Serial, Super Serial: Dr. No

James Bond

There’s no turning back now. Twenty-two (plus a few) films already seems like a big venture, but you have to start somewhere. Enter: Dr. No, based on the sixth film in Ian Flemming’s novel series. It may seem odd to start your film franchise in the middle of the novels, but I think it works in the film’s favor, as it’s surprisingly fast-paced in getting to the action.

The film opens with two assassinations — one of a British Intelligence representative, the other of a secretary. Bond is quickly thrown into the plot by being asked to investigate these killings and see if there’s any connection to jammed radio frequencies at Cape Canaveral, which must have had something to do with the slain spy’s current job. The mission takes Bond to the lovely island of Jamaica, with its accent-less black people and random Chinese population. Some ventures into the world of geology get us to the secluded island of Crab Key, inhabited by the evil-sounding (although no one seems to realize it) Dr. No. Once Bond is able to finally get someone to agree to take him to Crab Key, he has the famous run-in on the beach with Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress). They together must escape the island, stop the evil mastermind’s plot and save humanity or something.

I think Dr. No is a good, fast-moving film, but it certainly left a lot to be desired — some of which may come in subsequent films. I’m willing to think that this just has to do with the cultural penetration of the film series as a whole, and while Dr. No feels like a Bond film, it also doesn’t. I have an ultimate idea of what a “Bond film” is, and this just doesn’t completely fit. It isn’t campless (I mean, this was the start of the swingin’ sixties, after all), but isn’t over-the-top fun. There are a few moments of action, but it’s mostly hand-to-hand brawls, and all its set-pieces feel incredibly low-scale. Maybe because of that low scale, there never seems to be any actual danger for Bond. On the other hand, there are certainly iconic fixtures that make this a classic film — from the girls, to the villain, to Sean Connery’s performance.

Bond, James Bond

We have a classic Hollywood introduction to the super spy, with him shot from behind before iconically presenting himself as “Bond, James Bond.” Because I have the insight of almost 50 years, I know exactly who this guy is and the introduction with little exposition totally works for me — with the popularity of the books, it may have worked on contemporary audiences, as well. Still, I feel if we were making the first Bond movie today, it would start with a huge action scene or something else to give more context on the character as a super spy. But, then again, what is Bond if he isn’t a handsome, charming ladies man first and foremost? His introduction at a swanky gaming club, where he easily picks up an attractive lady in the first reel of the film, is probably a more apt intro for the character anyway.

Sean Connery has always been referenced as the “best” Bond, and I think it’s because he’s so authentic. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Dr. No doesn’t work without Connery. He has the perfect dual presence as a man who can pick up a woman one minute and beat down some baddie the next. While the film doesn’t have the most exciting action, Connery’s physicality works well enough when he tosses a few people around a room. It also never feels like a stretch that he often comes home with half-naked ladies already in his bed, or his enemies finding themselves there eventually.

That said, the character already verges on self-parody. He’s certainly smart and suave, but he plays like a total government lackey, following orders without question. More importantly, his interaction with literally every woman in the film has sexual connotations (and lucky for him, they are all inexplicably attractive). His drive for thoughtless sex goes so far as to have sex with a specific seductress he knows is working for the bad guys before turning her over to the authorities. Similarly, after narrowly escaping certain death, his first choice for post-game recreation is to literally rock a boat.

Unlike what I gather from future films, this Bond isn’t so much into gadgets (at least outside of the bedroom). Instead, he actually has some clever, practical ways to catch his enemies and escape situations. In order to monitor a break-in of his hotel room, he takes a single hair and pastes it to his door — if it remains unbroken upon his return, he knows the door couldn’t have been opened. Later on, expecting another break-in, he positions his bed cushions to appear as if he was asleep in bed. After this lures the baddie in, he has him cornered. Although simple, it was pretty cool to see Bond survive on ingenuity and wit instead of watches that contain laser beams. I’m pretty sure that’s coming soon, so I’ll cherish what I’ve had.

The Mission

I’m going to be honest. Most of the movie I had no idea what was going on. While that is certainly a problem, it mostly didn’t matter to me because of the cliches that have been built around these Bond movie plots — plug in a bad guy, a desire for world-domination, some sort of nuclear device and you have yourselves a film. The movie has its fair share of spy-speak, where agents use very vague terms in a dry, British way. Maybe it’s because I’m American, but I tend to space out where there are a lot of British accents talking deadpan. Much like the actual plot of the film, the location matters very little. Jamaica is a fun backdrop for a spy-thriller, but it is not really utilized — it was obviously not filmed anywhere near the island nation.

Bond Girls

Dr. No presents Bond’s first three female conquests, who represent three very different types of Bond Girls.

First is Sylvia Trench, who may not be an official Bond Girl because she’s completely outside the mission plot. She’s mostly used to provide an introduction to the spy as an attractive ladies man. She also gives us a bit of a look at Bond away from his job, but once he leaves on the mission, she becomes disposable.

Miss Taro is the typical femme-fatale who’s equal parts desirable and dangerous. She uses her sexuality as a weapon, and knowing Bond’s weakness for the ladies it’s good to have that in her arsenal. She is also strangely “Oriental” — the actress is white-British, but her skin looks slightly yellowed and her style is the Hollywood version of Chinese. I’m not sure what the film is trying to do with the ethnicity of this character, other than making her the exotic other. She also, of course, is a villain working under Dr. No, so her Chinese-ness plays into her lack of morals from the film’s perspective. It doesn’t feel outwardly racist, but there are hints to these subtexts throughout.

The most famous Bond Girl of the film (and perhaps of the entire franchise), though, is Honey Ryder, played by Ursula Andress. Strangely, she doesn’t come into the film until over an hour has passed, and she isn’t the femme-fatale type that I expected her to be. The film actually plays her mostly as a local simpleton who makes her money by prancing around in her bikini and looking for expensive seashells on the forbidden island of Crab Key.

On first thought, I was actually surprised by her reputation, but then I realized the strange depth to her character — she isn’t quite as innocent as she may seem. While she isn’t the action-first type like Bond, we know that she’s a killer under the surface. Really, it all stems from one line: after she describes a time when she was raped, she follows with “I put a black widow spider underneath his mosquito net… a female, they’re the worst. It took him a whole week to die.” It reads like a throw-away line, but the brutality in her revenge is frightening. To Bond, she has both the wild streak and the passivity of a housewife — the best of both worlds to him. She fits in with his dangerous lifestyle, but she can be tamed.

The Villain

There are a number of henchmen (and women) to talk about, but the real villain is the eponymous Dr. No. He’s some sort of scientist (obviously got his Ph.D. in something) that works for the world-wide terrorist organization SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). Although he wasn’t a villain I was particularly familiar with coming into this, if you’ve ever seen an Austin Powers film, you would notice him as a direct blueprint for Dr. Evil — from the suit to the deliberate talking style to the utterance of the phrase “one million dollars.”

Here are the reasons we know Dr. No is evil:
- He lives on a secluded island.
- His compound has strange architecture, including automatic doors, an intercom system and a crazy ceiling window for optimal scary shadow effect.
- He has a boat that looks like a dragon.
- He tries to kill Bond with a poisonous spider
- He’s referred to as a “Chinese fella.”
- And, oh yeah, he has metal hands.

Like Honey Ryder, we don’t actually meet Dr. No until very late in the film. Until then, most of the dirty work is done by a number of stupid henchmen who must have had an uncharacteristically good day during their interview. When Dr. No comes along, though, we do find him to be quite passive. It has often been spoofed that Bond villains have plenty opportunity to kill the secret agent but seem to have no real intention of doing so. Dr. No fits in well, as he’s more interested in having philosophical debates on the nature of evildom. As he’s talking to Bond, he admits he’s impressed by the adversary, calling him “the one man I’ve met who can appreciate what I’ve done [i.e., try to take over the world or something].” It is with this line that I realize that Dr. No isn’t looking for an enemy, but actually just a friend.

Random Thoughts

- The special addition blu-ray menu titles are quite fun. Instead of “Play Movie” we are prompted to “Initiate Mission.” BLASTOFF!

- This is one of the only Bond film without a trademark title song. We do get the famous opening where we look through the scope of a gun at what I think is supposed to be Bond… although it’s not Sean Connery. The Bond theme does exist, however, and I think that is one of the most underrated film themes ever. From the horns to the guitar, it oozes cool — captures the tone of the films and the character perfectly. It also feels really modern, so to hear it in the 1962 film is pretty amazing.

- The opening title sequence to this is film is both amazing and stupefying. First we have a very cool 60s-style animation sequence with a number of circles filling up the screen. Then it moves into the silhouettes of dancing girls — which I guess makes sense given the material, but doesn’t have any connection to the film. Oh, but that’s not all…

- Following the dancing girls we get the silhouette of three blind beggars tapping their canes and singing “Three Blind Mice” — this is just mind-boggling. It does lead into the nice opening assassination scene of the film, but before it becomes clear as to who these three men are, it is very strange. Just the transition between very hip dancing to a nursery rhyme made me wonder what the hell was going on.

- For being a secret agent, there certainly are a lot of people who know that James Bond is a spy. It might help to keep a lower profile.

- There is an amusing scene between Bond and M where Bond is made fun of for his “womanly” Beretta gun. In case we needed to curb the fact that this was a man who could (and does) have any woman he wanted, he might have a small penis after all.

- When I said some geology stuff goes on, I was being serious. For some reason, this movie seriously has some conspiracies centered around geology. Don’t ask me why.

- Just so we absolutely know we’re in Jamaica, we get some Red Stripe product placement — Bond needs some place to throw a baddie, so why not into a stack of Red Stripe boxes?

- Why exactly are there so many “Chinese” people in Jamaica?

- If you doubt how much of a badass Bond truly is, note some of these pick up lines:

To Miss Taro, as he enters her apartment: “Didn’t you invite me up here to admire the view?”

“Tell me Miss Trench, do you play any other games?”

Bond: “Don’t worry. I’m not supposed to be here either.”
Honey Ryder: “Are you looking for shells too?”
Bond: “No, I’m just looking.” [with lustful leer at Ryder]

Miss Moneypenny (M’s secretary): “You’ve never taken me to dinner looking like this. You’ve never taken me to dinner…”
Bond: I would, you know. “Only M would have me court-martialed for… illegal use of government property.”

- Dr. No’s compound looks strangely like a hospitality suit and they are incredibly nice to their prisoners.

- Dr. No doesn’t sound so villainous when you find out his first name is ‘Julius.’

- During their philosophical debate on evil, Bond wonders why Dr. No doesn’t use his talents for good. He must have overlooked the fact that No has hands made out of metal.

tags: dr. no, james bond, super serial, terence young

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Danielle-Rush/100002186800334 Danielle Rush

    I think your view of Honey Ryder as being dangerous is overrated.  Although I was impressed by her story at how she dealt with her rapist, the movie never gave her an opportunity to show how dangerous she could be.  In fact, I found her character’s role in the story to be rather useless.  And I was a little put out by how the story painted both Honey and Quarrel as superstitious.  ”DR. NO” seemed to equate both women and blacks as children.

  • Aaron Pinkston

    I think you misread what I’ve said — or perhaps I didn’t totally explore my viewpoint here.  We don’t see her as a dangerous character in any capacity, but it’s certainly there.  The film could have benefited from her DOING more, but her story about he rapist adds a definition to her character that we haven’t seen from other Bond films.

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