Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962)

Doctor Nobody does it better (spoiler notice)

It was a little over fifty years ago that Dr. No launched James Bond into the collective unconscious. Bond became a film icon that is today just as valid and valued as it was when handsome, rugged Sean Connery first walked into the frame and shot his unknown assailant.

I can only imagine that like many others, I started watching Bond movies at an irresponsible age. At seven or eight I was introduced – most likely to one of the Roger Moore titles. For the longest time, Moore was the quintessential Bond to me, classy and uptown. It’s funny: in my youth I found Sean Connery too brusque, too unexpectedly vicious. It’s exactly those qualities that I now perceive make him so much more interesting. His Bond can be a suave gentleman one moment, a deadly killer the next.

The last time I watched Dr. No was probably ten to fifteen years ago. Certain images had stuck: No tabling with Bond, black mechanical hands sink away, the famous beach scene where Honey Ryder emerges from the ocean. It’s surprising that these moments are all from the second half of this two hour film. The first hour is an almost un-Bond-like procedural investigation. 007 is summoned to Jamaica when a British intelligence chief is assassinated. With typical forwardness he starts snooping in the wrong places, makes social calls with unwholesome types and finds no better way to open up a female spy than taking her to bed. This being Connery, his persuasion borders on coercion.

A recent article by Matt Zoller Seitz on IndieWire emphasizes how crucial it is to see these early Bond films in a historical context. What we see now as a rough-hewn sexist was then a figure of strength and wealth in a post-war society still building up. The clunky Geiger counters, unwieldy telephones, airplane fetishism and Bond’s blue boxers might arouse chuckles nowadays, but were tokens of an exciting world just out of reach to the average man on the street. Bond films have always functioned as predictions of future technology. Deride that too easily and you’ll lose the ability to enjoy these stories. All the same, even at the time people saw the ironic aspects; this film being ‘full of submerged self-parody’ according to British newspaper The Observer.

The first hour of Dr. No might be a slow-moving procedural, it is dotted with typical Bond moments. Striking to me now is how flippantly Bond courts danger. He discovers his chauffeur on the airport is an assassin, so of course he steps into the cab. The oft-used cyanide cigarette makes its debut. A chase sequence rears its head too – along with the prototype for Bond’s dry, post-murder remark. However, this isn’t an escalated power-fantasy yet. Where following movies would push Bond into an endless rollercoaster of outrageous stunts and one-liners, Bond is more human in Dr. No. He needs to do some serious legwork before figuring things out. Though he comes out on top in most occasions, he sometimes fumbles and gets hurt. This is a Bond where a single gun or knife is still dangerous and a real threat. Concurrently, it means that 007 didn’t need to exert superhuman powers in order to be exceptional.

Dr. No is the first movie to feature the ‘there is a dangerous animal in James Bond’s bed’ conceit. It’s at once the last time it was ever effective, since only here do you believe that a tarantula could truly vex the spy. When Roger Moore finds a snake in his tropical bunk in Live and Let Die, it seems almost comical, a pastiche. Contrast that to the frenzy with which Connery, sweating, flattens the spider with his shoe and then retreats into the bathroom, visibly shaken (but not stirred).

It is the second hour in which a sense of the familiar zaniness arrives. Dr. No lives in an underground science facility that doubles as a luxury hotel. He has a tank dressed up as a dragon, spewing flames, to scare off the locals. The doctor has somehow lost both his hands to radiation (I have yet to figure out how that tragedy would occur) and they’ve been replaced by gleaming metal claws. The precise point of his tremendous effort at building this Caribbean fortress eludes me. It had something to do with interrupting a US rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, but how that would benefit No’s evil organization SPECTRE goes unexplained.

It doesn’t really matter anyway. Important is that Bond and Ryder are put on a conveyer belt with showers to rinse off the radiation they caught in the swamp. Afterwards they are locked up in decadent pads, which apparently isn’t enough to secure them, so their coffee is laced with a sleeping agent. Then comes the delight of the movie: the dinner confrontation. As a kid this aspect always puzzled me. From one scene to the next, Bond would be in captivity, then suddenly share a cup of tea with the bad guy. Why would either of them want this? Why keep up the appearance of hospitality when a relationship of violence had already been established? Only later did I understand it was all part of a heightened game of chess, of subtle power plays.

The dinner takes place in Dr. No’s fantastic subterranean dwelling, which mixes the stone trappings of a medieval castle with oriental accessories and European decadence. I wouldn’t mind living there. During the talks Bond mucks up. Dr. No rattles off an imperious monologue, filled with disappointed insults and stilted eloquence. It’s terrific. He’s a one-dimensional character, but because he’s played with such intense sincerity by Joseph Wiseman you believe every word he says. And in contrast to the eternally cowardly Blofeld later in the series, Dr. No cannot be denied some serious guts. When Bond infiltrates the control room during the movie’s climax and initiates a core meltdown (don’t worry: it ends only in a harmless explosion, not the logical nuclear catastrophe), the nemesis wastes no time in rushing the intruder. Where everyone around him flees the site, the doctor hacks away with his prosthetic hands until both end on a platform lowering into the boiling reactor pool. Bond escapes, No reaches feebly for the metal grid. Black mechanical hands sink away.

Fifty years ago, Dr. No set the stage for James Bond to bloom. It wasn’t until Goldfinger that the template had fixated and all the familiar elements were in place. Because the rest of Bond is, for better or worse, so formulaic, Dr. No is an interesting film, unformed by preconceptions. Its structure is unique and unhinged. Bond was never more vulnerable. Both as a historic document and thrilling spy film, this is a good watch.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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