#13 in my Ranking of the James Bond Franchise.
I think this is a movie that people grade on a curve. In the alternate universe where we don’t have several dozen James Bond movies and the entire franchise ended at Dr. No, the movie would be seen as a mystery with little mystery centered around a rather dull and thin antagonist. As the first real James Bond movie, though, it’s heralded as the originator of most of the cinematic mythos including the theme song, “Bond, James Bond,” “shaken, no stirred,” Bond girls, Sean Connery as Bond, S.P.E.C.T.R.E., and several other well-worn things. On its own, though, I was a slightly bored.
We’re told near the beginning of the film why the bad things are happening in Jamaica. Someone, we’re not supposed to know who (despite seeing a file titled “Doctor No” stolen earlier and the title of the film being Dr. No), is trying to interfere with the American Mercury program in Cape Canaveral. There’s something about radar jamming that will interfere with the rockets’ telemetry. We find out later that yes, this is exactly what the bad guy’s plan is.
Doctor No himself is spoken of a good bit of the film until he’s introduced in the final thirty minutes, but nothing’s ever really said of him. He’s just a mysterious person living on an island off of Jamaica called Crab Key. When he’s introduced, we get a vaguely looking Oriental man who’s, he explains, half-German and half-Chinese. He explains his backstory very quickly, mostly about how he stole $10 million from a Chinese gangster organization in order to fund his operation in Jamaica, and then he runs off to execute the final stages of his plan. I think there’s a reason Doctor No is rarely talked about when it comes to the great Bond villains. It’s not that he’s terrible, but that he’s pretty bland.
Outside of those two rather large elements, the movie is quite entertaining. Connery hits the ground running as Bond. He’s suave, intelligent, and lethal all at once. From the moment he’s introduced playing baccarat and says the signature line, he just feels like a super spy (who tells everyone his name). The movie is a bit more of a detective story (even going so far as for someone to call Bond a detective at one point), so the emphasis isn’t on action (which isn’t great), it’s on tension. And there are several moments of quality tension peppered throughout the film like when Bond and Honey Rider are hiding in the lagoon on Crab Key, waiting for Dr. No’s henchmen to pass by.
The movie also simply looks good. It’s not a visual showcase (though the 4K restoration on Amazon Prime is a revelation on its own), but it’s classically filmed with strong mise-en-scene that keeps the players in frame clear. Bond moves through the images with authority and verve, demanding attention on the screen. The technical aspects of the film are also quite fun, especially set design and the first ridiculous Bond villain layer complete with 5-star room service.
The good stuff is a bit of a hodgepodge while the bad stuff is what really is supposed to drive the story. I feel rather mixed on Bond’s first adventure, though there’s obvious reason to understand why it was an initial success as well as how the iconic moments later became iconic (mostly through repetition).
Originally published here.