautiful, but she’s a bit one note and she’s clearly the worst actor of the bunch. Alan Cumming just dominates all their scenes together (and provides some good comic relief for that matter). But back to Famke, I think she may be single handedly responsible for creating my self-harming attraction towards dangerous and psychotic women. I, like you, didn’t know exactly what was happening when she straddles the general to death, but I knew it wasn’t a horrible way to go!
That’s all really interesting about Campbell, I didn’t know anything about him really. Goldeneye really does have some of the best action set pieces, and after seeing Casino Royale it’s clear that whatever faults Goldeneye has lie in the limitations of movie technology at the time. My favorite scene is obviously Bond manning a tank through the streets of Moscow. He busts out of a wall like it’s no thing and chases the pathetic General Orumov (Gottfried John) throughout the city. It’s just great action directing, and it maintains the sightly whimsical Bond tone throughout. The whimsy was definitely taken out of the Craig films, and I’d definitely like a tonal return to something similar in Goldeneye, which I think is ultimately closest to the Connery Bonds.
Alex: First off — Alan Cumming unwittingly has another great Bond Girl last name, even better than Robert Spottiswood. Maybe these movies just attract that kind of talent? Hahaha re: Jansen having a negative influence on your attraction towards psychotic women. Fuck it, I’ll blame her for those crazy girls that dot parts of my resume too. I’m glad Jannsen’s had a really respectable career since “Goldeneye,” unlike many a Bond girl; I would have loved more Famke and less Scorupco in “Goldeneye,” too. It’s definitely the closest any non-Connery Bond movie gets to the original model, I totally agree. And Trevelyan is such a good villain, like you I’m glad they kept his story contained to this movie.
Alex: “What are you doing here, looking for shells?” “No, I’m just looking.” Damn straight he is, Honey Rider. Have you ever wondered how Sylvia Trench got into Bond’s room after they met in that casino? Isn’t that kind of stalker-core of her? Luckily she exhibits no other stalker symptoms.
“Dr. No” was made cheaply, but director Terence Young uses that to his advantage here, with a lot of graceful, tactfully executed dolly pans (i.e. minimal, wide camera coverage to maximize cost- and storytelling efficiency), plus some crane stuff, a lot of deliberate cutting. You get the feeling that there wasn’t too much unused film here. It’s also very quite, and not dripping wall-to-wall with John Barry music. By the time we’d be getting to Roger Moore a decade later, Bond had gone too far the other way. This thing extracts a lot of leverage out of the underplayed soundtrack, and exploits silence to build tension (as in the lead-up to the tarantula scene, or several moments where Bond is tooling around Jamaica). There IS one sonic moment that goes a bit far. Read on below.
The scene where Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), in creepy voice-over, orders his covert plant, Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson), to kill Bond by tarantula, provides a great, minimalist early Ken Adam design. A small room, with a single chair and table, and a cross-hatched overhead roof, beneath which a circle of light pools. Plus half of the pad is in purple. Also, hey, THAT SPIDER SCENE. A truly tense, scary moment. That spider is about a billion times more menacing than Richard Kiel ever could be. When Bond spots the critter and RHYTHMICALLY BASHES IT TO DEATH WITH ONE SHOE, John Barry’s orchestra can’t help itself, and synchronizes each bash with a musical sting. It’s… kind of hilarious. Still cool, though. Man, Connery’s so cool.
Weirdly enough, even though the budget had ballooned by leaps and bounds when it came time for Connery’s final EON adventure, “Diamonds Are Forever,” he never had a better wig than he does here. Well, the “Goldfinger” wig is pretty solid too. The efficiency extends to the fight scenes, which for the most part and good and brisk and don’t dilute the story’s flow.
The villains — I love all the duplicitous double-crossing of Dr. No’s various helpers and the shadiness of figures who turn out to be good guys (Felix Leiter, Quarrel), the murkiness of it all. The scene where Bond offs Dent is pretty classic: Dent pokes his 1911 Smith & Wesson into Bond’s hotel room and pops off his full round of six bullets into the lumpy figure on Bond’s bed. But Bond, of course, has been hanging out with a cigarette next to the door, and when Dent leans further into the room to ensure that the body on the bed is good and dead, Bond starts interrogating him. After Dent gives Bond just enough information to get to the next level of the story, he conveniently makes for his gun, where Bond tells him casually, “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six.” And then he kills him with his silencer.
The fly honies — his first lady, Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson), was initially installed into this and “From Russia With Love” as a kind of recurring main girlfriend, whom he always ditches on his next adventure. By “Goldfinger,” Eon realized that this kind of deterred from the fantasy of Bond the philanderer, so they dropped her. The second, that murderous slut double-agent Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), favors skin-tight gear or minimal gear at all. I love how she tips off some of Dr. No’s goons that Bond is en route to her pad, then he drives them off the road to their death, THEN he goes to her place and, realizing full well that she tried to have him killed, sleeps with her for several hours. THEN, under the pretense of calling a car to take them back to his hotel, he books her. Post-“Casino Royale” Daniel Craig would be too sensitive for any of this. And the third — Honey Ryder. “What are you doing here? Looking for shells?” “No, I’m just looking.” Hers is the single hottest movie babe introduction of all time. I mean, SCOPE IT.
Greg: “Dr. No” started it all and set the blueprint, so it’s a top 5 entry in the Bond series. End of story. There’s so much cool and weird stuff in there that it’s no surprise audiences were clamoring for a second one. I personally really like the Three Blind Mice hit men, they were such a quirky invention that I’m surprised those characters haven’t been re-used in other films. And yes, that tarantula scene is really nerve-wracking, and may have contributed to my paralyzing arachnophobia (I can trace a lot of my psychological woes to watching Bond as a child). I think what I like best is that the dangers Bond feels leading up to being in the Dr. No’s lair are pretty small and tense. You get the feeling that Dr. No, after blowing all his money on a missile compound, had a very tight budget for his intimidation and murder team. I mean he uses a mechanical dragon to scare off the locals, it’s very Scooby-Doo, but somehow it works, and you just sort of think Honey Ryder is a hot but superstitious idiot at the end of it. I’m with you on all the other points, this is one of my favorites and it always makes me angry when people haven’t seen it or don’t know it kicked off the whole series.
Alex: Damn dude, these Bond movies really did a number on Child Greg, didn’t they? And yeah, Honey Ryder wasn’t the sharpest of the Bond girls haha. They really developed Dr. No as a villain effectively with all the small but tense obstacles he puts in Bond’s way leading up to their meeting in his lair. Haha, I think you’re right about his spending budget — he was all-in on that sweet missile compound and the accompanying lair, so he didn’t have much cash left over for the rest of his operation.
Alex: The re-watch-ability factor for this baby CANNOT be underestimated, turns out. There are so many beats that are so damn great. With 20 previous Bond movies already produced when this one dropped, I wasn’t personally expecting #21 to somehow feel this fresh. Actually, Greg, I hate to admit this, but… I skipped seeing this in theaters. I was bitter about the way Brosnan was unceremoniously dumped after “Die Another Day,” which, again, I actually really enjoyed. It felt like Brosnan had really settled into the utter absurdity of his Bond, sort of a Roger Moore with acting chops, (a) who did his own stunts and (b) whom you’d actually buy sleeping with women half his age. So when Daniel Craig got his hands around that Walther PPK, I was miffed. Brosnan was the Bond I had known since I was 7! It was a big transition. You probably remember the Internet pseudo-uproar that marked the reaction of Bond purists when they found out. Craig was by far the shortest (5’10”, 3 inches shorter than any other movie Bond and 2 inches shorter than the literary Bond), blondest Bond ever, and that did not sit well with the small but vocal web faithful. Should I be a little worried about some of the fan reaction to the first black Bond?
Anyway. So I skipped “Casino Royale.” I know, I know, I’m a bad fan. I bought it the next summer on a whim and… I was fucking floored. So after a modest, compact black and white pre-credits sequence where Bond earns that 00 promotion the hard way (director Martin Campbell tries to squeeze as many film noir-esque canted angles as humanly possible into this), we kick things off with that insane parkour chase, which immediately knocks the “District 13” movies on their ass for sheer bravura ballsiness (so many crane arms and building frames are scaled!). Bond’s chasing a Ugandan bomb maker with a nasty scar (parkour founder Sébastien Foucan) all over the place, and for once he’s not wearing a suit. Craig is so good here, so lethal, so precise, so smart, so tough. The CGI extravagances of the Brosnan Bonds that took the series into (still-fun) self-parody are gone, replaced by real stunts that feel like they have real consequences for the first time since “GoldenEye.”
By this time we’ve already met Le Chiffre (the immortal Mads Mikkelson, fantastic actor), an asthmatic French terrorism bankroller. He’s a gambler by nature, in both business (a gifted math whiz who applied his talents to the stock market) and pleasure (a poker freak). He’s blind in one eye that cries tears of blood and is cut through with a jagged Tony Montana scar. Unlike so many Bond baddies, Le Chiffre isn’t fixated on world domination or creating a master race. He just wants to stay alive. The crux of the plot stems from Le Chiffre staking $100 million of a Ugandan terrorist’s money against the failure of an aerospace company, and later tries to ensure his windfall by destroying the company’s airliner in Miami. In ANOTHER awesome sequence, Bond relocates the bomb intended for that airliner onto the belt of the man who was supposed to detonate it. This leaves Le Chiffre on the hook for a fuckton of money, which he promptly tries to win the money back in a high-stakes Montenegrin Texas Hold ‘Em tournament, at the illustrious Casino Royale. Bond (the best poker player in MI6) and CIA operative Felix Leiter (presumably the Americans’ best poker player?) are staked in the tournament by their respective governments, knowing that if they win, Le Chiffre will have to turn informant to stay alive.
And that’s most of the rest of the movie. It’s just the hotel and the area immediately surrounding it, as Bond and all-time tragic Bond fly honey Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the comely British Treasury agent keeping her eyes on the government’s money (and off Bond’s “perfectly formed ass”) combat Le Chiffre, the Ugandans, and each other (with flirty banter, not with lethal intent). Bond is poisoned, Le Chiffre’s inhaler is fucked with, Vesper turns reluctant accomplice to murder, there is a sensual finger-sucking crying scene in a shower, Le Chiffre does nothing when the Ugandans threaten to chop off his trophy girlfriend’s arm, and parties switch sides. AND you get some really cool poker faces. The whole thing is just riveting. The stakes are simultaneously intimate AND global, and they work really well on both levels. Vesper Lynd’s betrayal (albeit, a forced one) works as the major trigger for Bond’s ultimate Connery-era ruthlessness. OF COURSE it’s heartbreak that corrupts James Bond, the ultimate womanizer. Martin Campbell, who crushed “GoldenEye,” returns to showcase just how great James Bond action can be when executed correctly. I could go on and on about this one. Fantastic.
Greg: I’m disgusted that you didn’t see this in cinemas! Look, there’s not much that I can add to what you’ve already said. This and “Goldfinger” are the only two Bond movies that are legitimately great films, even outside of the Bond cannon. Martin Campbell’s execution is impeccable. And like “Goldeneye” for Brosnan, “Casino Royale” cemented Craig as a trusted Bond to take us forward. Craig is a very good Bond for what this movie required, but I see him as a sort of inverse Lazenby, when just judging “Casino” by itself. He could have walked away on top and we’d be wondering how great he could have been in other films, but instead he got bogged down in three sub-par entries. Maybe he should have walked away?
I’m a HUGE Mads Mikkelsen fan, and he’s basically perfect as Le Chiffre here. It’s rare in a Bond movie to see the main villain operating out of fear rather than madness, and it really heightens the tension and legitimizes his motivations towards Bond.
This movie is often number one on people’s list, and there’s probably a good case to make given how much cinema and technology have progressed and opened up the action genre. But in my book you go with character, and the only downside this really had (and it’s not Craig’s fault), is a less charismatic Bond than Connery ever was.
Alex: That’s a great point you bring up on charisma. It’s not entirely Craig’s fault, as he’s saddled with a Purvis/Wade/Paul Haggis screenplay that keeps his Bond a man of few words. And I think he’s pretty great at doing what they want him to do, being what they want him to be: a kind of half-refined brute. Even still, Connery would’ve done more with it.
Alex: At this point, I’ve spouted off a bevy of superlatives about this one already. Why anything not named “Goldfinger” is anybody else’s #1 is their challenge, because, I’m sorry, but this is THE ULTIMATE JAMES BOND MOVIE. “Casino Royale” really does give it a run for its money, and anything in this Listcore’s Top 5 is legitimately great, but they are not definitive the way this is definitive. They are not comprehensive the way this is comprehensive.
One of the best things about this movie is the fact that it is self-contained. There is no overly complicated SPECTRE tie-in, there are no duplicitous Soviet triple-crossers, there is no James Bond childhood reveal. Instead, we get a streamlined, fairly straightforward evil scheme, enacted by a similarly uncomplicated villain. His name’s Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), and he loves gold — “its color, its brilliance, its divine heaviness” (our man Goldfinger’s not so light himself, so this fits). He wants to capture Fort Knox, destroy all its gold bullion, and hold the Western economies at bay, shoring up China’s financial power and greatly increasing the value of Goldfinger’s personal wealth. Simplicity is key here, and simplicity is the foundation upon which the beautiful, highly stylized artifice of “Goldfinger’ thrives so thoroughly.
They don’t try to psychoanalyze James Bond in a way that has only ever truly worked in “Casino Royale.” Guy Hamilton and screenwriters Richard Maibaum (who wrote or cowrote every Bond movie from 1962-1989, with the exception of three: “You Only Live Twice,” “Live and Let Die,” and that piece of shit “Moonraker”) and Paul Dehn (whose only Bond credit was “Goldfinger”) opt to do anything but cut open Bond’s head and examine his feelings. He is a ruthless killer, a borderline sociopath who prioritizes really cool white tuxedoes, really hilarious seagull scuba gear, a tricked-out Aston Martin DB5 (FINALLY), and his balls, over other human beings. At least, the ones he knows personally.
The Sean Connery Bond especially is dangerous, and he wears that attribute as naturally and convincingly as he wears his wig in this one (that is to say, completely). The only thing dividing Bond from men like Le Chiffre, Alec Trevelyan, and Goldfinger is the fluid moral dividing line, as dictated by Bond’s M.O. (deeds done in service of queen and country). He cuts a scarier figure than you’d remember, and that, more than anything else, has been my takeaway from re-watching “Goldfinger” so many times.
BUT HE’S. SO. COOL. Bond sees the reflection of the first threatening heavy when he’s making out with that belly dancer in the bar — after ditching his wet suit for the perfectly fitted white tux beneath it, smoking a cigarette as behind him rows upon rows of heroin laboratory facilities EXPLODE AT THE SAME TIME. Then Bond wrestles the heavy in the belly dancer’s room, gets the upper hand, and shoves him into the girl’s tub. The heavy reaches for Bond’s gun, in its holster, hanging next to the tub — just inches out of reach. But Bond sees a fan, plugged in, next to him. It finds its way into the tub and our unfortunate mustachioed henchman is being electrocuted in a blaze of red and white fire and smoke. Before you know it, Connery is donning his holster and his jacket, and busting out a very appropriate pun. And that’s how cool Bond is in just the first five minutes.
During the rest of the movie, he lives out many an insane masculine fantasy: converting a big-breasted blonde lesbian fighter pilot who commands a fleet of other, younger big-breasted blonde lesbian fighter pilots; wearing an arsenal of impeccably tailored suits that seem to arrive out of nowhere; busting out of underground prison cells; listening to every part of an evil speech necessary to thwart the scheme it outlines; sleeping not just with the lesbian, but also with another among Goldfinger’s stable of paid eye candy (Jill Masterson — whose death by “gold suffocation” somehow feels convincing when you hear Bond explain it to you in the movie); sleeping with whomever that babe was massaging him poolside in Miami Beach — before Felix Leiter very rudely interrupted them for “man talk;” carrying a Walther PPK and always wielding it successfully; driving that Aston Martin and busting out its Q-supplied arsenal against a machine-gun toting Dutch grandma and several of Goldfinger’s Chinese associates; single-handedly destroying a dastardly scheme that would have crippled the world’s Western economic powers and in the process killing that plan’s two deadliest schemers.
By Bond #3, Connery has relaxed a bit more into the role. He just oozes confidence and charm and a somewhat intangible coolness in spades here, sparring verbally and/or physically with friend and foe. The great “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!” scene gives us the most uncomfortable and affecting such sequence in any Bond movie (and in any action movie that I can think of). It’s so simple, but it’s so good. A laser to the balls! That will get even the tightest-lipped among us babbling state secrets like they’re Twista lyrics (that is to say, fast). Pussy Galore is the single-best Bond Girl ever, a pure, outrageous fantasy woman who’s not just a prop — she’s a cartoon character, yes, but no more or less cartoon than anyone else in this universe. She has the requisite Bond Girl Moral Ambiguity, she commands that fly lady fleet, she can dish it out as well as she can take it, but at the end of it all, she can’t deny that she really does dig her some James Bond. We get our best henchman, Odd Job (Harold Sakata), he of the steel-tipped hat, the chiming theme sting, the lethal smile, the Olympic wrestler’s gait, the hands that crush golf balls like powder and knock out Sean Connery. Odd Job “Austin Powers” parody character: Random Task (well played, Mike Meyers).
We get our best theme song, in my opinion, Shirley Bassey’s first Bond theme. It maintains and accentuates the flavor of the normal James Bond John Barry theme, feeling less like a hollow echo of it then a natural addition to it. And then there’s Auric Goldfinger, Gert Frobe’s maniacal, mint julip-loving bullion dealer/stud farm owner/jewel smuggler, a man so obsessed with winning everything that he rigs golf matches and casual poolside poker games. A man so obsessed with his public perception that he pays gorgeous blonde girls to be seen for him, but that’s it. He doesn’t care if he has to blast his main business partner Burt Kwouk straight through the chest if it ensures his own survival. He is the single-greatest member of an exclusive club overflowing with very colorful and very qualified members, the Bond Baddies.
Greg: I think what’s also important to note, is that “Goldfinger” does this while still being one of the shorter Bond films. It’s only 110 minutes compared to “Spectre” which was a bloated 148, and that points “Goldfinger”‘s great writing and story structure. It’s sort of figured out the formula after two test runs, and we’re left with what is the most satisfying and entertaining film in the whole series. Our man Roger Ebert included it in his Great Films Series, and you can read a much better explanation of why this movie works here. But to me personally, I think as a viewer, it just tows the line so perfectly between all the many incongruous elements that have come to define Bond. Staying small in scope really lends itself a smaller margin of error, and it takes advantage of that on every level. Jill Masterson being painted in gold for example is ridiculous, but the way it’s handled you don’t feel the absurdity of it Bond’s reaction captures the tragedy and motivates him forward in the film. Alex you’ve touched on what makes this number one on our list so I’m not going to re-hash the specifics. I think it’s a self-evident truth that all men are born free, and “Goldfinger” is the best Bond film ever.
Alex: I agree with everything you’ve said here. And everyone who loves James Bond should really check out that Great Films Ebert review, it says what we’re trying to say about “Goldfinger” — and James Bond — much more eloquently and succinctly than we ever could. I think mentioning the length raises a very good point. James Bond movies shouldn’t be 2 and a half hours long EVER. Look how much ground we cover in “Goldfinger,” and how muddled something like the 143-minute “Skyfall” was (again, I liked “Spectre” more than you did, but that too is at least 30 minutes too long).