I missed Monday completely due to a minor mishap. Holiday posting is a tricky thing. We’ll be back on track this coming Monday, for sure. In the meantime, we open the top ten with…
. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Sean Connery.
SETUP: A British agent named Strangways disappears while investigating strange transmissions in the vicinity of Jamaica. James Bond, a Double-O agent working for MI6, arrives to track down the missing spy and uncover the source of the transmissions.
BUT IN REALITY: Strangways had tracked the rogue signals to Crab Key, a secluded island owned by a man named Doctor No (Joseph Wiseman), but was killed before he could report his findings. Bond discovers that No is using nuclear reactors (somehow) to drop US and Soviet rockets into the ocean, presumably to hold the world hostage or force a global showdown or some such thing.
Bond slips onto Crab Key, escapes capture, and sets the reactor to meltdown. He drops Doctor No into the reactor pond, bagging his first megalomaniacal villain bent on total destruction.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Dr. No is a disgraced Chinese scientist who focused his skills on the mad quest to bring the world powers to their knees and prove that they were wrong to dismiss him. His obsession with radioactivity has cost him his hands, which he compensates for with shiny metal replacements, capable of killer kung-fu grip.
THE MUSCLE: Doctor No’s go-to henchman is Dent, a murderous geologist, but he also employs a trio of assassins that masquerade as blind men for no clear reason. Apparently, it’s slim pickings in paradise.
Turning to technology to salvage his evil reputation, No has a flame-throwing tank that he paints like a dragon to scare the locals away from his island.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: After a brief appearance from Sylvia Trench (a character intended to be Bond’s regular love interest, but dropped by the third film), Bond meets the lovely Honey Ryder, played memorably by Ursula Andress. Ryder’s bikini-clad emergence from the water is a classic moment in the series, setting a high standard for all future Bond Girls.
Bond’s femme fatale in this one is Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), a secretary that Bond spots as a double-agent the very moment he meets her. Bond arranges a date, charms her, sleeps with her at least twice, and then tosses her into custody so he can use her house as a trap for Dent.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: Desmond Llewellyn hadn’t been hired yet, but Major “Q” Boothroyd (the “armorer” as M calls him) does show up. He contributes only a gun, but what a gun! Boothroyd forces Bond to switch out his beloved Beretta for a new Walther PPK. It’s a good switch for Bond. He’ll use the PPK for nearly 40 years, all the way until Tomorrow Never Dies.
MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: Casting the Canadian Joseph Wiseman to play the half-Chinese mad doctor is bad, but not quite as embarrassing as the depiction of Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), Bond’s helpful boat captain sidekick. Quarrel is Jamaican, and a somewhat proud and heroic character. Unfortunately, he’s also portrayed as a backwards, superstitious island native who believes in dragons and has no use for fancy luxuries like charts and maps, seemingly navigating by his gut and the hoodoo in the wind. He’s eventually burned to death, screaming, by the Dragon Tank.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: After surviving a car chase that sends his opponent’s vehicle to the bottom of a cliff, Bond quips “I think they were on their way to a funeral.” This is officially the first Bond film one-liner, the great-great-grandfather of all of those Christmas jokes that would come later.
WORTH MENTIONING: Bond’s American counterpart Felix Leiter is played by Jack Lord, future star of “Hawaii Five-O”… The iconic gun barrel opens this first Bond movie, but it’s not Sean Connery playing the role. Instead, stunt man Bob Simmons plays the part in silhouette, making him the first actor to ever play Bond in the official series, a fact of great interest to people who want to win bar bets like an asshole… In No’s dining room, Bond double-takes as he passes a painting. The painting is Goya’s The Duke of Wellington, and it had caused international headlines earlier that year when it was stolen from a British museum. It turns out that Dr. No had it all along.
OVERALL: I’m never sure if Bond purists will be happy that I rank this movie as high as I did, or if they will be pissed I didn’t rank it even higher. Despite its issues, the film has a lot of apologists simply because it’s the first. Without “Dr. No”, we wouldn’t have had 40 years of films to be able to sit back and enjoy, and Bond movies are more than simple entertainment to a lot of people. The character is an institution in international cinema, a modern myth cycle that has a life of its own, spawning countless imitations and celebrations. It all started here. If this film had failed to connect, or had it been a total bore, we wouldn’t be talking about the series today. Clearly, somebody was doing something right.
On the other hand, Dr. No’s issues are hard to ignore. The standard Bond formula hadn’t yet been established, and the film openly struggles to find its voice. The action is sparse, and the pacing is sluggish at times. This does leave room for interesting character moments, such as one of my favorite scenes in the entire series, in which Bond returns to his hotel room to find it has been raided by his enemies and he chooses to deal with it by sipping a cold, lonely drink in the dark. Unfortunately, it also drags the film to a halt at times. Dr. No can be a tough watch.
That’s not all bad. The film’s patient pacing leads to a satisfying third act, including an escape act that takes Bond through an overheated and electrified series of ducts, his crisp and cool demeanor flaking off until he resembles the killer he actually is. The good news is that future films would improve and refine the formula. Ultimately Dr. No is a novelty, a classically-minded thriller that held the rest of the series inside it, all potential. Still, for Bond fanatics, the film is an indispensable classic. Warts and all.
The James Bond Project
11. Dr. No
14. Live and Let Die
15. Licence to Kill
19. Die Another Day
22. A View to a Kill