No matter what decade the film was made in, the James Bond intro credits are a mini-event within the 007 universe–as iconic as the Star Wars opening crawl. Sexy, trippy, unashamedly phallic, and dripping with violent overtones, the sequences have had their ups and downs over the years, accompanied by theme songs both classic and churlish. What follows is a list to commemorate the highlights and the lowlights.
In the early days of film, it was accepted that the movie doesn’t start until after all of the credits have been shown, displayed in a workmanlike fashion while an orchestra plays a generic overture. In the fifties, we begin to see opening title sequences getting jazzed up with animation or dialogue-free “walking” sequences. By the time Dr. No was released in 1962, filmmakers were trying to find new ways to keep audiences entertained while they displayed their self-congratulatory plaudits. So the intro sequence here is more a product of its time than it is a conscious attempt to carve out a niche. The Bond theme is played in its entirety as colorful polka dots flash on the screen. We then transition to female figures dancing to a calypso version of the song “Three Blind Mice.” This fades to Jamaica and the first ever Bond film begins.
From Russia with Love
With the second film, the basic template for the Bond openings is set in stone. We get the Bond theme and the gun barrel sequence, followed by a cold opening, and then the credits. The song, “From Russia with Love,” is unremarkable. But the intro sets the tone for future installments, with the credits projected over the bodies of undulating belly dancers.
More female body parts with credits and scenes from the film to come projected upon them. The classic Bond themes are coming into sharp focus with this intro, set to the most famous 007 anthem of all time–sung by Shirley Bassey in a manner that suggests she was probably scraping her fingernails down a man’s bare back while crooning into the microphone.
Maurice Binder was the creator of the aforementioned gun barrel sequence, and the man who would paint the Bond credits with his unique style for three decades to come. Having taken a break from the title design duties for From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, Binder now returns to place his indelible stamp on the 007 universe. While Tom Jones sings, silhouettes of naked women splash across a sea of primary colors. Here we find Binder settling into a threadbare formula that will become increasingly complex over the course of the next 14 Bond adventures. (Charles Taylor at Salon.com sings Binder’s praises eloquently in this article, written just prior to the release of Die Another Day.)
The Spy Who Loved Me
For me, this is the Bond movie that has all the best stuff–the best opening stunt, the best theme song, the best car (a submersible Lotus), the best villains, and the coolest “secret lair.” Many will disagree with my definition of “best,” and some will call my proclamation heresy. No matter. This will always be my favorite 007 outing. And the intro here is nothing less than Maurice Binder’s masterpiece.
License to Kill
The worst Bond film also boasts the worst theme song. Both are bland and unmemorable. And for a Bond movie, that is a cardinal sin. Even a Bond superfan like me will accept a certain level of camp–which is why I still very much enjoy The Man with the Golden Gun (an entry regarded with some disdain by Bond aficionados). So it’s a shame that this was the last title sequence Maurice Binder would design for the Bond series. At first it seems he’s not at his best, but if you turn down the volume and pump in Wings’ “Live and Let Die” or even Carly Simon’s “The Spy Who Loved Me,” the piece comes to life. Binder died of lung cancer in 1991, two years after License to Kill’s release.
The film that brought Bond back from the brink of extinction, and introduced Martin Campbell as a standout Bond directer, also features the first intro sequence since Goldfinger not designed by Maurice Binder. While Binder’s influence is without question present for this elegant, CG-heavy presentation, the sense of good, clean, naughty fun suffers greatly. There’s a moment where a gun barrel emerges from a woman’s mouth that pretty much sums up the lack of playful irony that makes this montage overly self-conscious.
Tomorrow Never Dies
The guns and the girls are well-presented here, accompanied by Sheryl Crow’s standout title song. The leitmotifs of this middling Bond adventure are represented well with silicon chips exploding all over the screen. Solarized, X-Ray images give the sense of a cold, technological age, while at the same time evoking the pop psychedelic sensibility of the 60s. This one is a favorite of mine for conjuring a sense of Binder’s glory days without seeming to be attempting to copy his unique style.
Die Another Day
Pierce Brosnan’s 007 swan song breaks the mold in an interesting manner by advancing the narrative as the credits roll. In the cold opening, we see Bond get captured by the North Koreans. We then watch as he is tortured while Madonna’s theme song plays (the tune is as wince-inducing as her cameo later in the film). The concatenation is a rather exciting departure from decades of tradition. Too bad the rest of the movie feels hollow.
After three less-than-stellar films, Royale sets the tone for the latest Bond revival by shattering the template first advanced in From Russia with Love. Here, the gun barrel sequence follows the cold opening, memorably punctuating Bond’s first ever kill as a 007 agent. The credits immediately follow. And while watching at the movie theater, for the first time, I found myself bored during a Bond intro. The theme song is dull and witless. The CG presentation is cold and predictable. Rather than serving as a gateway into the Bond universe, the kaleidescopic images plod along through increasingly unremarkable transitions, displaying all the soul of a car commercial.
That’s the harshest criticism I have to offer for Daniel Craig’s freshman outing as the MI6 uber-spy. And to some it might seem a minor quibble. But I’ll very much be hoping to find this essential feature improved when I go to see Quantum of Solace this Friday. I’ll also be hoping to see some naked women on trampolines. But I’m afraid that Bond tradition might have died with the indomitable Maurice Binder.