The air is electric at this posh London casino, where a beautiful woman has been losing big at chemin de fer. How can the stranger across the table keep drawing better cards out of the shoe? Desperately, she borrows more to cover her bets, and the stranger says, “I admire your courage, Miss . . .”
“Trench,” the brunette answers. “Sylvia Trench.” She appraises her rival with an envy edging toward lust. “I admire your luck, Mr. . . .”
“Bond.” The silver cigarette lighter snaps shut to reveal a face of elegant cruelty: dimples welded like scars, incredible long whips of eyebrows, a full mouth ready for any challenge — to spit out a witticism, to commandeer a kiss, to sip from the cup of revenge. To say his name: “James Bond.”
Moviegoers first heard that terse exchange in a London theater on Oct. 5, 1962. That same week, Johnny Carson became host of The Tonight Show, and Pope John XXIII adorned the cover of TIME. In two weeks, Khrushchev and Kennedy would go eyeball to eyeball in a dispute over Cuban missiles. So who cared about the world premiere of Dr. No, the first film made from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, or about the introduction of Sean Connery as Her Majesty’s hunkiest secret servant? Who knew?
Fifty years later — also nine Presidents, four Popes, two Tonight Show hosts and some 2,500 issues of TIME — the Soviet Union has disappeared, depriving the West of its long-time world threat, and Bond of his favorite nemesis. The entertainment landscape has changed, as most people see movies on home video or personal computers. Fleming himself died in 1964, having written 12 Bond novels and eight short stories. Yet the Bond films abide, in movie theaters, on DVD and as spinoff animated series and video games.
Before sequels became the most reliable way to make a buck, Bond set the standard for lavish serial adventures. Before Hollywood found gold in multimillion-dollar adaptations of comic-book characters — in the Superman, Batman and Spider-Man blockbusters — Bond was the movies’ first big-budget franchise superhero. Spanning fully half the century of English-language feature films, Bond is also the longest-running continuous movie series. Things change, including the actors who play him, but Bond goes on saving the world from megalomaniac crime masters, heartless femmes fatales and indifferently prepared vodka martinis.
This multimedia legend has also weathered many changes of leading actors. Bond was first played on American television, in a one-hour adaptation of Casino Royale on the 1954 anthology series Climax!, by Barry Nelson. (Peter Lorre was the villainous Le Chiffre.) In the 1967 spoof version of the same novel, at least four actors — David Niven, Peter Sellers, Terence Cooper and Ursula Andress — laid claim to being 007.
But in the official Bond films supervised by Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, and then by Barbara Brocolli and Michael G. Wilson, so far, there have been a half-dozen: Connery in six films (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever; the Australian model George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; Roger Moore in seven (Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy and A View to a Kill); Timothy Dalton in two (The Living Daylights and License to Kill), Pierce Brosnan in four (GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day); and Daniel Craig (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall).
(READ: Coverage of a 50 Years of Bond exhibition in London)
Bond is a 50-year family business: Barbara Brocolli is Cubby’s daughter, Wilson his stepson. And over the decades, the creative team has remained remarkably consistent. Richard Maibaum wrote or cowrote 13 of the first 16 films; Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have written or cowritten the last five. Composer John Barry, production designer Ken Adam and Maurice Binder, who created the swirling opening-credits sequences, stayed with the franchise for a generation or more.
Directors have been chosen usually from the middle rank of the British pack; the Broccolis, who run this producers’ franchise, haven’t followed the trend of Marvel comics movies, where quirky auteurs like Sam Raimi and Joss Whedon get to stamp their personalities on blockbuster projects. When they needed a new face behind the megaphone, the Broccolis would often promote from within: Peter Hunt, who served as editor on the first three films, directed On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; and the editor of that film, John Glen, helmed five other Bond features. This family loyalty extends to the supporting cast. Only three actors (Bernard Lee, Robert Brown and Judi Dench) have played Bond’s spy boss M; only two (Desmond Llewelyn, John Cleese) have played the gadgetmaster Q. If actors are replaced, it’s often because they’re deceased.
The series is big business too. The first 22 Brocolli Bonds have earned something like $5 billion around the world. (Broccoli did not produce the 1967 Casino Royale — the team would finally film that property in 2006 — or Connery’s free-lance return to the role in the 1983 Never Say Never Again.) In “real dollars,” the series has earned much more; the 1965 Thunderball took in today’s equivalent of $1.1 billion. Nor has the series suffered a slump in audience esteem: each of the last six installments has grossed more at the North American box office than its predecessor. The tap keeps flowing with the Nov. 9 release of the 23rd episode, Skyfall, which serves as the capstone of a year celebrating the Bond movies’ golden jubilee.
HOW BOND WON THE COLD WAR
Money’s nice, and if Bond hadn’t made a bundle he wouldn’t still be around. But the true measure of the franchise is its cultural and political impact. Begun in the deep freeze of the Cold War, as the world suffered its worst case of the nuclear nerves, the Bond films lifted grim reality airborne into wish-fulfillment. It could almost be said that this fictional British spy changed the world as much as any actual secret agent. The great Soviet bear had missiles and tractors; the Anglo-American alliance has missiles — and James Bond.
Any actual MI6 operative in 1962, a year after the Berlin Wall went up, might have been underground in the U.S.S.R. or the German Democratic Republic, matching wits and fists with representatives of the Soviet spy syndicate known as SMERSH (a Russian acronym for “Death of Spies”). The agency figures importantly in Fleming’s first three Bond novels: Casino Royale, Live and Let Die and From Russia, With Love. Yet SMERSH is mentioned in just two of the Broccoli-Bond films, Dr. No and the 1987 The Living Daylights (and in the 1967 non-Broccoli Casino Royale). In the entire Bond canon, only scene is set at the Berlin Wall — at the beginning of the 1983 Octopussy, released six years before that Cold War fixture crumbled. Otherwise, Bond left the grittier aspects of British spying to the films made from John Le Carré and Len Deighton novels.
The Broccolis always had sharp business instincts. They realized that, with a worldwide audience lapping up the franchise, it would be fiscally irresponsible to write off the whole Communist world by casting Soviets as bad guys. So Bond found villains in rogue warriors, not cold warriors. In six of the first seven installments, Bond grapples with the international conspiracy known as SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), a clear inspiration for the League of Shadows in Christopher Nolan’s recent Batman films. Throughout the Bond series, the Soviet Union remained an irrelevance, occasionally a gruff ally. Indeed, in A View to a Kill — released in 1985, two years before Ronald Reagan went to Berlin and challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” — “Comrade Bond” was awarded the Order of Lenin.
(READ: A 1964 Sean Connery profile by subscribing to TIME)
“Make no mistake,” real-life U.S. secret agent Valerie Plame wrote in Variety, “Bond is an assassin, as his special ‘00’ number indicates. His job isn’t to form relationships but to end them.” Yet in the permanent fantasy land of popular entertainment, this assassin gave the traditional action hero modern attitudes and equipment. He brought a killer’s lightning instincts to Sherlock Holmes, a suave caress to crude Mike Hammer, the microchip age to Dick Tracy’s gadgets. His films were comic strips with grown-up cynicism, Hitchcock thrillers without the artistic risks.
Bond, especially Connery’s Bond, was an existential hired gun with an aristocrat’s tastes — just right for a time when class was a matter of brand names and insouciant gestures. “My dear girl,” Bond tells a new conquest in the 1964 Goldfinger, “there are some things that just aren’t done. Such as drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above a temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” Minutes later the dear girl’s body is lacquered to death by Auric Goldfinger’s Korean manservant. But death doesn’t shake Bond’s assurance in his infallibility — or in his mandarin musical prejudice against Britain’s other great cultural export of the 1960s.
To an empire that had seen its realm shrink with the loss of the Indian subcontinent, and its secret service embarrassed by the Burgess-Maclean and Profumo scandals, the notion of an agent from the U.K. saving the free world was an intoxicating tonic. Britain mattered. Britain was cool. (And the U.S., as epitomized by Bond’s CIA ally Felix Leiter, was just a sidekick.) If the Beatles made England swing for the young, then Bond was a travel-poster boy for the earmuff brigade. The Bond films even put a few theme songs, such as Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” on the pop charts.
In its first flush of fame, the Bond series spawned a whole genre of superspy imitators: Matt Helm and Harry Palmer in ’60s movies, Maxwell Smart and the men from U.N.C.L.E. on TV. The Beatles shot part of their second movie, Help!, in the Bahamas simply because they heard that the latest Bond film, Thunderball, had gone there for location work. The upstarts were following the big boy.
Later a young generation of filmmakers found inspiration in the series’ success. You hear its echoes in hundreds of high-tech adventure movies, from Star Wars (with Darth Vader as a more sepulchral Dr. No) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (007 as an archaeologist) up to The Dark Knight Rises (superhero vs. maniacal, aphorism-spouting villain). Some of the influence was direct: John Stears, the effects wizard of Star Wars, supervised the visual tricks on six early Bonds. Other directors learned just by watching, as enthralled kids who grew up to bring their own spin to the brut effervescence and special-effects expertise bottled in Bond.
THE BOND WOMEN
James Bond could have been Jane Bond. In 1955, shortly after the publication of Casino Royale, the Russian-born producer-director Gregory Ratoff optioned the book and hired the young Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (who later did the screenplay for Never Say Never Again) to write a script. Neither man thought much of the main character. “Frankly, we thought he was kind of unbelievable and, as I recall, even kind of stupid,” Semple recalled in Variety. “So Gregory thought the solution was to make Bond a woman — Jane Bond, if you will — and he even had a plan to cast Susan Hayward in the role.” The notion of a top dramatic actress from Brooklyn to play the veddy British, Type-A male 007 came to naught, and a few years later Broccoli and Harry Saltzman snagged the rights to most of Fleming’s Bond books.
As the first two decades of Bond films made celebrities of his enemies (Oddjob, Rosa Klebb, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Jaws), so they incited schoolboy snickers with the names of his women. Pussy Galore and Octopussy! Kissy Suzuki and Plenty O’Toole! Mary Goodnight and Holly Goodhead! They were as indispensable and interchangeable as 007’s other accessories, the Walther PPK and the Aston Martin. In the early ’60s the Fleming books enjoyed a boost in popularity when President Kennedy sang their praises in Life magazine. The endorsement was apt, for Bond in the early Connery years comprised equal parts Jack Kennedy’s playboy glamour and Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Philosophy.
(READ: Corliss on Playboy at 50)
In that man’s-man’s world, women were to be valued as playmates, as allies or adversaries, and mostly as ornaments. Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) might be a judo expert who could toss Bond like a crepe, but he would pin her with a wolfish double entendre: “We must have a few fast falls together some time.” Or, as he says when his bed time with another Goldfinger lovely, Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton), is interrupted by an urgent phone call from Leiter, “Not now. Something big’s come up.” Back in 1964, Bond’s allusion to his tumescent member earned a gasp or a giggle. That suited 007’s suave satyriasis; recall that most films gave him two “Bond girls” (the blond, the brunette) to tangle with. The playboy would enjoy his sport with them and move on.
His roving eye was in part a function of a spy’s globetrotting itinerary. Other movie superheroes could form lasting domestic partnerships — Superman / Clark Kent with Lois Lane, Batman / Bruce Wayne with Rachel Dawes — because they lived and worked in one city (Metropolis, Gotham). For all their preternatural skills, they were tethered to their jobs as, respectively, reporter and philanthropist: essentially working stiffs. Bond was always working, and often stiff, but his jet-set escapades virtually demanded that he get in bed with the enemy. That job requirement would put a crimp in any affair back home with, say, Miss Moneypenny.
Yet, even at the start, the Bond girl was as clever, efficient and often ruthless in combat as she was in bed — a Jane Bond, if you will. And though the series never deserved a citation from Ms. Magazine, it gradually insinuated a certain furtive feminism. Bond was still susceptible to European beauties of no fixed abode or accent, but he began to rely on their intelligence and independence. They could fight manfully; he could fall in love. He married one of them, Tracy Di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg) in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which of course meant she had to die violently.
More than a few Bond girls had the IQ and skills set to match his: ace pilot and former CIA operative Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) in Licence to Kill; rocket scientist, also ex-CIA, Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) in Moonraker; nuclear physicist Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) in The World Is Not Enough. Some overage boys could drool as Andress emerged from the sea like Aphrodite in a bikini in the 1962 Dr. No, or 40 years later when Halle Berry reprised that scene in The World Is Not Enough. Others could cheer the high kung-fu kicks of Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Knows, or lose their hearts to Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in the 2006 reboot of Casino Royale.
BOND TIMES SIX
Ask Bond-watchers of a certain age about the six actors who have slipped into Bond’s Savile Row suits in the Broccoli franchise, and they might say it’s really Connery and five other guys — since he, being first and being Sean, stamped the role with his sulfurous masculinity. When Connery tired of the role (and it showed), Broccoli cast Lazenby in the installment where Bond became a husband and a widower. In the game of casting roulette, it was Lazenby who disappeared as Connery returned for one more film.
Then Moore took over for seven episodes. Amiable and reliable, he nonetheless walked through his part like a waxwork on casters, like Bond embalmed, and left most of the heavy work to stunt doubles. The best of his films, The Spy Who Loved Me, succeeded without serious intervention from its star. Most of the other Moore Bonds were bloated fantasies, heavy on the double entendres; the series was in danger of becoming a travelogue with gadgets and a smirk.
The list of actors who have played 007 multiple times has alternated between Rough Bond and Smooth Bond. Dalton, a West End stage luminary with heartthrob looks, played Bond with the ironic scowl of a killer who was battle-ready yet war-weary. Dalton did a lot of his own stunts, and he cut a smart figure in a tuxedo — especially the one with the Velcro lapels, in The Living Daylights, that could fold over to give him the guise of a priest-assassin. But he seemed to be performing under protest, and after two films he broke out of Bondage and went back to the theater.
Paging a Smooth Bond: the puckish Irishman Brosnan, who imported his blithe persona from the Remington Steele series. Radiating TV-star warmth rather than movie-star heat, Brosnan escorted the series into middle age, through the 2002 The World Is Not Enough. Still immensely popular, the Bond films had become increasingly irrelevant, a chipper anachronism in a decade of tortured heroes from comic books (Nolan’s Batman Begins) and spy fiction (Matt Damon’s films as the amnesiac secret agent Jason Bourne).
Bond needed a makeover, and goy it in the 2006 Casino Royale. The movie showed a perfect figure rising from the sea — lubricated and lubricious, like Andress in Dr. No — but this body belonged to Daniel Craig, with Sisyphus shoulders and pecs so well defined they could be in Webster’s. If Craig spent more time with his shirt off than all previous Bonds combined, it was to make the point that this secret agent was his own sex object. In any romance he had with a shady lady, he seemed to be cheating on himself.
Figuring that modern audiences preferred murderous fights to martini-sipping, the Broccoli brain trust made Craig’s 007 a working-class bloke, as much thug as thinker. Instead of the 007 of the Fleming canon — a tough but smooth gentleman spy, schooled at Eton and Cambridge — Craig is nearly a cyber- or cipher-Bond, with a loyalty chip implanted in a mechanism that’s built for murderous ingenuity. In lieu of the bons mots assigned to Connery, Moore and Brosnan, Craig communicates in grunts and sullen, conceivably soulful, laser stares. For this 007, spying is no game; it’s a job that has become a compulsion. Craig’s 007 is a brute: Rambo with muscles bulging through his tux and, even more so, a Bourne-again Bond.
Rather than losing faith in the traditional Bond by jolting 007 into gritty modernism, the Broccoli team is simply showing the adaptability that has sustained the series for a half-century. The Craig Bond could be what the Connery Bond would have been if the franchise had started from scratch now. Movie heroes no longer sit in tuxes and smoke cigarettes at a chemin-de-fer table; the fights are longer and more vicious, and every entendre is single. The Broccolis were right to bring 007 into the 21st century, rather than serve as curators of the James Bond Museum. After all, that archive is kept faithfully in the memories of millions of fans.
LIFE’s new book, 50 Years of James Bond, is available here.