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Flashback: ‘Dr. No’ And The Birth Of The Unkillable James Bond Franchise

Flashback: 'Dr. No' And The Birth Of The Unkillable James Bond Franchise

If you were looking for a reason to write about a James Bond movie recently, you wouldn’t have had to look too far. The teaser trailer for Spectre” was released last Friday. A rumor flared up that Mexican authorities had granted the production $20 million in incentives to portray the country in a positive light, as well as stipulating that a Mexican actress be cast as a Bond Girl. Producers denied any creative changes were made to secure the incentives, and then this week comes the story that the perpetually besieged Mexico City might be a further $24 million in the hole because of mandated business closures during the mounting of the film’s pre-credits scene. A scene which incidentally that same producer hyperventilatingly promises will be “the biggest opening sequence we’ve ever done, maybe the biggest sequence we’ve ever done.” Oh, and a twitterstorm erupted after French magazine Paris Match quoted Roger Moore as saying he believed Bond should be “English-English” implying he meant that London-born British actor Idris Elba was somehow ineligible for the role. Moore claims that his comment was taken out of context and had nothing to do with Elba, which if true, is a pretty spectacular journalistic failure on the part of the esteemed Paris Match, which has not yet responded to Moore’s response. Phew! Such a lot of chatter —if one was cynically prone to conspiracy theories, one could suspect there was a billion-dollar franchise entry opening in a few months and someone somewhere was taking the “no such thing as bad publicity” adage at face value. “Spectre” opens November 6th.

This merry-go-round comes as the logical result of the immense enduring popularity of the Bond franchise, which is quite unique in the annals of cinematic history. What other movie franchise could survive the five-time replacement of its leading man (six if you count non-canon David Niven)? What other series reflects five decades of socio-cultural change within its span, and yet still coyly dances with the illusion that dour AIDS-era Dalton Bond; oily, winky Moore Bond; sincere, lovelorn Lazenby Bond; groomed, suave Brosnan Bond; truculent, tortured Craig Bond and sine qua non masculine ubermensch Connery Bond are all the same man? It’s a feat that would be avant garde if it hadn’t met with such astonishing mainstream success.

All this inspired me to reexamine the Bond series’ humble(ish) beginnings with “Dr. No.” How much of the character’s longevity and flexibility was built into that first film? How far did producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman believe their acquisition of Ian Fleming’s novels could go (here’s an in-depth piece on their long journey to the screen from our own Oli Lyttelton)? And most of all, as a fan who should know better but whose love of Bond goes way deep into a very primal, childhood-Christmas-television part of my soul, what can this first film tell me as to why, 53 years later, we’re on the verge of collectively forking over around a billion quid to watch 007 exercise his license to kill for the 24th time?

But first things first: is it any good? Made on a slim budget, “Dr. No” was released in 1962 (again check out Oli’s timeline of its production here) to a mixed critical response, but it was a commercial success in the UK and Europe (it would take a subsequent reissue for it to make much of dent stateside). But it had receded from my memory quite a bit; looking at the early Bond films retrospectively, it’s hard to get past the twin landmarks of series touchpoint “Goldfinger” and Connery’s replacement by Lazenby for the also-very-good “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” the two 1960s films to have aged best. By contrast, “Dr. No” established the character, made money and that was all, it seemed.

Yet to look at “Dr. No” again, especially in its gloriously crisp, lush DVD transfer, is to gain new respect for just how much of the Bond mythos was established here. The producers knew they had the rights to series of novels and surely expected to make a series of films starring this character, and while TV had siphoned off the episodic impulse that had driven earlier serials like “The Perils of Pauline” (future Bond Roger Moore had just debuted as “The Saint“on TV at this point), the idea was not unprecedented. But “Dr. No,” directed with flair by Terence Young (definitely a relatively unsung hero in the Bond meta-story) and shot with a terrific sense of color and space by Ted Moore, doesn’t just establish the trappings of Bond —the guns, the girls, the way he takes his vodka martini. It also establishes a mood that for over five decades has balanced genuine peril with a light but not always comedic grace, and that is the quintessence of Bond. When that balance is off, you get comic side characters and tortured puns that mistake wackiness for lightness of touch, as in the worst Moore movies. Or it goes the other way and you get the granite-faced grimness of Dalton’s films —a Bond who has forgotten how to have fun. The surprise of “Dr. No” is how adroitly it walks this tricky line first time out.

Here Connery’s Bond is an immensely successful womanizer, sleeping with Bad Girls and Good Girls alike in some cases seemingly just to pass the time. But aside from exchanging a few not-terribly double double-entendres with his various conquests, the punning and quipping that so mars the Moore and Brosnan Bonds is kept to a minimum. The nearest Connery gets to such badinage is with the line “I think they were on their way to a funeral” which he delivers while looking down at the wreckage of the vehicle that was pursuing him —since that vehicle for some reason was a hearse, it doesn’t feel too ridiculous a thing to say.

And despite an iconic introductory sequence (the first occurrence ever of the “Bond…James Bond.” line) at the card table of a high-class casino, where he’s naturally winning and looking quite bored while doing so, elsewhere the Teflon-coated sleekness that the character would later assume is only rarely in evidence. He has not yet evolved into the indestructible superspy whose athletic abilities and coordination are so grandly superior to any known human that they might as well be superpowers. This Bond makes rookie errors —he drinks a cup of drugged coffee, does not have some sort of heightened resistance to it, and collapses ungracefully on the floor. He ascertains in advance that he’s going into a trap but still seems surprised when the baddies show up. And he even makes errors of judgment that implicate a lack of moral fibre: license to kill or not, there’s no earthly justification for Bond shooting Professor Dent when the man has not yet given him any information and when it is explicitly shown that he is unarmed. Bond’s moral, physical and mental infallibility are very far from established facts here.

Believe it or not, he can even be awkward —the justly famous sequence of Ursula Andress as Honey Rider emerging from the water in a white bikini with a dagger on her hip shows Bond literally goggling at her (in fairness, so does most of the audience; after she posed nude for Playboy in 1965, she was nicknamed “Ursula Undress”). For an instant Connery looks almost gawky, ogling her from beside a palm, before —of all the uncool things in the world— joining in with the chorus of “Underneath the Mango Tree” as a means to announce his presence. Before it is established that Andress’ character (voiced by not one but two other actresses, one for the few hummed lines of singing, the other for all her dialogue) is in fact a completely useless naif whose voluptuousness belies a childlike level of dependence on Bond from here on out, Bond is briefly unmanned by her presence. These atypical moments suggest a 007 who may not be simply a womanizer, but a fellow who can be genuinely affected by a woman.

But what is most striking to a 2015 viewer is that the original Bond, Bond Prime, if you will, is a man made of flesh that can bleed and bones that can break, in a way that the plastic Ken doll/Action Man Bonds never were. We like to think of it as a recent development and signal of our more enlightened times that the Bond reboot with Daniel Craig brandishing the Walther was the first time the character was depicted as a person who could get physically hurt. But the Bond of “Dr. No” sweats, groans, and does not always win in fisticuffs with more than one assailant. He is restrained in a chair and beaten by a couple of heavies, and he passes out to awaken in a cell, battered, bruised and stiff. And during the crawling-through-the-pipes sequence, as his adversaries randomly flush water and burning steam through the vents (these added details were residual hangovers from the novel in which the escape from the cell is all part of Dr. No’s master plan to test Bond; in the film he has no such plan, but the inexplicable jets of steam and water remain), Bond is burned and scuffed, his clothes torn and his face begrimed. In short, the escape takes its toll on him physically, with those scenes suggesting he’s very far from a gadget-laden creature of unshakable equanimity equipped with an invisible car or somesuch waiting outside.

Of course, a great deal of the picture’s lo-fi nature is simply down to budget constraints that would ease as the series gained traction, as well as the sense that producers decided that what people really loved about Bond was not his relatable qualities or how we could invest in his plight, but the utterly unreal escapism of exotic locales, beautiful women with names that allude to vaginas and wetsuits that could be peeled off to reveal a perfectly pressed tuxedo beneath. Here, Dr. No’s “stunning underwater lair” boasts an entire aquarium wall, of which it’s hilariously clear is in fact magnified stock footage of goldfish. And “Dr. No” also must be among the lowest stakes Bond films; while vaguely defined “world domination” is of course the villain’s endgame, the plot hinges on a radioactive doodad that can “topple” a another gizmo that the U.S. is sending into space via rocket because of… it’s never made terribly clear why this would be such a bad thing, and there’s no ticking clock of the “everyone on the Western seaboard will perish in a fiery cataclysm if we don’t do x!” variety. And let’s not forget that the most memorable would-be assassination sequence from the film features a hitman who can be killed with a few whacks from a slipper (a tarantula).

So it can seem terribly silly now. There is a daft subplot about a “dragon” that turns out to be a very unconvincing fire-breathing armored vehicle. There is casual racism, as in the role of Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), the loyal but alcoholic, scaredy-cat islander who is so obviously expendable he actually wears a red shirt at one point. And there’s very un-casual racism that can only be the result of special effort: the film’s two main Chinese/Eurasian characters, Dr. No himself and Miss Taro, a particularly dim-bulb Bad Bond Girl, are played by Jewish Canadian actor Joseph Wiseman and Kenyan-born French/English actress Zena Marshall respectively. And its treatment of its female characters is so utterly reprehensible and overtly sexist as to offend a Gamergate troll. None of these elements were necessarily as toxic in their original 1962 context, but that doesn’t mean they can be entirely dismissed for the modern viewer either, whatever the “aw it’s only a bit of fun” subtext of “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” for example, might encourage.

But there are enough redeemable qualities in “Dr. No” —the elegance, the subtle wit, the surprising craftsmanship and the clever character-building— to help me find my own love for the character less inexplicable and less embarrassing. There’s been an awful lot of dreadfulness that’s gone on in the interim (here’s a recent selection of 5 of the Worst Bond Films), but in many ways it’s the Bond of “Dr. No” that I still love. It’s this Bond that causes a Pavlovian joy to surge briefly whenever I hear the iconic theme tune (no matter how deconstructed, as it is in the “Spectre” trailer), and it’s the expectation of that Bond that is so often let down by the shoddy, campy, dull or plasticky Bond films that followed. But it’s also that Bond who has been given back to us in Daniel Craig’s incarnation, with many of the character’s less desirable excesses (the sexism, the racism, the gay panic-level homophobia of “Diamonds are Forever“) gone, yet his fallability and his relatability returned. Now, if “Spectre” could just see him ditch his broodiness, childhood scarring and long-term inner anguish, I’d be really happy, not that I think that’s going to happen. No matter: as long as Bond films keep hovering around the billion-dollar mark, we’ll have plenty more attempts to engineer the formula for the perfect, definitive 007.

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