RETRO REVIEW: Dr. No (1962)

Sean Connery as James Bond in Dr. No — Photo: United Artists / Eon Productions.

Directed by Terence Young — Screenplay by Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkely Mather.

Though it makes references to other Bond stories, Terence Young’s Dr. No was the very first James Bond film. With a small budget of just $1 million, Terence Young created many of the cinematic trademarks we know the franchise for. Like, the gun-barrel introduction, the iconic theme, the MI6 cast of characters, or SPECTRE. And, of course, it also features Sean Connery, one of the most iconic James Bond-actors. Looking at it today in 2021, Dr. No does seem a tad dated, and it definitely looks like a small-budget Bond film. However, it is a solid introduction to a now-iconic cinematic character.

In Terence Young’s Dr. No, which is, of course, based on the Ian Fleming novel of the same name, Agent 007 (played by Sean Connery) is sent on a mission to Jamaica to investigate the sudden disappearance of a British MI6 Station Chief. On the mission, Bond meets CIA agent Felix Leiter (played by Jack Lord) and the white bikini-clad Honey Ryder (played by Ursula Andress, and voiced by Nikki van der Zyl), who are both famous supporting characters in the novels and films. While in Jamaica, Bond battles both a frightening tarantula and a flamethrower-equipped tank. But, eventually, James Bond has to go toe-to-toe with Dr. No (played by Joseph Wiseman), a criminal scientist from the organization known as SPECTRE.

It has been many years since I last saw Dr. No. I marathoned all of the films with my father when I was younger, and, while rewatching it, I did recognize plenty of scenes in the film. But I, frankly, didn’t remember the plot of this film at all. On this rewatch, I was particularly impressed by how successfully they introduced James Bond and his universe to the world. For some reason, they didn’t start off with the first novel, but the filmmakers confidently communicate everything we need to know about the character. Although the film’s opening is odd and cheap-looking, the main character’s introduction is splendid.

They clearly knew they were working with a special character here. They are as patient as they could be with his reveal, and it is just exceptional. The theme kickstarts right when Connery’s face is seen for the first time, and it is actually a really enjoyable moment. Generally, it is quite impressive how effortlessly Sean Connery slips into the role without breaking a sweat. Though the film is not remembered for its performances, Connery does a very good job here.

On top of this, it is amazing how many of the cinematic elements for which we know the franchise originate in this film. Dr. No proudly plays Monty Norman’s theme music over and over again, and the film, as mentioned, opens with the iconic gun-barrel shot. Admittedly, they play the theme music too much for my liking, but you can’t really blame them for sticking to it repeatedly.

These films are often remembered for their villains, their ‘Bond-girls,’ and their action. Though the villain in Dr. No is the titular character, he is, for most of the film, a character operating outside of the frame. You don’t really get a good understanding of him until the final act of the film. Joseph Wiseman plays him as a stiff but confident antagonist, but, in spite of his prosthetic hands, I don’t think he is very memorable.

Ironically, the titular character’s best scene only includes his voice. In the scene in question, Professor Dent (played by Anthony Dawson) is being reprimanded and commanded by Dr. No’s voice. We slowly pan towards Dent as the titular character gives his orders, and the scene ends with Dent having to handle a small cage containing a spider. The filmmakers did a good job of building up some tension, but, ultimately, I don’t think the Dr. No-reveal lives up to this scene.

This film introduced us to Honey Ryder, and her introduction (walking onto a beach while wearing a white bikini) is quite iconic. But I don’t think she is a memorable character at all. So what I think we are ultimately given in Dr. No are supporting characters that have iconic looks but which are, frankly, subpar characters.

With the villain and the Bond-girl out of the way, we now have to talk about the action, of which there really isn’t much to write home about. The fact of the matter is that Dr. No is surprisingly slow. There are a couple of car chase sequences, but the most memorable ‘fight scene’ in the film is the one where a frightened James Bond tries to kill a tarantula. Unfortunately, although it is a little bit creepy, it is very obvious how they shot it, and it, like many of the scenes in the film, looks dated.

Were it not for the fact that this is the first James Bond-film, Terence Young’s Dr. No would probably not be remembered as fondly as it sometimes is. Its small budget only makes it appear more dated than your average Bond-film. But, be that as it may, with Dr. No Terence Young did a competent job of crafting the cinematic legacy of James Bond. It is by no means the most exciting entry in the franchise, but it succeeded in introducing us to franchise elements we now know and love.

6 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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