I will dispense with the “who is your favorite James Bond” argument. Connery. Sean Connery is my favorite. The Scotsman brought Ian Fleming’s character to life, with the help of director Terence Young, production designer Ken Adam, editor Peter Hunt, cinematographer Ted Moore, composer John Barry, screenwriter Richard Maibaum and producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli. Much of the Bond production team worked together through the 1960s on the films.
Connery made six Bond films in the original series (not counting Never Say Never Again). Of these six, my two favorites are the first, Dr. No (1962), and his last, Diamonds Are Forever (1971). These two films, made nine years apart, are similar in basic story, but miles apart in tone and the portrayal of Bond.
Connery’s Bond is a bit stiff in Dr. No, almost arrogant, he’s physically imposing and is not hesitant about dispensing justice. He resists authority to a point and is quick to size up a situation. Bond is suave and the women fall all over themselves when he is around. Even when they do not, he has a confidence and swagger that quickly wins them over.
Director Young had made numerous films in the action genre, but Dr. No was a shift toward something with a definitive style of character. Fleming provided the character outline that the screenwriters and directors, along with Connery, would paint with fine brushstrokes. Bond is introduced in a fashionable gambling establishment, in formal evening attire for a gentleman; there is even a style about how he lights his cigarette and speaks his name to Sylvia Trench, who sits across the gaming table from him. In Bond’s first few screen minutes we have a dose of his attitude about sport, women, his generosity and his rebelliousness toward the stuffiness of the British Secret Service. Bond says a lot with a raised eyebrow or sarcastic comment under his breath. Connery’s Bond is a contrast in style; working man below the surface, but highly refined veneer. Bond knows when to use each.
By Diamonds Are Forever, Bond is older and the film uses his physicality in more focused ways, less hand-to-hand fighting, although there is a fight in an elevator early in the film, and more car stunts and gadgets.
Diamonds Are Forever has a much lighter tone; many more jokes and his with women, he leads with a clever line instead of testosterone. The film is almost a dark comedy as directed by Guy Hamilton, who directed four Bond films, including Goldfinger. Hamilton was a veteran filmmaker, who turned down the opportunity to direct Dr. No. Hamilton also bridged the Connery and Roger Moore eras. In Diamonds Are Forever, Bond is placed in some dangerous situations, but you never really sense that he is at risk of death. Even when he winds up in a casket going into the cremation furnace, you know that he will come out of it okay. It is not “if”, rather “how.” Bond is presented here as more cunning, yet somehow more vulnerable, likely his age. Screenwriters Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz’s deliver a Bond that is embracing middle aged and knows he has to change his game. Even CIA agent Felix Leiter is hardly your handsome, muscular version of Jack Lord in Dr No.
Dr. No was criticized for landing something between a spoof and a straight spy film. It was a bit over the top in scope, and Bond’s super-spy persona was clever, colorful with an engaging wit. The film was not your standard spy fare, it was part fantasy and part swinging 1960s pop culture. Yes, it exploited sexual stereotypes of the era, but the women were liberated and despite the goofy names, these women held their own.
Bond films were soon known for exotic locales and musical themes that were grand, larger than life, courtesy of composer Barry. The sets were like something out of Citizen Kane, exaggerated and almost futuristic, designed by Ken Adam. The sound and visuals had to match the grandeur and intrigue of the story.
Dr. No introduced the Monty Norman “James Bond Theme,” the rock and roll guitar riff that would almost become a joke as the films leaped far beyond the initial image of the Bond franchise of the early 1960s. The theme was not sophisticated enough for the worldly evolution of the Bond films.
In Diamonds Are Forever, the desert chase after the moon rover is fairly comical with the security patrol sedans crashing in uneven terrain and the three-wheeled motor bikes almost as ineffective. Soon after, Bond’s driving skills are put to the test in downtown Las Vegas, ending with wrecked police cars in the parking lot and the sheriff unable to balance his patrol car on two wheels and rolling over. This is hardly an Aston Martin pursuit; almost the Keystone Kops.
In Dr. No, the title character is the first of the evil geniuses. Of German and Chinese parents, Dr. No was part of a Chinese crime organization before branching out on his own. Through his scientific work, he damaged his hands and wears metal prosthetic devices, which gives him strength but no grip, which leads to his demise when fighting with Bond.
Ernst Blofeld crops up in several Bond films, including the one that came before Diamonds Are Forever. Blofeld in Diamonds is less sinister and more bumbling than any other Bond villain. He even dresses as a woman to help his escape; to say that is campy is an understatement. All of the villains in the film are a bit weird, particularly Putter Smith and Bruce Glover as the gay assassins. Remember, this was 1971.
At the futuristic house while looking for billionaire Willard Whyte, Bond is attacked by two judo-trained women, Bambi and Thumper, and thrown into a swimming pool. The earlier Bond would not allow himself to be so manhandled. In Dr. No, Bond gets into several fights but quickly gets the upper-hand. The older Bond is smarter, but less the physical warrior.
Three of the Connery Bond films involve rockets and space, and setting up a confrontation between East and West. This was still the years of the Cold War. Each film ends with grand explosions and spectacular battles between Bond and the villain at their facilities. The finale of a Bond film has to be greater and more spectacular than the last film. The fate of the world hangs in the balance, each time.
Confession: For many years I did not like Diamonds Are Forever. I found it hokey and a sad coda to Connery’s series of Bond films. I have since reconsidered that position and now appreciate this film. The film is an effective transition between Connery’s Bond and Moore’s Bond.
Watch these films back-to-back and you will see quite a change. Are these the best Connery Bond films? Maybe not, but I find them the most enjoyable.