James Bond at 50: The Spy Who Loves Us
Agent 007 celebrates a landmark birthday with yet another big-screen adventure, 'Skyfall'
Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade.
The official James Bond film franchise kicked off Oct. 5, 1962, with the premiere of Dr. No, starring Scotsman Sean Connery as England’s sexiest weapon. Fifty years and five Bonds later, Daniel Craig will play the iconic character for the third time on Nov. 9, when the 23rd film in the franchise, Skyfall, opens in U.S. theaters.
Those of us old enough to have been along for the entire ride know that we’re a lot creakier than 007 is on screen. That's because we still have most of our original parts whereas James Bond keeps getting reborn as yet another sporty and studly male star in his mid-30s to 40s. (Trivia: At 30, George Lazenby was the youngest ever to play Bond in his single outing in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, while Roger Moore, at 57, was the oldest in his final film, 1985’s A View to a Kill.)
My first memories of the Bond films date to when I was a kid, kneeling in the aisle at the A&P grocery in my hometown in central Pennsylvania, poring over those early movie layouts in Life and Look magazines. I was more interested in the scanty bikinis and scary villains than in Bond himself. I also remember studying the toy section of the Sears & Roebucks catalog, fascinated by the early action figures.
The first Bond film I ever saw, at the advanced age of 12, was You Only Live Twice (1967), a year after it opened. I can’t say I remember much other than boasting about it to all who would listen, convinced this was clearly a sign of impending adulthood.
I’m pretty sure I've seen every single Bond movie since then, though it was more for professional reasons — I was reviewing them, even back in college — than any major passion for the series.
My enthusiasm for the character has waxed and waned, often depending on who plays him. Connery was the ur-Bond. No one was tougher or had a harder edge. Lazenby was an expendable lightweight. Moore joked his way through the series. Timothy Dalton seemed like he was embarrassed and didn’t want to be there. Pierce Brosnan was a solid Bond, sexy and suave, with more than a glint of humor, though the franchise got mighty tired on his watch. I remember sitting through several Bond films of that era and wondering, as the plots grew even more preposterous than the endless parade of dopey Bond girls, why 007 doesn't just marry one of these women so the series can morph into a Nick and Nora Charles kind of thing. (Or Mr. and Mrs. Smith, for those too young to get The Thin Man reference.)
Craig, the current Bond, arrived in 2006 with Casino Royale and injected new life and vigor into the series. That movie smartly rolled back time to the very beginning, serving up an origins story, telling us how Bond became Bond. It helped that Craig, a veteran of both vivid British indies (The Mother and Layer Cake) and a few lackluster Hollywood action extravaganzas (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), was a more accomplished actor than many of his predecessors.
The follow-up film, Quantum of Solace (2008), wasn’t as good, but the new one, Skyfall, will please fans. Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), it puts the emphasis solidly on the characters rather than gadgetry or special effects. With a cast that includes Dame Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes and Javier Bardem (who gives the movie a creepy jolt every time he shows up as a give-you-goose-bumps bad guy), Skyfall ably demonstrates that there’s life in the franchise yet.
Who knows? Maybe Bond will make it to 100 — not that many of us will be around to help him celebrate. But, like the world he protects, it's good to know he's out there.