Part 1 in a 24 part series of secret agent ‘research‘, this is my first 007 film review.
Last night the humoring husband and I watched the first film in what would become a multi-billion dollar franchise, 1962’s Dr. No. As Bond films go, Dr. No ranks somewhere in the bottom of the top third of all films; well ahead of Die Another Day and Moonraker certainly, but behind From Russia with Love and Goldfinger. It wins points for being the first in the series naturally and, of course, for starring Sean Connery.
However, for Connery films it ranks near the bottom. What Dr. No lacks compared to some of the greats (a villain with a discernible personality, noteworthy gadgets, extraordinary stunts, a proper femme fatale), it made up for by blazing the trail. Not many films bear the somewhat dubious distinction of a private screening request from a philandering President. Which one? Kennedy of course. As a student of history, this makes perfect sense to me.
Perhaps most importantly, Dr. No proves a very successful formula for box office success. It works out something like this. Take an exotic location and add in an evil-doer hell-bent on global destruction. Add one part femme fatale (or perhaps two, think Diamonds are Forever’s Bambi & Thumper), stage some improbable action, engage in witty banter, and kill people – preferably with a bit of panache. Oh, and Sex. And Booze. And then a little more sex. This formula has produced 23 films to date and billions at the box office. So, it’s working.
Director: Terrence Young
Release date: October 2, 1963 in London
Synopsis: Bond is sent to Jamaica by his superior (known as ‘M’) to investigate the disappearance of another British agent and his secretary. Upon arrival Bond teams up with the preposterously bespectacled CIA agent Felix Leiter who is there to investigate the source of some mysterious radio transmissions believed to be sending American missiles fired from Cape Canaveral off course. The two quickly realize the have a common enemy and join forces. They are joined by Leither’s local man and boat captain Quarrel. All signs point to the mysterious industrialist Dr. No who maintains a very private, and well guarded, island called Crab Key. In a nod to the literal idiom Dr. No has a metal hand and, wait for it, runs his well guarded island with an iron fist.
He captures Bond and the bikini-clad Honey Ryder (merely a super model bystander) as they attempt to covertly search his island for evidence; killing Quarrel with a fire-breathing tank in the process. Taking Bond and Honey back to his lair he does what any madman would do – he invites them to dinner. In this regard Dr. No sets the standard for another Bond trope – the civilized whack-a-doodle.
Over dinner, and ostensibly in a fit bravado, Dr. No reveals that he is a member of SPECTRE. That’s the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. Of course! I think they offer a SPECTRE seminar at Sarah Lawrence. SPECTRE clearly knows the value of good marketing; something the Soviet born SMERSH (see From Russia with Love) failed to recognize. After dinner, Bond is beaten, escapes, foils the evil plans, kills Dr. No, rescues Honey, scores again (ahem), and…….credits.
Contextual Matters: As I stated in my anatomy of a film review post, context is crucial. At the time of Dr. No’s release America was in the middle of the Cold War around the globe and the Civil Rights movement at home. And these themes are alive and well in Dr. No; some embraced, others arguably rejected. More than a few seminal moments had already transpired during the year of the film’s release including;
- George Wallace proudly proclaimed: “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” in his inauguration speech as Governor of Alabama. Keep it classy George.
- Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. No doubt this title did not grace Ian Flemming’s nightstand.
- In a speech in West Berlin, President John F. Kennedy famously declares “Ich bin ein Berliner” confusing countless Germans about his apparent affinity for jelly donuts.
- Tab Cola was introduced. Seminal? Perhaps not, but it did make Carcinogen a household name. So, there’s that.
And, after the film’s release, on one fateful day in Dallas, President Kennedy, was assassinated. If you find Bond villains and evil organizations implausibly ridiculous, take a moment to reflect on the vastness of conspiracy theories revolving around President Kennedy’s assassination. SPECTRE doesn’t seem entirely bonkers.
Kills (5), Conquests (3), and Cocktails (2): As Bonds go, Connery wasn’t the most ruthless or booze addled, but he set the bar (forgive the pun). Only Craig and Brosnan can claim more notches in the proverbial headboard and more kills. A topic which has been met with some criticism from both Moore and Lazenby.
Discussion topic: how does Lazenby feel each time he’s solicited for a Bond comment? Does he relish the chance to relive his fleeting glory days? Or, is each inquiry a jab, a painful reminder, of what might have been if he weren’t (apparently) such an insufferable prat? If the latter, the 50th anniversary had to be unbearable.
Sartorial Splendor, Outmoded Mode: Sartorially speaking, Dr. No does not disappoint. From the Nehru-jacketed titular character, to the classically tailored Bond, there’s a great deal to like.
However, like many a Bond film, there are a few looks which have not withstood the test of time. Take this ensemble from the reoccurring CIA agent Felix Leiter played by Jack Lord of Hawaii Five-O fame. Lord is credited with playing Leiter with a bit of swagger – an Americanized Bond if you will. Well, I won’t. I can assure you of that. Because no self-respecting man would have ever let himself be filmed in these sunglasses.
Felix redeemed himself somewhat in a well-tailored suit. It may not be Saville Row, but he acquits himself well.
The Wrong Side of History: Don’t expect the NAACP to be recognizing Dr. No any time soon. After meeting up with Leiter in Jamaica, Bond is aided by one of his associates – a black gentlemen known as Quarrel. Quarrel takes James to Dr. No’s heavily fortified island where they meet Honey Ryder – a bikini-clad blond bombshell who is looking for shells. If you’re paying attention 007’s colleagues are now a nearly naked beautiful blond and a black guy. And the characters couldn’t be more thinly, or stereo-typically, drawn.
Local legend has it that Dr. No’s island is protected by a fire-breathing dragon. Bond scoffs at the notion until later in the film when they are attacked by the dragon on the beach. Upon close inspection (and by ‘close’ I mean a glance at 30 yards) the dragon is actually a small tank with painted teeth and a flame thrower. This, it appears, is Dr. No’s Scooby-Doo moment. Quarrel, like any red-shirted Star Trek crew member, is quickly dispatched. Honey looks confused, but not terribly concerned, which you realize is her resting state.
Inspirational Moments: as Bond films go, Dr. No is relatively tame. Being the first in the series it’s not burdened with needing to top itself. The car chases are plausible and the shoot outs less than extraordinary. No one is skiing off an Alpine cliff to reveal a Union Jack parachute. What it lacks in noteworthy stunts it compensates for by setting a tone. Bond is introduced in a casino playing Baccarat – a game known for more for luck than skill. This detail is telling and gives insight into Fleming’s Bond. A game of skill would require patience and tenacity; attributes Bond seldom if ever demonstrates. His laconic and effortless style would have you believe he was born with whichever skill he needs at the time – a living Swiss Army Knife of tactical treasures.
As an aspiring agent I draw more from the thematic than the literal from Dr. No. Combat, transit, cultural and social intelligence, exotic locales – all the core elements of the list are represented. I do, however, need to learn to play Baccarat. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of resources for an aspiring card player online. And they even have a Baccarat table at the local(ish) casino – the Emerald Queen. I see a night of cards in my future. And Miller Lite. The Emerald Queen is in Fife, WA. If you’re reading this abroad, and conjuring an image of black ties and evening gowns, stop.
Best lines: Bond is well known for his quick quips; some pithy and clever, others regrettable groaners. Dr. No got the series off to a fine start.
Bond, after his would-be assailant attempts to fire an empty pistol: “That’s a Smith & Wesson. And you’ve had your six.”
And, of course… The aforementioned biki-clad Ryder: “Looks for shells? Bond: “No, I’m just looking.”
Next up? Perhaps the most critically acclaimed film in the series, From Russia with Love.