Let’s wind the clocks back 50 years and 22 movies. Before the Daniel Craigs, Pierce Brosnans, Timothy Daltons, Roger Moores, and the George Lazenbys. Before all the crazy stunts and megalomaniacal villains. Before the Aston Martins and BMWs, and all the gadget-filled cars. Before Q branch. Before the preposterous evil schemes and car chases. Wind them back to before James Bond became a household name. You’ll find that it’s a much quieter place, and a much more humble time. The world has yet to know who James Bond really is, and where his name — and persona — will take him.
We first meet Bond in a casino, or a really exclusive club. He’s playing baccarat. He’s shielded from view by some of the other players; we see the banker and a lady. The lady’s losing badly, but she’s a good sport. Her opponent commends her determination, and she tells him that her name is Trench, Sylvia Trench. She then asks for his name. He lights a cigarette and we see his face for the first time — “Bond. James Bond.”. The theme music fades up. He blows smoke out his mouth. His face a mixture of cocky confidence and a suave kind of charm. This is the first time we see James Bond, up close and not very personal. His introduction here is simple (the way he says his name is meant to match the way Sylvia says hers), and something tells me that not him, nor the director Terence Young, nor anyone in front or behind the camera, knows what a seminal moment in cinema history this one shot will become.
And then later on in the movie, another seminal shot is born. The one of Ursula Andress emerging from the ocean water in nothing but a bikini, a belt and a dagger, and a couple of humongous seashells. Being the first of the Bond girls, her role isn’t all that significant, but in this one shot, she encapsulates every physical and intangible quality present in her successors. The sexiness. The willingness to show skin. The fearlessness. The suggestive name in Honey Ryder. And of course, the immediate attraction towards Bond. Luck’s on his side though, because she doesn’t want him dead. Quite the contrary, she wants to be with him even in the face of death.
But enough of the seminal shots. Dr. No, against all existing odds, must be viewed as a movie before its time. A movie without seminal shots. It is the first Bond movie, and it’s the most basic. The story is not complex or contrived, though it is vague in detailing the plan of its main villain, Dr. Julius No (Joseph Wiseman), a member of SPECTRE who has holed himself up on a small island and surrounded himself with the first of many batches of uniformed henchmen. He also has a tank dressed to look like a dragon. Of course, it looks nothing like a dragon. Not even at night. So how any of the movie’s characters could mistake it for one is a feat beyond imagination.
His plan involves nuclear weapons and world domination — a staple of all future Bond movies — and Bond is summoned by queen and country to first investigate, and then to eliminate. What’s different about his mission this time is that it follows the structure of a usual police procedural. Question and deduce. Follow leads, step by step, to a logical outcome. There is no meet-cute between Bond and the villain beforehand. There is no rendezvous with Q branch mid-movie in the middle of nowhere. There are car chases, but they’re short and sweet, not overdrawn and ridiculous. There is punch in the faster bits as well as in the slower romantic bits. Bond takes his time and pays attention to detail; he fixes a strand of hair to the gap in his hotel room closet door, and sprinkles powder on his briefcase locks, to determine if they’ve been tampered with after he’s left the room. No other Bond has ever been so meticulous and provincial in his method.
There is a lot to enjoy in Dr. No. Sean Connery has the look and energy of a young kid excited to be at the playground. It’s his first time there but he knows exactly where the see-saws are, where the merry-go-rounds are, and where the bad kids play. He knows how to maneuver the grounds with agility to avoid little booby traps and sandpits. The world he does his business in is beautiful and well designed — his Jamaican hotel room and Dr. No’s secret lair are glossed over with shiny finishes and tasteful decor. They are gorgeous against the sharp costumes.
This is the start of a 50-year movie phenomenon. James Bond has a long way to go yet. Heck, he still has to go to space and do battle in very dodgy zero-gravity. But never mind. He’ll deal with that when the time comes. He’ll deal with many things as the years and movies pile up. Sean Connery won’t be the one to deal with them all, but at least he can say he’s dealt with the very first batch of treacherous women and evil villains. One down. 22 to go.
Best Moment | “That’s a Smith & Wesson. And you’ve had your six”. Bang.
Worst Moment | “You’re hurting! You’re hurting me!”