Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, March 2, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1962)

1. Dr. No

By 1962, Ian Fleming had cranked out 10 James Bond books. The character was an established property. Several attempts had been made to transfer Bond’s success on the page to success on the screen. Fleming himself was drafted to work on a television series which never came to be. Fleming worked on an adaptation again, this time a movie, which also never materialized. Finally, the collaboration of producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli brought Bond to the screen. Since the rights to “Casino Royale” having been previously sold off to another company, the newly formed Eon Productions choose the sixth of Fleming’s novel to adapt, “Dr. No.” Eon was savvy enough to realize that the Bond series’ unique combination of sex, violence, exotic locations, and political intrigue was a license, not to kill, but to print money. Bond was planned as a franchise from the beginning. It wouldn’t have happened without this one. 

In his first film adventure, James Bond 007 heads to Jamaica. Two MI6 operatives are killed while on the line with the British agency. Bond is sent to investigate. The murdered agents were snooping into strange events at a local island, which appears to be radioactive. There’s a target on Bond’s head from the moment he arrives. He makes friends, beds a few beautiful women, and unravels what’s going on, uncovering the villainous Dr. No and his plot to jam Cape Canaveral rocket tests and manufacture nuclear weapons.

From the very beginning, the Bond series was designed to be distinctive, of the moment, and the definition of cool. This is evident right from the film’s opening sequence. So many of the things that have become ingrained with the character, and thus with whole waves of popular culture, are present here. The gun barrel opening is so iconic. Imagine seeing it for the first time. It immediately sets up Bond as a man of danger and action. The enemy’s scope is always on him but he’s always gunning them down first. A series of flashing bright lines dance over the screen, introducing us to the title. John Barry’s theme blares over the images. Barry’s Bond theme is one of the most famous pieces of film music ever created, perhaps only rivaled by the “Star Wars” theme. The jangling guitars establishes Bond’s cool. The blaring horns hint at the danger and excitement he’ll be faces. For everything iconic about the opening, it’s also more eccentric then expected. The Barry theme gives way to calypso music, silhouettes of dancing couples, and a steel drum variation on “Three Blind Mice.” We’re not there yet; even the goofy sound effects that accompany the gun barrel sequence seems odd; but there’s no denying that “Dr. No’s” opening is fantastic and distinctive.

Equally iconic is Sean Connery’s introduction. We first only see his hands, opening a cigarette from his case. Connery utters the immortal line, solidifying his place in pop culture history. If it’s possible, let’s look pass the towering place Connery occupies in fiction. A former body builder and only 30 years old, Connery was still a new discovery at the time. His accent was not exaggerated to the heights of parody. Connery is cool and steely but focused. Even while kissing women, his mind remains on his mission. He’s observant enough to know when he’s being watched or when his driver is a hitman. Yet it’s not impossible for him to be caught off guard, such as a surprisingly suspenseful, if outwardly silly, moment when he assassinates a tarantula. Two moments best sum up why Connery was so great in the part. First, he man-hands a young female photographer at a bar. She’s seemingly not involved with the villain but he still grills the girl, destroying her film. He’s cold and serious, not worrying about stepping on toes. Even more impressive is when he coldly shoots a would-be assassin at point blank range without a second thought. This is Bond, a blunt instrument, a killing machine. But Connery can pull off the pithy one-liners or the romantic entanglement. Whether or not Connery is even a good actor is irrelevant. There has never been a better combination of material and actor. Connery fully inhabits Bond. Connery might as well be Bond.

Being based off an on-going series of books, a certain formula was already in place for the budding Bond series. Bond wanders into MI6 offices, flirting with Moneypenny after tossing his hat onto the coat rack. He is briefed by M, who dutifully busts his balls before giving him his mission. We even have someone from Q branch walking in, though all he does is assign Bond his soon-to-be-iconic Walter PPK pistol. Bond travels to an exotic location, as in every other future entry. He seduces beautiful women, because of course he does. The villain’s base is infiltrated and destroyed. It’s hard to say how many of these things were intentional attempts to establish reoccurring trends and how many of them just fell into place over the years.

In many ways, though, “Dr. No” is very different then the numerous sequels that would follow. “Dr. No” is far more low-key then future installments. It’s practically a mystery for its first hour or more. Bond spends more time then expected sleuthing. He follows leads, bumping into Felix Leiter and his cohorts. He snoops around Crab Key Island, investigating. He talks to suspected people, seducing a doctor’s secretary more for the information she can provide then simply because she’s beautiful. (Though, presumably, this has something to do with it.) It’s not until the final act, when Bond wanders into the villain’s secret lair, that “Dr. No” truly begins to resemble Bond’s future.

In line with this approach, “Dr. No” does not feature the kind of high-flying action that would become synonymous with the series. Bond doesn’t slay bad guys in the film’s opening scene, only a baccarat table and Syliva Trench’s heart. The first action beat comes when Bond judo-flips a driver. The tumbling is raw if slightly awkward, Bond flipping the man single-handedly. There’s a big car chase, climaxing in a flaming vehicle careening down a mountain side, which is mildly exciting. Both deaths are check marked with the first of many post-mortum one-liners, both of which are pretty good. Bond doesn’t gun down hundreds of henchmen. His style seems more to sneak up on people, snapping their necks from behind. He does that twice! When not doing that, he’s punching dudes off railing, which he also does twice. Despite utilizing his license to kill frequently, perhaps the best action beat in the film is one of the least elaborate. When Bond sneaks out of his cell, he’s sweaty and uncertain. Sneaking through the pipes, even Bond doesn’t seem to know if this will work. The climax features explosions, wrestling, and daring escapes, all the first of many. That solid mixture of visceral violence and genuine surprise keeps “Dr. No” exciting.

Another element of the series seemingly established from the beginning was the bevy of beautiful women Bond becomes entangled with. First, we meet Eunice Gayson’s Syliva Trench. The sight of Gayson lounging in Bond’s apartment only in a buttoned-up shirt, thumbing a golf club and showing off her very long legs. Gayson has immediate chemistry with Connery and would rightfully return next time. Trench became the first opening Bond Girl, the girl the spy mingles with at the story’s beginning. The first of the quote-unquote evil Bond Girls is Miss Taro, played by Zena Marshall. Marshall’s natural exotic beauty is emphasized by slightly Asian make-up. She is easily the most sexual of the film’s women, wearing only a towel in one notable scene. (Amazingly, she also makes it out of the movie alive.) Easily the most iconic of the film’s female characters doesn’t appear until the movie is nearly over. Ursula Andress steps out of the surf, in that perfect white swimsuit, and entered puberty-driven fantasies of hundreds of young males. Andress is incredibly sexy, of course, and the film repeatedly puts her in various stages of undress. However, the cheekily named Honey Ryder doesn't contribute much to the plot. She has her character-establishing moment, detailing some back story. Mostly though, she’s a damsel in distress and eye candy. Magnificent eye candy, yes, but imagine how different “Dr. No” would be if Sylvia Trench has accompanied Bond throughout the whole film.

Just as Honey Ryder enters the film late, so does its titular character. Despite staying off-screen for most of the run time, Dr. No casts a long shadow. Professor Dent is egged into committing an attempted murder simply by the force of No’s voice. His henchmen are loyal to him because its apparent how scary the guy is. When Dr. No enters the film, the camera emphasizes his frightful reputation. Dr. No is, in many ways, still the iconic Bond bad guy. He invites Bond to dinner, making him comfortable, attempting to sway him to the side of evil. He drops references towards SPECRE, showing that, even this early on, the producers were setting up Bond’s reoccurring archenemy. The other stereotype associated with Bond villains, some sort of physical deformity, is also accounted for. Dr. No has robotic hands, clad in sleek leather gloves. They end up not playing a particularly large role, more for atmosphere then plot reasons. For extra Yellow Peril bonus points, No is given vague Oriental features, even accompanied by some Chinese chimes on the soundtrack. Joseph Wiseman’s mixture of refinement and quiet menace is the main reason the film’s titular adversary still remains one of the best of Bond’s rivals.

What of the supporting cast? No one ever talks about them. Jack Lord plays Felix Leiter almost as Bond’s literal American counterpart. Though we don’t see much of him, it’s suggests that he may be as cool as his British pal. (Leiter’s been played by multiple different actors too.) Bernard Lee as M and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny would grow into their parts in time. Maxwell is immediately darling but Lee comes off as an indistinct boss character. Probably the bit part that gets the least amount of credit is John Kitzmiller as Quarrel. Quarrel accompanies Bond for long portions of the film, being more of a sidekick then Leiter is. He’s got no problem with twisting a woman’s arm and has a natural kinship with James. Kitzmiller’s demise, via ridiculous dragon wagon, is sadly brushed over, considering the quick friendship he formed with our hero. Thus is the life of a spy.

When so much of the Bond legacy is focused on the actors and reoccurring story choices, director Terence Young tends to get overlooked. Young guides the film with a slick visual presentation, perfectly suited to the material. Take, for example, the moment when Professor Kent is forced to attempt tarantula-assisted homicide. He stands in a darkened room, blue light shining through the web-like grate. Considering how many instantly iconic entrances “Dr. No” has, it’s obvious that Young knew how to frame and execute a shot. Aside from some rough visual effects, “Dr. No” looks as smooth and cool now as it did back in 1962.

What does get plenty of credit is the unforgettable production design. The supervillain’s underground lair has been parodied to death, even by the Bond series itself. But give credit where its due. Dr. No’s lair is a fantastic set. The dining room with its slanting fireplace and strange wild life on the walls marks him as a man of refined, if eccentric, taste. (Knowing that Fleming’s inspiration for the literary Dr. No was Aleister Crowley, that makes a lot more sense.) The film’s weirdest element, which is hardly commented on, is the tank full of giant, mutated fish Dr. No keeps. Imagine a Bond movie getting away with an off-handedly odd touch like that today. The radiation plant features my favorite costumes. The workers wear containment suits with rectangular, clear helmets. It doesn’t seem very safe but it’s cool as hell. The same could be said for the almost comical giant wheel Bond turns to plunge the base into chaos. There’s a reason these troupes would enter pop culture so deeply. They were impressive from day one.

Though not an immediate phenomena, “Dr. No” grew into a sizable hit world over. The risk Eon Productions took paid off. Nobody knew it then but they had just successfully birthed a fifty year film legacy. Though not without some early installment weirdness, “Dr. No’s” look and feel would define, not just Bond but, the entire spy boom of the sixties. It’s a fun, captivating watch, full of fantastic, indelible moments. The movie’s success insured one thing: James Bond would return. [Grade: B+]


[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[X] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

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