I don’t really get James Bond. The character is our culture’s exemplar of male cool but although I’ve seen a handful of Bond movies over the years I’ve always felt that there was something larger and weirder going on with this character, and I’ve never quite got it. So I am going to watch all 23 James Bond movies and hopefully emerge from the process with a better understanding of this most iconic of characters. First on the slate is Dr. No.
This is how Bond begins. The first time, out this isn’t a “Bond Movie”, it is a spy movie featuring a character named James Bond. When we first meet James Bond – and what an odd thing to do, meet James Bond for the first time – he is playing baccarat for high stakes and flirting with a beautiful woman with a suggestive name. He is then called away on urgent business. This scene does nothing to further the plot but shows us what this Bond fella does when he isn’t on the clock.
We move on to the office, where he flirts with his boss’s secretary Miss Moneypenny before being briefed by M, his boss. Some spy dude was murdered in Jamaica and Bond is being sent to investigate. But before he leaves, M makes fun of his favorite gun and tells him he has to use a different one because the one he likes is for pussies. Bond is heartbroken. He really liked his Beretta.
Bond arrives in Jamaica where he proceeds to do generic spy stuff: putting hairs over doors, fighting enemy agents, conducting interrogations, that sort of thing. It is all a bit dull.
Eventually, he hooks up with CIA agent Felix Leiter and local ally Quarrel. They do more spy stuff. Not Super Spy stuff. It is all very procedural. Bond is exceedingly confident and cultured and every woman he meets is pointedly attracted to him, except for a black freelance spy that he and his new friends lightly torture for information.
The bad guys try to kill him by putting a tarantula in his bed, which is a bit silly.
Fifty minutes into what has been a fairly dull film, and I finally get a scene that provides a glimmering of understanding as to the appeal of James Bond. Some assassins try to run Bond off the road. When he realizes what is going on, he starts grinning evilly as he outmaneuvers them before running them off of the road leading to a fireball of death. He then cracks a dumb joke. This is something I can latch onto. This is a man who is only happy when he is killing. Is that who Bond is supposed to be? It isn’t heroic or likeable but it is potentially interesting.
The next scene is also interesting. He visits a lady spy who after discovering that he isn’t dead, tries to seduce him in order to stall him until more assassins can arrive. Bond knows this is her plan but he sleeps with her anyways because he’s got time to kill while he waits for the next assassin. The scene is tense, cruel and a little gross.
When the assassin arrives, Bond disarms him and ultimately shoots him in cold blood. In three scenes, this film has become defined by sadism and it is pretty great.
Bond and Quarrel finally head out to the island where the bad guy lives. Quarrel doesn’t want to come to the island because he is an ignorant islander who believes that there is a dragon on the island. Upon arriving, Bond meets Honey Ryder, a beachcomber in an iconic bikini who has come to the villain’s island looking for shells.
This island portion of the film has shifted gears from a spy procedural to a Jonny Quest-lite adventure with plodding pacing. Along the way, for no real reason, Ryder tells the story of her being raped and the revenge she got on her rapist. Oh and also, she suspects that Dr. No killed her father. At no point in the film is there any follow up on this point.
Eventually, they find the so-called dragon. It is revealed to be an armored tractor painted to look like a dragon. Quarrel is killed by it while Bond and Ryder are captured and taken to a crazy supervillain bunker where they are to be “guests”.
The villain invites them to dinner. As they head to meet their captor, Bond reassures Ryder by telling her “Of course I’m scared too.” This is, of course, a perfectly sane thing to say, but it flies in the face of everything I had believed James Bond to be. Also, the movie has been boooring since they came to the island.
They finally meet the eponymous Dr. No. A deadly calm madman with robot arms, a hilarious aquarium, and famous stolen art. As they talk, his backstory unfurls. He is a half-German, half-Chinese former treasurer of the Chinese Tongs and an expert in radiation.
At this point Bond suggests that No let the girl go. No agrees, sending her away to be raped. “I’m sure the guards will amuse her.” No quips.
No goes on to reveal that the existence of a cabal of supercriminals, SPECTRE (The SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion.), of which he is a member. It is on their behalf that he plans to disrupt American rocket missions with his atomic-powered radio beam, which will in some way further SPECTRE’s plans of global conquest.
No thinks he sees a common spirit in Bond (Probably because he loves to murder people?) but Bond is unimpressed. “World Domination. Same old dream,” Bond murmurs. A brilliant line in an a movie that has been utterly uninteresting for the past 40 minutes.
No realizes that his misread Bond, but doesn’t kill him for some reason, instead putting him in a prison cell with a giant ventilation shaft. Bond escapes his cell, stops No’s plans, kills No, and sets up a chain reaction that will eventually blow up the base, all without creating an ounce of drama or suspense.
Bond finds Ryder chained in rising water with her pants removed. They escape and fuck in a boat. Credits roll.
So that was the first film in the most enduring film franchise of all time. A slightly weird, mostly dull cold war spy movie starring a very sophisticated Scotsman with sadistic tendencies. There are a few moments of brilliance but all in all, it is hard to see 50 years on what it is about this movie that would make it one of the largest cultural phenomenons of all time.