There’s a good reason so many fans call the franchise’s third entry their all-time favorite: director Guy Hamilton dragged the series in an exciting new direction, and in the process single-handedly established the Bond Formula. The humorous banter between 007 and the long-suffering Quartermaster (played by the incomparable Desmond Llewellyn) sets the tone for many meetings to come. Jaws (The Spy Who Loved Me), Tee Hee (Live and Let Die), and Mr. Stamper (Tomorrow Never Dies) all owe their existence to the taciturn Oddjob and his razor-edged hat. And, most importantly, Goldfinger’s agonizingly-slow Laser of Doom begins a proud tradition of needlessly-elaborate death traps–though in this case, our hero has to bluff his way to freedom. And while I personally find Pussy Galore’s character arc a bit… problematic, I simply cannot resist the magnetic pull of such a perfectly-structured story.
“I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War.”
In her debut as the new, no-nonsense M, Dame Judi Dench voices the question on every viewer’s mind: Once he’s divorced from the historical context which spawned him, can James Bond still be relevant? His swaggering, hard-drinking, Playboy-style brand of espionage is undeniably a product of the ‘50s and '60s; does it have a place in a world in which the Iron Curtain has fallen? The film’s one real weakness is that, after a certain point, director Martin Campbell abandons his revisionist premise and gets back to business as usual.
3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
“We have all the time in the world.”
One bullet, one heartbreaking line of dialogue–one hell of a cruel ending. But the shocking death of Bond’s new bride isn’t all that makes this sixth cinematic outing one of the most memorable; its grounded approach is a refreshing antidote to the excesses of You Only Live Twice (volcano lairs, ninja armies, etc). Only narrative context prevents it from climbing higher on the list. Fleming’s novel finds 007 still mourning the tragic death of Vesper Lynd (Casino Royale), lending his relationship with Teresa di Vicenzo real emotional weight. No matter how faithfully director Peter Hunt tries to adapt the tale, its awkward placement in the Eon series’ continuity diminishes this compelling sense of inner-pain and vulnerability.
2. From Russia with Love
Like the book it’s based on, the second Bond movie devotes a healthy chunk of screen time to stacking the odds against our hero, introducing one formidable foe after another: soulless assassin Red Grant, cold and cunning Rosa Klebb, and stunning (but unwitting) femme fatale Tatiana Romanova. The filmmakers even manage to somehow improve upon Fleming’s plot by making it more convoluted: shrewd, cat-stroking puppet master Ernst Stavro Bolfeld, here making his first appearance, plans to manipulate both the British and the Russians, shame and eliminate the meddlesome 007, and walk away with the highly-coveted Lektor device. The result is a suspenseful, sprawling, and thoroughly entertaining roller coaster ride through the world of counterintelligence.
1. Casino Royale
“But you are so wrong! Even after I slaughter you and your little girlfriend, your people will still welcome me with open arms, because they need what I know.”
Thus the sadistic Le Chiffre, gleefully finishing the work that Goldfinger started way back in '64, rubs salt in a defiant 007’s crippling wounds. Here is a loyal agent who bottled up his anger and aggression (glimpsed in the explosive opening action sequence), who stared into the eyes of a remorseless terrorist banker and resisted the urge to put a bullet right between them, who valiantly refused to break under torture–and all of that suffering could very well amount to nothing, because his superiors consider the possibility of an enemy’s cooperation more important. That is the hard truth Bond must face in this excellent series reboot–that his life is worth less than a fingernail clipping from Her Majesty’s pinky.
[Originally written October 5, 2012 to celebrate the James Bond franchise's 50th Anniversary.]