The history of the James Bond movie franchise dates all the way back to 1962, with Dr. No. The iconic tux was first donned by none other than Sean Connery, and the rest as they say, is history. Connery became the first in a long line of Bonds, followed by the likes of George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and now Daniel Craig. Many have opined that each movie is driven by the man playing 007, and in many ways they’re not wrong. Each Bond has come with a distinct style and personality that’s helped drive each respective movie. But in today’s era, it’s about far more than everyone’s favorite secret agent.
The modern era of Bond has been an odd one for a lot of reasons. Pierce Brosnan’s run at the character took it in a decidedly explosion-y direction, focusing less on storytelling and more on absolutely insane stunts and special effects. With Daniel Craig, we saw a return to a more visually rich style, thanks in large part to the work of director Sam Mendes. Mendes first stepped in for Skyfall back in 2012, and was brought back again for the upcoming Spectre. But what is it that sets this director apart from his predecessors?
For one, Mendes represents the first true auteur the franchise has ever seen. His body of work includes less in the realm of action and adventure, and more in the way of cerebral thinkpieces like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. He’s brought this sense for true filmmaking to an otherwise action-centric franchise, giving us a frames jam-packed with visual eye-candy. Each and every scene functions as a portrait in and of itself, using every element at his disposable to further enhance the frame.
Take for example the frame above, pulled directly from Skyfall. In it, we have something simple enough: A covert assassination attempt directed at a person in another building. Your average Bond director of the past would likely put this in a dark room where very little is visible, casually lighting just the sniper and his weapon. Mendes turns that on its head here though, silhouetting the assassin against a vibrant blue background. You as a viewer understand the direction the action is moving (left to right) not just with the way the gun is facing, but with the bright horizontal neon lines behind it. It’s dense, artistic, and provides a rich visual stylization never before seen in any Bond movie.
Let’s break down another a frame from the Spectre teaser to really dig in to how things have changed: Look above at a scene from what we presume to be a funeral. The way it’s shot, it could easily function as a painting as much as it is a snapshot from a Bond movie. Mendes opts for a wide angle lens, making the distance between Bond in the foreground and the actual funeral in the background seem like a chasm. It speaks to his emotional distance, with the lines of the pillars and the careful positioning of each mourner serving to frame the central point of focus. It’s beautifully constructed, and helps accentuate the idea that Bond movies can be far more than crazy stunts and chase scenes.
Of course we still get our fair share of Daniel Craig drinking martinis, driving fancy cars, and seducing femme fatales, but the depth that Mendes pairs with classic Bond tropes lends a greater appeal beyond the more mindless offerings of the past. That’s not to diminish the importance of simpler films like Connery’s From Russia With Love or Brosnan’s Goldeneye, but what it gives us instead is the next logical step in the evolution of the modern spy thriller. Simply put, the days of the James Bond himself acting as the sole driving force have come to an end, and we’re far better off for it.
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