James Bond Declassified: File #1 - "Dr. No" kicks off our look back at the classic series
A look at the first film and the sixth book in one of the biggest spy series ever
- Critic's Rating B+
- Readers' Rating B
JAMES BOND 007 DECLASSIFIED
File #1: "Dr. No"
This series will trace the cinema history of James Bond, while also examining Ian Fleming's original novels as source material and examining how faithful (or not) the films have been to his work.
Directed by Terence Young
Screenplay by Richard Maibaum & Johanna Harwood & Berkley Mather
James Bond / Sean Connery
Honeychile Ryder / Ursula Andress
Dr. Julius No / Joseph Wiseman
Felix Leiter / Jack Lord
M / Bernard Lee
Professor RJ Dent / Anthony Dawson
Miss Taro / Zena Marshall
Quarrel / John Kitzmuller
Sylvia Trench / Eunice Gayson
Miss Moneypenny / Lois Maxwell
Major Boothroyd / Peter Burton
Sister Lily / Yvonne Shima
Sister Rose / Michel Mok
Annabelle Chung / Marguerite LeWars
Superintendent Duff / William Foster-Davis
Mary Trueblood / Dolores Keator
Jones / Reggie Carter
Pleydell-Smith / Louis Blaazer
General Potter / Colonel Burton
There's no pre-credits sequence sting on this one, so they hadn't had that particular a-ha moment yet. Just titles, right away. The "Three Blind Mice" segment of the credits, leading into the Three Blind Mice on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, footage obviously shot on location, is one of the strangest transitions into a Bond film ever, but you can hardly blame them. They didn't know what they were doing completely in the first film. They were working hard to define the films right away, and the big booming theme music that starts the film is one of the signatures that was in place from the very beginning. As adaptations go, it starts off fairly close to the book, and this works to start telling the story even before Terence Young gets his credit.
I didn't see "Dr. No" first. I don't think it was second or third, either. If I'm correct, I saw it sixth, which is appropriate, since it wasn't the first book released. It was the sixth, and was released to a good deal of controversy by Fleming, along with accusations of sadism and racism.
Still, when Danjaq and EON struck their deal with UA to make the first James Bond film, this is the movie they ended up making. From the very beginning, they made it clear that the film series was the film series and the books were the books, and they were not the same thing.
It wasn't like the moment where "Harry Potter" made the jump from book to screen, where there was a huge cultural phenomenon already in place. The books were big on their own but they weren't on every bedside table. They were very large cult item at the time, and there were all these bumps where the Bond books got attention. John F. Kennedy, for example, spoke about his fondness for them, sending a spike into the sales at the time. There was a very specific pulp voice that Ian Fleming cultivated in his work, and the films worked hard to figure out a visual equivalent. The cinematography by Ted Moore is positively quintessential when you're trying to establish what the '60s looked like on film. This is the pre-hippie '60s, though, all pop color explosion and creamy candy textures. When James Bond finally does show up in the movie, he's laying some moves on Eunice Gayson from across a Baccarat table. She's a gorgeous brunette in a primary-red dress with striking black hair and blue eyes. It's seductive in every way, a Madison Avenue version of Bond. This was the age of the ad men, and James Bond was selling a lifestyle that never existed, a romanticized version of the sort of games played by the little grey men who made up the actual British secret service.
The first scene with M, starting with the first meeting with Moneypenny, is fairly true to the tone of the rest of the series, although more subdued than later movies. M is played here by Bernard Lee, who closed out the '70s playing the character, and he was already a hardworking presence in something like 60 movies and TV shows before he signed on to play the top man at MI6. He's probably closer to what most English spies actually looked like, as opposed to Sean Connery, who is so insanely cool and polished and chiseled already here that it feels like a reinvention. There's no way this is that dude from "Darby O'Gill and the Little People." This is an actor realizing he's got a chance here to play THE spy, not just a spy. Connery took this right into the realm of pop genius from the moment he opened his mouth. It's a great performance, mannered and considered and always underlined with that wry Connery detachment.
I love the chase scene after James leaves the airport in Jamaica. It's all location. It's all real. There are a few great shots in the chase where it's just Sean Connery in the back seat of a little convertible hauling ass down a Jamaican road. Beautiful. Ian Fleming had a great fondness for Jamaica and had a home there, so maybe it's fitting that the first Bond film also served as a pretty unequivocal advertisement for the natural beauty of the island nation.
"Make sure he doesn't get away." That line right after pulling up in front of a government building with a dead body in the back seat establishes Bond as a cold-blooded smart-ass. He can roll with things like a spy who kills himself when captured via a suicide capsule hidden in a tooth. Just part of the job. Why not crack a good joke about it to lighten the mood?
Connery's Bond is a detective in this film, much more than he's a superhero. He's constantly following the trail of these murders and whoever is orchestrating them. He's the one who starts to follow the trail to Professor Dent.
"Mixed like you said, sir. Not stirred." First mention of Bond's preference in martini technology. Bond continues the detective work, setting traps to see if anyone's checking up on him or going through his things. His well-tailored suits are designed to look good and conceal his gun, and he feels right at home with the pompous members of a social club while also relaxed whenever he deals with the locals. Bond can put on the upper crust, and he can drop it, too. He can be whoever he needs to be to get someone comfortable enough to talk. Even when someone sees him coming and is openly hostile, Bond can put on the charm.
I love the scene that starts with his conversation with Quarrel then builds to the introduction of Felix Leiter. Jack Lord's sunglasses alone make this a four-star film. And I love that Leiter's like, "Yeah, I saw you at the airport." He's not fooled by James Bond at all. He's been watching Bond stumble around trying to get his bearings and sizing him up in the process, and finally decides to put out the helping hand. It's good to see Bond as just one person in this larger game instead of the Superman to everyone else's Jimmy Olsen. Here, once he's accepted, he's happy to sit around shooting the shit with Leiter and Quarrel so they can all figure out who's pulling the strings in whatever's going on.
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While Bond may not know that Dr. No is behind everything, we learn it as soon as Professor Dent goes to report in. It's a great creepy scene, and it makes Dr. No feel like a great intriguing menace. We never see anything of him, but that set and that voice work together to paint a very vivid picture. and as soon as Professor Dent is sent out on his mission to kill Bond, we get one of the first in-film uses of the theme song as James Bond picks up the MOST. DRAMATIC. FRONT. DESK. MESSAGE. OF. ALL. TIME.
That night, when the tarantula does the creepy under the sheet walk up Bond's body, it's not the first time someone did that gag, nor was it the last, but Connery sells it, and the spider is a freakin' beast. Giant and hairy and ugly as sin. Best part of the scene, though? The way the orchestral stings are timed to the smacks with the shoe when he finally kills the thing. Hilarious.
When you look at the specific styling of the various women Bond beds in this film, it's obvious that "Playboy" played a part in the aesthetic sense of these films, which may be another reason they struck such a chord. There is a glamour and a very modern (for the time) attitude towards sexuality, and the women in these films are predators just like the men, treating it like a sport, and Bond like an opponent that they are eager to play against. When Miss Taro phones Bond, she's posed like a centerfold, and when she answers the door for him later, after he was supposed to be killed, she's just out of the shower, and looks ready for anything, still wet and wrapped in a towel. Zena Marshall, who played her, is like a fetish doll version of an Asian sex kitten, but that's exactly what the films are selling. Bond lives the life every man in the audience would love to live, and that's why all the cars and all the clothes and all the drinks and all the women have to be the best of the best. Sure, Bond could just arrest Miss Taro right away once he figures out she's setting him up, but he makes sure to tear off a piece first, because why waste what's right there? It's male fantasy squared, and played perfectly.
"I think they were on their way to a funeral." Second classic Bond "I just killed someone" joke in the film. Bond's unflappable in most of the movie. He may break a sweat when that spider climbs him, but when he waits for the Professor to make the second attempt on his life, or when he leads a car that's chasing him off a cliff, he's so cool it's almost ridiculous. One arched eyebrow and that's about all the emotion you get out of him. "That's a Smith & Wesson, and you've had your six." THWAP. THWAP. Cold-blooded. That sort of considered application of his license to kill is one of the things that makes Bond such a great swaggering figure of the Cold War era.
And that's really what lies at the heart of the appeal of Bond. When he first became a cinema icon, it was an age where we were doing everything we could to avoid a hot war because we knew it meant things would probably not end well for anyone. Bond treats the security of the world as a great big macho game, and so do all of his opponents, and while the micro view is a couple of guys rowing out to a small island under the cover of night, the macro view is that Bond and Quarrell are going after Dr. No so that the entire world can sleep safely. In the face of stakes like that, Bond's flippant sense of cool is more than just an affectation; it's a survival mechanism. If he ever really spent time thinking about what it is he's doing and allowing it to register emotionally, he'd probably be unable to leave his home without having a panic attack. Those aren't just empty trysts he's having. He's treating each encounter like it could be his last, so why not get every sweet drop of juice from life that he can?
An hour into the film, the first truly iconic shot of the series occurs, when Honeychile Ryder comes walking out of the ocean. Ursula Andress makes the bikini she wears look like the single greatest thing ever sewn together from fabric, and while we've already seen some truly lovely women in the film by this point, Honeychile sets a standard, from her absurd punchline of a name ("Honey Ryder") to her outsized sexuality, that the rest of the series then has to live up to. Andress isn't a great actress, but she's perfect here, gorgeous and almost other-worldly thanks to that accent and the cartoonish plushness of her figure.
I love the use of location in this film. Dr. No's island is great and lush and green, and plays into that bright primary color palette that Young uses in the film. When they're on the run in the salt marsh, with Bond in vivid blue and Quarrel in red and Honey Ryder with her oh-so-brown skin… it's just beautiful, especially with the vivid greens and blues of the island as contrast. I enjoy watching the Bond films from this era just for the visual style of the movies.
Honey Ryder is an innocent, pulled into Bond's adventure by mistake, and that's another archetype that looms large in the series. It's hard to call her "innocent" when you see her in that tied-off button-down shirt and no bra, but that's the contradiction that makes her such a perfect fantasy figure. She's the walking incarnation of va-va-voom, but she's pure of heart and unaware of the impact she has on men. And then she tells her back story and she's almost like an animal with her story of killing someone with a black widow spider, asking "Was that wrong?" at the end.
I wonder if the filmmakers were happy with the "dragon" they ended up building for the film. I can't imagine anyone ever mistaking that for an organic monster, as they do in the book and as they talk about in the movie. Quarrel's death by flamethrower is an awful one, about as unfunny as death gets in a James Bond film, and in the end, the "Dragon" is a pretty quick beat overall. They just built up to it so much that I wish it had been more dramatic as a reveal.
By the time they finally get through decontamination, there's under a half-hour left in the movie, and we still haven't seen Dr. No. There was just that one scene with his voice, and then a few suggestions of who he is. Talk about delayed gratification in a movie. They would never hold off the villain this long in a film today, especially not in a film that is named for that villain. Finally, at 1 hour and 24 minutes in, we see Dr. No walk into James Bond's room for the first time. Even so, it's still somewhat coy, since we only see him from the waist down, and we only glimpse his hands, encased in shiny black rubber gloves. He's just sizing up his opponent for a moment, and then it's on to the dinner scene, where James and Honey finally come face to face with His Lunacy.
Yes, like most Bond villains, Dr. No is a barking madman. As played by Joseph Wiseman in what can only be called unfortunate Asian make-up, he's a very sedate Fu Manchu, but still completely crazy. You can see the DNA of Dr. Evil in the way Wiseman speaks of his childhood. I like how he just plain lays it out for Bond once they're finally face to face. Honey has become very dependent on Bond by this point in the film, so when she is led away from the table by No's guards, it feels like a betrayal on his part. She's nowhere near as damaged as she is in the book, but she's still portrayed as out of her depth, confused and freaked out by what's going on.
This is the first mention of SPECTRE, and the only time it's referenced without Blofeld being in the mix. I'm curious to see if they follow the thread that they've laid out in the first two Daniel Craig films to create some sort of SPECTRE-like organization that is behind everything. Dr. No talks about how there could be a role for Bond as SPECTRE, just before he hands him over to his henchmen to "soften him up". Bond takes a pretty good beating, but by this point, Connery's created enough of an impression of the character that we have to figure this is all part of his plan.
He takes a pretty good beating trying to escape from his cell, but overall, it's a pretty simple matter for him to find his way to the control room where he's able to topple Dr. No's plans just before a nuclear rocket is launched. There's a hand-to-hand battle that is, truth be told, fairly direct and even anti-climactic, and then Bond and Honey escape. One, two, three, and the whole thing's wrapped up.
Structurally, this feels like a test run for the rest of the series, and that's one of the reasons it's never really been one of my favorites. There are any number of odd choices in the film, like the way Andress is dubbed both for singing and speaking, or the way the same actress who dubs her voice also dubs Sylvia Trench, or the way Felix Leiter is barely used in the film after his great introduction. I mean, come on… it's Jack Lord. Use him! The whole "search the nuclear command center" is a little passive as the big finish for the movie, but at least it gives us a look at the great production design by Ken Adam, which was already strong and striking and which served as the starting point for an entire subgenre of movies in the '60s.
Still, when you consider that the film was produced for a mere $1.2 million, which wasn't a big budget even in 1962, it's amazing how close it is to the model that the entire series followed, and it is a nice start to what has become one of the most durable film franchises of all time.
It's interesting that the original plan wasn't to adapt a book at all, but simply to start with an original adventure written for the bigscreen by Ian Fleming, Kevin McClory, and Jack Whittingham. "James Bond, Secret Agent" was designed to kick off the series on the bigscreen with a (pardon my awful pun) splash, but instead, it got tied up in a legal battle when Fleming turned around and published a book based on the script instead. "Thunderball" was the ninth book published in the series, and when the whole thing became a huge court battle, the choice was made to adapt "Dr. No" instead.
Makes sense, really. It's a fairly self-contained story, with almost the entire thing taking place in Jamaica. It's not nearly the sort of globe-trotting adventure that the series eventually became, and even the scale of the stunt work and the effects is much more modest. This feels like the perfect way to test the waters. There are some weird choices in the adaptation, like turning the poisonous centipede that is put in Bond's bed into the spider, or the way they turned Dr. No's hideout into a bauxite mine instead of a guano farm. That choice means that Dr. No's death is very different, but the whole third act is pretty radically refigured, and they dumped Bond's life-or-death battle with a giant squid, one of the best scenes in the book. They also made a strange choice with Bond's escape inside Dr. No's compound, which is a very clever test in the book, a fake escape that Dr. No is in control of the entire time. In the film, it's just an escape, and it makes Dr. No's base seem like a fairly shoddy bit of design work for an evil genius.
Overall, this is one of the most faithful adaptations of the entire series, even with the big changes that are introduced. I'm frustrated by the way they waste Felix Leiter in the film because he's not in the novel at all. They obviously wanted to set him up as a friend of Bond's, but then do next to nothing with him. In terms of the general shape of the story, this is "Dr. No." The main changes seem to have been made to set this as the first in an ongoing series, although they thankfully avoid making it any sort of origin story for Bond. He is simply James Bond, secret agent, his 007 already in place, his reputation already secure. Starting the series like this allowed them the flexibility to adapt any of the books at any time, and as the films progressed, the books got much less important.
We'll discuss the major differences as this series of columns progresses, and for some films, I'm sure the book reviews will be just as dense as the film reviews. For this one, though, we're just warming up, exactly the way Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli were, and it'll be the next entry, "From Russia With Love," where we really start to dig in.
James Bond will return...
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