“Bond. James Bond.”
Here’s where it all starts, where a character from a relatively obscure series of spy novels by a cousin of Christopher Lee becomes one of the longest-running film franchises of all time. And what’s funny, looking back at this film from 57 years later, is how assured and hitting-the-ground-running this franchise was from the start. Most of what we would come to know as Bond tropes are already here on display to either enjoy, make fun of or even give an uncomfortable collar pull to.
The plot itself is relatively simple; Dr. No is a German-Chinese evil scientist who is working out of Jamaica and disrupting NASA rocket launches with a radio beam weapon for…reasons (honestly, it’s never adequately explained what his endgame is outside of “I’m a bad guy who works for SPECTRE”). After this goons kills the MI6 station head and his secretary, Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate. He gets there, fends off several attacks, tracks down why the murders happened and investigates Dr. No’s private island, where he discovers a marine zoologist named Honey Ryder who is also investigating the island after her father’s disappearance. They get captured, No explains his evil plan, Bond escapes and blows up the island, bing bang boom, Bond.
They say the devil is in the details and that’s where it’s fun to dig into how a particular Bond movie works. So let’s take a look the major Bond tropes and how they come across in this movie.
THE GADGETS. This is the early days, before Q comes in (Desmond Llewelyn isn’t even in this one and isn’t named Q until the third movie). The only gadget talk of note is M forcing Bond to switch from using a low-powered Beretta to his iconic Walther PPK. In a fun nod, the armorer is named Major Boothroyd, in honor of the man who wrote Ian Fleming and recommended that he change Bond’s gun in the novels to a Walther as it was more suitable for spy work. Outside of that, there are none of the outlandish gadgets that would become a hallmark of the series.
THE LOCALES. Filmed in Jamaica in the last days of British rule (literally: Jamaica would become independent only months later), this locale works is a little more low-key but has some really nice locations to work with, from swamps to lovely towns. There’s a good amount of interior work but Jamaica still gets shown off well. As for that interior work…
KEN ADAM. Adam was the main set designer for Bond right from the start, and you can see his distinctive set designs in here a lot. There’s some lovely work on things like Dr. No’s underwater apartment, or a weird sitting room where No’s flunkies report to him. Stanley Kubrick loved Adam’s work here so much that he ended up hiring him for Dr. Strangelove, where Adam really got his well-deserved reputation for designing fantastic control rooms. Dr. No’s is kind of a glimpse of his future, but it’s only a start to that.
THE ACTION. Not the huge action setpieces that we would come to know the series for, the fights in this are mostly confined to some fisticuffs and some car chases that have a tremendous amount of rear projection in them. Frankly, the action is nothing write home about in this one.
BOND IS A SNOB. Ah, the waning days of the British Empire, with gentlemen’s clubs and ‘55 Dom Perignon and Bond getting his suits on Savile Row. Bond comes out of a very particular idea of what a British gentleman is, and boy does this movie revel in it. Never be impolite, even to a vicious murderer, especially if he offers you dinner. This is something they’ve moved away from over the years (and essentially dropped with Craig) and it can be a little jarring to look back at and see how all of this was going to be essentially a relic as the sexual revolution and Swinging London heat up. And speaking of changing sexual mores, finally…
BOND IS HORRIBLE WITH AND TOWARDS WOMEN. Many people have written many things about the appalling sexual politics of the Bond movies, and boy is that there from the start. Pretty much every woman in the movie is either a secretary or an assistant of some kind, 99% of whom want to sleep with Bond. To be fair, the movie isn’t portraying them as being forced or coerced into it (Sylvia Trench, who plays baccarat with Bond in the beginning, even sneaks into his apartment to surprise him), but it’s still for the most part that the women in this movie only exist to lust after or sleep with Bond. He doesn’t come across as quite as sexist as he can in other movies (my mind goes to an exceptionally condescending butt slap in Goldfinger) but it’s still not a good look overall. The one woman in the movie who isn’t an assistant is Honey Ryder (played by Ursula Andress and voiced by Nikki Van der Zyl), and she’s essentially along for the ride once Bond meets her and they’re captured. She essentially disappears from the movie for the last 20 minutes as Bond saves the day and then rescues her at the last second. Ryder is there to look pretty, provide minor exposition and that’s it.
But after all that…I still kind of like this movie. It’s fun, it moves very nicely, there’s a bunch of good character actor work (Jack Lord is as amazingly stiff as always but that kinds of works for how he plays Felix Leiter) and it’s rollicking good time overall. It’s not top-level Bond (checking my list, I have it at #11 between Goldeneye and Never Say Never Again) but you can do far worse than this. If you’ve never seen the early Bonds, it’s worth checking out one or two like this to see the beginnings of the franchise and where it came from. Though really, From Russia With Love is the classic of this era. Check that out and maybe then Dr. No for fun.