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Now Pay Attention, 007: Dr. No

by David Cornelius

Is it even possible to watch “Dr. No” today - or any day after, say, 1964 - without comparing it to all that followed?

Maybe for you; not for me. “Dr. No” was one of the last Bond movies I encountered in my youth. By that point, I knew the formula by heart and spent the entire film hunting for the seeds of what would later become the franchise trademarks. I may have been old enough to admire the film on its own terms, but I didn’t want to - I wanted to admire it on 007 terms.

This is the franchise finding its feet. In 1962, there was no other movie quite like it; yes, there were glossy action pictures and violent detective pictures, but the makers of “Dr. No” were inventing something wholly different: the Bond picture. With nothing to go by (aside from Ian Fleming’s novel, which gave them the plot but not its eventual tone), it’s no surprise that it takes half the movie to get into what we now recognize as prime 007 territory.

The behind-the-scenes lead-up to “Dr. No” is a tale well known to Bond fans, who might as well skip the next two paragraphs. Ian Fleming had been hunting for a movie deal for nearly a decade; after the author’s plan to concoct an all-new story to launch a Bond franchise fell through (a mess that led to “Thunderball,” both the novel and the film), the rights were finally bought by producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli. With “Thunderball” unavailable, “Dr. No” was chosen to be Bond’s screen debut. (I recall hearing once that the it was chosen because it was the cheapest of the books to translate to film; this may very well be apocryphal, but it sure sounds right.)

You’ve likely already heard the casting legends: how Cary Grant was offered the role of 007 but insisted he would only do one film; how James Mason was also considered, but he said he’d bow out after two; how Fleming himself asked his friend Noel Coward to play the titular villain (replying via telegram, “no no no”). Eventually the producers and director Terence Young picked Sean Connery as Bond (who signed on for a five picture deal) and Joseph Wiseman as No.

Adapted by Wolf Mankowitz (who went uncredited by request, certain the film would bomb and ruin his reputation), Johanna Harwood, Berkeley Mather, and, finally, Richard Maibaum (who would contribute scripts for most of the franchise until his death in 1991), “Dr. No” the film sticks rather closely to Fleming’s novel, as do the next two films. Changes are minimal and mostly cosmetic. Most notable is the filmmakers’ decision to make No an agent not of the USSR, but of the fictional terrorist organization SPECTRE, thus distancing the film from the Cold War elements of the books. (Curiously, it would be the Roger Moore films - the ones completely unrelated to Fleming’s work - that would make the Soviet Union a key player.)

The basics remain: James Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the death of fellow agent Strangways (Tim Moxon); his trail leads him to the mysterious island of Crab Key, then to Dr. No, who finally reveals a plot to disrupt NASA’s space program.

Not counting his obligatory visit to M’s office, it’s not until Bond makes his way to Crab Key that “Dr. No” really feels like A James Bond Movie. Before this, it’s a fairly simple (albeit highly involving) detective/spy yarn, notable mainly for its rather chilling nature. The film’s first half includes several cold-blooded murders, including a most notorious one by the hero himself: few leading men from late-50s film noir would be so brutal as to repeatedly shoot someone in the back - after taunting him first. (“That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six,” he wryly informs his would-be assassin. As originally shot, Bond fires five extra shots into his already-fallen enemy’s back; censorship cut it down to one.) The Bond of “Dr. No” is flippant, cocky, and seductive, but the main trait that separates him from other screen heroes and antiheroes is his viciousness. He’ll even rough up a lady or two, strong-arming a dragon lady photographer (Marguerite LeWars) with the same gusto he uses to take on No’s henchmen. (Granted, she does earn it, what with the creepy flashbulb licking and sinister sneering. But still.)

Other factors help it stand out from other action offerings of the day. Most obvious is the wit, which takes the film furthest from Fleming’s work and is, well, exactly what we’ve come to love (and/or bemoan) about the Bond franchise. The cynical, detached one-liners begin here, and not just with the string of obvious jokes (“Make sure he doesn’t get away”), but with the very introduction of Bond himself. Director Young, cribbing an introduction from the 1939 film “Juarez,” slowly reveals our hero at the baccarat table - a hand here, a shoulder there - and when the camera finally tilts up to reveal his face (cigarette dangling ever so carefree; he hasn’t even said anything yet, and we already have him figured out), he lets loose with the now-famous “Bond. James Bond.” Except: it’s not just an arrogant introduction. It’s Bond smugly mocking the pretensions of the woman (Eunice Gayson) who just introduced herself as “Trench. Sylvia Trench.” 007’s greatest catchphrase began as a verbal middle finger to some rich twit.

(A rich twit, it should be noted, whom Bond would bed through the next film. Trench as a recurring character on the level of M or Miss Moneypenny was an idea that eventually got scrapped, but there she is in “From Russia With Love,” playing the role of “Bond’s girlfriend back home.”)

Movie heroes just didn’t behave this way in 1962. We’re so used to it now - especially those of us who went to the cinema in the age of Schwarzenegger - but back then, Bond’s quips were something of a revolution, a sarcasm ahead of its time. By the time Bond works his way into No’s lair, the jokes are in full force. He’s snide right to his captor’s face; who else would dare? (Best line: “Tell me, does the toppling of American missiles really compensate for having no hands?”) But he’s not the only jokester - the filmmakers themselves drop some visual gags, like the villain’s possession of a recently-stolen Goya painting. (Not a timeless gag, but most certainly a clever one.)

Then there’s the sheer pacing of the thing, led by editor Peter Hunt. (Hunt would edit the next four Bond films before ultimately directing 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”) We see Hunt experimenting with the cutting, adding then-uncommon jump cuts to the action sequences, making the action frantic and unreal. Other films were glossy, sure, but none looked like “Dr. No.”

(There are times when the movie’s disjointed nature disrupts more than it wows. The schizophrenic title sequence - a mess of epilepsy-inducing colors and shapes - gives us seemingly random portions of three separate songs, including the “James Bond Theme,” which then plays in even more random times throughout the film, perhaps to fill holes in the soundtrack. Do we really need those horns blaring every time Sean Connery walks across a lobby?)

Credit for the movie’s innovative look also goes to production designer Ken Adam, who created a handful of visually powerful sets, including No’s sleek living quarters, the villain’s space age lab, and the eerie chamber (shot low, emphasizing the strange crosshatched grill on the ceiling) where Dent (Anthony Dawson) receives his orders (and a tarantula!) from an unseen Dr. No.

It’s such little moments that prepare the audience for an ever-increasing “largeness” to the story. When Bond arrives on Crab Key and meets the lovely Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress, whose arrival needs no discussion; her introduction remains one of the greatest shots in the history of cinema), we’re still watching a relatively ordinary thriller, filled with exotic locales and bold action, but nothing you’d call overly bizarre. Yet by the time Bond is defeating No’s henchmen and blowing up the whole damn island, we’ve stepped into an insane comic book.

Yes, in the last act of the film, we’re finally in familiar Bond territory - 007 invited into the villain’s headquarters, where the baddie talks a little too much about his ultimate plans, etc., etc. In retrospect, it seems the only logical place for “Dr. No” to go, but at the time, it must’ve been sheer madness. (Heck, while the next few Bond movies give us grand scale battle finales, it’s not until “You Only Live Twice” that we really get inside one of those henchmen-filled hidden lairs again.) “Dr. No” is a film that keeps aiming over the top until, by the end, you can’t even see the top from that height.

For all this wildness, “Dr. No” is still hailed by fans as one of the series’ best. I wouldn’t go that far - it’s terrific entertainment, to be sure, but its unevenness keeps up from being a great film. Still, we can admire that its absurdities are relatively few compared to later films; that the plot, while ridiculous, is relatively straightforward; that it delivers the wiseassery and hyperkineticism but not to excessive levels; that its tone is fairly true to Fleming. The latter gets far more weight from fans than necessary (I’ve long felt anyone demanding the movies be more like the books is missing the point - the movies are ultimately their own thing), since it’s the lunacies of the film that really make it memorable. Then again, Fleming delivered his share of lunacy, too.

Next: James Bond goes to Turkey, SPECTRE strikes back, and Lotte Lenya delivers some fancy footwork.

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originally posted: 04/08/10 11:30:58
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