Dr. No (1962)
James Bond has become a genre all in itself, separate from (though influential on) other types of spy movies. Ian Fleming created the character as a deadly, but dashing member of British Intelligence in the 1950s, and it was only a matter of time before Bond made it to the big screen.
Uniquely, though, it wasn't his first adventure, Casino Royale, that made it. There was an American version of the story produced for television, but a movie version wouldn't show up until to the 2000s, and much of what the story was about had ceased to exist at that time.
Dr. No was the sixth book in the series, and the movie was produced and released during one of the tensest points of the Cold War. Unintentional comparisons to the Cuban Missile Crisis aside (which was not anticipated when Dr. No went into production), the novel was chosen largely because it was the most cost-effective to film. Keep in mind that this was the first Bond adventure; Sean Connery was not a major star, the British spy was not a household name and the movie was pushing a number of boundaries. Success was not guaranteed.
When Prof. John Strangways (Tim Moxon), the head of British Intelligence in Jamaica, disappears along with his secretary, James Bond (Connery) is sent to investigate. We first meet him at a game of baccarat where he is romancing a lady by the name of Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson), who slightly delays him on his journey.
Upon arrival in Jamaica he finds himself trailed by a photographer (Marguerite LeWars) and CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord). He also finds a car to take him to the government house - one he specifically did not ask for. When confronted, the driver commits suicide, heightening Bond's suspicions that the local intelligence post has been compromised.
Continuing his investigations, he follows a lead that Strangways was collecting geological samples, often under the guise of deep sea fishing with a local guide named Quarrel (John Kitzmiller). Quarrel at first refuses to help Bond, who follows Quarrel to a bar owned by Puss Feller (Lester Prendergast), and finds that they are both agents working with Leiter. While Quarrel, Leiter and Bond confer that night, Bond notices the photographer from the airport and has her brought over. Knowing that he is getting close to something, the next day he asks Strangway's colleague Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) about samples that came from an island called Crab Key. He denies the samples came from there, but the following attempt on Bond by leaving a deadly spider in his bed makes it clear that whatever is going on Dent is also involved.
During a meeting at the government house Bond comes out to find Miss Taro (Zena Marshall) listening at the door while supposedly looking for a file. Bond turns on the charm, and Miss Taro invites him to her home. While headed there he is chased by the men responsible for Strangways's appearance. After evading them he arrives at Taro's residence, much to her surprise. After spending some time he has her arrested and lies in wait for the person he is sure will be showing up to kill him.
At this point everything points to the island of Crab Key, which is privately owned by a half-Chinese businessman named Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman). Outwardly appearing to be a bauxite mine, the island is highly radioactive. Leiter manages to land Bond and Quarrel on the island, but a new wrinkle shows up: Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), a local diver who collects shells around the island to sell to tourists. While investigating the island Quarrel is killed, while Bond and Honey are captured and brought to Dr. No's underwater lair.
There have been recent broadcasts coming from the area aimed at disrupting the United States space program, and the CIA had been investigating thinking that the Soviet Union was involved. Instead, Dr. No reveals that he works for an organization called SPECTRE that intends on disrupting both sides of the Cold War for financial gain and eventual world domination. The current plan is to destroy a moon-bound rocket being launched from Cape Canaveral to display the power that the organization, and Dr. No in particular, holds. Bond must of course stop the megalomaniac genius as well as save the girl.
If you watch a lot of movies from this time period, you will notice right away how Dr. No was different and can understand the impact it had. In many cases a Hollywood film if it took place somewhere like Jamaica would add a couple cardboard palm tree silhouettes in the back. If the budget was enough, they'd find some place around Los Angeles, or even travel to Florida, to try to get a beach scene.
Dr. No was not a Hollywood production, although it was meant for release on both sides of the Atlantic. Instead, it was largely British, on a British film making budget. On that end, it was cheaper to just film in Jamaica, which was still a colony at the time, and then build and film the interior shots at Pinewood Studios, which was used by most of the British production companies. What that means is that the movie benefits from location filming in a country that typically no one would have thought to film in, and using it in such a way that the location itself becomes just as much a part of the story as anything else that is going on.
Sean Connery establishes what makes him one of the best (and in many people's eyes, the best) actors to portray the British spy. He is believable as a dangerous, amoral agent. He's not an unfeeling robot, and still has his own code about what is right and wrong, but is willing to accede to any idea of the ends justifying the means. In this case the ends are bringing down Dr. No's organization, which results in the death of Quarrel and the torture (and possible rape) of Honey Ryder. While Connery never seems as damaged as the character is in Ian Fleming's series of novels, only he and Daniel Craig have at least come close.
This was also the debut of Ursula Andress, and her scene coming out of the water in a white bikini is what most people remember after all these years. Her character is much more than just eye candy, and she recounts a good deal of her rough childhood and upbringing. Bond attempts to get her released, and she is given by Dr. No to the guards to do with as they please. That has some majorly disturbing implications, though the only the thing made blatant is that they intended to watch her slowly drown.
While there are the typical line of "Bond girls" that would become typical in these movies, and has become a bone of contention for those looking to find offense in everything these days, it must be noted that Honey is not treated as a conquest, even if she does fulfill the damsel in distress role. As for the other two, Sylvia Trench is the one that instigates her encounter with Bond, while Miss Taro is the only morally questionable "conquest," in that he sleeps with her simply to get her to do something that proves she is a traitor to her country. Later films in the series were much more blatant if you are looking for examples of misogyny, but at least in Dr. No the women are by and large what would have been considered independent and forward-thinking for the time the movie was made.
Sylvia, however, is troublesome in a different way. She is merely there to help introduce James Bond, and has nothing else to do with the plot. It seems like there are many times where Bond is put in danger for no reason other than for a set piece, and where characters are introduced as being integral to the plot but are never seen or heard from again. Even Felix Leiter, who has been a major side character in many Bond movies, doesn't really do much here. It is quite clear that maybe the weird Chinese guy with the radioactive island is the guy to check out when intelligence agents start dying, but that fact keeps getting pushed back until the last third of the movie.
As for the "Chinese" guy, keep in mind that it was typical to use non-Asian actors to play Asian roles up to the early 1970s. Part of the problem was not a lot of Asian actors in the industry, and the reason for that being is that they were thought to be too "foreign" for American audiences. Dr. No, with his cold demeanor and robotic hands, is an interesting villain, and Joseph Wiseman plays him well. A little credit should be given to the fact that they didn't put him in yellowface, but that still doesn't change the fact that Wiseman doesn't look in the least bit Asian, much less Chinese, unless high cheekbones count. It would have been wiser to dump the villain's ethnicity, knowing that they were not going to use an Asian actor anyway.
While No himself may not look like what he is supposed to be, Ken Adams's set design for the underwater lair is everything you would expect from a Bond villain. This is one area where the 1960s design, particular the need for a large space to store any type of mainframe computer, lends itself to a certain iconic look that would be absent today. I think that's why most of the bad guys in James Bond and Mission: Impossible movies tend to lurk in rusty old warehouses and anonymous business complexes rather than full-on lairs. Modern computers and technology are great, but it doesn't change the fact that trying to recreate Dr. No's lair these days would make it look like someone is preparing to bore the world to death with a Power Point presentation. You need the giant globe, vacuum tubes, reel-to-reel memory tapes, blinking lights and the easy-to-stumble-into nuclear reactor to give an evil plan the gravitas it needs. The fact this was done with on what would barely be the catering budget of most current movies is amazing.
Everything manages to come together despite a number of flaws into an action film that is uniquely part of the 1960s, but that was revolutionary for the time and still often looks impressive today. It's a great start to a series that would spawn some of the best action films from decade to decade, and everything from the arrogant villain, sci-fi style lair and location filming is here.
Even though I can't understand why James Bond would lower himself to drinking Smirnoff.
Dr. No (1962)
Time: 110 minutes
Starring: Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Jack Lord, John Kitzmiller
Director: Terence Young