And at last, here we are: the top five James Bond movies. I like that my top five has quite a bit of variety: it spans more than 40 years of films, and five of the six men who have played James Bond are here. I’ve always considered it a point of personal pride that my Bond fandom does not center on one or two particular actors; you’ll never find me offering up an opinion of who the best Bond was, or the worst. I find such discussions limiting and honestly downright boring, and not just in terms of James Bond. When you have a fictional character who has had lots of portrayals, arguing over who is “definitive” or “the best” as that character leads to too easy a dismissal of what anybody who isn’t our personal “definitive” incarnation of that character might bring to the table with their portrayal. This is as true of James Bond as it is of any character, be it Sherlock Holmes or Robin Hood or when opera lovers debate who the best Siegfried was. Leave me out of those discussions, please. All the James Bonds are great. Every single damn one of them.
26. LIVE AND LET DIE
25. DIE ANOTHER DAY
24. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
22. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
21. A VIEW TO A KILL
20. TOMORROW NEVER DIES
19. QUANTUM OF SOLACE
17. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
15. THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN
14. NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN
13. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH
12. DR. NO
9. NO TIME TO DIE
8. LICENCE TO KILL
And now, let’s finish off our ranking!
5. THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS
An interesting trend emerges as I look over my Top Five Bond Movies: Four of them represent instances in which the Bond series had to “pull back” to more realistic storytelling after things got a bit too outlandish, and three of them introduce us to new actors playing Agent 007. It’s almost as if each time a new actor steps in, the producers and writers think, “Wow, we gotta bring our A-game!” Notice how close GoldenEye was to making it to this height, too.
After A View To A Kill, Roger Moore finally surrendered his Walther PPK and stepped aside. Also, View was one of the more out-there movies in terms of plot and action, so the producers once again pushed for a much more grounded adventure, resulting in a low-key espionage caper that fits right in with the era of Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, and John Le Carre. They also went with an obviously younger actor for Bond, one who would tone down the more light-hearted and elegant approach of Roger Moore for a Bond who was more physical, more lethal, and more reflective of the character as written by Ian Fleming thirty years earlier.
Enter Timothy Dalton, who had flirted with 007 at least twice previously (Moore’s last three films were all one-time deals) before finally getting the part. The result is a very well-made espionage thriller and spy story, replete with Cold War subtext and spy games galore. The Living Daylights finally brings in one of Fleming’s bigger tropes in his early novels, “Smiert spionam”, which is Russian for “Death to spies”. In Fleming’s hands, that slogan reduces to SMERSH, the Russian organization that was the main villain force early on in his books. Here, it’s a red herring being used to make the British think that the new head of the KGB has unleashed some kind of scheme to murder their agents. The idea here is to goad the British into assassinating that new KGB head, because he’s onto what the villains are really up to.
There isn’t just one main Bad Guy here, which is nice; we get a trio of murderous villains, all working together to execute a series of swindles that will leave them incredibly wealthy. There is Koskov, the Russian General who has faked his defection to the West; Whitaker, an American arms dealer who sells illegal arms to paramilitary and terrorist groups all over the world; and there is Nekros, a brutal assassin. I love their scheme, hinging as it does on illegal arms sales and diamond smuggling and the opium trade. Oddly, this movie showed up as Iran-Contra was breaking open, and I remember reading an interview with Richard Maibaum in which he expressed bemusement that the headlines seemed ripped from the movie he was already making.
The Living Daylights is a beautiful film, and it also boasts one of the better scores from the latter half of John Barry’s tenure. The songs are good, though maybe not the best ever; a-ha and The Pretenders do yeoman duty. Maryam d’Abo as Kara, a naive cellist plunged into Bondian danger, is one of my favorite Bond heroines; she is much like Izabella Scorupco’s Natalya of GoldenEye, nine years later, in that she doesn’t shrink in terror from the danger she faces. (That Kara was written this way is no doubt a reaction to criticism of poor Tanya Roberts’s character from A View To A Kill.)
4. FOR YOUR EYES ONLY
I noted above that many of my favorite Bonds are “course correction” movies, both intended to introduce new Bond actors and dial back the outlandish plot elements and story goofiness. For Your Eyes Only does the latter, but not the former–though I have recently learned that it might very well have done both, had Roger Moore not decided to return to Bond after all. The opening scene, where James Bond visits the grave of his deceased wife Tracy, was actually intended to possibly introduce our new Bond. Instead, it’s Moore paying respects.
Everything I wrote about The Living Daylights‘s grounded espionage story? Well, repeat most of that here. This movie has the fewest gadgets since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, putting Bond in situation after situation where he has to use his brain and his physical skills to get out of trouble. Sometimes this leads to comedy, such as when Bond is forced to do a high-speed car chase driving some goofy Citroen car; other times it leads to some very high tension, as late in the film when Bond is scaling a vertical rock face to infiltrate the villain’s lair.
For Your Eyes Only also does something interesting in keeping us in the dark until almost the third act as to who the villain even is. I absolutely love that! Bond has to do real spy work, real investigating, in this movie. The plot is pretty simple: there’s a device that the British use to transmit orders to submarines that is suddenly available to be grabbed by the Soviets, and it’s a race to get the machine first. This leads to some of the most satisfying espionage-spy game stuff ever in a Bond movie. Yes, there’s some goofiness along the way (a barely-out-of-her-teens figure skater develops a raging crush on Bond, the scenes of which are not the most comfortable viewing), but for the most part, For Your Eyes Only is a wonderful thriller.
And the cast is perfect: Carole Bouquet’s Melina Havelock is a Bond heroine who is in over her head, but she’s not gonna let that stop her; Topol as a Greek mobster is an absolute delight, even moreso than a year before when he’d been Dr. Hans Zarkov in Flash Gordon. Julian Glover as villain Kristatos is cunning and slimy. (Glover had quite the decade in the 80s! He started in 1980 as Imperial General Veers in The Empire Strikes Back, then he was in For Your Eyes Only, and finally in 1989 he was Walter Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, making him possibly the only actor to have been a villain in Star Wars, James Bond, and Indiana Jones!)
And let’s talk Roger Moore here. The narrative on Moore seems to be that his Bond is elegant, prissier, less willing to get his hands dirty than Connery’s. I tend to blame Moore’s scripts for that, though there is a degree to which the writers write for the guy they know is in the part. For Your Eyes Only gives Moore some real hard stuff to do, including one of the most brutal Bond moments ever, when Moore confronts an assassin whose car is teetering on the edge of a cliff. That moment sizzles. Moore was apparently very hesitant to film it as written, but he relented, and I’m eternally glad that he did.
Sheena Easton’s song is one of my absolute favorites, a pure early-80s ballad, and Bill Conti’s score is…well, I like it, but I can absolutely see how lots of people don’t. His brassy 80s just-this-side-of-disco sound holds up for me a lot better than Marvin Hamlisch’s work on The Spy Who Loved Me.
3. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
For folks who argue that Sean Connery was the best James Bond, From Russia With Love provides them with their strongest argument. This is Connery’s best Bond film, by a big margin. It’s also one of the best pure spy thrillers in the entire series. It’s taut and exciting, with interesting locations, a fantastic rogue’s gallery of villains, memorable allies for James Bond, one of the better Bond heroines, pretty decent action, and a fight scene that ranks to this day as one of the most effective and brutal fights in any Bond movie.
It continues to amaze me that the Bond films of the 1960s stayed as far away from Cold War subtext as possible; Ian Fleming’s novel From Russia With Love actually had the Soviets plotting to embarrass MI6 by setting a trap for James Bond. The movie gives this plot to SPECTRE, and thus gives us the first example of villains playing the British and the KGB against each other. It’s very effective.
Even as From Russia With Love gives us the only Cold War-reflective plot in the Connery run, it has a different feel. As Kerim Bey, the head of MI6’s presence in Istanbul, tells Bond: “You’re in the Balkans now. The game with the Russians is played a little differently here.” Thus From Russia With Love has its own feel, being again a smaller-scaled film with villains who aren’t plotting their Final Victory or any such thing: this is a true spy thriller with layers of scheming and constant threats lurking in the background.
For one of the shorter Bond movies (and the one exception to my general feel that Bond films under two hours tend to be lacking), From Russia With Love is loaded with memorable characters and the screenplay has a lot of wit (“Red wine with fish. Well, that should have told me something.”). Our heroine, Tatiana Romanova, is a pretty good one, and the most memorable villain here is Robert Shaw’s assassin Donovan Grant. From Russia With Love also introduces Desmond Llewelyn as Q. Llewelyn would remain in the role, failing to appear only in Live and Let Die, all the way up to his retirement from the role in The World Is Not Enough.
From Russia With Love has a pleasant song, performed by Matt Monro, and a typically engaging John Barry score that reuses several cues from Dr. No.
2. CASINO ROYALE
God, what a bolt between the eyes this movie was. In 2006 it was hard even for me to think that James Bond could be fresh and new again, and then this movie hit the screens.
After Die Another Day and its colossal excesses (seriously, Bond parasailing away from a collapsing glacier is one of the least good things to ever happen in one of these movies), the need was clear for yet another course-correction for James Bond. This time, though, the producers didn’t just mandate a more realistic approach to Bond. This time they decided to reboot the entire series, something which was already being done in the superhero film world, as the then-in-production Batman Begins was starting over and ignoring anything that happened in extant films involving that character.
It made sense for the Bond series to “reboot” with Casino Royale, which had actually been Ian Fleming’s very first James Bond novel way back in the 50s. Eon Productions had started its film series with Dr. No because they didn’t have the rights to Casino, and they wouldn’t get those rights until 1999, when–get this–Sony traded those rights to MGM for the rights to Spider-Man! Can you believe that? Anyway, Casino Royale finally got the official Eon Productions treatment, and what a treatment it is.
As a reboot, we don’t see “Young Bond at school” or some such thing. Bond is a newly-minted Double-O agent, freshly promoted and something of a hot head who tends to act without entirely thinking it all through. His early escapades anger M something fierce, and there’s a memorable exchange:
M: I knew it was too early to promote you.
BOND: Well, I understand Double-Os have a very short life expectancy, so your mistake will be short-lived.
It’s a fascinating exercise, seeing a James Bond who isn’t quite of the stature we know him…yet. He’s still learning, still feeling his way. He’s vulnerable in a way that he tries to hide, that he fights–and when he finally gives into it rather than burying it, as he might when he’s older, it almost leads to ruin. Craig does something deeply fascinating here, and it’s something he does to all of his films: he makes Bond a genuine human being.
I also have to note Craig’s work in the action sequences, especially the famous parkour chase that is the movie’s first major action setpiece. Bond is chasing a guy through a construction site, but the guy is apparently a parkour champion while Bond is just fiercely determined and intelligent. We see Craig throughout, showing a Bond who is constantly taking stock of his surroundings, planning his next move in real time.
Casino Royale also features a stunning cast, the most visible being Eva Green as Vesper Lynd, the first real love of Bond’s life, and a love that would end as tragically as the other great love in Bond’s life. (Well…now the movies have given us three great Bondian loves…or, depending on how you count them, four. But anyway….) CR‘s whip-smart script makes Vesper Lynd a brilliant woman who can see through all of James Bond’s bluster, making them equals who frequently clash, even if Lynd is by no means Bond’s equal at all the more dangerous aspects of spycraft. The initial meeting between Bond and Vesper Lynd, in the dining car on the Orient Express, is a magnificent scene; it’s on my list of things I hope to equal in my writing one day.
VESPER: You think of women as disposable pleasures, rather than meaningful pursuits. So as charming as you are, Mr. Bond, I will be keep my eye on our government’s money, and off your prefectly-formed arse.
BOND: You noticed!
VESPER: Even accountants have imagination. How was the lamb?
BOND: Skewered. One sympathizes.
Casino Royale is very nearly a perfect James Bond movie. It presses each and every one of my Bond buttons: dangerous villains, real stakes, genuine peril, wonderful locations, great characters, and it shows James Bond as a person with a genuine emotional life in the midst of all his adventures. This James Bond has real skin in the game, and when he’s hurt, he’s hurt. And at the very end of the film, when he looks down at a bad guy he’s tracked down for interrogation, he earns the introduction that we have long since known and loved:
MR WHITE: [into phone] Who is this?
A shot rings out, and Mr. White, hit in the knee, crumples to the ground. He is pulling himself across the driveway when a shadow falls on him. He looks up to see BOND, staring down at him, a rifle in his hand.
BOND: The name’s Bond. James Bond.
Casino Royale has a great score by David Arnold, one of his best, and the song, a straight-up rocker by Chris Cornell, is one of my favorites. I remember sitting in the theater, thinking to myself as Casino Royale ended, “My God, they can take James Bond in so many new directions now!” And for the balance of Daniel Craig’s run, they tried to do just that, and mostly succeeded. Casino Royale probably would be my favorite James Bond movie of all time, if not for…
1. ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE
As I’ve said, there’s never been any doubt that this was my landing point, was there? We all knew. I suppose it’s possible that a Bond movie will come along that I love as much as I do OHMSS, but at this point I think it’s extremely unlikely. This movie is simply too much a part of my DNA at this point. OHMSS is in my heart like Star Wars, Casablanca, My Fair Lady, Singin’ in the Rain, and Princess Mononoke are. For a breakdown of exactly why I adore OHMSS the way I do, I refer you to this essay of mine; every word stands.
When I was a kid, maybe eleven or twelve, the beginnings of my personal music collection consisted almost entirely of movie soundtrack albums, and I would gravitate to that section every time I was in a record store. My parents didn’t quite understand this, but it was OK. There was one record store, I think it was in a mall near Rochester, that not only had a really good soundtrack section, but they also went to the trouble of separating their albums by movie with labeled dividers with each movie title on them. There was an entire section of James Bond soundtracks, and I remember digging through these with delight, looking at all the score albums (vinyl! The CD was still seven or eight years away) to Bond movies, most of which at that point I hadn’t seen. This was 1982 or so. I knew that there were two Bonds: Roger Moore, the one who had introduced me, and Sean Connery, who had been the first Bond.
But then I flipped to a record for a movie I hadn’t heard of: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. And on the cover: “George Lazenby as James Bond 007!” It looked “official” enough, not a parody, so I made a mental note of this and later I asked my mother about it, since she’d seen all the Bond movies and would watch them with me on the ABC Sunday Night Movie when they’d air a Bond every three months or so. She wrinkled her nose and said, “Oh, that. Yeah, he only did one. Apparently it was a bomb and nobody liked it.” I was crestfallen at the idea of a bad James Bond, but still…when it showed up on ABC within a year, we watched it. Mom hadn’t seen it when it was out, so watch it we did. And during a commercial break about halfway through, she said something like, “You know, this guy isn’t really half-bad!”
I agreed. I thought he was fine.
The next time OHMSS ran on ABC, we had a VCR, so I taped it. (Remember taping movies off network teevee? Trying to hit ‘pause’ to stop the commercials from recording?) I’d read a few books about Bond movies and I knew by this time that OHMSS had a small but devoted following, so I started watching the movie through those eyes…and I’ve never seen it any other way, ever since. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service remains for me the single most captivating, most exciting, most emotionally involving (and ultimately shattering), experience in a Bond film. It’s also extremely well made, it has great actors and a crisp script with great dialog, thrilling action sequences, John Barry’s best ever Bond score, a gorgeous song by Louis Armstrong, and…James Bond falls in love.
And I don’t care what anybody says about George Lazenby. I believe every minute of his portrayal of James Bond. Period. I believe that he’s a bit tired and weary of the whole thing. I believe that he’s afraid for his life at points. I believe that he’s determined to find his arch-enemy. And I believe, I absolutely believe, that he’s in love with Teresa–Tracy–di Vicenzo.
What’s more, I do not believe, contra the insistences of many a Bond film, that “Ohhh, if only they could have had Sean Connery in this movie!” I’m supposed to believe that the Connery who smirked and almost sleep-walked through Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, and who did Diamonds Are Forever after this one with a performance that screams “I’m doing this for the paycheck,” was somehow going to sell the emotions needed for this script?
Plus, had Connery been on board, Diana Rigg would not have been. She was cast because the new actor playing Bond had no experience and would need help in those scenes.
I don’t say these things to throw rocks at Sean Connery, because I do love his movies, even though I tend to rank them lower than most other fans do. But I also don’t apologize for this: the heart loves what it loves, and that’s just the way it is. But I also refuse to grant the premise that George Lazenby’s performance represents a serious flaw in what many folks would claim is “otherwise” a fine Bond movie. I reject that premise completely.
In fact, I would say the opposite: For me, George Lazenby is the best James Bond. How can he not be? Surely the guy who plays Bond in the Bond film I consider the best Bond film ever made gets to be considered the best Bond, right? When I think “James Bond”, I tend to picture George Lazenby first.
I know that Lazenby let the Bond role slip through his fingers, largely because, from what I’ve read, he was naive and he had a complete dolt as an agent. There’s a postscript to my appreciation of George Lazenby that happened much later, in the 1990s. For a while, NBC had a Saturday night feature that they called “Saturday Thrillogy”: three hour-long action-adventure drama shows, one of which was called The Pretender. In this show, a guy named Jarod, played by an actor named Michael T. Weiss (not to be confused with the figure skater with a similar name), was a genius who could insinuate himself into any walk of life he wanted. He had escaped from a shadowy organization with nefarious goals for Jarod that were never quite explained, but they weren’t good, and Jarod went around the country doing good deeds and righting wrongs while trying to find out what ever happened to his real family.
Well, at some point during Season One, I remember thinking suddenly, “Huh, Michael T. Weiss looks a little bit like George Lazenby!” They had similar faces, similar jawlines, and similar smiles. Mr. Weiss just reminded me a little of Mr. Lazenby.
So, in The Pretender‘s third (or was it the fourth?) season, they had Jarod finally manage to track down his father, his real father. And who did the producers cast as Jarod’s dad?
I wanted to stand up and cheer in my living room when Mr. Lazenby showed up on that show. Because I knew.
I plan to watch On Her Majesty’s Secret Service again soon, hopefully followed immediately by No Time To Die, which is absolutely loaded with references to the earlier film. I’m looking forward to it, though I know that as the end approaches, when Bond and Tracy exchange their vows and head off on honeymoon, I’ll hope it turns out differently, just this once. I’ll hope that they keep on driving, that they don’t encounter that other car, the one with Blofeld in it. I’ll hope there’s no hail of bullets, and that they really will have all the time in the world.
Wow, I wasn’t planning to write that much about OHMSS again, but here we are. And why not? After all, what’s a favorite movie for, if not to give you something to write long Internet essays about?
And there we have it: the Correct and Official Rankings of the James Bond films…at least for now. As noted, I still have to watch No Time To Die another time or two (at least), and we’ll never really be done, will we? I mean, as every single James Bond movie ever made has promised us:
And when he does, like M, we’ll say, “Ahh, there you are, 007.”