RECAP: Dr. No

Dr. No (1962): Terence Young

Dr. No is not the first book in the Ian Fleming franchise. When Albert Broccoli and Eon Productions set to make a James Bond film, they chose Dr. No for its ease of filming. The budget was low, and that shows up with the small scale of its action sequences and use of sets in England.

The filmmakers cast an unknown named Sean Connery as Bond, primarily because he would sign on for five films. Five deuces later and the series remains in the shadow cast by those Connery films.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A British spy travels to Jamaica to foil the plot of a deranged megalomaniac to foil American rocket launches and launches the most successful film franchise in history. 

Hero (5/10)

“Bond. James Bond.” With these three words, an icon is born. Sean Connery first appears onscreen in Dr. No at a casino in London, sitting at a card table, having just won a hand. He lights up a cigarette. When the woman he bested asks him his name, he answers as above.

The American Film Institute ranked that line 22nd on its list of greatest film lines ever. He’ll say it many more times across the decades, but never as good as this first time.

James Bond, the world knows by now, is a double-oh agent, number seven, with the United Kingdom’s MI-6, giving him a license to kill. Bond uses this license several times in Dr. No.

James Bond’s first appearance.

Bond is one of the world’s coolest customers. After beating the woman at cards, he asks her on a dinner date, only to find her in his hotel room later that night, pantsless. He meets with his boss, M (Bernard Lee) at 3:00 A.M. in a dinner jacket. Does he ever sleep?

At this meeting Bond learns about some problems with agents in Jamaica. An agent is dead, gunned down by three blind men, and radio communications have been compromised. M sends Bond to Jamaica to find out about that, and to meet with a CIA agent about supposed interference with the American rocket program.

So much of Dr. No sets Bond up for future films. He picks up his famous Walther PPK. He checks in with Universal Exports. He flirts with Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell). He has several casual sexual partners. He prefers making contacts socially, relying on allies on the ground to introduce him.

These traits accompany Bond throughout the franchise and serve him well. In Jamaica he’s socially introduced to some bridge players who knew the murdered agent, Professor Strangways. Using sleuthing skills he tracks the trouble to some radioactive rocks from nearby Crab Key.

Bond in Dr. No is not yet the action superstar he would become. We see more evasive and clever detecting skills than fighting techniques. Bond lays traps in his Jamaica hotel room to determine if anyone has searched the room by affixing a single hair to his closet door and dusting his briefcase lock with fingerprint-detecting powder. Bond immediately notices a woman at the airport taking his picture, rightly suspecting her. He evades a tail with ease.

Bond coolly counting bullets.

The second half of Dr. No finds him in danger on Crab Key. He picks up a beautiful woman named Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) and the two of them reach Dr. No’s sinister, well-appointed lair.

Villain (4/10)

Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) doesn’t appear for more than an hour, yet he’s the title character. Dr. No was born to a German missionary and a Chinese girl “of good family.” Later he stole $10 million in gold from a Chinese crime family, which helped him set up his operation on Crab Key.

What else? He works for a terrorist organization named SPECTRE, he thinks Bond might make a fine addition to the syndicate, and he’s worked with nuclear power long enough to engender a healthy respect for it.

Dr. No, with hands strong enough to crush gold and delicate enough to grip a cigar.

Dr. No’s nuclear background leads him to Crab Key, where he builds a nuclear reactor to power a satellite radio device that scrambles the circuits of NASA rockets taking off from Cape Canaveral. That same background also destroyed his hands, which are replaced with black gloves that help him crush gold statues, a trick he shows Bond and Honey.

Dr. No also has fine tastes. His secret hideout comes with the latest in men’s and women’s fashions, mid-century interior design, helpful staff, and decontamination chambers. The latter is more a job requisite than aesthetic choice.

Bond isn’t scared by this. He looks at the $1 million aquarium Dr. No has in his room and scoffs, “Minnows pretending they’re whales, just like you on this island.” If that hurt Dr. No he didn’t show it. Although, he later calls Bond “a stupid policeman.”

Dr. No’s lair.

It might surprise you to know that Dr. No has a Napoleon complex. He’s seen possessing a portrait of the Duke of Wellington that was actually stolen (and still missing) in real life in 1962. Bond says, “Our asylums are full of people who think they are Napoleon or God.”

Dr. No is neither. He’s easily defeated by Bond in the climactic fight.

Action/Effects (2/10)

As stated above, Dr. No does not contain long action set pieces endemic to the franchise. The first car chase involves two cars driving fast on an open road. Bond has his driver swerve into a right turn as the other car zooms past. That’s it. No ejector seats, no remote-driving controls, no invisibility.

Hiding from a gunboat.

Instead we have elements of action scenes. Bond, Honey, and Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) hide behind a sand bar on Crab Key as one of Dr. No’s boats sprays the beach with machine gun fire. Lots of squibs used there. Then the boats sails away. I mentioned the car chase. There’s another of similar ilk but at slower speed. At least that chase ends in a fiery crash.

Crumbs sprinkled throughout the movie do not an action scene make. That’s OK! This Bond is closer to Sam Spade than John Rambo, an investigator first, action hero second.

When Bond asked for a roommate, he didn’t expect…a tarantula!

Sidekicks (8/8)

Bond Girls. The phrase is practically trademarked. As often as the actors playing Bond change, they seem downright royal in their hold on the mantle compared to the actors playing Bond Girls. Here’s an aspect of Bond movies that has much staying power.

Honey Ryder doesn’t show up until the second half of Dr. No, but she is an absolute sensation. We first hear Honey singing the Mango Banana Tangerine song, possibly Jamaica’s only song as it’s heard at least three times in the movie, before we see her. Bond notices her first, and then the camera cuts to Honey emerging from the sea, carrying two conch shells in her hand, like a sea goddess first stepping on land.

Honey’s white bikini is the stuff of legend. Perhaps no single person deserves more credit than Andress for ensuring the success of that fashion staple. Honey Ryder’s appearance is more than an character’s entrance. It’s primal; she steps onto clean sand from a clear sea like it’s the first day of creation, and she is surveying the world.

But Honey is not a goddess, of course. What’s she doing on Crab Key the death island? She’s hunting those conch shells. Some can sell for $50 in Miami, and no one else has the guts to swim around that island. Honey has hidden her skiff among palm leaves like Bond and Quarrel did the night before. She explains that the bad guys know she’s there, but they’ve never caught her and stopped trying. Well, Bond informs her, they’ll try today.

Honey knows about the radar on the island and that it can spot her boat’s sail. That’s spy-level knowledge right there. She also knows the island, and Bond is completely at her mercy for most of the day. She knows a hiding place within the island and knows that the best way there is to trudge up a creek.

Bond asks her why they must do that. She tells him it will throw the dogs off the scent, which it does. Later, as mosquitoes eat Bond alive, she tells him that they are after the salt on his arms. If he washed it off with the fresh water they’d stop biting him.

So yeah, she’s a smart cookie, and not afraid. She believes Dr. No killed her father, and that doesn’t stop her from revisiting the island. Her only education came from reading the encyclopedia. She was up to “T” and claims “I bet I know a lot more things than you do.” You have to admire the spunk on this Bond Girl. She even used a black widow to kill her landlord after he raped her.

Quarrel is the king of Jamaica, excepting the Brits.

He lone bad character thing is that she believes in the legend of Crab Key’s dragon. When Bond chastises her, she asks him, “Did you ever see a mongoose dance?” Some things you can’t believe are real.

Unfortunately Honey takes a back seat after her capture and stay in Dr. No’s lair. We don’t see her for a while after the dinner scene, when Bond finds her chained to a rock awaiting drowning.

If you can get past the amazing image of Andress in that white bikini, you’ll find a solid sidekick who’s underutilized in the final scenes.

There’s some other guys helping Bond out. CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) appears. He easily gets the jump on Bond in a Jamaican restaurant. He also wears ladies’ sunglasses, so you know he’s confident.

It’s Hawaii Five-0!

My money’s on local boat captain Quarrel. This guy has the best bang for his buck. His bug eyes are enough to make any woke viewer cringe. He had some solid lines though. Being evasive, he tells Bond, “I like people who’s friends of people.” He’s ready to break the arm of the freelance photographer. Bond tells him, “another time.” He fades to background after this, until he’s burned to death by the dragon car on Crab Key.

Henchmen (4/8)

Dr. No doesn’t appear onscreen for more than an hour, so it’s up to some other guys to carry out his dirty work. Chief among them is Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson), a geologist and member of Strangways’s bridge posse of white boys at the club.

Dent might be a good geologist, but he’s a terrible villain. He gives himself away the first moment he meets Bond, when he discusses how awesome Strangways’s new secretary is. Later, Bond goes to visit him about some rock samples he tested for the recently departed. He says they were just rocks. Too bad for him, Bond brought a Geiger counter and tested Quarrel’s boat, finding radiation.

The new secretary, Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), lures Bond to her hillside house, hoping he’ll be murdered along the way. When she answers a knock at her door and finds Bond there, she’s surprised, and a little excited.

After Taro and Bond do their thing, Bond has Taro arrested and waits for the assassin he knows will come. He’s surprised to find Dent as the trigger man. Bond patiently waits for the professor to make his move. Dent sticks his gun in the doorway of the bedroom and fires six shots into the bed, thinking he’s killed Taro.

The new babe secretary

Dent enters the room. Bond holds him at gun point casually. Dent makes a move with his gun and pulls the trigger, finds it empty. Bond knows what kind of gun Dent carries. “You’ve had your six,” he says before killing him.

Stunts (1/6)

Again, there’s little here. The best part easily is the dragon car. Why did Dr. No create such a machine? Did he want to create a legend for Crab Key? He certainly did so.

Might be a dragon, might be a car modified to spit fire.

Climax (3/6)

After Bond escapes his prison cell, after he’s washed with seawater, after he knocks out a guy and steals his decontamination suit, he enters Dr. No’s operations center, where he finds the space clean, brightly lit, and enormous.

Some guys are doing nuclear stuff. Dr. No is at a control center watching the launch prep from Florida. All the people wear plastic suits, making them look like inflatable mascots.

Nuclear control room.

Dr. No gets a sit rep from his top scientists. Bond has taken the place of Chang, who is supposed to man the fuel elements station. Dr. No shouts at him and sends him there. Bond scurries up a ladder to the primary reactor, a bunch of uranium or plutonium rods dipped in a bath. There’s a big wheel on the side panel and a bar measuring the danger level. That’s where Bond stands. And gets an idea.

Four minutes to launch in Florida. Dr. No orders the radio disruptor beam to aim at the rocket’s path.

Bond turns the reactor control wheel past the danger level of 25 and all the way to 50. He fights with the actual control guy, who tries to hit the emergency stop. I was surprised to see such safety features in a villain’s lair. Even the most evil people can look out for employee safety.

Once the reactor is too hot, all the employees scatter. These are scientists, not goons. Dr. No is the only one to run toward the trouble. Meanwhile, the rocket launches with no one to disrupt it.

Dr. No reaches Bond and attacks with his powerful, gold-crushing hands. Bond throws him into the control panel, breaking some glass. Could be dangerous, whatever’s been exposed. Seems like everything in this room is dangerous.

Dr. No knocks Bond onto the top of the reactor elevator, and Bond drags Dr. No with him. They are feet above the radioactive, superheated water. Bond gets away from Dr. No’s grip and climbs the superstructure. The camera focuses on Dr. No’s hands, which cannot grip his way out of the hot water. That suit won’t save you.

It’s getting hot in the room, and Bond escapes it last. The rocket flies away. Bond runs away as everyone is fleeing the station. Bond enters his hotel room from the previous night and doesn’t find Honey. He punches out a guy for not knowing where she is.

Bond eventually find Honey shackled to a rock. The tide is coming in, and Dr. No planned to drown her very slowly.

The pair escapes and find two guys untying a boat. Bond beats them both and they get away just as the radio satellite dish explodes. Then the entire base goes up in black smoke.

Cut to the boat. They are out of fuel and adrift. Honey’s legs and dress look perfect, as if nothing has happened to her. Bond orders her to descend to him. That’s three notches for James Bond’s belt.

Jokes (1/4)

Bond gets a couple one-liners in. After a chase car explodes down a hillside, Bond speaks with a construction worker, who asks him how it happened that a car drove down a hill and exploded. “I think they were on their way to a funeral,” he says.

Honey Ryder comes out of the ocean and asks if Bond is looking, like her, for conch shells. “No, just looking,” he says.

These aren’t pointed barbs we’ll see later in series. They feel like ad libs. That’s OK.

***

It’s impossible to watch Dr. No and not recall Austin Powers. That movie is a spoof on the Bond series, but it draws many elements from Dr. No. The conveyor belt shower scene Powers uses after his cryogenic thaw is cribbed from the decontamination scene. The entire ending is a tribute to Dr. No’s control room, complete with the countdown guy overly dedicated to his role of counting down amidst chaos and the villain wearing a clear plastic suit.

Having seen Austin Powers several times, I smiled more times during Dr. No than the filmmakers intended. That doesn’t hurt the movie.

Setting (4/4)

Man, you can’t beat Jamaica, right? Ian Fleming had the right idea when he moved there. The clubs and hotels of the island look enticing, but Dr. No kicks off greatness when Bond travels to Crab Key.

Filming occurred yards from Fleming’s Goldeneye estate, from which the author would pop over to see how filming was going. It went great (though Fleming apparently wasn’t a fan).

Bond and company spend a night on the island, out in the open, and a day avoiding Dr. No’s goons in the streams. What a place to spend the day!

First, Bond and Quarrel arrive on the island beside a babbling brook discharging its water from rapids directly to the sea. Tidal streams flow behind a sand bar high enough to protect someone hiding from a machine gun barrage.

After dodging that attack, they wade through a clear, waist-high creek to mask their scent from dogs. Bond complains about the mosquitoes, easily the most realistic statement about tropical lands ever depicted in the franchise, or in cinema in total. Honey womansplains that they are only after the salt on his arms. If he’d wash, he’d be better off.

The fake bauxite mine was an actual bauxite mine.

After a dangerous moment dodging dogs and guards using the old reed-as-snorkel trick prefected in cartoons, the trio retreat to a hiding place Honey knows. Turns out that place is a gorgeous waterfall cascading over white terraces.

Danger + paradise = a successful Bond location. We don’t get all the Bond elements in Dr. No, but they nailed this one.

Dr. No’s bauxite mine front was an actual bauxite mine.

Commentary (0/2)

Dr. No is a member of SPECTRE, a highly organized criminal organization that is not the Mafia. The filmmakers chose to not wade into the Cold War. The Americans are launching rockets (a Cold War political weapon), but that fact is not remarked upon. The producers engaged in some cinematic world building long before that was cool.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Ursula Andress in a bikini. I don’t know what to say about this one.

Others

  • At London’s Le Cercle hotel, characters speak French without subtitles.
  • Not above product placement, you can spot Quarrel resting on several empty boxes of Red Stripe.

Summary (32/68): 47%

The first James Bond movie might be more accurately called proto-Bond. Bond receives his standard vodka martini, but it’s the waiter who says the order onscreen. Bond is there, saving the world, but he’s not JAMES BOND yet.

Let’s be thankful for that. Were this the gadget-stuffed, action extravaganzas of the future the series might have ended at one entry. Then again, maybe not. Dr. No is breath of fresh, Caribbean air after two decades of dour film noir detectives. Bond is dashing, funny, and carefree. The women are as stunning as the locations, and the villains are over-the-top, easy to hate.