Dr. No was the film that first introduced James Bond to the world, so it’s a bit unusual to watch now that the character has been so embedded in the broader cinematic consciousness. We first meet Bond, played here by Sean Connery, in a gentleman’s club, gambling, across the table from a beautiful woman, setting the scene for one of the quietest films in the entire Bond catalogue. At this stage in Bond, actors with foreign accents were dubbed by English actors, and the dubbing cancels out some of the ambient sound as well, making this an even more introspective instalment. Since the original audience weren’t yet familiar with Bond as a cinematic figure, some of Dr. No is spent establishing his character, although less than you might think, since the narrative is still the key focus here, while Bond is only partially realised.
In fact, Dr. No is a fascinating example of Bond as a one-off character, hedging its bets about whether the franchise would endure beyond this one release. For that reason, it’s less sprawling than most subsequent Bond films, taking place almost entirely in Jamaica. To be sure, the crime that Bond is investigating – the assassination of a British agent and his secretary – has global dimensions. Eventually, Bond’s investigation leads him to Dr. No, played by Joseph Wiseman, a representative of the shadow SPECTRE network, who is using his lair in the Caribbean to remotely “topple” rockets launching from Cape Canaveral off course. Nevertheless, the action is remarkably linear and bounded for a Bond film, as James travels from London to Kingston, and thence to the remote Crab Key, where Dr. No has his arsenal.
Like From Russia With Love, then, Dr. No plays more like a broader genre exercise than a branded Bond film per se. However, whereas From Russia With Love takes its cues from the espionage thriller, Dr. No is closer to an investigative drama during the Havana scenes, and an adventure film when Bond arrives at Crab Key. There’s no distinct sense of a franchise just yet, as Bond collaborates extensively with the FBI, and only relies sparingly on the tech arsenal that is provided to him by M, played by Bernatd Lee, who advises Bond here for the first time.
Since the Bond signifiers are so sparse, Dr. No is a great insight into some of the underlying concerns that drive Bond films as a whole. In particular, this first film presents Bond as both a symptom of, and a salve to, the decline of the British Empire. While the British Empire may be over as both a political and geographic aspect, Bond recalls the charismatic imperialism of an older time, and so keeps the empire alive through a sheer act of charisma. Still, Bond is never quite an arbiter of empire either, partly because Connery is just as exotic as the people he’s investigating. His Scottish brogue, which can be very hard to make out here, feels more attuned to the highlands than to Edinburgh, and appears to reach us from regions that are every bit as far-flung as the Caribbean. Between his voice and his profession, he carries us from one end of the empire to another, reminding us that “the habit of empire is persistent.”
To make matters even more complicated, Dr. No, and the entire SPECTRE organisation, are neo-imperialists. Dr. No has both Caribbean and Asian operatives, and is half-German, half-Chinese himself, while virtually all the villains are mixed race. To some extent, this is all just a pretext for raceface, resulting in some truly preposterous propositions – most notably a white woman who is apparently Asian, or half-Asian, simply because her house is decked out in kimonos, lanterns and bamboo. Yet it also reiterates Dr. No as a neo-imperialist – and an imperialist for a new global regime in which “east and west are just points of the compass.”
Bond thus draws upon the charismatic residue of British imperialism to fight a neo-imperialist and a new kind of superpower. As a Scot, a marginalised figure in the British empire, Bond is well placed to glean the marginalised role that Britain increasingly plays in this new world order. Hence the comedy of Bond, the wink at the audience, the tacit recognition that this suave British globalism is already out of the date by the time the films have begun. In later films, this blooms out into full-blown camp, especially with Roger Moore at the helm, but the mood is considerably more sombre here, as Connery tones down his charisma to leave space for the more sobering effects for Britain losing sight of its imperial command over the globe.
While Connery is charismatic, then, he’s not yet charismatic in quite the way we now expect of Bond. Certainly, he has a wry sparkle in his eye at times, but there are very few one-liners or Bond trademarks – he doesn’t even initially drink out of a conventional martini glass. Instead, Connery’s Bond is defined by the silky sinuosity of his body, and the way he moves his body. Every move Bond makes draws on his imputed litheness between the sheets, even though there’s not really that much sex in the film. In an opening scene, he takes off his slippers to surprise an intruder in his apartment, and in a closing scene he takes off a slipper to get out of prison, but in both cases you feel he could move just as smooth with slipper on.
Time and again, Bond’s enemies here try to thwart him by claiming this silky sinuosity as their own. In one of the most iconic scenes, one of Dr. No’s agents unleashes a tarantula into Bond’s bed. As the spider crawls up the sheets, it seems to be harvesting or outdoing Bond’s own litheness within those sheets. This paves the way for the eeriest scene in the film, which occurs when Dr. No traps Bond in his lair. As Bond sleeps, Dr. No waves his hands just over his body, as if trying to extract his essential sensuality, and bottle it for the power of SPECTRE. Bond does one better, though, in the final scenes, slinking, cat-like, through a network of freezing and boiling pipes, before somehow dodging radiation itself in the climactic set piece.
This sensuality and silkiness drives the broader style of the film too. While Dr. No feels like nascent Bond in several respects, the sets, décor and pacing are all fully-formed. Sure, the action never leaves the Caribbean, but that limited ambit makes you realise how great the pacing already is – mobile and fluid, buoyed up by scenes on boats and in cars, and perfectly balancing episodic and broader imperatives. And Dr. No is a study in mise-en-scene above all – an exercise in how many exotic spaces and sequences can be crammed into a feature-length film without cluttering the narrative or disturbing the forward momentum. In every respect it succeeds, picking up pace once we get to Crab Key, where Young relies entirely on location shooting. It’s also here that we meet the first Bond girl, Honey Ryder, a shell diver played by Ursula Andress, who emerges as if in a state of nature, as an embodiment of these set pieces.
This final part of the film is really spatially exciting, take us from one spectacular tableau to the next, each of which ratchet up the décor and production design. The climax is Dr. No’s lair, which sets the scene for future Bond lairs – hyper-real, hyper-spatial, and crammed with every possible nook, cranny and vantage point, all concealed deep beneath the sea. In Bond films, command of mise-en-scene means command of information, so what you have here is really an informational sublime – a fantasy that the entire globalised world that SPECTRE embodies could be condensed to a single set piece. Future Bond films evoke this global sweep, and global anxiety, through a globe-trotting structure, but Dr. No is the only film to really attempt it all in one place, which makes it unique in the Bondverse, and a fitting first entry.