With the James Bond movie franchise celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Dr. No, it behooves us to look back at that first (sort of) film adaptation of Ian Fleming’s super-spy in light of the twenty-odd films that follow.
If the Bond films are anything, they are predictable insofar as they hit certain marks, like a stage actor giving her hundred-and-thirty-fifth Wednesday matinee performance. Viewing a Bond film, one expects to see the opening pre-title shot when Bond turns and fires at the gun muzzle camera, the moment when Bond says, “Bond, James Bond,” the shaken-not-stirred martini, the super-villain’s overly elaborate lair, the love interest with the risqué name, the repartee with Moneypenny, and the end shot of Bond and whatever damsel survived drifting off together in space/at sea/what have you.
In looking at Dr. No, it’s striking how many of these benchmark moments are established from the very first film. The film starts with a decidedly off-centered Bond whirling to shoot the camera, and after you suffer through a title sequence of flashing and blinking circles (reminiscent of a computer panel display), Maurice Binder brings out sixty-eight seconds of his soon-to-be-trademark dancing silhouettes.
The pre-title action vignette does not make an appearance in Dr. No, and indeed, the film does not introduce Sean Connery as Bond until roughly seven minutes in.
The introduction remains, however, the finest “Bond, James Bond” moment in the entire series. Never has a cigarette dangled more insouciantly from curiously dispassionate lips. And, of course, no changing of chemin de fer to poker as in Casino Royale.
Most notable about Dr. No, though, in light of the films that follow, is not the combination of humor and seriousness (which frankly surprised me, as I remembered Dr. No as a mostly serious-toned film), but rather the signal lack of gadgets. Bond uses no gadget more exotic than a geiger counter. No suitcase gyrocopters or souped-up Aston Martins for this Bond.
Indeed, the film features very little of what a modern audience might call action—a perfunctory fight in Dr. No’s nuclear reactor lair (the first of many Ken Adam’s lair designs), a car chase, a few punch-ups, some dismal pistol shots at a flamethrowing tank, a murder in cold blood (by Bond), a mob scene when the lair explodes, and an icky spider. There’s no huge climactic action set-piece as one finds in later films. Dr. No simply gets thwacked and falls into the nuclear reactor at the end without so much as a grandiose retort.
Absent the gadgets and elaborate action sequences, though, Dr. No provides the cinematic framework for all the Bonds to follow, a framework that has endured for fifty years.