Recently, I managed to convince my girlfriend to watch all of the classic Bond movies, one after the other. We started with Dr No (1962) and then watched From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and finally Diamonds Are Forever (1971). They’re all notable in their own way, though in my opinion, the first four are probably the best and Diamonds is clearly the weakest entry in this series of seven films.

It’s hard to imagine what audience reactions must have been like to Dr No, back in the day. It’s been years since I saw it last. Seeing it again, I was struck by how joyful and colourful the movie was, helped in no small matter by its Jamaican setting. The eponymous Dr No himself is not the most memorable of villains, but Sean Connery’s interpretation of the famous British secret agent – handsome, sophisticated, panther-like – leaves an indelible impression, as do the supporting characters of Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) and Honey Rider (Ursula Andress).

I never realized how much of a direct sequel From Russia to Love was to Dr No until I saw them back-to-back. The story in Russia seems to pick up almost immediately after the previous movie. They were also both directed by Terence Young, which certainly helped give the sequel a sense of continuity. Like its predecessor, From Russia with Love is fairly understated, just like Robert Shaw’s portrayal of the deadly assassin Grant. Bond’s seduction of the Russian Tatiana (Daniele Bianchi) is a plot convenience more than anything, but it works, sort of, for a movie that is very much a product of the 1960s.

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Whereas Russia builds on Dr No, the next movie in the series, Goldfinger, feels a bit like a step to the side rather than the next confident step forwards. What originally seems like a plan to commit robbery turns into a more sinister plot to skew the market in gold. There’s no sign of SPECTRE, the evil organization that Bond confronted in the previous two movies. Instead, Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe) is the main antagonist here, but it’s difficult to take him seriously. Aside from his ridiculous name, the first time we meet him is as a comically-dressed fat tourist who cheats at cards and is then ridiculed for it by Bond. It’s hard to take him seriously after that.

Goldfinger is the first James Bond movie to introduce ‘the muscle’: a strong but silent henchman who does most of the dirty work for the main antagonist. This movie’s muscle comes in the form of Oddjob (Harold Sakata), who has a razor-sharp bowler hat that can decapitate statues and people alike. Don’t ask. All that’s important is that the final confrontation with Bond inside the main vault at Fort Knox is pretty exciting, and it’s denouement is a nice call back to the opening scene of the movie. Continuing the movie’s theme of providing major characters with comical names is the principal bond girl, Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) – although I must admit it’s quite something to hear Connery very seriously address someone as ‘Pussy’ (or rather ‘Pooshy’).

A more logical step in the series is Connery’s fourth outing as Bond, Thunderball. It’s regarded by many as the quintessential Bond movie: SPECTRE is back in force, seizes two nuclear devices to hold the world at ransom, there’s the evil antagonist, the vulnerable Bond girl, and a few interesting gadgets are introduced along the way. The boat used by Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) makes for a believable base of operations and the action moves along at a nice clip. Some modern reviewers think the underwater scenes go on for too long, but they’re fine by me. Unlike Goldfinger, which was directed by Guy Hamilton, this one’s again helmed by Terence Young, and it probably explains why it seems to fit much better as sequel to Russia than Goldfinger does.

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After Thunderball, the movies become very uneven. You Only Live Twice (1967), directed by Lewis Gilbert, lacked a proper screenwriter and so Ian Fleming – creator of Bond – asked his friend Roald Dahl to knock something together. Dahl, famous as a writer of children’s books, undoubtedly did his best, but the end result is a movie that established many of the tropes that would be mercilessly parodied for years to come. In particular, it seems to have established the blueprint for the Austin Powers movies, which makes You Only Live Twice rather difficult to take seriously nowadays.

Connery’s transformation into a ‘Japanese’ man is utterly laughable, as is the idea of modern ninjas, the use of a hollowed-out volcano as SPECTRE’s base of operations, the small helicopter called ‘Little Nelly’, and so forth. Donald Pleasance is hopelessly miscast as SPECTRE’s Number One, Blofeld: he’s short and chubby, with a relatively light voice that carries none of the menace characteristic of the previous, faceless incarnation of Blofeld in From Russia With Love and Thunderball. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of fun to be had here despite the ridiculous elements. I like the Japanese setting and think that Tetsurô Tanba did an excellent job as ‘Tiger’ Tanaka, the head of the Japanese secret service.

However, by the time of You Only Live Twice, Connery was purportedly sick and tired of playing Bond and the producers found a replacement in the form of Australian martial artist George Lazenby for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), direct with aplomb by Guy Hamilton. While not liked very much at the time of its release, most critics nowadays seem to regard this movie quite highly, and it’s indeed a great film. One only wonders what it would have been like with Connery in the leading role, though Lazenby does a good job and I like Telly Savalas as Blofeld a lot more than I do Donald Pleasance.

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Despite its fairly lengthy running time, the film moves along at a steady clip and has some excellent action sequences, including a chase scene on skis in the snow and the final confrontation between Blofeld and Bond towards the end of the movie. Diana Rigg is excellent as the troubled Tracy, and the love story between her and Bond, which begins as a plot hatched by Tracy’s father, Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), could have been ridiculous, but ends up being believable and even moving, with Lazenby actually doing some quality acting. The movie’s dramatic finale, in which Tracy is gunned down shortly after having married Bond, is low key, effective and moving.

That’s not to say there aren’t any missteps, of course. When Bond pretends to be the kilt-wearing Sir Hillary, the higher voice he affects is a bit too strained an attempt at comedy. There’s also some jokes that veer heavily into later Roger Moore territory, such as when he says that he feels ‘a certain stiffness coming up’ as a woman fondles his thigh. Equally poor is the obvious joke made by a woman when Bond, as Sir Hillary, drops his kilt. These poor attempts at humour mar an otherwise excellent movie that anyone ought to see and enjoy. More genuinely funny is the scene in which Lazenby picks out objects from his desk that are callbacks to the previous movies, as if the producers wanted to hammer home to the audience that, yes, this is indeed the same man you’ve seen in the other movies, despite the different face!

In any event, Lazenby wasn’t the success the producers had hoped for and so they ended up bribing Connery to return one more time for Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Blofeld is again the main villain and Bond seems to want revenge, sort of, for the death of Tracy. Charles Gray portrays the head of SPECTRE this time around and he, too, seems hopelessly miscast. It would have been more effective to have simply used Savalas again, but I guess he wasn’t available or interested. The plot is essentially the same as Thunderball, with Blofeld wanting to hold the world at ransom in exchange for money, but executed with far less gusto.

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Despite being directed again by Guy Hamilton, this seems like it belongs to a completely different series than the previous ones. Even You Only Live Twice wasn’t this bad. Aside from Connery looking less than his optimal best, the overall plot line, characters, and humour all seem to build on the worst elements of the sixties movies and anticipate rather heavily the type of stuff they would produce during the Roger Moore era. Take, for example, the moon buggy chase scene, where Bond runs through a space facility and then drives the buggy into the desert – it fits perfectly in a Roger Moore outing. The same can be said for the two clearly homosexual assassins, Mr Wint (Bruce Glover) and Mr Kidd (Putter Smith), who are played strictly, it seems, for laughs. The movie would have been better without them.

Seeing all these movies one after the other in a relatively short span of time made both the strong and weak points of each of them, and the series as a whole, more noticeable. The first four are good, enjoyable movies, even if Goldfinger is, in my opinion, the weakest of the four. You should watch them if you haven’t, or see them again if it’s been a while. There is a certain simplicity to Dr No and From Russia With Love that I feel would have been worth holding onto as the series progressed. Thunderball is the Bond formula taken to its logical next step, while You Only Live Twice is clearly a step too far. Oddly, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service fits fairly well in the Thunderball mould, and it’s a pity that the creators seemed so eager to move past that film and hurtle head long into parody territory with Diamonds Are Forever and the movies that came afterward.

Of course, if you like the Roger Moore movies, you might have a completely different opinion about these first seven entries into the ‘Bond franchise’. The only Moore film that I think is actually pretty good is For Your Eyes Only (1981), which – unsurprisingly – was a deliberate attempt on the part of the makers to strip out all of the excesses and create a simpler, more streamlined experience that, I think, works really well. Of course, it’s not until the Timothy Dalton movies that Bond really returns to form, only to lose it again during the risible Pierce Brosnan era, which was quite possibly even worse than the Roger Moore era, even though I like GoldenEye.