Ranking Bond Pt 1: The Connery Years
Editor's Note: With our new web site and expanded audience hungry for content, we're reposting some of our most popular content from the old version of Phabulousity. This James Bond movie ranking series was originally posted in November of 2020. Please enjoy!
As we all know, eight months of COVID quarantining takes a toll: On your mental health, on your physical well-being, on your stress levels, on your social life. We’ve been lucky; my wife and I both already worked at home, our son has adapted well to virtual learning, and we’re all (knock on wood) safe and healthy. Perhaps least among our worries, but worrisome nonetheless, is that we’re running out of fucking television to watch. The wife and I blazed Mad Men early. Then it was on to seasons 1 and 2 of Fargo. Then we revisited the Sopranos; other than the cell phones and Tony’s propensity for print newspapers, the series has aged well. Now, we’re reduced to Schitt’s Creek and HBO’s The Vow. In other words, it’s getting desperate at Castle Ferguson.
So, it befell to me to talk my thirteen-year-old into working our way through the James Bond filmography: twenty-four films, ranging in quality from pretty great to mind-bogglingly awful. Why revisit Bond, when the entire conceit of a hyper-masculine white male snogging and shooting his way around the world has become such a toxic trope? Because Bond is cinema history—and, as a Gen-X dad, it’s my duty to give my son a proper pop-culture education.
Because it’ll take a while to work our way through the entire filmography, I’m breaking my ranking into distinct periods based on the lead actor. First up: The Connery years.
1. From Russia With Love (1963): From Russia With Love established the James Bond cannon. Its influence reaches throughout the Bond filmography; Daniel Craig’s 007 is essentially an homage to the character Connery creates in this entry. Iconic character tropes include Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebbs, the butch German villainess; Pedro Armendariz’s Ali Kerim Bey, the sidekick who dies in the second act to raise the stakes; and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant, the deadly superhuman assassin whom Bond must vanquish in the climax. As Grant, Shaw is outstanding; you really believe he wants to murder Bond, and their brutal clash on the Orient Express stands as a top-five Bond fight scene. The attack on the gypsy camp also remains one of the best Bond set pieces. But Daniela Bianchi’s Tatiana Romanova is a most insipid Bond Girl; she spends the entire film mooning over Connery, admiring herself in the mirror, and trying on lingerie (plus, her dialogue was dubbed). Russia features the debut of Desmond Llewelyn as Q, Bond’s gadget supplier; Llewelyn would play the role until 1999’s The World is Not Enough.
2. Goldfinger (1964): The most iconic and stylish of the Connery Bond films, if not the best. The (certainly misogynistic) image of a dead and naked Shirley Eaton covered head-to-toe in gold paint is arguably the most indelible image from the entire canon; the scene established the trope of a Bond sexual conquest dying in the first act. Goldfinger also cemented the final set of Bond tropes: Opening set-pieces distinct from the main plot; sexist female character names (Pussy Galore, anyone?); pop-star-sung songs over the opening credits; and of course, the silver Aston Martin, one of the most famous cars in cinema history. The third-act Fort Knox robbery is a deflating letdown, but the first two acts of Goldfinger are classic Bond. Harold Sakata’s Oddjob remains a top-three Bond antagonist.
3. Thunderball (1965): Bond at the height of his 1960s prowess. Chasing a pair of missing nuclear weapons stolen by the infamous terrorist organization SPECTRE, Bond finds himself racing to and fro across the Bahamas in a truly impressive collection of short-shorts. Notable primarily for the badass underwater speargun battle at the climax, as well as for villain Emil Largo’s shark-filled swimming pool, a conceit later parodied in Team America: World Police. By this third entry, the series wasn’t breaking any new ground, but it’s still good fun.
4. Dr. No (1962): The first entry in a beloved canon of films is always special; that doesn’t mean it’s the best. Notable primarily for introducing several stations of the cross for subsequent Bond films: The “Bond. James Bond.” introduction; the “shaken, not stirred” martini; Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), the first Bond Girl; M as Bond’s boss and Miss Moneypenny as his work-wife; and the third-act construct of an evil genius holed up in a fortress/laboratory surrounded by nameless minions. The film also began the unfortunate early Bondian practice of casting actresses for their looks and then dubbing their dialogue. No real standout moments, but the film established many core elements of the Bond playbook.
5. You Only Live Twice (1967): By this point in the franchise, Connery had soured on both the constraints of the Bond role and the fame associated with it. With a script by famed children’s author Roald Dahl, you might expect YOLT to be one of the strongest entries in the franchise—but you’d be wrong. Bond is a curiously inert protagonist, mostly wandering around Japan and observing the action driven primarily by Donald Pleasance’s villainous Blofeld (famously parodied as “Dr. Evil” by Mike Meyers). The climax doubles down on Dr. No’s third-act big battle within the villain’s underground lair/laboratory. This particular climactic battle features Japanese ninjas fighting Blofeld’s jump-suited minions with katana swords, so that’s cool.
6. Diamonds are Forever (1971): After a one-film absence with George Lazenby in a one-and-done performance, Connery returns to the franchise to make bank in his final appearance as 007. Too bad that the film is such a mess. Diamonds is nearly devoid of the spectacular set pieces that define the best Bond films, and the climactic battle on Blofeld’s oil rig is weak sauce compared to the best Bondian blowouts. Bond girl Jill St. John is ill-used, wearing a curly fright-wig and fairly bursting out of various bikinis and low-cut tops. Highlights include future sausage magnate Jimmy Dean playing a Howard Hughes-type reclusive billionaire, and watching Bond get his ass kicked by femme fatales Bambi and Thumper.
Read Ranking Bond Part II
Read Ranking Bond Part III
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Rick Ferguson is the author of The Chronicles of Elberon fantasy trilogy. Rick is also a globally recognized marketing expert with appearances in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Fast Company, the Globe & Mail Canada, the Guardian UK, the Financial Times India, MSNBC, and the Fox Business Channel. He has delivered keynote speeches on marketing principles and best practices on six continents. He is also master of time, space, and dimension.