The image above is from the movie Skyfall and it is damn lovely. Skyfall in general is a damn fine film. It is my second favorite James Bond film, and while featuring a nigh-nonsensical plot, it also happens to have one of the best Bond villains, an excellent look into the emotional core of Bond himself, and some of the best action scenes of any film, period. But I want to focus on that damn lovely shot — or should I say shots, because Skyfall is filled with fantastic compositions and exquisite lighting. It is no surprise that Skyfall cinematographer Roger Deakins landed himself an Oscar nomination for the film.
That Best Cinematography nomination was the first for the Bond franchise — indeed, it was the first time a Bond movie had been nominated for anything other than sound, visual effects, or best song. And this is not terribly surprising. Action movies in general don’t tend to scoop up prestigious awards, and after recently viewing all 24 Bond movies I can see why the series generally isn’t known for its visual pizazz. But here was Skyfall, looking gorgeous, and the film is preceded and followed by two more Bond movies that also feature striking visuals (Quantum of Solace and Spectre). The opening shot of Spectre is actually by far the most ambitious in the history of the franchise, as it follows Bond from the chaos of a street parade, into a hotel, out a window and across a rooftop in a single unbroken take.
But this is not the norm in Bond movies, and that may be because the franchise has not been driven by directors but rather by producers. In 1961 Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli acquired the film rights to James Bond, and since that time there has been a Broccoli at the helm of the series (Saltzman sold his half of the rights in the early 70s). The producers have always called the shots in the Bond series; for example, producer Michael G. Wilson — Albert Broccoli’s step-son — even co-wrote all five of the films from the 1980s. Bond directors tended to be journeymen — filmmakers who have not made any significant films outside of the franchise. There were also not as many of them as you might expect — the first 16 James Bond films were directed by just five different people. But you’d probably be hard pressed to name a single one of those directors — for the record, they are Terence Young (3 films), Guy Hamilton (4 films), Peter Hunt (1 film), Lewis Gilbert (3 films), and John Glen (5 films).
But that has changed of late with accomplished director Marc Forster getting the reins for Quantum of Solace and Academy Award winner Sam Mendes taking over for Skyfall and Spectre. And having A-list directors at the helm makes a visible difference:
Skyfall (dir. Sam Mendes)
One of the things I was curious about when diving back into all the Bonds was to see how well they hold up. Action and adventure films have changed a lot over the years — possibly more than any other popular genre. The Bond films are an interesting bellwether in this regard, moving from being at the cutting edge of action in the 1960s to being more in the way of following trends in the 1970s to 2001, and now perhaps finding a bit of a new voice particular to the series in the 2000s and 2010s — a mix of here-and-now and old school throwback.
What I found in going through the entire series was that there were essentially two types of Bond director: those who were highly conscious of composition and those who focused almost entirely on movement. I found that those filmmakers who had a penchant for composition also happened to make movies that held up better, and in the case of Moonraker, this visual acumen took what was essentially a bad film and made it quite enjoyable. Now, this is a generalization and does not always ring true; indeed my favorite Bond film is From Russia With Love, a movie that is kinetic and propulsive but seems almost determined to be visually bland — no mean feat for something set in Istanbul.
To be sure, a lot of people aren’t tuning in to a Bond film to be overawed by grand compositions and moved by unique lighting schemes, but these are components of great films and no doubt a major reason for the financial and critical success of Skyfall. If you want a fun comparison between two nearly identical scenes to realize the import of lighting and composition, watch the beginning of License to Kill and the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises. Both feature essentially the same crazy mid-air capture of a plane, but Batman director Christopher Nolan is much stronger filmmaker and he brings a sense of awe to the proceedings that License to Kill does not. Bond director John Glen’s point-the-camera-at-the-stunt style is good for getting across the danger of the endeavour, but it lacks cinematic heft.
But perhaps this can best be seen by comparisons within the Bond canon itself. I have selected screen grabs from a number of the Bond films to highlight the differences between those directors who have an eye for stylized composition and those who are more concerned about capturing the action. I am going to discuss these images to distill why I believe composition is important in the Bond universe, and why some directors in the series do their films a disservice by focusing so intently on action and plotting without adequate regard for the look of the film.
Ah, but we first have to deal with a problem I like to refer to as the Ken Adam Oculus Dilemma. You see, Bond films are filled with great stunts and amazing sets. Many of the most famous sets — like Blofeld’s volcano lair — were designed by mad genius Ken Adam, who worked on many of the Bond films from the 1960s and 70s (and also designed the amazing war room in Dr. Strangelove). The oculus I refer to in my dilemma is in this Ken Adam-designed room from Dr. No:
Terence Young (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Thunderball) is one of the Bond directors with the least visual flair, but it is impossible to take an uninteresting shot of this room. Likewise it is not too difficult to keep a viewers attention with a bunch of stunts and ‘splosions, even if it is just the camera pointed at something going boom. So to compensate for the Ken Adam Oculus Dilemma, I have decided to pull together a series of shots that I would call “Boring Bond”. Basically, uninteresting moments or dialogue scenes — no overt action, no crazy sets. Indeed, I’ve tried to have most of the settings be in real world places rather than movie stages. But through these ostensibly dull moments I think it will quickly become apparent that not all Bond filmmakers are created equal.
Image Set 1 — Center Stage
The following are three images featuring Bond by himself in the center of a frame in an outdoor setting.
1. From Russia With Love (dir. Terence Young)
2. The Living Daylights (dir. John Glen)
3. You Only Live Twice (dir. Lewis Gilbert)
So looking at the above, it will be immediately apparent that the shot from From Russia With Love — which I will remind you is my favorite Bond film — is super lame. This is Bond on the Bosphorus, a waterway surrounded by Istanbul, one of the most remarkable cities on Earth. And it looks like it could be anywhere. The shot is grey and dull and pretty much the definition of just pointing the camera at the main character.
The second image from The Living Daylights requires a bit of unpacking. This is actually the first shot in the franchise that we get of Timothy Dalton as Bond, and he is clinging to the Rock of Gibraltar. So this is a hero shot in a remarkable setting, and again it looks like it could have been taken anywhere. The environment is all but ignored in favor of getting Dalton front and center. But by consequence he loses his sense of place and also the sense of danger that should be there in this scene.
By way of comparison, now let’s look at the third shot. Bond is centered, but the filmmaker has chosen a vantage point that livens up the composition by showcasing a distant bridge framed by an archway. The sense of danger is preserved by having a thug slinking down the stairs in the background — but he is not yet a direct threat, which is highlighted by his being out of focus. In this instance the filmmaker — Lewis Gilbert — has taken a mundane setting (a dockyard) and transformed it into an interesting composition that highlights a piece of modern Japan (the bridge, which also represents an avenue of escape) and leaves room for the tension of being on enemy ground to remain in place by utilizing the man on the stairs. It isn’t an exciting shot, but it is made interesting by its framing.
Image Set 2 — Bond and Lady Friend
1. Live and Let Die (dir. Guy Hamilton)
2. Tomorrow Never Dies (dir. Roger Spottiswoode)
3. Skyfall (dir. Sam Mendes)
I apologize for the poor image quality on these (ah, would that I could take screengrabs from my Bond Blu-rays), but I think the point is made. The top image from Live and Let Die is just two people standing next to each other, nothing more. It signifies no connection between the two larger than “we are two people who know each other”. And this, mind you, is a shot from moments before they discover a giant secret heroin poppy field.
The image from Tomorrow Never Dies is better, but still surprisingly bland. The islands in the background are gorgeous, but ultimately minimized in this composition, and the relationship between the two characters is in no way showcased through there arrangement. Once again, this is the quiet just before a pivotal moment (in this case the final confrontation with the bad guy), but there is no signification of this in the way the shot is composed. The boat has a lot of set dressing, but none of it signifies much; if anything the snarls of ropes take one’s eyes away from the performers. The actors themselves are on the 1/3rd lines, marking the composition as formal in the most basic sense, but it lacks convincing power. This particular film is full of heavily set dressed locations with camerawork that lacks a sense of space and geography.
Ah Skyfall — I think I could have grabbed pretty much any second of the film for this post, but let’s go with this “boring” shot. Like the previous shots, this moment comes immediately before a major moment in the film — in this case the siege at Bond’s childhood home. But unlike the other shots it actually says something through its visual language rather than just being a camera pointed at two people. Bond commands the frame, which demonstrates that he has taken charge of the situation, whereas M is placed in a subordinate position even though she is ostensibly the boss — she is diminished in the shot, which is a reflection of her current position within the narrative. The background is carefully chosen to mimic the arrangement of the two people in the shot, which gives the image character and interest. But it also is a dynamic setting of early morning mist, showcasing the environment so that the audience can get its bearings, but also suggesting the showdown to come through the ominous fog as it rolls down the cliffside. In this shot the visual language of the composition serves to complement the narrative and build tension.
Image Set 3 — Balcony Bond
Balconies are a big thing in Bond films — I recognize that that sounds a bit silly, but there is an inherent value to balconies as narrative devices, particularly in action/spy films. Balconies afford a measure of stealth to individuals who are keen to observe people from a relatively inconspicuous vantage point. And of course they also serve as insecure positions from which good guys can dangle and bad guys can be flung. But take a look at the following shot:
1. Octopussy (dir. John Glen)
This is Bond in India. Is it possible to have produced a less remarkable image of a balcony in India? And this particular part of the film is supposed to be in Varanasi along the banks of the Ganges. I’ve been to Veranasi. It is an amazing city which serves as the spiritual heart of Hinduism — there are no shortage of striking balconies along the river that could have been used to give this shot a sense of place and to really showcase the globetrotting element that is central to the Bond franchise. But all this shot says is, “Bond is looking at something”, which marks it as a wasted opportunity.
By way of comparison, take a look at this shot from a far less interesting corner of Bern, Switzerland:
2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (dir. Peter Hunt)
This is a marvelous composition, simply lovely to look at. And though it might not look like it on first sight it also sets the scene, positing the construction site in the background, which is going to feature into how the rest of this scene will play out. The shot is done in a shallow focus which lasers the viewer in upon Bond while still letting the geometric lines and red color of the construction site to add flair to the background (but without the negative side effect of seeing a grungy worksite in all its imperfect details). It gives the viewer a sense of place and sets up the next link in the chain of events all while taking an uninspiring location and making it look lovely. Bond on a balcony in India should have been the no contest winner here, given the two settings, but the shot from Octopussy is somehow sub-perfunctory, and that sort of thing has a major effect on how a film is received.
But you might say about all the above, is it fair to compare shots from films with different Bonds and from entirely different eras? Well check out these balcony shots from two consecutive Daniel Craig features:
3. Casino Royale (dir. Martin Campbell)
4. Quantum of Solace (dir. Marc Forster)
Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Casino Royale) probably falls in something of a middle ground among Bond directors — he does have an artistic flair to some of his shooting, particularly outdoors, but he also does tend to have a point-it-at-whatever-is-happening mode of filming. The balcony shot from Casino Royale showcases the more perfunctory side of his skill set. There is nothing particularly compelling about the location or the shot (although Campbell does add some interest by having the camera push in closer to the two actors — this grab is from a halfway through the shot). Bond and Mathis have the upper hand in this moment, but nothing about the staging particularly suggests that.
But now look at the image from Quantum of Solace — Bond’s being one step ahead of the bad guys is forcefully conveyed by his posture and positioning within the frame. The shot is from a very low angle, accentuating Bond’s position of power and placing him relative to his quarry. Even more noticeable is that this is a very bland setting, but the filmmakers have used this to their advantage. The starkness of the room makes Bond leap out all the more and is a perfect compliment to his tuxedo, and the railing adds some geometry to the shot, linking Bond to the rest of the frame and breaking up all the white on the left. It’s a great shot in a criminally underrated film (seriously, watch it again — I wasn’t a big fan at first and now it is one of my favorite Bond films).
In praise of Lewis Gilbert
So in all we have 24 Bond films by 11 different directors, and I believe it fair to say that just eight of those films — one third of the total — feature consistently strong compositions and really consider the frame as being more than a place in which story and action can occur (see end of post for a list). As I’ve said above, this focus on plotting and action isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you can be left with very little to work with if the story or action beats don’t really work out — a feature of all too many Bond films. As a result, Bond films with great stories and strong characters — like Goldfinger or Casino Royale — come off as truly excellent films even though they don’t have a unifying artistic sensibility. But if the writing and characters aren’t there — like in A View to Kill or Tomorrow Never Dies — then you need something else to make the film compelling, otherwise they end up being sound and fury signifying nothing.
And that is why I titled this essay “In Praise of Lewis Gilbert”. Gilbert was director of three Bond films — You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker — none of which are generally considered to be among the very best Bond films (although The Spy Who Loved Me is often cited as the best Roger Moore Bond). Indeed, Moonraker with its blatant “what if we had our own Star War” premise is frequently put forward as being among the most ridiculous Bond films. And You Only Live Twice was so over the top — ninja armies, volcano lairs, and Bond being “transformed” into a laughably unconvincing Japanese man — that the series underwent a major recalibration with its next film. There’s a reason that Austin Powers‘ spy spoofage draws most heavily from You Only Live Twice.
Wait, this doesn’t sound like praise? Well, that’s coming — I think it is first important to note that Gilbert’s films had story issues that should have sunk the pictures, and probably would have in lesser hands. I have always had a sentimental attachment to You Only Live Twice — I firmly believe it to be one of the masterpieces of the series and glorious in its insanity, but watching it again recently with a more critical eye I was struck by how well filmed and staged the movie is. It handles its settings brilliantly and has a fantastic focus on process that makes all of its most grandiose elements feel almost plausible. I received another pleasant surprise with The Spy Who Loved Me. I was particularly taken with the masterful camerawork and framing during the Luxor temple sequence, but the film is loaded with excellent shots and sequences. And I remembered Moonraker as a particularly poor Bond entry (pigeon double-take), but rewatching it recently I marveled at many of the shots. It is a shockingly beautiful movie at times, to such a degree that I found myself invested in it despite some appalling story decisions (including the fact that it is basically the exact same movie as The Spy Who Loved Me).
I don’t think my words will ever wholly convince anyone of the strengths of these films — particularly the Bond. In. Spaaaaaaaace!! scenario of Moonraker. So let me just share with you a few shots from each of these movies as an appetizer, and I heartily recommend you check out Lewis Gilbert’s entries in the Bond series. They aren’t the best Bond films, but they are a key reminder that stunts and ‘splosions aren’t always enough to make a great action movie. If other Bond films had been as conscientious of the need to compose great images instead of great spectacles we might had more Skyfalls and fewer Jinxes.
(My sincere condolences to anyone who understood the reference in that last sentence — nobody should be watching Die Another Day)
You Only Live Twice (1967), directed by Lewis Gilbert
And super special mention of this sequence, which demonstrates beyond a doubt how well you can be served by a director who has the wherewithal to go beyond the ordinary:
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), directed by Lewis Gilbert
Moonraker (1979), directed by Lewis Gilbert
Oh, and in case you made it this far, the eight Bond films that consistently feature a strong sense of composition are the following (in chronological order):
1. You Only Live Twice (1967), dir. Lewis Gilbert
2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), dir. Peter Hunt (the 2nd most beautiful after Skyfall)
3. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), dir. Lewis Gilbert
4. Moonraker (1979), dir. Lewis Gilbert
5. The World Is Not Enough (1999), dir. Michael Apted (underrated Bond film for sure)
6. Quantum of Solace (2008), dir. Marc Forster
7. Skyfall (2012), dir. Sam Mendes
8. Spectre (2015), dir. Sam Mendes