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November 8, 2012

Skyfall hits theaters tonight so I’ve been working tirelessly to revisit the entire 007 canon. Just so we’re clear; by canon, I mean all the films including 1967’s Casino Royale and 1983’s Never Say Never Again; and by tirelessly, I actually mean that I fall asleep during every movie I start after 9:30 p.m. What’s my age again?

While all the stories represent escapist spy fantasy, about half have a pronounced element of science-fiction, so it’s not too much of a stretch referring to the series on the whole as sci-fi.

The idea of franchise filmmaking didn’t start with Bond but the spy franchise certainly perfected it and helped usher in the modern blockbuster/tent-pole era.

The franchise owes an awful lot to its’ literary roots. Ian Fleming, author of more than a dozen 007 novels and short stories, created the character in his image. Fleming’s novels, informed by personal experiences as a decorated Intelligence Officer in the British Royal Navy, offered up rich details which would become the very fabric of the spy film genre for decades to come.

As for the film franchise, it all started in 1961 with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman and their newly-formed Eon Productions. With this studio and the 007 license, the two men initiated the Bond franchise essentially as a family business. For a 22-film series, there has been a surprising level of continuity among crew members. Directors, writers and other crew members often stayed on for several films or returned after a hiatus and when new people were given the reigns, they were frequently brought up from within. Cubby Broccoli was even succeeded in his duties by his daughter Barbara who remains in the role today. This helps explain the consistency in production value and sense of pride so clearly evident in this storied franchise.

History sure is nice, but the big draw of the Bond films is really… Bond. There have been six actors to officially take the role. Figuring out who was the best can get contentious but Sean Connery, the first, clearly left major shoes to fill when he called it quits.

In 1962, Dr No dropped and after that, the world wanted more Bond and more Connery. While Dr No is streamlined fun, a mere taste of what the series had in store, it proved a major star-making turn for Connery. He wasn’t Fleming’s first choice by any stretch, but he was tall, athletic and very cool. While Dr No is overshadowed by many later installments, it made its mark by introducing the principal recurring characters (Bond, M, Moneypenny) and teasing the international criminal organization SPECTRE – Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion (seriously, how cool is that?!).

Next came From Russia With Love, which upped the ante considerably with better villains, and a much broader scope. The hedge maze sequence prior to the credits is unreal. It thrills and ups the sense of danger, a trend that continues through the next several films. From Russia With Love is probably the most important spy film of all time as it really gets into the nitty gritty of spy work (thanks to Fleming), a bit more so than Dr No. We get a healthy dosing of gadgets, codes, passwords, and fixing a silencer to a pistol with one hand. Russia marks the first appearance of franchise staple Desmond Llewelyn as Q (Quartermaster) and the main early-Bond nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld who would be played by several actors over the course of almost two decades.

I’d be remiss to not mention Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), one of the all-time great Bond villains. This Russian defector and high-ranking SPECTRE agent is a real monster. Her appearance, gruff demeanor, not to mention her use of brass knuckles and a hidden shoe-blade have provided lasting cultural touchstones.

Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965) continued the dramatic ascension of the franchise. These two films in particular represent the pinnacle of the franchise and by most standards were not rivaled again until the early Pierce Brosnan era or even 2006’s Casino Royale. Goldfinger and Thunderball not only delivered the espionage goods, they injected the franchise intravenously into world culture. These films perfected the potent formula of cars, gadgets, quips and of course, women, and paved the way for all action films to come.

Since Connery’s heyday, 007 has seen his ups and downs but it is a testament to the original folks at Eon Productions that he is still relevant today. All signs point to Skyfall being an excellent addition to the canon and perhaps it will even elevate the franchise to a new high. As much as I enjoy going into detail about the history of Bond on screen, I really need to get back to prepping myself for Skyfall.

From → Essay, Preview

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