Not the films. Their titles.
In a world where the production process for the biggest new films is essentially live-streamed in its entirety, the title is what comes first, and comes under harsh analysis before anything else, even the earliest teasers. With this in mind, I intend to rank the Bond films' titles according to how good they are as titles of Bond films.
For the purposes of this article I have tried to deliberately blot out everything I know about the content or quality of any specific James Bond film. I am considering each film by their title alone. This listing is subjective and I don't know yet what criteria I'll consider most significant. Read on to find out.
No better place to start than the bottom of the barrel.
How does it get worse? I'm really asking. What titles were rejected in favour of this one? What's the target audience supposed to be thinking? "Well, I love octopuses, and I love juvenile, cack-handed portmanteaux! I'm in!
"What's that? James Bond is involved too?"
"Quantum Of Solace"
Unlike many of the titles in the early part of this listing, "Quantum Of Solace" actually does mean something. Unfortunately there are two major strikes against it. First, how many people in the whole world know what the word "quantum" really means? Remember, the word itself existed before it was used for a branch of physics. Second, after you've isolated those seventy-five people, how could this title possibly be expected to get any of those people to see the film anyway? So it's a film about the smallest possible unit of comfort... somehow also featuring world-saving super-assassin James Bond?
This title is setting the film up for a fall. It's as if they want to fail.
(Ironically, I really liked this one.)
"You Only Live Twice"
An extremely cheap play on words, the Dad joke of Bond film titles. Not big and not even remotely clever. And it's clearly trying to be clever, which makes it that much less forgivable.
And that was just the verdict at the time the film was announced, when "You only live once" was just a thing that people said sometimes. If a Bond film tried this title now? Now that #YOLO is a viral hashtag meme youth thing? Ouch.
"Live And Let Die"
Another, only moderately less cheap play on words. This one I characterise as less of a Dad joke and more of a small child's joke, which is actually kind of a step up. I guess it could have been worse. "Die And Let Live"?
"Diamonds Are Forever"
Calling to mind trinkets, sparkles, glitter, women's jewellery, engagement, marriage and lifelong commitment. All of which are exactly what James Bond is all about, right? Someone saw "Goldfinger" and thought "Valuable things!" but somehow missed the boat and the point.
"Tomorrow Never Dies"
"Diamonds Are Forever" about wraps up the "coherent but stupid" section of Bond film titles. Now we're into the "pretty much just incoherent" realm. "Tomorrow never comes", true, if trite. "Tomorrow never knows", thank you, Ringo Starr's malapropisms. But "Tomorrow never dies"?
Somewhere along the line, someone in the Bond production machine decided that to make a Bond film title, you just add death.
(This title was originally "Tomorrow Never Lies" but became "Dies" due to a misprint sometime during production, and the misprint stuck. Honestly, I would give "Tomorrow Never Lies" the same ranking, even though it makes fractionally more sense as a title in the context of the film.)
"The Living Daylights"
This title makes one of the classic blunders: it takes a nonsensical English idiom and puts it under the microscope. For one magical instant, "The Living Daylights" sounds somewhat cool, and then... a living daylight is what, exactly?
I'm curious now about how this one got translated for foreign markets.
(I'm informed that the Swedish title for this film translates back into English as "Ice-Cold Assignment", which is rad.)
"A View To A Kill"
An inordinately difficult title to even parse. It feels as if this title is trying to say something clever, and... maybe it is. "The intention of arranging a kill." Again, we're hyper-analysing an English-language idiom, and discovering why you really shouldn't ever do that and expect good results.
The bizarre sensation I get from this title is that it's an ill-advisedly direct translation from a foreign language. Like, maybe this film originally had a better title in English-speaking regions, but it didn't translate well into Japanese, so they called it "A View To A Kill" (or the Japanese equivalent) for that market... and then they liked the new title better and translated it back.
"For Your Eyes Only"
Kicking off the "excerpts from James Bond's employment contract" subgenre of Bond film titles. I never really understood this phrase. "Only you, the person currently reading this, should read this. Good job nobody else saw it first!"
There could be a double entendre here, and let's face it, there probably is. But not a great one.
After some thought I've determined that this is probably "rake" in the sense of "scratch with one's claws", and the title as a whole has broadly the same meaning as the word "skyscraper".
So, spaceships, probably? James Bond might be going into space in this one. Yikes. Hmm.
"Thunderball" is probably intended to be a codename for something thrilling, and maybe in the 1960s that was indeed how it sounded. These days it sounds more like a children's spy-fi film from the 2000s, a funfair ride, or maybe something to do with the National Lottery.
Completely neutral reaction to this one. There's no hook here, because I don't know who Dr. No is, and the name alone doesn't really tell me anything about him. (Or her!) I mean, I assume Dr. No's a pretty dangerous figure to tangle with, somehow. But that's just me being charitable. The title didn't give me that. Could it be that the unusual Asian surname "No" is supposed to be the hook?
Difficult to judge out of context. Remaining studiously ignorant of what the film's about: "Goldfinger" is not a very cool word. Presumably it's someone's surname, and presumably it's plot-relevant, i.e. gold is involved.
"Die Another Day"
Like several of the earlier titles ("Live And Let Die") this one sounds like it's supposed to be a cute pun on a common idiom. But on closer inspection it's not even that, it's just a generic string of pushbutton words. So, this is actually an improvement! At least "Die Another Day" seems to have been wholly invented, and is trying to be its own thing.
Difficult to get a feel for the film itself. Someone cheats death in this one, but Bond cheats death in every film, so this tells me nothing. Other than that, "Die Another Day" is actually not that bad compared to what I've seen already.
"The Spy Who Loved Me"
I guess James Bond has sex with a Soviet in this one. I can't wait to find out which of them is "The Spy" and which of them is "Me".
Someone once said that all the best Bond films are romances and - if you agree with this assessment, which I don't know if I do - this title points more solidly in the direction of a romance film than any of the earlier ones in this listing.
This title also parodies unusually well, as we know. This is arguably a negative strike.
"On Her Majesty's Secret Service"
This is a passable enough title because it at least sets out what Bond's about, even if it's nondescript with respect to the content of the film itself. But what a mouthful! Nine syllables, and it barely abbreviates either. Filmgoer 1: "Do you want to go and see On Her Majesty's Secret--" Filmgoer 2: [has already become bored, left, watched another film and come back]
"The Man With The Golden Gun"
Well, you've got my attention and, for the first time, laid out some of the very basic plot of the film. Who is this man? Why is his gun golden, and how will James Bond ("the man with the gunmetal-grey gun") defeat him?
"Licence To Kill"
More generic Bond-related paperwork wordage. I'm going to assume that Bond either loses or acquires his licence or both in this film. I actually think the licence to kill is one of the more interesting parts of the Bond mythos (the British government issues paperwork letting you kill people in cold blood on your own judgement? How does that even work?) which is why I bumped this one up.
(This film was originally titled "Licence Revoked", which at least hints more strongly at the plot.)
"From Russia With Love"
That's Soviet Russia, obviously. This is clearly the back of a postcard from the dangerous, beautiful other side of the world.
This is another romance title, but there's something about it which makes me think of "romance" in different senses. "An embellished account of something; an idealised lie... An adventure, or series of extraordinary events". That's completely Bond, isn't it? Good cadence, also.
Here it is, folks, the first Bond film named after a duck. For serious, this film is named after Ian Fleming's house in Jamaica, and Fleming named his house after a plan he drew up in World War II. But I'm willing to bet the name of the operation came from the duck. Fleming was a birdwatcher, "James Bond" was an ornithologist, it's right there in the mythology, all the pieces fit!
But I guess most people didn't make that connection.
After "Goldfinger" and "The Man With The Golden Gun" I'm happy to list this as the best use of "Gold" in the James Bond title universe. Here we're finally starting to move into the realm of terse, blunt, titles which are also obvious codenames. For these titles, the real power comes from the imagery evoked by the codename and the stack of potential interpretations: as a weapon, as an operation, as a person. "GoldenEye" could be any of these. Its meaning is somewhat opaque but it definitely sounds like something worth paying attention to.
This is clearly another codename, a weapon or a scenario or something, with numerous possible nebulous meanings, none of them happy in the slightest. This sounds like a really Sixties word, a Mutually Assured Destruction eventuality. Difficult to judge further, but I'm hooked.
"The World Is Not Enough"
I really, really like this title just because of the naked ambition. Someone in this film has this line, it could be the villain or it could be Bond, but whoever has it is a force to reckon with, and I look forward to discovering what their deal is. And again, good meter.
The main problem here is the sheer number of syllables. I'm coming to the opinion that five is the absolute maximum for a Bond title. You have to have snap.
Everything I know about Bond has him pitted against schemes of world domination. If a simple casino is so central to the plot of this film that it takes the title, I can only assume this is a far smaller story with more personal ramifications for Bond.
That actually sounds really great. Sign me up.
Definitely a codename for something very scary. Could also allude to something dangerous coming back from Bond's past, which again is something I think the franchise could definitely benefit from exploring. Strong, evocative, memorable, blunt.
Well, to begin with I'm sort of embarrassed to admit/discover that the title of the next Bond film is also the one I happen to like the best. This wasn't what I expected, and I didn't set out to write this thing as a promotional piece.
But in broad terms I think Bond films are getting better at titles in recent years. (To do, once I get around to it: plot each film's quality against my assessment of the title's quality.) This fits with what I observed to begin with, which is that every single angle of the production now falls under incredibly intense public scrutiny, and hence must fall under even more intense scrutiny by producers.
It looks there are a few things which I consistently value in a Bond film title: evocative imagery, intriguing hints about the film's content, brevity and (again, this wasn't something I expected) cadence.
Analysing the titles totally in isolation does a disservice to many of the films, because a depressing number of these titles are actually just awful. Of course, the equally sad fact is that a large number of Bond films are equally awful.
Next: the books. No, just kidding.