The prisoner is strapped down to a table in the villain’s lair, as his megalomaniacal host watches a laser slowly burn its way up towards this captive’s crown jewels. “You expect me to talk?” asks James Bond, staring down a crotch-zapping death ray. “No, Mr. Bond,” the title character of Goldfinger replies, flashing an evil grin. “I expect you to die.” It was a reasonable expectation at the time — James Bond was one hero who did not seem built to last, to say the least. Even in the Sixties, he was a dinosaur, defending the honor of a British Empire nobody else even remembered, a spy on Her Majesty’s secret service at a time when the royal family had all the dignity of Herman’s Hermits. (Rumors that England still has a royal family on the payroll could not be confirmed by press time.) Agent 007 represented absolutely nothing about England that the rest of the world took seriously. As that rock & roll Bond villain Mick Jagger sang, soon after Thunderball came out: Baby baby baby, you’re out of time.
But look at the gent with the license to kill now. James Bond has turned out to be one of those time-traveling pop-culture icons like Batman, Sherlock Holmes, or Joni Mitchell — he bridges every cultural moment from Beatlemania to Brexit, enduring decade after decade by somehow never really fitting in at all. Every generation gets a brand-new Bond: Sean Connery in the 1960s, Roger Moore in the 1970s, Pierce Brosnan in the 1990s, Daniel Craig now. Like Goldfinger, we keep expecting Mr. Bond to die. Yet he always surprises us by deciding instead to live and let die. Carly Simon wasn’t kidding. Nobody does it better.
Though Ian Fleming created 007 in the 1953 novel Casino Royale, Bond was born for the movies, with Connery defining his debonair secret-agent cool in the 1962 thriller Dr. No. He lives in a fantasy world where every day is a jet-set adventure full of guns, gadgets, sports cars, space-age bachelor pads, and disposable darlings with names like Pussy Galore and Plenty O’Toole. And despite his well-traveled sperm cells having sired no children, he always comes equipped with the world’s worst dad jokes. After jumping out of a plane, in Moonraker, Bond is asked by his paramour — Lois Chiles playing an astrophysicist named Dr. Holly Goodhead — if he’s broken anything. He sadly dusts off his rumpled suit and replies, “Only my tailor’s heart.”)
Bond became a cultural obsession in the 1960s. At a time when England’s greatness consisted mostly of cranking out pop stars and inventing miniskirts, James Bond was fighting a Cold War that nobody else seemed to notice England was even invited to join. (What, the Brits were planning to invade Connecticut?) He seemed to believe the Soviet troops would spill into Croydon and Wakefield and Shaftesbury the minute he let down his guard or settled for a gin martini. That was the joke implicit in his code name — the idea that there were at least six more of these jokers running around the world. At a time when the U.K.’s shameful colonial legacy was visible from Belfast to Biafra, 007 was a last stand for the fantasy that deep down in her heart, Queen Victoria really did love them all.
But his appeal didn’t stop at the Thames. JFK was famously a fan — just like Don Draper, who kept You Only Live Twice on his bedside table. The movies barely had time to get going before they inspired brilliant parodies like James Coburn’s Our Man Flint and Dean Martin’s The Silencers. Even the Beatles had a bash at it with their second film, Help!, years before Ringo married an actual Bond Girl. Every nook of pop culture is just a couple degrees of separation from 007. He’s spawned entire music genres (acid jazz, trip hop), countless rap videos, and the classic Motown oldie, Edwin Starr’s “Agent Double-O Soul,” not to mention the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill.
Part of being a fan is arguing over the canon — everybody’s got their picks for the grooviest Bond theme, the coolest Bond Girl, the smoothest villain, the nastiest henchman. (The correct answers are: Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice,” Jane Seymour in Live and Let Die, Auric Goldfinger, and, obviously, Jaws.) Sean Connery remains the grumpiest Bond, rolling his eyes at his own quips. A classic, in From Russia With Love, when he finds out a fellow agent is a KGB imposter: “Red wine with fish. That should have told me something.” Yet his bossy-bottom pout just made the movies better as he went on, in You Only Live Twice (where he beats up the Rock’s grandfather) or Diamonds Are Forever (where his Bond girl is Henry Kissinger’s real-life side-piece). The Eighties, a.k.a. the “let’s get A-ha to do the theme song” years, were rough for the franchise, but at least Duran Duran did “A View to a Kill,” with a MTV video where they blew up the Eiffel Tower. Those were different times.
Yet the Nineties were the most James Bond of decades, with the shagadelic 007 sensibility saturating the culture more than ever. Pierce Brosnan rescued the film franchise, but the true Bondian spirit lay elsewhere: in the louch Britpop of Pulp and Blur, the boom of Cocktail Nation retro chic, the Cool Britannia cult of Tony Blair’s New Labour, the way record collectors and film directors obsessed over vintage lounge exotica, the Spice Girls. The decade’s realest Bond trip was, in fact, Mike Myers’ Austin Powers comedies, brilliantly using 007 as a poster boy for the cultural irrelevance of masculinity. Stripped of his imperial delusions, Bond stood revealed as a creampuff, going up against Dr. Evil. Austin Powers walked so Daniel Craig could run.
Judi Dench’s M once called Bond “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War.” But she was a little late. Bond was as irrelevant to the Cold War as any other crisis in our ever-changing world. Yet, somehow, he turned out to be one of the 20th century’s most lasting obsessions. He’s always the only one who doesn’t realize how ridiculous he is — that’s his superpower. Just when we’re expecting him to finally grant Goldfinger’s wish, he manages to find a way to escape and die another day.
TOP FIVE BOND MOVIES:
The ultimate old-school Sean Connery romp, and the first James Bond movie they made when they already knew the franchise was a hit. Bond dashes around the globe to foil an utterly nonsensical scheme to rob Fort Knox by the conveniently named Eurotrash madman Goldfinger, the archest of arch-villains. He tangles with Honor Blackman as the fierce Pussy Galore — not to mention the hat-throwing assassin Odd Job. It all really starts here.
You Only Live Twice (1967)
The baroquest of Bond films; there’s a deep melancholy under all the lavish action, right down to Nancy Sinatra’s bone-chilling torch song. 007 fakes his own death and goes undercover in Japan, where he meets a ninja named Kissy Suzuki. Donald Pleasance steals the show as SPECTRE mastermind Ernest Blofeld, plotting to conquer the world from his volcano lair, with a monocle burned right into his face.
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
A.K.A. Roger Moore’s greatest hit. He meets his match in Barbara Bach as KGB agent Triple X, soars in the classic opening ski-and-parachute jump, and battles “Jaws,” a seven-foot killer with metal teeth, played by Twilight Zone legend Richard Kiel. Jaws was such a fan favorite, he returned as a good guy for Moonraker. Bonus: Carly Simon belting “Nobody Does It Better.”
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
The kickiest of the Pierce Brosnan flicks, with Sophie Marceau as a femma fatale and Robert Carlyle as a Russian creep who eerily resembles Putin. And for gritty realism, Denise Richards plays a nuclear physicist named Dr. Christmas Jones — it’s arguably the franchise’s all-time most awesomely terrible acting. Final scene: When she and Bond hit the sheets, he quips, “I thought Christmas only comes once a year.”
Casino Royale (2006)
After the Brosnan years, everybody presumed the franchise was finally dead this time. Enter Daniel Craig. Despite the casting controversy — fans were outraged to learn he couldn’t drive a stick shift in real life — Craig not only revived the film series, he gave 007 some actual emotional depth. Eva Green turns out to be a far more fearsome spy than he is, shaping him into the killer he is by the end, when he finally introduces himself: “The name’s Bond. James Bond.”