What must it have been like to see “Dr. No” in 1962, discovering James Bond on the bigscreen for the first time? By the time I caught up with it as a child, I’d already seen half a dozen other 007 movies, and “Dr. No” — a prototype for all the adventures that followed — struck me as somewhat flat, lacking elements that I’d already come to expect from the series: a pre-credits Bond mini-adventure, a tour of beautiful international locations and that beloved gadgeteer, Q.
This project, in which I plan to rewatch every Bond movie from the beginning, intends to correct this confusion. The mission is to see how the character evolved across different leading men, a shifting political landscape and a host of evolving sensitivities toward misogyny, violence and all those other vices on which Bond built his reputation. But mostly, it’s an excuse for an avid 007 fan to revisit the franchise that kindled my love for movies, evaluating them with adult eyes in the order they were originally offered to audiences.
For Albert R. Broccoli and his team, the original plan was not to begin with “Dr. No,” but through a series of legal and tactical decisions, Eon Productions decided that Ian Fleming’s fourth Bond novel would make a suitable opening salvo. For starters, it was set almost entirely in Jamaica (where Fleming kept his “Goldeneye” home) and would be considerably cheaper to film than the spy’s other, more globe-spanning missions.
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But the choice had a happy consequence: Unlike so many films concocted to launch franchises today, “Dr. No” eschews the now-obligatory need for backstory and exposition (compare with each of Marvel’s pre-“Avengers” pics, in which the parent company reenacts the elaborate means by which their favorite characters came to acquire their superpowers). Instead, we figure out Bond’s personality on-the-run, whether flirting with Moneypenny, back-seat driving a car chase or forcing the woman who double-crossed him into bed before turning her over to the authorities. (Though we think nothing of it now, the latter detail would have seemed all the more scandalous at the time, since the code had strictly prohibited men and women from appearing in bed together.)
In a risky yet ultimately well-judged move, director Terence Young withholds his hero from audiences for nearly eight minutes, eventually showing him seated at a baccarat table, first from behind. Only later, after the comely lady-player seated opposite asks him name, does the film cuts to Connery, looking as handsome as he ever did or will, delivering that famous line: “Bond” — a pause as he nonchalantly lights his cigarette — “James Bond.” (Incidentally, that cigarette will be something to look for in subsequent pics. I have a hunch he kicked the habit, along with wearing hats, immediately after “Dr. No.”)
In recent months, there have been no shortage of opportunities to see “Dr. No” on the bigscreen, courtesy of the TCM film festival and various revival screenings. I’ve had the good fortune to re-watch it three times in the past year, most recently projected for the public on a beachfront screen at the Cannes film festival. Trust me: Nothing quite compares to the sight of Ursula Andress and her knife-belt emerging from the sea, while fireworks erupt around her and the actual sea as a backdrop. One of only three Bond films named for its villain (the other two being “Goldfinger” and “The Man With the Golden Gun”), “Dr. No” features one of the series’ least memorable adversaries — and no doubt its most unforgettable Bond girl.