Dr. No is the first film in the core Bond continuity. It is an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1958 book of the same name. Terence Young’s strong direction, coupled with Sean Connery’s exciting, inaugural performance, laid the foundation for one of Hollywood’s most enduring franchises. In short, if you are looking for a fun retro-spy adventure set in the 1960s, you will not want to miss Dr. No.
When a Briton is assassinated in Jamaica, Her Majesty’s intelligence officials believe that the murder may be related to a Caribbean-based missile sabotage operation. Their top spy, James Bond, codenamed 007, is sent to investigate. When he arrives, he learns that the locals are afraid of a nearby island, Crab Key, owned by a shadowy figure called Dr. No. Since it is logical that someone engaged in nefarious activity would create a myth of fear in an attempt to keep prying eyes on the periphery, Bond shifts his focus to learn all he can about Dr. No.
The movie’s pacing is pretty balanced. From the tone-setting opening sequence, to Bond’s reveal, to his interactions with others as the mission develops, it evolves naturally. Some may not like the tedious parts with Bond traveling back and forth between local contacts, his hotel, and a British government site, but these scenes help illustrate his routine and methods. I appreciated that the film included these scenes and did not merely cast the spycraft and “mundane” aspects aside in favor of highlighting the action. On that note, Dr. No does have action, but is largely focused on Bond’s acuity in gaining the trust of others and cooperating with a diverse network of contacts.
Tonally, the Dr. No is best defined as being a spy and mystery film. The spy elements are executed well and provide a glimpse of the tactics used during the time. The sabotage of the West’s missile launches and the curious Crab Key build the mystery, though it would have been nice to have more explanation about the sabotage.
Unfortunately, Bond’s misogynism also informs the tone. The way in which Bond forcefully talks with a female character in one scene sharply contrasts his understanding demeanor with his male associates. Further, 007 is a well-known philanderer and womanizer. This trait is no secret and will only be new to those unaccustomed with the series and source material. It can even be observed from a macro-level as the lead female characters often have unnatural, innuendo-laced names.
Dr. No’s performances are well done. Sean Connery’s role as James Bond is iconic and he does a terrific job in assuming the role. His slick and cool reveal is simply classic. Connery has strong on-screen chemistry with the supporting characters and it is fun to watch him work with the others. One tense scene is particularly memorable and heightened by the music.
In general, Connery has good delivery of his dialogue, despite some cringeworthy lines to females and campy one-liners. Nevertheless, the two instances in which he states he is hungry should have been reshot. Their delivery makes the agent sound whiny and puerile, which clashes with his core characteristics.
Ursula Andress does a good job in her role as the main “Bond girl,” Honey Ryder. It is great to see Ryder not take any chances as she pulls her diving knife on Bond. This illustrates her independent qualities in that she can handle herself, as she has throughout her illegal shell-hunting visits to Crab Key.
Joseph Wiseman’s performance as the titular character is fun to watch. Wiseman and the cinematography effectively capitalize on Dr. No’s enigmatic aura. He provides a surprising amount of backstory that fleshes out the character, preventing him from being one-dimensional.
Jack Lord’s Felix Leiter and John Kitzmiller’s Quarrel are worthy additions. Leiter is a CIA agent whose cool demeanor complements Bond’s without outshining him. The way in which Kitzmiller does a complete reversal in Quarrel’s arc is well done. The team dynamic formed by Lord, Kitzmiller, and Connery is enjoyable to watch.
Bernard Lee’s first performance as M, Bond’s supervisor, is well done and nicely establishes his presence in the role. Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny, M’s flirtatious secretary, adds a balance and playful quality. Although they have limited screen time, it is fun to see M brief Bond on the mission and its objectives. Watching Miss Moneypenny and Bond jest is also entertaining, especially since M is wise to their conversations. Lee and Maxwell do an excellent job absorbing their characters, ones they would personify for eleven and fourteen films, respectively.
The cinematography and editing are good overall, but there are a few minor technical critiques. In M’s office, a noticeable lighting glare can be seen on a painting. The prop should have been moved or the composition reconfigured. On the editing side, a scene is choppy when a character dies. Hollow and echoing audio is also present during an indoor conversation. These are relatively inconsequential but avoidable.
The production design is wonderful. The sets and wardrobe reflect the tropical setting in a 1960s style. Not surprisingly, the production design is closely related to the tone as the props and visuals reflect the spy aesthetic. Crab Key’s living quarters and operational branch have a great look and the set models and dioramas are convincing. I especially liked Crab Key’s rooms and office.
Being the first in the series, Dr. No lacks some features, namely gadgets and a sporty vehicle, that have since become hallmarks of the series. Some viewers may not like this. I, on the other hand, really enjoyed it. Instead of slowing the pace or inhibiting its sense of “fun,” the dearth of gadgets cause Bond to employ more analog solutions with everyday items. The only gadget Bond receives is a Geiger counter.
Likewise, there are no expeditious ways in which Bond can get in touch with his superiors. Rather, he gains insight from those stationed at the government office and the people he meets throughout his mission. I found this to be compelling. Both the lack of tools and 007’s methodology are aspects that not only make Dr. No unique among the Bond flicks but differentiates it from the genre as a whole. Though the film is passé in other areas, the lack of 1960’s-styled gadgetry precludes Dr. No from being dated in that regard. As such, this is the go-to movie if you want a classic spy feature sans gizmos galore.
The wardrobe is great. Yet it is deserving of some criticism. There are several scenes in which both Bond and Leiter are shown wearing suits and neckties around the beach. This makes the men look incredibly conspicuous (though they both looked fashionable in their suits) and juxtaposes their professions as master spies. It is not until later in the film that the characters are shown sporting more functional, appropriate clothing.
Similarly, the lack of camouflage is noticeable. I am not saying that the characters should have been wearing military fatigues, but bright blue, red, and white textiles worn while attempting to hide among the island’s flora was out of place. A softer, darker palette consisting of beiges, navies, olives, and maroons would have been more effective and still stylish. The striking colors did pop on camera, but were unfitting given the context.
Terence Young directing is strong. Perhaps most importantly, he brings Bond to life on the silver screen. In retrospect, Dr. No set the stage for a genre that would be respected as well as imitated and satirized. Despite minor incongruities in the dialogue, cinematography, editing, audio, and wardrobe, the final package is impressive and fun to watch. The strong performances Young is able to derive from the actors is remarkable, especially since this film was the springboard for striking monolithic roles. The chic title sequence, Bond’s persona, and the overall style are highlights.
In the end, Dr. No is a wonderful foundational movie for the Bond franchise. It stands well on its own and fits comfortably into the lore of the subsequent installments. Young’s creative decisions have helped it age well and Connery’s urbane performance is a clear strength. If you are looking for an enjoyable retro-spy film or if want to watch an espionage picture without a lot of fancy bells and whistles, then you will most probably enjoy Dr. No.
Distributor: United Artists
Production: Eon Productions
Director: Terence Young
Producer: Albert R. Broccoli; Harry Saltzman
Screenwriter: Richard Maibaum (screenplay); Johanna Harwood (screenplay); Berkley Mather (screenplay); Ian Fleming (book)
Director of Photography: Ted Moore
Editor: Peter Hunt
Art Direction: Syd Cain
Production Design: Ken Adam
Music: Monty Norman; John Barry
Main Title Design: Maurice Binder
Title Animator: Robert Ellis
Budget: ca. $1,100,000
Release Date: October 5, 1962 (UK Premiere)
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 (Intended Ratio, USA); 1.66:1 (Intended Ratio, Europe)
Copyright Holder: Eon Productions, Ltd.; Danjaq, S.A.; United Artists Company
Cast: Sean Connery; Ursula Andress; Joseph Wiseman; Jack Lord; Bernard Lee; Anthony Dawson; Zena Marshall; John Kitzmiller; Eunice Gayson; Lois Maxwell; Peter Burton
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Rating: PG; Descriptors: N/A
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes (110 mins.)
 Specifically, motion pictures produced by Eon Productions and the Broccoli family. Two Bond films fall outside of this framework, Casino Royale (1967) and Never Say Never Again (1983).