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.

* * *

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.

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.

George Lazenby in On Her Majesty's Secret Service
George Lazenby as James Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service

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

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.

Roger Moore as James Bond in Live and Let Die.
Roger Moore as James Bond in Live and Let Die

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

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.

Timothy Dalton and Robert Davi in Licence to Kill
Timothy Dalton as James Bond in Licence to Kill

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

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.)

Dalton’s two movies did poorly at the box office, proving that the public really does care about who plays Bond, and after 1989’s License to Kill, Pierce Brosnan took over. I think I have seen Brosnan smile in other films, and it’s true that in his four 007 efforts he does something with his mouth whereby he parts his lips and appears to bare his teeth as much as possible. But he looks like someone who doesn’t know the difference between a smirk and a smile and in trying to split the difference manages to accomplish neither. An old cliché has it that one’s favorite Bond is dependent upon which 007 you grew up with. I am proud to say that this is not the case with me, because I think the Brosnan films are, by and large, dreck. I mentioned earlier that the Bond of the books is self-conscious enough to be emotionally interesting. But the Brosnan films are slick exercises in self-conscious parody. It’s as if the go-go ’90s could not abide by a superhero who was not commenting on his own superhero status. Everything is a joke within a joke.

In that same spirit, the Bond films have never done well when they have tried to apologize for what they are. The downside of this comes when they embrace a different form of self-consciousness, often in the form of silly humor (see, for example, the abominable decision to play “California Girls” during a snow-boarding action scene in A View to a Kill). But the Brosnan films seem embarrassed by their own presence. Judi Dench, who is the tiresome object of endless praise no matter what role she is inhabiting, seems to have been included as a way of assuaging any viewer concerns about enjoying such frivolous sex and violence. “When I want sarcasm,” Dench’s M tells Bond in Goldeneye, “I will talk to my children.” This line, and others like it, appear aimed at the suburban mothers whom the producers presumably believe will otherwise turn up their noses at Bond. It’s true that the Brosnan films were important in keeping the series alive—they made bundles of cash—and even a Brosnan hater like myself must admit that he looks even better than Connery in a tuxedo. Still, it was a dreary era.

* * *

Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies

© 2011 Keith Hamshere/Getty Images.

Brosnan left the role, the producers hired Daniel Craig, and everything got better. Did the success of the Jason Bourne films register in the minds of the filmmakers? I have no proof, but it certainly felt that way. Casino Royale was stripped down, intense, and brutal, and the action scenes—especially the brilliant opening chase, which easily tops every action scene in the Bourne series—are outstanding. It’s true that the plot makes little sense, and the Montenegro setting seems to be a place that couldn’t actually exist. But the writers seem to have finally recovered their confidence, and the movie has none of the glib knowingness of the Brosnan films. Still, the Bourne approach carries its own risks: In Quantum of Solace (2008), Bond is doing very little smiling—in fact, he seems so angry throughout that one is tempted to tell him to get over the loss of the woman of his dreams. (Even Dalton was given more fun moments.) And the actions scenes, directed by Marc Forster—who is no Paul Greengrass—are almost indecipherable. Skyfall, fortunately,is much, much better than Quantum, even if it lacks the mixture of playfulness and tension that made Casino Royale such a fine brew. The film is pleasurably and appropriately nostalgic—albeit somehow flat. Mendes has got the tone basically right, but he doesn’t seem excited by it.

Graham Greene divided his fictions into “novels” and “entertainments.” That distinction may result from a certain snobbery, but it at least suggests that Greene took his entertainments seriously enough to give them their own category. Part of the reason Craig is so good is that he refuses to apologize for the absurdity of his environs, and he takes the scripts at face value. He seems to be having a good time not because he knows he is acting in a ridiculous movie, but because you, too, would enjoy being James Bond while he is romancing a beautiful woman. Conversely, you wouldn’t like being James Bond while he is being tortured—and Craig does not seem to enjoy it either. Dalton and Lazenby are the only two other Bonds I can imagine actually smiling because they both occasionally seemed like real people. But they were both failures: Dalton because he forgot that Bond films were supposed to be fun, and Lazenby because he couldn’t act. In order to make Bond a real person, you need the same things most good movies require: a talented actor and a proper script. Greene’s best entertainments are not exactly “believeable,” but they have plausible, well-drawn characters, whose shoes you can step into for a pleasingly gripping little diversion.

It would be easy to say that when Ian Fleming began writing his novels, during Britain’s austere postwar years, he was canny enough to realize that an exhausted citizenry would enjoy tales of Savile Row suits, fine food, and luxurious travel. And yet, more than 60 years later, with Bond insanely popular everywhere from India to America, the urge for the same fantasy remains, amid boom times as well as austerity. Bond’s MI6 has the pseudonym “Universal Exports,” and if there are three things that can sell anywhere on the globe, anytime, they are sex, violence, and consumer goods. A good James Bond is a great salesman—and over the past six decades, he’s been fortunate to have some wonderful products.

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