My familiarity with the early James Bond films, like my prowess with the ladies, is woefully inadequate and borderline embarrassing. Fortunately, the character has penetrated pop culture so deeply that you can know an awful lot about him without actually seeing any of the movies. This allows people like me to go on functioning without our ignorance being obvious.
Still, one should not continue in darkness if one knows how to enlighten oneself. I figured I should start at the beginning of the saga: Dr. No, the first James Bond film, released in 1962. Here’s what I knew before I watched it:
- Ian Fleming’s 007 novels were popular even though they were books rather than movies. Dr. No, published in 1958, was sixth in the series but first to be filmed, not counting an American TV version of Casino Royale that aired in 1954 as an episode of the anthology series Climax! (enthusiasm theirs).
- James Bond has a “license to kill,” but it took him three tries to get it because he did poorly on the written exam.
- Film rights to the Bond series are owned by an Italian family named Broccoli. Broccoli! Like the vegetable! I don’t have a point here, I just think it’s a funny name.
- Ursula Andress is the “Bond Girl,” and she is introduced to us as she emerges from the ocean in a bikini. Everybody knows this. Even people who have never heard of James Bond have seen the iconic image of wet Ursula Andress in a bikini. Say what you will about the 007 films, they have never shied away from depicting the realities of what women look like when they are wet.
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Maybe it wasn’t obvious at the time, but watching Dr. No now, it’s clear the producers were hoping to establish a franchise. The first time we see Bond, he’s 1) wearing a tuxedo, 2) gambling, 3) smoking a cigarette, and 4) flirting with a beautiful woman. He introduces himself as “Bond. James Bond.” The only Bondian characteristic missing from the scene is that he doesn’t kill anyone.
Also established in this first film: Bond Girls always have comical names, even funnier than Broccoli. This time it’s Honey Ryder. When she introduces herself to Bond, he smiles at the name. “What’s so funny about it?” she says. “Nothing, it’s a pretty name,” he replies, the first of many lies he will tell her. (Also interesting: she doesn’t appear until 62 minutes into the film.)
Some of the later Bond films got very elaborate and globe-trotty, but Dr. No is remarkably small in scale. Except for some expository scenes in England, it’s all set in just one locale (Jamaica), and the plot is extraordinarily simple, which is to say a little lame. The title villain’s big evil plan is to disrupt an American space launch at Cape Canaveral. It’s not even clear that he wants to kill the astronauts. I appreciate that Dr. No has super-strong robot hands, but apart from that, he is only vaguely menacing. Besides, he hardly even uses the super-strong robot hands.
One of Dr. No’s schemes to bump off James Bond is to have an operative put a tarantula in Bond’s bed. As far as methods of assassination go, “spider in the bed” seems like it would have a very high probability of failure, especially if you choose a spider that is reluctant to bite and not lethal to humans anyway. Bond is pretty freaked out by it, though, and smashes the spider, with each smash accompanied by an orchestra sting on the soundtrack, like in cartoons.
The body count in Dr. No disappoints me. Bond himself only kills three people, and four others die at the hands of others (or, in one instance, via self-administered cyanide). What good is a license to kill if you never use it? The high-tech gadgets that would come to define the Bond series are absent here, too. The movie is high-spirited fun; you can see why it was such a hit. But you can also see that while most of the elements were in place, the alchemy required to conjure the fully-formed James Bond Movie as we know it was still being worked out.
Let us conclude with an exchange of dialogue between James Bond and Honey Ryder, on the subject of whether there is a dragon terrorizing a small island called Crab Key near Jamaica:
BOND: There are no such things as dragons. What you saw was something that looked like one. Now I’m trying to think what it was. [Spoiler: It was a truck.]
HONEY: How do you know there aren’t? Anyhow, what do you know about animals? Did you ever see a mongoose dance? Or a scorpion with sunstroke sting itself to death? Or a praying mantis eat her husband after making love?
BOND: I hate to admit it, but I haven’t.
HONEY: Well, I have.
And that’s how Honey Ryder used airtight logic to prove the existence of dragons.