"Dr. No" received mixed reviews — some positive, others dismissive. "Pure, escapist bunk," sniffed Bosley Crowther of the New York Times. But audiences responded, and "From Russia With Love," released the next year, was also a hit. By 1964's "Goldfinger," Bond was a phenomenon.
From the start, success was enhanced by clever marketing. We may think of product placement and merchandising as recent strategies — Daniel Craig's Bond diverges from his martini habit to drink Heineken — but it was part of the package starting with the books, in which Bond's watch is a Rolex, his shampoo Pinaud Elixir.
What began as Fleming's way of demonstrating his character's expensive tastes quickly became a commercial arrangement, now worth millions to the films' producers.
In the '60s, Bond fans could wear 007 deodorant and aftershave or sport James Bond swimming trunks, complete with logo. Connery's Bond drank Smirnoff vodka, while the villain in "Goldfinger" played golf with Slazenger balls.
More than movies, these were experiences in which key elements were established, expected and anticipated. The locations that spanned the globe and headed into outer space; the gravity-defying stunt sequences; the rocket belts, car-submarines and other gadgets; the megalomaniacal villains and their sadistic henchmen — all quickly became part of the Bond brand.
So did the theme songs, many of them performed by the biggest artists of the day, from Paul McCartney ("Live and Let Die") to Madonna ("Die Another Day").
And, of course, there were the "Bond girls," characters who are victims or villains but always fatefully — and often fatally — attracted to 007.
Bond's scantily clad female companions have long provided ammunition for critics, who accuse the films of sexism, though others argue that the films offer eye-candy for everyone: Ursula Andress in a bikini, but also Daniel Craig in his tight blue swim trunks.
Anticipating new tweaks on the familiar elements became part of the films' appeal, rendering them both instantly recognizable and eminently spoofable, as Mike Myers' pitch-perfect Austin Powers movies proved.
The films' producers at EON Productions — today run by Cubby Broccoli's daughter and stepson, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson — have become expert at honing the formula. They are masters of suspense, drip-feeding details about each new film — title, locations, guest stars — to eager fans.
Like its hero, the series has had many near-death experiences. Connery quit acrimoniously after six films. There was a long-running legal battle with screenwriter Kevin McClory over rights to the "Thunderball" script. The result was the unofficial Bond film "Never Say Never Again," which saw 52-year-old Connery return after a decade away from the role.
Former model George Lazenby lasted just a single film — "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" from 1969, a dark-hued tale that ranks among many fans' favorites. Moore took Bond in a lighter direction during the 1970s.
Audiences didn't warm to Timothy Dalton's tougher, meaner 1980s Bond, but Pierce Brosnan's suave superagent — circling the globe in ever more futuristic vehicles, including an invisible car— fit with the optimistic post-Cold War era.
Just as 007's clothes have evolved with changing fashions — from Connery's lean '60s suits to Moore's flares to Craig's Tom Ford formalwear — producers have tried to find Bonds to mirror the mood of the times.
The aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks brought a change of tone. Craig's Bond, who made his debut in "Casino Royale" in 2006, is a darker, tougher spy who harkens back to Fleming's original, restoring sadism and self-loathing to Bond's emotional arsenal.
Although the Broccoli family won't comment, media reports say Craig has committed to two more films after "Skyfall," with Bond 24 due for release in 2014 or 2015 — that is, if 007 continues to cheat death.