Hi there! As you may already know, in the days leading up to the release of Skyfall, we’re going to be looking at the previous films in the James Bond franchise. Today, we take a quick look at the first of the “official” James Bond films — 1962’s Dr. No.
Dr. No is a film of many firsts. It was the first film to be adapted from one of Ian Fleming’s original novels. (Though it was not the first adaptation, that honor going to the 1954 made-for-tv version of Casino Royale). It was, of course, the first Bond film to be produced by the legendary team of Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli. It featured the first true Bond girl, with Ursula Andress playing Honey Rider and spending the entire film in an iconic white bikini. Dr. No featured the first appearance of both M and Miss Moneypenny (played, respectively, by Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell). That iconic theme music made its first appearance in Dr. No as well. However, most importantly, Dr. No featured the first appearance by Sean Connery in the role of James Bond. Even more than Andress’ white bikini, Connery is the reason why Dr. No proved to be the rather unlikely launching pad for one of the most succesful film franchises in cinematic history.
Dr. No, in fact, is a film that contains so many historic firsts that, often, it seems like reviewers tend to neglect the film itself and, instead, chose to concentrate on the film’s legacy. And indeed, 50 years after it was first released, it’s difficult to watch Dr. No without viewing everything about it in relation to what the James Bond franchise would eventually become. Instead of evaluating the film on its own individual merits, the tendency is to watch Dr. No and to spend a lot of time thinking things like: That’s the first time the world ever heard Sean Connery say, “Bond, James Bond.” We tend to forget that, when Connery and director Terrence Young actually made Dr. No, they had no way of knowing that 22 sequels would follow. They didn’t know that they were making film history.
Dr. No begins with a shooting in Jamaica. John Strangeways, the British Intelligence station chief, is ambushed and gunned down by three assassins. Shortly afterward, in a surprisingly brutal scene, his secretary is also assassinated. In response, James Bond is summoned to the offices of MI6. When he receives the summons, Bond is busy gambling and seducing Sylvia Trench (Eunice Grayson). Sylvia, incidentally, was originally meant to be a character who would pop up in all of the subsequent Bond films. Basically, she would have functioned as Bond’s girlfriend, the loyal woman who waited at home while Bond went to exotic countries and slept with every other woman in the world. Perhaps wisely, this idea was abandoned after just two movies but still, Bond’s initial meeting with Sylvia (and the audience) is such an iconic moment that words simply won’t do it justice. Here it is, for your viewing pleasure:
This scene has to rank as one of the best intro scenes in film history. In just a few brief minutes, this scene tells us everything that we need to know about both James Bond and, even more importantly, Sean Connery’s interpretation of the character. In this scene, Connery’s Bond is the epitome of narcissistic charm, giving just a hint of the determined cruelty lurking right underneath the surface. It’s especially interesting to compare Connery’s Bond here to Daniel Craig’s interpretation of the character. Whereas Craig’s Bond often seems to be on the verge of having a nervous breakdown, Connery is established in his first scene as being a cool and calm professional. Craig may be the ideal Bond for our troubled reality but Connery will always be the Bond of our dreams and fantasies.
Bond is sent to Jamaica, where he teams up with CIA agent Felix Leiter (played by Jack Lord). Again, it’s interesting to compare this version of Felix Leiter with Jeffrey Wright’s more-recent interpretation of Felix. Whereas Jack Lord’s Felix Leiter is a cool, calm professional (a bit like an asexual version of Connery’s Bond, to be honest), Jeffrey Wright’s Felix often seems to be mired in self-loathing. Both interpretations are perfectly legitimate (and Felix is usually such a superfluous character that just about any interpretation will do). Instead, they’re interesting largely because of the way that each one of them epitomizes the decade in which each film was made.
With the help of Leiter, Bond quickly figures out that Strangeways’ death is linked to the mysterious, Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), who has his own private island near Jamaica. The natives claim that a dragon guards the island but Bond, never one to let something like that stop him (especially when it’s always his allies — like the unfortunate Quarrel — who get killed in these films, as opposed to him) sneaks onto the island. It’s here that he first spies Honey Rider (Ursula Andress) walking along the beach. Again, Honey’s introduction is such an iconic scene that, rather than try to describe it, it’s better just to show it:
For all the talk of how the Bond girls were often sexist stereotypes, I would have loved to have been an old school Bond girl. Seriously, they got to be all sexy, they got to make love to James Bond, and occasionally, they got to help save the world. Seriously, what fun!
I’ve spent so much time talking about James Bond and Honey Rider that I haven’t left much room for Dr. No. But that’s okay because, to be honest, Dr. No is not really that interesting of a villain. As opposed to future Bond villains, Dr. No is something of a bland character. Joseph Wiseman plays him with a lot of menace and he has a few over the top moments but it doesn’t matter because there’s really nothing to distinguish Dr. No from any other megalomaniac that’s ever shown up in a low budget spy movie. He’s a perfectly acceptable villain but he’s not an extremely memorable one. (Perhaps if Christopher Lee had accepted the role when it was offered to him, Dr. No would have been a bit more of an effective character.) Rest assured that Dr. No does have an impressive secret headquarters and, that once he does capture Bond and Honey, he takes his time to explain all of his evil plans as opposed to doing something sensible like killing them.
So, how does Dr. No hold up 50 years after first being released?
Despite having a weak villain, Dr. No is still a lot of fun. As opposed to future Bond films, Dr. No was a low-budget affair and, at it’s best, it comes across as an appealing B-movie. Ultimately, the film is best known for introducing audiences to Sean Connery in the role of James Bond and perhaps that is for the best because Connery truly is the best thing in Dr. No. Five decades later, you can still see why the world was so intrigued with both the actor and the character.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at one of my personal favorite films of all time — From Russia With Love!