As a seven-part feature, I’ll be counting down the final week to Skyfall’s release in North American theatres on Nov. 9 with seven James Bond-related articles. Day 1: The Best Title Sequences.
James Bond films fell into formula rather quickly. Even the Daniel Craig era, which aimed to reinvent the series and its trademarks, has still kept significant concepts signature to the franchise. One of the most beloved aspects of the films from the very beginning has been the stylized and often-psychedelic title sequence that accompanies the opening credits of a Bond film.
Rather than looking at just the songs that opened the movies, this list includes the whole sequence: theme, originality, style, memorability, and music. Just having a fantastic song wasn’t necessarily enough to make it to this list (which is why A View to a Kill and Diamonds are Forever aren’t present, despite having excellent opening songs).
The best James Bond title sequences hint at what will come in the ensuing movie. Thunderball’s features spear guns, air bubbles, divers, and underwater swimming, letting audiences know to expect something different. Tom Jones’s theme is effective, though not quite as memorable as others in the series. As well, the blue colour scheme was new, after the gold of Goldfinger, the red of From Russia, with Love, and the trippy randomness of Dr. No.
At first, the spinning and floating people seem incongruous with a Bond movie. Only after Octopussy finished and audiences knew the circus theme of its climax did everything fit together. One of the better slow songs to open a 007 adventure, Rita Coolidge’s “All Time High” doesn’t try to overpower but simply evokes reassurance of everything people had grown to depend on Bond for. Extra points for the iconic image of Roger Moore being “embraced” by gun-toting arms.
8. LIVE AND LET DIE
One of the very best James Bond themes accompanies Roger Moore’s first outing in the tux. Accompanied by haunting shots of flaming skulls, Paul McCartney and Wings’s rousing music was a stark departure from earlier Bond themes of the Connery and Lazenby era. The voodoo theme of the movie itself would continue to be a divisive point for Bond fans for decades afterward, but it provides just the right amount of flavour to make this sequence both fun and unnerving.
7. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH
One of the worst Bond films also happened to have one of the best title sequences. No one expected Garbage to contribute a lasting theme, yet the ethereal sound of Shirley Manson’s vocals recalled that of another 007-crooning Shirley. The lilting ebb and flow of the song was paired with the series’ arguably most psychedelic title sequence, combining oil, flames, and trippy slicks of colour to create a Bond sequence artistic enough to be a stand-alone music video that still perfectly set the stage for film’s oil pipeline plot.
6. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
Combining French horns and Asian influences to create the most inventive Bond song up to that date, Nancy Sinatra’s opening theme set the stage for the 00 agent heading for Japan. Fan imagery provides appropriate style while the molten lava flowing in the background hints at the memorable volcanic locale of the finale.
The Pierce Brosnan era, while flawed in a few ways, did produce the most consistently excellent title sequences. It began with GoldenEye’s, the most visually beautiful and well-shot title sequence of any Bond picture. Tina Turner’s opening song is excellent — if falling just shy of the upper echelon of Bond themes — and fits perfectly with the imagery to aid without overpowering. Coupled with its memorable pre-credits sequence, GoldenEye’s title sequence told audiences to expect a modern and exciting 007.
4. DIE ANOTHER DAY
Some people hate the song, be it for Madonna’s singing or for the electronic sound of it all. It may be a stark departure from Shirley Bassey, but the sterile coldness of the song does perfectly fit a movie built around diamonds and ice. This title sequence’s masterstroke, however, was that in addition to giving us fire and ice symbolism to represent James Bond and villain Gustav Graves, it also advanced the plot. No 007 title sequence had ever done that; they’d always been excisable little musical sequences that had no bearing to the movie. Die Another Day’s credits is a scripted scene unto itself, a musical montage of Bond’s imprisonment and torture for fourteen months, depicting beatings, scorpion stings, waterboarding, poker branding, and electrocution. If you took the title sequence out of Die Another Day, the movie would actually suffer. The same can’t be said for any other Bond movie.
3. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
It’s counter-intuitive to expect the slowest Bond theme to also be one of the best, yet Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does it Better” is just that. Against the song, cool blues in the background intimate the underwater plot of villain Carl Stromberg. Slow-spinning dancers doing gymnastics around gun barrels and a silhouetted Agent XXX first embracing and then hunting 007 complement the slow tempo of the music, creating a few quiet minutes of respite between the incredible pre-credits stunt and the spectacular action that follows.
A number of aspects of Goldfinger haven’t aged well, but the title sequence still holds up perfectly almost a half-century later. Shirley Bassey’s booming vocals dance with the blaring brass instruments to create a perfect theme. Gold-painted women drift across the screen to drive home the motif, while scenes from the movie are projected onto them as a tease to the upcoming rest. The whole sequence functions flawlessly.
1. CASINO ROYALE
How do you make the title sequence for a movie whose centerpiece is a poker game seem exciting? By taking the most basic aspect of playing cards – colours and suits – and building a knife-fighting, gun-shooting, face-punching sequence that is both aesthetically abstract and artistically complex. Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” has a gritty feel that feels completely fresh for the series’ reinvented tone and yet seems a natural extension of the brutality that was always beneath the character. The sequence even has fun with the fact many were sceptical of Daniel Craig’s fitness for Bond, by leaving Craig’s arguably un-Bondian baby blues as the last image audiences see. Casino Royale’s opening paved bold new territory for the franchise, stayed true to the series’ roots, and managed to surpass the seemingly untouchable title sequence of Goldfinger in quality.