Dr. No (1962)

Film #11: Dr. No (1962)

And all of a sudden, I started the James Bond series. I don’t know how long it will take me to get through all 22 films, but join me as I do it. Or else.

James Bond film #01 (Sean Connery Bond)

Dr. No was the first movie based on Ian Fleming’s series about British secret agent James Bond. This is the one, man. The one that started it all. The first step down a road that would eventually see 22 (and counting) movies, 6 different actors taking up the role of Bond, and nearly $5 billion in domestic box office revenue. Coming just after the fll of the studio system, this is the movie that created the secret agent genre, pitting a ridiculously adept protagonist against the forces of evil in the political world. It’s now been fifty years – a full half a century – since Dr. No was released, and there’s simply no other way to view this film than with the knowledge that it was the start of something huge.

This progenitor film sees James Bond, as played by Sean Connery, head to Jamaica to investigate the death of another agent. His questioning and playboying eventually leads him to the island of Crab Key, where he runs across the beautiful Honey Rider (Ursula Andress) shortly before they both fall captive to the island’s nefarious owner Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman). So, how does this semicentennial work of cinema hold up? Let’s establish right away that this movie is a product of the era in which it was made. This means that it has a lot of the hallmarks of 60s filmmaking and culture, and most of those hallmarks are difficult to not cringe at. Technically, you have red paint splotch gun wounds, jump cuts galore, shoddy-looking projection screens, and screeching orchestral strings on the soundtrack (at their finest when they accompany Bond’s beatdown of a poisonous tarantula). Culturally, where the offenses are less quaint, you have lots of segregation, superstitious natives, the Cold War East vs. West (read as bad guys vs. good guys) mentality, and white people playing any foreign characters that actually have lines. You even have Bond, philanderer and assassin extraordinaire, passing some moral judgment on Honey Rider after she reveals that she killed a man in retaliation for his raping her. None of these facts are pretty; they are, however, like I said, par for the times, and if you can reach the point where you just accept them as wrong-headed anachronisms, you have a kick-ass spy movie left over to enjoy.

Indeed, Dr. No is pretty much the textbook standard for action movies of this sort. It seems like so much is established in this film that has since become staples in the genre. Of course you start off with the snazzy title sequence (I wonder if Maurice Binder had any idea what he was starting when he made that silhouetted Bond shoot toward the camera) and the iconic theme music (which is liberally employed to make any scene feel important and daring), but its influence extends past those aspects as well. This movie establishes the visual rhetoric for action movies that’s still being used today. Bond silently kills a man behind a translucent wall. There are rough-and-ready fist fights, the most suspenseful (if somewhat swift) one being saved for Dr. No himself. And in general, there’s some really nice compositions in the cinematography. It’s hard to know whether the filmmakers knew they were starting something huge or if they just got lucky and made a fine piece of work; for instance, Bond’s introductory scene at the card table is the stuff of legend and the perfect first glimpse of the character. It almost seems unlikely that they were able to start the legendary character so befittingly.

And how is the man himself, Mr. James Bond, in his first cinematic outing? Well, with no precedent filling him in, the character is a blank canvas that Dr. No attempts to fill. How do they shade him in? Well, they make him intelligent, both clever and insightful. He’s smug, already spouting off one-liners after his enemies perish. He’s a man of action, and a bit of a maverick to the higher-ups in his organization. And, of course, he’s suave. But ‘suave’ isn’t powerful enough a word to describe James Bond. This man is a straight-up dog. Every female he shakes hands with winds up in his bed, even the ones that he knows are double-crossing him. The man is a sex addict who faces no problems scoring another hit – hell, he’s practically his own dealer. Still, for all his super hero-like Casanovian skills, Bond seems pretty human in Dr. No. He gets scolded by M and seems shamed when it happens; sometimes he escapes only because of luck or the ineptitude of his foes; he even lets Honey know at one point that he is, in fact, familiar with the emotion of “fear”. He’s still audacious  enough to roll up to an embassy with a dead body in the backseat, but this depiction of Bond is probably his most human until Daniel Craig takes over – except, of course, for his obscenely successful seduction methods.

Though the slow, suspenseful pace may disappoint adrenaline junkies, Dr. No is the original action spy movie, and it establishes the perfect foundation for a monumental character and film series. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s intelligent while not bogging itself down in twists and turns – in short, it’s Bond, and that makes it nearly perfect.

Final rating: 8.5/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • Cheesy Bond Post-Kill Line of the Film: (after watching some bad guys drive off a cliff to their deaths) “I think they were on their way to a funeral.”
  • As someone new to any pre-Bosnan Bond film that doesn’t star Christopher Walken, and as someone who has really only seen Connery since his white beard became standard… holy shit, was that man good-looking.
  • The man gets laid a lot, but it’s only scandalous by 60s standards – we’re talking LOADS of implied sex.
  • Watching the Bond series is going to make me appreciate Austin Powers and Venture Bros. that much more.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: From Russia With Love (1963) « The Analytic Critic

  2. kisaacs

    My grandfather was the police officer in Dr No that James Bond said “guard watch that body make sure it does not move”, this is when fought the limo driver and he killed himself by biting into the poisoned cigarette and then Bond drove to Kings House and said the above, my grandfather was so so handsome 🙂


    May 7, 2012 at 2:49 pm

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