Any James Bond fan worth their weight in gold bullion knows the order and year of release for every Bond movie, and can name the actors who have portrayed Bond and in which films. He or she is expected to know the abbreviations for all Bond titles (used liberally within, so beware), and the true devotees will be able to explain to you why Never Say Never Again and the 1967 version of Casino Royale are not considered to be a part of the official Bond canon.
When introducing James Bond to a virgin viewer, it’s essential to first explain that there are two types of James Bond movie: one sort of 007 film where you’d expect to see some blood, sweat, and tears with hard hitting action, Ian Fleming-esque intrigue, and perhaps not so much gee-whiz gadgetry; and the other sort where Bond’s tuxedo remains unruffled and his martini un-spilled, and the action is more comical, oftentimes with ludicrous trinkets, silly vehicular hijinks, and henchpersons with really naughty sounding names.
Beyond this gritty/campy polarity inherent in the Bond series, the elements of each film are typically the same: picturesque locales; gorgeous people; fabulous fashions; wild cutting-edge gadgetry; expensive production values; spectacular practical sets; inventive white-knuckle action and stunts; witty humor and banter; and, more often than not, a memorable theme song along with a lush symphonic score. All of the Bond movies are essentially the identical story and share these key ingredients in varying amounts—plus some prominent product placement—but the enduring legacy of production company EON is they’ve never been known to skimp on production values. Every dollar is always up there on the screen, and it’s one of the myriad reasons 007 fans view the Bond movies again and again and why the series continues to attract devoted fans across the globe.
But in what order should a new viewer watch the movies? Chronological order has some historical value, all the better to trace the evolution of every aspect of the series, but that seems so clichéd.
During one of my many James Bond 007 laserdisc viewing parties in college, a dorm-mate mentioned I knew so much about 007 I could teach a course on it. That may never be the case, but if it ever came to pass the syllabus would necessarily have cram the entire series into a whole semester—and the only way to do that would be to double up and watch two films back-to-back every week.
In attempting to pair off the films of each 007 double feature, I challenged myself to choose two 007 films produced at least ten years apart, all the better for every double bill to star different Bond actors.
WEEK 1: Dr. No (1962) v Live and Let Die (1973)
Both pictures take proper care of introductions—Sean Connery debuts in the series’ first film Dr. No and Roger Moore assumes the role in Bond #8 Live and Let Die—and both movies are relatively small scale and no-nonsense missions compared to some of the more ludicrous 007 affairs. Thematic link: Both films are set in Jamaica.
WEEK 2: Moonraker (1979) v Goldfinger (1964)
Frontloading the prototypical Sean Connery Bond and juxtaposing it with the prototypical Roger Moore Bond offers some interesting contrasts. Goldfinger is relatively small scale and is considered to be the very best 007 movie bar none, and the film (along with its successor Thunderball) coincided with the height of global Bond Mania. Moonraker, on the other hand, is one of the more outlandish and luxurious 007 affairs and, despite its comparatively phenomenal box office success, is generally derided by fans and critics as one of the sillier, bottom-rung pictures. They share many Bond touchstones: both are gadget-laden and have “lasers” galore; both feature theme songs sung by Shirley Bassey; both have evocative one-word titles; both are scored by the great maestro John Barry; and both showcase some of longtime 007 production designer Ken Adam’s finest work. Marvel at Connery’s supreme confidence in Goldfinger, just before he’d start to sour on the whole paparazzi/fame/can’t-be-taken-seriously-in-any-other-movie-role aspect of being typecast as James Bond.
WEEK 3: Diamonds Are Forever (1971) v Die Another Day (2002)
Both films represent the ends of their respective eras: Diamonds Are Forever is Connery’s final EON-produced Bond movie, and the producers went another way after Pierce Brosnan’s fourth mission in Die Another Day. Pay particular attention to the evolution of the series’ visual effects, as both movies prominently feature space-based diamond laser satellites (both films are clearly in the “ludicrous Bond” camp).
WEEK 4: The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) v Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
The Man with the Golden Gun, and Tomorrow Never Dies are both similar 2nd-assignment pictures for their respective Bond actors, and the movies were made in quick succession to strike while the iron of the new 007 actor’s casting—and the proportional popular and critical success of their debuts—was still hot. Die-hard fans tend to heap a lot of scorn on The Man with the Golden Gun, but it remains one of my personal favorites, notably for Christopher Lee’s turn as the snobby bad guy, a sweeping John Barry score, and more than the usual amount of risqué innuendo, playful perversion, and subtle kink in the script. Tomorrow Never Dies is sleek and efficient, if formulaic and uninspired—I suspect it’s very much how a 007 film would play if it one were ever to be made completely on automatic. Weird coincidence: both movies were partially filmed in Phuket, Thailand, which was wiped out by a tsunami in 2004.
WEEK 5: The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) v The Living Daylights (1987)
This double-feature offers lots of Soviet spies; plenty of Fleming-esque intrigue with strong women used, alas, as pawns; picturesque layovers in North Africa; and both movies feature deliriously tricked-out automobiles. The Spy Who Loved Me represents the popular and critical height of the Roger Moore era, and the flick is so supremely entertaining you hardly notice it’s a remake of You Only Live Twice. Timothy Dalton had me at “hello,” and his introduction as Bond in The Living Daylights is a relatively grounded globe-trotting 007 adventure, much more in the spirit of the original novels and—trivia alert—reportedly written to be Pierce Brosnan’s debut before NBC reactivated his “Remington Steele” contract.
WEEK 6: GoldenEye (1995) v Casino Royale (2006)
Both GoldenEye and Casino Royale are “introduction” movies that feature their all-important first impressions by their respective Bond actors—Pierce Brosnan finally bowing as Bond in GoldenEye nearly a decade after producers picked him then lost him for The Living Daylights; and Daniel Craig making a fiery debut as a rough-around-the-edges James Bond when he first earns his license to kill. Both movies are directed by journeyman Martin Campbell, doing career-best work. GoldenEye, like Octopussy, is a curious blend of ludicrous Bond and gritty Bond, it tries to make Bond into a more complex hero by throwing in some regret along with the best-chum-turned-rogue plotline, but any 007 caper that features space-based laser satellites and a henchwoman who kills with her thighs definitely falls more comfortably into the first category. Casino Royale is the opposite in many crucial ways, mostly gadget-free, and with grounded characters embroiled in a relatively small-scale plot, yet one just “big” enough to warrant the assignment of somebody like Bond.
WEEK 7: A View to a Kill (1985) v You Only Live Twice (1967)
The celebrated co-stars in both films are the awesome cavernous subterranean lairs (Ken Adam did the spectacular volcano lair in You Only Live Twice and Peter Lamont created the vast mine shaft in A View to a Kill). Both films of this particular 007 double feature highlight the goofier, campier aspects of the series. Both are scored by the best Bond composer ever, John Barry. And, alas, both films feature tiring 007s, with both Moore in A View to a Kill and Connery in You Only Live Twice seemingly eager to strap up the holster.
WEEK 8: License to Kill (1989) v Quantum of Solace (2008)
Both of these 007 pictures are down-and-dirty affairs that have Bond grappling with a personal vendetta. While Dalton’s debut The Living Daylights was intended for Brosnan, the 007 of License to Kill is the definitive Dalton portrayal of Bond as a hard case with true grit. Way before Daniel Craig took Bond to new emotional and psychological depths, Dalton was playing a grounded flesh-and-blood Bond who was so much more faithful to the pages of Ian Fleming than Roger Moore’s debonair spy it practically gave audiences whiplash. Viewing both License to Kill and Quantum of Solace back-to-back also offers a unique case study in how the screenwriters’ strikes of 1988 and 2007–2008 impacted their respective screenplays.
WEEK 9: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) v For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Witness here the evolution of John Glen from editor of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to director of For Your Eyes Only. No other director has made as many 007 pictures as John Glen and he got his start in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as an editor and second unit director, working under director Peter Hunt, who himself had edited the first three Bond films and made his debut as a Bond director with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Thematic link: the pre-credits sequence of For Your Eyes Only acknowledges the fateful conclusion of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with a nod to James Bond’s tragically departed wife, Tracy.
WEEK 10: Skyfall (2012) v The World is Not Enough (1999)
Both films are pivotal third movies where the actor as 007 finally clicks with the audience. Both movies showcase the two longest pre-credits sequences in the series. Both films are from respected British directors who have made riveting dramas but with whom one normally wouldn’t associate an epic-size adventure film on the scale of a 007 picture. A contrast in villainy: Robert Carlyle in The World is Not Enough makes for one of the series’ most understated bad guys (it’s really a diversion; the film’s true villain is the one Bond least suspects); while Javier Bardem in Skyfall sinks his snarly teeth into his bad guy role with delightful relish…perhaps a bit too much relish.
WEEK 11: Octopussy (1983) v From Russia With Love (1963)
Both films portray two distinctly different views of post-Cold War Anglo-Soviet relations and paranoia, and both movies feature pivotal sequences set aboard speeding passenger trains. Combined, they offer a détente-flavored double-bill filled with secret decoders, atomic bombs, nifty gadgets, deadly henchmen, and lunatic Russkies. This double feature offers a great contrast of the straight-faced gritty style of early Bond movies versus the wink-nudge approach to some of the sillier Bond capers.
WEEK 12: Thunderball (1965) v Spectre (2015)
Both Thunderball and Spectre are sprawling fourth films that outdo their predecessors not only by having Bond face an exponentially escalated global threat, but also by raising the bar in the areas of production value, stunts, and special effects. And also running time: Thunderball was the first 007 movie to break the 2-hour barrier; the latest film Spectre sets a new record at just shy of two-and-a-half hours.
Though they’re not part of the official EON-produced 007 canon, no James Bond syllabus would be complete without…
Week 13: Never Say Never Again (1983) v Casino Royale (1967)
In Never Say Never Again it’s great to see Sean Connery back in the role after having sworn it off twice before, and the script—a not-particularly-imaginative remake of Thunderball—offers a few wry winks at an aging Bond not so quick on his aching feet anymore. The lava-lamp explosion that is Casino Royale (1967) is an unwieldy and unfunny comic “adaptation” of the Ian Fleming novel that bears more resemblance to Mike Myers’ Austin Powers films than any of the iconic James Bond pictures produced by EON Productions. Both films show what happens when competing producers/filmmakers obtain certain copyrights on specific elements of one particular Ian Fleming property.