Sunday, June 17, 2012

James Bond with Sean Connery

Sean Connery as secret agent 007, James Bond
First things first: there are only 5 James Bond films, the ones released in the 1960s starring Sean Connery. Everything that came after in the series are pale imitations, featuring the same character, but without the style and excitement of the originals. Although author Ian Fleming's first seven novels were set in the 1950's, the Bond films perfectly captured the feel of the next decade as the Cold War reached its height with spies afoot in the dangerous and covert battle between East and West; Hugh Hefner's Playboy depicted a swinging lifestyle to tap into men's fantasies; and the Space program proved that technology could stretch our imaginations and literally have greater reach than ever before.

Much of the attraction of the Bond films, of course, was due to Connery. His performance as the confident, suave, dangerously athletic, and sexy protagonist 007 served to hold the action together, no matter how outlandish the plot sometimes got. No actor since has come close to duplicating his swagger and credibility in the role. Fleming supposedly wasn't thrilled when the largely unknown Connery was cast, thinking him too rugged; but he came to appreciate the selection. Just 32 at the time the first film, Dr. No, was released in 1962, Connery was dashingly handsome and impressively fit. Today, he seems perfect for the role that made him rich and an international star of the first order. Still, he was lucky that two established stars turned down the role. It's hard to imagine Cary Grant, then 58, or James Mason, then 53, as Bond, but both had the opportunity to sign on before Connery.

You didn't come to a Bond film expecting great dialog or any acting challenge. Plenty of sexual innuendo and lame puns filled the screenplay. And Bond wasn't above slapping a pretty girl on her rear. In fact, he like it. It was a different time because, apparently, so did they. It was the action, the intriguing villains, and most of all the beautiful women and debonair Connery that pulled in the audiences. With a license to kill, how many bodies would lie in his wake? A Bond film was perfect drive-in fare. The Bond films established a new exciting and interesting genre, one that led to many imitators, spoofs, and twists. Here are my thoughts on the Connery Bonds:

1. Dr. No (1962) -- directed by Terence Young

James Bond, Britain's top agent, is introduced with one of the decade's most memorial catch phrases: "Bond. James Bond." It's easy to see that Director Young spent more than a few minutes thinking about what Fleming's Bond should look like on film. He dresses impeccably, and outside of Cary Grant, I think of any actor who looks better in a suit than Sean Connery.

In a story with Space Race implications it could not have been more timely. Bond journeys to Jamaica to solve the mysterious death of a fellow agent and uncover what's behind some odd radio interference being picked up at Cape Canaveral. He first meets long-time associate, Felix Leiter, an American CIA operative, and Honey Rider, curvy Ursula Andress, who sets the bar high for future Bond Girls. Her sultry emergence from the surf in a white bikini that looks bursting at the seams is a signature moment, and let male audiences know what they could expect in the way of one of the franchise's main attractions.

Other memorable moments include a threatening tarantula and Bond's execution of an unarmed bad guy.

Dr. No, Bond's first SPECTRE opponent. 

Bond mainstays Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) and M (Bernard Lee) appear. Maxwell would play the loyal secretary who pines for James in 14 Bond films, Lee the cool head of the Foreign Intelligence department of Her Majesty's Secret Service in 11. Other firsts include the now famous and ubiquitous Bond theme with base, and the gun barrel opening sequence.

SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) is the opponent, and the villain, Dr. No, played with delightful menace by Joseph Wiseman. A mad scientist, he literally wields an iron fist, having lost both to radiation. He is fitted with two metal prosthesis. Though powerful, they lack dexterity. It's too bad he gets so little screen time.

Best Bondism:

Bond: Don't worry. I'm not supposed to be here either.
Honey Rider: Are you looking for shells too?
Bond: No, I'm just looking.

Favorite Moment: The fight between Bond and Dr. No in his operations center. I love the primitive contamination suits and instrumentation on the control panels. Bond overloads the nuclear reactor when he turns up the heat to the danger level all hell breaks loose, the aooga horn blaring and the radiated cooling water below percolating. Dr. No and Bond wrestle at the controls, and No, unable to grip the piling with his steel hands, slides into the bubbling mess.

Most Absurd Moment: The appearance of the "dragon," a flame-throwing tractor of sorts, as silly a monster as ever frightened a native population.

2. From Russia with Love (1963) -- directed by Terence Young

Bond is up against SPECTRE again, hoping to secure an important Russian decoder device. Looking to avenge the death of Dr. No, the terrorist organization sets a trap for Bond, using the beautiful Tatiana Romanova as bait. She poses as a Russian defector. While the action of the first film was isolated to one location, for the first time another staple of Bond films emerges: multiple exotic locations. Here, Venice, Istanbul, and a trip on the Orient Express are featured.

A pair of nasty villains confront Bond: "Red" Grant (Robert Shaw), a blond brute who's a near match for 007; and Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a former KGB agent with poison-tipped shoes. Grant is introduced in a fine pre-title sequence. The audience thinks it sees Bond sneaking through a garden. Suddenly he is attacked by Grant and killed. When Grant unmasks the corpse we understand that it is merely a training exercise for the assassin.

The always devious Rosa Klebb.

The franchise also introduces for the first time a signature title song, here sung by British crooner Matt Monroe. It's still one of the best. Only the melody played under the opening credits with the vocal left for the closing credits. Later films put the vocal up front. The irascible Q makes his first appearance, though he won't hit his stride until the next feature. Here he merely issues Bond a briefcase with a few handy gadgets inside.

All in all this is a better film than the first one. Connery looks terrific.

Best Bondism:

Bond: You're one of the most beautiful girls I've ever seen.
Tatiana: Thank you, but I think my mouth is too big.
Bond: No, it's the right size... for me, that is.

Favorite Moment: The terrific fight on the train between Bond and Grant. Grant makes a typically stupid move for a villain, inexplicably not killing Bond when he has the chance. Instead, he first tries to make him grovel. That and Q's exploding gas canister proves his undoing, as Bond takes the opportunity to throttle the assassin with his own wire.

Most Absurd Moment: None to speak of. It's probably the most serious, straight forward plot of the series.

3. Goldfinger (1964) -- directed by Guy Hamilton

The Bank of England believes someone may be trying to corner the world gold market. Bond is sent to shadow Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe, a known smuggler who may be stockpiling the precious metal. But Goldfinger's plans are much more diabolical and audacious--he wants to contaminate the gold depository at Fort Knox to throw Western finances into chaos.

Maybe the most popular film in the Connery canon, it features my favorite henchman, Oddjob, a Korean fire hydrant and mute manservant. A powerful expert at unarmed combat with far superior skills than Bond, he also throws a lethal steel-ringed bowler that can decapitate his victims. The British agent first drives his flashy Aston Martin, with its array of special accessories and gadgets you can't find at your neighborhood car dealership: a passenger ejector seat, oil-dispensers on the back end, a bullet-proof windshield, and a hood machine gun, all thanks to the best in-house engineer any spy agency could hope for, Q (Desmond Llewellyn). He finds Bond exasperating and his exchanges with the spy provide the  franchise's best humor.

Shirley Bassey shows her mettle and belts out the catchy theme, which peaked at No. 8 on Billboard's Top 100 and started the tradition that Bond songs were pop hits. It's easily the most famous of the bunch. Here's the You Tube link:    

The only artist with more than one Bond theme to her credit, Bassey sang this and the themes to Diamonds are Forever (1971) and Moonraker (1979)

The film includes several memorable set pieces, including the harrowing car chase through Goldfinger's warehouse district, the mass execution of mobsters by poison gas at Goldfinger's lair, and Bond's out-witting of his nemeses on the golf links. It's enduring image is of actress Shirley Eaton as a gold-plated Jill Masterson, dead and naked on a bed. Like the Fleming novels, many of the women characters have racy names. Here's one of the most outrageous: Pussy Galore. She serves as Goldfinger's air pilot leader, and like so many others, can't resist being seduced by the handsome spy and she turns on her evil boss, becoming Bond's accomplice. Action locales include Switzerland; Miami, Florida; Kentucky; and London. In fine Bond tradition, the bad guys meet ugly ends. Oddjob gets electrocuted trying to retrieve his hat, and Goldfinger gets sucked out a window of a plane.  

The mortal battle between Bond and Oddjob in the Fort Knox vault.

Despite its popularity, Goldfinger has the most ridiculous plot. Connery has little to do for long sections, and it's more fun when Bond's adventures take place overseas. Still, you can tell the production values have improved over the first two entries, thanks to a bigger budget.

Best Bondism:

Pussy Galore: My name is Pussy Galore.
Bond: I must be dreaming.

Favorite Moment: Bond strapped to a table, his legs spread wide with a laser getting uncomfortably close to his "equipment." Desperate to escape, he asks Goldfinger what if he expects him to talk. Goldfinger responds   "No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die."

Most Absurd Moment: The entire Fort Knox attack is silly. First, the audience is to believe that a few planes armed with sleeping gas can knock out thousands of troops. Secondly and more incredibly, we see the Army allow Goldfinger to actually enter the stronghold with a nuclear weapon.

4. Thunderball (1965) -- directed by Terence Young

Bond takes to the water when M sends his top agent back to the West Indies to find out who high-jacked a British bomber with a nuclear payload. SPECTRE is at it again, with agent Emili Largo behind the caper. He has hidden the jet underwater beneath camouflage netting. Ruthless and one-eyed, Largo demands from NATO a huge ransom in uncut diamonds. If unpaid, he threatens to obliterate an American city in a nuclear disaster.

The signature opening pre-title sequence includes one of Bond's best getaways, using a jet pack. Remembered most for its long underwater action sequences, the film takes a while to get started. It also finds Bond trapped at various moments on a spinal traction machine at a health spa and in a swimming pool with sharks. Suffice to say there are lots of harpoons flying through the water and severed air hoses. The best gadget is a small rebreather apparatus he uses underwater.

French actress Claudine Auger plays Domino, Largo's mistress. Like Pussy Galore, Bond's sexual magnitism is too much and she's converted to his side. Just twenty-four, she is among the prettiest of all Bond girls. Here's her picture:

The gorgeous Domino, one of Bond's conquests.
Demonstrating that no woman is safe in the company of the secret agent, Bond uses the body of an enemy agent as a shield at the Kiss Kiss nightclub to receive a bullet meant for him. The film's climax includes a nicely executed chase and fight on a hydrofoil, with Bond being saved by Domino. Tom Jones does great work with the rousing theme, and you can almost imagine him on stage with a female audience tossing up their room keys and underwear as he holds the last note.

Bond with his jetpack.

Best Bondism:

[Bond is standing in the doorway between their apartments as Fiona takes a bath]
Fiona: Aren't you in the wrong room, Mr. Bond?
Bond: Not from where I'm standing.

She asks him to pass her something to put on, expecting a towel. Instead, he hands her a pair of slippers.

Favorite Moment: Bond casually leaning over and harpooning a would-be assassin to a tree. "I think he got the point."

Most Absurd Moment: The director speeds up the film revolutions on at least two occasions to make the action seem more frenetic. It looks ridiculous.

5. You Only Live Twice (1967) -- directed by Lewis Gilbert

The exotic location is Japan. In the opening sequence Bond appears to have finally been snuffed out by SPECTRE agents, gunned down in bed as he makes love to a beautiful woman. Of course, it's a clever rouse set up by M to enable Bond to operate more freely. The terrorist group has pulled off its most audacious stunt, staging an out-of-this-world theft from orbit of an American spacecraft. By using a craft disguised as a Russian rocket, SPECTRE hopes to pit the two Super Powers against one another in World War III. If the special effect of the theft sequence seems hokey today, it was state of the art in 1967. Production designer Ken Adams also created a magnificently elaborate hollow volcano for Blofeld's hideout. Including a cool monorail, it's easily the most impressive set in the first five films.

We finally see Blofeld's (Donald Pleasant)  face. As head of SPECTRE, he was only seen from from behind or the neck down in some of the earlier entries. With some great make-up, an ugly scar runs from one eye down a cheek, suggesting danger, and a white cat purrs in his lap. He's a worthy opponent for Bond and a raving megalomaniac. Bond enjoys two Japanese beauties, Kissy and Aki.

Nancy Sinatra sings the lovely title song, one of Bond's best melodies. Popular children's novelist Roald Dahl wrote the screenplay, making extensive changes to the source novel.

One of the most unintentional silly moments in the entire series occurs when a helicopter with a giant magnet picks up a car driven by Japanese mobsters. As it rises high in the sky the driver continues to frantically turn the steering wheel, apparently thinking he's still controlling the vehicle.

In some respects this is my favorite Connery Bond. He may look a little disinterested, and certainly is not the svelte figure he cast just five years earlier, but the assault on the volcano lair, a disguised rocket base, looks magnificent with over fifty stunt men (ninjas) rapidly sliding down ropes from a great height. It's full of loud explosions and flying bodies, just what one wants in an action film. The girls and outdoor scenery are luscious. For the first time, Freddie Young was behind the camera for a Bond film. He'd already won two Academy Awards on David Lean films (Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago) and does a great job here. The prior films were also shot by an Oscar winner: Ted Moore. Sinatra's song is perfect for the setting and theme, and 007 makes use of one of Bond's best gadgets, a heavily armed autogyro to engage enemy helicopters in a fierce air battle.

The autogyro used in the film with designer Ken Wallis.

Best Bondism:

Tanaka: Rule number one: never do anything yourself when someone else can do it for you.
Bond: And rule number two?
Tanaka: Rule number two: in Japan, men come first, women come second.
Bond: I just might retire to here.

Favorite Moment: The exciting pursuit of Bond by twenty-five or so armed security agents across the roof of a large chemical plant. He karate chops his way through several before being subdued. Shot high overhead, likely from a helicopter, it's a terrific action sequence.

Honorable mention goes to the way Blofeld sends a minion to her death. As the woman crosses a bridge, Blofeld flips a switch that sends her into a pool of hungry piranha.

Most Absurd Moment: Sean Connery posing as a Japanese. Way too tall and those phony slanted eyes just don't look right.

Bond's Support Team:

M (Bernard Lee)

Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell)

Q (Desmond Llewellyn)
A wonderfully enduring aspect of most Bond films is the title sequence, usually the silhouette of women against the backdrop of something reflective of the film, such as an erupting volcano for You Only Live Twice, or being pursued underwater by a spear gun-wielding bad guy for Thunderball. Other times the women are used as a screen, with scenes from the actual film projected on their body, such as a gold figure with Oddjob's face in Goldfinger.  Here are the men responsible: Maurice Binder and Robert Brownjob.

The music score for each of the five films is courtesy of the great John Barry.


  1. You certain have some interesting choices here. I agree with a lot of what you have to say although my love for James Bond is not limited to Sean Connery. (Although he is always number one in my book.) As time has gone by I still have a few other Bond movies like View To A Kill and Live And Let Die, but Connery will always be the best. Thanks for the thoughts and keeping Bond fever alive.

  2. Thanks so much for commenting, Lasso. I like Roger Moore in general, but his Bond films seemed too light-hearted to me, and the gadgets became too crazy for my taste after Connery. Moore did have some wonderful opening sequences though.

  3. My fave Bond is Roger Moore, which means I'm obviously no purist. This is one of the most comprehensive review of Bond movies that I've ever seen. I love that you included "Bondisms".

  4. Thanks, silver. I'm going to have to revisit the Moore films some day. It's hard to believe that this franchise started 50 years ago. I think the first one I saw in its initial release was 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Gosh, I'm getting old.