In each of the last few years, I have re-watched a franchise. If you follow my Letterboxd you might have noticed this. One year it was Star Trek, another it was Star Wars, and another it was Mission: Impossible. This year it’s going to be James Bond.
With 24 films in the franchise proper and a 25th due in April of this year, this is no small undertaking, especially if I am going to blog about them as I go. Why haven’t I blogged these in the past? Because I had an idea of what I wanted this blog to be and I have resolved to change that here in this new decade.
So what follows will be whatever I feel it needs to be after watching each James Bond film. I am going to watch them in order, and I am most likely going to stick to the main EON produced films in the franchise. Some of them will get some deep thought, others maybe not so much. I don’t have a real plan besides watch, write about each, and then finish up with some kind of conclusion.
So if that sounds like the kind of thing you’re into then let’s get started on this journey with the first three entries in the franchise: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger
Dr. No (1962)
The beginning of this franchise is an interesting place to start because while Dr. No does have some of the hallmarks of a James Bond film, it is also by nature one of the least James Bond-y of the films.
How could it be though, this is the beginning. Dr. No introduces the megalomaniacal villain with a gimmick and a mind for world domination and the initial streak of what will become the series trademark misogyny, but there are no fancy gadgets and not even really a big set-piece ending like we’re used to today. In many ways, this film is a pretty tight little spy film with the main character relying on his wits and spycraft in a way that Bond doesn’t in many or most subsequent films.
Except there’s one thing it has that other spy films doesn’t: Sean fucking Connery. I hadn’t watched this film since I was young and I didn’t quite remember just how effortlessly cool Connery really was.
There’s a scene in Dr. No in which Bond waits for an assassin in a hotel room, and after tricking the assassin into firing six shots into an empty bed, disarms him, and interrogates him at gunpoint. The assassin manages to get his gun back and takes another shot but the gun doesn’t fire. Bond casually says “that’s a Smith and Wesson, and you’ve had your six“.
Connery’s delivery, silenced pistol in hand and cigarette draped from his lips, might make this one of my favourite scenes in the entire franchise. Let me say again, the whole performance is so effortless and he manages to swagger while he’s sitting down.
It’s easy to see why people ate this up and why they wanted Connery back for more, especially when one of the things I really noticed this time around is how cheap the film feels compared to subsequent entries. More on that in a bit, but you can really tell that they weren’t sure this thing was going to work.
It did though, and they doubled the budget for the next film.
From Russia With Love (1963)
If Dr. No set up the basics of what we know as a Bond film, From Russia With Love brought more critical pieces to the formula.
This film brings us our first appearance as Desmond Llewelyn as Major Boothroyd of Q branch supplying 007 with some tools for his mission. Of course, they’re convenient, but also by later entries in the franchise standards they’re also quite understated. A briefcase with a knife and fifty gold sovereigns in it, and a booby trap to discourage bad guys from checking it out. While each of these comes in handy they also feel like tools that would be suited to any mission rather than the ridiculously specific toys Q will supply Bond with later.
Q does not get much to do here but you can already see the beginnings of the relationship that Bond will have with him. Q is one of the constants of the series and I feel like it’s going to be fun to watch him evolve alongside Bond.
The other thing that this film brings is the first compelling villains. Robert Shaw as Donovan Grant is set up as Bond’s mirror, and he has a casual menace that pervades his performance. You know that Bond is never in any real danger, but Grant is the first villain henchman that actually feels dangerous and I love him for it.
There’s another character here that I low key kind of love, one in her second (and sadly, final) appearance: Eunice Grayson and Sylvia Trench, Bond’s off again on again girlfriend in London. She only appears in two films despite plans for her to appear in six, and she’s a nice foil for Bond, clearly interested in him but also not really interested in his bullshit.
There were plans for her to be a recurring character with the gag being that he gets called away just as things start to get interesting between them and, honestly, I wish this had happened as Grayson is kind of delightful in the role.
I also really like Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb, a high ranking Spectre agent who sets both Grant and the main female character, Tanja, on Bond. I love her no-nonsense style and delivery in every scene, whether she’s punching Robert Shaw in the abs with brass knuckles or trying to kill someone with a poisoned knife in her shoe.
Connery is great again, too, with the same effortless cool he brought to the first film. He shines, for me, in the scenes he’s opposite Robert Shaw. Their tete-a-tete, when Grant has the upper hand and Bond is trying to talk his way out of danger, is a great piece of acting from both of them. I especially love how Bond is able to tease out Grant’s weakness and exploit it.
All in all From Russia With Love ends up being one of my favourite early Bond films, maybe even my favourite Sean Connery Bond film. It’s a good mix of realistic ridiculousness, great acting, and fun characters.
Does this film continue with the misogyny? Well of course it does. The main female character spends a good part of the film drugged and out of the way, and this is after she immediately sleeps with Bond. Don’t worry though, the next film is way worse.
The third James Bond film, by nearly any metric, was a huge success. It made its $3 million budget back in two weeks, a pace so unheard of at the time that it set a Guinness record for Fastest Grossing Movie. Critics of the day loved it and even today it sits at a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s also the film that brought the silliness to the franchise. If Dr. No established the cool, and From Russia With Love established the gadgets and gimmicks, this is the film that pushed everything straight into cartoon territory.
In case you don’t believe me: the opening scene of this movie has Bond swimming into a harbour wearing a seagull on his head as a disguise, finding a secret door in the side of an oil storage tower, entering through said door to what appears to be some chemical lab that is also a shag pad, setting some explosives and leaving to a casino where he strips off his wet suit to reveal a perfectly tailored white tux underneath. It’s also the first film with a gimmick henchman in Oddjob, the mute Asian manservant who throws his razor brimmed hat.
Now, this isn’t a complaint because that’s awesome. But it is also ridiculous. I hadn’t watched this film in ages and coming back to it was basically as though it were new. It’s a ton of fun! But again, ridiculous, especially after the preceding two films are relatively subdued by comparison.
It also features the most fun villain so far in Goldfinger, and probably the performance every other villain actor in the franchise is chasing. Gert Fröbe is wonderfully charismatic despite his dialogue being dubbed by Michael Collins. That it’s not his voice for 99% of the performance is worth considering, but his physical performance alone is gleeful and fun. Just look at this GIF of what will become the most iconic Bond bad guy quote of all time.
It’s calculating but fun, menacing but matter of fact. I love him, and that he’s bad he can’t even play an honest game of gin.
The film also features the worst of the franchises misogynistic tendencies. In an early scene Bond literally slaps a girl on the ass and sends her away because he and Felix Leiter (in his second appearance and played by a second actor) need to have “man talk”. Later in the film, Bond rapes Pussy Galore.
Yes, rapes. I’ve seen all kinds of handwaving about this fact but just watch the scene. Bond forces himself on her. I’ve seen people argue that she’s just playfighting, but she’s not. She’s fighting. I’ve seen people argue that she gives in at the end, but compliance and consent are two different things.
At the end of the day, I still think Goldfinger is fun, but for me, it pushes a little too far into the misogyny and into the silly territory to be a truly great movie. Everything has been dialled up to eleven. There is more of everything and everything is more, and after a film like From Russia With Love which heightened the reality but kept it (relatively) grounded revisiting this one was actually a bit jarring.
What I have found most interesting about revisiting these first three Bond films is that each of them brings a critical piece of what we commonly think of as a Bond film to the table, but none bring the whole picture.
I never had a good answer before when someone asked me what I believe the defining Bond film is but now I do: it’s all three of these together. Dr. No introduces us to Bond’s reality, From Russia With Love heightens it and adds compelling villains to the mix, and Goldfinger finally pushes the whole enterprise into being the thing that Mike Meyers made fun of with Austin Powers.
It has been so long since I have seen any of these films that I had almost forgotten that the franchise had a start, that it evolved with each entry over time. It is going to be interesting to continue watching and re-learn how it got from this point to the films we know and love today.
I don’t have a set schedule for this other than “I’d like to be done before the premiere of No Time To Die” so please keep your eyes open for further entries. The next four Bond films are Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Diamonds are Forever. There’s at least one overrated and one underrated film in that mix, along with our first new James Bond. Exciting!