When we first see Sean Connery in Dr. No, he is at a casino playing chemin-de-fer against a beautiful woman. She asks him what his name is, and we hear him say, “Bond, James Bond,” while he lights a cigarette, accompanied by his theme music. Oh, to be that cool! It makes you ache with envy.
When he is called back to the office, he is given no gadgets by Q. Instead, he is issued a Walther PPK to replace his Beretta, which the man from Armorer refers to as suitable for a lady’s handbag. Looking back, you realize what the series could have been if only each successive film had not been compelled to try to dazzle the audience with increasingly fantastic gadgetry. M insists that Bond use the Walther PPK because the Beretta jammed on him once and he spent six months in the hospital. “A double-0 number means you’re licensed to kill,” M says, “not get killed.”
The trailer for this movie elaborated a little more on this license: “James Bond, 007, licensed to kill, whom he pleases, where he pleases, when he pleases.” There is nothing in this that limits him to killing only enemy agents, but rather includes British subjects. In 1962, when this movie was made, and earlier, when the novels were first published, we accepted this idea, because back then we trusted the government. If the government deemed it necessary to kill someone rather than arrest him and try him in court, then it did so for the greater good of mankind. Then came Vietnam and Watergate, and such naive notions were shattered. We came to realize that governments cannot be trusted, certainly not with a license to kill. By the middle of the 1970s, if a movie had an FBI agent in it, he was probably evil, and if it had a CIA agent in it, he was probably a psychopath. It would not be until the 1980s that federal agents could be portrayed in the movies as the good guys again. British agents were cut a little more slack, in that England was not involved in the American scandals, and so Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was acceptable in 1979. In any event, James Bond got a pass on all this, because by this time the Bond franchise had already been established. But there is no way a spy with a license to kill could have been introduced in the second-half of the 1970s, unless he was going to be the villain.
By the time License to Kill was made in 1989, it was clear that we no longer had any misgivings on the subject, in that the franchise felt comfortable emphasizing it the title. And as long as we are on the subject, I cannot let the moment pass with commenting on Casino Royale (2006). The movie begins before Bond has become a double-0 agent and thus does not yet have a license to kill. Through conversation we learn that in order for him to get one, Bond must make two confirmed kills. That is like having a regulation requiring hunters to kill two deer illegally before they can get a hunting license that will allow them to kill deer legally.
Let’s get back to Dr. No. Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the murder of a British agent and to cooperate with the CIA regarding possible interference with rockets being launched from Cape Canaveral by radio jamming. Because Bond is so cool, the government naturally issues him a sports card convertible to get around in.
That aside, the movie is more realistic than future Bond movies would be, especially in the way that on a couple of occasions Bond is careful to keep a woman from getting a photograph of him. By the second film, From Russia with Love (1963), his face is well-known to the enemy, which in real life would have meant a desk job from then on. In later movies still, Bond acquires celebrity status, a superstar among spies. I guess the producers figured that if everyone in the audience watching the movie had known for years that James Bond was a spy, then everyone in the movie must know he is a spy as well.
Another element of realism present in Dr. No is fear. In some of the later Bond movies, especially those starring Roger Moore, he is so blasé about threats to his life that we never really feel as though he is in any danger. In this movie, however, he admits to being afraid and appears to be so on several occasions. Notably, after he kills the poisonous spider that was crawling up his arm while he was in bed, he goes into the bathroom to vomit, giving us the sense that he was really scared. Had that sort of scene occurred in a subsequent Bond movie, he would simply have made a wisecrack about spiders, while fixing himself another martini.
Later on, he exercises his license to kill. For the first time in the history of cinema, the good guy commits a totally unnecessary, cold-blooded murder. He could easily have called the Jamaican police and had the man, Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson), arrested. After all, he had the police come to the same house a few hours before to pick up the beautiful woman who lured him there, so the police already knew the way. And they could have interrogated Dent for information. So, the killing is not only gratuitous, but also unrealistic. And yet, it is a great scene. In this case, the wisecrack, “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six,” uttered just before he calmly puts a couple of slugs into his helpless victim, perfectly suits the situation (spoiled only by the fact that the gun was not a Smith & Wesson).
Bond figures that he should investigate an island called Crab Key, and when he gets there, he meets his first Bond girl, Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), wearing a bikini. Because this was the first movie in the Bond franchise, those of us who saw it when it first came out were not expecting someone like her to turn up, nor would we have missed her had she been left out of the movie. But her presence on the beach seems perfectly natural. In later movies, we know to expect these inevitable Bond girls, whose presence in the story sometimes seems artificial and contrived.
Finally, there is Dr. No, who we find out is a member of SPECTRE, an organization of power-mad supervillains. Bond is captured by Dr. No’s minions, eventually escapes, and then defeats Dr. No and destroys him and his island operation by causing a nuclear meltdown that would probably contaminate the area around Jamaica for many years to come, but no one worried about that sort of thing back then.
Compared to spy movies that had come before this one, Dr. No was quite impressive at the time. But compared to what would come later, as each successive movie in the franchise would try to outdo all that came before, with those obligatory beautiful women, outrageous schemes of supervillains, unrelenting wisecracks, and, worst of all, incredible gadgets supplied to Bond at the beginning of each film that fortuitously came in handy later on, this movie may seem a little thin and meager. But its relative simplicity actually makes it one of the best.