Two other aspects of the early films account for their enduring success. First, most of the fun comes from Bond’s battles of wits with his nemeses, as opposed to outright action—the latter having a habit of dating poorly. Connery’s fight with Robert Shaw aboard the Orient Express in From Russia With Love (1963) is excellent, but so is their tense dinner immediately beforehand. The Fort Knox finale of Goldfinger is pleasurable enough, but the golf match is much better. Thunderball’s underwater skirmishes are nothing compared to a baccarat game between Bond and the main villain.
Secondly, by deciding to have Bond battle the evil SPECTRE organization, rather than the Communists—and this for a series that began at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis—the films maintain just a hint of contemporary political resonance. Terrorist groups seeking weapons of mass destruction is, alas, not a threat that has dulled with time. One of the many annoying lines in Goldeneye (1995), Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond film, has M telling Bond that he is a relic of the Cold War. He never was.
After five movies, Connery—who had a disastrous experience in Japan filming You Only Live Twice (1967)—quit the role. (I’ve long wondered if that experience also explains his decision to star in the mediocre adaptation of Michael Crichton’s silly Japan-bashing book, Rising Sun.) The character was turned over to George Lazenby, an Australian model, for an adaptation of Fleming’s most serious novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the film, Bond falls madly in love, saves the world, and marries a gangster’s daughter, in that order. Then he sees his wife get killed on their wedding day. Lazenby was dismissed by critics and general audiences, but has been defended by Bond aficionados, who continue to debate OHMSS’s merits. Many hardcore fans rate it a top entry in the series, while others find it dull. I come down somewhere in the middle on the matter of quality—but the film did reveal three important truths that have held throughout the remainder of the series:
1. Action on the ski slopes = good
2. Action edited with frenetic quick cuts = bad
3. Giving the love interest non-abysmal dialogue and something to do = very good
Connery’s one-film return, 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, marked, in hindsight, one of the series’ turning points. Those who like to date the onset of a lighter, less serious Bond to Roger Moore’s introduction as 007 in Live and Let Die (1973) should watch Diamonds. Connery, although barely 40, looks worn out, overweight, and generally tired. The scene where he takes his shirt off is especially frightening. (Connery actually looks better in Never Say Never Again, his 1983 return as 007. But that film is overlong and confusing—and true Bond fans rightfully ignore it: NSNA was not made by the same producers, and thus does not include the theme music or any of the group of familiar actors who populate the series. It is a Bond film in name only.)
Diamonds starts off well but quickly becomes a silly chase film. Along with Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), Diamonds makes up the most dispiriting period of the series’ first couple of decades. The sideburns are too long, the action is played for laughs, the jokes and double entendres are groan-inducing, the locations are too often American, and the sets too often look cheap. And here the plots do seem dated, as they concern things like the 1970s energy crisis and rather stereotypical Harlem drug dealers. (Sometimes the way to stay enduringly relevant is to avoid being excessively “timely.”) Bond himself gets lost amidst the gags and the humor. The idea of seeing him smile, rather than smirk, would have been unimaginable.
And yet Roger Moore’s next string of four films is one of the best runs of the series. Yes, Moonraker (1979) goes off into space and, and, sure, there are moments of Octopussy, set in India, which feel less neo-colonial than simply colonial. But The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), which begins with a famous Union Jack parachute jump and ends with a classy scene between Moore and Barbara Bach, is a joy. Moore is first-rate, and the viewer sees that when the actor is not told to be amusing, he can be quite effective. Some people complained about his age as time wore on, but he looks as good at 50 as any 50-year-old I can think of. For Your Eyes Only (1981) is not only the series’ sole stylistic throwback to the gritty espionage of From Russia With Love, but also an immensely effective action movie. Moore is alternately serious and suave, and his smirking is kept to a minimum. He managed to create his own version of the character that, while not equal to Connery’s, does convey the lineaments of someone compelling—and considering the lightness of many of the scripts he worked with, that’s probably as much as viewers could have hoped for. His age (58!) began to show by A View to a Kill (1985), his disappointing last outing as 007, but there was something reassuring and solid about the maturity of his look. Fleming’s Bond never really seemed as young as his given age, and Moore was believable as someone who had been in the game a long time.
Moore’s successor, Timothy Dalton, was praised for adhering to the novelistic Bond, but there are two problems with this compliment. For starters, the scripts don’t always indicate such a serious Bond, and so the one-liners come across as particularly off-key. Secondly: It isn’t true! Fleming’s Bond was not dour. Dalton has some fine scenes, but he is too angry, and his disgust with his job makes no sense as written. And yet The Living Daylights, his first effort, is quite enjoyable until it bogs down in a ridiculous plot about the Afghani Mujahedeen. (In preparation for this piece, I called a friend who has also seen the film at least 10 times and confessed that I was unable to follow the plot. He said he couldn’t, either.)