From Russia With Love (1963)
The Dryden Theatre presents a new film series beginning on April 2nd and running through the last week of May dedicated to the thirteen Eon Productions-made James Bond films starring Scotsman Sir Sean Connery and Englishman Sir Roger Moore, titled Celebrating James Bond & Other Spies.
Taryn Simon’s two photo series Birds of the West Indies and Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies, both on display at the George Eastman Museum through May 15th, honor and explore the most marginal and exploited elements of the James Bond film series. This includes birds in the ornithological sense which populate the background of many outdoor scenes, ignorant to the action film shenanigans unfolding in the foreground though nonetheless part of the composition of the frame. There are also birds in the sense of attractive women who are exploited by Bond for information, assistance, and sex, as well as by the audience in their thirst for male-gaze sexual spectacle.
Simon’s two series’ quite intentionally leave a hole in the Bond experience: They do not depict the central figure of Commander James Bond 007 himself. The very thesis of Simon’s series rests with the acknowledgment that 007, the series’ ubiquitous, mythically large central figure and cultural emblem, is what people pay to see and what they carry out of the theater with them. Therefore, it’s only suitable that the Dryden will be complementing Simon’s work with a two-month exhibition of Bond movies, including some of 007’s most famous and infamous adventures, to deliver the pleasurable thrills and campy fun that have unfailingly interested audiences for nearly fifty-four years.
It’s difficult to talk about James Bond himself as a singular cohesive entity, for he has been played by six different actors, each of whom has brought his own varied approach to the role. There are of course some traits that are inextricably associated with the character: his action-hero capability and confidence, his humor, his loyalty, and maybe most notably his sexual appetite. Much else has changed, however. For example the current 007, portrayed in four movies from 2006 to the present by Daniel Craig, is more introspective and passionate than any previous incarnation.
The film which began the franchise and will kick off our series, 1962’s Dr. No directed by Terence Young, stars a thirty-two-year-old Sean Connery as the first screen manifestation of 007. Originally created by British author Ian Fleming in the early 1950s and informed by Fleming’s own experience as a naval intelligence officer, Agent 007 appeared in eight successful novels and a collection of short stories between 1953 and the release of Dr. No in 1962. Though Fleming would eventually warm to Connery’s approach to the character, he at first had reservations: Connery’s Bond was too physical, too much of a brute, and much too charming for Fleming’s vision of the character, which figures 007 as a cold, practical instrument of the government.
Over the course of six films, Connery would not do too much to develop the character as he first portrayed him in Dr. No; most of the groundwork was laid and would remain in place for the five Connery films that would follow. This 007 was fond of fine things, an impossibly confident expert in seemingly all fields and at all tasks, a regretless womanizer, an antagonist of those who he finds absurd, and not particularly subtle in his approach to justice. If anything, Connery’s characterization of Bond would proceed to flatten out in his subsequent films, becoming almost caricature-like. If much of anything else changed, it might be the emergence of a tired, dry irony resulting from Connery’s boredom and stated dislike of the role in his latter films.
This immutability of character might explain why the first Bond film made without Connery, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starring George Lazenby, has never been well-received by Bond fans and tends to be forgotten amongst the rest of the pack, despite many critics and filmmakers considering it to be exceptional: Lazenby’s 007 was too different, far less blunt and far more refined in his approach, still charming but in a way far removed from Connery’s hyper-masculinity. Connery provided the baseline for the character, and any incremental changes over time have come slowly and only in moderation.
Connery’s singular approach to Bond does not mean that his six films suffer for it; far from it. Though 007 doesn’t change much throughout them, the six Connery movies provide a robust parade of new settings, new gadgets, new women, and new adversaries to keep things constantly exciting. Not to mention that the films are all wonderfully made and various in theme and cinematic approach, from From Russia with Love’s globetrotting espionage storytelling to Diamonds are Forever’s campy but down-to-earth action adventure fun.
As the series moved into the future, Connery’s 007 provided the springboard and reference point for all Bonds that would follow.
Join us in April for the six Connery Bond films and again in May for Celebrating James Bond: The Moore Years.
Masters student in the Selznick School of Film Preservation