Grab your nearest bottle of Lafite Rothschild ’62 because, on top of everything else going on and despite the apparent superiority of the Rothschild 63, this year – 2012 – marks the fiftieth anniversary of James Bond’s debut on film.
Not that this is Bond’s true film debut. Oh, no. The story of his cinematic birth wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it were. In 1954, a TV movie version of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale, premiered on the CBS anthology series Climax! to…pretty pathetic results, really. Far as I’m concerned, the best thing about that Casino Royale was its score, written by a twenty-five year-old ex-typist named Jerry Goldsmith.
It sounds like Fleming always wanted to export his secret agent superhero to flickering image-based mediums. But Fleming, like a lot of other writers at the dawn of the TV era, inked a lot of bad deals with a lot of shady operators who preferred squatting on film rights to actually making movies. One of these was the Canadian producer Harry Saltzman, a man of (up ’til then) modest success who hoped to make it big…and saw his chance when his screenwriter friend Wolf Mankowitz introduced him to American producer Albert R. Broccoli. Know as “Cubby” to his friends.
Together, Saltzman and Broccoli formed the holding company Danjaq (a portmanteau of their wives’ first names) as a storehouse of Bond’s trademarks. Danjaq’s subsidiary, EON Productions, would do the work of actually making films. Thunderball was to be the first, since it began life specifically as a screenplay…but Fleming grew impatient and eventually turn it into the ninth Bond novel…without crediting his co-screenwriters. This situation quickly escalated into a lawsuit, forcing Saltzman and Broccoli to change course. They chose the sixth in the series, Dr. No, for adaption, and here we are, fifty years later.
We meet Mr. Bond (Sean Connery) as he’s called away from a game of cards to investigate the “disappearance” (re: murder) of the British Intelligence Section Chief for Jamaica, John Strangways (Timothy Moxon, with dubbed-over dialogue by Robert Rietty). According to Bond’s boss, M (Bernard Lee), Strangways was checking up on a complaint from “The Americans.” Radio interference from down Jamaica way is fucking with Cape Canaveral’s rockets. Bad enough it’s throwing the unmanned ones off-course, crashing them into South America. If the same happened to NASA’s upcoming moon-shot…well, the results wouldn’t be good. I guess the Project Mercury of this universe was about seven years ahead of ours…which might help explain the presence of all the advanced technology that keeps popping up in this series as things go on.
But for now there are no real gadgets to be seen. Only a gun, which is appropriate. No Q, either. Instead, M introduces bond to Major Boothroyd (Peter Burton) who in turn introduces Bond to the Walther PPK that will sit at his side for the next fifty years. Bond’s gun of choice, a Beretta, apparently jammed during his last mission, resulting in a six month hospital stay and threats from M: take the Walther or “go back to standard intelligence duties”…whatever that means. Sure as shit sounds ominous.
“When do you sleep, 007?”
“Never on the firm’s time, sir.”
We (and by “we” I mean “James Bond fans”) forget sometimes that, like many a comic book superhero after him, Bond came to the screen with years worth of accumulated continuity. Pieces of it are referenced throughout Bond’s early scenes in sly, subtle ways only the dedicated Fleming reader will readily catch, giving the overall impression that we’ve stepped into the middle of this man’s ongoing story. We sense this guy’s been through some shit and barely escaped with all his limbs: that, despite his jet-setting, suave motherfucker facade, he’s reached a point in life where career ambitions have taken a back seat to his enjoyment of all the extra-curricular activities his job affords him…the finer things that make all the tough stuff worthwhile.
None of this backstory’s explicitly mentioned. There are no monologues, traumatic flashbacks, or concern for Bond’s pre-Super Spy life here. He might as well have stepped out of a pod in MI7’s (sic) subbasement. Other characters monologue at him, beginning a series trend…but for now, the expository crumbs we’re handed prove tasty enough. What happened back there, with that jammed Beretta? What’s so distasteful about “standard intelligence work”? And when are he and M’s secretary, Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), gonna fuck on her desk? I always figured they already had and were just waiting for the stars to align again so they could come together (nyuck-nyuck) for Round Two while everyone was out of the office.
Bond receives quite the reception in Jamaica. A car and driver, neither of which he requested, appear for him at the airport. He forces the driver to park it but the poor bastard eats a cyanide cigarette before he can spell out whom he’s working for (spoiler alert: it’s the guy with his name in the title). Complicating matters, the CIA’s already on-site in the person of Felix Leiter (Jack Lord); there’s a “freelance” photographer (the then-current Miss Jamaica, Marguerite LeWars) tailing Bond, taking pictures whenever he dares show his face in public…and there’s this secretary from Government House, Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), who keeps giving Bond The Eye. Yeah, she’s totally on the up-and-up…
Someone (the quote’s usually attributed to Orson Welles) once said, “As an actor, you want to play the character everyone talks about for the entire film, who only shows up for three minutes at the end.” If that’s the case, Joseph Wiseman must’ve loved this part. Every conversation in the first two-thirds of the film eventually circles back to Dr. No. As the first cinematic Bond villain, he’s become an inspiration for supervillains everywhere, with his metal hands, life-long outsider status, perpetual monologuing, and quest for World Domination (of course). Too bad he’s such a (creator-admitted) Fu Manchu rip-off its impossible to take him seriously…but I’m one of those weird people who finds the inherent racism of Yellow Peril villains devastatingly hilarious. Especially (as here) when they’re played by white people in bad make-up. I bet most children of the late-20th century don’t even notice. Your parents gave you this film at an early age because they hadn’t seen it themselves in years and somehow managed to forget all the murder and scantly clad babes it offers…never mind the causal racism.
Supposedly the son of a German missionary and a Chinese girl “of good family,” Dr. Julius No somehow wormed his way into a job as the Tong’s head accountant…from whence he eventually made off with “ten million of their dollars,” purchasing the island of Crab Key, and set up his own nuclear reactor. In the original novel, No’s metal hands were meant as a sign the Tong eventually caught up with him (they do dearly love to go Old Testament on people). Here, No waves the metal hands away (har-har) as the result of a radiation accident…because that‘s somehow less gruesome…I guess. Hope you had all the kids you wanted, Doc. Either way, No plans to knock NASA’s rockets out of the sky as part of a nebulous revenge scheme on both the Cold War superpowers. “The Americans are fools,” No tells Bond over dinner. “I offered my services, they refused. So did the East. Now they can both pay for their mistake.” Your services as…what? An accountant? A Super Scientist? Both?
We never find out and it doesn’t really matter, I suppose, since No reveals himself to be a member of SPECTRE, the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion (but they’re thinking of changing the name…no, not really). Dr. No calls the elements of that acronym “the four great cornerstones of power headed by the greatest brains in the world.” If that’s the case…what’s their end-game with all this? Destroying terrestrial space programs? Is there another crazy SPECTRE agent lurking somewhere in the Black Sea, poised to knock Russia’s rockets down while No’s busy with the Americans? How does that net anyone World Domination? Bond doesn’t ask, which means I have to… and I thought spies were in the business of asking questions.
To be fair, No’s plan is the central mystery of the whole movie, and the film hopes I’ll be too distracted by the (admittedly gorgeous) production design of Dr. No’s lair to ask any annoying questions by the time they come up. Director Terrance Young and editor Peter Hunt specifically designed things this way. By twenty-first century standards, Dr. No‘s pacing can seem slow and staid, but make no mistake, true believers: this was the rapid-fire, hyper-kinetic editing of its day. We only consider it slow now, decades after it set the pace of modern Action films…which, at the time, were still called “Thrillers.”
The “thrills” to be had here are small, but that doesn’t make them ineffective. Quite the opposite. It’s funny: despite the film’s several fist fights and one car chases my favorite scene (and biggest thrill) comes in…well, let’s just say, “in that scene with the tarantula.” You’ll know it when you see it. Me, I’ve seen scenes like it in plenty of horror films (occasionally featuring far more tarantulas) and it still creeps me right the fuck out thanks to Bond’s reaction, which is priceless. It’s our reaction, too. And in that moment we see a rare glimpse of James Bond, the man behind the invincible secret agent.
Hell, he’s far from invincible here, and far more human than he’d be for years to come, prey to all kinds of human foibles. He gets annoyed with his boss, injured on the job, tricked by easily-sussed-out squeeze plays, captured, drugged, tied to a chair and beaten up by anonymous thugs he never once kills in reprisal (at least, not directly). He may be the smoothest operator on Earth when he’s upright and working…but he’s still a fallible – and more importantly, recognizable – human being.
Connery, the body-builder turned actor, was no one’s first choice for the role he wound up defining with a reserve so cool it’s almost deadpan. This casual, don’t-give-a-fuck attitude apparently secured him the job, so I’m not surprised to see him play it so close to the hilt he almost looks bored. He comes across as every inch the seasoned pro he’s supposed to be. At one point, after he’s knifed a henchman in the back in order to keep their position secret, someone asks Bond, “Why?”
“Because I had to.”
he responds, simply and directly. And while we’re here, I might as well mention that the entire Crab Key sequence is tenser than half the car chases, gunfights or explosion-orgies in this franchise. Why? Because it’s well-directed, with a clear sense of geography. And overlain by a great score from Monty Norman and John Berry that adds to the tension as No’s henchmen and dogs close in. It’s my third favorite sequence in the film, behind that one with the tarantula and a scene where Bond, suspecting the vodka on his nightstand might be poisoned, pulls a fresh bottle from a sock drawer. Take heed, professionals: it pays to have a secret stash…or six…
Let’s see…what else is there to talk about…?
Ah, yes…Ursula. As a Honeychile “Honey” Rider who suffered significant adaption decay, the first of many Good Bond Girls with rape in their backstories and a vendetta against the main villain owing to some dead relative (in this case, her father). A capable life-long islander in Fleming’s novel (who manages to save herself and sail a passed-out Bond back to Jamaica, thank you very much) she becomes a one-dimensional waif now that she’s played by a Swiss actress (and voiced by a German one, Monica van der Zyl).
One-dimensionality is the curse of most Bond-movie supporting casts and almost all of his villains. That’s what you get when you focus the camera on your protagonist and focus your protagonist on the Villainous Plot of the Year. Such things are great for serialized literature, but they usually fall flat on the screen…unless your protagonist is an Ideal Man.
That’s always been my major problem with Bond: the idea of a globe-trotting super spy who does nothing but seduce beautiful women whenever he’s not punching supervillains is far more interesting than the reality…even when that reality is a million dollar, international action movie. It’s easy to see why Wolf Mankowitz abandoned his friends early: this movie could’ve been a complete disaster without someone toe sell these lines, which in turn help the movie sell its line of bullshit. Everyone had a hand in this script, as is often the case with first productions from new companies, but whoever decided to give Bond a sense of humor – whether Cubby Broccoli, Terrance Young, the three credited writers, Connery, or any of the uncredited ones – saved this franchise from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Fleming was known for many things, but comedy was not one of them. Connery’s so good, in fact, some early-60s critics mistook this for a brilliant piece of straight-faced self-parody.
I can see that, too: Bond reacts to everything, no matter how outrageous (murderous geologists, stage-whispering double agents) with an arched eyebrow that says, “Really?” giving us permission to do the same. So Dr. No becomes an easy-to-revisit classic, despite its flaws. The pacing slows in the middle as the investigation drags on, but once you get to Crab Key, you’re in the home stretch. Connery’s great, and so’s Wiseman, once he shows up. So’s Jack Lord as Bond’s American counterpart and John Kitzmiller as his Jamaican boatman, Quarrel – vicious stereotype though Quarrel might’ve been.
I’d discus how the music, production design, direction, editing, structure, and so many other elements Dr. No have become iconic…but I’d rather save that for future reviews of all the films this helped inspire. That’s one down and only fifty years worth of ’em to go. But see this first. Anyone looking for any understanding of the modern action film’s roots needs to see Dr. No early and often. In the meantime, I’ll meet you in From Russia with Love.