It’s amazing that James Bond, a film series with so many iconic images, lines, sounds, characters, and tropes, sprung into existence almost entirely fully formed. Right from the very beginning of Dr. No – with that theme, the gun barrel, the animated credits, “Bond, James Bond,” – it feels like a James Bond movie. I expected to see some classic Bond stuff here and there in the first entry, with other staples of the series layered in over the next few movies, but, nope, it’s all pretty much right here. From the the underground lair to the Bond girl to the cool car to the Vodka martini, shaken not stirred, Dr. No establishes almost every single trope that even a cursory fan like myself know Bond movies for.
That said, Dr. No is also far more subdued and grounded than I was anticipating. The first two acts essentially consist of Bond walking into rooms, getting some piece of info, and then walking out, with the occasional short fist fight or chase to break up the proceedings. Bond isn’t a superspy here, he’s just a spy. He doesn’t get any cool, sci-fi gadgets or amazing action scenes. The over-the-top villain stuff doesn’t show up until Bond reaches Dr. No’s lair in the last 30 minutes or so, and even then you can tell the movie is held back by the limitations of its era. Dr. No’s status as a classic in the series rests more on what it would spawn and a few key scenes (like Honey Ryder’s infamous intro), than on its own merits. Still, it’s a fun, easy watch, if not just for Sean Connery’s easy, sleazy charm.
Surprisingly, Bond himself isn’t just a cliche. Sure, he drinks and womanizes and shoots people to avert international catastrophe, but there’s more dimension and edge to Connery’s Bond. Blame it on decades of parodies and ripoffs, but I came into Dr. No with this idea of a cheesy, silly 1960s Bond, and that’s not at all what Sean Connery is playing here.
Perhaps the moment that best exemplifies this James Bond is when he murders an unarmed henchman for the hell of it. Bond has the henchman at gunpoint and he knows the henchman is out of ammo. But when the man tries to shoot Bond with his empty gun, Bond says, “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six,” a line so cold it feels wrong to call it a quip, and then Bond executes him, putting two extra bullets in his back after he’s been gunned down. Bond doesn’t call in other MI6 agents to arrest the henchman, like we saw him do moments ago to a henchwoman, he just straight murders the guy. Underneath his cool demeanor, greasy charm, and wry smile, James Bond is a cold motherfucker. I always thought Daniel Craig’s “grim and gritty” reboot of Bond was a move in a different direction for the character, but based on Dr. No, Craig is actually cribbing from the darker sides of Connery’s Bond.
And while this Bond may have more dimension than I was expecting (his admission of being scared while in Dr. No’s lair is a nice touch), there still exists the side of him I was dreading most: the sexist womanizer. Counting series staple Moneypenny, there are four Bond girls in the movie and their relationships with Bond run the gamut from relatively progressive to creepy to outright gross.
Sylvia Trench, the very first Bond girl, is the one who takes the initiative in their relationship, propositioning Bond after a game of baccarat and taking it upon herself to show up unannounced to his hotel room. On the opposite side of the “gross dude” spectrum, there’s Miss Taro, who Bond knows to be a double-agent working for Dr. No. Taking advantage of the fact that she doesn’t know her cover is blown, Bond happily sleeps with her before calling some of his MI6 buddies to arrest her. Bond and Moneypenny’s relationship, which I feared would just be Bond sexually harassing a fellow MI6 employee, is actually a fun dynamic, thanks to Moneypenny being just as eager, if not more so than him, to play their flirting game. And then there’s Honey Ryder, Bond’s main love interest and arguably the most famous Bond girl in the entire series. Honey and Bond’s relationship isn’t too skeevy since the movie gives them time to grow closer before getting romantic, but it’s hard not to feel like Bond is preying on her from the second he spots her on the beach in that iconic white bikini.
Speaking of which, besides that white bikini, there really isn’t that much to Honey. She’s introduced two-thirds of the way through the movie, given a rushed backstory that doesn’t go anywhere, and gets damseled right at the end. She just doesn’t do anything of note. Why she’s considered one of the best Bond girls is beyond me, and surely, with 23 movies to go, there are more interesting Bond girls than her.
In fact, apart from Moneypenny, who makes a solid impression with just a minutes on screen, none of the movie’s supporting characters really leave any impact at all. If I didn’t know any better I wouldn’t think M was any more important to the series than the generic British guys Bond liaisons with while in Jamaica, and Q (if you can even call him that) is a non-entity. Felix Leiter is okay as a sort of gruff, less suave, American counterpart for Bond, but he doesn’t have much to do. And then there’s Quarrel, the Jamaican fisherman who Felix and Bond rope into helping them solve the mystery of Dr. No’s secret island. Quarrel firmly fits into the well-meaning but simple-minded black man stereotype, all too eager to be bossed around by a white man. Actor John Kitzmiller does get a few scenes to show some range for Quarrel, from obstinate to angry to scared, but then he’s killed off before the finale in service to the “Black Men Die First” trope.
Of course, these weak minor characters don’t matter as much to the overall film so long as the villain who drives the plot is solid. Ironically, Dr. No is most convincing as a villain when he’s not on screen. We first get a sense of who he is when one of his lackeys bites down on some cyanide to avoid being interrogated by Bond. Later, we get a great scene where a henchman (the one who goes on to be murdered by Bond) gets a dressing down from No for failing to throw Bond off his scent. Dr. No isn’t shown on screen but his chilling, monotone disembodied voice booms through the cold gray room. Up until that point, the film is a pretty straightforward take on the spy genre, but that scene begins to toe the line of how sci-fi the movie, and series, could be. Unfortunately, Dr. No doesn’t appear again until the movie’s final 10 minutes where he has dinner with a captured Bond and Honey. He explains his master plan and motivation for destroying U.S. rockets, which essentially boils down to being angry that neither the East or West of the Cold War respected his genius enough to hire him. It’s not the most intriguing motivation – enraged megalomania seems like it’s dime a dozen for Bond villains – but it does provide an example of how the movie works as a whole.
The movie’s first two acts are solid, if a little straightforward. The mystery at the heart of the film doesn’t have many twists and turns, but it’s fun to watch Bond as he makes his way around the island, meeting people, conducting his investigation, smooth-talking some hot ladies, and shooting the occasional unarmed man. Slower, more mundane scenes, like when Bond gets a new gun from M and Q or when he lays improvised alarms in his hotel room to let him know if it’s been broken into, are interesting glimpses into Bond’s history and how he thinks.
But, by the third act, Bond gets to Dr. No’s secret island base and the movie grows tedious and, ironically, rather uneventful. There are long sequences of Bond, Quarrel, and Honey wandering around the jungle, getting captured and decontaminated, being show their rooms in Dr. No’s base, being drugged, and getting dressed all for no discernable reason. These scenes have elements that should be interesting (in enemy territory, outnumbered and outgunned, fighting a weird dragon tank, meeting a villain with mechanical hands) but they’re never used effectively or even paid off. This should be where the movie takes off, entering a hyperreal world of science-fiction, spies, and world-destroying villains, but Dr. No doesn’t do anything with any of it. The movie gains some steam during the aforementioned dinner scene, just because we finally have Bond and Dr. No interacting, but the climax that follows that scene is also underwhelming.
So, Bond escapes from his jail cell, crawls through a duct, gets splashed with some water, disguises himself in a hazmat suit, and awkwardly wanders around in front of Dr. No and his henchman. Once he’s initiated the facility’s self-destruction, the two, both still clad in puffy, hazmat suits, get into a fistfight, ending with Dr. No falling into boiling, radioactive water. The whole sequence is slow and awkward, and their goofy suits rob the final fight of any feeling of drama or confrontation as both of their faces are hidden the entire time. I’m sure the suits were used to better hide the stunt doubles, but their use makes the fight itself awkward and it means our protagonist and antagonist never really confront each other; they don’t say anything to each other or even share a meaningful look. The climax of our cool spy movie consists of some awkward wandering, two hazmat suits slapping together, and one hazmat suit falling into water. The movie’s central conflict simply lacks a satisfying pay-off.
But third act aside, it’s still a solid, little spy movie. For most of its runtime, it’s subdued and grounded, carried on the strength of Connery’s Bond, but, in retrospect, you can see how it lays the groundwork for future movies. The science-fiction and over-the-top spy elements of future movies are hinted at with Dr. No’s tech and lair. Not to mention Dr. No establishing SPECTRE as The Big Bad that Bond will have to contend with. It’s a cool set-up that implies that there’s a larger universe than we’re seeing in this one movie. I enjoyed Dr. No for subverting my expectations of what a 007 movie could be, but I’m still interested to see how much farther future movies can swing away from this (relatively) grounded spy mystery towards being larger, globe-trotting science-fiction action films.