You Know His Name, Look Up The Number, Part Three: 008

No, no, no-- No more foreplay. Here are your final eight.

8. The Living Daylights (1987)
Timing is everything.

I was fourteen when The Living Daylights was released in the summer of 1987. I'd been watching James Bond movies since I was seven or so (Moonraker seemed to play on a constant loop on HBO in the early '80s), but it wasn't until I was twelve that I started reading the Bond novels (typing these ages out now, I recognize how nerdily precocious I was, but at the time, this all felt very adult). John Gardner had been hired by Gildrose Publications, the executor of the Fleming estate, to "bring Bond into the 1980s," and Gardner published his first Bond novel, License Renewed, in 1981. By 1985, he'd published five Bond books, and that was where I began, but I quickly start reading the original Ian Fleming novels, too, beginning with Casino Royale. They were very different than the films-- where Gardner's books had the pacing, tone and sudden action of a Bond movie, Fleming's novels were moodier, full of evocative description, lingering on odd details, often blunt in their transitions across scenes, and very English. Bond himself was, especially in those early books, an enigma: a cruel man capable of great tenderness, a libertine who brooded on the collapse of England, a man who craved nothing more than action but could never seem to escape his mental doubts. I wouldn't have known it in 1985, sitting in a seventh-grade reading period with The Man With The Golden Gun, but James Bond would be my introduction to existentialism, and to the kinds of noirish tales I'd grow to love at the movies.

The year before The Living Daylights was released, I discovered Raymond Benson's invaluable The James Bond Bedside Companion at a B. Dalton in the mall. Combining reviews of the books, reviews of the films, an overview of the Bond persona and the Bond fan phenomenon, and a lovingly detailed short biography of Fleming himself, Benson's over-sized paperback is still the single best volume on everything James Bond that I've ever encountered (I had the good fortune of meeting Mr. Benson at an Ian Fleming symposium in Bloomington in 2003. I think I slightly embarrassed this very kind, soft-spoken Texan with my inarticulate, gushing thanks for how much his book had meant to me, but I was glad to be able to tell him). Aside from being the first real literary and film analysis I'd ever read (beyond popular reviews of books and movies in newspapers and magazines, I mean), Benson's book gave me crucial historical and critical context for the books I was devouring and the movies with which I was becoming more and more obsessed; I was deeply taken with his conviction that Bond was a very serious character, Fleming a real and very poetic writer (and not just a popular hack), and the movies worth taking seriously, and expecting more from. I suppose this meant I was becoming that dreaded figure, the self-serious geek, but I didn't care: I was learning a language of taste and understanding.

So, when it was announced that the Welsh stage actor Timothy Dalton would be taking over James Bond, and the approach would be more serious than Roger Moore's, I was intrigued (I did not realize I'd already seen Dalton countless times while watching Flash Gordon, where he plays Prince Barin). When I read an interview with Dalton where he talked about diving into the Fleming novels and finding rich character stuff there, I was over the moon. I eagerly awaited The Living Daylights, and thought it was brilliant when I finally got to see it. I'd grown up with Roger Moore, and then discovered the Connery films, but Timothy Dalton's Bond was the first one that felt like it was mine.

Timing is everything.

Dalton became Bond just as the series was hitting a transition-- not only the change-over from one actor to another (which, by 1987, felt far less shocking than it had in 1969), but from one period of cultural mores to another. The Cold War was fracturing, Reagan was talking to Gorbachev in a new age of glasnost (even as his administration was consumed with the Iran-Contra scandal), and AIDS was transforming notions of the kinds of swinging playboys that the Bond films had celebrated. Dalton's stripped-down, mostly business approach to the character fit this period nicely-- his Bond was consumed with the job, rather than everything (and everyone) around it. It was an approach that felt both startlingly new (Bond only sleeps with one woman! Well, two, if you count the implication of the pre-credits sequence) and very old-fashioned (in Fleming's books, Bond almost always only sleeps with one woman per novel). This relative chastity dovetailed in many film critics' minds with Dalton's renewed emphasis on Bond's seriousness (he's very much the assassin of the state here, which is literally his first job in the picture) to suggest a certain humorlessness and lack of fun in Dalton's portrayal (Moore died hard for a lot of folks). I don't think this is fair-- Dalton's not bad with the one-liners, and the film's fun builds out both the rising suspense and the gobsmacked responses of everyone else to this unstoppable action machine--but it does suggest the impact of this response to a shifting world.

But it's the Cold War context, much more so than Dalton's great seriousness or lack of bed-hopping, that distinguishes the film: for the first time since For Your Eyes Only, and arguably since From Russia With Love, we get a film that's almost entirely consumed with espionage, and the emotional toll it can take on those who practice it. From the dazzling spy killing and truck chasing of the pre-credits, to the sniper battle that opens the film proper (derived almost moment for moment, and sometimes line for line, from Fleming's brief sketch of a short story, "The Living Daylights"), to the back-and-forth double-dealing of MI6, the Soviets, and two rogues played with great, oily fun by Joe Don Baker and Jeroen Krabbé, to the climax involving illegal arms shipments in Afghanistan, The Living Daylights gets great mileage from integrating the usual dazzling stunt-work and special effects with something based in a vaguely recognizable (if still exaggerated) world of spy versus spy. And Dalton holds the whole thing together with his intense stare, down-turned mouth, and fierce desire to just get on with it. For a fourteen-year old boy marinated in the Fleming cult, it was breathtaking.

Timing is everything, and director John Glen brings a remarkable sharpness to the action and emotion of The Living Daylights. It was Glen (who'd worked as an editor on the films prior to directing) who brought Bond back down to earth, post-Moonraker, with For Your Eyes Only, and then offered the more mixed success of Octopussy and the general clusterfrack of A View To A Kill. Here, teamed with an actor interested in the emotional reality of his character, and armed with a sharp-edged script from Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, Glen seems renewed. The Living Daylights crackles with timing and invention. A raid on an MI6 safe house by Joe Don Baker's men is an action ballet, the attackers moving like dancers around the grounds as they toss the bombs like flamenco skirts. There's a gorgeous rooftop chase scene in Morocco, a car chase across the ice in Austria, and a setpiece in Afghanistan involving a military transport plane that becomes a bit of a slapstick masterpiece, even as it builds tremendous tension.

Throughout it all, the film's hijinks feel grounded; "realism" is a silly word, but the emotional stakes of Bond's adventure are more acute here than in most of the Moore films, and Dalton's interplay with his cast (particularly this year's Bond girl Maryam d'Abo, a beautifully understated John Rhys-Davies, and a never-better Joe Don Baker) gives a greater resonance to the action: the human and the spectacular move in rhythm together, and timing is everything.

7. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
A Story in Six Pictures.

The questions The Spy Who Loved Me raises are about thinking visually. What do we derive from those six pictures? What kind of story do they tell? Does it matter that much of the actual narrative of the film is cut out (it's a good story, too, about stolen submarines and microfiche and shifting gender relations-- well, kind of--and a thawing Cold War)? Does it matter that what remains of the narrative is out of order? How would we caption these pictures, and what would those captions tells us, not only about what we see, but how it defines our vision of "James Bond"?

The Spy Who Loves Me marks the first time Roger Moore appears, in the flesh, in the pre-credits sequence. This feels significant, because it suggests that after an early-to-mid-seventies lull, the producers are ready to take the whole enterprise seriously again. Well, just a single producer this time: by 1977, United Artists had bought out the shares of Harry Saltzman, Cubby Broccoli's longtime producing partner, and The Spy Who Loved Me marked Broccoli's first solo venture. A lot was at stake, especially since The Man With The Golden Gun had not done as well at the box office, and a style upgrade was definitely needed.

The Spy Who Loves Me is a triumph of absurdity, easily the best of the Roger Moore films because it works so hard to make everything a great lark of plasticity and humor. Raymond Benson graphed out, in painful detail in his James Bond Bedside Companion, side-by-side-by-side story comparisons of Spy, You Only Live Twice and Moonraker, the three Bond films directed by Lewis Gilbert, and came to the hilarious conclusion that they were all basically telling the same story with only slight variations (names and settings, mostly). And if this is the case, what matters is less the horizontal line of narrative motion, and more the vertical line of style, and The Spy Who Loved Me has a great deal of fun zigging and zagging across its gorgeous mise-en-scene (Gilbert is only nominally the director, as its hard to see anyone but designer Ken Adam as its auteur). It's a stylistic space that Roger Moore occupies with tremendous skill, free to finally be the witty, deadpan cartoon he can be so well, but forced into moments of genuine grace by co-star Barbara Bach, and genuine terror by Richard Kiel's wonderfully monstrous Jaws. The rest is stuntmen and special effects, which craft the universe into which we slip the six images above. They're the pop singles pulled off of the Spy concept album, and their creators are smart enough to know that it's the individual moments you'll hum on the way home, and not the story or theme.

6. Casino Royale (2006)
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension—becomes unbearable, and the senses awake and revolt from it. James Bond suddenly knew he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough, and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him to avoid staleness and the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes.
-- Ian Fleming
, Casino Royale

In an interview, Jean-Luc Godard laid out one of the basic questions facing a filmmaker: “The only great problem with cinema seems to me more and more with each film when and why to start a shot and when and why to end it.”

By 2006, this was the problem that faced Bond producers Michael G. Wilson (one time co-screenwriter in the series) and Barbara Broccoli. There had been 22 "official" Bond films by then. It had been four years since Die Another Day, which had done well at the box office, but faced more critical scrutiny than their other films with Pierce Brosnan had, and was felt by some to be a slide back into the cartoonishness of the Roger Moore years. Legal delays regarding the ownership of MGM (eventually purchased by Sony Pictures) gave them time to think about a new direction, one that might return to the darker roots of Fleming's character. Brosnan was going to stay on, but decided to step down in 2005. Daniel Craig, fresh off playing a tortured Mossad agent in Munich (and a very Bondian drug dealer in Layer Cake) was hired to play Bond. For many hardcore fans, Craig's literal roots weren't dark enough, and an absurd website was started to protest a blonde Bond. More rational fans waited to see where the new shot would begin and end.

It starts by thrusting the audience into an alien space: there's no gun barrel shot. It opens in Prague, with a quick series of low, canted angles which show an older man in a Russian cap, getting out of a car and entering a building that looks like something out of Lang. He rides an elevator to the sixth floor, walks down a metallic hallway to his office (lit like an Expresionist film), turns on the desk light-- and notices an open door. A close-up of his stunned face is matched to the voice of a man sitting in the chair behind him-- it's our reveal of James Bond, barely visible in the shadowy background of a long shot. "M really doesn't mind you earning a living," he mutters. It cuts to medium shot of Bond. "She'd just prefer if it wasn't selling secrets." Dryden, the section chief in question, quickly recovers and opens a drawer in his desk, seemingly out of Bond's view, which hides a pistol. He removes his glove and speaks in a posh, condescending accent. "Are the theatrics supposed to scare me?," he sneers. "You have the wrong man, Bond. If M was so sure I was bent, she'd have sent a double-O." It's our first indication that this is a re-boot, and Bond is not yet "Bond," in the formal sense of being a full secret agent with all the experience the audience has seen. It's an interesting act of knowledge-- we know more than the character does about his own history (or rather, that history exists on a parallel track in our collective cultural memory). But more surprises lie ahead.

Dryden drones on. "Your file shows no kills, and it takes--" "Two," Bond cuts him off, as the camera quickly cuts back to the real source of magnetism in the room, his face underlit in eerie shadow by the desk lamp. An even quicker cut takes us to a flashback: an overhead shot of Bond kicking a man into a bathroom stall, brutally punching him, and then being punched in return, quick cuts to close-ups, more overhead shots, and finally a medium shot of the two men falling together in fight out of the stall. As Bond kicks the man against the trash can, the film cuts back to a close-up of Dryden pulling his gun on Bond. "Shame," he smiles. "We barely got to know each other." A click as he pulls the trigger, and his face falls: Bond has removed the ammunition. Without cracking a smile, Bond tells him, "I know where you keep your gun. So that's something." We find out the man Bond is fighting in the other scene is Dryden's contact, and we watch as Bond grabs the man, attempts to strangle him, keeps the man from shooting him with a gun, then smashes his head into a sink, drowning him with great effort (a close-up shows Bond's strained face, covered in beads of sweat). As the man drops to the floor, Bond stands up straight, his face contorts a bit-- and then a few heavy breaths allow him to regain his composure. He's not yet James Bond, but he knows the value of control.

The film cuts back to Dryden, staring in horror at Bond's story. "Made you feel it, did he?," Dryden asks. A calm Bond shows no emotion (except, perhaps, quiet contempt). He says nothing. "Well," Dryden says. "You needn't worry. The second is--." He has no time to respond, as the film cuts back to Bond, who quickly draws out a silenced pistol and shoots the man dead. It's a less explicit killing than the first, and all the more brutal for it. Bond cracks a small smile. "Yes," he says, as he puts the pistol back in his jacket. "Considerably." He leaves the dark frame, and the film cuts back to the earlier fight scene. Bond is getting ready to go, picking up his gun from the bathroom floor, when the victim reveals himself to still be alive; the victim slowly sits up, grabbing his own pistol to fire on Bond. Bond spins and shoots, and the moment is captured in the classic gun barrel, which takes us into Chris Cornell's bombastic credits song.

Oh, and the whole thing is in black-and-white.

It's worth lingering on this sequence, I think, because it is a beginning that signals an end, not only to the previous years of continuity, but to the glossier style of filmmaking that such continuity often represented. By thrusting its viewers into an unfamiliar visual space, the producers get a stylistic reboot, as well as a narrative one, and the Daniel Craig films will be about re-establishing the look and pattern of "James Bond" while also making changes and variations on the formal formula.

This process begins over the course of Casino, first by shifting to color, and then by slowly adding, bit by bit, what the audience thinks it wants, starting with a dazzling action sequence.

But that action is always grounded in the humanity of Bond, to a degree not seen before; even the early Connery films, or the attempts in the Moore and Dalton years to make the character "realistic" never went as far as director Martin Campbell and screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade do here (with an assist on the ending from Paul Haggis). Bond is brutal, and often brutish, but there's a core of vulnerability that becomes more and more evident throughout the film, until a stunning climax that, at last, establishes "James Bond."

It's the most emotionally complex Bond film since On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and its final irony is that Bond becomes himself by losing himself-- at the end of the film, he is once again the killing machine he was at the beginning, but far sleeker and more adept, and in this paradoxical moment of loss and control, all we want to do is cheer.

5. Skyfall (2012): I wrote at length about this film on Sunday, but you can scroll below to catch it, or if you're coming to this post out of order, can just click here. Needless to say, the film is crackerjack.

4. From Russia With Love (1963)
"Red wine with fish. That should have told me something," Sean Connery's James Bond quips to Soviet-agent-turned-SPECTRE-thug Red Grant (an eerie Robert Shaw), as Grant holds a gun on him following their meal aboard the Orient Express. It's one of the film's best lines, suggesting the power of codes to Bond: he's on the trail of a LECTOR machine, an object which can break any Soviet code, but it's the social codes of fine dining that Bond knows are the true source of revelation. The Bond films themselves had not yet found their own code-- one was suggested in Dr. No, and would be perfected a year later in Goldfinger, then repeated countless times thereafter. But in 1963, a "James Bond film" simply meant a film starring Sean Connery as James Bond, which meant the filmmakers were free to ignore meglomaniacal villains, outsized lairs, creepy henchmen and endless gadgets in favor of a great spy story.

Ian Fleming had broken his own code when he wrote From Russia With Love, the fifth Bond novel, in 1957: he waited for half the book before re-introducing Bond, instead spending time with the Soviet spymasters of SMERSH, and their plans to lure Bond into a murderous trap, through the twin desires a missing LECTOR and a beautiful Russian agent, Tatiana. Fleming spent an enormous amount of time on showing the details of this plan, introducing Tatiana and her handler Rosa Krebb, as well as the training of assassin Red Grant. As Raymond Benson notes, it creates almost unbearable suspense: not only are we waiting for Bond to make an appearance, but we're gaining the details of a plan that seems full-proof in its power to destroy him. Screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood would leave most of the novel intact-- aside from updating it to a SPECTRE plot rather than a Soviet one (which has the added benefit of making it more interesting, as Bond must now face two adversaries rather than one), and necessarily compressing Fleming's pages of planning to a couple of scenes for the sake of time, the film follows Fleming's book quite closely.

In 1961, Life magazine requested that the new President, John F. Kennedy, give them a list of his ten favorite books, and suddenly another code was broken: amidst the expected highbrow histories and biographies sat From Russia With Love at number nine. It was a surprise to readers, who did not expect to see a popular, even "pulpish" book on a President's reading list, and it cracked the code of American publishing for Ian Fleming: his books had not had much success in the U.S., but raced into the best-sellers charts, just as they were being optioned for the movies.

From Russia With Love is a dazzlingly good thriller, and director Terence Young is especially good at finding brilliant moments for all of his actors. Connery is superb, of course, burnishing the tough killer of the previous Dr. No with even greater sophistication and humor. He seems delighted to be playing off of Pedro Armendariz (in his final role as Kerim Bay, Bond's contact in Istanbul), as well as Shaw and Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana. The train fight scene is justifiably famous, but the boat chase that follows it is also worth mentioning. More than anything, what I remember about From Russia With Love are its transitional scenes, like those second-unit shots of sleek cars pulling through tree-lined streets and arriving at embassy doors; as much as the sex or the action, Ted Moore's glossy cinematography here suggests a world of adult power and sophistication, and (perhaps because of the JFK association with the novel) these moments are what I always picture when I read histories of Kennedy's trips to Europe. They somehow become a marker for me of "1963," a year I did not live through, but feel connected to through these cinematic codes of light and color.

3. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service is an elegy for the golden age of Bond, a final gasp of sophisticated decadence before the more flattened and camp-ridden adventures of the 1970s. Or maybe it's the rebirth of Bond after the flabbiness of You Only Live Twice, offering a perfect blend of wit and action, with a surprising, very bracing dose of human vulnerability thrown into the mix. Perhaps it's a Bond taxonomy, taking stock of everything the films had done, subtly referencing all that had come before, and finding a few final twists to add to the legacy. Or maybe it's not a Bond film at all-- after all, what's that romantic interlude (with Louis Armstrong crooning on the soundtrack, no less!) doing in there? Where are all the gadgets? What's up with the wedding? And where the hell is Connery?

It was that last question that came to define OHMSS for a generation of Bond fans, who understandably missed Sean Connery, and less understandably sneered at George Lazenby's gentler performance, while making references to his background as a male model that functioned as both a commentary on his lack of acting experience and an implied form of emasculation. So much about OHMSS feels "un-Bond," from the obvious change in leads, to Telly Savalas' more thuggish Blofeld, to the moody poetics of Michael Reed's cinematography, to the jazzy strains of John Barry's score. The film did well at the box office, but underperformed compared to its predecessors, and Lazenby's departure gave it a "one-off" status in the series' history. It was only when John Brosnan's James Bond In The Cinema-- the first serious study of the films-- was published in 1972 and offered a more revisionist, positive take on the film that it began to get the respect it deserved. Looking at it now, it's hard to see it as anything less than a near-masterpiece, and to marvel at how director Peter Hunt (the longtime editor of the series, in his only turn in the chair) pulls everything together with such skill and grace. This is very much a James Bond film, and one of the best.

OHMSS's lengthy running time gives it plenty of space for narrative twists and turns, none of which I would dare spoil for you. Closely following Ian Fleming's 1963 novel (easily his best), it details a Bond in transition, ready for something new, but not knowing precisely what form that change should take. He meets the Countess Teresa ("Tracy") when he rescues her from a ocean-set suicide attempt in the pre-credits sequence. Soon, he discovers that her father is Draco, a shipping tycoon with known connections to the Mafia. After an extended period centered on this triangle, we're suddenly thrust into a "proper" Bond plot (once again involving SPECTRE, and Blofeld's plot to clear his name through international blackmail), and the effect is vertiginous: much like Bond, we're so comfortable in the other, more "normal" world of the first 30 minutes or so that it almost feels like a cheat to move into the universe of formula action and adventure. It's the first of many tonal tricks the film will deploy with expert confidence (longtime Bond scribe Richard Maibaum has sole credit for the screenplay, and rightfully called it his best work).

It's a good thing, then, that the action is so breathtakingly perfect-- this is, by far, the best staged and shot of all Bond film when it comes to the adventure and violence, and editor John Glen cuts it together in a way that enhances its suspense. More about the story I should not say, except that its two tonal threads eventually weave together in way that lifts the entire film like the helicopter that takes Bond up to Blofeld's fortress in the Swiss mountains: it's lyrical, passionate, and happily unsettled.

Along with Hunt, Maibaum, Glen, Barry, Reed and the superb team of second-unit directors and special effects technicians, the film is richly enhanced by its cast. There has never been a better Bond girl than Diana Rigg, whose Tracy is arrogant, funny, sexy, and heart-breakingly real. Telly Savalas still strikes many as an odd choice for the European Blofeld, but he has a real presence and magnetism, and that quality is especially important given the inexperience of George Lazenby: the film needs a strong villain against whom he can reflect. And Lazenby is actually very good. He's not Sean Connery, but he has a tenderness and self-deprecation that work very well in the film, and given the various turns of the narrative, it actually makes him a more appropriate choice for this kind of James Bond: he wears his heart on his face, just as Bond is discovering that he has one. Bernard Lee's M and Lois Maxwell's Miss Moneypenny are both given the opportunity to stretch here, and Maxwell is particularly fine in the best Bond-Moneypenny scene of the series. Best of all, Gabriele Ferzetti's Draco is a delight-- tough, sweet, and drily funny, he is a brilliant foil for both Lazenby and Rigg, and it is his one-liners that make the climactic battle shimmer.

For all of the brilliance of individual elements, this is ultimately a movie about tone. As Fleming moved into the later period of Bond novels, they stopped being so much about the mechanics of the suspense plot, and more existential character studies, full of mood and melancholy, and this is something that director Hunt and cinematographer Reed capture superbly. Right from those first suicidal moments on the beach, they find the texture of the ocean in long shot, the flicker of color as the light hits the waves, the choreography of the figures in front of it, and they extend this eye for emotional detail across the whole film. I don't know if one can say there's such a thing as a "painterly" James Bond movie, but On Her Majesty's Secret Service comes the closest to this description: the richness of its imagery turns James Bond into a tone poem. It's all so dreamy and extended into new areas that the final act of violence feels even more like an intrusion, a brutal reminder that whatever its differences, this is still a Bond movie, and Bond still lives in a world of blood and mayhem.

2. Thunderball (1965)
From the jet pack in the pre-credits sequence, to Tom Jones' booming rendition of the title song, to an elaborate combination of set design and visual effects that made every Bond film prior to it seem puny, Thunderball is BIG. If one ever wanted to make an argument for film style as form of overcompensation, Thunderball could stand as exhibit "A"-- it knows it's big, and it wants that bigness up in your face for its entire, very big 130-minute running time (this length wasn't a problem-- such was the big popularity of James Bond in 1965 that some theaters in New York simply ran the film the film 24 hours a day to deal with demand). Its mad SPECTRE scheme (to steal nuclear weapons and then blackmail the world for ransom) is big; its romances and sex scenes are big; its chief henchman, Emile Largo, is big; his deadly shark pool is big; the final climactic clash between Bond and the bad guys is big; and Bond himself was rarely bigger-than-life than he is here-- Sean Connery knows he's the cock of the walk, and walks so well that the big, big grosses of the day ($52 million before one adjusts for inflation) made him the biggest box-office star in the world. Simply put, the bigness of the film is, on every level, overwhelming.

It would all be unbearably obnoxious, if the film wasn't also superb. Terence Young, returning to the director's chair after a one-film absence, finds exquisite tonal balance. He gives the action scenes a brutal edge that plays dizzily off of Connery's cool jokes and the way that Bond's sexuality permeates nearly every scene; this is nominally a movie about a spy who globe-travels to keep the world from blowing up, but it's really about the materiality and lusciousness of the image (there's such an intense concentration on the tactile pleasures of cinema that Thunderball's hedonism in the face of nuclear apocalypse calls to mind the famous JFK anecdote about the Cuban Missile Crisis: in the midst of planning and responding, the President happened to get the number of a pretty woman walking through the White House; turning to a quizzical aide, he shrugged and said, "Who knows? We might save the world tonight"). Ted Moore's cinematography gives the proceedings a sensuality that's rare even in this most hedonistic of film series: the shimmer of the white day-time beaches in the Bahamas bounces off of the inky blacks and blues of the Bahamas at night, as the characters move through casinos, nightclubs, bedrooms and secret fortresses like they're floating in a Technicolor fever dream.

Given its scope and juggling of tones (to say nothing of the outside pressures of Bondmania that were beginning to follow the productions everywhere), what's remarkable is how well Thunderball sustains its hypnotic hold, how its bigness feels less like Michael Bay excess, and more like the necessary framework for seducing its audience, drawing us into its world of action, in-jokes, and Sixties plasticity. Its voracious need for pleasure almost brings to mind the title of a very different Bond film: for Thunderball, the world is never enough.

1. Goldfinger (1964)

The girl painted gold. The Aston Martin with the ejector seat. The duck on 007's wet suit. The deadly bowler hat. The atomic weapon that stops ticking at "007" seconds. The bombshell sexiness of the title song. Goldfinger breaking his pencil in half, all ruddy-faced as he loses at canasta and Bond mutters cruel nothings into his earpiece. "I'd say it was a 30-year-old fiend, indifferently blended, sir... with an overdose of bon-bois." The golf game, where Bond drops a gold brick on the grass and it glints in the sun. The casual way a tuxedo-clad James stands by a Havana bartop and glances at his wrist-watch, while everyone around him dashes in terror because of the explosion he's arranged. Connery standing on the edge of a Scottish mountain highway, looking out at the sea, as the camera cuts to a woman with a sniper rifle on an even higher cliff-top, taking aim at him. "Shocking, positively shocking." The laser that stops millimeters from Bond's crotch ("No, Mr. Bond! I expect you to die!"). Sipping mint juleps while talking about irradiating the world. A pool table that flips over into a Fort Knox model map. The reflection off Oddjob's smile. "I never joke about my work, 007." Bond spraying shaving cream on an airplane bathroom mirror to thwart a voyeur. "My name is Pussy Galore." "I must be dreaming." Felix Leiter tossing away his Kentucky Fried Chicken in Lexington as he hops into a car. "Nothing, Mr. Bond. I own the club." The Dom Perignon '53 drunk below a temperature of thirty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. Listening to the Beatles with earmuffs firmly on.

The list of stand-out moments in Goldfinger--images, one-liners, sound effects, special effects, musical notes, fight scenes, sexual glances, close-ups, camera movements--is endless. It's often referred to as the textbook Bond film, because every element of the series formula finally gels perfectly, and the template feels set. This is true, but doesn't convey just how well that "textbook" is brought to life, how vividly it embodies its rules, and makes them feel less like elements of a recipe, and more like a model of cool. What makes Goldfinger the best James Bond movie ever is not just its superlative cast, Guy Hamilton's assured direction, Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn's clever screenplay (which alters Fleming's madman scheme for the better, making it more logically grandiose and insane), Ken Adam's groundbreaking set design (he re-imagined the look of the action film for a generation, in the same year that he masterfully parodied the look of the Cold War thriller in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove), John Barry's sultry score, Ted Moore's glittering cinematography, Norman Wanstall's Oscar-winning sound effects, John Stears' imaginative visual effects, Bob Simmons' breathtaking stunt work, or the expert editing from future Bond director Peter Hunt. It's that all of this seems so effortless.

Bond movies are not, ultimately, about plot or theme or even violence. They're about style and assurance, and the attitude with which our central hero heads into certain doom. In Sean Connery, they had, to paraphrase co-producer Harry Saltzman's description, the perfect "jungle cat," whose complete confidence holds the screen with a magnetism that's at once arrogant and charmingly self-deprecating. But this blend is true of every element of the film: "Discipline, 007. Discipline...", Bond reminds himself midway through his mission, and Goldfinger is a supreme example of talented people completely focused on the job at hand, transforming endless hours of work into pure pleasure.


Popular Posts