Dr. No was the beginning of a small filmic revolution. It sparked one of the world’s most recognizable franchises, and it made United Artists and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer a wild sum of cash, but its successes go well beyond that. Dr. No was, for the action genre, a seminal film; its influence was widespread and pervasive. If a movie or TV show involves a suave lead man, a megalomaniac genius villain, bizarre technological wizardry, or exotic locales, it’s because of Dr. No, and the later Bond films that propounded on those tropes. And it incited an entire sub-genre of spy works: Bourne and Bauer are similarly built on Bond’s back, albeit with some twists on his smooth-talking, wise-cracking nature. How lucky we are, then, that Dr. No turns out to be a fairly good film in the first place, and above-average one as far as the Bond flicks go.
This is about as close to an origin story as the Bond franchise got before 2006’s Casino Royale. Here, Bond is already a special agent with a license to kill, but he looks a little young, he acts a little young, and he even comes across as a little naïve. When a British intelligence agent goes missing in Jamaica, Bond (played by the beloved Sean Connery) is sent to investigate. He discovers that a mysterious character by the name of Dr. No owns one of the islands in the region. The locals are terrified of No’s isle—named ‘Crab Key’—and a CIA agent believes that the evil scientist may be responsible for the radio disruption of the U.S.’s rocket launches in Cape Canaveral. Bond heads out to Crab Key where he meets Honey Ryder (famously portrayed by Ursula Andress) and prepares to take on the reclusive Doctor.
Today we can see that the first Bond film—and to a lesser extent the second—was something of a curious beginning for the franchise, in as much as it failed to portend precisely what the character of Bond would become, especially the Bond of the Moore and Brosnan eras. Dr. No looks and feels markedly different from the likes of For Your Eyes Only and Tomorrow Never Dies. Here, the hero is grittier, the plot is simpler, and the villain is more realistic. Dr. No is not a Murdochian media mogul threatening to overrun Western civilization with his slanted news outlets; Dr. No does not desire to extinguish all human life by detonating toxin-filled globes in the upper atmosphere. These types of fantastical elements (which can be found in the aforementioned Tomorrow Never Dies and Moonraker respectively) that the franchise would later embrace had not yet come to the fore, and so we are presented with a story that, although somewhat barebones, is surprisingly realistic. Its basic premise—that a Red Chinese scientist is disrupting the U.S. space program with radio signals—is not at all outlandish. Cape Canaveral was, after all, having plenty of problems at the time (as highlighted in The Right Stuff), though its woes were not due to communist irruption.
Yes, Dr. No has girls, and Bond is as debonair as he would ever be, but those are the only hallmarks of the franchise that are present. This Bond is sans gadgets, and he is not yet a superman. By the time of the Moore films Bond had an air of invincibility about him. Here he is both vulnerable and fallible. On multiple occasions he gets caught in a bad position, and he is often negligent. He is not yet flawless; he has not yet reached the stage where he is perpetually three moves ahead of his enemies. It’s not to say that Bond was never caught and trussed up after Connery’s run, but in later films one always knew that Bond would quickly stage a breakout—perhaps by firing a laser beam from his watch or detonating a small explosive embedded in his pen. Dr. No’s Bond is not like that: when he gets caught, it’s because he’s been outwitted. He has slipped up, and he should have done better.
Watching Dr. No and its two follow-ups, it occurred to me that may be why people prefer Connery’s Bond over all the others, perhaps save for Daniel Craig. One cannot read about James Bond without hearing about how Connery will always be the “true” Bond, and I’m sure a certain amount of that is romantic attachment derived from the fact that he was the first, the one to establish the tone for the franchise. But we cannot ignore the fact that Connery’s Bond is the most compelling the character ever was before the Craig reboot in 2006. If we actually pay attention to the character, then it is the first three or four films that are the most interesting: like described, it is here that Bond is at his most realistic, most vulnerable, and most human. In fifteen years he’d be driving a Lotus Esprit underwater and talking shop with a character named Octopussy, but early Bond stumbles, gets caught, and is almost atomized by a laser (in Goldfinger)—a scene that still feels frighteningly real today, and is only trumped by the rope/chair sequence in Casino Royale. There is a good reason to like Connery’s Bond over all others, again perhaps save for Craig: Connery is no caricature, and his Bond is about as genuine the character could ever get. (I use Craig as a caveat because the franchise has now returned to this more visceral root, and if we are to apply this argument to Connery we must also apply it to Craig. In any case, speaking personally, I favor Craig above all—though Connery is certainly not far behind, and is well ahead of the remaining four portrayers.)
Dr. No’s impact on film was extensive, but it had two major corollaries that are worth mentioning above all others—it shaped the Bond franchise in one very formative way and, on a much larger scale, it also shaped the action genre in one very distinct and important manner. In the case of the Bond franchise, Dr. No established the formula that all of its progeny have since followed, including those in the recent reboot, albeit to a lesser extent: a James Bond film is really just a collection of set pieces. Bond moves from place to place, from encounter to encounter, and from fight to fight, and that’s about it. Whatever plot there may be is really just an elaborate excuse to film more action. This does not have to be the case—there could be a focus on character, an approach that plenty of action films have succeeded with—but the producers have a winning formula, and it does not require introspection. It is a superficial one, involving gunplay, women, and glamorous settings, but it is one that works, and it is one that was firmly cemented in place with the release of Dr. No.
The film’s influence is much more impressive on the larger scale. If we look at Dr. No and the action genre, we see that we can attribute one particular trope of the genre to it, a trope that has made action films as a whole more palatable: Dr. No is funny. The great achievement of the action genre is that it presents us with a subject matter that would otherwise be deemed highly objectionable by any standard. Most action films contain crass destruction, barefaced violence, and flagrant displays of lawnessness, but usually it all comes packaged with a wisecracking hero that makes light of the situation—Lethal Weapon and Die Hard being the best examples. Dr. No may not have been the first film to mix humor and violence, but it certainly did it most convincingly, and it absolutely paved the way for the many action films that were to follow. As director Terence Young noted, when you “put the tongue out in the cheek, it seems to disarm [the audience].” It is a simple and remarkably effective way of stripping out all the negativity comes with firing a gun. When we watch Lethal Weapon, we are not plagued by concerns that Riggs and Murtaugh are behaving unethically in their duty as officers of the law, and that they are killing people with abandon. Later Bond films go even further, swathing grisly deaths in outlandish talk. In Tomorrow Never Dies, Brosnan’s Bond throws the villain into a meat grinder while talking to him about media best practices. There’s a certain amount of gall required for that, but it works because the comedy ensures we don’t take the film seriously.
We might be tempted to think of Dr. No as simply ‘the first James Bond film,’ but to label it as such would be to marginalize it unfairly. It had a tremendous impact on audiences, on the franchise, and on its genre, and we did not even address the fact that it is a good movie—not without flaws, but entertaining, and certainly charming. Six years ago, when Casino Royale hit screens, I recall naysayers complaining that this “grittier” Daniel Craig was not the real, smooth James Bond. But look back, and you see that the Bond in Casino Royale is not too different from the Bond in Dr. No. Dr. No showed the character at his best. It’s no wonder Casino Royale’s producers looked back to the very beginning when they wanted to start over. In a franchise that has certainly had its share of highs and lows, this is a great first act that squarely placed its mark on the world of film.