Viking Night: Dr. No
By Bruce Hall
November 30, 2017
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the Bond franchise began to take notice of itself. For most of that decade, the series had decayed into a steaming heap of morbid self parody. The things that made it great (lots of gags, gadgets and girls) had come to look silly, and the things that made it terrible (too many gags, gadgets, girls) just...stayed terrible. I remember walking out of A View to a Kill feeling like I was doing a perp walk.
What if someone found out I’d voluntarily watched Roger Moore’s feeble husk barely fill out a suit as he struggled up the Golden Gate Bridge, in between attempts to bang confused looking women barely half his age?
It’s definitely been an up and down ride for the series, and it’s fair to say that out of the 26 Bond movies so far, twelve of them have been terrible. And out of those five are unwatchable, one is just sad, and another is so racist it’s making me itch right now just thinking about it. That might not sound like much of a track record, but that leaves 14 good films, many of which are great and a precious few are outright classics. And for the most part, six different guys have done a pretty good job portraying the world’s most famous secret agent.
Which of course is really stupid, when you think about it. A lot of things about Bond are stupid, and I’m not even talking about the occasional casual racism and rampant misogyny that peppers the franchise. A lot of things about Bond are great too. If you like it when the good guy crawls through air ducts on his way to neck-snap the villain, you can thank Bond for that. Also, if you like movies where the hero drives a stupid invisible car that’s the dumbest and worst thing ever, Her Majesty’s Secret Service has got you covered on that too.
So while I realize I am not exactly breaking new ground with this, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the first (and in one case, only) chapter of each actor’s Bond saga with the question in mind - is any of this still relevant? Well believe it or not, nobody in America wanted to make the first Bond movie. Apparently, Yankees would never accept a foreign hero in an action movie. The day after it opened, everyone who said it wouldn’t work must have jumped into the sea, because they could not be found.
But that is another story.
Today, Dr. No remains a solid thriller. Not quite as exciting to watch as it was when I was a child, but solid nonetheless. And being the first in a series, Dr. No is by definition the only Bond film not to have the burden of its predecessors to contend with. That’s the film equivalent of a rare archaeological find. As such, like a T-Rex with four arms, Dr. No is physically incapable of overreaching while being simultaneously as badass as any other lizard.
Hmmm. I’m not entirely sure that makes sense, but I’m leaving it in because I’m sure you know what I mean.
I’m sure I’ve at least alluded to how Dr. No has the luxury of being able to establish most of the familiar Bond tropes without also having to succumb to them. It’s no surprise then, that the story begins with a British agent in Jamaica being ambushed and murdered, along with his secretary. It’s a brazen act, committed by a mysterious foe. Just by coincidence, the United States is launching top secret space missions from Cape Canaveral, just a few hundred miles away. And the last few launches have gone awry, thanks to mysterious signals coming from the very same island. James Bond (Sean Connery) is dispatched to Jamaica to investigate.
Strangely, he is under almost constant assault by a curiously passive-aggressive string of assassins from the moment he steps off the plane. Upon further investigation, Bond discovers that the missing British agents can be tied to a mysterious “Chinese Businessman” Called Dr. No who runs a very unusual mining operation not too far from where the Americans say the interference signals have been traced.
Okay, fine. Let’s not pretend anyone has ever admired Ian Fleming’s books or the James Bond movies entirely for their storytelling acumen. Dr. No the movie suffers from many of the same issues that would plague the later installments. Bond’s cover is blown immediately, to the point where almost everyone knows exactly who he is wherever he goes. People who are assigned to kill him attempt to do so but in a variety of elaborate ways, none of which involve simply “killing him”. If you can sneak into James Bond’s room to plant a poisonous spider, you can sneak into his room to shoot him in the face while he’s sleeping.
On the feminist front Connery gets around a bit, but I’ll put Dr. No at the low end of the Sexism Spectrum. The most prominent female character is Honey Rider (Ursula Andress), an Island girl who spends her time hunting seashells, and gets mixed up in Bond’s private little war. She’s not portrayed as being that bright, but she’s physically fit and wily in the way one can only be when they’ve been forced to rely entirely on themselves. I can imagine her being the only survivor in a gritty, gender-sensitive reboot of Lord of the Flies.
Dr. No himself is played by the inimitable Joseph Wiseman, who is physically on screen for seemingly five minutes as the film’s eponymous villain. I’m fairly sure it’s more than that, and if it’s not it definitely feels so. The first half of the movie is dominated by just about anyone who appears onscreen mentioning how terrified they are of the mysterious Doctor and his henchmen. The story does such a great job of setting this up that when Wiseman finally appears, all the notably intimidating actor had to do was let his natural ability take over.
The rest is done with clever camera work and sleight of hand. Dr. No’s legendary lair is nothing more than an unremarkable bauxite mining facility that I believe is still in operation today. But you let some people run around on top of it, throw in some smoke, intercut with some strategic miniature shots, and everyone will be too busy to notice as Mr. Connery’s chest hair punches its way across the screen. In fact, set designer Ken Adam famously made do with an astonishingly small budget in order to create an iconic look and feel that dominated the franchise throughout the Sixties.
Connery’s personal portrayal of Bond is perhaps the most subdued we’ll see him throughout his run. Dr. No represents one of only a few times we’ve seen Bond genuinely frightened, and the aforementioned (and now seemingly quaint) scene when Bond confronts his would-be eight-legged assassin is one of the most telling moments in the franchise. But although Connery himself would emerge as the series’ greatest icon, Wiseman is the star of this particular show.
Were it not for his sinister acumen, a well constructed (if primitive) story designed to highlight him, and the benefit of this being a testosterone driven action picture, we might never have seen James Bond again. Thankfully, Dr. No successfully captures what Fleming’s novels did, and what not enough of the subsequent movies managed. It’s quality, escapist entertainment with just enough of the real world thrown in to provide a point of reference. And while it doesn’t all come together seamlessly, it still comes together successfully.
And it would only get better from there. Until it didn’t.