With Skyfall, the 23rd Bond film, being released in IMAX on Thursday and on all screens on Friday, it seems appropriate to take a look back on the James Bond franchise as a whole including the novels by Ian Fleming that started the whole craze back in the 1950’s. Here is a look at some of the highs and lows from the franchise as well as a few movies that have been forgotten by the general public as time goes on. If nothing else, these picks may well provide a trip through memory lane as we gear up for Bond’s 50th anniversary in the cinema.
Best Bond Novel:
From Russia With Love. It’s close, but the book President John F. Kennedy declared as one of his ten favorite novels gets the edge. What’s interesting about the book is how the first third of the novel deals with the Russian conspirators in SMERSH and their plan to discredit Bond as revenge for his interference in past plots. Bond is also far less observant and aware of his surroundings this time around, which increases the tension and the stakes. The ending, while not shocking now, was quite surprising at the time and was originally intended to be the end of the series. Strong book sales and reviews curtailed that.
Honorable mentions (in order): On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Dr. No, Casino Royale
Worst Bond Novel:
The Spy Who Loved Me. This novel is a lame attempt to try something different. The main character is a woman who manages a hotel in Canada and is terrorized by two thugs. Bond is absent until the final third of the novel. Even Fleming disowned it not long after it was published. The only good thing about this book is the title and one of the villains, Horror, would eventually be adapted into the film version as Jaws.
Honorable mentions: The Man with the Golden Gun, Diamonds are Forever
Best Bond Villain:
Auric Goldfinger, Goldfinger. Goldfinger was larger than life in both his personality and in his scheme, which is to irradiate Fort Knox with a nuclear bomb so his gold will increase in value. His obsession with the substance carries over to women (which leads to an iconic scene) Gert Frobe personifies the character throughout the film and delivers such a masterful performance that most people don’t realize his voice was actually dubbed (because he couldn’t speak English).
Honorable mentions: Dr. Julius No (Dr. No), Francisco Scaramanga, (The Man With the Golden Gun), Donald “Red” Grant (From Russia With Love)
Best Bond Henchman/woman:
Jaws (The Spy Who Loved Me). Oddjob comes close, but a character who is both indestructible, kills people with his teeth, and has a funny side to him is too good to resist. He probably shouldn’t have returned for Moonraker, but it is always interesting to see how Bond outwits a foe he can’t hurt.
Honorable mentions: Oddjob (Goldfinger), Fiona Volpe (Thunderball).
Best Bond Girl:
Tracy Di Vicenzo, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Ursula Andress set the initial standard, but Diana Rigg was convincing as the woman who married James Bond. She is headstrong, independent, and a fully realized character. She more than holds her own throughout the picture and isn’t just someone to be rescued by Bond (though he does that in the climax). The surprising ending works because of how well Rigg portrayed the character.
Honorable mentions: Honey Ryder (Dr. No), Pussy Galore (Goldfinger), Vesper Lynd (Casino Royale).
Best Bond Song:
“Live and Let Die,” Paul McCartney and Wings. Go figure this is the only thing that would be remembered from the film, which is the most dated because of its U.S. setting in 1973 and its references to blaxploitation.
Honorable mentions: “Goldfinger,” Shirley Bassey; “Nobody Does it Better,” Carly Simon; “A View to a Kill,” Duran Duran.
Worst Bond Movie:
The Man with the Golden Gun, 1974. The trendy pick is Moonraker, which sends Bond into outer space. It has its low points, true, but also a fair number of high ones. Golden Gun has very few, if any. The Bond girl (Britt Ekland) is the dumbest out of all of them, the scheme (something to do with solar energy) is poorly developed and the sight gags (especially the ones involving hick J.W. Pepper, who for some reason is in the middle of Thailand) are painful to watch. Worst of all: Gun wastes a terrific performance by Christopher Lee as villain Scaramanga, who thinks of himself as the dark side of 007.
Honorable mentions: Live and Let Die, The Living Daylights, Die Another Day.
Most underrated Bond movie:
Licence to Kill, 1989. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is, again, the trendy pick, but I’m going with the one that is unfairly blamed for having almost “killed” the franchise. Timothy Dalton was the victim of bad timing. After 12 years of Roger Moore having fun with the audience, the series went in the opposite direction. This is the darkest film in the series, yes, but also exciting, with a series of spectacular action sequences, including a jaw-dropping chase sequence involving tanker trucks on a winding road. It slows down too much in the middle, but there’s a lot to like and should be given another look, especially now that Daniel Craig’s gritty performance has been so praised.
Honorable mentions: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only.
Best Bond Film:
From Russia With Love, 1963. It’s very close between this and Goldfinger. Dr. No set the standard as the first Bond film; the second one set the template. It is one of the most grounded Bond films. Fantasy and ridiculous stunts take a backseat to story, espionage, and some exciting action sequences. Much like the novel, Bond is sent to retrieve a decoding device from a beautiful woman who wishes to defect. He knows it’s a trap, but he goes through with it. Kerim Bey is the best Bond ally; Rosa Klebb and Red Grant are two of the strongest villains; and Tatiana Romanova is one of the most alluring Bond girls. From the surprise pre-credits sequence to the brutal fistfight between Bond and Grant, it is the strongest Bond film, top to bottom. Goldfinger set the popular standard, but not the all-time standard.
Honorable mentions (in order): Goldfinger, Casino Royale, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me.
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