WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: When an intelligence chief and his secretary are murdered in Jamaica, Commander James Bond of MI6 (codename 007, licensed to kill) is sent to discover why, who did it, and whether it has anything to do with the disruption of American rocket launches at Cape Canaveral. Bond needs to have his wits about him as death – and other distractions – lurk round every corner; but he is determined to find out why the island of Crab Key is the sole preserve of the reclusive Dr. No.
If I were a straighter-thinking and (more to the point) much richer man, I would have started my appreciation of Bond films with Dr. No and systematically and chronologically worked my way through the whole lot, finishing with Skyfall and awaiting the next with equal parts of hope and expectation. As it is, I have had to assemble my collection piecemeal and it was only after watching many other Bonds that I acquired this, the first 007 film from the production team of Harry Saltzman and Arthur ‘Cubby’ Broccoli.
Commander James Bond (Sean Connery) is called away from his club and pleasant game of cards with enticing player Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) by his boss ‘M’ (Bernard Lee); for something is afoot in Jamaica, British Intelligence chief Strangways and his secretary both being mysteriously offed. Believing the murders to be connected with the ‘toppling’ of American rockets bound for the moon, M sends Bond to Jamaica where he survives several close brushes with death before meeting up with CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and helpful local boat owner Quarrel (John Kitzmiller). With the help of Strangway’s friends – not all of whom are as trustworthy as they first appear – and by taking advantage of deceitful Government House secretary Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), Bond and Quarrel follow a radioactive trail to Crab Key, an island populated by the mysterious Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman).
Losing Quarrel but picking up underdressed shell collector Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) on the way, Bond secures a dinner appointment with the Chinese/German No and discovers that the ruthless master criminal is indeed toppling rockets on behalf of SPECTRE (the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). It doesn’t appear that Bond will live to do anything about it, but a bit of electrified fencing and super-hot tunnels aren’t going to deter this ‘stupid policeman’ from saving the day.
What’s notable about Dr. No, and really quite depressing for all the 007 films that came after it (until the official Casino Royale, at any rate), is how complete a package Bond is in his first outing. Needless to say Connery absolutely nails the character, a handsome cocktail of dry wit and irresistible suavity, yet resourceful, active and capable of killing in cold blood. The trademark quotes and vodka martinis are firmly in place, and Connery puts nothing into the spy that has had to be taken out in future years (okay, he smokes a lot here, but he doesn’t kick puppies for fun or expose himself in shops), and this is also true of the screenplay’s robust structure: Bond is called from a social pleasantry to ‘M’’s office to discover his mission, and after flirting with Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell, in the first of many appearances) he jets off somewhere exotic to hunt down the villain, escapes several assassination attempts and beds a lady villainess to get closer to his quarry, even though she may or may not still want to kill him; he then meets a good girl, they both get captured by the bad guy and are treated civilly before certain death ensues, except that through a combination of brain and brawn Bond manages to foil the evil plans and make good his escape with the girl, consummating their brief relationship instead of heading straight back to MI6.
The absence of Desmond Llewelyn’s Q apart, this formula was the template for Bond for the next four decades, and variations on the theme were merely bells and whistles to spice up the action, the gadgets, globe-trotting and increased gunplay simply indicators of new technology, higher production budgets and cinematic trends. To a contemporary eye, the Bond of Dr. No is a relatively immobile figure, not helped by the pedestrian pacing of some of the action (the decontamination and tunnel-crawling scenes in particular go on far too long) or the sparse use of music to underpin the tension; but this is looking back from a 21st Century perspective, when the perceived need to have action on the screen all the time results in ghastly messes like Quantum of Solace.
Taking the film purely on its own merits, as far as it’s possible to do that, Connery’s Bond is a definite plus and although the pacing is slow, it shows the spy in a contemplative light, carefully evaluating his environs and putting two and two together after much reflection, when later he would make staggering leaps of logic (sorry to pick on Octopussy again, but ‘You set off a nuclear bomb in Germany therefore all of Europe will immediately disarm’ must be the worst example). Leiter, Quarrel and especially Miss Taro are all good fun, and Ursula Andress makes for a pretty if completely gratuitous companion. On the other hand, there’s not nearly enough of Dr. No in Dr. No, his disembodied voice not proving sinister enough to sustain the necessary threat Bond and the American space program (sic) are supposed to be under. Wiseman’s cold performance is effective, so it’s a real shame there’s not more of him and that the climax is a short-lived matter of cranking wheels to the massively-signposted DANGER LEVEL and watching cute models of No’s facility explode.
For me, Goldfinger represents the film in which Bond, as personified by an ultra-confident Connery, has the best adventures against the best bad guys, beds the most beautiful women and is on both ends of the best lines. Dr. No doesn’t have the drama or urgency of the very best Bond films, but as their parent and original it makes a really good fist of it, and sets a very decent standard for what was to follow. For while this film bears many of the staid hallmarks of the era, 007 himself is instantly and undeniably cool.