Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: No Time To Die won’t be hitting theaters, but you can still enjoy some vintage 007 action.
Every movie franchise eventually succumbs to bloat, with each new installment struggling to top its predecessors and generally deciding that the answer must be: more. Consequently, it can be startling to revisit the comparatively small-scale film that kicked things off. (Imagine how surprised some people must be to discover that The Fast And The Furious was mostly about car races.) That’s certainly the case with Dr. No, the film that introduced Sean Connery as cinema’s first incarnation of James Bond. Adapted from Ian Fleming’s sixth Bond novel, it’s nonetheless readily identifiable as movie No. 1, if only because none of the 25 (or so) films that followed have been so intently, gratifyingly focused on routine espionage. The following year’s From Russia With Love transformed Bond into an action franchise. Dr. No is very much a spy movie.
Still, it’s remarkable how many of the series’ beloved conventions were established right from the jump. Opening with the standard gun-barrel view of Bond firing at the viewer, accompanied by Monty Norman’s iconic twangy guitar theme, the film speedily serves up Bond’s signature introduction (not even Connery himself ever matched his first casually charismatic intonation of “Bond. James Bond”), cocktail (vodka martini, shaken not stirred), platonic flirtation with Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), and consultation with M (Bernard Lee). Only when Q shows up do things start to look significantly proto-Bond. Played by an unfamiliar actor (Peter Burton)—Desmond Llewellyn took over the role with Russia—the weapons man provides 007 with no nifty, improbable Chekhov’s gadget to be deployed later, merely replacing (at M’s insistence) Bond’s Beretta with a Walther PPK. That’s typical of Dr. No’s more realistic, nitty-gritty approach. There’s one high-speed car chase (shot largely via rear projection) that ends with a spectacular crash, and some other explosions at the finale, but the film’s tiny budget means that its primary visual flourish is Ken Adam’s creative set design, including the heavily magnified goldfish in Dr. No’s aquarium. Well, that and Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) emerging from the surf in that iconic white bikini.
In lieu of the elaborate, expensive set pieces that would dominate later entries, Dr. No shows Bond engaged in actual spycraft. Before leaving his hotel room, he sprinkles powder on the latches of his briefcase and attaches a hair to one of his closet doors, so that he’ll know whether someone searches his room in his absence. (Someone does.) When an enemy poses as his ride at the airport—apart from a quick London check-in, the entire film is set in Jamaica and surrounding islands—he discovers the truth by cleverly… phoning the people who allegedly sent the ride and confirming that they did no such thing. There’s more shoe leather involved than usual, to the point where the movie occasionally feels as if it’s mostly Bond striding confidently across various rooms in exquisitely tailored suits. Even Dr. No’s plan isn’t especially diabolical, compared to those of future villains like Blofeld and Goldfinger; had Bond failed to stop him, the doctor would merely have set back Project Mercury a few years, in all likelihood. (World domination may be S.P.E.C.T.R.E.’s ultimate goal, but the present-tense stakes here are quite low.) It’s all pleasingly modest, combining the freshness of something new with the relaxed assurance of something well-established. When the Bond franchise starts to seem oppressive, Dr. No is the ideal palate-cleanser.