PG, despite what James Bond movies entail. This is the one that set the mold and added a whopping dose of racism to bat. While I'm kind of dismounting from the intensity of the Daniel Craig Bond movies, Dr. No has Sean Connery seducing women, killing people without remorse, gambling, smoking, and causing ecological disasters. And there also is the very uncomfortable line about Honey Ryder describing her rape which ends in a very uncomfortable joke. While tame for 2021, it still has stuff. PG.
DIRECTOR: Terence Young
Yeah, I finished the box set. What about it? I'm ready to sit down and watch No Time to Die, whenever that movie eventually exists. But am I really? See, I started watching the James Bond box set when it came out...for the 50th anniversary in 2012. I took a long break in there because I wanted to watch them all in my garage movie theater. But then I realized that people I know aren't exactly up for binging Bond movies like I am, so my Blu-rays sat on a shelf. But that also means that I hadn't watched those initial Connery movies in almost a decade. (Time flies when you are an adult.) So that also means that this blog only has Diamonds are Forever with a blog entry for it.
I have a confession that I'm kind of making to myself right now. I keep saying that I like Dr. No more than I really do. A lot of me excuses things because it was the first James Bond movie and I loved James Bond so much. It also is a Connery Bond, so saying anything against this sacred era of James Bond seems like a bit of sacrilege. But I'm going to be out with it: Dr. No is not a great Bond movie. Yes, it set up a lot of the tropes and formula that I would revere for film-after-film. But Dr. No itself...is only okay at best. The color scheme and the Blu-ray transfer are very appealing and bring me joy. But in terms of story structure and entertainment value, there really isn't a ton. I always tend to get bored pretty early. And part of that comes from the very muddy script happening here.
And part of me has to jump back in time to 1962. Before James Bond was a cinematic icon, he was literary controversy. It's so funny to think that the James Bond novels were the 1960s equivalent to Fifty Shades of Grey. It makes sense. Both Bond and Christian Grey are sadists (I think that was his name. Not trying to sound too defensive, but this book series never even had a blip on my radar). Bond was violent and sexual, which --at its base --is the basic problem that people have with Christian Grey. But, Tim, isn't Fifty Shades of Grey borderline pornographic? That's the same accusation that was thrown at Fleming's Bond. I've read all of Fleming's novel. Thanks to a very generous uncle who kept buying stuff at a used book store, I have multiple printings of each of them. In the past year, I made it part of my quarantine to eventually read all of them. If you were wondering what they are like, imagine the 1950s / 1960s versions of Tom Clancy novels with a bit more melodrama weaved in there.
So Dr. No wasn't necessarily the start of the longest running film franchise in history. They were a way to make these extremely topical films that were mumbled about in ladies' sewing circles and chortled over at the Knights of Columbus a thing that could be seen on screen. There was a made-for-TV adaptation of Casino Royale before this, but it was changed to American CIA agent Jimmy Bond and, again, it was TV. So there are these guys trying to make one book: Doctor No. And there is a lot of attempts to make this movie commercially viable while pleasing novel fans. The more Bond movies that are made, the further they stray from the source material. Dr. No's big issue stems from the attempt to both stay true to the source material and to do something that could be shown in theaters.
Doctor No wasn't Fleming's first novel. It's a really weird place to start actually. It's the sixth in the series. Now, this is me really deep diving into this (not for radioactive shells). Fleming is a continuity guy. His stories really build upon one another. There's a mythology to his novels. The movies really try to avoid too much mythology. Shy of the death of Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and the Daniel Craig entries, the movie shies away from all continuity. You should be able to jump into the Bond movies in any order. So when a film franchise starts with the sixth in a series of high continuity books, the filmmakers want to get Bond to the same place that his literary counterpart did, but find other ways to get there. And in the process, the story is completely muddled. Part of that is, undeniably, a tonal issue. Dr. No hadn't really understood the concept of spy-fi, even though it definitely has some over-the-top elements of the spy-fi subgenre. Instead, it takes elements of film noir, the detective story, the hardboiled crime genre, and the adventure and mashes them all up into one.
I think that Terence Young, along with Broccoli / Saltzman, thought that they were making a detective story. Honey Ryder asks what it is like being a detective. I always read that as a long that Bond plays along with because Honey seems uneducated and he's constantly simplifying things for her. But Dr. No himself also refers to Bond as "nothing but a stupid detective". And when I thought about it, Dr. No shares more in common with detective novels than it does the action spy genre. Connery's Bond is there to investigate the death of an agent named Strangways. In the course of the story, his leads take him to Crab Key (shouldn't it be Crab Quay?), a radioactive island guarded by a dragon designed tank where the evil Dr. No is planning on throwing off missile guidance systems. But Dr. No is barely in the movie. I have a still of him up top because it is the right aspect ratio, but he maybe had an hour of filming total on this movie. Five minutes of screen time.
Heck, my summary of Bond's adventure is actually more compelling than the actual film. Because most of that summary is really about Bond following leads about who killed Strangways coupled with people trying to stop him from getting to the truth. M has one throwaway line about missiles being diverted through radio signals and that's it. It was this viewing of the movie where I realized: I don't know why Dr. No is a villain. I mean, I get that he has a radioactive island where he kills trespassers. I know that he has an underground lair with fish everywhere. I know that he has metal hands. But I didn't actually know why he was a bad guy. I didn't know what his evil plan actually was. All I knew is that it involved harnessing radiation because they all wore radiation suits. Like many undercooked detective stories, there's an intuitive leap that the audience needs to make between the A-storyline and the B-storyline. Strangways finds radioactive rocks at Crab Key, which Professor Dent denies. His lie leads Bond to Crab Key, where M's throwaway line gains merit. (The Bond movies live in a world where the world is very small indeed. Sure, Strangways was trying to solve the same mystery.)
Also, Dr. No wins # 2 for being the most uncomfortable in terms of showing its age. The first place, with a bullet (pun intended), is the Blaxspoitation entry Live and Let Die. But setting the film in Jamaica reflected Fleming's own cultural racism. He lived in Jamaica. The Pierce Brosnan entry GoldenEye was named after his estate there. As such, he has the Black characters, while heroic, steeped in funny alcoholism and ignorant superstition. Quarrel...isn't great. He really comes across quite dated and dies this completely ignominious death. Then there's the way that the movie just wraps itself in Chinese xenophobia. The Chinese have elements of those propaganda pictures that the Japanese were subjected to during World War II. They are cold and calculating. It makes it worse that the named characters are white actors played in Yellowface. Perhaps there's a bit of wiggle room for No himself to be a white actor considering that the character is half German. But Miss Taro is straight up in Yellowface. It's very dated.
I can't believe how deep dive I got into this one, but Dr. No really comes across as a museum piece. It establishes a lot of the Bond tropes and cements Sean Connery as the default face of James Bond. The Bond theme is here, admittedly really overused and poorly edited in for many scenes. The gunbarrel is there, despite the goofiest opening credits sequence of the lot. But it isn't a great movie. The next entry, for decades, was my favorite. I am looking forward to writing about that one. But Dr. No kind of left me bored.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.