Thursday, July 12, 2007

007 in '007: Dr. No

World domination. The same old dream. Our asylums are full of people who think they're Napoleon. Or God.

--James Bond

To go back and watch the first Bond film is fascinating because so much of the formula is already intact. Aside from a few notable absences, which will be addressed below, most everything is in place, not just the unmistakable theme music, but the stylish set designs and frantic editing…all the technical stuff that is unforgettable. The megalomaniac villain – grand in ego, singular in purpose, is alive and well right out of the gate. The women and their names – the stuff of legend. Hot. With the first Bond film comes Ursula Andress right out of the surf to become the most recognizable Bond girl. And then there’s Connery – James Bond fully formed with his postmortem sarcasm, particular tastes and cold animal sex drive in full gear. As much as I enjoyed watching Daniel Craig reboot the character and start the developmental process from getting his double 0, honing his taste for inebriants, learning the place of love in the workplace, etc…I couldn’t help but think that as the end credits for Casino Royale rolled, the Bond character was ready to emerge again as the final product that is Sean Connery in Dr. No. And yet, with so much of the formula and style in place, the film manages to be exotic and thrilling to anyone flirting with becoming a Bond aficionado. It was clear that producers Broccoli and Saltzman wanted to make a series of pictures and it’s as if their first experiment was such a home-run that almost everything stuck. The only thing that wasn’t there was the budget, but with such expert filmmaking, you never miss it. And gadgets would come later.

Tuneage – The Dr. No soundtrack is somewhat of an anomaly, based primarily on Monty Norman’s theme and the work of the hottest Jamaican band at the time, Byron Lee & the Dragoneers. John Barry was involved, too, but he was un-credited. It is a livelier soundtrack, with more pop sounds than orchestral sounds, included catchy Carribean dance tunes such as “Jump Up,” and the reoccurring “Underneath the Mango Tree.” The highlight, though, is Norman’s James Bond theme, which has enjoyed a multitude of variants over the last forty-five years, but is most indelibly rendered in Dr. No.

Monsieur Binder – The two spheres and the gun barrel are there and so is a black and white Bond wearing a hat, but where are the opening horn blasts introducing the theme? Instead we hear psychedelic radio beams, the types of beams that might topple a guided rocket or missile. The most striking anomaly of Dr. No is the lack of a pre-credit sequence. Instead, the film launched directly into the inspired graphic design credits of Maurice Binder. It is his crudest effort in the series, but one that is nevertheless striking with its bold dots and vibrantly colored dancing silhouettes. (I had a crush on the one with tassels on her dress. The first one, not the second). They are simple images, but stylistically potent. There are three segments to the credit sequence: the dots and cubes digitally dancing to Monty Norman’s classic theme, then young people dancing to Caribbean music and finally, the blackened silhouettes of three old Jamaicans with walking canes bouncing to a calypso version of “Three Blind Mice.” The lyrics are brutal, much like the film that lies ahead.

Monsieur Hunt
– What lies immediately ahead in the picture is the jarring assassination of Mr. Strangways, the British agent stationed in Kingston. The sequences that cover the killing of Strangways and then the killing of his secretary have curious jumps and cuts that give the scenes a staccato momentum. The result is a hastened sequence that would set the pacing for this film and the series beyond. According to editor Peter Hunt, director Terence Young left out shots that would traditionally be thought essential for the coherence of a scene, but Hunt managed to mix it up enough to convey the momentum of the action, defying certain established rules by cutting into a panning shot or violating aspects of continuity. The end effect is a uniquely stylized technique that is forever attached to the series. Peter Hunt is not afraid to speed up a motion or cut it off prematurely to get the timing right and the result is high impact fight sequences.

Monsieur Adam
Ken Adam loves circles in the ceiling almost as much as he loves grates in the ceiling. And he’s happiest when he can combine the two, as in the scene where the treacherous Professor Dent visits with the voice of Dr. No. Adam would go on to do a variety of variations around that circle in the ceiling in countless Bond films. He also likes staircases without hand rails (it’s about comfort, not safety), the combination of natural rock with steel and open fire pits in lavish living areas below the earth’s surface. All present in Dr. No. The villain’s lair contains all the combinations of classical and modern that defines the tastes of Bond villains: copper doors and elevators, wood floors, Victorian and contemporary furnishings, carefully mixed. The villain doctor’s criminal bona-fides are confirmed with the careful placement of a recently stolen Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington.

Zee Villain –Even without the kicking pad, Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) would still be the total embodiment of the Bond villain. He’s a recluse with huge ambition. While he is cold and diabolical, he is also refined, and when he meets a worthy adversary, such as Bond, he is civilized enough to treat him and his lady to a nice meal. I’ve never heard of a Bond villain that did not offer Bond a drink. No self-respecting SPECTRE agent goes through life without knowing the libation habits of 007 – so when Bond finally meets the evil villain, Dr. No already has Bond’s drink prepared.

Dr. No – [as the drink is handed to Bond] Medium dry martini. Lemon peel. Shaken and not stirred.

Bond – Vodka?

Dr. No – Of course.

And he calls himself a terrorist?

Like a good villain, Dr. No is always calm and collected. He never shares in the blame when something goes wrong, as when Bond luckily escapes an assassin’s bullet. The man in charge of the mission was the nervous Professor Dent, an agent of Dr. No’s who no doubt had a hand in hiring the killers to kill Strangways as well. When Dr. No asks the professor why Bond is still alive, Dent explains: “Our attempts failed.”

The soft voice of Dr. No (that’s all the audience is getting at this point) says: “Your attempts failed. I do not like failure.”

With Dr. No, the buck stops at the lower echelons. And fear is his motivator. Still, it’s hard not to blame Dr. No for the next failure, since it was his concoction. It is one of the weakest, most absurd sequences which has Dent placing a tarantula into Bond’s hotel room – something that might make a man shit the bed, but not kill him.

Still, Dr. No remains somewhat daunting if only for the fact that he hasn’t been shown yet. He only appears in the last quarter of the picture, but his presence is obviously felt through a total of four and a half murder attempts (the driver in the beginning did not actually try to kill Bond, but he might have if given the chance and therefore counts for the half). And the visit to his base island, Crab Key, is filled with things to terrorize visitors – high-powered boats with machine guns, the dogs, and, not least, a dragon. All are part of Dr. No’s efforts to keep people off the island. It would take a special kind of man willing to look death in the face in order to confront the villainous doctor.

Les Girls
– Besides the introduction of the durably charming Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), Dr. No also introduced another character intended to continue in the series, Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson). Trench is the type of girl that, through sheer sex appeal, could make a man’s departure change from “immediately” to “almost immediately.” She represents Bond’s off-duty time in Dr. No and From Russia With Love, and is more than suitably hot in that role. The shot of her in Bond’s bottomless night shirt, Porky Pig style, playing put-put in Bond’s room while her smackwarm gams steal the show is the first iconic Bond girl image. When Bond throws open the door and squats down low to shoot the intruder dead, she huffs: “There, now you made me miss.”

“You don’t miss a thing,” Bond replies. And he’s right. It’s impossible to look at Sylvia Trench and not take note of the sex appeal that emanates from her like a fine perfume animated by Tex Avery. If the average Bond girl sends a man’s eyes about a foot away from his socket, then Eunice Gayson sends them 10 foot away with a good dozen smaller tracer eyeballs in between.

But the sexy girls don’t stop there. The lovely Marguerite LeWars (former Miss Jamaica) tries twice to snag Bond’s picture for Dr. No before getting her arm twisted and being sent away. Granted, she’s always in duress and therefore has little opportunity to turn on the sex appeal, but she does get to pout like a hellcat, and act like one, too, when she claws Quarrel’s right cheek with a broken light-bulb. The producers managed to get a lot of talent from the local resources of Jamaica, and LeWars was no exception, as she was found working as a flight attendant for Pan Am.

The femme fatale, Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), looks slightly awkward in makeup designed to give her a Chinese look, but nevertheless serves well as the bait to lead Bond into a harrowing, if artificial looking, chase sequence that sends the first flaming car off a cliff in a Bond movie. Taro’s main job is to look worried and suspicious…and sexy.

Finally, there is Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder emerging from the surf (with a wounded hind leg according to the commentary track to the film, though you’d never know it). It is a scene that is the most closely identified to the idea of the Bond girl. Her character is remarkably close to Ian Fleming’s Honey Ryder – tough, smart and goddess-like in beauty, but wholly uneducated and a sort of child of nature. Fleming would create several female characters with these types of traits, but Andress comes closest to putting that on film. Fleming was so smitten with Andress during the shooting of the film that he gave her a cameo spot in the ski-lodge of the novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, written in 1963, directly after the film. Although Andress did not get the chance to kick some butt, as Ryder did in the novel, she certainly manages to come across as self-reliant in the extreme. Her planned execution in the novel, as laid out by Dr. No, is to be bound to the ground as the tide changes so that black crabs will crawl over her and eat her flesh. The plan comes to naught because Ryder knows the crabs are harmless if she doesn’t resist – another failure that Dr. No would have blamed on others, had he lived to do so. In the film Terrence Young had intended a similar scene, but when the flesh eating crabs arrived to the set frozen and half dead, they had to resort to a simple flooding effect. One can only imagine that this impromptu change was for the best.

Bond, James Bond - The search for an actor to play Bond led Broccoli and Saltzman to consider a number of choices, including Cary Grant (Broccoli decided against him because he wanted an actor that would become part of the series and Grant would have likely been a one time deal) as well as Roger Moore, who was tied up at the time with The Saint. Sean Connery was an up and comer, having worked with Terence Young in Action of the Tiger (1957). Broccoli was impressed with him in Disney’s Darby O’Gill (1959) and he landed the part. It is hard to think of an actor, including Moore, who could have more firmly established the character as quickly and fully as Connery did. Sean Connery in 1962 was, quite simply, a perfect specimen of a man – athletic as hell (he was a Mr. Universe) and equally refined. Although his performance comes across as effortless onscreen, Connery went through an intense Bond indoctrination under the tutelage of director Terence Young. From the style of Bond’s suit to all the particulars of his taste, Connery was a rough cut stone that Young chiseled into the pure dazzling diamond. Bond’s panache is an extension of Young’s panache, something that would endure beyond Dr. No and even beyond Connery. From the very beginning of the series, Sean Connery is a perfect mixture of roughness and sophistication, brute and gentleman. He is at his most ruthless in Dr. No, particularly when he shoots a man in cold blood. Bond explains to the soon-to-be-dead Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) after the hapless professor has emptied his revolver into the pillow likeness of 007: “That’s a Smith and Wesson and you’ve had your six,” and then pumps three silent slugs into the disarmed doctor. There’s no doubt that Bond is the hero and that his foes are the villains, but rarely does an audience see a hero employing his license to kill in as nonchalant and calculating a way as Connery in Dr. No. In future films, he would make a habit of using femme fatales as body armor, but the cold caste is set in Dr. No. with his murder of Professor Dent.

His humor, too, must have been something new to audiences. This particular hallmark of Bond’s character was the result of impromptu changes by Connery and Young. When he pulls up to Government House with the imposter chauffeur dead in the back seat, he quips to the entrance guard, “Make sure he doesn’t get away,” and hands the guard the keys, walking calmly into Government House without further explanation. Perhaps his death jokes are a subconscious way of dealing with the guilty pain his license to kill forces him to endure. If so, then it apparently turns his skin into a veritable shield of Teflon where guilt slides off of him faster than a fried egg. I think he just likes a good joke. It should be noted that as quippy as he got, Connery never quite reached the sarcastic levels of Roger Moore, but his comments, especially in Dr. No, do tend to be darker.

Connery’s Bond is not only graceful, brutish and athletic, but he’s a scrapper, too. When he’s completely at the mercy of Dr. No, eating his fine cuisine, he still manages to do everything in his cordial way to needle the villain. When Bond picks up a bottle to use as a weapon, the doctor points out that it is a Dom Perignon ’55 and, thus, a pity to waste, in which Bond replies (setting the bottle down): “I prefer the ‘53, myself.” He asks, off-handedly, to his threatening host whether the “toppling of American missiles really compensates for having no hands?” Even though he’s powerless, Bond continually looks for that one thing that might jolt the doctor or change the circumstances. When the doctor boasts about the greatest minds that make up SPECTRE, Bond corrects him by interjecting “criminal brains.” Of course, the doctor has his reply: “The criminal brain is always superior, it has to be.”

I’m of the mindset that there really have been no bad Bonds, just unlucky ones. Connery was fortunate enough to enjoy the longest run of Bond masterpieces with the first three films, but it was, in part, due to his immediate ownership of the role.

The Novel – Although the first film in the series, Dr. No was the sixth novel. It brought up the tail end of Flemings early stories (the collection of short stories in For Your Eyes Only being the center point in the series). The film is more or less faithful to the novel with a few notable exceptions. The character of Miss Taro is crooked in the book, but even more crooked in the film. Felix Leiter was a return character in the novel, with a significant handicap he obtained in the second novel, Live and Let Die. The film does not mention the Audubon Society, which, in the novel, is responsible for shedding light on Dr. No’s activities as well as affording Bond’s superior, M, with a chance to share his worldview. Fleming spends a chapter on Bond, Quarrel and Ryder trekking through the mangroves in thrilling detail. The tarantula in the film is a centepede in the book, and it drinks the sweat off Bond's forhead (or so he senses). Also, Bond’s passage through the pipes of Dr. No’s fortress is part of the doctor’s obstacle course of death – planned out by the doctor with a finale confrontation with a giant squid. Finally (and if you plan on reading the book beware of the spoiler that follows), Dr. No meets his fate at the business end of a pile of guano. Oh yeah, and the dragon serves as an escape vehicle for Bond and Ryder. Virtually all of the deviations from the novel were wise moves on the part of the filmmakers.

The hidden hand in the creation of the first James Bond film is Terrence Young. He would go on to make two more Bond films: what many consider the best, From Russia with Love, and the lesser, though grander in scope, Thunderball. But Young’s influence went well beyond the films he directed. He, more than any other, brought the Fleming Effect to the screen. He provided the stylistic essence in the series and molded the character of Bond.

Dr. No remains one of the best loved Bond films. I rate it as my favorite, with From Russia With Love and Goldfinger as close seconds. It, along with From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is one of the closest to the novels. It is also one of the simplest.

This entry in the 007 in '007 series was written by Jeffrey of Liverputty fame. Be sure to stop in at Liverputty and check out his ongoing collection of Ian Fleming Bond novel excerpts titled The Fleming Lumber Room. -RR