From Russia With Love (1963 / Terrence Young / Sean Connery)
Goldfinger (1964 / Guy Hamilton / Sean Connery)
Thunderball (1965 / Terrence Young / Sean Connery)
Both From Russia With Love and Thunderball feature Spectre plots for our heroic agent to battle, whilst Goldfinger is much more of a one-man villain. From Russia takes us from the early form of Dr No and ramps it up by throwing a whole lot more excitement at it. Bond now has some serious gadgetry (albeit relatively basic) and his quick-assembly sniper rifle is particularly useful. We also meet some of the most fabulously English of scenes - the foreign spy on the train who gives himself away by drinking red wine with fish! What a mistake! Sean Connery, as ever, is fabulous throughout but I couldn't help feeling that, whilst From Russia threw an awful lot of exciting elements at the plot, the structure of the story itself was slightly lacklustre. Like Dr No, it had it's peaks and a few very memorable moments but as a film it was certainly lacking something.
Goldfinger, easily one of the very best of Bond, takes all the elements that From Russia contained and turned them up a bit. Rosa Klebb's killer shoe becomes Oddjob's killer hat, a comparatively timid attempt to steal a code-machine becomes an audacious plot to irradiate all of America's gold, etc. etc. Goldfinger turns the heat up - and possibly overdoes it. Here then, we find lasers! gadget cars! sprayed gas! an implausibly strong Korean! and all sorts of other madness.
I'd call it a film of hits and misses: when it gets it right, it gets it very right indeed... but occasionally it's not quite so strong. A prefect example of the latter would be the extended Bond vs. Goldfinger golf showdown. I'll repeat that: golf. I mean, whoever thought to set a dramatic encounter over a (long) game of golf? When we've been teased with bullet-proof cars and tear-gas briefcases, an elaborate ball-swapping plot that centres on Bond's recognition of the Slazenger 5 golf ball is... boring.
That said, some of the scenes are undeniable classics. The sight of Bond, strapped to a chunk of metal with a high-power metal-cutting laser edging ever closer towards painful emasculation is as unforgettable as James Bond films get. It would be sublime even without dialogue but the now classic exchange "Do you expect me to talk / No Mr Bond, I expect you to die" is so wonderfully blunt that it just makes the scene perfect.
The only thing, to my mind, that really stands in the way of Goldfinger being the absolutely perfect Bond film is the utterly ridiculous names used throughout. So Goldfinger likes gold? And his first name is Auric? Like the element? And his odd job man is er... called OddJob? And the major plan to contaminate Fort Knox is called Operation GrandSlam? And the sex-interest woman is called Pussy Galore? All this and more: Goldfinger is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Whilst I'd never demand a thoughtful or challenging Bond film, Goldfinger does occasionally feel like it's treating us like idiots. I had absolutely understood that the sexy woman would have sex with Bond without her being named Pussy Galore (suitably mocked by Austin Powers' Alotta Fagina). It's, sadly, the kind of choice that makes this film feel so dated - even more than its two predecessors.
The last time I saw Thunderball - where we're back with Spectre and have a plot of nuclear-ransom - was before the Austin Powers films; it's hard to watch it in the same way now. We get scenes in the Spectre lair with 'number one' frying his cheating agents (whose steaming, but now empty, chairs return to the table), an eye-patched villain and a fantastic opening scene with a Spectre agent dressed as a grieving widow. Bond doesn't actually shout "That's a man, maaaaan!" but I could here it in my head...
As a film Thunderball is the most coherent and elaborately plotted yet but (for all that I teased Goldfinger) it lacks some of the more outrageous fun. There's no decent villain - eyepatch man does little besides giving grumpy orders - but there are some decent scenes (chase scene through the carnival!) and it does hang together as a pretty decent film. Sadly, there are far too many dull action sequences for it to be a true classic... Underwater scenes galore here and none of them are much fun. Some stirring music isn't enough to save a long, slow, flippers-and-wetsuits harpoon-battle snooze of a scene in what ought to be the most exciting part of the film.
Despite some flaws in each, these three Bond films are a pretty exciting triple-bill of action fun and, taking over where Dr No left off, make a convincing case for crowning Sean Connery as best Bond ever. From here, there's only one more Connery-Bond left before we come to George Lazenby's disasterous effort...