James Bond’s cinematic debut, Dr. No, was the film that launched a multi-billion, multimedia and multi-decade franchise, which is still going strong nearly sixty years later. So, being the first in a series you could forgive Dr. No for merely laying down the foundations of what was to come for the character. It was made on a modest budget, a lot of the acting talents were relative unknowns (even good ol’ Sean Connery wasn’t exactly a leading star at this point) and the result is a Bond film that has promises of better times ahead but one that – when looking at it through modern eyes – is full of campy fun.
The plot of Dr. No starts with the murder of a British Secret Service agent Strangways in Kingston, Jamaica, who was investigating a Chinese criminal lord called Dr. No who was operating in a nearby island – Crab Key. Dr. No has been responsible for disrupting America’s rocket tests nearby…for some reason? So Bond is sent to Jamaica in order to find out what happened to Strangways and along the way uncover Dr. No’s plot. He is helped by a CIA Agent called Felix Leiter and a local boatman called Quarrel. Bond survives multiple attempts on his life because Bond is the luckiest person on Earth.
He, along with Quarrel, eventually ends up on Crab Key where Bond meets Honey Ryder – a shell collector who had also snuck onto the island. Eventually they are caught by Dr. No’s men, Dr. No monologues over dinner and brings up he is a member of SPECTRE and then Bond ruins his day by disturbing his playful pranks against American rockets and then drowning him in radioactive water before escaping with Ryder as the island blows the heck up.
The key points to remember about Dr. No is that while some could argue that it is the blueprint of what Bond films would go on to become, I feel it’s more the first draft of the blueprint. The follow up, From Russia With Love, really nailed down the Bond formula but Dr. No is still full of elements that would be carried through the franchise – the catchphrase, the Bond theme, the Bond girl, the vodka martini, the PPK pistol and of course Bond’s delightful mixture of bad ass, charm and casual sexism. It was a different time, I know. Still, I feel like everything falls into place more solidly in the next one.
Dr. No is still a fun film albeit with fairly long stretches where the plot kind of just crawls along. The low budget meant that they really stretched some scenes out. In some scenes, like the one where Professor Dent tries to kill Bond only to be caught by surprise, this slow pace helps to drive up the tension of the scene. In other cases though it slows down the movie a little too much.
However the last Act where Bond gets captured and ends up in Dr. No’s lair is when things get fun. The sets are ridiculous and full of campy cheesiness. There’s an aquarium that is legitimately stock footage of goldfish magnified and projected onto a screen (I’m watching this on Blu-Ray so these details are even more obvious then ever), it’s full of just the tackiest furniture you’ve ever seen and the control room where the climatic fight happens is designed in such a way that the Batman TV series weeps tears of joy at how beautiful and well labelled everything is.
As for Dr. No himself, he really does not get enough screen time to really sell us how villainous he truly is. He is supposed to be this mysterious and reclusive man controlling things from behind the scenes, but once he is revealed he gets one scene to monologue and then the next time we see him it’s the climax of the movie and he dies. Dr. No is a scientist who is an expert in nuclear and radioactive material with metal hands yet his big contribution was mentioning that he was a part of SPECTRE, who would become a bigger thing in future movies.
Ursula Andress, the first true Bond girl, does the job she was asked to do. This was during a time when a lot of people in Bond (and I guess in films) were very clearly dubbed over and ever that was pointed out to me I have never been unable to unsee it. I watched a few early Bonds in advance at this point and it’s become a fun game to try and guess who has been dubbed over or not. Anyway, Andress will forever be iconic for being the first one and I have to respect that.
In general though, Dr. No suffers because it is outclassed by future Bonds. It laid the blueprint for a Bond film, but the next film – From Russia With Love completely nails the formula. Dr. No is worth a watch purely for being numero uno, but it is not a top tier Bond film, not in 2020 I’m afraid.
FINAL SCORE –