With a new James Bond movie coming out in November (and a new Wolf Dasher novel at the same time), I thought I would take the opportunity to re-watch every one of the EON Pictures films and discuss them in terms of where they fit into the Bond mythos, what they reveal about the time period in which they were made, and how they stand up to today’s scrutiny.
I plan to take them in order, so I’ll be starting today with 1962’s Dr. No.
(Note that, since I am dissecting the films, there are spoilers in the blog.)
In 1962, the Space Race was in full flower, John Kennedy was in the White House and dealing with The Cuban Missile Crisis, and atomic power was both poorly understand by the general public and seen as the way of the future.
With this backdrop, we meet James Bond, Agent 007 of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond is assigned to travel to Kingston, Jamaica, and investigate who killed MI6’s man there, Peter Strangways.
As it turns out, Strangways was looking into someone mysteriously toppling U.S. rockets using radio waves. The trail leads to a small island called Crab Key and a sinister Chinese scientist named Dr. No. No is working for S.P.E.C.T.R.E., an international criminal cartel worse than the Casa Nostra and crueler than the Soviet KGB. He kills anyone who gets in his way, including Strangways, and he makes several attempts on Bond’s life before 007 is finally captured and brought before him.
The U.S. is planning a moonshot rocket to orbit the lunar body and send back scientific information. Bond has to find Dr. No and stop him before the rocket lifts off. It’s a classic Cold War plot with the only twist being the villain working for an independent criminal organization instead of the Russians.
The first thing you notice about Dr. No is its languid pace. If you’ve seen a James Bond picture in the past twenty years, you know there are lots of explosions, killings, and car chases.
But the first film in the series is a lot softer. There is a lot of killing in Dr. No, but much of it happens off-camera. Bond cuts the throat of a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. crony, but all we see is Honey Ryder gasping in horror. Strangways and his secretary are gunned down in cold blood, but we only see it briefly. Quarrel is burned to death with a flamethrower, but all we see is a look of terror on his face, then a long shot of the fire and a scream.
Likewise, the film’s one car chase is accomplished mostly with bluescreen effects. We see little of the cars racing through the mountains, driven daringly by stunt drivers. It’s not altogether obvious what causes the pursuer to careen out of control and crash down the side of the mountain, because we don’t see it happen.
Moreover, the format of the film is much less a thriller/action movie than it is a detective story. Bond spends a lot of his time in Dr. No investigating clues. He walks around. He asks questions. He snoops.
But he doesn’t do a lot of fighting. By today’s standards of action adventure, Dr. No is pretty tame.
But the movie is violent. In 1962, Bond’s actions were eye-opening. He kills Professor Dent dispassionately, shooting him twice without changing expression. When he slits the throat of the goon searching for them on Crab Key and Honey asks, “Why?”, he replies simply, “Because I had to.” Aside from the beginning of the movie, when he is still in London, Bond is neither suave nor debonair. He’s blunt and almost thuggish in his approach to bringing Strangways’s killer to justice.
Bond is shocking in another way that seems tame today. Over the course of the movie, he has sex with three different women. One of them he knows to be an accomplice of Dr. No, and he’s just taking what he wants from her while he waits for the police to arrive.
The sexual revolution was budding in ’62, but a hero who sleeps with three different women was not the kind of person movie audiences were accustomed to seeing. In particular, Eunice Gayson’s Sylvia Trench is brazenly provocative, throwing herself at Bond before he can leave the country for Jamaica.
While there remains a degree of slut-shaming in today’s culture, fifty-three years before, a women like Sylvia Trench (who has sex with Bond just because she thinks he’s hot) and the government house secretary (who allows Bond to bed her twice to keep him at her home long enough for an assassin to show up and kill him) were shocking.
Where It Fits
Dr. No is a time capsule to another age. The titular villain uses atomic power, and a lot of time is spent detailing the potential effects of radiation — which was the #1 nightmare in the post-atomic era. B-movie monster films like Them! and Marvel Comics superheroes posited the strange, unknown effects of radiation on the natural environment. Indeed, Dr. No has lost his hands due to radiation poisoning and uses metal prosthetics.
While its role in the film is subtle, atomic power is key to the whole story. Bond is led to Crab Key by residual radiation on rock samples Strangways brought back. To stop Dr. No from toppling the U.S. rocket, Bond creates a nuclear accident, overheating the reactor core which destroys not only the toppling system but the entire base. Nearly two decades before Three Mile Island and three before Chernobyl, the deadly nature of losing control of nuclear power is shown.
Dr. No also casts an historical eye on the Space Race. In 2015, launching a rocket into space to see what is out there is, at best, passe. I watched the movie with my 14-year-old, and I had to explain to him that, at the time the film was made, we had not yet put a man on the moon. So little was known about space then, and the U.S. and Soviet Union were in a desperate race to be the first not only to learn what was possible, but also to turn it to military advantage.
My stepson remarked how heavy the rocket was when the announcer on the broadcast Dr. No is monitoring reports it is 240 tons. I said, “Yeah, and they’re going to shoot it into space.”
“Good luck with that,” he replied, his tone stating clearly he didn’t think such a thing was possible.
I smiled, knowing that it was possible, that it had been done. There was a clear generation gap between us — he born into an age where science was not thought to be wondrous and capable of accomplishing anything. He did not grow up watching rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, did not stand in awe at the development of the space shuttle.
Dr. No takes us back to a time when less was known, but more was believed about the potential of human achievement.
As Bond films go, Dr. No is pretty atypical. It is the least exciting entry in the series. With minimal fights, only two explosions, a single chase that is largely filmed in a studio, and a detective-story format, it is not by any means an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. But it is an intense espionage movie that recalls the unknowns of space exploration and the quiet terror of the Cold War. Thoughtful, clever, and, for its time, shocking, Dr. No is a classic that holds up well on repeated viewing.