I shaved off my lockdown beard last night. All sorts of thoughts should have been running through my head: what does this beard represent, grown as it was throughout the most seismic global event of the century, and is my shaving it off a psychological means of reclaiming myself? Something like that?
Actually, I was thinking how much this felt like the scene in Die Another Day when a straggle-bearded James Bond, fresh from fourteen months of torture and captivity, strolls into a luxury hotel in Hong Kong, asks for his usual suite and promptly de-Bee-Gees himself. I even hummed the theme song as I shaved, which is harder than it sounds.
Such golden moments as these, spun from nearly sixty years of Bond adventures, have become part of the fabric of our lives. Is it even possible to put on a dinner suit and bow tie without making a Bond quip to the mirror? I certainly can’t.
The sight of an Aston Martin overtaking me, or the sound of a deck of cards being shuffled is enough to start Monty Norman’s iconic theme playing in my head; and how maddening must it be to be a mixologist serving vodka martinis, having to hear the same ‘Shaken not stirred’ line, 48 times every evening?
This inveigling of Bond movie moments into our everyday lives is cross-generational too. The grand tradition of families sat together watching a James Bond film on television has been an evergreen since the 1970s. Grandparents and their grandchildren have all grown up with James Bond, 007 somewhere in the background.
Over the course of 24 globe-trotting adventures (with the 25th still in something of a holding pattern) six actors have played Ian Fleming’s famous literary creation, giving them an unparalleled opportunity to create moments of cinematic gold that millions of film fans will remember fondly forever.
While Bond takes a considerably longer time to die than first planned, here’s a quick look back at each actor’s reign to see which of their moments shone brightest. Oh, and sorry David Niven, Peter Sellers, Barry Nelson, Bob Holness and all the other names beloved of pub quiz teams across the country – we’re keeping this official.
He wasn’t the first choice by a long shot. Ian Fleming wanted Richard Todd or David Niven. The director wanted Richard Johnson, and everyone from Cary Grant to Richard Burton turned the role down. It didn’t matter; the moment he lit his cigarette and introduced himself to Sylvia Trench and the watching world, it was clear that Sean Connery was Bond, James Bond.
Over the first five Bond movies, Connery through the sheer force of his incandescent charisma and a combination of suave, seductive charm, cat-like athleticism, and brutal threat, created the 007 template by which every successive actor would find themselves compared.
In creating Bond for the big screen, Connery’s tenure is packed to the gills with moments to treasure. Bond’s close call with Goldfinger’s laser beam, or his airborne dogfight in “Little Nellie.” His jet-pack escape in Thunderball or his response to meeting Plenty O’ Toole – ‘Named after your father, perhaps?’
Then there was From Russia With Love, arguably his finest moment, and the astonishing, claustrophobic fight to the death with Spectre agent Robert Shaw, who gives away his status as a wrong ‘un by ordering RED wine with his sole!
However, for the miraculous, world changing effect of combining one Anthony Sinclair suit, one Lanvin shirt, one cigarette, one superstar and three words, Sean Connery’s entrance in Dr. No takes some beating.
Ah, poor George. Forever doomed to be known as “the other fella”, Lazenby was convinced that one stint as 007 would be springboard enough to launch a decades-long career as a leading man. Not to be. His single Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was for many years written off as an experimental anomaly; a mistake never to be made again.
Over the years, OHMSS has only grown in stature and is now considered one of the very best, especially since Christopher Nolan cited it as a major influence on the third act of Inception. Cleaving tightly to the source novel (for once), it survives now as a unique, mature, elegant, beautifully scored, stunningly edited spy movie, existing on its own unique terms.
For all that, Lazenby himself is still given short shrift as an actor, and few would claim that he was his generation’s De Niro. However, he has plenty of moments that he can be rightly proud of. For one thing, he was the hardest Bond by a long shot. His fight scenes, on the beach at the start and in his Portuguese hotel – after which he helps himself to spot of Beluga caviar – are bone-crunching, bruising affairs, Lazenby’s imposing prop-forward frame transformed into a tornado of huge swings and jaw-cracking punches.
His most celebrated moment arrives just before the end credits when (51 year-old spoiler alert) his wife is gunned down minutes after their wedding. His sweet, heartbreaking exchange with the motorcycle cop who arrives – ‘It’s quite all right, really. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon…’ could not have been improved upon by any other Bond actor. Frankly, I’m welling up thinking about it.
Sean Connery was tempted one last time back into the role (for a then unheard-of $1.25m cheque) in Diamonds Are Forever, which replaced the earnest and sincere tone of its predecessor with a cartoonish, ‘nudge-wink’ self-awareness with which Connery seemed a little ill at ease.
The next actor to walk in front of the famous gun barrel had no such qualms about playing the part with tongue firmly in cheek. Roger Moore’s 12 year long era saw the series embrace the inherent absurdities of the franchise, with immense success.
As Moore often said, “This man is supposed to be a spy and yet, every bartender in the world offers him martinis that are shaken, not stirred.” Many of his great Bond moments leaned towards the comic – the scrap with Chang in the Venetian glass museum in Moonraker, the Citroën 2CV chase in For Your Eyes Only, or 80% of A View To a Kill.
A lot of Moore-moments though are just pure class. The Spy Who Loved Me (his best) is full of them, specifically the bullet-strewn chase around Sardinia which ends with Bond’s white Lotus Esprit pitching into the sea – ‘Can you swim?’ – and becoming a submersible.
The Spy Who Loved Me was a mega-budget gamble to get the Bond franchise back on target, and it paid off handsomely, showcasing Moore’s finest hour even before the opening credits. Pursued down a snow-capped mountain by Russian agents, Bond is eventually chased over the side of a cliff, plummeting to his certain death…until a Union Jack parachute is unfurled and the Bond theme arrives triumphantly. Hooray!
The Bond producers have always been canny is realising when they need to change tack. Even though Moonraker was the most successful Bond film to date, it was evident that a silliness perimeter had been breached, and so the following adventure, For Your Eyes Only was deliberately earth-bound, gadget-free detective story.
Similarly, when Moore retired, Timothy Dalton’s arrival signalled a desire to leave the irreverence behind and play it straight. Dalton wanted to take the character back to Fleming’s original creation. Out went the gags, in came the romantic, determined, ultimately cold-hearted assassin.
Dalton only had two opportunities to make his mark as James Bond. Legal shenanigans behind the scenes held up his third movie for so long that the actor had moved onto other things. At the time, his work appeared to have alienated an audience used to sight gags and Moore’s light touch. However, in hindsight, given the success of Daniel Craig’s introspective interpretation, Dalton was simply 20 years ahead of his time.
He left behind many golden moments, especially in Licence To Kill, a film written off as a flop in 1989 but often found these days in many a critic’s top ten list. The truck chase at the end is astonishing, as is the imaginatively constructed set-piece where Bond harpoons a sea-plane, waterskiing behind it and finally commandeering the plane and escaping.
In The Living Daylights, we see him early on as the crack-shot assassin as envisioned by Fleming, wearing a super-cool dinner jacket with a black-out collar. A seemingly ice-cold, emotionless killer, he is nonetheless able to tell within seconds that his intended target (Maryam D’Abo) “didn’t know one end of her rifle from the other,” and is a skilled enough shot to deliberately miss by mere inches – a perfect encapsulation of the Dalton Bond.
Pierce Brosnan had famously gained and lost the role of James Bond before, when his contract for Remington Steele prevented him from making The Living Daylights in 1987. When he finally nabbed the part, eight years later, he was determined to make up for lost time.
In the years since Licence To Kill, there had been several interlopers vying for Bond’s crown and there was a sense in 1995 that 007 had been made obsolete by the likes of Die Hard’s John McClane or True Lies’s Harry Tasker.
Brosnan’s first appearance as James Bond was a swift rebuke to those doubters. The film opened with the most impressive bungee jump in cinema and even before the titles, he had driven a motorbike over a cliff in pursuit of a plummeting plane into which he managed to sky-dive and fly off back to HQ. In your face, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Brosnan clocked up some timeless moments in his four-film reign. The speedboat chase down the Thames at the start of The World is Not Enough was a classic opener and the bomb-diffusing scene, simultaneously pelting through an oil pipe later in the film is a thriller. His swordfight with Gustav Graves in Die Another Day is a high point in a low film, and the motorcycle stunts with Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Days are endlessly watchable.
He’s a subtle actor with a light touch when allowed to be, and sometimes amidst the explosions and the carnage, the quieter moments are when Bond movies make their most lasting marks. There is no finer example of this than GoldenEye’s tank chase through the streets of St. Petersburg. Having swerved his tank through most of the city walls and dropped a statue of a winged stallion onto his pursuers, Bond takes a moment off to quietly adjust his tie. At that moment, we all knew Brosnan was the right man for the job.
In much the same way that For Your Eyes Only had corrected the silliness of Moonraker, Die Another Day’s CGI excesses had taken Bond to a point where the producers knew they needed to refresh the brand. After the success of the Bourne films, James Bond in an invisible car seemed no less absurd than Roger Moore whizzing across St. Mark’s Square on a gondola-hovercraft.
Fortuitously, the rights to Fleming’s first Bond novel Casino Royale had finally come their way, and so the producers went for broke and started all over again, rebooting the franchise for a dark, paranoid, post 9/11 21st Century. To howls of indignation from some of the less imaginative corners of the internet, Daniel Craig was cast as a young James Bond, not yet a full 00 agent when we first meet him, brutally dispatching an enemy agent in a public lavatory, in the memorably monochrome pre-titles sequence.
14 years later – the longest ever stint for a Bond actor – it’s hard to even imagine what the naysayers were so upset about, such has been his extraordinary success in the role. His third film, Skyfall, released after the London Olympics which had seen 007 escorting The Queen to a parachute jump, was the first Bond movie to gross over $1billion.
His resumé of golden moments is an impressive list. The train-top fight in Skyfall, or Spectre’s one-take opener. The psychological duel with Vesper on the train, or the rather dazzling chase through the opera house in Quantum of Solace, perhaps?
Like Brosnan, Craig’s best Bond moments are often the quietest, and least showy: his drunken interrogation of a mouse is one of Spectre’s highlights. Similarly, his rivalry with Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) in Casino Royale, played out mainly in intense stares over green baize, emphasised the new grounded direction in which Bond was now pointed.
Having already lost a valuable hand to his blood-weeping nemesis – “A derangement of the tear duct…nothing sinister.” – and having just been taken close to death by a poisoned Martini, Bond returns to the poker table for the final hand. The look on Bond’s face when he surmises that he most likely has the upper hand on Le Chiffre is really quite sublime.
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