Dr. No (1962) – Film Review
by @Roger Crow
I can only imagine what life must have been like before James Bond films. In the early days of 1962, the thought of a spy heading a franchise that would last decades was outrageous, but that’s the power of Ian Fleming’s creation. The perfect mix of playboy agent, travelogue, detective work and action. And if you’re going to start a lockdown 007 marathon, obviously you begin with Dr No.
I’d seen it many times in the past; growing up in the 1970s, any Bond film on the box was as special as Christmas. Little wonder they were the staple of many an ITV December 25th schedule.
But it’s been decades since I revisited the first 007 adventure, and the Blu-ray restored version makes it look better than ever. (A special feature shows you how the experts did it, which is good for a while but then feels like a glorified advert for the restoration company).
Following the opening titles, a mix of Monty Norman’s classic theme abruptly interrupted with a calypso version of Three Blind Mice, we open with the murder of John Strangways, the Station Chief of MI6 in Jamaica. Three assassins also kill his secretary, so M, the head of MI6, assigns James Bond to investigate.
Strangways was working with the CIA on a case involving the disruption of rocket launches from Cape Canaveral by radio jamming, so James needs to find out more.
Not long after arriving in Jamaica, a deadly chauffeur tries to kill him. Bond fends him off, but a cyanide capsule takes any secrets to the assassin’s grave.
With the help of Strangways’ acquaintance Quarrel, and CIA agent Felix Leiter (a pre-Hawaii Five-O Jack Lord), a little detective work takes 007 to Crab Key and local geologist, Professor RJ Dent.
Eventually Bond hooks up with beautiful shell-diver Honey Ryder, and they are taken to the eponymous antagonist’s lavish lair.
Dr No, a Chinese-German criminal scientist with prosthetic metal hands, works for the secret organisation SPECTRE, and the villain foolishly thinks that locking Bond in a cell will keep him from harm’s way. How wrong he is.
So yes, a lot of plot exposition, but those key elements would be the template for many an adventure to come. Ken Adam’s lavish sets, including the villain’s base at the finale, would set the tone until 1979, when Ken bowed out with Moonraker.
Sean Connery’s magnetic performance is phenomenal, and obviously all the more poignant since his passing. While Ursula Andress may have been dubbed in places, the appearance of her bikini-clad heroine would be echoed in Die Another Day and to some extent gender flipped with 2006’s Casino Royale.
Joseph Wiseman is a blank slate as the villain. But even his one-note performance works well for that part.
As fantastic as Judi Dench is in many of the recent offerings, Bernard Lee was a wonderful M between 1962 and 1979. A small part, but just the right level of pompous outrage while feeding Bond key questions, leading to valuable exposition.
And yes, Austin Powers may have sent Bond up royally, but it’s great to see the source movie before it became a cliché.
For a film that’s nearly 60 years old, Dr No stands up surprisingly well. It’s the simplest of touches that makes it most effective, such as Bond plucking and pasting one of the hairs from his head to a wardrobe door to ensure it’s not been tampered with later. (I remember doing the same thing, like all aspiring 10-year-old secret agents in suburbia). And the off-screen violence, such as killing an enemy soldier, hammers home the point that this secret agent will do what it takes to get the job done.
Okay, if the film were made now it would be a very different beast, from its casting to Bond’s treatment of women. But I can’t imagine a movie being released today that would spawn so many imitators, and launch a franchise lasting decades.
Dr No was that rarest of films in the 1960s, and its effect on cinema is still being felt to this day. It’s not perfect, but thankfully it’s far better than some of the stinkers which followed years later.
A 1999 ‘making of’ documentary offers a fascinating glimpse into how producer Cubby Broccoli set the (Thunder)ball rolling. As dated as that is, it also has a priceless charm about it, especially as many key contributors have since left us.
Now brace yourself for the first of many 007 puns during these reviews: even after all these years, Dr No still has a licence to thrill.