It is absolutely unbelievable to me that it has been nearly FIFTY YEARS since the release of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, back in 1962.
(I don’t think the 1954 television version of Casino Royale counts.)
Let me say right at the outset that I am an enormous James Bond fan. My enthusiasm for the film series began when I was in college. After a bunch of my friends and I went to see Goldeneye in theatres, and enjoyed the heck out of it, we decided to go back and start re-watching all of the earlier films. Over the next several years, a group of us became quite fanatical about the Bond films, watching and re-watching them all the time (often — I will admit, gentle reader — in various stages of intoxication).
But time passes, and I realized the other day that, while I’ve watched the two Daniel Craig Bond films several times, it had been quite a number of years since I’d seen most of the earlier films. So I’ve decided to go back to the beginning, and re-watch the series in order. I’m not going to rush things. I’m not commiting to watching a film a week or anything like that. Like a fine bottle of 1953 Dom Perignon (which is probably a lot harder to come by today that it was when James expressed his preference for it back in 1962), this is a series that should be savored!
The film: What a pleasure it was to re-watch Dr. No. It’s astonishing to me how well-made the film is. Despite its age, I think it holds up remarkably well. It’s a taut action thriller, one that takes its time to develop the story without ever losing any of the fun or the tension. Dr. No is a much smarter film than much of what passes for action movies these days. But it’s also very fast-paced, keeping the film interesting to a modern audience. (A number of participants on the wonderful commentary track on the DVD comment on the groundbreaking nature of Dr. No‘s editing. It might not seem fast-paced to us today, but the filmmakers took great pains to cut the film in a manner that would keep the story zipping along. I think that’s a big reason why the film still works so well today.)
Dr. No was made on a tiny budget, but you’d never know it. I continually find myself amazed by the broad canvas of the film — it takes place in countless different locations and sets, and everything looks convincingly real to my eyes. I’ll discuss this further later in my review, but the impressive set design is but one way that Dr. No set a strong precedent for the rest of the film series. OK, I’ll admit that Dr. No’s nuclear facility might be a bit sparse, but my jaw continually drops to the floor when I consider his elaborate lair. ”I wanted to experiment with new material, new shapes,” comments Production Designer Ken Adams in Laurent Bouzereau’s 2006 book, The Art of Bond. Allan Cameron, a Production Designer on the later Bond films, recollects that “Dr. No was the first time that I saw designs in a film that were not what I call ‘neo-realist.’ It was much more flamboyant, it had a theatrical aspect to it.” (It’s so funny to me how what had seemed like a pretty straightforward espionage adventure takes a sharp left-turn into weirdness when, in the film’s final act, Bond and Honey Rider find themselves in Dr. No’s elaborate lair, facing a half-Chinese, half-German madman with dreams of world domination and metal hands!)
The film looks absolutely great. Director Terence Young (who would go on to direct From Russia With Love and Thunderball) has a terrific visual eye. He’s surprisingly playful with the camera (most notably in Bond’s iconic reveal at the start of the film, in which Mr. Young teasingly refuses to show us Bond’s face for quite a while), and his shots are able to capture all of the majesty of the film’s locations and sets without ever losing sight of the story’s characters. I should note that MGM did a lovely job with the film’s restoration and presentation on DVD. I own the “Ultimate Editions” on DVD, and I can only hope that all the films in the series look as vibrant as does Dr. No.
The special features on the DVD set are quite substantial for such an old film. I particularly enjoyed the commentary track, pieced together from pre-recorded interviews with a large swath of the talented folks involved in the production of the film. Generally I find those sorts of edited-together commentary tracks (as opposed to a live recording of a filmmaker or group of filmmakers watching a film together) to be dull, but this was extremely well put-together and awash in fascinating anecdotes. I particularly enjoyed finally getting an explanation to a moment in the film that had always puzzled me. When entering Dr. No’s lair, we see a painting prominently featured in a shot, and Bond stops and stares at it before moving on. I’d never quite understood that scene — was that a portrait that Dr. No had painted of himself? But the commentary reveals that the filmmakers created a reproduction of a painting by Goya of the Duke of Wellington that had recently been stolen from the National Gallery in London. The implication, of course, being that SPECTRE was behind the theft. That’s pretty clever!
Bond, James Bond: In discussing Dr. No one must also, of course, discuss Sean Connery. It’s difficult to heap enough praise on the staggeringly well-cast Connery. As the best Bond actors must be, he is convincing both as the roguishly charming gentleman who women adore, and also as the fierce take-no-prisoners Double-O secret agent. I think people forget just how thuggish Connery’s Bond could be. He doesn’t hesitate to kill someone who’s crossed him (such as poor Professor Dent), and he’s pretty curt even to the people he likes (such as Felix, Quarrel, or Honey Rider). Watching Dr. No, one sort of wants our hero James to be a little nicer, perhaps, to his friends — but Connery’s performance never lets us forget that this is a man used to keeping people at a distance — and that, in fact, he needs to do that, since he lives in a world where being his friend isn’t always good for one’s health. (See: Quarrel in this film and many, many others in the Bond films to come!)
It’s intriguing, watching Dr. No, to see the many ways in which the key elements of the Bond series were all here, fully formed — and also the many ways in which the series hadn’t quite found its formula yet.
The opening/ The music: Dr. No opens with the iconic shot of James Bond being viewed, in silhouette, down the barrel of a gun (a sequence created by graphic artist Maurice Binder) which would be emulated by every Bond film that followed. Yet there’s no opening action sequence before the opening titles. Speaking of the titles, the opening credits are presented (scored to the James Bond theme) in a way that gives an embryonic taste of the increasingly elaborate opening title sequences that would come to define the Bond films. (The Dr. No credits seem laughably simplistic to our eyes today, though I think they would have been seen as elaborate back in 1962.) There’s no title song for Dr. No — here in this first Bond film, the Bond theme has to suffice. But what a phenomenal, iconic theme it is. Written by Monty Norman and arranged for Dr. No by John Barry (the amazing composer who was involved with the soundtracks of a whopping eleven of the Bond films), it’s a magnificent theme that has come to be permanently equated with the character of James Bond ever since it played over his introduction in the early minutes of Dr. No. (I will note that the theme is a little over-used in Dr. No. It’s powerful when played over Bond’s introduction or an action sequence, but a bit laughable when played over a quiet scene of Bond doing little except walking down a hallway…)
Classic Bond-isms: Already in this film we learn that James prefers his martinis “shaken, not stirred,” and he introduces himself as “Bond, James Bond.” (Though it’s curious to note that when Bond introduces himself in that fashion, at the start of the film, it almost seems like a joke — because the woman across the baccarat table from him has just introduced herself to him as “Trench, Sylvia Trench.”)
(By the way, Bond fans, check out this article explaining the rules of Bond’s favorite game, baccarat.)
“Where’s Pussy?” (The women): In Dr. No we meet the first of many gorgeous (and often dangerous) Bond women. There are three women of significance, all of whom represent what will become familiar Bond-women types. There’s the woman who is Bond’s equal: Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson — thank you, IMDB), who keeps up with Bond at cards and is able to locate and break into his apartment (and who is apparently fond of pants-less mini-golf). There’s the woman who’s out to kill Bond but doesn’t mind sleeping with him first: in this film it’s Miss Taro (Zena Marshall — thank you again, IMDB!), who looks absolutely stunning in a white bathrobe. Then, of course, there’s the “good girl” who seeks revenge on the villain because of the death of a loved one (usually her father): In this film, it’s Honey Rider, played by the one and only Ursula Andress. Her entrance to the film — walking out of the surf, holding sea-shells and singing “Underneath the Mango Tree” — is justifiably famous. (It always makes me laugh, though, how causally she mentions that she thinks that Dr. No killed her father. Good thing that little tidbit of information doesn’t stop her from cheerfully coming to his island to collect shells!!)
“I told the stewardess liquor for three” (The other key players): Here in Dr. No, we also get to meet Bond’s frequent American counterpart: Felix Leiter. In this film he’s played by Jack Lord, star of Hawaii Five-O. I really love Mr. Lord’s performance as Felix, and I’m sorry he never reprised the role. He’s young, handsome, and tough. This Felix isn’t played for laughs — he feels like a real peer of Bond’s. Though Bond, of course, ditches Felix so he can investigate Dr. No’s island alone, I still enjoy this depiction of Felix as someone who could easily hold his own with James, should it come to that.
M and Moneypenny are both present in Dr. No, and there’s a great scene in which we see Bond receive his famous weapon — a Walther PPK (“like a brick through a plate glass window”) — although there’s no Q to give it to him, just an unnamed “armorer.” (I’ve always loved the little bit of business in which Bond bitterly resists being given the PPK to replace his baretta.) To the film’s credit, these scenes are written and performed in a way that the audience feels like we’re being dropped into long-standing relationships that have already been fully formed. This isn’t Bond’s first meeting with M, or his first time flirting with Moneypenny. The film deftly creates a sense of history for these characters that is endearing and engaging.
Although it’s the first Bond film, when watched today it’s impressive the degree to which Dr. No doesn’t FEEL like the first Bond film. There’s a confidence to all aspects of the film’s production — the acting, the directing, the staging of the action sequences — that is quite extraordinary. This was, I wager to guess, a huge factor in the film’s success back in 1962, and a key reason why it’s still so much fun to watch today.
Best line: “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six.”
Why not just shoot him? In the first of many, many escapes from overly-elaborate death-traps, Bond is menaced by a killer tarantula in his bed. (I love how, in one particular quick cut between two shots, we see Connery’s face go from normal looking to being suddenly DRENCHED with sweat.)
Womanizer alert: When Honey Rider asks Bond, “are you looking for shells?” James replies, “no, I’m just looking.”
Most unfortunate moment to a modern viewer: Bond is a little condescending to Quarrel throughout the film, but never more than when, while being chased along the beach by Dr. No’s henchmen, he barks at Quarrel to fetch his shoes. Yikes.
Alcoholic alert: When Bond returns to his room, he realizes that someone has been there, going through his belongings. He moves to pour himself a drink (of Smirnoff Vodka), but then hesitates, perhaps suspecting that the intruder has tampered with the bottle. Luckily, he has a spare bottle ready for just such an eventuality! (Thank goodness the bad guy or guys wouldn’t have had the sense to mess with the bottle of vodka sitting right there in the UNLOCKED drawer…)
In case you were wondering: SPECTRE is revealed to stand for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion. Nice.
James Bond will return in From Russia With Love (1963), and so soon will I!