Friday, August 19, 2011

Dr. No (1962)

Dr. No started the longest running franchise in movie history. It’s hard to step back and imagine seeing the movie for the first time, without ever knowing James Bond. So sitting down with Dr. No pits it against some serious expectations. But if you come at this film with a bit of history on your mind, you’ll find a very enjoyable sample of spy cinema in the early ‘60s.

After a British secret agent and his secretary are ruthlessly killed in Jamaica, Head of the British Secret Service, M (Bernard Lee) dispatches his best agent, James Bond (Sean Connery) to investigate. It seems that something mysterious is happening on Crab Key Island. Anyone who comes snooping around ends up dead. CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) suspects the infamous Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman). As Bond investigates with the help of Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) and the lovely Honey Rider (Ursula Andress), he uncovers a plot to topple American rockets. Will he be able to stop it before it’s too late, or will Dr. No silence him first?

Good Points:
  • Sean Connery makes it his movie.
  • The settings in Jamaica and in Ken Adam’s sets are excellent.
  • The movie serves as a good introduction to the world of James Bond.
Bad Points:
  • Plays much more like a conventional thriller than a super spy film.
  • James Bond is the most fleshed out character.
  • Some of the visual effects are not convincing.
Viewed in comparison to its brothers Dr. No is an average James Bond adventure. Sean Connery’s acting and Terrance Young’s polished direction make the film work. While it’s an entertaining watch, it really serves as a starting point. The Bond movies of the ‘60s got better after this one, but it’s great to see the film that started it all.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 3
Total: 3

In Depth Review

Dr. No is a tough film to review. I’m struggling to find the right perspective on it. Should I judge it against the other films of the MGM Bond series? Should I view it as the first of the series, and accept its limitations? I chose a balance between the two. I comparing it to the other films with the understanding that compared to the high tech visuals of The World is Not Enough, Dr. No was going to look primitive. But film basics can be judged easily enough.

The amazing thing about Dr. No is that you can see all the elements of the Bond formula being started here. The visuals are no exception. Location work takes place almost entirely in Jamaica, highlighting some of the most breath taking and visually exciting spots on the Caribbean island. Especially noteworthy are the Crab Key locations. The wonderful waterfalls that cascade down the beach are simply beautiful.

Luckily for the creators of the film Ken Adam was on hand to create his sets. Right from the beginning he presents a mixture of ultra-modern with larger than life visuals. The results have been sets that stand out in your mind (most obvious with his work on Fort Knox in Goldfinger and the volcano base in You Only Live Twice). Here he creates the casino in which we are introduced to Bond. It has the perfect mix of elegance and opulence that you expect in a Bond film. Perhaps the most memorable set from the film is Dr. No’s apartment. It set the standard for the look of a villain’s lair. His control room (where he faces off against Bond) is filled with screens, chrome metal, glowing lights and a huge illuminated globe.

As nifty as these sets are, one always stands out to me whenever I see it. It’s the room where Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) reports to Dr. No. It’s a large, round room with a grid skylight that forms an interesting web like shadow on the wall. There is a single chair on one side of the room where Dent is interrogated. On the other side is the table with the poisonous spider. This single image of Professor Dent in this cold and dangerous room always enters my mind when someone mentions Dr. No.

Unfortunately modern audiences are going to find some faults in the film. Most of this comes from the dated effects work. The worst offender is the rear projection used in the car chase. It’s so fake looking that I felt bad for Sean having to react to the silliness as if he was in real danger. The other element is the “dragon” that appears in the film. It just looks out of place in what is mostly a gritty thriller. Maybe in a later Roger Moore film it would have worked. It always surprises me when that “dragon” shows up. I keep blocking that part out.

The sound work for the most part it’s really good. This is a Bond movie so the explosions, hand to hand battles and bullets should sound good. Dr. No starts the fine Bond tradition of having the villain’s lair explode at the end of the movie. As far as explosions go, this is a good one. There are a few minus points though. Obviously the sound work is a bit dated, and lacks the clarity and crispness of later films. Also there is a strange… I don’t know… groovy sound effect when Bond is inside the air ducts attempting to escape from Dr. No’s cell. It’s a weird moment. I’m also not crazy for the music box sound effect for the gunbarrel sequence. This odd tinkling sound effect is dropped for the familiar gunbarrel music in From Russia With Love.

That brings me to the score. There are two key elements to the music of Dr. No. One is the use of Jamaican bands and songs. The most used song is “Underneath the Mango Tree”. Memorably, Honey Rider sings it when she first appears. It also finds its way into the score, popping up here and there, especially when Bond is interacting with the gals. There’s also the infectious “Jump Up” song played at the bar scene.

But the real stand out is Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme. It is used for the opening titles and makes an immediate impression. According to what I’ve pieced together (and I could be wrong), Monty Norman actually recycled a song he had written for a musical into the James Bond theme. He gave the piece to John Barry who orchestrated it into the theme we know today. There has been much argument over who really wrote the James Bond theme. In a way it’s telling that John Barry was asked back to work on the James Bond film scores in From Russia with Love and beyond. Monty Norman gets song credit. With that said, the James Bond theme is used a lot in this movie: too much. It seems to be the only bit of music that they really had on hand for the action scenes. But compared to the fully scored films (and John Barry’s work in particular) the music is only average for a Bond movie. But that theme is really something else.

Dr. No is probably the most James Bond centric of the early Bond films. The movie falls almost completely on Connery’s shoulders and he is up to the task. His introduction in the casino is classic. You understand just about everything you need to know about him in that scene and the way he plays against Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson). As the film continues you learn more and more about Bond. With the final confrontation with Dent, we have the completely fleshed out character of James Bond. Then it’s off to Crab Key for the adventure part of the story.

Connery is suave and cool with an undercurrent of intensity. At this point Bond wasn’t the superman he would evolve into, so there is fear and anger in his performance, especially after Dr. No captures him. Connery is solid as Bond in his first time out and he would improve in each film, reaching the definitive portrayal in Goldfinger. That third film adds to the performance is a layer of supreme confidence that would be taken to ridiculous extremes by the time You Only Live Twice rolled around. Here James Bond is more realistic, more gritty and more believable. Does he capture the role as presented in the books? Not really. Timothy Dalton really nailed that aspect of the character, turning James Bond into a brooding agent who was very good at his job, but held a darkness within him. Connery never seems to capture that darkness. But the scripts don’t really call for that. It’s interesting to compare the performance of Bond in this film with 2006 reboot, Casino Royale. There are many similarities. The main difference is that the newer film has a script that puts Bond through his paces, something that Connery never really enjoyed.

In most James Bond films, the main three performances are James Bond, the main Villain and the love interest. In Dr. No, James Bond overshadows everyone else. He is given the most screen time and the most fleshed out part. This renders even the key parts of villain and love interest as more of a supporting role than anything else.

With little to do but look sexy and follow Bond around Ursula Andress does the best she can with the part of Honey Rider. She’s merely the beautiful woman that Bond encounters, saves and ends up with at the end. The movie can be sliced into thirds and each third has a Bond girl in it. Andress just happens to be the one at the end of the film and gets the title of Bond Girl. She’s good, but far from the best of the ‘60s. Her iconic walking out of the sea still has a great impact, but after that, she’s little more than eye candy.

Joseph Wiseman makes Dr. No as interesting and menacing as possible for such an underwritten part. Wiseman’s screen presence is undeniable. The best dialogue in the film is the banter with Bond during the dinner scene. Wiseman also set the standard for the cultured, calm and dangerous villain that would be associated with Bond. It’s a shame that he wasn’t introduced in a later film where his character could have really been explored and probably yielded a greater performance. He remains memorable as a villain, but in the long line he gets overshadowed.

Bond’s supporting team in London makes their first appearance here. Bernard Lee establishes M right off the bat. He plays the part with a crisp no nonsense fashion. He is very much a soldier, one who knows the job, and sends his best man to get it done. Lois Maxwell also nails the part of Miss Moneypenny. Her banter with Bond is classic stuff and set the example for all her future appearances (up to 1985’s A View to a Kill). Rounding out the cast is Peter Burton as Major Boothroyd. In his only appearance in the Q part he does a solid job. The part is very dry and wouldn’t be spiced up until Goldfinger with a stellar performance by Desmond Llewelyn.

Filling out keys roles in the supporting cast are a capable Jack Lord as Felix Leiter. He’s good, but not particularly stand out. Of the ‘60s actors who played the role, he’s probably the best one. Anthony Dawson is very good as the dangerous Professor Dent. John Kitzmiller gets a fairly good role as Quarrel. It’s a bit condescending now (the poor islander superstitious about the cursed island) but he plays the part well enough that you feel bad when Quarrel meets his fate.

For the women you get two more good parts. Eunice Gayson is the playful gambler Sylvia Trench. Her repartees with Bond in the Casino, as well as her brief scene in his flat are great character moments. She also returned in From Russia with Love. For the part of the femme fatale, you get Zena Marshall as Miss Taro. She mixes sex appeal and cunning. You know she’s up to something and it provides another test for Bond to pass.

Finally I have to acknowledge director Terrance Young. According to many, Young was responsible for so much of the look and feel of Dr. No, that the James Bond franchise really owes him an enormous debt. He polished Sean Connery’s performance, giving him the smoothness to hide the rugged survivor underneath. He gave the dialogue a little flair, adding bits about the champagne, the clothes, even the cigarettes used by the characters in the film. Most of all he crafted a movie that had all the adventure, sex appeal, danger and fun that the producers wanted. My only issue with Young’s work on the film is the pacing. Part of this is the exposition heavy first half of the script, but part of it is just how Young paced his films. The next two Bond films he worked on From Russia with Love and Thunderball have the same problems. They slow down quite a bit around the exposition, but work very well in character driven or action driven scenes. I must say that the James Bond films of Terrance Young are superior to the most of the following Bond films with the exception of Peter Hunt ‘s work in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Obviously I enjoyed Dr. No. Some of it come from seeing how the Bond franchise started and knowing where it’s gone and where it is. But beyond all that, it’s an entertaining film. It has James Bond as a spy in a thriller. It’s got a danger to it that would carry over into the next film. It’s a refreshing change from some of the more comic book-like adventures that followed.


  1. The first in a series often suffers at the hands of a successful sequel. Example: I like all 5 of the sequels to The Thin Man better than The Thin Man. Yet, I can't imagine the series without that first one setting the tone.

    As you say, no one had any idea James Bond would be such a successful moviehouse mainstay, so in Dr. No there are skimps and crimps more suitable for, say, a Mike Hammer movie -- though I like Kiss me Deadly (1955). Still, all the elements of the "Bond Film" are there, and no true fan of the series would want to miss where it all started.

    By the way, while I understand the reasons for the security precautions against spammers and hackers, the hoop jumps before you can comment on a blogger site (sign out, now sign in but uncheck the "stay signed in box," wait! do the captcha) is a pain in the posterior.

  2. Interesting you say that about "The Thin Man". I think the second film is my favorite, definitely moves a little better than the first and gets to play around in their world a bit more. In a way it reminds me of "Tarzan the Ape Man" and "Tarzan and His Mate" that way. But after the second Thin Man movie they started to lose me. Never cottoned on to the kid.

    I agree with the comment security too. Its pretty annoying and the main reason why I try to do all my blog reading and posting on one day when I've got time to just stay logged in. :)

  3. Classic films of all time. nice movies