It has been 53 years since James Bond first appeared on the big screen, and yet in all those decades Agent 007 has never felt old. There have been rough films here and there, but the Bond franchise as a whole has always felt startlingly young and vital—even when the films succumbed to outdated male chauvinism and defunct special effects. They’re fast and muscular cinema, with state-of-the-art stunt work and fanciful plotting ripped from contemporary headlines. When rewatching Dr. No, Bond’s first big screen adventure based off the sixth Ian Fleming novel following the character, it’s not hard to see how Agent 007 became such a cultural phenomenon.
From this very first film, the Bond elements are strongly accounted for: the dry humour, the exotic locales, the muscular action, the outlandish plotting and villains, the elaborate enemy fortresses, and the sense that James Bond is something more than an ordinary man: stronger, sexier, smarter, crueler. There’s that old saying that Bond is the man other men want to be and women want to be with. This is never more true than in Dr. No, where a then-31-year-old ex-bodybuilder named Sean Connery smoulders during every second of screen time, whether he’s wearing a fine linen suit in a restaurant or a pair of fitted swimming shorts and a polo while battling villains on a beach. Bond’s omnisexuality pervades the film. He’s not so much macho masculinity as Masculinity™: the epitome of the cultured male killer—and as much a shaper of twentieth century masculinity as a representation of it.
Connery has more than looks and charm going for him though. Rewatching the film, I was struck by his cruelty. In one scene Bond watches from the shadows as a villain unloads six bullets into a decoy he’s set up in his bed. Bond surprises the villain and goads him into taking another shot, but he’s out of bullets. Bond calmly tells him, “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six,” before shooting him. There’s a brief pause and Bond puts one more in the man’s back before unscrewing his silencer and returning to his cigarette. Connery betrays little emotion in the scene. His dark eyes are reminiscent of a shark’s. Fleming always envisioned Bond as a charming man, but also a cruel one, who didn’t feel mercy or regret that his trade was murder. Dr. No never lets us forget that Bond is a killer by profession. It adds to his allure. His dangerous personality is in marked contrast to the fussy, refined British men (usually played by David Niven) who populated the movie screens midcentury.
This characteristic of Bond would ebb and flow throughout the franchise (Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig wholeheartedly embrace his cruelty, while Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan allow Bond’s charms to dominate his personality). But here, in Bond’s first outing, it’s front and centre. This cruelty feeds his mysteriousness, which is emphasized throughout Dr. No. The film’s characters don’t know who James Bond is (just as the first audiences didn’t). Think of Bond’s famous entrance at the baccarat table where Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) asks for Bond’s name, and he replies, while cooly lighting a cigarette, “Bond. James Bond.” An icon was born, but for anyone unfamiliar with Ian Fleming’s novels, this icon would remain an emotional enigma, making him all the more alluring.
People often wonder why Dr. No was the first novel adapted to the screen when it was the sixth in the series. I believe the answer has to do with a process of elimination regarding the other novels, as well as the fact that Dr. No preserves this mystery about Bond’s emotional life, while containing many of the most appealing elements (that would become signature components of the franchise). The American TV series Climax Mystery Theater adapted Casino Royale in 1954, but even if they had not and the series had begun with a proper adaptation of Fleming’s first novel, the viewer would have learned how Bond’s personality was formed, how his cruelty was born out of a broken heart on his first assignment as 007. But my guess is to make Bond maximally intriguing and thus attractive to audiences—to make him an icon, in essence—Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had to preserve his mystery, and thus Casino Royale was out.
To continue through the first six novels, Live and Let Die was too racially charged for the early 1960s cultural climate (it fit much better into the 1970s blaxploitation era, as we’ll discuss later in this retrospective) and Moonraker and Diamonds Are Forever lacked the exotic locales that were so appealing on the big screen. That left From Russia with Love and Dr. No (if you’re working down the list).However, From Russia with Love spent half of its narrative with Tatiana Romanova, and relied upon a pre-existing familiarity with the character of James Bond. That left Dr. No, which luckily had an exotic Caribbean setting (Jamaica), a sexy young Bond girl (Honey Ryder), an expansive fortress (Crab Key), and a larger than life villain (Dr. No). It was the perfect spectacle to introduce audiences to this charming killer and the type of high adventure he’d find himself in. In retrospect, Dr. No makes complete sense as the first novel to adapt.
Looking at Dr. No outside the context of the franchise is tricky business, but I believe that it would still be a superior spy film even if a successful franchise hadn’t followed. It is not a “plagiarized, botched, and caricatured” version of North by Northwest, as Alfred Hitchcock famously quipped in Hitchcock/Truffaut. Dr. No taps into Cold War fears, with an ex-Communist villain (Dr. No is half-Chinese) terrorizing the freedom-loving western nations through Space Age technology. It features rocket launches and radioactive fortresses, exploiting the 1960s obsession with technological apocalypse. As well, remember that the Bay of Pigs Invasion occurred only the previous year, so the idea of a potent anti-western threat present in the Caribbean was still looming in audiences’ minds.
Terence Young’s direction also plays to the styles of the time. The Technicolor palette is saturated and bright, emphasizing blues and yellows. Young favours wide shots, which are all the better to showcase the long beaches and open waters, expansive underground sets, Connery’s muscular frame, and Ursula Andress’s waistline. The pace is noticeably quicker than other films of the era, escalating the stakes and narrowing the focus without rushing through the pleasures of beachside idylls or nighttime visits.
Dr. No is an exceptionally well-made film. The current Blu-ray transfer is gorgeous to behold, capturing a bit of what a blast it must have been to watch the film back in 1962. In terms of the franchise, Dr. No sowed the seeds of success with its fast pace, beguiling characters, and muscular action. But it is an iconic film in its own right, not just in retrospect. All it needed to assure such a lasting reputation were its memorable images of Sean Connery in a tuxedo lighting a cigarette and Ursula Andress exiting the ocean in a two-piece bikini. Danger had never looked quite like so sexy or exciting. It’s no wonder audiences were hooked—and still are today.
9 out of 10
Dr. No (1962, UK)
Directed by Terence Young; written by Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood & Berkely Mather, based on the novel by Ian Fleming; starring Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord, Anthony Dawson, Zena Marshall, John Kitzmiller, Eunice Grayson, Lois Maxwell, and Bernard Lee.