Welcome to James Bond Revisited, a weekly series in which I rewatch and review every James Bond film leading up to the 25th film in the franchise No Time To Die set to release this April.
James Bond is more than just a character. He is an archetype. What Merlin is to wizards, Bond is to spies. He was a global phenomenon; a trailblazer in his time that has evolved and changed with the years. He remains the yardstick by which all spy movies and their ilk will be judged, regardless of your personal preferences. No Bond means no Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, or Ethan Hunt. More than that, James Bond is an institution, who is as much a part of cinema as the sprockets that roll the film and as much a part of British culture as the Queen (he even escorted her Majesty during the opening ceremony of the Olympics, for goodness sake).
The Bond franchise has been in near-constant development for almost sixty years, an honor he shares with Godzilla only, and while it may not have always been the apex of popular culture, it has always responded to and risen to meet the world around it.
But enough of the character. Do the films themselves hold up? Society has changed so much in the half-century since the world met 007. I can barely stand to look at pictures of my haircut from ten years ago. Cultural mores have shifted. A playful slap on the bum is now rightfully seen as sexual harassment. Is it ever acceptable to cheer for a man who kills dispassionately? Is it appropriate to glorify a lifestyle of sex and murder? And maybe most importantly, can a regular moviegoer sit down and watch these movies?
Put it another way? Does James Bond hold up?
To answer that question, we’ll have to go back to the beginning.
James Bond Revisited: Dr. No.
Directed by Terrence Young, Dr. No is the story of British secret agent, James Bond, a.k.a. 007. He is a spy working for MI6 with a license to kill and at present, he is being sent to Jamaica to investigate the death of a fellow agent, Strangways. Bond discovers that the island is full of agents and double-crossers and apprehends a would-be assassin only for his captor to kill himself with a cyanide capsule.
Following a receipt found in Strangway’s house, Bond meets with a Professor to ask a few questions, though nothing comes with it. Once Bond has left, the Professor tells his boss that Bond is on the trail and attempts to kill Bond with… a TARANTULA!
Bond kills the spider and the professor for good measure. He then hires a sailor named Quarrel to take him to Crab Key, an island where no one comes back alive.
The rocks that Strangway was investigating were radioactive, as are most of the island, which turns out to be a wonderful spa/terrorist base. Bond is then taken to meet Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), a serpentine man with metal hands. Dr. No works for S.P.E.C.T.R.E. a terrorist network that stands for SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. It’s a mouthful.
Dr. No invites Bond to join Spectre and when Bond refuses, he has him locked away.Bond escapes his cell and blows up the base. Dr. No drowns and Bond escapes in a rowboat where he is saved by the CIA, and kisses the woman he picked up along the way.
Dr. No is a boilerplate Bond adventure. Many films would improve upon this formula in the decades to come. However, it is impressive how immediately iconic the film is from the getgo (literally from the first frame), and how many decisions would become mandatory variables to many fans. All the more impressive when you remember that The Fast and the Furious franchise didn’t know what it wanted to be until its fifth entry.
Many of Bond’s trademarks are established here, (Bond’s double-o status, his Walther PPK), while others have yet to be refined. The gun barrel opening is there but the music is different and Bond’s vodka martini is “mixed” rather than “shaken” when it is first introduced.
“James Bond theme,” written by Monty Norman and arranged by John Barry is present and is as much a part of the film’s success as Connery. Director Terrence Young obviously recognized this because the film never misses an opportunity to employ that jazzy twang.
Still, while Dr. No may be the first Bond film, it is hardly the best. Bond films come with a lot of boxes that need checking, and while Dr. No invented most of the boxes, future entries would create traditions of their own that Dr. No just can’t help but suffer from.
The Bond Song/Opening Credits
One of the old-school aspects of Bond Films that has maintained for decades is the opening song, an overture complete with credits, a stylistic music video, and a song written specifically for the picture. This is a trope that few films in the 21st century even bother with since most movies want to get straight to the action without risking boring the audience. More often than not, if you see an opening credits sequence in this day and age, it will be actively parodying a James Bond film, like in Deadpool 2.
The opening credits/song of a Bond Film are an excellent opportunity for the film to set the tone, and maybe even win an Oscar, so how is the Dr. No Bond Song?
In a typical Bond movie, the formula dictates that we go from Opening Gunbarrel, radial out to opening action setpiece (preferably including Bond), end with a (sometimes literal) bang, and then slide seamlessly into credits.
But not here. No, instead we go from Gunbarrel to a Saul Bass inspired opening with lots of circles and flashing lights (a trend in the 60s), before transitioning into flashy silhouettes of “dancing” women.
The ‘Bond Song’ is also nonexistent. Instead, we get the ‘Bond Theme,’ which I have no problem with since it is our first outing. Where the film loses me is when it abruptly drops the ‘Bond Theme’ and moves into a congo beat, before dropping that and becoming a rendition of the ‘Three Blind Mice’ nursery rhyme. Yes, really. The Three Blind Mice are killers who pop up occasionally in the film but is this really our best foot forward, fellas?
The concept of an opening Bond Credit Sequence would be improved upon in From Russia With Love, but we wouldn’t get a true Bond Song/Credits combo until Goldfinger. These things take time. We can’t all be Star Wars.
Bond Baddies are a subgenre onto themselves, as are their villainous schemes. People will talk about a “comic book villain” or maybe even a “Disney villain” but everyone knows what a “James Bond villain” is.
The Baddie in this film is the eponymous Dr. No, played with slick menace by Joseph Wiseman. Dr. No casts a long shadow over the course of the franchise and beyond. He is mentioned in other Bond adventures by name and appears as a character in multiple Bond videogames, which is all the more impressive considering he’s a one-scene wonder.
Like Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Dr. No is a piece in a larger puzzle, a terrorist organization called Spectre. He has a Nehru jacket, metal hands, and an equally steely demeanor. Unfortunately, it’s all introduced too late and over too soon. Dr. No doesn’t appear for almost an hour. He has a great dining scene and that’s about it. For a character who makes a point of crushing metal with his robotic hands, he doesn’t even get a chance to implement them against Bond. No hands around his throat. Nothing! And Bond doesn’t even get to kill the good doctor. Instead, he drowns, unable to claw himself out as his base falls into the sea.
Bond Baddies often have notable sidekicks. Here, Dr. No is a letdown. The Three Blind Mice, mentioned earlier, fails to make any sort of impression. There are other assassins throughout the film, but only the most die-hard Bond fans will care.
If every Bond Film needs a gloriously evil villain, they also need a gorgeous heroine. These women have been given the monicker “Bond Girls;” a phrase as well-known as “007,” “Bond, James Bond,” and “shaken, not stirred.” While these women come in many forms, from the inept to the equal, they are always beautiful, and they always fall in love with or lust after James Bond.
Bond Girls get a bum rap since their sexual objectification often overshadows their more redeeming qualities. Many Bond Girls are Bond’s equal, or at least independent, and many of them are immune to his charms. While harmless to some, and eye-roll-inducing to others, the phrase ‘Bond Girls’ has been phased out in recent years, with the term going so far as to be banned on set in the most recent film.
With that kind of reputation, one would expect the first Bond Girl to be an iconic and memorable figure. Well, yes and no.
The first true Bond Girl is Honey Ryder, (Ursula Andress), a woman who makes her living collecting shells and selling them in Jamaica… shells she gets from the beaches off the villain’s lair. Like Dr. No, she’s introduced far too late into the story and given far too little to do. Honey’s first shot, walking out of the ocean, is as instantly iconic as Bond’s signature introduction, but from there on out, she is dead weight. She explains that the owner of Crab Key is a killer, a cruel lesson she learned first-hand when her father was murdered, but that’s something we could give to another character we’ve already introduced. Furthermore, the movie makes her seem stupid by believing a tank could be a dragon.
If the film were made today, Honey’s tragic backstory would be given more weight, as would her connection with the villain, and more would be made of her survival instincts. Crab Key is an island with a lethal reputation, and yet Honey has been slipping in and out for years! Surely, a modern action movie could make a meal out of a character like that, but here, she’s arm candy.
MI:6 and Q Branch
James Bond is a secret agent for MI:6. This serves as a convenient jumping-off point in Bond adventures. Bond is called to the MI:6 offices in London, flirts with his Boss’ secretary, Ms. Moneypenny, meets with M, receives his mission, goes to Q Branch for some fun gadgets, and heads off on his quest. In my opinion, the Mission: Impossible franchise improves on this formula by making the mission statements mobile. However, while the MI:6 scenes are often rigidly adhered to, the fun is seeing what the filmmakers make of them.
For the first go-around, there is plenty to enjoy here. Bond has a brief but charming bit of flirtation with Moneypenny, played by Lois Maxwell who would go on to play the role for decades. “Flattery will get you nowhere, James. But don’t stop trying.” Their will-they/won’t-they dynamic is one of the more warm and pleasant aspects of the franchise.
Bond meets with the crusty Bernard Lee as M and their relationship is quickly established as one of mutual respect. Bond doesn’t always agree with M, but he follows orders, giving their first interaction of the series a sort of father/brash young son dynamic.
But if there is one area in which the film falls flat on its face, it is the Q scene, because there is no Q scene.
Casino Royale gets a lot of guff for not having any gadgets to speak of, but then, neither does Dr. No. The gadgets are a staple of the Bond franchise but like the opening song, that wouldn’t be perfected until later. That means no gadget-laden Aston Martin or Aston Martin of any kind. His gadget is a gun, and not even a special gun. Q isn’t Desmond Llewelyn, he’s just some guy named Boothroyd.
While it is impressive how many staples of the Bond oeuvre are introduced here, the film still feels like a Bond film with some pieces missing.
As mentioned, Dr. No is almost sixty years old. Technology has improved, and the way we tell stories has changed. The Bond novels were pulpy spy adventures and the movie was meant to be the same, but that didn’t mean rip-roaring action with explosions and chases every five minutes. There are distracting jump cuts, poor lip-synch, and rear screen projection up the wazoo. To a modern eye, this movie must seem positively sedate, but I found the first half to be entirely gripping.
The first half.
And while Dr. No’s base is suitably impressive (more on that later), the sets feel empty and plain, a limitation on the budget and the number of extras the film could afford. Obviously, this would not be a problem later on.
Bond’s dinner with Dr. No is wonderful but everything that takes place afterward, from his imprisonment to his escape, to blowing up the base, feels like an out-of-body experience, and not in a good way. The entire production becomes a series of panning wide shots and the lack of variety becomes monotonous.
And of course, there is the ending. I want to be clear and say that the ending is not bad. In fact, I would argue it is appropriate. Bond rescues Honey and the two escape the exploding island in a boat. They are saved by Felix Leiter, a CIA operative from earlier, who hitches their boat to his and sails away. Bond and Honey lay back in the boat for a little post-death and mayhem canoodling, and while the boat sails away and things get steamy, Bond lets the line lose, content to drift forever with Honey. ‘Underneath the Mango Tree’ blares and we fade out. If you didn’t know better, you’d think this was the ending to South Pacific.
Like John Wick, Bond walks the line between bloody action and suave sophistication. These days, the last note of the symphony is most important, and Connery’s first outing plays it safe, ending like a Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy, rather than a spy thriller. The film’s fascination with ‘Underneath the Mango Tree’ is something the current Bond films wouldn’t be caught dead with. “Bond doesn’t sing!” screams the audience.
A Quick Word for Ken Adam
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the production design. Special praise must be heaped upon Ken Adam. Adam was an up and coming production designer, who was left unsupervised while the crew filmed in Jamaica. With a limited budget and no supervision, Adam designed every interior in the film, from M’s office to Dr. No’s lab. The results changed film forever. Adam’s sets, lavish, angular, and thoroughly modern for the time, gave the Bond franchise an instantly striking and memorable aesthetic that would be homaged for decades to come by the likes of Austin Powers and The Incredibles.
Bond, James Bond
There is so much of Dr. No that is magnetic and timeless. The gun-barrel opening with Bond (performed by Connery’s stuntman Bob Simmons) shooting the assailant with blood pouring down and the theme blasting through the speakers is an instantly memorable beginning. It is a stamp. A declarative statement. This is a BOND FILM.
That alone would be enough, but then you have Connery’s introduction, displaying his talent for Baccarat, his hands, his cigarette, his lighter, all teased in closeup. Slyvia Trench flirts, “I admire your luck, Mr…?”
Medium close-up. James Bond. Slick black hair. Slick black tux. He lights his cigarette. “Bond.” A familiar theme plays coyly in the background. He flicks his lighter closed. “James Bond.”
It’s all right there. That’s how legends are made.
Not enough can be said about Sir Sean Connery. The man is a God of cinema with a magnetic charisma that emanates from the screen.
Sean Connery was the perfect Bond for his time. The camera loves him and his confidence in the role radiates. To think that the studio wanted a Cary Grant type is unfathomable with the benefit of hindsight. And even though five men have played the part since, Connery remains the gold standard to many. He was even knighted by the Queen. And it all starts here.
Dr. No is a more sedate affair than almost every film to follow but it still works in no small part because of Connery. Again, the filmmakers didn’t know what the Bond formula was since they hadn’t yet invented it. What we get instead is a chance to live in Bond’s world. And it is a world of vibrant locales, beautiful women, fast cars, slithery villains, and espionage. We are here to watch this man do his job, and he loves it.
Last Word On Dr. No.
No Bond film has ever been so suited for an appearance on Turner Classic Movies.
Author Ian Flemming‘s spy roots manifest more realistically in Dr. No than in later installments. The film goes to great lengths to show the world’s most famous spy engaging in actual spy work, such as sprinkling talcum powder on the floor and sticking a hair on his closet door to see if anyone has been in his room while he is away. Little touches like Bond keeping himself entertained by playing solitaire while waiting for an intruder adds humanity to the character. It turns his lavish lifestyle of sex and death into a nine to five job. Unfortunately, touches like this would be abandoned in years to come in favor of explosions.
I remember when I first started watching the Bond films. I was riding high on the action extravaganzas of the Brosnan era and playing Goldeneye on the N64. My local video store, West Coast Video, had a Bond section and I decided to start with the very beginning. And when it was over, all I could think was… “what the heck was that?!”
Now that I’m older, I can see this film’s charms more readily. The costumes, set design, cinematography, and music may be “dated” but there is a charm to them that I find undeniable.
Still, it is hard to deny that the Bond franchise would go on to bigger and better things.
For completionists only.
Main Image Credit:
Embed from Getty Images