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Non-Review Review: Dr. No

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

Sure, there’s an opening scene involving the murder of a British agent stationed in the Caribbean, but the start of the movie that everybody remembers takes place in a late-night British casino over a game of card. A beautiful young woman is losing to the suave cigarette-smoking stranger on the opposite side of the table. “I admire your luck, Mister…?” she remarks, locking eyes with the figure. He coyly lights a cigarette.

“Bond,” he introduces himself. “James Bond.”

The rest is cinematic history.

You know the name… You know the number…

Dr. No is the first of the Bond movies. It was produced on a tiny budget of $1m, and starred a relatively unknown actor. The film wasn’t quite the runaway success that Goldfinger would be, but it was successful enough to warrant a sequel and then kickstart a franchise. It’s frequently observed that Dr. No doesn’t “feel” like a regular Bond movie, featuring so few of the tropes and clichés associated with the franchise. In fact, at points, it feels like Dr. No has more in common with the relaunched Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace than with some of the Sean Connery and Roger Moore movies that would follow.

There’s a tendency here to rely on old school espionage rather than action sequences and stunts. This version of Bond is smart enough to double-check that the car at the airport was really sent to pick him up by his colleagues. By the way, it’s interesting that in that first scene, it’s really footage of Bond driving as opposed to the usual bluescreen stuff we see (and indeed, see later in this movie). Later on, we see Bond double-checking the alibi of a photographer. Honey Rider later describes Bond as a “detective” and she’s not far wrong. He uses low-key techniques for spying – putting a hair on a wardrobe to ensure it isn’t disturbed.

The Bond franchise already found its legs…

On the other hand, quite a significant amount of the movie is recognisable. There’s the first appearance of Moneypenny, complete with gratuitous flirting. “You’ve never taken me to dinner looking like this,” she remarks as he arrives in a tuxedo. “In fact, you’ve never taken me to dinner.” The villain comes complete with novelty henchmen – although three “blind” assassins don’t really measure up to Oddjob. Well, not every Bond villain has a “dragon”, I suppose.

There are other recognisable traits here, like a villain with physical deformity (“tell me, does the toppling of American missiles really compensate for having no hands?” Bond rather pointedly asks with his pop psychologist hat on). There’s the unconventional means of assassination (a poisonous spider) and an elaborate base (which looks quite homely for a cave). Although it doesn’t compare to some of the more ridiculous gimmicks that Bond would receive later on, he even receives a gadget halfway through the movie to help him in his quest (that said, a Geiger Counter isn’t exactly a laser watch).

Has Bond been bamboozled?

What’s most striking about the movie, however, is the elaborate Britishness of it all. It’s so British, so upper class. In the tropical sun, in the last days of the British Empire, these men sit around playing card games like men of leisure. (The missing agent, we’re informed, passed his time with “big game fishing and bridge.”) Bond is sure to always tip the help with his casino winnings (the dealer, the doorman) – it’s just a classy thing to do.

The spy is civilised enough to let his captive have cigarette (unfortunately, it just so happens to include cyanide). Dr. No observes that Bond’s inquisitive nature has “the habit of Empire”, while – to Bond – Dr. No is one of those people “who think they’re Napoleon.”Even 150 years later, it’s Napoleon who is the true spectre that haunts the British Empire. Of course, it’s the perfect introduction to Bond.

Bond never really got into the spirit of “Casual Friday”…

Bond is, after all, a throwback to the days of the British Empire, an icon who could be controversial if the Empire was not being dismantled at the time. As such, he’s rendered as harmless nostalgia, like the monarchy seems to be at the moment. If Bond were American, the movies would be far more controversial. Here, we’re introduced to the character smoking a cigarette from a case, gambling with a beautiful woman at 3am and wearing a tuxedo.

“When do you sleep, 007?” M asks his subordinate. This moment defines him instantly and almost perfectly – all you ever need to know about Bond is included in the first ten minutes of this film. This is man who has “no objections” when the person playing opposite him wants to “raise the limit.”

Connery was always a draw…

Bond is undoubtedly upper class, prim and proper. Fleming would pepper his novels with brand names not as product placement advertising, but as a sign of class. Bond wears a suit from a tailor “on Savile Row”, hardly the most low-key manner of dress on the island. Here we see Bond’s modus operandi in action. When it’s suggested that Bond could have the suspects brought in and questioned directly, he’s aghast at the idea. They are gentlemen, after all. “Lord no,” he protests, “I want to meet them socially.” This is the way that Bond operates for the rest of the series, but it’s nice to see it acknowledged here.

Bond’s womanising is featured heavily here. We’re even introduced to a prototype femme fatale in the office secretary (no points for guessing how she decides to “keep him busy for a few hours”). However, even after that method of distraction is employed, there is still time for her to offer to cook a full dinner, so imply what you will of Bond’s skill in the bedroom.

Bond and his Honey…

And then there’s Honey Rider, the woman who defined the Bond girl. I think we all remember that image of Ursula Andress coming up from the ocean in that bikini, even if we’ve never seen it directly – so echoed, mimicked, mocked and parodied is that single shot. However, I can’t be the only person who detects something unwholesome in Bond’s pursuit of Honey. She has never been to school.

Although she is reading the encyclopaedia, she has a naive, childlike intellect. “I bet I know a lot more things than you,”she brags to Bond, like an over-eager ten-year-old. She thinks reading the encyclopaedia constitutes an education! Notwithstanding that, she is also a woman who has been abused. Of course, she avenged herself on her abuser, but she’s clearly emotionally damaged. Bond seems almost like a sexual predator in pursuing her.

Seems he feels a strange Bond with the area…

Fleming was a fan of the Caribbean, retiring to Jamaica and naming his home there “GoldenEye”. Bond would visit the region often, betraying Fleming’s own preferences – most notably in Thunderball which feels like a conscious retread of this instalment. However, there’s a very colonial perspective to the area – one which smacks on condescension. This is a region where, even in the sixties, natives apparently can’t tell the difference between a flamethrowing tank with a dodgy paint-job and a dragon.

Dr. No himself serves a perfectly serviceable example of a Bond villain. He has pretty much all of the characteristics one has come to expect – he was “an unwanted child” of members of high society, and “isn’t completely Chinese”. Ignoring, for the moment, the implications that can be drawn from the fact that most of Fleming’s villains were physically deformed or of mixed race, there’s a definite sense that Dr. No himself is over-compensating.

Dr. No’s best…

Remarking that his overtures to the East and the West were rejected, he bitterly declares that “now they can both pay for their mistakes”. He’s wonderfully and ominously introduced over the course of the movie, with much more build-up than most of his successors – it works quite well. Indeed, it’s interesting to note that Julius No appears for about twenty minutes of screen time, and yet his presence is keenly felt throughout the movie.

Unfortunately, the movie’s climax is ultimately disappointing. It feels as though the film isn’t entirely sure how a Bond story should end. There’s a rather clumsy fight sequence which follows a trip through some air vents and it feels rather… low-key. There’s no elaborate attempt to make the villain’s gimmick backfire, just some wrestling. However, the movie does end with Bond in a boat with a Bond girl, the model which became pretty much standard for the films that followed, so maybe they knew more than they let on.

Bond has his own way of passing a few hours…

Dr. No is a solidly entertaining spy thriller on its own terms. It’s remarkable low-key, but it actually feels classier than the vast majority of Bond movies that followed. It’s a wonderful little movie that effectively kick-started a massive international movie franchise, and it still feels impressive after all this time. That’s really something.

We’ve got full reviews of all of Sean Connery’s Bond films, if you want to check ’em out:

The following bloggers also have reviews of the film up as part of James Bond January:

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2 Responses

  1. Joseph Wiseman (Dr. No) once remarked in an interview that during filming, he had no idea that this would be the start of a phenomenon. He viewed the film as just another B-spy thriller, and had he suspected otherwise he might have played the role a little differently (I love his performance anyway).

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