Dr. No: Why The First James Bond Movie Works

Dr. No was the first James Bond movie, and it's so good that it kicked off an international phenomenon.

The Film: Where else could we start? This is the one that started it all. The film that paved the way for a global phenomenon. How?

By being very good. Dr. No includes most classic James Bond elements while remaining grounded in reality (relatively speaking). It’s not the best Bond, but certainly a contender for top five. Perhaps a little slow for those raised on a diet of Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig. Everyone else is in for a treat.

A good drinking game: take a shot every time the film visually turns into a Stella Artois advert (sun, suits, painfully stylish). It’ll hurt.

The Villain: Silly name, weird disability, exotic lair – Dr. No scores high in baddie-bingo. It pioneers the rich villainous tradition of cooking Bond dinner, explaining his plan, then letting Bond escape. His influence is remarkable considering he is in literally two scenes, and hidden beneath a radiation suit for the second. Introduces the cinematic world to SPECTRE. Metal hands raise a lot of questions about his toilet routine. Boiled alive in a nuclear reactor, which is a pretty horrific demise although compared to the book (buried in a mound of bird poo) the Doc gets off lightly.

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The Girl: Silly name, stunningly beautiful, exotic accent, often bikini-clad, initially hostile, gets rescued, last seen kissing Bond in a boat – Honey Rider created the Bond Girl as we know her (is this a good thing…? Let’s not go there). Boasts one of the most famous entrances in cinematic history – the Bond films alone have referenced it twice (Halle Berry in Die Another Day, Daniel Craig in Casino Royale). Doesn’t actually do vast amounts but iconic nonetheless.

So, Dr. No. The story of how Sean Connery went from starring in a musical about leprechauns to the embodiment of masculinity. The film doesn’t hang around and neither should we. Let’s dive in.

Poor Honey Rider. Her celebrated introduction isn’t even the best introduction in the film. Rightly, crucially, this belongs to Bond himself. Everything about this scene is perfect. The black-tie casino. The beautiful woman in red, losing at cards. A spiky exchange. The cigarettes. And…“Bond. James Bond.” Boom!

Seriously, so much of the Bond mythos is born in these first two minutes of meeting him. He wins at cards, is called away on a mysterious assignment, chats up a beautiful woman as he waits for his cash and disappears into the night. And all the while Monty Norman’s theme is thrumming away in the background. Imagine any random thesis title – “James Bond as Masculine Construct”; “The Disempowered Women of James Bond”; “Bond and Britain: Decline and Fall”; “James Bond: Secret Alien?” – and this scene will inevitably inform your argument.

There are bigger Bond moments. More dramatic Bond moments. Funnier Bond moments. Tenser Bond moments. But 50 years on, there is still no cooler Bond moment than his introduction – and there never will be.

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Taken on its own, the following scene is unremarkable. Bond enters Moneypenny’s office. Flirts briefly with Moneypenny. Goes into M’s office. Is briefed by M. Sulks over an order (Bond frequently sulks at M. Here the issue is his new Walther PPK). Yields to M. Leaves M’s office. Bids farewell to Moneypenny. Goes off on mission.

Switch on any random Bond film and you will most likely see a variation of this scene. Every single Bond – Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, Craig – does the dance. And yet this is the first. In five minutes the film establishes a template that will be repeated perpetually deep into the 21st century. And you can see why.

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Tonally the scene is spot on. Bond and Moneypenny flirt without being infantile; while the Bond-M dynamic is brisk, authoritative (on M’s part) and clearly undercut with great mutual respect. I won’t discuss actors too much as I’d rather focus on the films themselves. Suffice to say Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee, and Sean Connery embody these characters so effortlessly that the series has never quite stepped out of their shadows. So much is made of rebooting Bond, reinterpreting Bond, the modern Bond – but really the impossible dream is to turn back the clock and somehow see a youthful Connery lope into Lee’s office one last time. Skyfall paid homage, but you can never go back.

The mission – investigate the disappearance of Commander Strangways – is more private-eye than superspy. Bond hops on a plane to Jamaica and there he stays for the remainder of the film. Whereas later films can throw a dart at an atlas every twenty minutes – aaand now we’re in Haiti! – Connery generally puts down roots.

As a result, each Connery film is very much infused by its location: Istanbul for From Russia With Love, Japan in You Only Live Twice, and so forth. Jamaica still feels pretty exotic now so heaven knows how 1962 Britain viewed it. Anyway, the blue sky, blue sea, golden sands combo ticks the ‘escapism’ box very nicely – while still seeming exotic and dangerous. You suspect if Dr. No were set in, say, Ukraine, I wouldn’t be writing these words today.

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In Jamaica Bond first meets Felix Leiter, his future CIA BFF. Sadly, Leiter’s portrayal across the franchise is frustratingly inconsistent. The casting alone tells a story. Counting Skyfall, only three actors have played Q, with four incarnations apiece of M and Moneypenny, and six of Bond himself. Yet there have been seven different Leiters – in only nine film appearances! Only two actors ever reprised the role (shout out to David Hedison and Jeffrey Wright).

This first incarnation – competent, laconic, big sunglasses fan – is one of the best, appropriate for a film that takes itself fairly seriously. I like the scene where Leiter and Bond investigate radioactive rock samples. Why? Because both are wearing goddamn suits. Outside. On a boat. On a sunny day. In Jamaica. And neither has a hair out of place. Cool customers indeed.

Investigating rock samples is a pretty mundane job for a man who’ll one day own an invisible car. Yet this is the joy of Dr. No: Bond acts like an actual spy. Removing his shoes to tread softly on the carpet after hearing a noise in his apartment. Placing a damp hair across the closet door and powdering the catches of his suitcase to giveaway if his hotel room is searched. Covering pillows and cushions with a sheet to create a sleeping “body,” and thus get the drop on would-be assassin Professor Dent. Using a reed to breathe underwater… okay that doesn’t work, but at least the writers are trying!

And speaking of Dent – Bond’s first on-screen killing is undoubtedly his most brutal. He’ll kill in cold blood again but only when motivated by necessity, revenge, or a direct order. This is an execution. Dent poses no threat; Bond could easily have him arrested. He just doesn’t.

What of the titular antagonist? Dr. No’s limited screen time (the least of any Bond baddie) actually works in his favor. Even today the character retains a sense of mystery, and for a villain this is no bad thing. Compare this with Blofeld, whose threat became diluted over repeat exposure and is now a figure of parody (“One hundred billion dollars! Mwha ha ha!).

Dr. No escapes this fate. Credit to the writers for that, and credit to the taut, menacing performance of Joseph Wiseman that contains not one slice of ham. His island lair is more modest than later models (space station, anyone?) but is still a worthy base, and far more practical than some. The metallic hands certainly sparked a craze: for a while no supervillain was complete unless some part of their anatomy was missing.

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Pointless trivia alert: in an early script draft Dr. No was in fact a monkey. Yes, that kind of monkey. A definite Sliding Doors moment for the series. 

I’d love to reveal that Honey Rider was nearly an ostrich but tragically I can find no evidence of this. She is a wonderfully exotic creation and, like Dr. No, appears later than you’d expect. Personally, I feel Honey’s celebrity leans heavily on that entrance and the sight of Ursula Andress in a bikini. Give me Pussy Galore or Domino any day. But then neither caused the cultural splash of Honey so I’m probably in the minority here.

In the novel, Honey is distinguished by a broken nose. Obviously in the film this wouldn’t do: physical deformities are strictly villain-only. Indeed, no cinematic Bond girl has ever been anything other than physical perfection. This I think is a shame. A scarred heroine, or perhaps one paying homage to Honey’s broken nose, would be genuinely revolutionary. I’d love to see a Bond film bold enough to subvert the stereotype but I’m not holding my breath.

Have you ever noticed how early Bond girls sound weirdly similar? They share this sexy, sultry, slightly exotic accent that is rather difficult to place. Search YouTube for some clips of Honey Rider and Sylvia Trench and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The reason they sound so alike is because most literally have the same voice: that of German actress Nikki van der Zyl.

Nikki is the great unsung heroine of the franchise. She dubbed actresses in ten (10!) different Bond films. Amongst others she supplied the voice of Honey, Sylvia Trench (twice), Jill Masterson, Domino, and Kissy Suzuki. Indeed, excluding Moneypenny and Miss Taro, every female character in Dr. No is voiced by Nikki. Nowadays she is rightly miffed by her lack of acknowledgement from the franchise, so she can have some here.

A paragraph ago I mentioned Dr. No the novel; and perhaps now is a good time to clarify where this series of articles stands regarding Ian Fleming. Ultimately I am writing about the Bond films, not the Bond books – and I will treat the films as entirely independent creations.

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For the most part they are independent creations: the films largely ignored the books from Diamonds Are Forever onwards, and pretty much ran out of titles to steal after The Living Daylights (although exceptions occur). However, the early films were heavily influenced by the Fleming novels, as was much of what we now recognize as Bondian: villains, girls, violence, sex, hedonism, exotic locations, stupid names and so forth. Rightly or not, I’ve made a conscious decision to ignore this: the books will be mentioned only in passing. Apologies to any Fleming fans who feel I’m giving the great man short shrift.

Anyway, let’s celebrate Quarrel. A brave, resourceful Jamaican fisherman whom Bond respects and befriends. Yes, Quarrel is undoubtedly the ‘black sidekick’; and his belief in the Crab Key ‘dragon’ (actually a flamethrower-equipped tank) is roundly mocked by Bond. But for 1962 the character was a largely positive step and (shamefully) he remains one of the major black roles of the series.

The moment where Bond silently mourns Quarrel’s death is genuinely affecting. Later he goads Dr. No by saying, in reference to SPECTRE’s ‘revenge’ department: “My first job would be to find the man who killed Strangways. And Quarrel.” The Jamaican fisherman is placed as equal to the British civil servant. A subtle insight into Bond himself.

Of course, there are flaws. “Blind” hitmen squad “Three Blind Mice” are a fine creation but guilty of a truly useless assassination attempt on Bond, taking a few pot shots at his car before skidding off a precipice. Bond’s escape from Dr. No is far too easy. “Where’d you put the prisoner, Johnny?” “Don’t worry boss. I locked him in the storeroom. You know, the one with the giant ventilation shaft situated around head-height… oh look he’s escaped.”

The whole finale feels a little rushed, although budget restrictions meant that wars in hollowed volcanoes weren’t yet a possibility. A couple of moments haven’t dated too well. Bond casually tells Dr. No, “With your disregard for human life you must be working for the East.” Even worse is when Bond barks, “Fetch my shoes!” at Quarrel in what definitely isn’t a request. Ugh.

Yet overall, Dr. No emerges very much in credit. It really is remarkable how little the series deviates from the formula established in its first film. If created today Dr. No would be an origin story – young James overcoming the death of his parents thanks to his mentor M and an inevitable training montage. Not here. Bond emerges fully formed – both as a character and, by and large, as a franchise.

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Best Bit: “Bond. James Bond.” Enough said.

Worst Bit: “Fetch my shoes!” Doesn’t get any easier to watch.

Final Thought: Why does Bond untie that boat at the end? Patience man! You’ll prefer a hotel.