Dr. No seemed an unlikely choice to kick off the film series in 1962 -- it was Ian Fleming's sixth James Bond novel and hardly the most cinematic of the ones he had written up to that date -- to say nothing of that oddball title, a moniker probably more suited to a goofy 1930's Flash Gordon-type serial. True enough, producers Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had wanted to make Thunderball first, but it was tied up in litigation. And the unknown Sean Connery was not anybody's first choice for the leading role -- Fleming himself wanted David Niven, and offers had been rejected by bankable stars of the day like Cary Grant, James Mason and Patrick McGoohan. Yet it's difficult to imagine any of them defining the role the way Connery did, particularly in his introductory scene. There's a laissez-faire to the way Connery announces, "Bond... James Bond," cigarette dangling from his lips, like he just doesn't give a rat's arse whether you care who he is -- he's that confident in his awesomeness. (One can imagine Grant delivering the line with his customary wink and smile -- James Bond would have been Cary Grant, not the other way around.)
There has been a copious amount of criticism written around the "James Bond formula" -- the exotic locations, the women, the cartoonish megalomania of the villains. Many of the elements are introduced in Dr. No, but almost seem like they're in rough draft form; indeed, it's difficult to look at the movie objectively 50 years on. The plot is probably one of the simplest of the film series -- a British agent is murdered in Jamaica after looking into reports of radio interference with American space launches, and James Bond is sent in to investigate. Bond is assisted by CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and local boatman Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), and eventually crosses paths with the half-German, half-Chinese, handless Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), agent of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), who is using his private nuclear reactor to knock the American rockets out of the sky. And of course there's eye candy in the form of Eunice Gayson as Sylvia Trench, Zena Marshall as Miss Taro, 1961's Miss Jamaica Marguerite LeWars as a photographer, and most famously, the voluptuous Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), whom Bond famously encounters as she strolls out of the ocean in a white bikini, knife on her hip, singing "Underneath the Mango Tree."
Dr. No is a tough sell to modern audiences if it isn't the first Bond movie you've ever seen. It was made on a shoestring budget of $1 million (nowadays, that wouldn't even pay for a third of an episode of CSI) and a lot of it does look very cheap. The acting is pretty painful across the board, and Connery himself tends to flap his gums and yell his lines as he tries to figure out the character, not yet realizing that intensity doesn't require volume. Andress begins a long tradition of Bond girls having their lines completely dubbed by another actress, and the effect can be greatly distracting. Apart from Wiseman, who is aware of his character's cartoonishness and underplays to compensate, none of the villains are terribly menacing. The fight and chase scenes are nothing special. The "dragon tank" is a goofy excuse for a prop that belongs on Gilligan's Island. The latter half of the film, once Dr. No finally enters the picture, slows down and drags where it should be building tension to a breaking point, such that the climactic battle between Bond and the villain seems a bit like an afterthought. Apart from the singular James Bond theme (which is regrettably hacked up in the opening credits) the musical score is cheesy and instantly forgettable. Yet compared to the largesse of some of the later films, there is a rawness to this adventure and more of a sense of Bond as a bruiser of a man relying on his skills, wits and fists to extricate himself from sticky situations, rather than the finely-tailored dandy with nary a hair out of place who always has the right gadget at the right time. When a bloodied, battered Bond is crawling through an air vent to escape Dr. No's lair, you truly worry whether he's going to make it out alive. And there are several iconic scenes that help to define Bond as a new kind of morally uncompromising hero, most notably when he shoots an unarmed man in cold blood, and callously turns a woman he's just slept with over to the police. Bond is always at his best when he's being an unrepentant badass.
In most recaps of the Bond series, Dr. No tends to rate around the middle, which is where I'd probably place it. It's a little low-key for how I like my James Bond, and really shows its age in certain places, particularly in its pacing. It has not yet acquired the panache and greater sense of fun of the mid-'60s Bond pictures, and the cheapness of its budget is quite evident throughout. In recipe terms, Dr. No is a souffle with all the right ingredients that doesn't quite manage to rise all the way. But you certainly cannot argue that without it and its success to set the stage, we would never have had the James Bond that we've grown up with all these decades and continue to love. That alone tends to earn it both a pass for its faults, and a greater appreciation of what it is -- a competently-executed thriller bursting with promise for what is to come.
Tomorrow: From Russia With Love raises the bar.