By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Casino Royale,” Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2006]
“Nobody does it better,” Carly Simon sang famously in 1977, but who she was singing about has changed over the years. Presidents, wars, and actors have all come and gone, but British secret agent James Bond has endured for over four decades, remaining one of cinema’s most bankable attractions. This week’s “Casino Royale” marks the debut of a new Bond (the sixth, officially), Daniel Craig. Months before anyone had seen a frame of his performance, the actor’s every feature (even his blonde hair color) was subject to rigorous scrutiny.
Walking in the footsteps of some very famous actors and some very memorable performances is never easy, and every new Bond has faced his own unique dilemmas. I would know, I wasted an inordinate amount of time watching all five previous Bond’s debuts. What I found may shock you.
“Dr. No” (1962)
Synopsis: James Bond (Sean Connery) travels to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a government agent. Eventually, Bond uncovers the culprit: a half-German, half-Chinese, all-mad scientist with powerful metal hands named Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman). Dr. No plans to sabotage an American missile launch with the help of a nuclear reactor; Bond stops him with the help of a buxom seashell enthusiast named Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress).
Making a Good First Impression: Connery’s Bond is introduced at the baccarat table, a frequent locale for actors starting out on their careers as 007 (both George Lazenby and Pierce Brosnan would play baccarat in their first Bond pictures). The most famous entrance in movie history “Bond. James Bond.” is actually Connery’s introduction as the character. They’re the first words he utters when we see his face on camera. Bond’s frequent trips to the baccarat table will in no way affect the fact that no one on earth knows how to play baccarat.
What Connery Brought to the Role: A brutality and an unapologetically lusty sexuality. No other Bond would be so convincing slapping a girl around one second and making out with her the next. No other Bond could probably get away with it, and for good reason.
High Action, Low Action: James Bond movies eventually came to be known for cutting-edge fight scenes, chases, and stunt work, but “Dr. No” was actually a fairly low-budget affair. It shows in one laughable sequence when Bond is chased down a mountain road by some of the worst rear projection special effects in history. Later, the climactic battle between Bond and Dr. No is carried out with both men inside bulky radiation suits; the resultant fight looks like it was shot in slow-motion by stuntmen who were drunk and seasick.
Oops: Original “Dr. No” co-screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz took his name off the project, fearing the film would be a disaster. Later, Mankowitz worked on the Bond parody-slash-total-cinematic-disaster “Casino Royale”(1967) and decided to keep his name on the film. Double oops.
James Bond seems a lot less cool once you learn: That the classic James Bond theme was originally written by composer Monty Norman for a musical called “A House for Mr. Biswas.” As if being a hand-me-down was bad enough, it turns out the song, formerly called “Bad Sign, Good Sign,” had its own wretchedly uncool lyrics (“I was born with this unlucky sneeze/ and what is worse I came into the world / the wrong way ’round”).
“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969)
Synopsis: Bond (George Lazenby) is once again on the trail of the head of the evil terrorist organization SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas). He infiltrates Blofeld’s lair in the Swiss Alps, where the fiend is trying to destroy the world’s food supply. Bond stops him with the help of the bosomy daughter of a crime lord, Tracy Draco (Diana Riggs). Shockingly, Bond marries Tracy instead of discarding her.
Making a Good First Impression: Lazenby’s Bond first appears on screen saving Tracy from an attempted suicide by drowning. His rescue is interrupted by a few thugs, who distract Bond long enough to allow Tracy to make a quick getaway in Bond’s car. Lazenby turns to the camera and cries, “This never happened to the other fellow!” the ultimate shaming for the poor schlub who had to follow one of the most popular actors of the 20th century.
What Lazenby Brought to the Role: The notion that the role was much bigger than any one actor. Though Connery would return for one final picture, Lazenby, hounded and ridiculed before and after the film’s premiere, bit the bullet so that all future actors could take on the role in relative peace.
Suspend Your Disbelief: Much of the film hinges on Bond sneaking into Blofeld’s lair to spy on his foe disguised as a nerdy genealogist. Taking a page from another superhero, Bond’s entire disguise consists of a pair of glasses. Though Bond and Blofeld had met face-to-face in 1967’s “You Only Live Twice” and presumably Blofeld would know his enemy’s face like the back of his kitty-stroking hand, he has absolutely no idea 007 is right under his nose until Bond makes some kind of obscure genealogy mistake. More likely, he was just surprised Bond didn’t look like Sean Connery.
Ah, Romance: Most Bond pictures have a rather skewed view of love, but “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” might have the skewiest. After Bond saves Tracy, he’s approached by her father, a crime boss named Draco, who thinks that Tracy’s case of the crazies could be solved by the right man and a good stiff bout of the old how’s-your-father. In the most singularly creepy dialogue exchange in any 007 movie, Draco proposes marriage on behalf of his daughter. “What she needs is a man!” he explains. “To dominate her! To make love to her enough to make her love him! A man like you!” Aw, thanks Dad. Can I call you Dad? I mean I haven’t dominated your daughter yet, but you know I will!
Oops: This is one of the few Bonds whose big title song doesn’t actually involve the title (likely because “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” doesn’t really rhyme with anything). Instead, Louis Armstrong sings the ballad “We Have All The Time In The World,” which plays under the montage that shows Bond and Tracy falling in love. The film ends with Tracy’s murder by Blofeld. Louis Armstrong is a cruel, ironic bastard.
James Bond seems a lot less cool once you learn: That Lazenby turned down the chance to star in the next Bond picture “Diamonds Are Forever” because he was convinced that the character was too of the 60s to survive in the transition to the next decade. Nobody ever envied James Bond for his brains.
“Live and Let Die” (1973)
Synopsis: Bond (Roger Moore) travels to New York City after the deaths of several British agents. He uncovers a plot by a Harlem drug dealer named Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto) that concerns pure heroin grown on the Caribbean island of San Monique by its dictator, Dr. Kananga (Kotto also in a none-too-shocking twist, they’re the same person). Bond stops him with the help of Kananga’s busty tarot card reader Solitaire (Jane Seymore).
Making a Good First Impression: Moore’s Bond debuts in bed with a gorgeous woman. So far, so good, until Bond’s boss M (Bernard Lee) arrives and Bond greets him in a canary yellow bathrobe. Excuse me, sir, have you seen my masculinity?
What Moore Brought to the Role: The delicate touch of a dandy fop. By Moore’s own admission, he wasn’t well-equipped to handle the character’s rougher side, so the series quickly focused on his strengths: his refined sense of style and his cheeky sense of humor. And bathrobes. Lots of bathrobes.
Ah, Romance: Bond goes to incredible lengths to sneak into Kananga’s headquarters undetected, hang-gliding in under cover of darkness (in keeping with Moore’s sartorial obsession, when Bond lands, he rips off breakaway pants and busts out a reversible suit jacket for no reason whatsoever). But instead of arresting or killing the villain, he just steals his lady, deflowering Solitaire and inadvertently robbing her of her fortune-telling abilities.
Race Relations: In retrospect, the filmmakers probably regret some of the more racist elements, in which it appears that every African-American in the world is part of the same massive criminal conspiracy that stretches from Harlem to the Caribbean. The most sympathetic black character in the film is Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry), a duplicitous CIA agent who is, at best, a coward and, at worst, a traitor. As the icing on the cake, she’s quickly murdered.
James Bond seems a lot less cool once you learn: That in this picture Bond never receives a visit from gadget master Q (Desmond Llewelyn). Instead, Moore’s 007 takes time out from his mission to meet with his tailor (“Don’t forget the double vents,” he warns). For a character with a “license to kill” in a movie named “Live and Let Die,” he’s an awfully domesticated chap.
“The Living Daylights” (1987)
Synopsis: Bond (Timothy Dalton) heads to the Soviet Union to aid in the defection of a Russian general (Jeroen Krabbe), who then double-crosses the British in order to play both sides to the advantage of his employer, a mad arms dealer named Whitaker (Joe Don Baker). Bond stops both of them with the help of a curvaceous cellist-slash-assassin named Kara (Maryam D’Abo).
Making a Good First Impression: Dalton’s Bond gets a dynamic entrance that involves skydiving and runaway trucks. He eventually finds his way parachuting onto the deck of a yacht manned by a lonely woman in a bikini. Dalton introduces himself as “Bond, James Bond” but says it so uncomfortably it almost sounds like Bond is both his first and last name. He’d get better.
What Dalton Brought to the Role: A heretofore unprecedented level of vulnerability. After more than a decade of Moore’s Teflon-coated jokester, Dalton introduced a much-needed touch of humanity. Moore’s Bond casually uses women; he’s always in control. Dalton’s Bond is a romantic who can’t resist helping women out of warped sense of chivalry they’re his Achilles heel, not his hobby. The result is a more relatable, sympathetic protagonist. But I guess people don’t want relatable and sympathetic from their Bond: Dalton frequently gets lumped in with poor Lazenby as the two “unsuccessful” 007s, though “The Living Daylights” is one of the two or three best in the whole series.
Race Relations: When Bond makes his trip to Q’s laboratory, he witnesses a display of the inventor’s latest creation, a boom box that hides a rocket launcher. With a gleam in his eye, Q dubs it “The Ghetto Blaster!” Audiences everywhere cringe.
Oops: Bond and Kara’s adventures take them to Afghanistan, where they run afoul of the Mujahideen, the local freedom fighters defending the country from Soviet invasion. In a scenario similar to the contemporary “Rambo III,” Bond aids the heroic Mujahideen in their fight against the Russians, unaware that in later years, groups like it would mutate into the Taliban (Osama Bin Laden was affiliated with both groups). As a result, “The Living Daylights” includes what, in retrospect, is a truly uncomfortable moment. After the inevitable Bondian victory, Kara returns to her day job as cellist. After her performance, the Mujahideen arrive at the opera house to congratulate her. “I’m sorry we missed the concert,” one announces, “We had some trouble at the airport!”
James Bond seems a lot less cool once you learn: “The Living Daylights” includes one of the few glimpses of nudity in the entire Bond series but it’s some nasty dudes’ butts on display instead of some gorgeous lady’s, after a raid on a Russian airbase knocks over some showers.
Synopsis: Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is on the trail of a stolen helicopter and a dangerous satellite named GoldenEye in the possession of a former compatriot and 00-agent, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean). He destroys GoldenEye and kills Alec with the help of a sassy Russian computer technician named Natalya (Izabella Scorupco).
Making a Good First Impression: Brosnan’s Bond introduces himself by plummeting off a dam in an impressive bungee jump, but that’s all done by a stunt double. The actor himself debuts in the men’s toilet peeping on a Soviet soldier. Perv.
What Brosnan Brought to the Role: A real sense of cool. Connery may provide the definitive portrayal, but Brosnan’s is the first that seems to contain all his predecessor’s strengths in one impossibly handsome package: Connery’s ruthlessness, Moore’s dashing style, Dalton’s vulnerability. Brosnan adds little touches everywhere you look: only he would pause during a tank chase through the streets of St. Petersburg to adjust the knot of his tie, a very Bondian gesture indeed.
True Villainy: Bond movies are famous for outlandish, eccentric villainy. “GoldenEye”‘s General Ourumov (Gottfried John) is relatively low on the totem pole of Bond villains, but he does have one of the single most villainous scenes in the entire series. On the run from Bond in his tank, desperate to escape, he orders his driver to run over the pedestrians in his way. “Use the bumper! That’s what it’s for!” he screams as the bodies go flying. Now that’s mean.
Oops: Befitting the bombastic action movies of the 1990s, “GoldenEye” is easily the most combustible Bond movie of the series to that point. Seemingly inert objects always have habit of exploding in Bond pictures, but director Martin Campbell takes things to hilarious extremes, even acknowledging on his commentary track after a train goes boom, “Everything in this film seems to explode at the end of scene, and this is no exception.” Silliest example: Bond tosses Q’s pen grenade, it magically lands near some mines and leaking gasoline and in one fell swoop our hero has destroyed an entire underground base.
James Bond seems a lot less cool once you learn: Brosnan,who could have been the best Bond ever, never matched his promising debut in three thoroughly mediocre subsequent outings.