The James Bond film series has now been running for 56 years and in that time it has racked up an impressive 24 entries. And yet, when people name iconic cinematic moments that have come out of it, we tend to get “the girl painted gold in Goldfinger” and not much else. I probably have a chip on my shoulder about this but is it possible that because it’s James Bond that these great moments are ignored? I mean, The Untouchables for example is a great film, but it’s still an action movie! And its iconic stairway fight is straight from the negatives of silent Soviet spectacular, Battleship Potemkin.

In any case, here are a few Bond moments in no particular order which deserve more recognition as icons of cinema.

1. Skyfall (2012): foot chase through the London Undergound

In a film replete with brilliantly realised ideas, this one should be oft-imitated.

Skyfall was made with a conscious effort to raise the standard for Bond films. The cinematography throughout was masterful, and at a time when action films were getting repetitive, Skyfall stood out amongst the crowd. There’s a chase between the villain, Silva, and James Bond that takes place through the tunnels and stations of the Tube, with the best part involving the centre rail of an escalator being used as a slide. This is certainly a memorable Bond moment, but it’s also important thematically as it blends the real world of everyday commuters with the fantasy world of 007, the game of spies coming out of the shadows and into the light.

2. You Only Live Twice (1967): the rooftops of Kobe Docks

James Bond, pictured at left, outruns his assailants as usual.

Maybe because this film is otherwise incredibly tedious, a brilliant piece of filmmaking is ignored. By the time You Only Live Twice rolled around in 1967, audiences knew that a bunch of Japanese wharf workers armed with kendo poles would be no match for our man Bond, and so the production crew don’t even bother getting up close to film it, knowing it needed a point of difference. So, a breathtaking long shot from a rising helicopter observes the action from afar, as our dark suited hero fights his way across a warehouse roof. Accompanied by one of the punchiest, brassiest fanfares in the Bond music oeuvre, this sequence is possibly the finest piece of camera work in the Connery era.

3. Skyfall (2012): Silhouettes and jellyfish

It’s astonishing how good Skyfall turned out to be in every way; especially after the disappointment of Quantum of Solace four years prior.

A moment which, if you have seen it, you’ll understand why it has to be on this list. It was all we could talk about when we left the cinema after the midnight premiere in 2012. It’s a punch up, but in silhouette against a giant neon jellyfish on the side of a skyscraper. This cinematography choice elevates the sequence from exciting to iconic, helped by its minimalistic percussion score.

4. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): Escape from Piz Gloria

Maybe the hideous blue ski-suit is what precludes this from “iconic” status.

An ambitious piece of filmmaking is the ski-borne escape of James Bond from the alpine lair of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The start of a long association of the series with ski filmmaker Willy Bogner, the rapid downhill action is the most gripping and visceral of the four Bond film ski sequences he choreographed and shot. There is a minimum of obvious blue screen, and it also has the benefit of being well edited, such that you don’t notice the amount of day-for-night filtering they used during shooting.

This entry gets two photos because this is probably one of the best screencaps from a film I have ever seen. Very arty – speaks to the quality of Bogner’s camerawork, too.

5. Licence to Kill (1989): James Bond has had enough

For sale: one Bond, shopworn.

The aftermath of the fuel tanker chase (itself an underrated gem of action cinema) is one of the purest performances as Bond on film to that point. Timothy Dalton gives us a Bond who is worn out, despondent, and at breaking point. At the time it would be six more years before the series continued, so what a great note to wind up the 1980s – like the rest of the world discovered around the same time, the glitzy glamour of the period disguised a rotten core.

6. Octopussy (1983): MI6 agents disguised as clowns

Who would want to kill this clown?

Octopussy is the most underrated of Roger Moore’s seven Bond appearances. In the opening we see a clown being chased through a forest, pursued by knifemen. This clown (009 in disguise) dramatically crashes through the doors of a British Ambassador’s residence, clutching a Faberge egg. Later, in the denouement, James Bond is forced to also disguise himself as a clown and infiltrate a circus performance at a US Air Force base in West Germany so he can defuse a Soviet atom bomb hidden within a large circus cannon. Convoluted: yes. But also fantastically gripping, and totally surreal. It’s an easy target for Moore haters but they’re well orchestrated moments.

Honourable Mentions:

  • Thunderball: A tense chase through a parade ends in a nightclub with a lot of bongos and an homage to The Man Who Knew Too Much.
  • Die Another Day: an enjoyably terrible film stars promisingly with Bond being captured in North Korea and tortured for 14 months, before being repatriated by MI6 and escaping from their hospital ship into a completely different film.

Wasted Opportunities:

  • The Man With The Golden Gun: Hidden beneath the stupid Maguffin and other kung-fu related evidence of desperation for relevance is a potentially great film about the dark side of assassins like James Bond.  Also, much is made of the use of the wreck of the Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong Harbour but it’s on film for all of five minutes and the interior looks like it was filmed on a soundstage (probably because it was).

Thanks for reading; I’ll try not to be away so long next time.

For other stuff I’ve written about James Bond, click here.