Welcome to week #2 of 00 Saturdays here on Film Seizure. Last week I talked about the 1962 film Dr. No. This week, I’m gonna talk about the music and the opening title sequence that would ultimately become a tradition in Bond movies that continues to this day despite the near universal death of opening credits.
As explained in the first week, the even numbered weeks through week #50 will be a discussion of the theme songs, music, and opening title sequences of the series. In fact, these articles will be broken into those three sections. Luckily, Dr. No uses the one song that will be heard for 24 more movies to come as its primary theme song – “James Bond Theme”.
I sincerely doubt that any single fictional character has a more recognizable theme than 007. “James Bond Theme” has been used in credits, either opening or closing, nine times to date. It’s a song that upon hearing it can transform you instantly into a secret agent or cause you to push the gas pedal down a little harder while driving down the road.
The incredibly distinctive guitar riff is most commonly, and probably rightfully, attributed to the only name ever listed as the writer of the theme, Monty Norman. Norman was an accomplished composer of scores for various musicals and other plays prior to Dr. No. He caught the eye of producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman and was tapped to write the music for their first Bond film.
However, Norman was trying to sort out what the theme would be and it almost got too late to have the distinctive theme. Another song used in the film was almost selected to lead the film, but it was decided that Bond needed something much catchier and much more distinctive. Norman, remembering a song he had written for one of the musicals he scored reworked that guitar riff. To flesh out the composition, John Barry was brought in to create an arrangement that added the fuller orchestra sound with saxophones, a large brass section, and a rhythm section.
This is where some contention comes from who actually wrote the “James Bond Theme” piece.
Barry was only paid £250 for his work and was not just the arranger, but also the man performing the song throughout the movie with his orchestra, leading to some surprise on his part. So much so, Barry asked for a little more money and/or a writing credit but was refused. That said, a relationship was struck, though, because Barry would go onto score 11 Bond films.
While Norman is very appreciative of what Barry added, Barry still contested the solo writing credit, but Norman has continually won lawsuits to stay the sole writer of the theme. He’s even won libel suits against those who challenge his writer credit. I would tend to agree that the origin of the song does come from something Norman wrote so, as much as I love John Barry as a composer, I tend to agree with Monty Norman’s assessment that he wrote the theme and Barry simply created an arrangement of the song.
Still, there are few songs that fill me with as much determination and drive as this theme. You can almost feel Bond’s confidence or see him stealthily move through a compound full of bad guys while you hear the bebop rhythm. When you get those stings in the theme from the horns, it feels like you just saw Bond knock a guy out or drive an Astin Martin through a wall, machine guns, originally hidden behind the headlights, blazing.
It is so definitively James Bond that if anyone claims that’s the song that should play when they walk into a room, I feel like you have every right to punch that guy right in the face. There are few themes that are as closely tied to one person as this is to our man, 007.
Score (and Other Songs)
Beyond the theme, other songs were used throughout Dr. No. Probably the most heard of those songs is “Under the Mango Tree” which is heard on radios, heard in various public places, but probably most notably known as the song Honey Ryder sings when she comes out of the water which leads to Bond getting an icebreaker with the bombshell. Diana Coupland, Norman’s wife at the time, performed the song on the soundtrack and for the dub over Andress’ naturally thick German accent.
Norman also utilized local talent from Jamaica to perform songs to give it much more of a Jamaican feel. A version of “Three Blind Mice” that is called “Kingston Calypso” closes out the opening credits (as seen below). Another standout scene is when Bond is at a local bar with a live band performing a song called “Jump Up”. That band is the incredibly popular Jamaican group Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. They performed both “Jump Up” and “Kingston Calypso” and was a top selling ska and calypso group for nearly 50 years.
While this musical approach is something we will see in future films, the use of calypso sounds in a film that almost entirely takes place in Jamaica makes the film feel more real. We’d not really hear British or American songs in a place that has their own musical style. It just helps to add that color to complete the full tapestry of what this film is and making sure we feel embedded into that world.
The Opening Title Sequence
When it comes to James Bond films, sometimes the most memorable piece of the film happens off the top of the film. After Dr. No, every film has a cold opening that usually serves as a bit of a preface for the main story of the film. But since Dr. No, every Bond film has had a distinctive opening credits sequence.
Not only that, but the “gun barrel” motif that opened 21 of the current 24 films (with the others now seen at the end) is something that is so iconic that I remember getting goosebumps as the lights in the theater lower just before the movie began wondering how the theme would be used differently for the gun barrel sequence.
Lucky us… Dr. No is the only time the gun barrel sequence and the opening titles sequence are connected:
Both the gun barrel and the title sequences are the product of Title Designer Maurice Binder. Binder has an impressive list of credits outside this series, but he worked on 14 of the first 16 Bond films from 1962 to 1989. If he hadn’t died in 1991, I suspect he would have come back in 1995 to work on the Brosnan era films as well. That said, there is still a kinship the new films have with those Binder titles. There is an inherent explosion of color and excitement used in the sequences. Dr. No uses visuals that look like a combination of marquees and dancing to upbeat, island style music.
We have much more to talk about in future movies’ title sequences, but, much like many of the tropes the movie itself brought, the opening titles for Dr. No at the very least sets the stage for excitement and fun. Let’s also not forget that, in 1962, it is impossible to believe anyone had seen anything quite like the lead hero shooting you in the face only for you to be thrown into a dizzying array of colorful visuals and credits.
No matter how many times I will see this movie, I’m always sitting, leaning forward, as the titles buzz around the screen.
Join me next week for a look at the second Bond film, From Russia with Love.