To reinforce how old Dr. No is, it was released only a year after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and the Boeing 707 (their first passenger jet) seen at the start of the film had only been in service for 3 years. The legendary Aston Martin DB5 featured in later films didn’t go into production for another two years.
Despite it’s age, new viewers shouldn’t worry about getting a sub-par or bare-bones Bond film. It has almost all of the ingredients that made the rest of the series so popular. Bond takes his orders from M, and then flirts with Moneypenney on his way out of the office. There’s international filming locations, car chases, fights, and a complex and evil super-villain with an elaborate lair. Ursula Andress makes a strong case for being the best Bond girl of all time. The scene where she emerges from the sea in a white bikini is cinematic legend, still winning awards over 40 years later
Origin of the origin story
So how did Dr. No come to exist? We all know it’s an adaptation of a novel by Ian Fleming, but in the novels Dr. No is the sixth entry, not the first. Casino Royale, Thunderball and even Live and Let Die and Moonraker all came before it.
It turns out that Thunderball was the producers’ first choice but legal issues ruled it out, and it was thought to be too expensive to make within the limited budget available for Bond’s cinematic debut. Dr. No looked more realistic to film, and the rocket launch element of the story was timely in an era where the space race was really hotting up. So, with a budget of a million dollars, and Sean Connery signed up to star, production started in January 1962.
Dr. No is the story of Bond being sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of another 00x agent, and discovering a lot more than be bargained for. Without giving too much away, Bond hears strange stories from the locals about a dangerous island where people disappear, which may even be home to a dragon. As Bond investigates he finds that a seemingly legitimate mining operation is a front for much more sinister activity.
Ian Fleming wrote the story from his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica, so the location is a big part of the story in the novel. After some brief scenes in London, we are transported to Jamaica for the rest of the film.
Release and reception
When released in October 1962, critical reception for the film was initially mixed, which is perhaps not surprising given that Ian Fleming’s novels received the same treatment. Bearing in mind that reviewers had never seen a Bond film before, some seemed unsure whether it was intended to be taken seriously or not. Despite this, the film was a winner with audiences, coming in at number 5 in UK box office takings for the year.
The combination of audience popularity and high profits (helped by the low budget) meant that the producers were assured that the Bond formula was a winner. The franchise was up and running, and Dr. No paved the way for further films with bigger budgets and ambitions.
Is it good to watch today?
With Dr. No approaching 60 years of age, it’s easy to think it might feel heavily dated, but it holds up rather well. It’s more of a spy or even detective story than the all-out action style of recent Bond films, but there’s still plenty of excitement. Some of the most memorable scenes are when Bond shows off subtle spy tricks like sticking a piece of hair over wardrobe doors before leaving his room, to later check if it has been tampered with. In another scene, he mocks up a body under bed cloths and then sits behind the door, taking the opportunity to smoke a cigarette while he waits to foil his assassin.
It’s pleasing to see that a lot of the filming is done on location, rather than being faked with substitute locations or rear-projection tricks. There are occasional scenes of Sean Connery in front of a rear-projection screen, but this is only used during scenes that would have been impractical to film directly due to the size of cameras from the era.
There are a few problems though. Ursula Andress might be a legendary Bond girl but her character is underwritten and she isn’t given much to do in the dramatic final scenes. Far more jarring than the dated treatment of the female lead is the treatment of Quarrel – an Afro-Carribean character who Bond talks down to in cringeworthy fashion on a number of occasions. Thankfully, later Bond films were at the cutting edge of progressive stances on female characters and race, such as Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, and the love-letter to Japan of You Only Live Twice.
Certain scenes could be better edited, such as car chases that seem to repeat the same footage to try and stick together a coherent scene, but end up feeling a bit awkward. It’s hard to describe, but there’s an awkwardness to how certain scenes are spliced together when they could have flowed more smoothly.
Picture and sound quality
The presentation is excellent, with nothing to complain about. Aspect ratio is around 1.66:1. This is slightly narrower than a standard widescreen TV so there are very narrow black bars at each side of the frame, but it’s not distracting. There is film grain present throughout, but it looks great to my eyes and only adds to the atmosphere. Sound is fine too, with good effects and clear dialog.
Minor criticisms aside, this is a strong Bond film, and an excellent debut given how much they got right with the character, art design, story elements, music and more. The continuing success of the Bond franchise owes everything to Dr. No. It doesn’t quite match up to classics like Goldfinger or modern high points like Casino Royale or Skyfall, but it’s still solid viewing for anyone mature enough to entertain the idea of watching an old film.