This review is part of Project Bond, wherein over the course of 2014 we watch all of the James Bond movies in production order.
Summary: Bond is sent to Jamaica after the MI6 agent there (Strangways) is killed. It turns out that he was investigating Crab Key and its mysterious inhabitant, Dr No, as possibly being the source of interference that has Cape Canaveral and NASA all het up. Bond continues this investigation, ending up on the island and eventually foiling Dr No’s dastardly plan. Which involves an atomic reactor. Along the way Bond sleeps with a few ladies, gets one ally killed, and kills several people himself. And he has a shower.
Alex: It was interesting to see how many of the elements that define Bond in the cultural mind are present from the outset. The opening scene has Bond gambling with a beautiful woman, whom he ends up sleeping with (this is a mutual seduction); he drinks a martini that’s been shaken; he flirts outrageously with Moneypenny (and throws his hat on the hatstand), and M is also present; there are car chases galore, and even Felix Leiter and SPECTRE. The one aspect missing is Q, and any sort of technogadgetr (Geiger counters don’t count). The other thing that’s really different is the opening credits: there’s no prologue before them! But there are some dancing-lady silhouettes, so that foreshadows later developments, as does the man-in-gun-barrel shot. Also the theme music; I love this original score. Interestingly, there is no mention of “James Bond”; there are some “007”s plastered on the screen, but that’s it – the movie is “Ian Fleming’s Dr No”.
The introduction of Bond as a character says a lot. As mentioned, Bond is first seen gambling in a club. Someone is looking for him, so we already know his name (that would never happen in a film today), but when the camera gets to the card table we don’t see his face for ages. We see the back of his head… then his (well-manicured) fingernails… then his face, as he lights a cigarette and gives his name as “Bond. James Bond” in reply to the woman asking. I have no idea how popular Connery already was by this stage, but he can’t have been an unknown – not to get that sort of treatment. Bond’s character is relatively nuanced throughout the film. He goes from gambling and flirting with a stranger, to flirting with Moneypenny, to being deadly serious with his boss (and being petulant when told his Beretta is a sissy gun). In Jamaica he Gets Things Done: turns the tables on would-be murderers, orders people around, deals with a nasty spider, and kills with (apparently) absolutely no qualms. He’s cold and hard when it’s required, but warm and flirty when he can; he’s calm while the spider crawls all the way up him (if he’d been a woman this would have happened with the sheet off, rather than wrapped around him) – but then jumps out of the bed, clearly panicky. This characterisation surprised and pleased me.
The supporting cast left a lot to be desired, although there were some good bits.
Quarrel, the local Jamaican boatie who was helping Strangways has some good moments: suspicious of Bond, he manages (briefly) to have him at a disadvantage; his local knowledge and boating skills are clearly valued by Bond and Leiter. At the start he clearly
sees himself as Bond’s equal, although this seems to disappear over the course of their partnership. Annoyingly, when they get to Crab Key Quarrel is depicted as superstitious and needing to drink rum to bolster his confidence – the former I could cope with because Honey Ryder also believes in the dragon, but the latter is totally unnecessary. Also, he dies an unnecessary death and is then forgotten. Boo.
I tried to keep track of the non-white characters throughout the film, expecting it to be pretty dire. They do mostly appear as murderers and servants, and often as totally under Do No’s sway… but there are a few white characters who fit this bill, too, so it’s not a racially clear-cut thing. The worst bit, race-wise, is that as far as I can tell two of the characters are in ‘yellow-face’: Miss Taro and Dr No himself are played by white actors. (I may be wrong about Miss Taro – perhaps she’s not meant to be of Asian descent – but the eye-liner and hair seem to be suggesting it…).
Dr No says that his father is German while his mother is Chinese, so I guess there’s an excuse for not using a Chinese actor, but still…. I was also reminded of Stella Young’s comments at the Splendid Chaps podcast about villains and disability. Dr No has something wrong his hands – we’re not told what, although Bond assumes his hands are fake. In the book I think he also has weird eyes. The point being, he’s not right somehow. Bond is the epitome of Manliness, and is Defending Humanity; his opponent is somehow less than/different from human (I mean all of this in the context of the movie of course), and is therefore deserving of being taken down.
Honey Ryder (in the book, she’s Honeychile) – played by Ursula Andress – is the most famous part of the movie, I think; her walking out of the ocean must be one of the more iconic moments in popular cinema. Like Quarrel, her best moments are at the start of her relationship with Bond. She’s suspicious of him, afraid that he’s going to steal her shells; she’s defiant and doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. She’s confident of her own abilities and indeed proves herself very useful – taking Bond and Quarrel somewhere to hide, showing Bond how to stop the mosquitoes from biting, and so on. Sadly, this utility and resourcefulness do not survive under the weight of James Bond. She quickly becomes fearful and a bit useless – dressed up as a doll, taken to dinner then dismissed while the men talk of great things, and then chained up so she can be rescued. Sad.
There is a good case for arguing that this is a science fiction movie. Dr No is being investigated because he is somehow interfering with the Mercury missions being launched from Cape Canaveral – Leiter says they’re about to try moon fly-bys, which by 1962 standards are absolutely SF. Additionally, Dr No’s evilness is driven by atomic power, also SF-nal for 1962. And there are automatic sliding doors.
I enjoyed this more than I had expected. The fights are cheesy, the car chases involve a lot of blue screen, and some of the dialogue is dreadful. But a lot of it was actually shot in Jamaica, which is beautiful; it’s well-paced – no extended fights or chases; and I liked that Dr No isn’t completely transparent. This was definitely a good start to Project Bond.
James: Well, what has Alex left unsaid? I enjoyed that right from the gun (see what I did there) we’re off and racing with the traditional Bond theme blaring out on trumpets… Classic and colourful lettering … Dr No, Ian Fleming and then the short credits. The quality of the blu-ray transfer is striking. Having watched these films growing up on VHS etc to see them re-scanned from the original first generation camera films is a treat. Film’s look is timeless, the colour is beautiful and of course the technology dates it but otherwise it could be any modern film.
If I had one observation it’s that the whole film somehow seems more dated and cheesy the longer it goes on. It’s still from that era when cinema seems overacted compared to more modern films. I loved how many of the key Bond elements are firmly in place, the booze, the women and the regular supporting cast and yet somehow the cliche doesn’t feel tired? How many books had Fleming written before this film was made? I rate this Bond 3 Martinis.