Bullz-Eye is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first James Bond film with look back at every Bond movie, 007 One by One, along with a series of features about the Bond franchise, all laid out in our James Bond Fan Hub.
Over the years James Bonds came and went. Directors and writers shifted and changed. Vocalists were routinely swapped out. Though not the only constant in the Bond franchise, Maurice Binder, as the primary designer of the instantly recognizable title sequence, was certainly one of the most noticeable ones. For the bulk of Bond’s first 27 years, Binder brought us a cavalcade of swirling colors and curvaceous ladies, typically set to the tune of a current pop sensation. His job was to help set the tone for the film to come by presenting elements and themes from the movie in an abstract, artistic fashion. For many, these title sequences became an important, even necessary part of the Bond movie-going experience, and remain so today, over 20 years after Binder’s passing. Here we take an entirely subjective look at his ongoing contributions to cinema’s longest-running movie franchise.
The first thing ever seen in a Bond movie is the opening gun barrel sequence, and no amount of praise can be too effusive for Maurice Binder’s creation of it. James Bond emerges in profile from the right, caught in the movie viewer’s cross hairs. He then spins around, shoots, and the gun sight fills with, presumably, the viewer’s blood.
It’s become part and parcel of the Bond films ever since, though only in “Dr. No” is it part of the title sequence proper; afterwards, it would be separated from the titles by the now also iconic pre-credits sequence. Coupled with the infamous Monty Norman-composed Bond theme song, the gun barrel sequence is that instantaneous moment when everyone simultaneously acknowledges they’re watching a Bond film.
After the gun barrel sequence, flashing colored lights set to the Bond theme reveal the title “Dr. No” as well as the cast, followed by the silhouettes of people dancing a sort of Jamaican mambo, and, finally, a calypso version of “Three Blind Mice” dovetails nicely into the movie itself. The “Dr. No” titles are a lot fun and unique in the Bond film series; the only real element of them that would come to feature heavily in the future is Binder’s inventive, energetic use of silhouette.
It’s anyone’s guess into what directions the Bond title sequences might’ve gone if Binder had helmed the titles for the “Dr. No” sequel. But he did not, and for the next two films – “From Russia with Love” and “Goldfinger” – the titles are designed by Robert Brownjohn. Both sequences march to the beat of different drum than Binder’s, and even though Brownjohn only ever did these two, his influence on what the Bond titles would ultimately evolve into on Binder’s watch cannot be discounted.
There’s an elegance and class that Brownjohn brings to the table that may or may not have progressed out of Binder as well, but for certain the one thing Brownjohn can be credited with is the fetishized exploitation of the female form, and both of his sequences are loaded with it; the curvaceous fairer figure is all but worshipped, and the dominant centerpiece of “From Russia with Love.”
Brownjohn’s other gimmick – projecting imagery over those lovely bodies – is strikingly used in both sequences. In the former, the credits are projected over the undulating female form, and in the latter, snippets of scenes from the movie itself. However, anything Brownjohn does with the “Goldfinger” sequence is very probably overshadowed by the sounds of Shirley Bassey, as this other imperative element – the pop song – finally drops into its place in the title sequence timeline. Bassey is the true star here, and her vocals remain some of the most iconic in film history.
With 1965’s “Thunderball,” Maurice Binder returned to his post in the franchise, and would remain with the series in this capacity for the next 24 years. Right here, right now . . . BAM! This is where all of the familiar elements finally congeal into the Bond title sequence we all know and love. Silhouettes of floating naked women mingle with silhouetted deep sea divers armed with harpoons. Water bubbles against myriad colors filling the screen. Tom Jones delivers bombastic accompaniment to the intense, widescreen visuals (also a first for the Bond series). This handful of disparate elements combine to create movie history, and our expectations for Bond would never be the same again.
Further, sometimes those silhouettes weren’t all that dark. Perhaps the one area where Binder figured he could outshine his temporary predecessor was to titillate the audience with brief flashes of visible boob and butt, and it worked, ahem, swimmingly.
Binder got even more creative on the next outing, by adding graphics and playing around with his silhouette technique by inverting it, as well as throwing filmed bits of flowing lava, erupting volcanoes, and sexy geisha ladies into the mix. Between the titles for “You Only Live Twice” and “Thunderball,” most of the tools in Binder’s creative box are on display, and he’d use various combinations of the pair in his work over the next 20 years and change. We’d also be remiss to not mention the theme tune sung by Nancy Sinatra, a hypnotic piece of work that’s stood the test of time.
Since “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was quite the mouthful, composer John Barry opted to create an instrumental piece for the titles, and it’s a rousing bit of work. Because this movie was, for the first time, introducing a new actor (George Lazenby) playing Bond, much of Binder’s work here consists of a montage of clips from the previous films, as the need was felt to stress to audiences that they were still following the adventures of the same man. The trip down memory lane aside, the graphics are borderline psychedelic, bursting with eye-popping color — wholly indicative of the film to come.
With “Diamonds Are Forever” the series moved into a new decade, yet the movie still had a foot in the Sixties, as is evidenced by the return of both Sean Connery and Shirley Bassey; the latter again dominates these proceedings. Binder grabs the iconography of diamonds and Blofeld’s cat to create the titles which brought an end to the Connery era.
When Roger Moore arrived on the scene in 1973’s “Live and Let Die,” the titles exploded around him, via the inevitable hiring of a Beatle (and his wife) to pen and perform the theme. Paul McCartney and Wings arguably delivered the most instantly perfect Bond theme since “Goldfinger,” which is vaguely ironic, since it was in “Goldfinger” that James Bond took a swipe at the Fab Four: “That’s as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”
Here Binder deals in the nightmarish, voodoo aspects of the movie, including human skulls and crackling fire, all wrapped around women of color, some covered in tribal paint. An argument could be made that these titles are the “You Only Live Twice” titles on LSD. There can be no doubt that the franchise, and Binder’s work along with it, had firmly entered the 1970s.
The titles for “The Man with the Golden Gun” are a fairly paint by numbers affair, despite the complete and utter catchiness of Lulu’s theme song. Indeed, as a rule of thumb, if the song is the most memorable aspect of the Bond title sequence, then boundaries aren’t being sufficiently pushed, even within the limited confines of the format. That being said, the silhouette gettin’ down about two-thirds of the way through is a fine specimen of woman.
Harsh criticism can in no way be leveled at “The Spy Who Loved Me” titles, which showcase Binder at quite possibly the height of his creative powers. Simply put, everything comes together, in about an ideal a manner as possible. The imagery is slightly more abstract than the norm, mostly eschewing iconography from the movie, though sexy, athletic Russian ladies are a theme. Instead it seemingly invokes Bond’s relationship with women in general, achieved via the inclusion of Roger Moore, under the direction of Binder, as a part of the sequence. This was a first. It wasn’t movie footage, as had previously been done with “Goldfinger” and “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” – this was specially shot, and given the film’s title, it was an appropriate creative call.
Then there’s that perfectly gorgeous theme tune, performed by Carly Simon, and written by Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch, that so effortlessly works hand in hand with Binder. “Nobody Does It Better,” indeed. The marriage of music and imagery here is the stuff the very best music videos are made of, and this compares to ballet. If we were stuck a desert island with only one Bond title sequence, it’d be this one.
It’d be easy at this point to claim it was all downhill for Binder’s Bond after ’77, but that would be to deny a huge chunk of his artistry. Just because he peaked with “Spy,” doesn’t mean there weren’t bursts of beauty afterwards. Sadly, “Moonraker” doesn’t really have one of those moments. Visually it feels like leftovers from “Spy,” but its biggest problem, which is no fault of Binder’s, is the return to the Shirley Bassey well for a third time, a decision that no longer works. She’s from a different era altogether, and out of step with the movie itself, which was thematically looking forward to the future via its sci-fi aspects.
Things get seriously back on track with 1981’s “For Your Eyes Only,” a sequence, which, like “Spy,” features a visual first: The inclusion of chanteuse Sheena Easton’s face and body as a part of the titles. It’d be easy to claim that this was a reaction to the growing popularity of MTV if not for one thing – MTV didn’t launch until about three months after the movie was released. So instead we must assume that the decision was purely an aesthetic one, given that Sheena Easton was pretty enough to be a Bond girl herself. She’s a marvel, and the song by Bill Conti and Michael Leeson is nearly as tight as Carly Simon’s. Finding a current, pretty pop star with serious pipes was the apology after Bassey’s flaccid “Moonraker.”
Binder creates a swirling, sensual concoction here, and this was the last time he was truly on fire, doing the thing that he’s best known for, in the history of cinema.
We need look no further than the titles for “Octopussy” for proof of our previous assertion. Rita Coolidge is a fine singer, but not at all right for Bond, and out of step with the cultural zeitgeist of that moment. Couple her with yet another title that makes for a potentially awkward theme, and we end up with “All Time High,” and likely Binder’s least inspiring work in the series. There’s simply nothing of note here, unless we want to mention the unintentionally laughable bits such as Bond swinging a woman around in circles by an arm and a leg, and the visual around the 1:20 mark, where it appears Bond is humping the model.
With Moore’s swansong, “A View to a Kill,” the series swings back around to contemporary and current by getting Duran Duran on board. Their theme song is exceptional, and Binder gives it his all, in an attempt to deliver visuals to match the audio. This title sequence, much like the year 1985, is a garish, hideous affair, drenched in glow in the dark excess. Not bad necessarily, as Binder seems at his worst when he’s not trying, and here he clearly is, but such a freakshow, you cannot take your eyes off it. He even brings a little something new to the table by featuring silhouetted naked men – on skis, no less! In doing so, Binder sort of proves why he’d never done it before: They appear neutered, like a Ken doll. Clearly the male form does not lend itself well to Binder’s artistry.
As we enter the final stretch of Maurice Binder’s work with the James Bond series, a new actor – Timothy Dalton – has been cast in the lead role, and a new era seemingly begins, even though behind the scenes it was all business as usual, with the same creative minds calling the shots in a cinematic world threatening to leave Bond behind. It was a franchise in a mild creative crisis, punctuated by being only a two-picture affair. It should come as no surprise that Binder’s final title sequences, as well as the songs the play over them, reflect this rocky footing.
“The Living Daylights” feels like a straight-up greatest hits compilation. It works well enough, but just. The same can more or less be said of Binder’s fourteenth and final Bond title sequence, 1989’s “Licence to Kill.” Few artists do their greatest work at the end of their careers, and Binder is no exception. While this is workmanlike, and not particularly exceptional, it’s difficult to level too much criticism at this stage, since he’d essentially been reworking variations of the same idea repeatedly since “Thunderball” (much like the franchise itself). But the fact that he was able to do it over and over again, for so long, while simultaneously charming generations of moviegoers speaks volumes to his talent and legacy.
Maurice Binder died at the relatively young age of 66 in 1991. Even if he’d lived to see ’95, when the Bond franchise was revived with Pierce Brosnan in the lead, it seems unlikely his services would have been called upon. Starting with “Goldeneye,” the title sequences (“Quantum of Solace” aside) have been designed by commercial and music video director Daniel Kleinman. On his watch they’ve become elaborate, CGI-driven affairs, which, while taking cues from and paying due homage to Binder’s work, have become their own, different sort of excessive animal.
All 22 of the Bond title sequences are now available to view in one single block (clocking in at over an hour), in gorgeous eye-popping 1080p, on the bonus disc of the recent Blu-ray box set, Bond 50: The Complete 22 Film Collection.
Also available for Bond enthusiasts is a new 2-CD set entitled “Best of Bond . . . James Bond: 50 Years – 50 Tracks.”
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