10/04/2012 09:35 pm ET Updated Apr 04, 2013

After 50 Years, the Best Bond, Bond Girls and Villains

Fifty years ago today, the first James Bond entry, Dr. No, premiered in London.

Twenty-one (soon to be 22) features later, Bond stands as the highest grossing film series of all time, adjusted for inflation, grossing $5 billion worldwide.

With the last Bond film costing over $200 million to produce, even with inflation it's striking that Dr. No was made for just over a million. I'm tempted to say they did more with less back in the day.

Still, original Bond producers Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman didn't think they had a sure thing right from the start.

They knew that a slew of Hollywood studios had passed on the Bond film rights, thinking the character either too British or too racy to travel well.

This in addition to the fact that having been unable to lock in Cary Grant or James Mason at the outset, the producers were advancing a virtual unknown in the lead, thirty-two year old Scottish actor Sean Connery.

At that point, Connery had played two roles of note, opposite Lana Turner in the forgettable Another Time, Another Place (1958), and more memorably, in Walt Disney's Darby O'Gill and The Little People (1959).

On release, Dr. No was not a critical sensation; reviews were mixed. Bond creator Ian Fleming at first pronounced it "dreadful."

However, like all future Bonds, Dr. No made money. The producers knew they were on to something. Their casting choice certainly helped: Connery was a bona-fide movie star, seemingly overnight.

Broccoli and Saltzman doubled the budget for the next picture, From Russia With Love (1963), which still stands in my view as the best in the series. The picture comfortably beat Dr. No at the box office, and set in place most of the recurring elements in Bond films, including "Q", the persnickety operative who always briefed Bond on the new equipment. (Desmond Llewelyn, who originated the role, eventually set the record for most appearances in Bond films: 17 in all.)

By the time Goldfinger came out the following year, Bond had become a cultural phenomenon, creating a huge market for spy-themed films, spoofs, TV shows, and merchandise.

After three more appearances, Connery was gone by the early '70s.

Five more actors would essay the part over the next four decades, each putting their own stamp on it.

Question: did any of them match or exceed the original prototype in overall effectiveness?

To some degree, personal preferences may be generational. For instance, I was a child of the seventies. While I wouldn't claim Roger Moore was the ultimate Bond, his better outings (1972's Live and Let Die, 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me) remain somewhat guilty pleasures for me.

Likewise, I'm sure there are many fans that came of age in the '90s who are die-hard fans of Pierce Brosnan, and young devotees today who feel there was no Bond before Daniel Craig.

That's simply because their Bond reflects their time, their moment. The producers were savvy about making subtle changes to Bond to reflect the times, particularly in the way female characters were treated.

By the '70s, though "Bond girls" continued to proliferate, already gone were the days when Connery could dismiss a lady friend with a gentle spank on the bottom and the words, "Man talk." (The film? Goldfinger)

Of course, no matter what was done to soften Bond's rough edges, there was always an element of misogyny in the character, which predictably did not play well with feminists. As time went on, efforts were made to make the films more balanced and inclusive, less like an all-male preserve. Obviously, this made business sense too.

Unquestionably, the franchise's low point spanned roughly a dozen years, from 1983-1995. Moore's last outing (1985's A View To A Kill) was an embarrassment-and he knew it. And replacement Timothy Dalton, who'd been offered the role years before, never felt right or comfortable as 007.

By the early '90s, with the series in limbo due to legal disputes, I remember speculating that Bond might have left us for good. I should have known better.

Even at their nadir, those movies still made money. And Cubby Broccoli's successors, daughter Barbara and stepson Michael Wilson, were determined to build on an already impressive legacy of success.

Pierce Brosnan, who seemed like the perfect marriage of Connery and Moore, deserves credit for revitalizing the series in the nineties, though not all his films hold up so well... Indeed most seem awfully "gadget-heavy", an issue the producers recognized over time.

And then there's today's Bond: Mr. Craig, a fine actor in his own right (just check him out in 1998's Love Is The Devil and 2004's Layer Cake).

When he was announced as the next 007 in 2004, some longtime fans felt he was too far removed from the character's tall, dark, urbane image: the fair haired Craig was indeed the first actor under six feet tall to play Bond. (He stands five-feet-10)

Still, his debut in Casino Royale (2006) garnered raves with critics, and also did great business, topping $600 million at the box office. The film wisely took a "back-to-basics" approach, taking the character back to his salad days before he'd even earned triple-000 status.

The late Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer and critic Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out magazine even went so far as to claim that Daniel Craig was the best Bond the franchise had ever seen.

Certainly Craig has brought a refreshing edge and toughness to the role, qualities which Brosnan lacked. But is he the best Bond ever?

My own first impression was how much the actor had bulked up for the part. (For proof, watch his pre-Bond work.) While it was always evident that Connery was strong, he didn't look like he spent all his time pumping iron at Equinox Fitness.

In short, the muscle man look didn't jibe with my own conception of Bond- doubtless a "generational thing." I know there will be many who differ on this, particularly female fans. (OK- he did look great in those bathing trunks.)

More important, in the age of Jason Bourne and Marvel Comics adaptations, Craig's portrayal seems actually more superhuman than human.

In Casino Royale (and even more so in Quantum), some stunts and sequences were so over-the-top that they seemed simply unbelievable.
Eye-popping and entertaining for sure, but not remotely within the realm of what one human being, even in terrific shape, could survive.

Personally, I prefer my Bond as a more "flesh and blood" type.

My favorite Bond action sequence bar none occurs in From Russia With Love, where Connery takes on assassin Robert Shaw in a closed train compartment.

No superhero gyrations here, just two incredibly strong and skilled fighters desperately trying to finish each other off in a confined space.

It really doesn't get better than that.

No surprise: my vote for best Bond goes to Connery. He projected authority and effortless cool in the role. He was dispassionate, determined and calculating without even trying- in short, the genuine article.

It seems this is not exactly a minority view. In a survey among my Facebook fans, even I was surprised how much Sir Sean dominated in the responses.

Daniel Craig came in a fairly distant second- and above criticism aside, he gets my vote as well. (Then, in order: Brosnan, Moore, Dalton, and Lazenby, who I felt simply couldn't act)

Then there are all the Bond girls to consider, a fun exercise indeed. Who was the most iconic and memorable of them all?

Perhaps I'll show my age again, but I believe the two most embedded in our popular culture are Ursula Andress's Honey Ryder from Dr. No and Honor Blackman's Pussy Galore from Goldfinger.

How can you improve on Ursula, and that first, jaw-dropping moment when she comes out of the ocean? It's hard to conceive she was a last-minute pick for the producers.

Then there's Pussy's famous line to Bond: "I'm immune." Wow: here was a beautiful lesbian before it was fashionable to be one -- or even mention their existence. As Bond himself put it: "You're a woman of many parts, Pussy."

I also loved Shirley Eaton in that film, and it always annoyed me that she met her end so fast, albeit wearing nothing but that oh-so-dramatic gold paint.

I confess I also thought Luciana Paluzzi's voluptuous, fiery-maned villainess was the best thing about the waterlogged Thunderball (1965). And Diana Rigg made for a striking choice in Secret Service, as she seems a good bit brighter than her husband to-be.

More recent characters of note: Halle Berry from Die Another Day (another great bathing suit moment), Carey Lowell from Licence to Kill (a refreshingly unadorned, American, "girl next door" type -now married to Richard Gere), and of course, the sultry, mysterious Eva Green.

Without question poor Roger Moore was saddled with the worst Bond girls: first, Tanya Roberts in A View To A Kill (1985), so bad I'd blocked her from my memory. And remember Britt Ekland in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)? Ringo Starr's wife Barbara Bach was so wooden in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) that it almost ruined the picture.

I'd be remiss if I did not allude to the Bond villains. Position 1: Gert Frobe's Auric Goldfinger (Bond: "Do you expect me to talk?" Goldfinger: "No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!"). Thus the portly German actor achieved screen immortality, even with his voice dubbed.

Joseph Wiseman's Dr. No is a close second (Dr. No to Bond: "Unfortunately, I misjudged you. You are just a stupid policeman.")

In third place comes Lotte Lenya's Rosa Klebb in From Russia, the butch lady with the poison-tipped knife coming out of her shoe. She doesn't even need a quote!

Worst Bond villain? Hmmm. Let's just say I doubt Christopher Walken wakes up every morning thanking God he took the part of Max Zorin in View, Moore's last outing. Ouch!

Regardless of who shapes up as your favorite Bond, Bond girl, or Bond villain, one thing we can all agree on is the remarkable staying power of the series as a whole.

Times change, styles come and go. But along with Monty Norman's signature theme, still very much in use, James Bond endures.

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