James Bond has been outwitting bad guys and bedding the ladies onscreen for half a century, and even as the films’ tones, quality and lead actors fluctuated the character of Bond has remained an icon of cinema. Six actors have played him across twenty two films, and there are folks who champion each and every one of them. The key to calling a favorite seems to depend on which ones you saw first and at what age as well as your individual constitution for puns, crazy action sequences, talkative villains and films ending with lifeboats floating at sea.
For the record, before digging into this set and watching all 22 films Daniel Craig was my favorite Bond and Casino Royale my favorite Bond movie. But also for the record? I quickly came to realize I had only seen a fraction of the Bond films.
One of 2012’s biggest and most anticipated Blu-ray sets is Bond 50 which celebrates fifty years of Bond with special feature-filled Blu-rays for each film. Most have already seen HD releases, but the set includes Blu debuts of You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds are Forever, The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies.
The set breaks the 22 films into two halves, twelve from 1962–1981 and ten 1983–2012, each in their own sturdy book. Due to the sheer volume of material this Disc Spotlight will be broken into two halves as well. Keep reading for a look at 1962’s Dr. No through 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, and check back next week for a look at 1983’s Octopussy through 2008’s Quantum of Solace.
Watching the Bond movies in order, many for the first time, is an enlightening experience. It’s fascinating to see the ebb and flow of Bond’s cinematic trademarks as they’re created, enjoyed, over-used and occasionally dropped. Even more interesting is seeing the clear distinctions between the actors playing Bond that in turn shape the character slightly in one direction or the other. Sean Connery, for example, incorporates his personal opinion on how it’s okay to slap a woman and makes it an integral part of his Bond…
The first twelve films of the set are covered below, and in addition to a quick overview/review I’ve rated each on the quality of the elements that matter most: villain, gadgets and action.
Dr. No (1962)
Villain – 7, Gadgets – 2, Action – 6
“I can assure you, my intentions are strictly honorable.”
An agent’s disappearance sends Bond (Connery) to Jamaica and the island of the ironically optimistic Dr. No who’s planning to de-fund NASA (and probably PBS too) permanently. Bond’s debut gives birth to a few of the franchise’s standbys including his martini preference, an appearance by CIA Agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), a memorable villain in Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) and humorously named ladies like Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress). Missing in this first installment though is a big opening action scene with Bond escaping some baddies followed followed by a vocal theme.
They couldn’t really have hoped for a better screen debut for Bond as this movie is a success on just about every front. The onscreen murder of a female character in the beginning sets a tone (and one of the series’ edgier motifs) that would carry through the much of the series. Wiseman’s portrayal of the titular villain carries just the right degree of serious menace, and the Bond girl phenomenon gets off to a brilliantly beautiful start with Andress’ ocean exit. Zena Marshall has a bit tougher time of things as the Chinese Miss Taro since, you know, she’s not Chinese. (We should be thankful they didn’t cast John Wayne or Tony Randall I guess.) Connery presents Bond’s capable but erratic persona well with a styled control, but his ladies man label starts off a bit rough as it’s 50 minutes before he touches a girl… and he’s pretty creepy about it.
From Russia With Love (1963)
Villain – 4, Gadgets – 5, Action – 5
“She should have kept her mouth shut.”
Bond (Connery) inserts himself into a mission involving a Russian beauty and a hot Soviet encryption device currently in the nefarious hands of SPECTRE. The franchise’s sophomore effort is the first to add a proper Bond title sequence using naked women as projector screens. This is not a bad thing. Desmond Llewelyn makes his first appearance as the humorous gadget-maker, Q, a role he would reprise 18 more times until his death in 1999. The film also introduces Ernst Blofeld as Bond’s most persistent nemesis who would return in various form five more times. Also returning is director Terence Young who follows his strong Bond debut with another excellent entry.
This film has a slighter pace than Dr. No even as it ups the scope and ante, but slighter shouldn’t be mistaken for slow or boring. Helicopters, harems and shoe knives all come into play her and help keep the excitement level high enough. The knock down drag out girl fight doesn’t hurt either. The script works well to make the film feel as much of a drama as an action movie, and the sexual innuendo adds spice when needed. Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi) is no Honey though.
Villain – 4, Gadgets – 5, Action – 5
“Do you expect me to talk?”
“No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.”
Bond (Connery) goes undercover to investigate a smuggling ring headed up by a gold magnate, and he discovers a plan to steal the contents of the Fort Knox gold reserve. Or does he? (I won’t keep you in suspense as the plan is actually far more realistic than trying to lug away all those tons of gold bars.) The idea of Bond as chick-magnet is fully in play here as the film gets right to the girl action, but it also reminds us of the emotional detachment that makes him unafraid to use her as a tool. The series’ first memorable henchman appears here in the form of Oddjob (Harold Sakata) as well as the first truly outrageously named female lead in Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman).
This is the first dud of the series even if no one else seems to notice. You can’t introduce your lead villain wearing shorts and expect him to carry any kind of weight or menace later in the film, and just as ridiculous on the wardrobe front is Bond’s terry-cloth romper. Seriously, the girls would never again give him the time of day. And speaking of the girls, why does no one care that Bond essentially rapes a lesbian in a barn? It had to be offensive even in 1964 didn’t it? It’s not all bad news though as there’s some solid car action to be found, but any way you slice it this is a questionable debut for director Guy Hamilton.
Villain – 6, Gadgets – 6, Action – 6
“Do you mind if my friend sits this one out? She’s just dead.”
SPECTRE agent Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) steals two nuclear warheads with plans to threaten and extort the world, so Bond (Connery) heads to The Bahamas to steal them back. Some interesting gadgets come into play here, and many of them are incorporated into the car in fiendishly clever ways. Even more important, the villain is wonderfully evil and the ladies are plentiful, beautiful and fun. Credit should in part at least be given to returning director Young who brings back the energy and style of the first two Bond’s for this fourth film.
After the misstep that was Goldfinger the series gets back on track with this exciting entry filled with fantastic action sequences, ravishing women and grand cinematography above and below the ocean’s surface. It starts off with a great opening fight culminating in the introduction of a jet pack escape, and the end clash is an epic underwater battle with multiple players on both sides. Bond’s back to his sexual predator ways though which makes an exercise scene where he’s forced to yell for help that much more enjoyable. Seriously, Bond’s a dick.
You Only Live Twice (1967)
Villain – 6, Gadgets – 5, Action – 6
“Oh the things I do for England.”
Bond (Connery) joins forces with the Japanese secret service (and secret ninja force!) to stop the culprits behind a series of hijackings in space with plans to trigger a nuclear war. Bond in Japan plays right into my wheelhouse, and when you combine that with a healthy dose of ninja action, the return of Blofeld and some brilliant production design from Ken Adam the film becomes one of the series’ more entertaining and impressive entries. It also has fresh blood in the director’s chair with the arrival of Lewis Gilbert.
But then they go and turn Bond Japanese… as if any amount of makeup and hair dye could make Connery look Asian. Of course we know from Zena Marshall’s appearance in Dr. No that the filmmaker’s aren’t all that interested in looking convincing when it comes to fake Asians. Thankfully, his yellow-face facade is short-lived (and conspicuously unnecessary to boot), and the film gets back to basics with a large scale battle in the villain’s lair complete with brawls and explosions.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
Villain – 5, Gadgets – 3, Action – 5
“This never happened to the other fellow.”
Bond (George Lazenby) goes undercover(s) in the Swiss Alps in the hopes of discovering what Blofeld is doing with a bevy of beautiful women in a mountain fortress. Lazenby’s debut (and swan song) is an odd entry for several reasons, but after a mildly comical opening that sees him address the camera directly with the quote above the ice is broken and he moves comfortably into 007’s shoes. It’s also the first entry to do something truly dramatic with the Bond character. Director Peter R. Hunt makes his first and last Bond film too, making him one of the rare early Bond directors to only get one shot.
In the context of the series and all its trappings this is often viewed as a lesser installment. It’s not entirely Lazenby’s doing as the real culprit is Bond’s falling in love and marrying the exotically named Tracy (Diana Rigg). If Lazenby’s presence was shaking the franchise up then Bond getting married was stirring it into an unrecognizable concoction. Yet the movie never relies solely on that shift and instead does a strong job with the supporting players and action scenes including a stellar ski chase that still holds up today and a casually entertaining performance by Telly Savalas as Blofeld. Lazenby’s also a better fighter than Connery although the occasional sped-up scene obscures the fact. In the end it makes for a slightly better stand alone action/adventure than it does a Bond film, but perceptions be damned it’s a movie worth seeing regardless.
Diamonds are Forever (1971)
Villain – 1, Gadgets – 2, Action – 4
“Well, if we destroy Kansas the world may not hear about it for years.”
Bond (Connery again) heads to Las Vegas to investigate a diamond smuggling operation and discovers that Blofeld may be heading up another crackpot extortion scheme. Good god, what fresh hell is this?
It’s a wonder the Austin Powers films were ever needed as this official entry in the Bond series is almost as much of a spoof as they are. Either that or it’s actually a terrible, terrible film. Hamilton returns to direct from the exile he received after Goldfinger and delivers the most laughable entry of the series (so far). From the opening scenes that Connery couldn’t even be bothered to show up for (hand doubles plus voice over) to a laughably inept dune buggy chase to the worst scene ever captured on celluloid (the Bambi & Thumper fight) to explosion effects consisting of images laid over the existing scene (meaning visibly intact vehicles are visible behind the explosion) to a pair of annoying killers too quirky for a Tarantino flick to its sleazy and mean-spirited tone… this is a mess of a movie.
On the bright side at least, Jill St. John is easily the best lead female to grace the franchise since Ursula Andress. There’s a fun elevator fight too.
Live and Let Die (1973)
Villain – 6, Gadgets – 5, Action – 8
A heroin magnate (Yaphet Kotto) armed with an army of gun-toting killers and a sexy psychic have prepared for every eventuality, but when they kill a British agent they draw the attention of the new James Bond (Roger Moore). The franchise brought back director Hamilton yet again to handle Moore’s debut, and while his track record (Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever) made that a questionable decision it pays off in spades with Moore’s best film of the series.
The movie nails the tone as well as the differences between Connery and Moore early on, and it’s due in large part to the latter’s more casual personality and performance. It’s actually a very funny script too which helps ease Moore into the character and viewers’ minds, and the film seals the deal with some fun car action, fantastic boat chase scenes and memorable visuals. Before seeing the movie I had heard flack about a certain alligator bridge scene… but it’s not nearly as silly as it sounds. It’s a second long, and the gators are real! The disc’s making-of doc shows the five attempts it took to capture the stunt, and it’s actually pretty amazing. And on the girl front you really can’t do much better than a young Jane Seymour.
The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
Villain – 7, Gadgets – 5, Action – 5
“I like a girl in a bikini. No concealed weapons.”
The world’s greatest and most expensive assassin sends Bond (Moore) advance word that he’s next on the list, so 007 sets out to find him first. Hamilton’s mea culpa continues with another strong entry making a case that he’s a fine and fun director depending on the star. Moore continues to settle in well, and Hamilton is sure to surround him with a mix of good to great Bond standards.
The story here is a smaller one than in past films, but beautiful locales and ladies help make up for it including Scaramanga’s (Christopher Lee) spectacular island lair and beauties like Britt Ekland. We also get a memorable pair of villains with the always brilliant Lee playing the title gunman and his half-pint henchman Nick Nack brought to gloriously energetic life by Hervé Villechaize. The sheriff who provided some laughs in Live and Let Die returns to overstay his welcome, but at least he gets to be part of an exciting car chase and river jump.
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Villain – 4, Gadgets – 6, Action – 7
“The name’s Bond. James Bond.”
“What of it?”
Bond (Moore) investigates the disappearance of British and Russian nuclear submarines but is forced to join forces with a KGB agent to do so. The fact that he previously killed her lover makes things a bit awkward at first. Gilbert returns to direct and offers up a large scale, end of the world scenario guaranteed to go out with a bang. He drops the ball on the sexiness factor, but he scores points for introducing one of the series’ most iconic villains in Jaws (Richard Kiel).
The film’s second act is slow going at times, but it opens and closes with two very strong segments. First up is a return to some great ski chase action ending in a death defying drop, and the third act finale is a free for all battle aboard a tanker ship. The real stars here though are on the technical side of things. The model makers do some spectacular miniature work with the tanker, and production designer Ken Adam returns with an incredibly impressive interior big enough to hold three submarines side by side.
Villain – 5, Gadgets – 5, Action – 5
“Look after Mister Bond. See that some harm comes to him.”
A space shuttle is stolen, and Bond’s (Moore) investigation reveals a maniac’s plans to wipe out mankind and start again. The general consensus on this endeavor has always been towards the bottom, but unlike Live and Let Die where that consensus was wrong it’s right on the money here. Problems start early with some poorly done opening credits accompanied by a weak theme song, and they continue on through to the laser battle in space. Blame the success of Star Wars for this turkey.
Not even the normally reliable Gilbert can save this one as it heads too far and too fast into comical relief territory. Jaws returns, but instead of being a menace he finds redemption in the arms of a geek girl? And not to keep harping on the space battle, but it was done so much better in Thunderball when the same scene took place under water. That is a pretty great quote above though.
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Villain – 4, Gadgets – 5, Action – 7
A ship containing a British encryption device sinks to the ocean floor, and it’s up to Bond (Moore) to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. John Glen, previously used only as a 2nd unit action director, steps into the director’s chair for the first of five consecutive Bond movies here, and the result is a good movie with strong action. Go figure.
Per the making-of doc on the Blu-ray, Glen is actually the one who suggested Bond’s graveside visit to his wife’s final resting place as a way to tie character together despite being played by different actors. It works well and sets the stage for a film that ups the emotional level ever so slightly. The opening is a bit bumpy though combining some strong helicopter action with a mildly cheesy revenge on Blofeld. Things improve though with a ski chase good enough to rival the one in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the arrival of the always jolly Topol.
The Bond 50 Blu-ray set comes packaged in an exterior case holding two sturdy “books” which break the 22 films into the two previously mentioned halves. Each page holds two movies, each in their own sleeve, and final page includes a bonus disc as well as a space for Skyfall (which will be released to Blu-ray sometime next year).
The films look and sound amazingly good for their age with only some minor wear and tear visible on the older titles. The films that have already seen a previous Blu-ray release have simply been ported over with new cover artwork, and the ones that are new to the format will see individual releases in the coming months as well. The extra features are monumental, and even though the vast majority of them have been previously available they’re still an invaluable resource for Bond-related information and minutiae.
The “Inside…” series of making-of docs narrated by Patrick Macnee in particular are absolutely amazing treasure-troves of facts and video on each film. They document the trials and tribulations behind the scenes and include outtakes and screen tests as well. They’re filled with fascinating stuff to accompany a brilliant set of movies.
Twelve films in and my halfway-point conclusion is that I should have watched more Bond movies sooner. None of these approach the utter cheesiness that I feared (but that I still expect to find amidst the Pierce Brosnan years), and even the worst of the bunch, Goldfinger and Moonraker, manage to offer enough entertainment value to make them worth a watch.
The upside to having waited though is that I got to see them first on these stunningly beautiful and fully loaded Blu-rays. All of the films look and sound incredible with sharp, colorful images and vibrant audio. The fantastic abundance of extras on each disc just sweetens the pot that much more. This is a must-own set for Bond fans, period, and a probably-own for film fans in general.
And for the record, based solely off of these first twelve films, Sean Connery is at best the third greatest Bond.
Check back next week for part two’s look at 1983’s Octopussy through 2008’s Quantum of Solace.
Buy Bond 50 on Blu-ray from Amazon