#5 Moonraker, 1979
So many great Bond sequences have some “in-the-air” component. Just look at how many have graced this list. There’s good reason: aerial combat makes for great visuals, and sets the action bar pants-wettingly high. Moonraker combines two spectacular airborne sequences: the hijacking of a brand new space shuttle mid-transfer flight; and the brilliant mid-air battle between Bond and Jaws, after the latter pushes the parachute-less former out of a plane. Gasp! How will 007 survive? Well, he initiated an impressive freefall, wrestles the plane’s falling pilot for his parachute, then deploys it just as Jaws catches up to him and starts knowing on his calf. That’s what I love about Jaws. He may be plummeting towards the ground, but he still finds time for an original Oh, and did I mention that throughout this entire sequence James Bond is wearing a cream turtleneck and navy blue blazer?
Genius/naff moment: It doesn’t really fit with the haunting tones of the theme song that follows, but the final shot of Jaws plummeting into a circus tent, bringing down the big top, really exemplifies the somewhat absurd comedic touch that characterised the Roger Moore era.
#4 The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977
Completing the Roger Moore late-70s Bond double-play, The Spy Who Loves Me combines both air AND water-based sequences before Carly Simon kicks in. Doing the Wobbling Glass of Water 25 years before Steven Spielberg, Spy sets up an imposing maritime enemy, something that could prompt the most confident British submariner to utter a tight-lipped "Oh my God!" Cut to British and Russian officials freaking out about losing their subs and calling in their best agents: Triple X (a brilliant bait-and-switch with Barbara Bach); and James Bond on a bear rug ("Tell him to pull out!"). Bond receives his orders via a supremely high-tech Dymo labeller installed in his watch, then straps on a canary yellow one-piece ski suit and shoots off into the wide white yonder. It doesn't take long for a bunch of henchman to follow with machine guns instead of poles, and we're treated a sensational downhill chase, complete with disco porn soundtrack. Bond fires off a few rounds from his pole (wa-hay!), but oh no! He's heading straight for that cliff! He's going over!
What happens next is so mind-blowingly beautiful, and so heart-burstingly patriotic, that it overrides the general naffness of the whole sequence. The disco porn mercifully stops. The chasm that Bond freefalls into literally swallows the sound. He drops for 16 glorious seconds. His skis disengage. He spins, gracefully, almost poetically. He pulls the ripcord. For four seconds we watch the parachute unfurl. Then, just as it bursts into all its Union flag glory, the theme explodes in our eardrums. Can you imagine young Brits, empire long diminished, Cold War relevance waning, Thatcherism around the corner, seeing that sequence? I imagine their reaction was HOLY F*** YEAH! or the 1977 colloquial equivalent. That one shot made Britain look relevant, important and seriously f***ing cool. All of which makes a top pre-title sequence.
Genius/naff moment: It's hard to top Bond's farewell to his sexy Alpine lover ("But James, I need you!"/"So does England!"), but for my mind you can't go past General Gogol's stellar phone conversation. It's one of those classic movie ones where only one speaker is heard, so they have to be far more explanatory than you would be in any regular conversation. "What? The submarine Potemkin disappeared without trace?" All the while sitting in a huge, gloomy, sparsely furnished room somewhere deep in the Kremlin. Seriously, there is one chair in the background. One. Go back and watch it, and I dare you not to crack up laughing looking at that stupid chair. It's like the set guy went "Oh, crap, we need to really emphasise just how freaking huge Russian offices are. Throw that chair on stage right. That'll do it." This is how much I love James Bond films - I care enough to notice oddly placed chairs. Maybe that can be my next list.
#3 You Only Live Twice, 1965
An atmospheric opening in every sense of the word, You Only Live Twice starts high above the Earth, with some DIY work on a space capsule. But the floating, dream-like movements of the astronaut are short-lived, as they notice a mysterious craft bearing down on them at speed. Then, THEN! Its four great, spiked teeth yawn open, revealing a black hole of nothingness. The pounding of strings and drums matches the astronaut's own mounting panic as the teeth of the unknown craft close down around the capsule. Then, CLICK! It shuts completely, severing the astronaut's communications cable in an instant. "My lead line! It's c...." are his final, terrible words. The mysterious craft moves out of frame, leaving only the ghostly white form of the astronaut fading away into deep space. Such a simple idea, but the execution is so perfect, it really establishes all the promise and dread of 1960s spaceflight in one fell swoop. Of course, it doesn't end there. After a hilarious "J'accuse!" scene between the Americans and the Russians, the British top brass steps in to say their best man's on the job in Hong Kong. Cut to Bond doing some smooching with a beautiful Chinese lass before getting ambushed and machine gunned to death. Cue Nancy Sinatra.... oh, you only live twice? I THINK I'M BEGINNING TO GET IT.
Genius/naff moment: The meeting of various world leaders/top spies/military types takes place inside a giant orange orb. There's a second one too, in the background of the establishing shot. Inside, it really shows the joy designer Ken Adam took in crazy-ass Cold War sets. The three tables sit in line, tossing jibes at each other through the side of their mouths. "Guys, guys! Why are we sitting side by side on a dias? Let's just rearrange these chairs to face each other... guys?"
#2 Casino Royale, 2006
It took The Wah and I three weeks after it opened to see the eagerly anticipated Bond reboot. We were still in Morocco for the first two; then we spent a week driving around southern Spain looking for a cinema that played the films in English, not dubbed over ("¡No, Senor Bond, espero que muerase!"). But we hit the 007 jackpot in Madrid, and got so excited as cinema went dark that I think we freaked out a few nice Spanish people. But what's this? No gunbarrel? Moody black and white film? Prague? ¿Qué? This opener sets up both faces of Bond - the calm, cool, collected assassin, and the brutal, thuggish, kill-at-all-costs assassin - by using the narrative device of Bond earning his Double-O. It ends with the beginning - Bond, physically shattered after his first kill, picks up his gun (I dunno, is Bond even still using a Walther PPK these days?), then spins on the spot to dispatch his not-dead-after-all target. In one swift movement, Daniel Craig does the Gunbarrel Shot By Which All Gunbarrel Shots will be measured.
Genius moment: "Don't worry," coos the corrupt M16 contact in his glossy Prague office. "The second is..." He's interrupted by Bond, killing him softly with his silencer. "Yes. Considerably," comes Bond's reply. How cold? Ice cold.
#1 From Russia With Love, 1963
The second Bond film, and the first Bond pre-title sequence, From Russia With Love is low-key for sure, but practically perfect. A simple idea - Bond, in the gardens of a mansion, is stalked by a stony-faced blond man. He weaves his way around hedges and statues, turning constantly to check if anyone is behind him. He fires off a shot, alerting the blond man to his presence. The cat closes in on the mouse. Bond is jumped from behind, a garrote wire pulled against his throat, ending his breath. But as he collapses to the ground dead, the mansion's floodlights flash on, and men in black walk towards his killer, Red Grant. A Russian man congratulates Grant on a record time, then pulls at Bond's face. It comes away in his hand, a mask! The dead man is not Bond, but Grant has been training to kill Bond. Nothing needs to be said for us to know Bond is in big trouble. They wander away, and the staccato, gunfire theme music starts up. This sequence establishes mood, the villain, the challenge that Bond will face - all with minimal action and dialogue. It's just beautifully done, and if anyone ever tells you Bond movies aren't clever you can go TELL THEM TO JUMP OFF A CLIFF WITHOUT A UNION FLAG PARACHUTE.
Genius moment: The Russian testing officer walks off with the rubbery Bond mask flopping in his hand. Such disrespect, such unchivalry! THESE BAD GUYS ARE AWESOME! Surely this is enough to convince producers it's time to bring back SPECTRE?
Well, thanks for reading my list. I'd love to hear what you thought of it, or if there are any other Bond pre-title sequences you think I missed. And please let me know if you ideas for other lists!