Dr. No (1962) – The 1st James Bond Film; The 1st (of 6) Sean Connery Films – Directed by Terence Young – Starring Sean Connery, Joseph Wiseman, Ursula Andress, Jack Lord, John Kitzmiller, Lois Maxwell, and Bernard Lee.
I remember hearing John Paul Jones talk about the first time Led Zeppelin played “Stairway to Heaven” onstage, and saying something like, “It wasn’t a magical moment. People were bored. They wanted to hear ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and the stuff they knew.” I bring this up because while DR. NO is a good film, it’s not immediately apparent that this is the film that will launch one of the longest running cinematic franchises. Had they never made another James Bond after DR. NO, I would have been disappointed to not see Sean Connery’s Bond again, but I wouldn’t have been hugely surprised. Certainly, there’s a fantastic character sitting at the center of NO, but Connery’s Bond is stuck in a slow-moving story with a weak villain and limited action.
That sounds harsh, but it isn’t meant to be an indictment of DR. NO as a two-hour box of popcorn for you to enjoy, but rather in the context of the weight of the franchise that follows. If DR. NO wasn’t first, it might well be known as “the one with Ursula Andress and the guy from Hawaii Five-O.” The plot is a little too step-by-step, and it has the feel of something like a police procedural more than an espionage film. Combine this with what looks like a very limited budget, and a case of location stasis that has them trapped in one very ordinary looking place for the bulk of the film, and DR. NO comes off as being good without being spectacular.
What holds it all together is Connery.
In watching DR. NO back-to-back with QUANTUM OF SOLACE, the most immediate difference is the pacing, of course, but the most important difference is between Sean Connery and Daniel Craig; where Craig’s Bond wears his clothes “with disdain,” in Vesper Lynd’s words, Connery’s Bond wears them as if they are a natural extension of his own skin.
More than any of the Bonds that follow, it’s Connery who gets endlessly saluted as the quintessential Bond, and it’s this way he wears his clothes – meaning, really, the way he inhabits this role – that creates this sainted status, I believe. Connery goes first and Connery does GOLDFINGER. Whatever Connery puts into Bond is what people want to see in Bond. End of story to a good many people.
It’s a shame. Not because Connery isn’t great, but because all of the men who’ve played Bond have something to add to the role. It’s also a shame because – for all the slag tossed at the films that follow Connery’s run – Connery has his share of ridiculous clunkers, too.
But we’ll get to those in course. For now, it’s DR. NO, which means it’s Connery and his interpretation of the character.
And while that’s the charm of DR. NO (Connery plays everything with an assured confidence of having been here and done this all a hundred times before) that’s also part of the problem – Connery is so smooth and so assured that DR. NO comes off as James Bond on vacation more than James Bond facing down an international threat to the United States space program. Bond admits to Honey Rider that he’s nervous, too, at one point but when the villain’s big personal attack comes in the form of him drugging them before dinner … let’s just say there’s not a lot of tension in the movie.
Bond is sent to Jamaica when a British operative is killed by “the Three Blind Mice,” a group of assassins who pretend to be blind and then kill you. In Jamaica Bond quickly uncovers that one of the operatives pals is working for the bad guy, who’s holed up on the one island where no one wants to go. I suppose that everyone’s insistence to not go there is supposed to make Bond look bad-ass, but it really just makes him look like the only guy in the room willing to admit that, yes, there is an elephant standing in the middle of your living room.
The most interesting part of the movie is when Bond catches a secretary who works in Government House listening in on his conversation. Instead of accusing her of being a spy, Bond flirts with her and tells her she should show him the island. They make arrangements to meet later at Miss Taro’s place. On the way there, some of Dr. No’s henchmen try to kill him, but fail. (You knew that, because there’s 21 more of these movies already made.) Bond arrives at Taro’s house and she’s surprised to see him; she phones her bosses, who tell her to keep Bond there for a few hours. What’s a couple of secret agents to do with a couple hours?
Bond and Taro decide to have sex, of course, and good for them. This is Connery’s Bond at his manipulative best; when they’re finished he phones for a taxi, which ends up being Bond’s allies coming to pick her up and take her in. Honestly, shagging a spy and then turning her over to the authorities in the morning is pretty darn bad ass; it’s pretty darn Bond. With the woman removed, Bond then moves through the apartment, making it look like he and Taro had spent the night having drinks in the main room before moving into the bedroom, and then he waits for his assassin to come.
When the assassin, Dr. Dent, comes to kill him, he shoots the lump in the bed that looks like a human body and then Bond casually confronts him from his chair behind the door. Bond is completely casual about the affair and when Dent recaptures his gun to shoot him, he doesn’t even flinch as the gun goes “click” instead of “bang.”
“That’s a Smith & Wesson,” Bond says pivoting from charming to deadly, “and you’ve had your six.” Bond kills him.
What works about the scene is that it finally makes the film look like it’s operating on a different level. This isn’t a cop show; there isn’t any real rules for how Bond operates. He has a mission and the mission needs to be completed, whatever means necessary, and his seduction of Taro to “kill time” while he waits for his assassin to arrive demonstrates this wonderfully. Taro sets him up, so he uses her to get the assassin to reveal himself, perfectly content to use himself as bait.
Always thinking, Connery’s Bond always seems several steps ahead of his opponent and, at times, the viewer. This version of Bond sees espionage as a big game of chess, a thinking man’s game more than anything else, and that makes DR. NO a good film, if not a legendary one.