Sunday, 8 June 2014

The greatest James Bond movies of all time

The July edition of Empire magazine features the results of a readers' poll to find out the '301 greatest movies of all time'. Three Bond films make the list: Goldfinger (number 221), Casino Royale (number 160), and Skyfall (highest-placed at number 45). Any poll of the greatest films is a subjective exercise likely to spark as much debate as agreement. Bond fans, for example, might be wondering why The Spy Who Loved Me, From Russia With Love, You Only Live Twice, or indeed others are absent, or why the three films that do appear were chosen and why they are so placed. Some explanation is provided under each entry, but we also need to look at the rest of the results to see whether the selection of Bond films follows wider trends.

Of the three Bond films that make the list, one is 'classic' Bond, and the other two are the most recent Bond films (excluding Quantum of Solace). There is no argument from me that all three deserve a place in any list of greatest films, and it is easy to imagine why they appear in this one. As Empire magazine states, Goldfinger (1964) marks “a series high point.” It is the film that defines the series, bringing us the whole package – the gadgets, the car, the humour, the charming but mad villain, the henchman, the razor-sharp lines, and Bond at his most assured and sardonic. If Bond films are formulaic, then the formula they (and many other action/spy films) follow is that set by Goldfinger.

Casino Royale (2006) is highlighted by Empire as “Martin Campbell's radical reboot.” It put Bond back in the race after the series had lost ground to seemingly superior thrillers and actioners, among them the Mission: Impossible and Bourne films. And it gave us a Bond, played by Daniel Craig, that removed the spectre of Sean Connery's Bond that had loomed over all previous portrayals. Skyfall (2012) brought rare emotion and depth to the Bond series, while still retaining the action and other familiar elements of the Bond films. And it was a huge hit.

As worthy as these films are, though, is it fair to say that Casino Royale and Skyfall are better than, say, the best of Roger Moore's outings, or that Goldfinger is the best of Sean Connery's efforts? Is EON simply making better Bond films today than they were in the past? Looking at the distribution of release dates among the entire results, we might have predicted that two of the most recent Bond films would have been selected. The histogram below shows that the distribution is heavily skewed in favour of recent films. Some 35% of films in the list were made after 2000, and almost half were made within the past 20 years.


As it seems unlikely that films today are generally better (however that may be measured) than they were of 30, 40, 50 or more years ago, I suspect that recent films have been favoured in part because they are fresher in the mind and more familiar to Empire's readers. The distribution may also reflect the demographic of those readers; a similar poll conducted by the BFI had starkly different results. The Bond films of the Moore, Dalton, and even the Brosnan eras are unlikely to have made the list of 301 films, because the individual films are too old and perhaps remembered only in vague terms.

Should Casino Royale and Skyfall have been placed higher? Possibly, though not because of their age. The scattergram below, which plots year of release against poll position, shows no clear trend (for example, for more recent films to be generally higher placed than older films, although there is a hint of that in the chart, with the oldest films having a relatively low rank).

 

As for Goldfinger, the film retains a level of general familiarity that other Bond films lack. Think Goldfinger, and one's mind immediately goes to the Aston Martin, or Oddjob's bowler hat, or the laser beam and the classic line, “No, Mister Bond. I expect you to die.” Think Thunderball or From Russia With Love, and the casual cinema-goer might struggle to remember the key moments or lines, at least immediately (“Isn't that the one with...?”). That is not to say, however, that Thunderball and others are the poorer films against Goldfinger. Part of Goldfinger's continued familiarity stems from the film being packed with memes – the gadget-laden car, the theme song, the golden girl, and so on – that have become very successful in popular culture, being frequently referenced and imitated in film and TV. It could also be suggested that Goldfinger stands proxy for all the earlier Bond films, representing a genre, rather than a specific film.

Nevertheless, I would have liked to have seen other Bond films in Empire's list – The Spy Who Loved Me, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and GoldenEye, for instance. To me, three Bond films out of 23 seems a poor return for a series that has continued to entertain audiences, make huge profits, and had a significant impact on the cultural environment. I await Empire's next poll with much interest.

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