Dr. No ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Sometimes, timing conspires to throw you a bone. I had already made travel arrangements via Megabus to visit a friend of mine in Atlanta ($15 round trip!) when I learned that the Plaza Theatre was screening every James Bond movie in July. Being just ten minutes from the bus station, I had kinda hoped that I could talk my friend into going to see whatever was playing the night I left to return home. That would have been Octopussy. Not a favorite of mine, but this is its 30th anniversary so there's that.

But then my friend discovered they were doing a matinee showing of Dr. No.

Yes, please!

Firstly, I would be remiss not to lavish praise on the Plaza Theatre. It instantly felt like home to me. The Plaza evokes my two favorite venues in Louisville: Baxter Avenue Theatres and The Louisville Palace. Programming like the former, decorum like the latter. Plus, the concession stand served "Wizard of Oz" Cherry Cola. IN A BOTTLE.

I had never seen Dr. No on the big screen so I was thrilled at the chance to see things I had never noticed. Two things stood out to me early. When Strangways's operator accesses her communications board in the book case, there is one prominent book with a bright red spine. I was finally able to read its title: "Obsolete England". I laughed to myself at that.

The other thing I had never noticed until seeing the film as it was meant to be shown is that when Bond stares out the airport window while phoning Government House, he sees the photographer conversing with his driver/would-be kidnapper. On my TV screen, I had never been able to distinguish the two clearly enough to realize that was what caught 007's attention.

What's striking about Dr. No most is probably the presence of Sean Connery. Later in his career, the mere myth of Connery was enough to imbue a film with a certain gravitas but he had no such myth at the time he shot this film. It's a fascinating performance to watch, as a guy who had been a truck driver and had never worn a suit holds the screen as though he had been a sophisticated tough guy all his life.

There is a decided cruelty to this Bond, taken straight from the pages of Ian Fleming's original novels. Most famously is his cold blooded killing of Professor Dent ("That's a Smith & Wesson...and you've had your six"), but this time what chilled me was his reaction to Honey recounting her sexual assault. She reveals that she retaliated by trapping her assailant with a black widow spider - "a female, they're the worst. It took him a whole week to die." Bond stares blankly, prompting Honey to ask whether she had done wrong.

"Let's just say it wouldn't do to make a habit of it," Bond replies. On paper, it's a neutral line. It could even be spoken wryly. But there's something about Connery's tone that sounds disapproving, as though he is unsympathetic to Honey. If ever there were a moment to sour on 007, that was it.

There are, of course, sexism and racism abound, reflective of both general attitudes and Fleming's own colonial-mindedness. The extent to which these things are offensive, of course, varies. I'm both a white guy and someone with a background in history so I'm not a particularly helpful judge in the matter.

I've always felt that Dr. No is really two movies: a detective story that becomes a science-fiction adventure. I'm even more convinced of this having now seen it on the big screen. There's a decisive change in tone once Bond and Quarrel arrive at Crab Key. There's a different energy. Bond seems cool and restrained in the first half, like a seasoned cop, but once on Dr. No's island he becomes an action hero. Perhaps it's that Connery himself was more at home in the outdoors rumbling with stunt actors than he was in trading expository dialog with actors in suits.

I've never been terribly impressed by Joseph Wiseman as the titular villain, but I have to say this time I found myself caught up in the intrigue. Even knowing what would happen because I've seen the movie a dozen times over, I found myself increasingly excited about finally seeing him on the screen. Wiseman is much more imposing than I had given him credit. His controlled mannerisms contrast so sharply with Connery's kinetic energy that there's a sense our yellow belt hero has just met a black belt master.

Ken Adam's production design has always seemed neat to me, but those sets are truly impressive on a screen that shows their scale! The room where Dr. No instructs Professor Dent to kill Bond using the tarantula felt massive and isolating. I could empathize with how lonely Dent must have felt in that tiny chair. Dr. No's cavernous lair - ridiculous as it is - is a world unto itself, further cementing the notion that the second half of the picture is a different film from the first.

The more classic movies that I see in their natural environment, the theater, the more I become disillusioned with home video. In my youth, I read the occasional interview in which a director or actor would lament how audiences becoming accustomed to watching movies on their TV screens had compromised their ability to appreciate grand scale cinema. At the time, I dismissed those complaints as coming from people so wrapped up in what they did that they had developed tunnel vision. Now, though, I'm not so sure. I'm starting to believe they were onto something.

It took me several viewings of various Bond movies to really come around on Dr. No, which I initially found a bit lethargic. Had my first viewing been in a theater, I doubt I would have even hesitated to have taken to it. I'm thrilled I finally had the chance to see it on the big screen, particularly at such a wonderful venue as the Plaza Theatre...but especially to have seen it in the company of such a dear friend. If I were ever asked to draw up the template for the perfect movie-going experience, this was it.

Dr. No Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#49/1530)

Dr. No > The Ring --> #49
I liked the intrigue of The Ring and Naomi Watts carries the film well, but the other movie here is Dr. No. Connery at his cruelest wins this one.

Dr. No > Sabrina (1995) --> #49
Sydney Pollack's remake of Sabrina is likable and charming, but not so much that it can best the first 007 movie. Better luck against Moonraker, Sabrina.

Dr. No > The Diary of Anne Frank --> #49
Well, damn. Millie Perkins gave a remarkable performance as Anne Frank in a powerful and important film...but the other is Dr. No! UGH.

Dr. No > The Ramen Girl --> #49
Brittany Murphy was wonderful in The Ramen Girl but the shoehorned romance plot fell completely flat. This one goes to 007.

Dr. No > Empire of the Sun --> #49
Empire of the Sun is an overlooked gem in Spielberg's filmography that more people should see, but if I can pick Dr. No over The Diary of Anne Frank, I can pick it here.

Dr. No > Darby O'Gill and the Little People --> #49
Connery showdown! I love everything about both of these movies. I'm giving the edge to Dr. No because 1) I'm a big Bond fan and 2) I haven't yet seen Darby O'Gill and the Little People on the big screen. If I do, that could change things.

Dr. No > Batman Returns --> #49
Oh, Batman Returns. There's so much about you I like, but so much about you I don't. Dr. No wins this one handily.

Dr. No > A Christmas Carol (1999) --> #49
I love Dickens' A Christmas Carol in general and the Patrick Stewart TV adaptation particularly, and in December I might even pick it. But this is July and Dr. No gets the nod.

Dr. No > Jaws --> #49
I've recently seen both of these on the big screen for the first time. I can concede that Jaws is the better film, but I care more about 007 and Dr. No is one of the best in that series.

Dr. No remained ranked on my Flickchart at #49/1530