Ranking Bond - Gordon's List Part 2
Updated: Apr 3, 2022
You may notice a pattern emerging as I count down the top half of my all-time Bond rankings. We have largely moved from the fun capers towards the true Ian Fleming Bond in the Top 12, which says something about how I like my Bond to be. It's important to distinguish our favourite films from the best films and there are many I have placed higher or lower on account of things such as story, production values and their historical importance to the series. On the other hand, I have to look at which ones I am most likely to reach for on a Friday night with a few beers, which may not test my brain very much, but are just pure escapism fun.
Note many have fallen or climbed several places since the ranking podcasts. As with Part 1, this feature contains major spoilers!
Part 1 gives a review of each film, but here's a quick re-cap of my positions so far:
25. Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
24. Die Another Day (2002)
23. A View to a Kill (1985)
22. Skyfall (2012)
21. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
20. Quantum of Solace (2008)
19. The World is Not Enough (1999)
18. Spectre (2015)
17. You Only Live Twice (1967)
16. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
15. Moonraker (1979)
14. The Living Daylights (1987)
13. Octopussy (1983)
12. No Time to Die (2021)
For the first two-thirds of Daniel Craig’s swansong mission, I feel like this is the one I’ve been waiting for in his tenure. All of the small Bondian moments I enjoyed from his previous films have been amped up and some of the old-school routine is back. Little things like Bond going for a drive, only to have a black saloon car tailing him in seconds. However subtle, these are the moments I love and for the first time in ages, we have a composer who actually uses the Bond theme throughout the picture.
Unlike in Spectre, Lea Seydoux gets the chance to really act, plus the love between her and Bond feels real this time. Lashana Lynch is great as Nomi. There is no actual romance between her and 007, which makes it strong and memorable, like with Camille in Quantum of Solace. Though strangely Nomi has been given an ultra-futuristic style (supercar, square sunglasses, glider plane etc) that didn’t really make sense in this type of film. Paloma (Ana de Armas) also stands out and her scenes bring a breath of fresh air in a time when the Craig era sometimes runs the risk of being dull and joyless. She is one of the most memorable short-screen time characters ever to appear in a Bond film.
Most of all, I am in love with the feel of NTTD and the magnetism of its emotional story; something I don’t get with any other film in the series barring OHMSS. It even equals Licence to Kill in being the darkest film in the series. But, similarly NTTD sometimes doesn’t feel like a Bond film.
My problems with the film begin mainly with the accidental death of Blofeld (Christoph Waltz returning); such an incredible waste given the decades of legal wranglings Eon Productions had to feature him in the first place. Valdo Obruchev is one of the most exaggerated, out-of-place characters in the franchise and gives Sheriff Pepper a run for his money. This disjointed feel of the film becomes more apparent towards the finale and I sense the ending was decided early on, with the rest of the story written around it. The main villain’s scheme feels particularly contrived, though I enjoyed Rami Malek playing Safin.
I made my feelings known on the Kapeesh review podcast about killing off our protagonist. He appears to be giving up, which isn’t the Bond I know. I don’t feel a sense of imminent war or a race against time that I think I was meant to feel – not like in Thunderball or Tommorow Never Dies – and I still can’t understand why Safin’s island had to be destroyed right that second. Despite the story issues, Hans Zimmer’s music in James' final scenes is spectacular and he has delivered the best score in the franchise since Tommorow Never Dies.
I hoped that a final Bond film for Craig would nicely tie up the events going back to Casino Royale, but this one feels more like an addendum. Yet despite the flaws, if Daniel’s era is to be looked at as its own separate entity, No Time to Die is a fitting end for the character. It may seem surprising it ranks so high despite my criticisms, but for general feel and emotional impact, this is one of the best.
11. Live and Let Die (1973)
Two years after the disaster that was Diamonds are Forever, director Guy Hamilton and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz are back to signal the start of the Roger Moore era. The new more humorous style of Bond is far more endearing and cleverly merged into the story this time; similarly fantastical in places but serious when it needs to be. Fleming’s original Live and Let Die novel is greatly enhanced by Mankiewicz into fine, exotic cinematic form and it’s very enjoyable seeing 007 encountering the world of voodoo.
The late Yaphet Kotto has a wonderfully intense, sometimes dark presence as Dr Kananga and giving him an alter ego front as gangster Mr Big is an inspired choice. Villains rate highly in general, with Tee Hee (Julius W. Harris) and Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) providing a wicked protective shield for him. As much as I love Kananga, his death scene is absolutely ridiculous and you have to question why he keeps a shark in an underground bunker. Though I completely buy the concept of how this is linked to his secret poppy fields and in the cold light of day, it centres around a somewhat realistic drug dealing scheme. Solitaire’s (Jane Seymour) clairvoyance makes her one of the more memorable Bond girls.
Roger Moore has a strong debut as Bond, with some of his best humorous lines, but also one of his most consistent Fleming-esque performances. The costume department deserve top marks for not only his style choices but other characters too. The only thing missing character-wise is the rare absence of Desmond Llewelyn’s ‘Q’! Wings’ title song is a huge plus point for LALD, which almost eclipses the Bond theme itself. It is used fantastically well at the key moments in the soundtrack, this time the work of Beatles producer George Martin. His score also uses the Bond theme well and stands up in its own unique way next to others in the series.
The only significant weakness of LALD is the strange diversion when minor character Sheriff J.W Pepper steals an inordinately large amount of screen time away from Bond for the sake of comedy. He raises a few smiles on the first couple of viewings but really belongs in a different film!
10. For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Contrary to what many people would have you believe, Roger Moore doesn’t always just play Roger Moore. For Your Eyes Only sees him act a darker 007 at times and very effectively at that. Reminding us that the character is still a trained killer, there is the famous scene of Bond sending Loque (Michael Gothard) to his death over a cliff edge and it works well. Director John Glen also chose correctly to give it a slight OHMSS feel at times with the pre-titles scenes, the locales and even 007 having a romantic tryst with a socialite which ends tragically.
The main female lead, however, is Melina Havelock, played by Carole Bouquet and she has a strong, intense presence onscreen. After Moonraker, this film is quite a stripped-back affair but that doesn’t make it any less memorable. The plot is believable, the locations are exotic and the action is tense, with a real feeling of Bond being in genuine peril. The coral reef keelhauling scene and the mountain-climbing finale are the best examples. It isn’t exactly devoid of humour and the best parts are subtle, like ‘Q’ accompanying 007 to the ‘Indentigraph’.
The inverted ally-villain relationship of Kristatos (Julian Glover) and Columbo (Topol) makes for a highly compelling plot twist, though this is partially why Kristatos doesn’t feel intimidating enough an adversary for Bond. My only other complaints of For Your Eyes Only are minor. Bill Conti has a good stab at the music but it sometimes works against the action rather than with it and the brief pre-titles re-appearance of Blofeld was unnecessary, even jarring. Other than this, we’re watching top-tier Bond.
9. Dr. No (1962)
The very first James Bond adventure was always going to score high for me in any list for being the genesis of something so special. Dr. No pioneered so many of the characteristics that make Bond what it is today; the style, the humour, the music, the stunts, the villains, just to name a few. It defined a generation and Sean Connery brought the 007 from the books to life so perfectly that Ian Fleming would later say that he could not imagine anyone else in the role.
Dr. No must also be looked at in isolation as a film without considering its sequels or cultural impact offscreen. It is still very impressive and for a very modest budget of $1 million, looks incredible. Filming on location in Jamaica gives the action a beautiful backdrop, while production designer Ken Adam brought indoor sets to life in a style well ahead of its time. Monty Norman’s music was very 1950s but commendable still for the era, helped by a generous dose of the John Barry-conducted James Bond theme for the very first time.
Dr. No follows the original Fleming book very closely and Bond spends a lot of time in Jamaica following leads like a detective, which is to its credit, before the series had an over-reliance on gadgets. It’s possibly the closest the films came to the style of the books, with Sean Connery a sometimes aggressive and cold character, while still fearless and self-assured, with his proverbial panther-like movement. The opening scenes in London are excellently translated from book to screen, from the casino to the first meeting in ‘M’s office with the inimitable Bernard Lee.
This is one of the most suspenseful Bonds ever made but also quite character-driven. We learn a lot about main allies like Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) for example, but even get a look into everyday routines for the most minor Mi6 characters, which is intriguing and gives an insight into what real world espionage might look like. Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) and Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) are highly endearing, while Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) has a real edge as a villain thanks to a very slow build-up. Just like Bond early in the film, we hear other characters talk about him, which adds to the mystique before he actually appears.
The island of Crab Key has a similar build-up of danger around it before Bond sets foot there. The film is pretty much a home run until he is held captive at Dr. No’s base, at which point the pace slows for a considerable period. The villain’s base has some very convenient installations which aid 007’s escape such as the ‘danger’ wheel and a very sizeable air vent that heads straight into his prison cell. Daft but like so much of the early Bond era, you’ve gotta love it!
8. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
OHMSS has the best story of any Bond film, being almost a scene-by-scene recreation of Fleming’s book. To capture this in cinematic form without being too derivative and make it entertaining is to the credit of director Peter Hunt. John Barry’s soundtrack helps it along massively; particularly We Have All the Time in the World which he specifically wrote for the movie. Though familiar to many through No Time to Die, the song belongs to OHMSS, and greatly encapsulates the romance and inevitable tragedy of this adventure. Barry’s instrumental title song is also perfect for the action sequences.
This is also the first time we see clear continuity issues in the Bond film sequence and I don’t mean the fact George Lazenby is playing Bond. The Australian actually gives a very impressive performance with a similar confidence and physicality to Connery; incredible given he had never been an actor until this point. Peter Hunt made sure there was references to a few of the previous missions, which is perfectly fine until Blofeld (Telly Savalas) meets 007 and seems not to recognise him, despite Bond being the ultimate nemesis of SPECTRE who he spoke face-to-face with in You Only Live Twice. So it isn’t totally clear whether this film is a continuation or YOLT is to be ignored (because OHMSS came first in the order of the novels).
Through time I have bought into Telly Savalas more as Blofeld and he is probably the best version of the character in the context of the books. Diana Rigg is perfectly cast as Tracy di Vicenzo and equally as capable as Bond. It is very interesting how the two need each other throughout the film, both mentally and physically. Post-2020, Blofeld’s scheme to threaten the world with a deadly virus is scarily ahead of its time and another feature of the novel. I still find the idea of him brainwashing women with food allergies to make a ransom demand quite clunky. Yet it’s still exciting to see Bond undercover and also forming an alliance with a criminal in Marc-Ange Draco (excellently played by Gabriele Ferzetti).
OHMSS has such an incredible emotional impact and so much of Fleming’s Bond in it that I will inevitably sometimes watch through the lens of ‘What would Connery have done?’. Lazenby is still king for 2hrs and 22mins though, and were it not for some inconsistencies, I would have unconditional love for this film.
007. From Russia With Love (1963)
From Russia With Love was the original cold war spy thriller and such films now have an extra edge due to the current conflict in Ukraine. It’s another very grounded affair which deserves credit for staying true to the excellent Fleming book. Full of constant suspense, I appreciate the different style, with the audience being told early on about a trap being left for 007 by SPECTRE well before he knows about it.
I enjoy how the villains are a step ahead of Bond for a change, especially Donald ‘Red’ Grant, superbly portrayed by Robert Shaw. He stalks Connery’s 007 from the shadows like a preying leopard and by the time they meet face-to-face, the tension is at fever pitch. Their fight onboard the Orient Express is brutally realistic and the fact Grant has murdered Mi6 contact Kerim Bey allows the audience to reach a suitable level of disdain for this henchman. Kerim is one of the best Bond allies, heroically acted by Pedro Armendariz who was in great pain at the time with terminal cancer.
John Barry’s first musical score uses the Bond theme splendidly, even if it isn’t quite as refined as his later work. Desmond Llewelyn also makes his onscreen debut as ‘Q’ and it’s the very first time he provides Bond with a gadget that goes on to save his life. This was a pioneering move at the time, so has extra impact compared to later where we came to expect this moment in every film.
FRWL is a slow-paced film, but quite frankly that’s what the real spy world is probably like. A superbly-scripted adventure, it falls just short of the Top 5 through no fault of its own. It is a product of its time in that the 007 character and the series on the whole were not quite fully formed only two films in. My absolute favourites on this list are a nice middle ground between ‘Fun Bond’ and ‘Serious Bond’, and although they edge it, FRWL is still one of the most-watched films in my collection.
6. Licence to Kill (1989)
The pre-titles sequence of Timothy Dalton’s second and final adventure is so key to the story that follows. Felix Leiter abandons his own wedding day to thwart drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) and James Bond tells his friend “I’m coming with you”, showing absolute no hesitation in taking down a nasty criminal that has nothing to do with him or Mi6. The fact he does this - in a full grey tuxedo on his way to the church - shows us right away that Dalton’s Bond is still an absolute badass and also perfectly re-establishes the close friendship with his CIA ally.
Even with the drug world backdrop, the pre-titles still does not prepare us for the darkness that is to follow. Michael Kamen’s soundtrack is very Lethal Weapon, but vital to the tone of this tense, violent thriller. Following the murder of Leiter’s newly-wed wife, Bond spends almost the whole duration of the film as an angry, haunted individual out for vengeance for the sake of his friend whatever the cost. I simply love seeing Timothy Dalton portray this vulnerable side of the character and for so many reasons, Licence to Kill is like the sequel to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that we never got. There is a very clear reference at one point to Bond’s own tragic marriage where he is visibly shaken, so there’s a genuine argument that this is why he takes the Leiter episode so personally. Viewing the film through this lens makes me love it even more.
Dalton’s intense screen presence is very believable and he’s probably the best actor to ever portray 007, despite the very-1980s action movie undertones. The way he cleverly infiltrates Sanchez’s drug cartel from the inside, turns him against his own people and destroys his organisation is sensational to watch. Robert Davi is an incredible villain and Benecio Del Toro is terrifying as his henchman Dario; so formidable as a pair they make many other film gangsters look like caricatures. They are helped by charismatic low-level villains such as Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe) and one standout scene is when Bond mercilessly throws Ed Killifer to his death at the hands of a shark.
Despite L2K being a very different Bond film, it is still awash with those essential Bond moments, like brilliant special effects and stunts. The sight of 007 going from an underwater battle with divers to water-sking barefoot at the back of a seaplane, then taking control of the aircraft in one single sequence, gets the audience on the edge of their seat when things might be getting too dark. ‘Q’ pops up to assist Bond and thanks to Dalton’s chemistry with the character in The Living Daylights, it isn’t too jarring.
L2K is certainly the most under-rated Bond film ever made. Yet it can’t quite get into my Top 5 because it feels slightly distant from the true Bond formula at times. The only real disappointment is the weakening of certain characters in the final act and an unnecessary jubilant ending. I cringe watching Leiter planning a fishing trip with 007 from his hospital bed, days after losing a leg and having his wife murdered. Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) is a strong, commanding love interest for Bond but becomes very childish towards the end, in a film that might have been better off without any romance at all.
5. Casino Royale (2006)
I wasn’t exactly over the moon to hear Daniel Craig was cast as James Bond though I wasn’t exactly creating a website and signing petitions in protest like some people did. After a couple of viewings of Casino Royale, he had completely won me over and it has become very hard to imagine any other actor in the 007 role. Just like Connery in Dr. No, there are no growing pains in his performance and he hits the ground running, helped by probably the most faithful adaptation of any Fleming novel.
Casino Royale perfectly adapts the first ever 007 story into a 2006 backdrop, which is incredible given its premise was Europe shortly after the end of the Second World War. Director Martin Campbell knows what Bond is all about and it’s apparent throughout the action, dialogue, set design and superb cinematography. Almost everything about this film is pure Bond and the lack of humour doesn’t really matter, as this was a cold reboot back to the very start, where our man has just received his double-0 status for the very first time.
It’s an exciting new angle seeing an almost-rookie agent encountering things for the very first time, like wearing the tuxedo in a casino and ordering a vodka martini. It’s a one-off scenario, which is why I'm okay with the lack of a proper gunbarrel opening and the famous Bond theme until the very end (though David Arnold’s music is as Bondian as you can possibly get without playing the actual theme!). Chris Cornell knocks it out the park with his title song – lyrically in particular – and it works superbly in the score. Character-wise, Mads Mikkelson has the look and persona of a classic villain, while Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd is up there with the best female leads. The tragic romance between her and 007 is very believable and it had to be, given her relevance in the films to come.
Casino Royale ranks highly for me because it is simply difficult to find any faults. I don’t find it the most entertaining picture but this doesn’t matter much either, as this was not the sort of film it was meant to be. This was true ‘back to basics’ Bond and it’s ticking virtually every box in the formula. I respect it for that, even if it’s one I don’t reach for a great deal. I am trying to rank films based on what they offer technically and Casino is probably the perfect cinematic recreation of the Bond from the books. Yet there are still four films to come which – from a personal viewpoint – are in a league of their own...
4. Goldfinger (1964)
My ‘Untouchable Four’ begins with this, the gold standard of Bond. While several of my higher-ranked films are very true to their original novels, Goldfinger is the best enhancement of any Fleming story. The way it is taken into cinematic form is mind-blowing – just imagine how it must have felt seeing this in a cinema in 1964. Nobody had ever seen this sort of imagery before; a British agent sleuthing around in a sports car, realistic fight sequences, exotic locations, all shot in glorious Technicolor… boy, I could go on all day. Some of the clunky elements of the book were replaced by far more imaginative and enduring elements, such as Bond’s gadgets and of course the Aston Martin DB5. The built-in features such as the ejector seat were so ahead of their time and though it was more fantastical compared to the gritty Dr No and From Russia with Love, the seeds were being sown for the tropes we all know and love in this movie series. Without Goldfinger there would be no GoldenEye or Skyfall, no more apparent than at Bond’s briefing by ‘Q’ in his workshop, which is the very first time we see a complicated relationship building up between the two characters. Continued in every film that followed, it all came from a sudden idea by director Guy Hamilton. The iconic moments of Goldfinger go on and on. Shirley Bassey’s superb title song was almost as big as the film itself and was expertly used at all the right moments onscreen by its composer John Barry. He absolutely nails the music and further created that ‘James Bond sound’ which would be repeated and imitated so much through the years. Bond’s laser table torture is a scene where everything just seems to be working perfectly; the music, the tension and of course the dialogue. 007’s witticisms uttered when he’s in the greatest of peril became yet another hallmark of the series and that, coupled with the style, make Sean Connery’s performance quite rightly lauded. Pussy Galore is a character name that went down in history but people forget that Honor Blackman was a bloody good actress. Her steely performance broke all the stereotypes from Hollywood films of that era, which so often had one-dimensional female leads. What is unforgiveable though is the manner in which Bond ‘seduces’ Galore; it certainly doesn’t help this notion. Apart from this, the screenplay is high-quality. The special effects (audio and visual) and set designs were pioneering at the time, plus the excellent on-location photography in countries like Switzerland. The back-projection shots for Miami were not good though, even for 1964, being especially noticeable on Blu-ray. It’s fantastic however to see Bond trying to provoke Auric Goldfinger and better still, embarassing him on the golf course. Gert Fröbe plays such an excellent villain it’s barely noticeable his lines were almost completely dubbed, while Harold Sakata is great as his manservant Oddjob. I love those henchmen who are not only a real physical threat, but enjoy smiling as they watch Bond struggle!
Goldfinger is pretty much top-tier Bond from start to finish; its only major weakness being the slow pace once Bond is held captive in Kentucky. I always start to switch off here, despite some cool moments as our man saves the world once again.
3. GoldenEye (1995)
My love of Pierce Brosnan’s debut is undeniably influenced by me knowing the Nintendo 64 game inside out before I became familiar with the film. The Irish actor was just what the franchise needed at that time following the six-year gap after Licence to Kill, bringing back the laid-back, Roger Moore charm but still mastering all the physical stuff like Dalton. A natural in the role, it’s a killer first outing for Brozza, with director Martin Campbell revitalising Bond in a similar way to what he did in Casino Royale years later. It is seen by many fans as a soft reboot, but I find it believable that GoldenEye portrays the same man who was in all the previous missions, despite the passage of time.
It’s because there are so many elements that click and you can’t help but enjoy it. The pre-titles sequence alone is a tour de force of action and stealth, with not one but two incredible practical stunts onscreen; the dam bungee jump and motorcycle leap. This was real filmmaking with top quality actors to boot and the St Petersburg tank chase is also a highlight. There’s plenty more riveting action, sharp dialogue and great tension, such as Bond confronting villain Alec Trevelyan in the statue park.
Trevelyan (Sean Bean) is a very interesting villain being a traitorous ex-00 agent, though I don’t completely buy his hatred towards his old friend Bond. It does lead to some fantastic lines though and I love the way Trevelyan constantly references their past together. Natalya Simonova is portrayed very capably by Isabella Scorupco despite not being a prolific actress at the time, while Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) is quite possibly the ultimate Bond femme-fetale. Other supporting characters are similarly quite layered.
Some moments of the film are even erotic (mostly around Xenia) though GoldenEye is also quite progressive in the way so many females seem to get the better of Bond. This was a great observation by Joe Darlington of the Being James Bond podcast and it’s particularly obvious when the new ‘M’ (Judi Dench) calls 007 a “sexist, misogynistic dinosaur”. I do find the film has a few strange scenes as well, mostly in the dialogue. Quite a few of these seem to involve Natalya and for the life of me I can never understand the way she struggles to guess Boris’ password ‘chair’.
I think some of the musical choices heighten the peculiar moments in GoldenEye and while many of the darker cues are effective, I am not a big fan of Eric Serra as composer. The high point - apart from Tina Turner's title song - is actually the one piece composed by John Altman, who stood in for Serra in the tank chase scene. The score is the only real weakness of a spectacular film and I can’t help but imagine the action with John Barry or David Arnold’s orchestra playing. This would make it the perfect Bond!
2. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Similar to GoldenEye, Roger Moore’s third 007 outing edges many of the other entries in the series by giving us a real fan-pleasing ‘Greatest Hits' of Bond. The usual tropes are here but this time production values are dialled up to 11. Stunts range from very dangerous (wrestling and filming sharks underwater) to absolutely outrageous (Rik Sylvester doubling Moore in the famous cliff-edge ski jump) and the incredible set designs by Ken Adam have gone down in movie history. As there was no sound stage in the world big enough for the Liparus tanker interior, Eon Productions just built their own; becoming the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios. They just don’t make films like this any more.
Moore gives an almost perfect blend of cheeky humour and serious acting in The Spy Who Loved Me. At times, the 007 in this movie is not far off Fleming’s original creation and the chance to see him back in the navy world makes it extra special. In fairness to the writers and director Lewis Gilbert, it is a largely original story unrelated to Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me novel, even if it does slightly recycle the plot from You Only Live Twice. The concept of a villain with a base beneath the ocean was crazy but completely belongs in the world of Bond. As does the amphibious Lotus Esprit car equipped by Q-branch, so perfect for a time when the 007 franchise was dropping in popularity and needed that X-factor to reawaken interest.
Villain Karl Stromberg’s (Kurt Jurgens) scheme may have some holes, but he is one of the classic-style Bond adversaries. A lot of the iconic scenes and lines of dialogue in this movie revolve around Stromberg and his mad obsession with the sea. This is a quality which would have been lost had the writer’s gone with their original plan to use Blofeld instead (thankfully dropped due to legal wranglings with Kevin McClory). Jaws (Richard Kiel) is far more threatening in his first film appearance here, although it isn’t completely without its silly moments. Cast-wise, I love how even the smaller characters all get their moment in Spy, whether it’s Naomi the helicopter pilot or Bond’s navy ally Captain Carter.
Barbara Bach gives a great performance as Russian agent Anya Amasova and it’s an intriguing new take to watch her being briefed by her superior and sent out on a mission almost as a mirror image of Bond at Mi6. The chemistry between Bach and Moore is spot on, with a dark twist when she later learns that he was responsible for the death of her lover on a previous mission. Carly Simon’s sentiment in the title song seems very appropriate, if we imagine it from Anya’s perspective, with Bond being ‘The Spy Who Loved’ her. It’s very impressive that the song and story worked hand-in-hand like this, and Nobody Does it Better is quite rightly a signature anthem in the franchise. Composer Marvin Hamlish also uses the melody at all the right moments in the film’s score.
The Spy Who Loved Me is a spectacular movie and unlike Goldfinger, it’s a Bond adventure filled with all-time classic moments that still manages to keep its momentum going from beginning until end. If there’s a downside to that, Marvin Hamlish’s music - although fitting for the time and very Bondian - was not quite John Barry. Could there be one more film left on the list which ticks all these boxes?
1. Thunderball (1965)
Sequels to smash hit films nearly always fail to live up to their predecessors and the Bond franchise has a few examples, like Quantum of Solace following Casino Royale, and Tommorow Never Dies after GoldenEye. Coming a year after the phenomenal success of Goldfinger, Thunderball tends to be mostly remembered for the decades of legal trouble surrounding its creation. During production, Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli were forced into a difficult arrangement that gave Kevin McClory producer’s credit simply to avoid any further entanglement.
Despite these events, the stars somehow aligned in 1965 and Thunderball is quite simply a masterpiece of the spy genre. It’s the final Bond directed by Terence Young and few directors can claim fame to a film trilogy that has had such a cultural impact (Goldfinger came inbetween but didn’t follow the SPECTRE story thread). Most of it is shot on-location in the beautiful Bahamas; the perfect setting for a Bond adventure. The underwater photography is superb and very much ahead of its time, providing that exotic element that set a trend for all the films that followed. Lengthy scenes with sharks and other sea life are particularly impressive.
Similar to why I praised Tommorow Never Dies, part of the enjoyment of Thunderball is just how carefree Sean Connery’s Bond is in his race against time to stop a nuclear catastrophe. It all starts when he pours scorn over ‘M’ calling an urgent COBRA-style crisis meeting, suggesting he has "probably lost a dog". Later, the briefing scene with ‘Q’ is a brilliantly-scripted piece of comic genius. The famous 007 witticisms are here in spades but the movie treads the line between fantasy and reality very nicely. A ransom plot involving a terrorist group (SPECTRE in this case) was a very original concept in 1965 and Thunderball undoubtedly helped to shape the action movie as we know it today on so many levels, as well as being a major inspiration for spy parodies such as Austin Powers.
Story-wise, the stakes are high and made even higher by the fact Bond has to tell Domino (Claudine Auger) that her brother was killed under the orders of Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi). His masterplan has other interesting layers to it, including putting an assassin through plastic surgery to imitate a NATO officer, who then steals a British Vulcan jet, only to crash land it beneath the sea. For the 1960s, this was very compelling storytelling. Bond’s coincidental encounter with a SPECTRE agent at the Shrublands health facility is also nicely tied in, adding yet another layer to this complex but brilliant story.
SPECTRE Number 2 Largo is one of the most distinctive villains in Bond and I love the fact that despite his huge resources, he is ultimately controlled by Blofeld. Claudine Auger and Luciana Paluzzi provide one of the best lineups of sympathetic kept woman vs. dangerous femme-fetale. Fiona Volpe (Paluzzi) steals the screen with not only her beauty but highly dangerous presence, and she would be a big influence for later characters like Xenia Onatopp. On top of that, she is a SPECTRE assassin. After three consecutive films of Rosa Klebb, Pussy Galore and now Volpe, this surely rubbishes the claims that the early Bond films didn’t give us strong female characters.
Domino is also a memorable character and the fact Bond first meets her underwater is incredibly cool! Later on, 007 emerges from the sea kissing her, before an emotional moment between the two characters (as he reveals her brother’s death) that ends in him shooting henchman Vargas with a speargun. The fact all of this happened within one scene is just pure Bond and sums up what the character is all about.
As always I must give mention to the music in Thunderball, which is absolute top-tier John Barry. He expertly uses Tom Jones’ title song at appropriate moments, as well as Dionne Warwick’s Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which was originally written for the film. Both songs are terrific in their own right.
Sean Connery is at his absolute peak in Thunderball and it was the first movie to really set the full Bond blueprint that every other one tried to follow. It has its flaws like they all do. Some of the sped-up fight sequences and the background projection at the end take me out of it briefly, plus a few editing flaws, but this adventure feels more like home after watching Goldfinger. Thunderball tops my all-time list for the fact it feels so complete as a Bond film and seems to just tick every box.
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