What sort of American audience awaited James Bond in 1963? I hadn’t appreciated how familiar spy-spoofing was pre-007 until a recent airing of The Road To Hong Kong, a Hope-Crosby feature released a year before Dr. No, but remarkable for its parallel plot and situations. It was almost as though Bob and Bing were lampooning Bond before we’d been properly introduced to the character. Plenty was in the air to herald a cycle of super-spying and increased sex/violence tempos we credit to UA’s series. British advances since the mid-fifties were a secret kept largely from us thanks to spotty playdates groundbreakers received in the US. Violent rhythms of 007 to come were revealed in the pre-credit sequence of 1959’s Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, and there was Sean Connery amongst participants in a shoot-out edited much in the fashion of Bond openers (even as it preceded them by several years). Horror and science fiction out of Hammer suggested new directions as well, but other than certified hits Curse Of Frankenstein and Horror Of Dracula, few beyond youths were going to see them (Enemy From Space, aka Quatermass II, had only 5,473 bookings and domestic rentals of just $148,602 in this country). A distinctive nervous tempo was the common thread woven into UK thrill-making, with producers before and besides Bond quickening pace and making our thrillers look old-fashioned in the bargain. Dr. No might well have been the first time many adults (in this country) experienced such visceral sensation familiar to their offspring via matinee viewings of newly toughened Tarzans and monsters playing more for keeps. Picture yourself grown up and cosseted on a pre-1963 diet of action staged placidly in domestic fare, and suddenly there’s Dr. No's Strangways and his secretary shot down in a way so startling, so modern, that I’m still (happily) disoriented by it. Imagine how it played new, but consider too how quickly Dr. No would be supplanted and rendered passé by slicker Bond models. I remember seeing it the first time on the 1965 reissue with From Russia With Love and thinking how primitive it seemed compared to the recent Goldfinger. A short review in Castle Of Frankenstein that Spring (1965) indicated I wasn’t alone in reacting so … The years have already hurt the first of the Bond series; slickness of later films make this one seem awkward by comparison. Honing the formula did abbreviate the freshness of previous Bonds, but was awkwardness necessarily a bad thing? The more I see of Dr. No, the more endearing its gaucheries become, those edges all the better for being rougher.
I assumed right through the sixties that England was a power player on the world stage. That came of going to movies lots more than reading newspapers. Practical considerations seldom intruded upon my confidence in Bond and his devices, though I wondered why a man who prevailed so handily at gaming tables would bother exposing himself to the bother and risk of being a secret agent. However tongue-in-cheek the Bonds played, always-lush production and those massive sets commanded my respect and neutralized whatever doubts I’d entertained as to their social and political assumptions. It was trust I maintained, along with countless others similarly impressionable, that got critics sufficiently hot under collars as to brand 007 fascist or at the least a very bad influence. Dour spy films were correctives to Bond’s irresponsibility, but (comparatively) lower domestic rentals even for quality the likes of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold ($2.9 million) showed our preference for agents we could laugh with (or at). Maybe there was comfort in knowing that for all the sinister power wielded by Soviet and US opponents, there was a SPECTRE looming that trumped both. At a time of such international uncertainties, a worldwide organization devoted to criminal pursuits was not only believable, but likely. The biggest noise Bond made at the time of Dr. No was with a silencer. The oft-referenced casual killing of Anthony Dawson’s Professor Dent was, I’m sure, a calculated bid to separate (absolutely so) James Bond from crimefighters that had gone before him. It’s a moment still startling, thanks largely to the icy way Connery plays it. His hesitation after Dawson attempts firing his spent pistol was not unlike Jack Palance savoring the moment before killing a defenseless Elisha Cook in Shane, only this time it’s the presumed hero in cold-blooded assassin mode. Judging by Dent’s expressed willingness to talk just prior to his second, and again failed, attempt on Bond’s life, it would seem more practical for 007 to take him in for what would have undoubtedly proven a fruitful interrogation, but as we’re all tired of the functionary’s double-dealing by this time, it’s as satisfying to see him disposed of, however questionable JB’s morality in doing so.