Movie Review: 'Dr. No"

Dr. No (1962)

Written by: Berkeley Mather, Johanna Harwood, and Richard Maibaum. Based on Ian Fleming's novel Dr. No

Directed by: Terence Young

Starring: Sean Connery, Joseph Wiseman, Bernard Lee, Jack Lord, Ursula Andress, Lois Maxwell

In October of 1962, shortly before the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis, United Artists released Dr. No, the first motion picture adaptation of a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. Produced by Harry Saltzman and Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli and directed by Terence Young, Dr. No introduced the world's best-known intelligence officer in a modestly-budgeted and comparatively low-key story pitting Bond (Sean Connery) against an enigmatic Chinese-German operative named Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) who is sabotaging America's Project Mercury by using a powerful radio signal transmitted from his Caribbean island lair.

[James Bond's first scene, winning a game of chemin-de-fer]
James Bond: I admire your courage, Miss ...?
Sylvia Trench: Trench. Sylvia Trench. I admire your luck, Mr. ...?
James Bond: Bond. James Bond.

Because Dr. No screenwriters Berkeley Mather, Johanna Harwood, and Richard Maibaum stick to the basics of Fleming's novel, the film focuses more on the gritty nature of Bond's escapades as one of MI6's 00 agents - officers with a special license to kill in the line of duty - than on spectacle and gadgets that became staples of the franchise. Nevertheless, most of the elements present in the 24-film series - exotic locales, Bond's sardonic quips, car chases. colorful villains/henchmen/Bond helpers, and sexy women - make their motion picture debut in Dr. No. 

The movie begins with the murders of MI6 Jamaica Station Chief John Strangways (Timothy Moxon) and his assistant Mary (Dolores Keator) by assassins masquerading as blind men (the "Three Blind Mice" guys seen in the title sequence). The killers rifle through Strangways file cabinets and remove two folders, labeled Dr. No and Crab Key. When Jamaica Station fails to complete its scheduled radio check-in, MI6 headquarters decides to send one of its 00 operatives to investigate the sudden loss of contact and disappearance of Strangways and his PA.

Secret Service M (Bernard Lee) decides to assign the mission to Commander James Bond, RNVR, a suave, cocky, yet cold-blooded agent who is fond of games of chance, fast cars, a gun, and women. In a nod to Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale, Bond is introduced in the midst of a high-stakes game of chemin-de-fer. at which he excels.

Here, we not only see him outwit and outplay other gamblers, but also witness his first onscreen seduction of a sexy girl with a Flemingesque name (Sylvia Trench, played by Eunice Gayson, history's first Bond Girl) and hear him utter the famous catchphrase "Bond. James Bond" for the first time.

After being briefed by the no-nonsense M and given a new gun (a Walther PPK) that he doesn't really like, Bond is off to Jamaica, where he meets with the CIA's liaison, Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and begins his investigation into Strangways' murder and the mysterious activities on the secluded island of Crab Key.

Along the way, Bond meets new enemies, a new ally named Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), and a new Bond Girl: Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress in a breakout role that also increased the popularity of white bikinis).

My Take

James Bond: I'm flattered. I'd prefer the Revenge Department. Of course, my first job would be finding the man who killed Strangways and Quarrel.

Dr. No was released in the U.S. on May 8, 1963, seven months and three days after its premiere in London. I was only two months old when Dr. No opened in London, and although it has been shown on TV many times since, I didn't see this first entry in the 57-year-old franchise in its entirety until I bought The James Bond Collection Blu-ray set last month.

At 109 minutes, Dr. No is one of the shortest movies in the James Bond series. It is also relatively faithful to Fleming's 1958 eponymous novel, keeping the basic premise but - in a bid to avoid adding more tension to the Cold War - changing Dr. No's association with the Soviet counterintelligence agency SMERSH to the non-affiliated terror organization known as SPECTRE  (SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). There are, of course, other divergences from the novel, such as changing Andress' character's name from Honeychile to Honey and adding Jack Lord's Felix Leiter as a supporting character, but writers Mather, Harwood, and Maibum keep things relatively low-key and simple. Other than updating the target of SPECTRE's scheme from unmanned rockets to the manned ones of Project Mercury and a few other details, the movie follows Fleming's book closer than most of EON's later Bond adventures.

I enjoyed watching Dr. No, even though I was not amused by its depiction of Strangways' Cayman Islander operative Quarrel. As written, the character played by U.S. actor Kitzmiller is a cartoonish stereotype of a black Caribbean island dweller. His superstitious fear of a "dragon" seems to be a case of an attempt to add comic relief to a movie that already has lots of humor added. Yes, an armored buggy with a flame thrower is frightening, but there have been cars in Jamaica for more than a century, and even in 1962 colonial times, Jamaicans are familiar with 20th Century technology. Even taking into account the times in which Dr. No was made, it's still a bit offputting for me.

Other than that, Dr. No is a fun action-adventure film that makes use of all of the available assets that its modest budget of S1.1 million could buy. The cast, led by the masculine-yet-graceful Scottish actor Sean Connery, brings Fleming's colorful literary characters to life, and producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman get their money's worth from a production team that includes composer Monty Norman, orchestrator John Barry, cinematographer Ted Moore, designer Ken Adam, title designer Maurice Binder, editor Peter Hunt, and director Terence Young.

Young had worked with Broccoli before on other movies made in Britain, including the World War II action thriller The Red Beret, so the producers brought him to work on Dr. No due to his skills as a director of action and suspense films. It was Young's insistence that the script include a light-hearted tone; Fleming's novel was one of the least-liked Bond stories because - to its contemporary critics, anyway - it had too much sex and violence for its times, and Young understood that if it was adapted in the same serious tone as its source, Dr. No would be a "miss" rather than a "hit" at the box office.

Miss Moneypenny: James! Where have you been? I've been searching all over London for you.

[picks up phone]

Miss Moneypenny: 007 is here, sir.

[slaps Bond's hand away from the papers on her desk]

James Bond: Moneypenny! What gives?

Miss Moneypenny: Me, given an ounce of encouragement. You've never taken me to dinner looking like this. You've never taken me to dinner...

James Bond: I would, you know, only "M" would have me court-martialed for... illegal use of government property.

Miss Moneypenny: Flattery will get you nowhere - but don't stop trying.