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John Barry: License to Thrill

If the success of multiple lousy “franchises” is any indication, moviegoers can be conditioned to salivate on cue—and nothing made us drool like the James Bond theme of John Barry, who died yesterday at age 77. Official credit went, of course, to Monty Norman, the contracted Dr. No composer, but over the years it trickled out that the suspenseful, thrumming dum-da-da-da-DA-dum-dum-dum, dum-da-da-da-DA-dum-dum-dum and the ejaculatory horns had Barry’s superlative stamp.

The Bond overtures are irresistible: We are behind a roving riflescope (or as the Republicans would say, surveyor’s wheel) as 007 strolls nonchalantly into the frame—whereupon he whips around, Beretta suddenly in hand, and fires into the screen. His would-be assassin’s blood runs down, a crimson curtain, and we are conquered. And Barry went on to write the greatest of all title songs, “Goldfinger,” with those horns kicked up a notch—to the point where producers worried it would be camp. It was and it wasn't: Shirley Bassey transcended camp. And Barry ingeniously weaved the Bond theme in and out of the “Goldfinger” melody, bonding hero and villain in unholy matrimony. Almost as magnificent is Barry’s “Space March” in You Only Live Twice, which builds to thunderous climax as the astronauts’ capsule is swallowed up by what looks like a giant, orbiting anemone. Most of Barry’s other scores are unashamedly melodic—not, with the exception of his work in Born Free, as memorable but always welcome. His waltz from the risible The Betsy is one of my guiltier pleasures: After 33 years, I can remember the lovely, flickering credit sequence, with its tour of brilliant automobiles through the ages. But it’s Barry’s Bond scores that gave those movies their a license to kill.