“Bond… James Bond.” A total of six actors have uttered this line within the span of 50 years and 23 films. From his 1962 cinematic debut in Dr. No, to his most recent adventure in Skyfall (and soon Spectre), James Bond has retained his license to thrill in what has become the longest-running film franchise in cinematic history, save maybe Godzilla.
James Bond was the brainchild of British author Ian Fleming, who served as an assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence during World War II, where he played a crucial role in Allied espionage operations. In 1952, at his estate in Jamaica called “Goldeneye,” Fleming wrote Casino Royale, and an icon was born. He wrote one book a year for the next 12 years up until his death in 1964 at the age of 56.
The guns. The cars. The gadgets. The women. The watches. The dastardly villains hell-bent on world domination. These are the elements which have composed the Bond franchise since 1962. It is a franchise which has occasionally descended into camp territory, but has been reinvented again and again, perhaps most notably in recent years with the 2006 adaptation of Fleming’s first 007 novel.
This is a list of the quintessential James Bond classics that any newcomer must watch if they wish to get into the world of 007.
1. Dr. No (1962, Terence Young)
In the first 007 film (which is based on the sixth book in the series), James Bond (Sean Connery) is sent on his first assignment to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of British Intelligence Station Chief John Strangways, who was shot and had his body stolen by three assassins pretending to be blind men.
Bond’s superior in MI6, known only as the letter M. (Bernard Lee), instructs him to figure out whether or not Strangways’ death had anything to do with his cooperation with the Central Intelligence Agency in investigating the disruption of American rocket launches by radio jamming near Cape Canaveral. Bond’s investigation leads him to an island called Crab Key, where he encounters the beautiful Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), a woman with a dark past.
Crab Key is home to the mysterious Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), a half-German, half-Chinese scientist who is revealed to be an operative of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion). SPECTRE’s plan for world domination begins with the toppling of American missiles in order to render the West powerless.
Dr. No was brought to life by the cooperation of legendary MGM producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. It was produced on a low budget and was a financial success. The film introduced audiences to the silver screen’s most world-renowned secret agent.
Most of the classic Bond elements were introduced in this film. These include the famed gun barrel sequence at the opening of the film, Monty Norman’s unmistakable James Bond theme, the introduction of SPECTRE (the sinister organization which 007 would go up against throughout the rest of the Connery films, with the exception of Goldfinger), and the original “Bond girl,” who is undeniably one of the most iconic women in the series. Dr. No is a terrific start to a franchise which would endure all the way to the 21st Century.
Dr. No is also a noteworthy first chapter in the series because of how its title character pioneered the classic Bond villain, complete with a deformity (he has mechanical hands). It’s also important to acknowledge the fact that Dr. No isn’t even shown until the third act. Joseph Wiseman crafts a legendary 007 villain with about 10 minutes of screen time.
2. From Russia With Love (1963, Terence Young)
Sean Connery returns as 007 in the series’ second installment, based on the 1957 novel which President John F. Kennedy named one of his favorite books. Terence Young steps into the director’s chair once again in an adventure which brings Bond to Istanbul, where he encounters the gorgeous Soviet Intelligence agent, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi).
The ex-SMERSH operative Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) sends Tatiana to Istanbul, where she is to meet and seduce Bond and help him steal the Lektor decoding machine, which the CIA has been trying to get their hands on for years. SMERSH the name of the Soviet organization dedicated to eliminating spies in Europe, which Bond went up against in most of Ian Fleming’s original novels.
Klebb is now working for SPECTRE, and Tatiana is unaware of the fact that she is as well. The trap is sprung when Bond and Tatiana encounter the Soviet assassin, Donald “Red” Grant (Robert Shaw), aboard a train called The Orient Express. Grant’s orders are to kill Bond and deliver the Lektor to SPECTRE.
From Russia With Love was even more successful than Dr. No, garnering in over $78 Million worldwide. It further established the Bond universe by introducing Q (Desmond Llewelyn), the quirky scientist who would continue to provide 007 with his gadgets in every film up until 1999’s The World Is Not Enough.
The first gadget Bond receives from Q is a harmless suitcase on the outside, which is meant to be unlocked a certain way. Q informs Bond of how to open it properly. The device comes in handy in the scene where Bond faces Red Grant aboard The Orient Express. Grant opens the suitcase the wrong way and has exploding gas thrown at him. The gadgets in the Bond franchise would only get more zany and over-the-top from this point onward.
From Russia With Love was the first Bond film to deal with Cold War tensions between the East and the West. A British spy in love with a Soviet agent was a new concept at the time of the film’s release. This type of relationship would lie at the center of a later Bond film, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.
The film also provided audiences with more riveting action sequences than Dr. No did; a gunfight at a gypsy camp, a fight between Bond and Grant in a cramped train compartment on The Orient Express, a helicopter chase, and the very first boat chase in a Bond movie during the film’s climax. From Russia With Love may seem a bit slow by today’s standards, but it is nonetheless a classic, and a must-watch for any newcomer to the franchise.
3. Goldfinger (1964, Guy Hamilton)
Goldfinger is, quite simply, THE most iconic Bond film in the entire franchise. It has one of the most recognizable villains, one of, if not the greatest song and opening credits sequence in the franchise, one of the most memorable henchmen, the single most iconic of all the cars driven by 007, and a literal golden girl. Goldfinger packs a wallop.
James Bond begins his third adventure in a hotel in Miami Beach, where he discovers the wealthy gold bullion dealer, Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), using his employee, Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton), to help him cheat at cards. Bond gets Goldfinger to lose by threatening to inform the Miami Beach Police if he doesn’t.
He then begins a relationship with Jill. Back at his hotel room, Bond is knocked out by Goldfinger’s mute Korean servant, Oddjob (Harold Sakata), who paints Jill gold.
After Jill’s death, Bond is briefed by M., and sent on an assignment to investigate how Goldfinger smuggles gold internationally. His assignment brings him to Switzerland, where he encounters Jill’s sister, Tilly (Tania Mallet), who is attempting to kill Goldfinger with a sniper rifle in order to avenge her sister’s murder.
Tilly is killed by Oddjob’s razor-tipped hat, and Bond is captured. Bond convinces Goldfinger to let him live because of how much information he knows. He is knocked unconscious and put on a plane bound for Kentucky, where he meets Miss Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), Goldfinger’s personal pilot.
Bond soon discovers Goldfinger’s plot to irradiate Fort Knox for the next 58 years, which will create economic chaos in the West and cause the price of Goldfinger’s gold to dramatically increase.
If there is one Bond film which qualifies as an immortal classic, it is Goldfinger. It has all of the most well-known Bond elements; the girl painted gold, Shirley Bassey’s thunderous opening song, Oddjob, who is perhaps the franchise’s most iconic henchman next to Richard Kiel’s Jaws, and the Aston Martin DB5, which Bond even drove in the 2012 film Skyfall as a nod to this movie.
It is chock full of great lines as well. “Do you expect me to talk?” “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!” This is part of the conversation between Bond and Goldfinger when 007 is strapped to a table, completely helpless as a red laser is about to cut him in half in what is perhaps the film’s most tense moment, and one of the franchise’s most memorable death traps.
Pussy Galore is one of the most iconic Bond girls, perhaps the most iconic next to Honey Ryder. Goldfinger was the film which shifted the franchise to a full-fledged blockbuster phenomenon, and solidified Sean Connery’s status as a legend.
It is also a noteworthy entry in the series for being the first Bond film which acts as its own standalone adventure, since SPECTRE plays no part in the narrative. If there is one Bond film which every cinephile should be familiar with, it is Goldfinger.
4. Thunderball (1965, Terence Young)
Terence Young returns to direct Sean Connery in his fourth exciting outing as 007 in another strong, solid entry. In this chapter, Bond is sent to the Bahamas to recover two NATO atomic bombs which have by stolen by SPECTRE. This time, SPECTRE is threatening to destroy a major city in the United States or the United Kingdom if their demands are not met.
It is in Nassau where Bond encounters the “Number Two” agent of SPECTRE, Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), and Largo’s mistress, Domino (Claudine Auger), who helps Bond on his assignment. The film culminates in an exhilarating underwater sequence in which Bond joins forces with a group of Navy SEALs to do battle with Largo’s men and recover the warheads.
Thunderball was yet another financial success. It made $141.2 Million worldwide, and is the most successful Bond film to date when adjusted for inflation. The film’s production was plagued by legal disputes and lawsuits.
Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham sued Ian Fleming for the rights to his 1961 novel, claiming that Fleming had based it on a screenplay the three of them had written in an unsuccessful first attempt to bring James Bond to life on the big screen.
They eventually got their way in 1983 when a remake called Never Say Never Again was made, with Connery reprising his role as 007 for one last time. Never Say Never Again is considered to be an unofficial entry in the Bond saga, since Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had no involvement in its production.
The film is a very significant entry in the Bond franchise due to its stunning underwater sequences. John Stears won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1966. These scenes are unquestionably the highlight of the film, and are even foreshadowed in the terrific opening credits sequence synced to “Thunderball” by Tom Jones, written exclusively for the film.
Another classic gadget which fans might be familiar with is the famed jetpack which Bond uses in the pre-opening credits action sequence. It is the first film since Dr. No where 007 has been put on an assignment in a tropical setting, and it is no less exciting, nor is it in the least bit derivative of Bond’s first adventure.
It is also the first Bond film which runs over 2 hours long. Although its production was difficult due to legal battles, Thunderball made a killing at the box office and proved to be even bigger than the first three Bond adventures. 50 years later, it still holds its place as one of the finer installments in the series.
5. You Only Live Twice (1967, Lewis Gilbert)
This campier entry in the Bond franchise begins with 007 on an assignment in Hong Kong, where he is shot and presumed dead. After it is revealed that Bond faked his own death, M. sends him to Tokyo to investigate the disappearance of an American spacecraft, which apparently landed near the Sea of Japan.
Later on in the film, a Soviet spacecraft is also captured. Bond’s adventure leads him to unravel a plot by the leader of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance), to provoke World War III by causing the United States and the Soviet Union to blame one another for the disappearance of each of their vessels.
You Only Live Twice may be a lot campier than its predecessors, and almost preposterous by comparison, but that does not change the fact that it is a memorable adventure full of riveting action sequences and a considerable amount of thrills.
It is a very important film in the series because it includes the first physical appearance of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, one of the most iconic of all the Bond villains. Blofeld’s voice had been heard and he was seen stroking his cat in From Russia With Love and Thunderball, but his face was never shown. The reveal is no disappointment.
The bald look complete with the facial scar was the source of inspiration for Dr. Evil, the central villain in the satirical Austin Powers series. Donald Pleasance, who would later go on to become best known for playing Dr. Sam Loomis in the Halloween series, is expert at portraying one of the most nefarious megalomaniacs in the Bond universe.
He is a ruthless criminal mastermind who feeds those who fail him to his piranhas (“They can strip a man to the bone in 30 seconds”), and remains holed up in his secret volcanic lair; another source of inspiration for parody. The introduction of Blofeld is the main reason why You Only Live Twice is an essential Bond classic.
The film is also the first Bond movie to be set in the Far East, and the only one to be set in Japan. There are some laughable moments, such as when Bond is made to look Japanese by having prosthetics applied to his face, but it has the excitement of the first four films and moves at a quicker pace than all of them.
It is a welcome addition to the series and is the last solid Bond film Connery starred in. After his absence in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969, Connery returned in 1971 in his last official Bond movie entitled Diamonds Are Forever, which is considered by some to be an underwhelming installment.