Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Director: Terence Young
Debut film of: James Bond, character
By Roderick Heath
Dr. No was more than just the first entry in a successful film series: it came at a point when a new type of pop culture was colonising the cinema screen. From Maurice Binder’s dazzling credits and John Barry and Orchestra’s spidery rendition of Monty Norman’s theme, through to the tightly choreographed action, the softcore Playboy-style posings of luscious females, and its hero’s trademarks and traits, whole movies became familiar, repetitive, even iconographic. Dr. No was pitched as a work of aggressively contemporary stylisation. It had been preceded by the Hammer horror films, which, like the Bond films, took stale genre yarns and glossed them with a fresh paint of sex, violence, and a deliberately gaudy style based in previously unfashionable forms, like comic books and serials.
It’s still easy to feel the sheer vibrant force that gripped imaginations right from Dr. No’s opening credits. After the famous gun barrel opening depicts Bond as a silhouette, both anonymous and iconic, Norman’s music and Binder’s visuals entwine in an audio-visual frenzy, the titles and background visuals dancing to the music, giving way to literal, rotoscoped dancers, and then to the “three blind mice” stalking their way through the streets of Kingston, pursued by their own theme song. The substance of the film is infused with a musical quality, and the narrative that follows leaves behind any sense of psychological or political substance for a tale that reinvents the term “melodrama.”
When, in the early 1950s, former naval intelligence officer, Lt. Ian Fleming, began to write a fast-paced, pulpy, adventure novel, his chief ambition was to earn some extra dough to support his new wife, who subsequently referred to his scribblings as “Ian’s pornography.” That novel, Casino Royale (1953), was liberally adapted from some of his wartime experiences, and like the best of his subsequent series, it was a curious melding of tactile realism and sheer fantasy, the humdrum and the ludicrous. Fleming’s influences were patent: Bulldog Drummond, the prewar version of the wop-bashing gentleman-roughneck, with dashes of Richard Hannay and Philip Marlowe, some Somerset Maugham for the more serious inflections, and, in Dr. No, the sixth book in the series, a nod to Sax Rohmer, creator of überfiend Fu Manchu. If you watch wartime British films like Secret Mission (1942) and The Adventures of Tartu (1943), you can see the Bond formula was transferred from them virtually intact. Fleming’s books, then, with their winking character names and cheeky narrative quotes, were close to being pop art already, but they also had a quality of taciturn melancholy and disillusioned professionalism that writers like John Le Carré and Len Deighton would make the dominant keys to their spy yarns.
Fleming’s creation lived in the contemporary world, but he was looking back to the blood-and-thunder tropes of his youth, the ambitions of his manhood, and an ethic that began vanishing even as his species of male called itself the winners of World War II. Bond, his hero, considered his most precious possession to be his 1932 Bentley; he likewise held onto his prewar ideals whilst reaping certain benefits of the modern world, in which all that marriage and moral malarkey had become passé. In planning to adapt Fleming’s books for the screen, cunning producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, director Terence Young (something of a London swinger who found an avatar in the Bond character), and chief screenwriter Richard Maibaum (a Hollywood veteran), decided to throw out thorny politics and replaced SMERSH, the Soviet assassin’s bureau that provided villainy in most of the early novels, with SPECTRE, the terrorist group Fleming had created for the failed earlier film project that he turned into the much-litigated Thunderball (1961).
This team also set the series down the path toward becoming the elephantine, purely comic-book spectacles they’re generally known as. It’s possible they chose the Fu Manchu-inspired Dr. No as the first film precisely for its relative absurdity. In coming back to the Bond films after a long time, I’ve found that few hold up even as quick-paced fun. But the first few entries retained the plots and much of the grit of Fleming’s stories, and held some real dramatic integrity: the first half-dozen films have a roughly contiguous plot as Bond battles the forces of SPECTRE, concluding in the best of the series, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), which even pulls off the feat of having its hero married and then widowed tragically. Its relative failure and the bland impact of Connery replacement George Lazenby meant that from Diamonds Are Forever (1971) on, any dramatic layering in the series went out the window.
Dr. No is dated in many ways, and yet has aged better for its relative modesty and gamey rigour. It begins by going to great lengths to give its hero a suitably indelible introduction. British agents Strangways (Tim Moxon) and Mary (Dolores Keator), are assassinated in Kingston, Jamaica. Half a world away in London, in a splendid visualisation of a fantasy version of intelligence services teeming with trained specialists keeping watch on a complex world, MI6 operatives within the cover organisation of “Universal Exports” monitor radio signals from all over the world. When their agents in Kingston fail to report in, an official is sent to fetch James Bond, agent 007, from Le Cercle club, where he’s dueling at baccarat with sexy society dame Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson). The sequence is artfully shot and edited so that Sylvia’s opponent is not revealed until he utters “Bond, James Bond,” lighting a cigarette and cocking a brow, his theme tune throbbing momentarily.
Connery is instantly impressive, and unique—polished and poised, and yet his dark Celtic brow and his semiconcealed Scots accent offer a whiff of the wild, of a man hunting, even in fashionable circumstances, for any existential thrill on offer. This introduction should serve as a reminder that Daniel Craig’s edition of Bond isn’t actually as far from Connery’s as Roger Moore’s fashion-brochure lounge lizard. Later, when Connery strips off his clothes and gets into action, it’s entirely believable that the fellow who plays at gentleman playboy is actually a creature capable of brute force and feral rage. His boss M (Bernard Lee, inimitably crusty) dispatches him to Jamaica to find out what’s happened to Strangways and Mary, and whether their disappearance has anything to do with the sabotaging of American space shots, suspected of being accomplished with high-powered radio beams directed from somewhere in the region.
Upon arrival, Bond finds allies in CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and Strangways’ islander helper Quarrel (John Kitzmuller). He also witnesses manifestations of a terrifying menace, as one assassin takes cyanide rather than be taken captive, and a girl who pretends to be a newspaper photographer would rather risk a broken arm than talk. One of Strangways’ chums, Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson), a mineralogist, buried evidence of radioactivity on Crab Key, an island that is the strict private property of the mysterious part-Chinese Dr. No. When Strangeways discovered that evidence, Dent, as No’s agent, arranged Strangways’ killing and now is ordered by the omnipotent No to do the same to Bond. Bond survives and kills Dent, then travels to Crab Key with Quarrel to investigate the island. That’s when he meets Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), the breathtaking naturalist’s daughter who strides out of the water singing a calypso tune.
Honey is still often voted the Bond girl to end all Bond girls (although personally I find Andress well outclassed by the likes of Diana Rigg and Eva Green, who can actually act). Lusciously formed and yet innocent, her virginity taken in rape, Honey later avenged herself on her assailant by sticking a black widow spider in his bed. It’s an interesting contrast (Connery’s expression whilst listening to her account is amusingly queasy) with No’s earlier attempt to kill Bond by putting a tarantula in his bed: both heroine and villain use the same method, but for widely divergent reasons. Orphaned by her father’s death at Dr. No’s hands, Honey makes her living poaching rare shells, but also accidentally draws the attention of No’s operatives. Soon Bond and Honey are trapped on the island, running from his guard and his “dragon”—actually a marsh buggy with a flame-thrower that roasts Quarrel—before they are captured and subjected to the compulsory educational seminar about the villain’s motives and plans. No is played by Joseph Wiseman, whose snake-eyed cunning and sibilant contempt for lesser mortals makes him the first and still one of the most impressive Bond villains, crushing objets d’art with his mechanical hands, running using a disturbingly monkeylike gait, and dismissing Bond as a “stupid policeman” for holding onto moral notions.
The final raw clash between Bond and No that ends near the boiling waters over an atomic pile, encapsulates a significant aspect of the series: No’s metal gauntlets are literal forms of the hand of brutal, technological power that the Bond villains always wield. No’s ultimately beaten by Bond’s eminently battered flesh because Bond can climb out and No can’t. For all his sophistication, Bond always represents the strength of the unreconstructed man. His civility is a skin he sheds easily. He eats, drinks, loves, and fights entirely for the right to do all those things where and when he likes, unlike his opponents, who always seem to be trying to supplant such a life with a world that reflects their own twisted egos. No’s idea of fun is to tie Honey up to be drowned.
Anxiety over the modern world’s shape, the simultaneous glamour and terror of it, lies at the heart of the early Bond films’ great success. Satires like the Austin Powers series poked fun at their tropes without really understanding them—the modish trappings of supermodernity (like the omnipresent collarless tunics and the villains’ chitinous-looking machines of destruction) encoded a fear of the future contrasted with Bond’s primal force and the classic gentility of M’s oak-paneled office.
Some early ideas, like his trysts with Sylvia constantly being interrupted when duty calls, were quickly abandoned in favour of his constant flirtation with Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) (“What gives?” “Me, given an ounce of encouragement.”); others were yet to be put in place, like the precredits sequences, and Q, the MI6 weapons expert, who here is still called by his proper sobriquet of Major Boothroyd and played not by Desmond Llewellyn, but rather Peter Burton.
Curiously for a Bond film, Dr. No is at its best when being severe and restrained, even quiet, as Bond moves about the Jamaican locales trying to parse what’s going on, and contending with assassination attempts in humid hotel rooms. A lengthy sequence that caps off the first half involves the treacherous Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), secretary of the Governor and one of Dent’s agents, who tries to lure him into two attempted assassinations. He beds Miss Taro anyway before packing her off to the police, and then settles down to wait for Dent, shooting him dispassionately with not one, but two lethally cold shots. Such stark amorality from a film hero was very new in 1962, but there’s nothing psychopathic about Bond. Instead, there’s a curiously intense emotional satisfaction Bond always derives from such achievements as screwing the woman who tries to set him up, and giving his opponent Dent a chance to turn the tables on him and then, knowing very well he had no chance, coldly executing him for being stupid. There’s a punch here that disappeared from the series before being partly revived by Timothy Dalton and then more fully by Daniel Craig, reminding me that most of all, Bond represents the desire to feel life and death in its extremes, employed for ethical causes but without ethical cares.
Dr. No’s action scenes are pretty ropy (the novel’s best scene, where No tests Bond by subjecting him to a gross experiment where he can try to escape through an agonising series of tests, is rushed and ineffectual here). Bond films that would be wall-to-wall, precision-oiled action scenes were still in the future. Nonetheless, Dr. No’s still a cracking good yarn.