As regular readers of this blog (are there such things?) will know, I love a long-running franchise, and I love a list. With no Doctor Who until the Christmas special, I thought I’d turn my eye on that other audio-visual hero of the sixties, played by a succession of British actors, resurrected and suddenly made relevant again in the twenty-first century – James Bond. But which James Bond film is best? Well, all of them obviously. At least, each one is best for something. And before you ask, no the Casino Royale with David Niven and Woody Allen doesn’t count and nor does Never Say Never Again.

Dr No (1962)

w: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkely Mather; d. Terence Young
The one with: Ursula Andress coming out of the sea, “That’s a Smith & Wesson and you’ve had your six”, Jamaica, metal hands
Overview: Rarely has a film series started with such confidence, such dash and such style. Connery, while only bearing a passing resemblance to the Bond of the books, instantly inhabits the role, his body-builder’s bulk moving cat-like under director Terence Young’s sheen of sophistication – he’s magnetic. Other elements of the series are also in place right from the start – Monty Norman’s theme tune (arranged by John Barry), the bonkers villain with his mad plan, Ken Adam’s demented set-design, the girl – but others have yet to emerge – the titles sequence starts with the gun barrel but then goes all wonky, the action is a little underbudgeted, there’s no Q and it does take a while to get going. What survives after nearly fifty years is the vitality and opulence. If it looks this fresh today, just imagine how audiences in 1962 reacted. Ursula Andress as Honey Rider is dubbed throughout by Monica van der Zyl.
Best for: Entrance of a Bond girl. In casting, dialogue, camera work, everything, this is iconic.

From Russia With Love (1963)

w. Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood; d. Terence Young
The one with: the gypsy encampment, Kerim Bey, Red Grant, Rosa Klebb and her spiky shoes
Overview: Free of the excesses of the later efforts, but even more confident than its predecessor, this is probably the only Bond film which really functions as an espionage movie, easily the best of the 1960s, and possibly the best one ever. Scene after scene is both iconic and brilliantly-staged – the pretitles unveiling of not-Bond, Rosa Klebb’s knuckle-duster-assisted selection of Red Grant, Robert Shaw as Red Grant, the often-imitated but never equalled train fight, and the first love scene between Bond and Tatiana – still being used to audition new Bonds and new girls twenty-five years later. While it doesn’t have the wall-to-wall action of many later films, what makes this movie succeed is that the spy stuff is genuinely gripping, but when it goes for action it really delivers. Daniella Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova is dubbed throughout by Barbara Jefford.
Best for: Best friends. Kerim Bey is just perfect.

Goldfinger (1964)

w. Richard Maibaum, Paul Dehn; d. Guy Hamilton
The one with: The golf game, the Aston Martin, Oddjob, Shirley Eaton covered in gold paint. “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.”
Overview: Only three movies in, and the template is pretty much set. Gun barrel, pretitles sequence (this is the one where Bond unzips the wetsuit to reveal the white tuxedo), wobbly graphics over wailing song, villain, sacrificial lamb girl, chase, new girl, villain’s plan, villain’s plan foiled, tah-dah! Q and John Barry, introduced in the last film, are now permanent residents and the action sequences and gadgets reach a new deliriously over-the-top level with the introduction of the Aston Martin. Yet for all the iconic images which dominate it; for all that the villain, henchman and girl set the template for all the films that follow, actually as two hours of cinema it’s not perfect, thanks to a rather static middle third during which Bond is locked up and inactive. Gert Frobe as Goldfinger is dubbed throughout by Michael Collins.
Best for: Theme song, obviously.

Thunderball (1965)

w. Richard Maibaum, John Hopkins; d. Guy Hamilton
The one with: all the underwater stuff. No, not that one, the other one.
Overview: Oh dear. What went wrong? Goldfinger’s Aston Martin is replaced by a fairly risible rocket pack (although genuine – albeit fantastically limited in range), Honor Blackman’s stunningly self-assured Pussy Galore is replaced by the dull and whiny Claudine Auger – dubbed throughout by Monica van der Zyl again, Gert Frobe’s charismatic villain is replaced by the anonymous and bland Adolpho Celi – dubbed throughout by Robert Rietty – and the lush, witty and tense final showdown at Fort Knox is replaced by an awful lot of slow and murky underwater photography, and a hamfistedly back-projected and undercranked boat chase. It’s not all bad news – the opening scenes at Shrublands are fun (although it doesn’t feel like the movie’s started yet) and Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe is wonderful, but to modern eyes most of this looks ponderous and clumsy. Audiences at the time didn’t seem to mind – adjusted for inflation it’s the most successful Bond movie ever by quite some way.
Best for: death of the villain’s number two (you can’t really call Fiona a “henchman”) – “Do you mind if my friend sits this one out? She’s just dead…”

You Only Live Twice (1967)

w. Roald Dahl (yes, that Roald Dahl); d. Lewis Gilbert.
The one with: the base in the volcano, Donald Pleasance as the scarred and cat-stroking Blofeld trying to start World War III (no, not that one, the other one).
Overview: With new occupants in the writer’s and director’s chairs, this movie also sees the first time that the Fleming novel of the same name is almost totally abandoned. Novellist and short-story writer Dahl, just embarking on his career as a children’s writer, contributes his only Bond screenplay and it represents the last piece of the Bond puzzle. All future movies will attempt to recapture fond memories of From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, or will be attempting to reinvent the series in some way. To be fair, many of these attempts are wildly successful, but the period of heady discovery ends here, with Blofeld’s fantastic underground lair. When people spoof Bond, reference Bond or reuse the archetypes, more often than not it’s this film they’re thinking of, not least because the basic plot (in the sense of storyline and in the sense of evil plan) is recycled half-a-dozen more times after this. What’s sometimes forgotten is – as with Goldfinger – how sluggish much of the middle is. Tetsuro Tamba as Tiger Tanaka is dubbed throughout by Robert Rietty again.
Best for: villain’s lairs. How do you top a volcano?

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

w. Richard Maibaum; d. Peter Hunt.
The one with: all the skiing. No, the other one.
Overview: Connery quits! In response the series firstly attempts to test the theory that it doesn’t really matter who plays Bond, and secondly returns to adapting novels rather than inventing bonkers plots to stitch together stunt sequences. Neither proves to be a wholly satisfactory experiment. George Lazenby, supposedly cast because he moved so beautifully, looks stiff and awkward, sounds ghastly (and is himself unfathomably dubbed by George Baker when supposedly impersonating Sir Hilary) and never convinces. Opposite him, Telly Savalas is surprisingly good as Blofeld – but not as good as Pleasance and because it’s such a faithful adaptation of the book, they just ignore the fact that Blofeld knows perfectly well what Bond looks like because he met him Japan. Then, there’s Diana Rigg. The Bond people have gone Avengers shopping again and come up with a stunning performance from the erstwhile Emma Peel. With Rigg on the screen, it’s almost possible to forget about Lazenby. In widescreen, the film looks amazing, but many of the chases and fights go on too long (the bobsled run lasts about a week), that awful undercranking is back and there’s that ghastly line at the end of the pretitles sequence. On the other hand, the love story actually works, so does the espionage stuff, and the ending is absolutely stunning in every way. Much of it is the best the series ever managed, much else is dated and clumsy. It’s also almost the longest Bond movie, running well over two hours (only the 2006 Casino Royale is longer) and it’s in desperate need of a trim. As well as Lazenby, Gabriele Ferzetti as Draco was dubbed by David de Keyser.
Best for: genuine emotion. But is that what you want from a Bond film?

Next time… Roger Moore and the seventies!

The difference between science and magic
Which James Bond film is best? Part Two: The 1970s