There’s something about the first one. Even though it isn’t labeled as such (unlike the fustian Casino Royale ), Dr. No (1962) gives us James Bond in his outset. There’s a suggestion that he’s early in his career (he’s issued his ubiquitous Walther PPK gun for the first time), but he’s fully formed: suave, sophisticated, ruthless, dangerous. He likes martinis shaken not stirred and his women constant, and he introduces himself as “Bond, James Bond,” even, as we see in Dr. No, that he does so in response to a woman who has given her name the same way.
Dr. No remains fascinating because all the elements that become Bond staples are here, but they’re rough; they would become refined to perfection by the third entry, Goldfinger (1964), yet Dr. No is often disregarded as some sort of inessential trivia answer, but it’s better than that. It’s the movie that launched the longest–lasting and most successful film series of all time and it’s worthy.
A British agent in Jamaica disappears mysteriously and it’s up to MI6’s Commander James Bond (Sean Connery) to get to the bottom of it. During his search he will find dangerous assassins and beautiful women (some who are one in the same) all leading to a secret base run by the shadowy Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), a German-Chinese mobster with steel claws for hands, who his holding the space program at nearby Cape Canaveral hostage by disrupting the shuttles with atomic radio beams. Accompanied by the buxom Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), it’s Bond versus a small community of armed soldiers. However, Dr. No sets a precedent that will serve the franchise enormously, which is that the Bond movie is less about its plot, which, as I’ve just discovered, can seem quite silly when laid out, and more about the moments that make them up as Bond charms and fights his way through the movie.
The special effects may seem primitive or the action slow compared to the extravaganzas of today, but the director Terence Young is able to build considerable tension. There’s a very simple but quite powerful sequence involving an attempt with a tarantula on Bond’s life. The spider is planted in Bond’s bed while he sleeps. It awakens him and crawls up his arm while he (and we) watch in horror. The scene benefits from 1962’s limited facilities. It may not be Connery’s arm, but that’s a real spider crawling up somebody’s real arm and that verism heightens the suspense. Compare that to a moment that might have been inspired by it in Star Wars: Episode II–Attack of the Clones (2002) in which poisonous, computer-generated alien slugs are dispatched on a sleeping woman. The scene has a fraction of the tension for a number of reasons, but mainly because what we see we know isn’t actually happening.
Young’s straightforward direction is a real plus to the movie (he would direct two other Bond films that are similarly well served), and he takes time to establish locations. We are always aware of where characters are in relation to each other and where they’re coming from, a skill Young perfects in his best movie Wait Until Dark (1967), a creeper starring Audrey Hepburn that only works if we are aware of our surroundings. Here that attention enhances the climactic battle in the secret base’s control room (another staple of Bond locations), which is able to feel chaotic without feeling disjointed.
James Bond remains so fascinating because he cannot rest easily in our minds. He is a hero, but he’s hardly noble. He’s a killer, he uses people, and when they get close to him, they usually die. That these losses contribute to a greater good keeps him from being reprehensible, but it doesn’t keep him from occupying a complicated moral place. We are attracted to him because he’s confident and brash (he smugly asks Dr. No, while securely his captive, “Tell me, does the toppling of American missiles really compensate for having no hands?”), but there are times when we can be frightened of him.
There is a scene in which Bond spends the evening with a woman he knows is his enemy, letting her believe he’s ignorant (this knowledge doesn’t keep him from making love to her, of course). He plays with her, and we, despite knowing that she is the villain, become frightened for her. Young and Connery use the blocking to emphasize the danger she’s in: Bond holds a towel in a way we assume will be used for strangulation before he sets it aside; he runs his hand through her hair and we brace for a fatal jerk that never comes. Bond is dangerous; he takes action swiftly, and when he does, it is final. There’s a darkness to him. It’s the reason why so many of the megalomaniacs he battles, including Dr. No, share their ultimate plans with him because “he is the only man capable of appreciating” them.
Dr. No is a fascinating document of the beginning of a franchise, and it’s interesting to see how raw it is. It’s actually Dr. No who first utters the phrase “shaken not stirred,” there’s nothing in the way of gadgets, and the opening credit sequence is only a glimpse at the triumphs of design they would become, but you could also tell the filmmakers knew they had something iconic. The cultural landmark that is Bond’s introduction only occupies that space in our minds if the filmmakers handle it right, and not only do they dress it correctly (placing Bond at a card table in a classic black tuxedo opposite a gorgeous woman in an eye-popping red dress), but they punctuate it with Monty Norman’s stupendous theme music as if they had a feeling this was going to be a big deal.
There will be better Bond pictures than Dr. No and some that are more iconicly Bond, but it establishes a number of elements that will be touchstones of the series, specifically its walking of a razor-thin line between tongue-and-cheek humor and complicated issues of gender relations, hero worship and Cold War paranoia. I personally love the tone Dr. No builds in its early exposition scenes as Bond displays cheek with both the secretary Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) and the long-suffering chief M (Bernard Lee), a light tone that the recent Daniel Craig Bond movies have unfortunately shuffled away from. But it all comes from Dr. No, a satisfying beginning that starts the series off with a commendable kiss-kiss-bang-bang.