The year is 1962 and woman plays baccarat in a casino. The man she is playing against is cool, calm and – most importantly – winning. Collecting his winnings with a casual air that could be seen as almost disinterested, he looks up as the woman asks him his name and answers her question with a voice as smooth as silk – surname first, then his whole name.
That man, obviously, is James Bond.
It’s easy to forget while in the shadow of the single greatest introduction of a character in cinema history (yeah, I said it, fight me) that there’s an actual movie settled around it – and better yet, a bloody good one too – a movie that kicked off a franchise nearly 60 years in and 25 movies strong.
After MI6 staff, based in Jamacia, turn up missing and important files are swiped, agent 007 is deployed to sort out what went on. Upon landing he is immediately beset on all sides by allies and enemies all struggling to figure out the reason behind many strange disappearances and what it has to do with Crab Quay, an area plagued with superstitious rumours of deaths and even dragons. After vanquishing an undercover enemy agent, who’d rather neck cyanide like tic tacs than be questioned, Bond teams with CIA front man Felix Leiter to infiltrate Crab Quay and crack this case, however, upon reaching the forbidden area Bond meets the first of many suggestively named female characters he’ll come across in his career (phrasing!!!) in the iconicly bikini clad form of Honey Ryder, a shell diver from the local area. Once captured by enemy soldiers Bond meets the man responsible for everything that’s been going on, the humourless supervillain Dr. No, who sports a nice line in gleaming metal hands (no one takes the opportunity to enquire how the good doctor is able to wipe his bum but maybe there’s some things man is not meant to know) and aims to wreck America’s space programme with radio waves and radiation. Can Bond escape from Crab Quay and save the day and even if he can, what is this greater threat Dr. No warns him about. What is S.P.E.C.T.R.E?
Going back to the very first Bond after 25 movies of massive set pieces and glamorous Bond girls (cunning stunts and stunning… well, you get the idea) it’s initially strange to go back and see how quaint the first movie is. Before Goldfinger came along and set the Bond rules in stone, Bond was more of an international police man, actually taking time to figure out who his enemies are and what they want before destructively descending on the arch villain’s real estate like a lair flattening angel of death. That being said, a lot of the core basics are already in place, arch villain with a handicap, gimmick laden henchmen (No’s hitmen are a trio of men who pretend they’re blind) and absurdly convoluted methods of people disposal are all present here (a tarantula in Bond’s bed? don’t you morons have guns?) as is obvious prototypes of beloved institutions like an anonymous member of Q branch slagging off Bond’s forbidden weapon of choice (“It’s nice and light…” he sneers, cradling Bond’s Beretta, “In a lady’s handbag.” – ooh, get him!) and upgrading him to his famous Walther PPK.
But all this would mean precisely nothing if it wasn’t for Sean Connery’s commanding performance. Former milkman and one time Mr Universe third place winner, Sean Connery was not Ian Flemming’s preferred choice to play the spy from his series of books (to put it lightly) but after director Terrance Young took him under his debonair wing and taught him the ins and outs of etiquette (not unlike the protagonists in Kingsman), Connery emerged in full suave, roguish form. His impish eyes and confident swagger pull off both a school boyish charm when dealing with his peers and a cold, reptilian killer when shit gets real. Make no mistake, while Dr. No is somewhat of a kinder Bond than Connery would ultimately go on to play him (yes, he eventually turns Ursula Andress into Ursula No-dress but watch how he legitimately protects her throughout the film) but an impressive act of bastard-ness see him gunning down a man in cold blood after the poor sod has run out of bullets.
The film is, admittedly, very much of it’s time and some aspects – much like a lot of things about early Bond movies – will jar beyond the slightly relaxed pace. Numerous Jamaican accents are barely attempted, Bond only hands a duplicitous secretary over to the authorities AFTER he’s had sex with her and the less said about a white guy playing the very Asian Dr. No the better (although it’s nowhere near as catastrophic as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s) but there is innovation at work here too, for example, this was one of the first movies to cut scenes together on camera movement (before, you would wait until the actor stopped or left the room before editing to the next shot).
Another stroke of genius is not treating this as an origin story. We join Bond in full swing, getting chewed out by the ferocious M (Bernard Lee in great blustery form) for shit he’s pulled in previous missions which give the character a sense of history and professionalism that sometimes works a little too well (I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to correct my dad that it’s this film and not Goldfinger that kicked everything off).
VERY small scale compared to what would follow (anyone else foresee a hovercraft gondola in Bond’s future after watching this? Didn’t think so.) and yet a super solid spy thriller in it’s own right, Dr. No may not be as smart as From Russia With Love or as glamorous as Goldfinger but it has THAT entrance for the first time and it has THAT theme.
And that’s enough.