The twentieth century would not be the same without the massive importance of the cinema. And cinema would not be the same without the enlivening and mostly entertaining presence of the longest series of full length movies ever made with the same subjects –sex, death and snobbism. The series stars James Bond 007.
Ian Fleming wrote a fairly long list of thrillers with a British secret agent as the protagonist. who earned a 00 prefix to his codename, which put him at 7 in the hierarchy of MI6. There is quite a lot of Fleming himself in the portrait; he went to Eton, had a cold heart, and worked for the secret services during the War.
Harry Saltzman and ‘Cubby’ Broccolli were foreigners working in the flourishing film business in England. They wanted to turn the Fleming /Bond books into films. The three met with their agents, and an agreement was signed which permitted the producers to use the titles of the books, and the characters described, but not necessarily the actual story. Only one of the twenty-two films about Bond nearly follows Fleming’s original plot – To Russia with Love, the second Bond film, arguably the best of all.
The producers and the first chosen director saw dozens of actors, some known some unknown, in casting sessions lasting months. No fan of the Fleming originals liked their eventual choice, though the Scottish actor Sean Connery had enormous success with his portrayal. The literary set complained that Connery was too old (32), could never have gone to Eton, he had no class, he was too hairy; you name it, they wrote it. But Connery went ahead and played James Bond playing Sean Connery with a mildly Scottish English accent. He was 007 in Dr No (62), From Russia with Love (63), Goldfinger (64), Thunderball (65), and You only live twice (67).
He made Diamonds are forever in 1971. Connery then left to star in/produce his own films and try to forget James Bond, but came back in Never say never again in 1983 when he was fifty-three. But there had already been an interloper in the Bond series: George Lazenby, an Australian actor/model was disastrously chosen for On Her Majesty’s secret service in 1969 and the film fans didn’t like him. His co-star was the always wonderful Diana Rigg, one of Britain’s greatest stage actresses, and she stole the film away from everybody in it except perhaps ‘Q’ (Desmond Llewellen). Bu there were Bond fans who found Lazenby very good in the action sequences, especially hand-to-hand fighting. As a screen lover however, Donald Duck would have been a tastier choice. The part of ‘M’, chief of MI6, was first played by Bernard Lee, later by Robert Brown, alternatively by the James Villiers and Fox, and much later, stolidly by English star actress Judi Dench. The part of the ‘Gadgetry Chief Q’ was played throughout the series until his death, by Desmond Llewellen. Background music to most of the first films was composed by John Barry, but the original ‘Bond theme’ was not. The award-winning opening credits in at least half the films were designed by Maurice Binder.
Roger Moore had had varying success with TV series of Ivanhoe, The Saint and even Maverick in Hollywood. He was already three years older than Connery when he signed up to play Bond in Live and let die (73), The man with the golden gun (74), The spy who loved me (77), Moonraker (79) For your eyes only (81), Octopussy (83: script by George Macdonald Fraser) and A View to a kill (85). He may have decided that he was too old to do any more (he acted 007 in View at the age of fifty-eight). In the Bond books, 007 is an eternal twenty-nine year old. Moore made seven appearances, as did his great friend Sean Connery. It was time to retire from the licence to kill and make other films. He is alive and 85.
35-year old Timothy Dalton had already appeared in The Lion in Winter with Peter O’Toole and Anthony Hopkins among others including Katherine Hepburn! He signed to make only two Bonds because he had no wish to become typecast. Thus we had Dalton as 007 in The Living Daylights (87) and Licence to kill (89). Dalton’s Bonds are well acted and convincing, and the films are over-long (125 and 127 minutes respectively) but wholly professional.
If Roger Moore’s contribution to the Bond ethos was essentially comic because of the comedy, supergadgets, car chases and sometimes sublime one-liners, cinemagoers had no idea what was to come after Pierce Brosnan was proclaimed as the Bond to replace Dalton. Brosnan, not a bad actor in comedies (he was excellent in Mrs Doubtfire), could never be convincing as James Bond. Already in his forties when he made his first Bond (43), he acted even less than Roger Moore had done. Moore was once asked how he approached playing James Bond. “Raise the right eyebrow, then the left . . .” was the reply. Brosnan as James Bond was never really there. He went on to make Goldeneye, Tomorrow never dies, The world is not enough and Die another day. Each is full of gadgetry and jokes, the Brosnan eyebrow working overtime, and obviously colossal budgets. Broccolli died, Harry Saltzman had dropped out of the race long before, a daughter of ‘Cubby’ took over production and the list of directors grew longer and longer. Pierce retired from being 007 to the astonishment of his many fans, and the world had a rest from sex, violence, cruel jokes and snobbism – for a while. Then another forty-something took over the part – Daniel Craig.
With Craig as Bond a new and near malevolent darkness overcame the gadgetry and the jokes; but he recovered for the ladies the original sex appeal of Connery. In his first Bond (Casino Royale) he showed his athlete’s body in tiny blue speedos and the most elegant suits Savile Row had built for the studio throughout the entire series. A perfectly beautiful Aston Martin was smashed to pieces (the vehicles in which Bond has done his dirty work have become a legend; they include a vintage Bentley, various Aston Martins and, hilariously, a Citroen 2CV).
In Casino Royale Bond has his testicles whipped by a sweating villain who was so convincing women fainted at the premiere. The dark, cruel, misogynist, original, Fleming-Bond was back for the first time since From Russia with Love. The film was a success, but must not be confused with a 1960s travesty also called ‘Casino Royale’ written mostly by Woody Allen, with Bond played by David Niven, Peter Sellers and others, probably including Deborah Kerr! Casino Royale is actually the title of the first Bond book written by Ian Fleming, published in the Fifties. The first Craig Bond is worth watching just for the set-piece of the Venetian palace sinking into the canals.
Mr Craig took his bulldog face and his muscles to work again in what might well be the last Bond of the series, the oddly titled Quantum of Solace. This is a revenge movie with 007 in his blackest mood. It was not a commercial success, though thoroughly well-made and acted.