Having spared you my thoughts on Valentine’s Day (yesterday, as I type), which astoundingly is my first Valentine’s as a single man since 2006, I thought it an idea to enter the world of escapism. Thinking that this time of year calls for some masculine celebration of the single life, what better than to sacrifice my busy time watching the longest running action adventure franchise in cinema history? Yes, I bet Mr. James Bond never gave a thought to anything other than the single life, whilst in the employment of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
So, let’s talk about James Bond then. Or more specifically, let’s start with Dr. No.
It didn’t actually start here of course. It started with Ian Fleming and his 1953 novel Casino Royale (which was also a TV production along the way). But for most of us the Bond saga begins with the 1962 screen debut Dr. No, and it feels a more appropriate place to start as Bond is perhaps now more of a screen hero than a purely literary one. If we think of Bond we think of the films, probably before we think of the original novels, such is the impact they’ve made. So a big “thanks” to producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman for launching a film series like no other before it. A series with impact.
The irony here is I’m not aware of Dr. No having very much impact on me at all when I was growing up. I don’t have a clear memory of when I first saw it, but I remember From Russia With Love and The Spy Who Loved Me quite vividly. There were other lesser Bond memories too, but Dr. No was never in there. Whether this has affected my view of the film over the years, I’m not sure. Because (and I admit this might seem blasphemous in the context of this blog) I didn’t think the first Bond film was really up to much.
You get used to seeing some series in a certain way, and when you have a chance to go back to its genesis some elements can irritate you when you’re young and critical. Why does the opening gun barrel sequence have an odd sound effect over it? Why is there no theme song? Where’s the pre-credits sequence? Never mind that that Maurice Binder’s famous gun barrel and blood sequence was a masterpiece of graphic design! Negative criticism comes first!
The fact is that some elements had yet to come. Dr. No adheres very closely to its source novel and the more outlandish parts of the series have yet to be introduced. But the style is there, albeit in it’s infancy. Ken Adams’ production design earned him a job on Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Terence Young’s direction compliment’s Adams’ work so well. Witness the scene where Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) collects the caged tarantula. The room is quasi- futuristic and the camera angle create a cavernous and imposing visual. Those are the touches that make a Bond film visually different, and they were in place here from the beginning, but far more under stated. Consider how much that set cost in comparison to later efforts, yet the direction makes it look far more lavish and impressive than it probably was if you were standing in it.
Still, Dr. No isn’t always as radical as all that. There are times when it comes across as a competent but unexceptional British thriller, no different than many similar films of the period. But that would be a lazy judgement, because as I carry on watching I can see that Dr. No is amazingly edited, in a fast and bold way very few films were back then, and its also full of Carribbean colour and stand out design. There is also the dangerous and suave presence of Sean Connery as Bond; a shark in a dinner suit. Without his central performance all the rest wouldn’t count for as much.
The big differences are the style (as mentioned) and the violent action scenes (as tame as they seem now). This is a film trying for something new. It surprises you just when you think it’s going to carry on doing things a certain way. Also, while the film is very loyal to Fleming’s book, there are scenes that were omitted or altered to suit the more sedate 1962 audience. In the novel the villainous Dr. No has a nice side business in guano trade, and is killed after Bond dumps tonnes of guano on him. Yes, you read that right…. Dr. No meets his maker by having gargantuan amounts of bird shit poured on top of him. Classic. No one could accuse Fleming of having no imagination.
And no, I couldn’t imagine that in the film either.
Perhaps due to the lack of Fleming’s bird shit destruction, I still find parts of Dr. No particularly boring due to the comparitively slower pace. True, it’s a film with many merits, but it still stands as one of my less favourite Connery outings. Yet I’ll let it escape the venom I normally reserve for Never Say Never Again because it was the first. It is far better than it should be, and it’s the original template for what followed. The plot isn’t too complex, but must have had a bit more zest than the usual early ’60s espionage film due to its space rocket hijacks and suggestions of rampant shagging. Plus Sean Connery is superb, and couldn’t look more at home in the role if he tried. He got better as well, damn him. He really did. It also has arguably the best Bond girl in Ursula Andress’ Honey Ryder. Ursula seems such a nice woman in the interviews I’ve seen, that I feel really pleased that she did Dr. No. There’s also the original confrontation with the villain in his liar, and those are my favourite scenes. Joseph Wiseman seems to relish his role as Dr. Julias No. In him, another Bond template is made. I’d even say he was as good as Gert Frobe in Goldfinger, but more about him later.
“You’re nothing but a stupid policeman”, taunts No, and perhaps I was siding with him for many years, when I thought about this film. But I’m more prone to giving Dr. No its dues these days. For it is a good film. I admit it! It’s just that nowadays, it has to live in the shadow of much more polished and lavish companions. But I’ll let it off. After all, its success is one of the big reasons I’m here talking about James Bond.