Wednesday, January 18, 2012

50 Years of 007 - Dr. No

Cody discusses the reason for this year's celebrations as the official Bond series starts rolling with 1962's Dr. No. 

James Bond is one of my top cinematic interests/obsessions. Of all of the heroes in movies, he is by far my favorite. Sure there are other action heroes who I like, I watch their movies and enjoy them, but Bond is the only cinematic hero who I truly care about. He's the hero that I find most entertaining to watch, his movies the most fun to watch, and he's an aspirational figure - the saying goes that "Women want him and men want to be him", and that holds true for me. I wouldn't truly want his dangerous career or license to kill, but I wish I had his style and taste (not to mention his luck with the ladies). A variation of the quote, from producer Harry Saltzman as related by actress Honor Blackman, is that men exit from a Bond film walking tall, and I've found that to be true as well. Just watching the coolness of James Bond can make you feel cooler yourself, however briefly.

The release of a new Bond film is a big event for me, my permanent homepage when I get online is, as I'm always waiting to hear more news on what the next film will be. So with this year being the fiftieth anniversary of the first Bond film and with the release of the 23rd official Bond film, Skyfall, coming up in November, I'm excited to have this biweekly feature to express my enthusiasm for the character and the series, and to use as an outlet for my anticipation of Skyfall's release. Since the 50 Years of 007 feature will be running until the end of the year, I will even be able to include my reaction to Skyfall after I see it as one of the articles.

In addition to the movies, I've also read all of the Bond novels. My favorites are, of course, the Fleming originals. Beyond that, the ones I enjoy the most are those that take a different approach to the material, like John Pearson's Authorized Biography and the Moneypenny Diaries by Samantha Weinberg/Kate Westbrook. At times, I will do some comparisons between the novels and their film adaptations, especially the more faithful ones.

The film that started it all fifty years ago was Dr. No, an adaptation of the sixth Bond novel. When Harry Saltzman acquired the Bond film rights, the rights to the first novel, Casino Royale, were not included in the deal and were off on their own (as covered last time), so when Saltzman partnered with Albert R. Broccoli, who had previously attempted to get the rights to Bond himself, to form Eon Productions and make the films, they really could've chosen any of them to be the first. In agreement with David Picker at distributor United Artists, they went with Dr. No.

Elements that went on to be traditional Bond tropes are introduced as soon as the film begins. White dots move across the screen from left to right, then becoming a gun barrel that tracks a man - James Bond - as he walks past. At this point, Bond was being portrayed in the gun barrel shot by stuntman Bob Simmons. Mid-screen, Bond turns, pulls a gun and fires at us. Optical blood dribbles down the screen, the gun barrel wavers before becoming a white dot again and finding a place on the screen to settle. Typically this dot would then be our portal into the pre-title sequence, but in this case it starts flashing other colors as we go straight into the title sequence itself, designed by Maurice Binder.

With no specific title song recorded for Dr. No, we instead get a medley during the title sequence. Patterns of colorful dots and squares flash across the screen as Monty Norman's immortal "James Bond Theme" plays, silhouettes dance to calypso music, three blind men walk along to a musical rendition of the "Three Blind Mice" nursery rhyme.

These three blind men are an important part of the first post-titles scene. Their blindness is a ruse, as they turn out to be assassins who make quick work of Strangways, a representative of the British Secret Service in Jamaica, and his secretary, then steal their files on a "Doctor No" and a place called Crab Key. As their murders interrupt their daily radio report back to MI6, the agency is immediately alerted that something is wrong.

Dr. No was chosen to be the first film because it had a low-key story and few locations, making it most fitting for the relatively low $1 million budget. It is a rather simple story, so while the film is a faithful adaptation of Fleming's novel, screenwriters Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood and Berkely Mather were also able to expand and improve upon it with more scenes, characters, intrigue, and action.

One of the first cinematic changes is in the introduction of our main character, the MI6 agent who will be tasked to find out who had Strangways killed and why: James Bond, 007.

When we first catch up with James Bond, he's playing baccarat at the Le Cercle club in London and winning against an attractive woman. They exchange words and she introduces herself as "Trench, Sylvia Trench", setting him up to respond in similar fashion. This is when Bond's face is finally revealed to us, in one of the most iconic moments in cinema. Sean Connery in his most famous role lights a cigarette and says the line, "Bond, James Bond." The game ends when Bond is called away to meet with M, the head of MI6, but Trench gets his number before he leaves. The baccarat scene and Trench were not in the book, but Bond does introduce himself as "Bond, James Bond" without another's prompting in it.

Arriving at MI6, Bond does some quick flirting with M's secretary Miss Moneypenny, a character who is featured much more in the films than in the novels, largely due to the likeable presence of actress Lois Maxwell. Bond then gets his mission briefing from M, a role at this time, and for many years to come, excellently inhabited by Bernard Lee. Appropriate for the film, Strangways' disappearance is much more of a concern for M here than it was in the novel. In the novel, Bond has just gotten out of the hospital after three months of convalescence and rehabilitation, having nearly died of poisoning at the end of the previous book, From Russia with Love, so M gives him this assignment with the assumption that Strangways and his secretary have just run off together. It's a such a simple assignment that Bond believes M is trying to humiliate him as punishment for letting himself get so badly hurt. For the adaptation, Strangways is said to have been looking into complaints from the Americans that radio beams from Jamaica have been interfering with the rockets at Cape Canaveral. It's a serious issue and a CIA agent named Felix Leiter, who Bond has heard of but says he's never met, has also been sent down to Jamaica to check things out.

Reference to Bond's serious injury remains in the film when M has an Armourer replace Bond's Beretta with a better weapon. Bond had trouble stopping (and was stabbed by) an assailant with poison-tipped blades at the end of the From Russia with Love novel because his Beretta got stuck as he tried to draw it. In this film, it's said that the Beretta jammed on Bond during his last job and he spent six months in the hospital as consequence. The Armourer (a.k.a. Major Boothroyd, head of Q Branch, later to become known by the nickname Q) presents Bond with a Walther PPK. Bond isn't happy to be getting a new gun, he's used a Beretta for ten years, but the Walther PPK went on to be Bond's weapon of choice onscreen for over thirty years.

Having less than 3 hours and 22 minutes until he has to catch his flight to Jamaica, Bond returns to his flat to get ready to leave... and is sidetracked by the fact that Sylvia Trench is there waiting for him. Well, he's got some time to spare.

As soon as Bond lands in Jamaica, there seems to be danger lurking all around. A suave dude in sunglasses watches him make his way around the airport, a woman with a camera tries to get his picture, a chauffeur who wasn't sent by his contact is there to pick him up, they appear to be followed. Some of these characters will turn out to be allies, others are working for the villain... In fact, Bond is in a car being driven by one of the villain's henchmen.

When Bond confronts the chauffeur, Mr. Jones, over the lie about his employment, the man attacks him. Actor Reginald Carter gets the honor of being the first man to fight James Bond onscreen. When Bond bests him in the fight, Jones takes a cyanide pill hidden in a cigarette rather than cooperate, proving to Bond that something strange is definitely going on here.

The chauffeur is one of several characters added in the expansion of the mystery section of the story in the transition from novel to film.


Bond's investigation leads him to meet up with a pair of allies who he's meeting for the first time here but already knew at this point in the books; Felix Leiter, CIA agent and the man in sunglasses from the airport, a character who features in several of the Fleming novels but was not in Dr. No, and Quarrel, a helpful islander who Bond had worked with previously in Live and Let Die (which wouldn't be adapted into a film for another 11 years). Though he doesn't do much, it does makes sense for Leiter to be added to the story, as it makes sense for an American agent to be involved with the threat to American rockets being presented much earlier in the film than in the book. It also establishes the character for his recurring role in the series. Leiter is played here by future Hawaii Five-O star Jack Lord. Quarrel is endearingly portrayed by John Kitzmiller. No other man could be so likeable while enquiring about a henchwoman, "You want for me to break her arm?" Bond's great reply in the negative: "Another time."

Leiter and Quarrel fill Bond in on a mysterious island called Crab Key that's owned by a man named Doctor No. The workings of Crab Key are much simpler in the film than in Fleming's writing. There was a lot of talk in the novel of the birds that live on the island and their guano, which No harvested to sell as fertilizer, and the troubles with the Audobon Society that kicked off all of the investigations. There are no birds to leave droppings here, for the screen No's business is just mentioned as being a bauxite mine. What remains the same between the two mediums is the fact that Strangways had been investigating the place and that local fishermen know to stay away from it. If you go to Crab Key, you never return.

A couple of the most interesting additions/expansions to the story deal with some of No's underlings; the three hitmen, a metallurgist named Dent who Strangways had given soil and water samples from Crab Key to test, and Miss Taro, who works as a secretary at the local Government House.

With Bond getting uncomfortably close to figuring things out, Dent visits Crab Key to seek Dr. No's advice on the situation. In a great scene, Dent is led to a large room in No's headquarters and is only able to consult with the man through a PA system. Dent is provided with a tarantula and fails to kill Bond by planting the arachnid in his hotel room bed. It was a centipede in the book, a change that both makes sense for the people who had to work with the creature on set and takes a cue from a scene in the book that didn't make it to film, in which Bond has to move through a cage containing twenty tarantulas.

Later, Bond asks to meet up with the file-losing, obviously-eavesdropping Taro. On his way to her place, Bond is placed in the center of a situation that he only hears happened to a decoy car in the novel, as the three assassins try to drive him off the road in their hearse. Things turn out better for Bond than for the book's decoys.

Taro is surprised to find that Bond has made it to her door. The rather incompetent henchwoman is played by Zena Marshall, who I list among the most appealing women to appear in the series. Taro gets a call about Bond and informs the person on the other end that she'll keep Bond at her place for a couple hours... Which gives Bond plenty of time to take her to bed and then have her arrested before he has to worry about her cohort showing up.

What follows is the greatest scene in the film and one of the best scenes in the series. I would even go so far as to call it one of the best scenes in cinema history.

Bond sets Taro's place up to look like nothing out of the ordinary has happened, rather that Taro just managed to seduce him. He puts on some music, sets out a couple drinks, tosses his jacket on a chair, positions pillows under the bed sheet to make it look like someone's sleeping, then takes a seat in the corner of the bedroom, fits a silencer onto his gun, and plays a game of solitaire while waiting for Taro's caller to arrive.

Bond watches as Dent enters the dark room and empties a gun into the pillows on the bed, then orders him to drop the gun and attempts to question him, casually lighting a cigarette as he does so. Mid-questioning, Dent quickly picks up his discarded gun and fires it at Bond. It just clicks empty. Unfazed, Bond calmly informs Dent, "That's a Smith & Wesson, and you've had your six." Bond fires two shots into Dent, removes the silencer from his gun and blows the gunsmoke out of it as the scene fades to black. Greatness.

With henchmen dispatched and Strangways' Crab Key samples having proven to be radioactive, Bond decides it's time to have Quarrel take him out to No's island. Leiter stays behind with promise to bring the cavalry if Bond doesn't return in a timely manner.

After Bond has reached Crab Key, we are finally introduced to the film's main "Bond girl" in one of the most famous shots in the series. Honey Ryder, as played by Swiss actress Ursula Andress, walks out of the ocean wearing a bikini and a knife holstered on a belt. 

Due to her Swiss accent, Andress was dubbed by voice actress Nikki van der Zyl. It's a very surprising (and unnoticeable) fact that van der Zyl was the voice of nearly every female character in this film, regardless of the actress's country of origin. I'm not sure why.

Honey Ryder is a simple island girl, educated only by reading volumes of the Encyclopeia (she's up to T now), who has stumbled into this situation, she just sneaks out to Crab Key occasionally to collect sea shells to sell.

It's through the relationship between Bond and Honey in the book that I can address one of my pet peeves about how Bond is perceived by non-fans and even some very casual fans: how much they overstate his sexism or misogyny. He has a lot of casual encounters and sometimes his relationships with women are rough, but some people seem to think that he sees women as detestable and completely disposable. This is not the case. For the most part, his sexism in the books is of the time in which he was created. He was rather misogynistic in the first book, there is a particularly awful line in the Casino Royale novel, but that's the height of it. He goes on to fall in love Vesper Lynd in that novel, and from then on it's almost like he falls deep and fast for nearly every woman he meets. He cares a great deal for several women over the course of Fleming's novels. For example, Honey in Dr. No. Within twenty-four hours of meeting this girl, he's thinking about how he can help her fix the broken nose that she's ashamed of and get her moved out of the ruins she lives in to somewhere nicer, talking her out of her plan of becoming a call girl, and even declines to have sex with her because she's so naive. What a heartless pig he is!

There is an element to this story that would probably never fly today. Quarrel and other locals are terrified to go on Crab Key because they fully believe that a fire-breathing dragon roams the island. This dragon turns out to just be a dressed-up, flamethrower-equipped marsh buggy driven by No's guards, but I don't think modern audiences would appreciate the idea that the locals were silly and superstitious enough to believe that it was really a mythical creature.

After the characters manage to avoid the island guards for a while, things go wrong and Bond and Honey end up being captured. Dr. No's villainy is matched by his appreciation for the finer things in life, so the interior of his headquarters is quite extravagant and lodging for his prisoners turns out to be surprisingly nice.

The titular villain, played by Joseph Wiseman, finally makes his appearance on the screen to greet his captives in person. He's a man with a high opinion of himself and a physical oddity: after losing his hands to radioactivity, he had himself fitted with metal replacements. These new hands are strong enough to easily crush a metal table decoration, but they won't do him much good in the long run.

No invites the two prisoners to join him for dinner. He has Bond's favorite drink ready to be served to him, "a medium dry (vodka) martini, lemon peel - shaken, not stirred." This is the second time in the film that the famous drink is served to Bond; a room service waiter at his hotel made one for him earlier. "Mixed like you said, sir, and not stirred."

Bond and No have an excellently written conversation at the dinner table, during which No shares his secrets and Bond verbally toys with him. No reveals himself to be a member of SPECTRE, a criminal/terrorist organization that Bond has never heard of before. This is a change from the book, wherein No was working with the Russians. Making him part of SPECTRE, which did feature in other books in the series, establishes them for the franchise that Broccoli and Saltzman hoped to be starting here.

In the novel, the toppling of American rockets was never mentioned until this dinner scene and isn't much of a threat. The movie improved on the idea by having the rockets be an issue ever since the scene with M and adding a ticking clock element: Bond has to stop No from interfering with an imminent rocket launch.

While No gets to work, Bond and Honey are taken to much less pleasant rooms than they had been in earlier. Bond manages to escape his cell through a vent with an electrified grate. As written by Fleming, this escape was planned by No, who's fascinated to find out how much pain a human can endure and wants to monitor Bond's progress through a dangerous obstacle course. Here, No is too busy with his plans to do any monitoring, but Bond does have to contend with heated metal and rushing water. Some have questioned the logic of the vents Bond crawls through as presented here, but I never thought twice about them until I saw the questions. A section from the novel that was wisely not included in the film had Bond being dropped into an ocean enclosure and tussling with a giant squid. I think we've done well without that making it to the screen, squid fighting is best left to Bela Lugosi.

Of course, Bond emerges from all of these troubles victorious. Victory for the film followed at the box office, where it was a hit and kicked off the series that continues today.

Sean Connery is amazing as Bond. The actor was an unknown at the time of his casting and was a bit rough around the edges, but proved to be the perfect choice. Director Terence Young had an impeccable taste comparable to Bond's own, so he was able to take Connery under his wing and teach him all about the best clothes and restaurants and how to carry himself in such way to exude class and justifiable confidence. The result of these lessons put together with Connery's acting ability and natural charisma made for one of the all time coolest performances.

Terence Young's direction combined with Ted Moore's beautiful cinematography and Ken Adam's production design gives the film a wonderful look and it's all put together with Peter Hunt's at the time unconventional, quick editing. The screenplay is great, with many memorable, quotable lines, and as pointed out, improved on the source material in several ways while still following it very closely.

Dr. No is highly entertaining and one of my favorite entries in the series. Producers Broccoli and Saltzman assembled all the right elements that worked together to give the Bond series the special magical touch that's allowed it to last for so long, and they're all represented right here in the first film.

1 comment:

  1. It's also worth mentioning that Fleming, who was against casting Connery before filming was so impressed with his performance that he later gave Bond a Scottish background.