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Dr. No
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Dr. No

Dr. No

Dr. No (1962) was the first entry in the James Bond film franchise. But it came sixth in the book series by Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, and in some ways it's a sequel, since two of the characters in the Jamaica scenes – Quarrel, a friend and helper of Agent 007, and John Strangways, who runs the country's MI6 station – had already appeared in Live and Let Die, the second Bond novel. It was the gigantic box-office success of Dr. No film version that allowed other Bond novels to reach the screen as well, including Live and Let Die, which became film number eight in 1973. More important, decisions made in adapting Dr. No from page to screen established key aspects of the film series' tone that lasted for years to come, starting with the title sequence, which screams entertaining fun with every device at its disposal: animated polka dots, words that bounce around and change color, silhouettes of dancers twisting the night away, and John Barry & Orchestra blaring the James Bond theme as 007 fires his pistol at the audience through the gun-barrel logo that's been a Bond trademark ever since.

The plot also begins on a whimsical note, with three blind Jamaican beggars walking down a street while a Caribbean parody of "Three Blind Mice" jumps on the soundtrack. But the men aren't as innocent, or as sightless, as they seem. Yanking guns from their pockets, they shoot down Strangways, stash his body in a getaway car, and then go after his assistant with similar results. They also make off with two files from the MI6 office – one labeled "Doctor No" and another labeled "Crab Key," which is the private island where the mysterious doctor does his nasty work.

This is clearly a case for James Bond, whom we first see winning a fortune and charming a beautiful woman at a stylish gambling casino. Before long he's bantering with the love-struck Miss Moneypenny and receiving his new assignment from M., who sends him to Jamaica after making him exchange his trusty Beretta for a larger and deadlier gun. Arriving on the Caribbean island, Bond evades an attack by unknown enemies, gets a briefing on Strangways's disappearance, hooks up with Quarrel, and – several narrow escapes and amorous encounters later – sets off to Crab Key, where he meets the lithe and lovely Honey Ryder, an innocent shell collector who becomes his sidekick in the escapades that follow. Together they enter Dr. No's domain, where they're politely welcomed by the staff in scenes that amusingly resemble the 1937 classic Lost Horizon, when Shangri-La opens its doors to Ronald Colman and his friends. The welcome is only meant to throw Bond and Honey off guard, of course, and soon Dr. No enters the story in person, exuding evil vibes as his trap closes around them.

Of all the changes made to Fleming's novel by the movie's producers and screenwriters, perhaps the most important was to play up Bond's imperviousness to injury and pain, making him closer to a superhero than a mere mortal like the rest of us. Early in the film we hear that he was hurt during his previous assignment when his Beretta jammed, but this is a mild scene compared with the vivid description of a horrific poisoning in the novel's opening pages. The end of the story is an even better example. In the movie, Dr. No imprisons Bond in a cell, which 007 escapes from by kicking out a ventilation duct – not very clever of Dr. No to have overlooked such an obvious design flaw – and then crawls through airshafts until he reaches Dr. No's control room, which he infiltrates and sabotages by wearing a hazmat suit to hide his identity. In the novel, by contrast, Dr. No wantsBond to crawl through the airshafts, which are rigged with a series of ghastly dangers and tortures, from swarming tarantulas and red-hot metal to a giant squid that almost polishes 007 off. Fleming graphically describes Bond's pain and suffering along with his courage and endurance; but in the movie Bond hardly gets his hair mussed, and instead of writhing in misery after his ordeal he's smooching with Honey as carefree as can be. The film also eliminates a great deal of bird information – bird guano is a major ingredient in the novel – and on the screen Honey has a perfectly formed face without the badly broken nose she has in the book. Also gone is the Soviet Union as Dr. No's employer; in the movie he works on rocket sabotage for SPECTRE, the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, a more outlandish opponent for Bond to defeat.

The instant success of the Bond movies owed something to the era in which Dr. No arrived, just when the swinging '60s were gathering steam and a handsome womanizer like Bond seemed as cool as a hero could get. Terence Young wasn't a famous filmmaker at the time, but once he signed on to direct the first 007 picture (he also did the next three) he caught the spirit of the age in meticulous detail, even taking Sean Connery to his own London tailor so his clothes would be dapper and elegant. Connery, who wasn't famous either, got the part after actors like Patrick McGoohan and Roger Moore either turned it down or got rejected. While this was the break of a lifetime for Connery, he wasn't sure he should accept it, worrying that if Dr. No was a hit he'd be stuck in James Bond movies for the rest of his career. He ended up starring in the next five Bond pictures, becoming an international celebrity in the process, and then he surprised the movie world by leaving the series for other kinds of acting. (He returned for one more Bond outing in 1983, and did voice work for the video-game version of From Russia with Love in 2005). Ursula Andress gained a more modest degree of star power by playing Honey, and Young's snazzy, stylized directing set the pace for a long list of future Bond adventures.

I find Dr. No about twenty minutes too long, and Bond's final defeat of the eponymous villain strikes me as silly and implausible, even by spy-movie standards. But complaints like these are beside the point, given the huge popularity of the franchise that grew out of the picture. To my mind, the biggest alteration in the series has been the darkening of its mood and of Bond's own personality, especially since Daniel Craig took over the role (the sixth actor to do so) starting with Casino Royale in 2006. Then again, Bond has always had a dark side – in Dr. No he kills an unarmed adversary at one point – and in his best adventures he makes up for this with endless reserves of suavity and charisma. Connery remains the best of the Bonds, and Dr. No ranks with his most enjoyable enterprises, implausibilities and all.

Director: Terence Young
Producers: Harry Saltzman & Albert R. Broccoli
Screenplay: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkely Mather, based on the novel by Ian Fleming
Cinematographer: Ted Moore
Film Editing: Peter Hunt
Art Direction: Ken Adam
Music: Monty Norman
With: Sean Connery (James Bond), Ursula Andress (Honey Ryder), Joseph Wiseman (Dr. No), Jack Lord (Felix Leiter), Bernard Lee (M.), Anthony Dawson (Professor Dent), John Kitzmiller (Quarrel), Zena Marshall (Miss Taro), Eunice Gayson (Sylvia), Michel Mok (Sister Rose), Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny), Peter Burton (Major Boothroyd), Yvonne Shima (Sister Lily), Louis Blaazer (Pleydell-Smith), Reginald Carter (Jones), Wm. Foster-Davis (Superintendent), Marguerite LeWars (Photographer), Dolores Keator (Mary), Colonel Burton (General Potter).
C-110m. Letterboxed.

by David Sterritt

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