What Makes James Bond Great

Notes from a fan who's seen it all.
Nov. 5 2012 3:43 AM

Stirred, but Not Shaken

I read the books and watched the movies. Here’s what makes Bond great.

Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in SkyfallSkyfall.
Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Skyfall

Photograph by Francois Duhamel/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.

There is a remarkable moment late in Casino Royale—Daniel Craig’s first, triumphant outing as James Bond—where 007 is sitting across the table from the film’s love interest, Vesper Lynd, one of the series’ best Bond girls. Satisfied with his successful poker playing, and no doubt thinking that Lynd, too, is impressed, Bond sits back in his chair and boyishly, unselfconsciously, smiles. Not a grin or a smirk, mind you: a full-on smile. When I first watched this scene, in 2006, I reeled. Sure, Sean Connery smiles broadly at a Gypsy encampment in Turkey in the second Bond film, From Russia With Love (1963), but that shot is so quick, and so out of context, that the only reasonable conclusion is that the actor’s on-set laughter was accidentally included in the finished film. Craig’s look, which recurs later on in Casino Royale, struck me as a first in the series. Did it really take James Bond 44 years to smile?

In the course of 23 movies—including Skyfall, the solid but not quite scintillating new entry in the series which opens in the United States Nov. 9—James Bond has been incarnated by six different actors. While the roles of other world-saving supermen—from Batman to the Hulk to Superman himself—have been filled by a variety of mortals, those heroes are ciphers. It barely matters who plays Batman: The thrill is in the gadgets, the atmosphere, the supervillains. Does anyone believe that the runaway success of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy depended in any essential way on Christian Bale, who, despite being a first-rate actor and strong screen presence, was barely featured in the last movie’s publicity campaign? Does anyone even remember who played Superman most recently?

The James Bond films are themselves frequently identified by their villains or “girls” or gadgets, but when I sat down to rewatch the nearly two dozen Bond movies, I was struck by just how much 007 himself stands out. James Bond is not a “realistic” character; real people occasionally smile. But he is a compelling and distinct one. With the right leading man, Bond is just human enough to be believable—and yet sufficiently aloof and suave to appear mostly untroubled by the world’s real worries. He thus provides just the right amount of escapism. The best fantasies are those that appear not entirely unattainable.

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Back in the days when Ian Fleming’s books were extraordinarily popular, lots of critics chattered about which on-screen Bond most closely resembled Fleming’s text-bound secret agent. The truth is: None of them do. The James Bond who appears in 12 Fleming novels and two short story collections is, like most people, given to smiling. And he is the strongest aspect of the books. Fleming was atrocious at action scenes—as any reader of Diamonds Are Forever or Thunderball can attest—and his villains, while creatively conceived, are often more laughably sinister than their cinematic counterparts (which is saying something). The snobbery in the books about clothes and food, America and France and, well, every place that isn’t England or one of its colonies, is positively tiresome. (That snobbery is what makes them such intriguing examples of end-of-empire self-pity and resentment—but its aesthetic value is less obvious.)

The chief interest of the books remains 007. And the contrasts between Fleming’s Bond and the actors who played him on-screen is revealing. The most striking characteristic of the former is his lack of self-assuredness. Yes, Fleming’s Bond can be aggressive with women, and he is certainly confident about what his mind and body can achieve in the physical and sexual realms. But he adamantly believes himself to be—and really is—an underappreciated, occasionally glorified bureaucrat. He is often depressed, and frequently conscious of needing a confidence boost from M, or one of his other allies. (The M scenes are often the books’ real highlights.) He also has a tendency to fall deeply in love.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, and despite recycled character names and locations and similar bits of dialogue, the books today feel removed from their celluloid adaptations. It is only the obsession of both with brand names, fine tailoring, and the “good life” in the most superficial sense that constitute their enduring link. The movies are less snobbish, although not usually by a great margin. Drinking unchilled Dom Perignon is worse than “listening to the Beatles without ear muffs,” Sean Connery loftily assures the woman he has just made love to in Goldfinger, implying that he is too sophisticated to enjoy the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band the world has ever known. Still, the best of the books—such as You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service—keep the snobbery in check, and provide an emotional outlet for Bond’s uncertainties and insecurities.

Sean Connery as James Bond in From Russia With Love
Sean Connery as James Bond in From Russia With Love

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The films almost completely ignore the more serious aspects of the Fleming character—and yet they too succeed largely because of Bond. When Sean Connery was cast in 1962’s Dr. No, he was an unknown, rapidly balding, somewhat ornery Scotsman. (Producers originally wanted Cary Grant to play Bond, and Fleming pushed to have his neighbor Noel Coward cast as the eponymous No. Had both ideas come to fruition, it seems likely Bond would not have survived 1962, let alone the ’60s.) Watching the early films today is even more delightful than you might expect. They are dated in the manner that most movies from 50 years ago are dated—melodramatic scoring, awful back projection, sexual “politics” too embarrassing to be offensive, and so on—but Connery keeps them fresh. In Dr. No he seems almost unsure of himself, as if he hasn’t quite figured out the character. There are several moments where he seems angry, and the viewer is liable to think, “No, that’s not quite the right reaction.” He is nevertheless magnetic. By Goldfinger (1964), his third outing, he is in complete command. It may be hard to picture him smiling outright, but the character is capable of registering both pleasure and naughty amusement in ways that the later films would struggle with.

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