The top three on my list: here we go.
3. Goldfinger (1964)
This is where I differ with a lot of Bond fanatics: whilst I love Goldfinger (and although I don’t calculate it into my rankings, know it’s what made Bond so big), and it is one of the best ever, I do not rank it at the top, simply because a few aspects of the plot do not work for me. As with other 60’s Bonds, I view some scenes that are now controversial, or at a minimum not politically correct, within the time it was made, although they may not be easy to watch nowadays.
However, Goldfinger did so many things right. The pre-titles sequence is nearly perfect, allowing the film to begin properly. The heavy is portrayed as very intelligent, ruthless, and with a great ability to think several steps ahead, it is only a few strokes of luck, along with his wits, that saves Bond in the end. The large sets make the atmosphere of the film believable, as well as the almost warm exchanges that Bond and Goldfinger have regarding the latter’s plot to cause worldwide economic instability (a plot point revisited, in a fashion, in Goldeneye). Honor Blackman’s mature portrayal of Pussy Galore (at 37, still the oldest Bond girl) is one of the more fascinating dynamics Connery’s Bond has with a leading lady.
If you’re wondering why it’s at three, it’s for this reason; as with any other high-ranking Bond, the film is very entertaining. However, my qualm with the plot is the origin of Bond’s mission: why is the Bank of England using MI6 to investigate a possible smuggling accusation on a legitimate international businessman? Seriously, if you listen to the briefing that sends Bond on his mission, there is no mention of any suspicions that Goldfinger is plotting what he is actually plotting, which makes the original reason for Bond’s mission (the Bank of England wants to seize Goldfinger’s British holdings) seem more like greed than anything else (unless I’m missing something, which does happen).
My qualm, however, ends once Bond is on the road and on his mission, and particularly once he realizes that Goldfinger is actually up to something really serious. The scenes of Connery playing Bond on the road, trying to remain professional, and not indulge himself too much, are amongst some of my favorite moments, and may I add that’s something Roger Moore’s Bond never seemed to stop to think about.
The scene stealer of the film is Oddjob, whose character and method of killing (his lethal hat) have become the fodder for parody and homage. Fittingly enough, he has a great fight with Bond, who has to think on his feet to dispatch his foe.
2. From Russia With Love (1963)
An incredible Cold War thriller in which SPECTRE tries to get ahead by manipulating East vs. West, and vice versa, as well as going out of their way to embroil MI6 in a sex scandal, only to be thwarted by Bond, who they had assumed would be the agent the British would send. The villains, whose characters are real cinematic gems, such as Roba Clebb and Red Grant, are strong-willed, ruthless, determined, and of course arrogant enough to think that they can build a trap that will be successful, thinking they can outthink, outflank, and out-maneuver James Bond.
The film’s setting is very appropriate for a Cold War film; Istanbul has enough scenic beauty, as well as unusual backdrops, to provide a great setting for such a complex plot. The film takes great pains to make the plot as easy to understand as it can, something accomplished quite simply by having Red Grant shadow Bond around the Balkans. Of course, it all comes to a head when they’re on the train, in a fight scene that is still brutal to this day.
From Russia With Love works because it has many different layers to it, and each layer gets resolved one by one. The plot is just complex enough to hold your interest, yet simple enough to understand; after all, we all know that Bond will emerge triumphant at the end. The film also introduces us to the hierarchy of the SPECTRE organization, which has since entered popular culture and was most notably parodied by the Austin Powers series.
1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
I love the Craig Bond films because they show him at his most human; however the first Bond film to do that, and do it best, was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which Bond’s humanity comes through, and he opens himself up and lets himself fall in love. A lot of Bond purists dismiss it because of the presence of George Lazenby (who is pretty good at the role, especially given the interpretation of it put on screen), which is one reason why casual fans are not too keen on it. However, what they all miss is the strong relationships depicted on screen: the mentor-protege relationship between M and Bond, with their mutual dependence on Moneypenny; Bond and eventual wife Tracy, as well as his father-in-law, all of whom come to depend on each other to save their loved ones. Even the dynamic between Bond and Blofeld is portrayed as one with mutual respect, even if it lays beneath the service.
The plot is ingenious, the villains strong, and even the supporting characters are given time to develop. However, for once, the real heart of the film lays within Bond, who not only falls for Tracy, but risks his life and career to save her, something I don’t see as genuine coming from Connery or Moore’s Bonds, but which Lazenby pulls off brilliantly; the humorous fact that he is utilizing a criminal’s resources to get it done only adds to the drama.
The film’s ending, the only really downer ending until Casino Royale in 2006, has been criticized, and is doubtless one reason why OHMSS didn’t fare as well at the box office as Connery’s Bonds before and after; however, time has shown that the ending not only works, but complements the character of Bond, explaining his commitment-phobia, and his general coldness to not only the women, but most people in his life.
Perhaps most anomalous in the film is the wedding, which is one of the franchise’s lovely moments, including one where arch-enemies M and Draco, who had previously dueled in operations, talk about their battles amicably, over drinks. Although his role is decreased, Q’s continued presence is reassuring that the franchise remembers its roots.
The film’s majestic setting, epic score (the best in the series), and strong plot (based faithfully off of the novel) all drive the film, and the actors fill in their slots and make the film far greater than the sum of its parts, and that is why it is the best film in the series thus far.