I love James Bond movies. I didn’t like sports or hunting with my dad, so we bonded (no pun intended) over spy flicks. I thought I’d revisit every single Bond film for the site, dissecting it in a juicy way for everyone to enjoy. If you’ve never seen a Bond film before, you’re in for a treat. The best thing about the Bond franchise is it wonderfully builds its iconic imagery and rewards the experienced viewer. The more Bond films you see, the more you like them.
So let’s go over how I’m approaching these:
1. Mainstream, EON films only. No Never Say Never Again. No Peter Sellers/Woody Allen Casino Royale. You get the picture.
2. I’m doing these in release order. I’ll reference future films, but I won’t judge them by future film standards.
3. There will be spoilers.
And after that, everything else is going to be self-explanatory. It will remain consistent throughout every film, so if you’re wondering why I talk about the theme song in every review, it’s because it’s important. Essential even. All right not really, but I like them, okay?
Dr. No (1962)
The best thing I can say about Dr. No as the first film of a franchise is how graceful it is. There are definitely some problems with it that raise an eyebrow, but for how old it is and for everything that occurred in its footsteps, it actually plays wonderfully. A lot of the Bond staples start here for good reason, and where it diverts from the future Bond norm actually makes it fresh to a modern audience. Just be ready for some racist, sexist stuff.
The film starts in Jamaica where an MI6 chief named John Strangways is murdered, and back home in London, Bond is summoned to investigate the mysterious disappearance. Bond goes to Jamaica, gets followed, meets USA CIA agent Felix Leiter and discovers there’s a mysterious island called Crab Key, which Strangways was investigating. The island is run by a mysterious foreign character named Dr. No. Bond convinces Leiter and their captain friend to drop him off and investigate Crab Key. There Bond meets a woman named Honey Ryder, and they are eventually caught by Dr. No’s forces. Imprisoned, there’s a dinner scene where Dr. No lays out his evil plan to disrupt a space launch and decides to kill Ryder, leaving Bond for later. Bond escapes and foils the plan saves Ryder, and escapes the destructing island with her. Leiter and American forces find the two kissing and having a good time.
A Closer Look:
The film starts in an interesting fashion; the song of the film is actually just the actual John Barry Bond Theme. It’s a good start, and the theme is amazing because it’s actually played to completion. I was worried the theme was going to play too much as a motif throughout the film, but it starts to taper down once Bond is in Jamaica. The intro animation is a tasteful design transitioning from colored dots to dancing silhouettes, probably a hint towards what seems like a film that will start as an intriguing contemporary spy mystery but will turn into a fun romp. The film doesn’t feature Bond at the start and actually starts with the assassination of Strangways. The first time you see the legendary Connery portrayal of Bond is him playing cards head-to-head with a beautiful woman. You’re told so much about the character from this scene: he’s dangerous, smooth, charming, and knows when to leave the table. Bond in this film has a good bit of humanity to him, something that gets lost pretty quickly in the following films. He is scolded by his superior for carrying an inferior handgun and his office flirting, and he also shows signs of fear. Not many times in the series does he confide to the Bond girl that, “I’m scared too.”
The film’s plot structure also feels fresh as a spy film because it only really feels like a standard spy film in the last act. The first two acts really function as a detective story. It starts with the crime, Bond gets the case, he goes around the location and asks the standard cop questions about the victim. Some betrayal happens, and there’s this looming idea that Bond is in over his head. According to my memory, we’ll see if I’m proven right in future installments, Bond’s most impressive and useful skill as an agent is his bluffing. Often his bluff saves him from certain death, and I think him lying to Dr. No about British Intelligence knowing about the island and No’s past is pretty smart. Leiter knew about the island, but Bond’s lie was based on undercutting No’s immense pride. No loses faith in keeping Bond around, but the bluff makes him cautious on killing him. At least until the plan succeeds.
A lot. This film looks and feels gorgeous. Vibrant color, you practically feel the heat. There are some good location shots to allow you to enjoy Jamaica. The plot is basic enough to follow even if it feels like Bond just kinda stumbles into the final act. That’ll happen a lot in these films. The Bond girls are beautiful, and the action is nice. It’s not very technically impressive. Most you’ll see is a car chase, a spooky spider, and a nice evil fortress escape. That’s all made up for it by never taking too long. A major problem with a lot of Bond movies is they’ll have a pacing problem and start to lose steam. This one—running at an hour and a half—never wears out its welcome.
This is probably the best time to talk about Connery’s portrayal of Bond. I’ll probably talk about him again, but it’s really important to say how much he sells this role. A generic handsome Bond wouldn’t be able to pull off this kind of fantasy. That’s not to say he’s perfect, but what’s special about Connery is he has both competent (and distinct) acting skill and a very special screen charisma. Most people will only mention the charisma, but we can see what an actor with little talent but good presence looks like only a few movies away when we get to George Lazenby. Connery knows how to put on a face when Bond needs to appear sad or solemn or weak or mean. Charm isn’t the only thing Connery offers. What’s also nice about Connery is the distinct presence has a roughness to him. Bond in the books (this is probably one of the few times I’ll mention the books) is way rougher than in the films, and the screenplay tried to get rid of that edge to the character, but Connery can still seize that energy. That’s remarkable, and that’s what you won’t see in someone like Roger Moore.
What Doesn’t Work:
What doesn’t work here will be an ongoing problem with the Bond films. This mainly goes down to the outdated cultural archetypes and storytelling clichés. Bond’s a disgusting brute and monster. He treats women as disposable, and you get so much hope when you see Ryder for the first time, and Bond doesn’t sleep with her for the bulk of their time together. That’s what you want, but when Ryder reveals her backstory, it’s depressingly pathetic in a patronizing sense. A missing father, no education, just collecting seashells on a dangerous island waiting for a dashing hero to save her? Then when Bond saves the day and gets her out of her trap, he decides that’s the time to make whoopee and the credits roll almost as fast as my eyes.
Then we get to Jamaica and Dr. No. This problem lessens in future films (save for some…notable… exceptions), but that’s mainly because they start to target the Soviets as their straw-man. This film is pretty racist. The strongest black character in a location with primarily black people is a superstitious and subservient boat captain who is scared by a supposed dragon. It doesn’t help that Bond is such a white fantasy, trying to be the epitome of culture and taste and acting so superior for it. It’s disgusting. Dr. No is a mysterious Asian Fu Manchu character without the beard. Played by a white man. Awful.
Looking forward, we have an entire catalog to run through. It’s a little too early to say what we’re going to get into on this adventure, but after this film, we’re going to start to see some interesting developments. First, Connery is going to lose interest in the Bond character. It doesn’t happen immediately, but we’re going to see lesser performances and an almost eagerness to escape the screen. Second, the studio isn’t going to know what to do with the stories. The next one is one of my personal favorites, From Russia With Love. That’s a very tasteful thriller with relatively little sensationalism in it. It actually intellectually explores the Cold War culture, has a wonderful romance developing throughout the film, and has an emotionally engaging climax. Then after that film? Goldfinger. Where once there was taste, there is now a cartoon. Only, Goldfinger might be the most influential Bond film to the series behind Dr. No. The franchise walks a fine line between both styles of a story and we’ll see which one wins out.
What did I drink?:
I drank a gin martini during this one. 2/3 gin, 1/3 vermouth, added a lemon in tribute to Bond, shook it and drank it when Bond asked if his drink from Dr. No was made from vodka, “Yes, of course.” Kill me.