In an arrangement that will surprise very few people, the first film on our Licence To Watch viewing schedule (a month by month review of every single James Bond film) is Dr.No

I watched Dr.No for the first time relatively late. I can’t remember exactly when but it would have been around the Pierce Brosnan years. It was one of those occasions where I had a few hours to kill and I happened to see a copy of Dr.No on the shelf. Last night was only the second time I’d seen the film, so I was pretty keen to discover what I’d make it not only several years after my first viewing, but also 50 years after it was made. (Before I start I have to point out that the blu-ray release is absolutely stunning – the film looks like it could have been made yesterday, stylistic issues excepted.)

One of the things I remembered most clearly about Dr.No were the opening titles. On my first viewing it was because my reaction was: “Oh wow, they’re using the actual James Bond theme as the theme for the movie!”. I didn’t, however, remember the titles being quite so epilepsy inducing. On the other hand, if you don’t suffer from epilepsy there’s a certain hilarity in the franticness of the title graphics at some moments (“Quick! We have to show as many colours and shapes in one second as we possibly can! More shapes! More shaaaaapes!!!”)

James Bond first sight

As a budding storyteller I’m very interested in mythology building: how a story escapes the bounds of its original construction; how characters become icons. The first sight of James Bond is one of the biggest moments in cinema history (seriously) and the way it’s filmed here it’s as if they already knew what he was going to become. I know the books had been out for a while and Bond was already a popular character but from the way they build up his first appearance – you see the hands, you see the cigarette smoke, you hear the voice, all before you actually see him – there’s no missing the fact that here is an Important Character.

Actually it’s interesting to compare with the (very similar) introduction of Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, even more so when you bear in mind that Spielberg reportedly made Raiders after being turned down as a potential Bond director. Indiana Jones is, of course, a character than none of us knew anything about before we saw Raiders for the first time, but the way he’s introduced makes sure we damn well know he’s Important.

Since this is our first cinematic introduction to the world of James Bond there are a few tenets of the series that are set up right from the start, and a few things that got quietly dropped. Among the things that stuck around are:

  • Outstanding title graphics (no naked ladies yet, but we do get the silhouettes)
  • An evil genius lurking in a technologically advanced lair
  • The ‘Bond girl’ (and the concomitant womanising)
  • Sci-fi overtones – these come and go with later films, but the last act of this film is almost as if we’ve entered a whole different genre (much of the tone reminded me of The Andromeda Strain)
  • Gadgets – we have Q, but he’s played by a different actor and all he does is give Bond a gun, but elsewhere in the film we do have poison cigarettes, a fire-breathing tank, silencers, communications devices, geiger counters

For a first film it’s remarkable how much they got ‘right’. Compare with some other franchises, particularly Star Trek, where almost nothing is retained from the first entry.
So what didn’t stay? Well, you might have missed it but we get introduced to Bond’s girlfriend in this film: a lady called Sylvia Trench. She was supposed to stick around for several films but doesn’t make it past From Russia With Love (and who can blame her).

There’s also a clear reminder here that James Bond is a cold-blooded killer with his startling execution of Professor Dent. This trait is reinforced in later films (particularly in The World Is Not Enough), but it comes and goes, particularly during the Roger Moore years.

No review of Dr.No can be complete without mentioning the pacing. It’s not a slow film, but it doesn’t rush – and this is definitely something I can appreciate given how so many movies these days try to slam from one action sequence to another. My only complaint is that the scenes on Crab Key could easily have been contracted as they add very little to the plot other than emphasizing that Bond and his cohort are in a dangerous place and in constant danger of being captured.

Summary? There are other Bond films I’d choose to watch first, but Dr.No is a rewarding film and a fascinating glimpse into the origin of cinema’s longest-running franchise.

Come back next time for From Russia With Love – one of my favourite Bond films…