After seeing it for the first time, James Bond creator Ian Fleming reportedly declared “Dr. No”, ‘Dreadful. Simply dreadful.’ He was being more than a little unfair. The very first theatrical James Bond adaptation is a decent spy thriller, imbued with a few stylistic flourishes new to the genre and a surprisingly (in retrospect) humble attitude. Welcome to the first instalment of Craggus’ Bond Voyage…
Remaining pretty faithful to the source novel, “Dr. No” sees Bond dispatched to Jamaica to investigate the sudden disappearance of the station chief there. Dodging multiple assassination attempts, Bond joins forces with CIA agent Felix Leiter and local boatman Quarrel to investigate the mysterious Dr No and his installation at Crab Key.
Although it would take three films for the Bond formula to fully coalesce, a surprising amount of it is present in “Dr No”, including the iconic gun barrel opening sequence. Only this time, it’s not accompanied by the familiar Bond theme riff, instead, it’s accompanied by some ambient electronica which sounds like a deleted track from the “Forbidden Planet” soundtrack. It hints at the adventure to come in a way, alluding to the satellite toppling signals the nefarious Dr No has been pumping out of his secret base. It’s not Sean Connery in the gun barrel’s sights either – it’s stuntman Bob Simmons who is technically the first man to play James Bond on a cinema screen (and did so for “From Russia With Love” and “Goldfinger” too).
The title sequence (something that would become synonymous with Bond films) is, first time out, a bit of a patchwork mess, with no less than three styles and musical accompaniments competing with each other. The first is a randomised assortment of blinking spots is accompanied by Monty Norma’s Bond theme (which doesn’t really lend itself to an extended performance in its original arrangement). Thankfully, this gives way to the soon-to-be-familiar dancing silhouettes, albeit more conspicuously clothed than we’ll become accustomed to. The freeform calypso rhythms eventually crossfade awkwardly into a rendition of ‘Three Blind Mice’ which leads straight into the opening shots of the film (pun intended).
There’s a sparseness to “Dr No” that makes it feel leaner and more linear than any of the films that followed it. There’s almost no reliance on gadgetry and technology and instead we get a great deal of good old-fashioned tradecraft, such as the strand of hair across the wardrobe doors and the light dusting of talc on the suitcase locks. One of the few Bond films where detective work gets Bond closer to the truth than bravado and provocation, “Dr. No” feels like the transitional film it became – the dawning of a new style of spy thriller where the emphasis shifts from lurking in the shadows and exchanging microfilms to a brasher, more punchy approach, with the added glamour of exotic locations, beautiful women and fastidious drink orders (the vodka martini, shaken not stirred debuts in “Dr. No”).
However, despite the glamorisation and tropical setting, there’s still a strong sense of Britishness running through the whole affair, courtesy of director Terrance Young and this Britishness is what makes it cool instead of lame when Bond delivers his pun laden one-liners after offing a bad guy. Without the British filter, that’s where the swearing would go. Of course, it’s a Britishness underpinned by a steadfast refusal to acknowledge the increasingly rapid decline of the British Empire and as such the British Secret Service has a decidedly stiff upper lip, Private Club feel to it.
The action sequences are very of their time and as such are a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the car chases are borderline laughable, with back projection and speeded up footage failing to convince. The model work of Dr No’s guano refinery (that’s right, the very first Bond villain hides his lair in a mountain of bird poop) is a tad “Thunderbirds”-esque too but the pyrotechnics at the end make up for that. In the plus column, Connery proves himself to be both a capable brawler and a believable assassin and if nothing else, the film is memorable for the genuine tension and creeping dread of the tarantula scene and an almost fetishistic use of silencers during the early cat and mouse games of trap and counter-trap played between Dr No’s lackeys and Bond.
Some of the supporting cast decisions were inspired, with Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell both proving tough acts to follows as M and Moneypenny when their individual times came. Eunice Gayson’s Sylvia Trench would prove to be a bit of a misstep whereas the role of Felix Leiter (“Hawaii 5-0”’s Jack Lord in this) would end up becoming a bit of a joke as he changed his face more often than a particularly accident prone Timelord. Joseph Wiseman makes for an effective and memorable Bond villain, single-handedly setting the template for everyone who came after him and manages to do so with very little actual screen time. But when it comes to “Dr No”, there are two cast members who eclipse everyone else. One is Connery himself, who we’ll get to in a moment but the other, of course, is Ursula Andress. Virtually everything about the role is iconic in Bond lore – except the character itself. There’s literally nothing to Honey Rider in the film apart from that entrance and that bikini. She’s a naïve, almost childlike companion to Bond and beyond bringing a frisson of sex appeal to the third act of the film adds very little. It’s a credit to Andress that the character lingers in the memory as long as she does because there’s not much to work with, and certainly nothing of the feisty knife-wielding shell diver of the novel.
Connery’s performance here isn’t actually that great. There are parts where he’s kind of abrupt and shouts his lines, but it’s his first outing and he’s not yet completely comfortable in the role. Connery has always been a movie star first and actor second, which is why he ends up being one of, if not the best Bonds. The better the actor, the less effective their Bond will be. It’s why Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan make excellent Bonds whereas Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig are more divisive. Regardless of the unevenness of his performance, there’s no denying Connery (and the filmmakers) absolutely nailed this moment:
With spectacular sets, a dastardly larger-than-life villain and an unfeasibly suave and seductive hero, it’s no accident that much of the iconography that “Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery” would poke fun at comes directly from this film. Thanks to its relatively small budget which couldn’t quite keep up with the vision or ambition of the director and producers, “ Dr No” constantly wobbles along a thin line between serious and silly, an effect not helped by the liberal use of overdubbing various characters with another performer’s vocals, a common movie practice at the time and one that would persist in Bond films throughout the Sixties. Thankfully, the rough around the edges charisma of Connery holds it all together and the modest box office performance of the movie ensured that a sequel would follow. While “Dr No” is a flawed but enjoyable movie, the spectacular successes which followed it have retrospectively elevated it in both execution and entertainment. There’s no denying it effectively – if perhaps at times inadvertently – established the fertile soil in which Bond-mania would flourish as cinema audiences discovered a taste for the adventures of 007.