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Dr. No Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 11, 2012 at 2:40 PM

    Dr. No Review

    And the James Bond bonanza goes on …

    It is only fair and fitting on his 50th anniversary of cinematic world-saving that we take a loving look back upon 007’s bold debut back in 1962. While the world and his dog is currently going spy-crazy for Skyfall – and quite rightly so – it is actually something pretty special to go back and see how it really all started for MI6’s globe-trotting, bed-hopping, mission-accomplishing super secret agent.

    Not a reboot this time … it’s the real deal. It’s Connery. It’s Ursula Andress in that bikini. It’s one of the most insanely catchy theme-tunes ever conceived. It’s three blind mince, a fire-breathing dragon … and that bloody tarantula.

    It’s Dr. No, everybody!

    “Underneath dee mango tree, mee honey and me …”

    Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had been targeting Ian Fleming’s suave MI6 agent down the end of their silver-screen gun-barrel for years. They knew that the lethal antihero’s bestselling combination of intrigue, exotic hot-spots and serial womanising would be the perfect nectar to attract international audience acclaim and big box office receipts. When the opportunity finally came to bring Bond to the screen, they gathered together a crew that would become a virtual family of actors, craftsmen, stunt-people and writers, and commenced upon what even they would never have guessed, not even in their wildest dreams, what would be one of the greatest and most successful movie-franchises in history. They took Fleming’s sixth 007 novel, Dr. No, and launched an icon that would become larger than anyone, including its creator, could ever have foreseen.

    “If you carry a double-oh number, it gives you a licence to kill, not get killed.”

    Deftly fanning the flames of paranoia and suspicion during the eternal stalemate of the Cold War was the topical crux of what made James Bond tick during the first three decades of active service. The West trusted nobody – Britain and America standing together with a degree of mutual snobbery and a self-satisfied smirk acting as the glue that bound them as the last line of defence for the free world. Bond could flit between the two bastions, as accepted on the Vegas strip as he was on Saville Row, but he was quintessentially the British secret agent. Ex-Royal Navy Commander and vastly experienced covert operative, he was no mere cowboy riding into town to clean the place up … although he would find that he often needed precisely such people to help him seal the cracks in the global theatre of extortion, revenge, blackmail and terrorism.

    Curiously, and quite astutely, Broccoli’s opting for Dr. No managed to sidestep the big bogeyman of “The Russians”, centring upon the plot of an Asian megalomaniac and his fiendish plans to thwart and disrupt the US space launches. However, nobody could mistake the threat of an imbalance in the escalating Space Race, and one that would lead to a potential Third World War. The introduction of SPECTRE was another coup that would prove too delicious for Broccoli and his writing team of Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkeley Mather and Wolf Mankowitz (who would ask to have his name removed from the credits when he unhappily departed after the first draft) to pass up. The organisation, headed-up by Blofeld, of course, would be the mainstay of villainy that Bond would face on many occasions, and it seemed only right that his first mission for the masses would engage this shady umbrella of nefarious scumbaggery, although Blofeld would have to wait until several more dastardly operations had gone awry before stepping up to the plate. In this way, Dr. No would move out of the conventionality of spies and counter-intelligence - the G-Men and the code-breakers that had been the mainstays of the genre since the Second World War - and into the realms of rich fantasy. The next film, From Russia With Love, would be the prime mission to thrust 007 into the world of anti-Russian skulduggery with a vengeance. It would downgrade the larger-than-life escapism of moon rockets and mad scientists in favour of brutal assassins and exploding briefcases, though it would also enforce the notion of another, more sinister player on the world terrorism front.

    This device of a greater force for evil was brilliant. Both Fleming’s books and Broccoli’s blockbusters seemed to sneer at our Cold War enemies as if saying, what chance do you stand … when our James Bond can take down organisations far more dangerous than you?

    Dr. No, under the tight direction of the enthusiastic Terence Young, however, was not a slouch in the tactics and ramifications of counter-espionage. In fact, its balance of MI6 sleuthing and far-out schemes is very finely maintained. Bond’s little tricks for self-preservation are quite simple, yet beguilingly effective. A hair draped across the doors of his wardrobe. Some dust on the clasps of his briefcase to catch the fingerprints of unwary snoops. A mere phone-call at the airport to make sure that the driver who has met him really is who he claims to be. Throughout another twenty-two movies James Bond would travel the world with virtual impunity – still more believably than Jason Bourne, though, who is wanted by almost every security agency there is yet is still able to cross borders with no attempt made to disguise his looked-for face – but little things like this remind us that he knows the score and understands that he can’t just walk into any old hotel and expect five-star treatment without a few tricks up the porter’s sleeve.

    When Agent Strangways (Tim Morton) and his secretary are murdered in the Caribbean outpost, Bond is sent to investigate. He discovers that the killings were ordered by the mysterious Dr. No, who has established a fortified base on the forbidden island of Crab Key and protects his interests with deadly force. Bond moves through the exotic environ, dodging assassination attempts and uncovering clues as to what Dr. No is up to on his island base. He makes contact with the CIA, and together with a local boatman called Quarrel and a mysteriously captivating beachcomber called Honey Ryder, he infiltrates the seemingly beautiful island of Crab Key and sets about tearing down Dr. No’s nasty little empire with the guts, guile and gumption that would become the character’s hallmarks.

    “Unfortunately I misjudged you. You are nothing more than a stupid policeman … whose luck has run out.”

    The filmmakers and Young, especially, understood the jeopardy that we as the audiences needed to experience, and thus, besides getting a true sense of the underworld lowlifes who can be employed by Dr. No in the shanties speckling Jamaica, where most of the action is set, we get the dreaded tarantula sequence. Stuntman Bob Simmons supplied the real flesh that the horrid thing crawls slowly across, whilst Connery was safely behind a pane of glass, Indiana Jones style, for the reactionary mid-shots. Ian Fleming had written the suspenseful encounter as being with a venomous centipede, but spiders, even if the tarantula isn’t actually all that dangerous, have a much more immediately galvanising effect. I mean these can kill just by looking at you! This sequence has lost little of its skin-crawling anxiety.

    And as a child I was always really frightened by Quarrel’s tales of a fire-breathing dragon on that haunted island of Crab Key … and the image of the doomed Jamaican boatman getting immolated by what turns out to be Dr. No’s painted tractor-jalopy’s flamethrowers had a profoundly nasty shock value of deadly poetry. It is still pretty horrible how a very likeable character gets wiped-out so glibly and in such ghastly a manner. It is great to see Bond, even handcuffed and with guns trained on him, move against orders towards the remains of his companion in a silent show of grim resignation and respect. In a nice touch of semi-homage, we meet Quarrel’s son, Quarrel Jnr, played by Roy Stewart in Live and Let Die. Although the connection is never made apparent, fans knew what was going on.

    Tuxedo? Check.

    Mischievous, yet cruel gleam in the eye? Check.

    Cigarette clinging nonchalantly on the lower lip? Check.

    Air of supreme confidence, and of a casual ruthlessness that can be called-upon in the blink of an eye? Check.

    Walther PPK 7.65 and not that ladies’ gun of the Beretta? Check.

    Okay, Sean … erm, James, go get ‘em.

    And when Sean Connery’s uber-cool Bond, James Bond lit one up and flicked his eyes across to the gorgeous lady in red in the casino and uttered that famous introduction at the Chemin de Fer table, the deal was sealed. Women wanted him. Men wanted to be him. The ultimate male fantasy and ego-trip had now found the perfect visual and cultural incarnation, leaping from the pages and into the model/body-builder’s frame of the dashingly dark former bricklayer. Fleming may not have liked the “working class” casting of Sean Connery, nor the initial interpretation that Young and his leading man brought to the character but, crucially, everybody else did. Before Connery bedecked himself so nattily and indelibly in the dinner-jacket, there was only the likes of John Wayne and Steve McQueen who had occupied that same reverent communal gasp of admiration and wish-fulfilment from the sweltering gaze of a million idolisers.

    In the running for the coveted role had been Richard Johnson, David Niven (who would play the part, alongside many others, in the lavish comedy/fantasy version of the swinging sixties take on Casino Royale), James Fox, Dangerman Patrick McGoohan (who rejected the idea because of the incessant theme of sex and violence), and a much too young Roger Moore (whom Fleming claimed to have preferred), who would later go on to make the part his own, as we all know. After his performance in Hitchcock’s lavish, everyman take on the Bondian caper, North By Northwest, Cary Grant was also approached, but didn’t fancy such a distinguished and all-consuming part at this juncture in his career. That the silver fox came to mind back then is not at all bewildering, but as tremendous an actor as he is he would have been bloody awful as Bond, if you ask me.

    Young had worked with Connery before on Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and he would be the primary focus for shaping the persona and the attitude of the Bond that would result from their historic collaboration here. It was Young, for instance, that insisted upon the withering one-liners that usually come after Bond has just offed somebody. Young that provided the impetus for the ladykilling swagger and the nonchalance in the face of danger. Luckily for us, Connery took to it like a duck to water, and the style soon became second-nature to him, honed and refined over the next two films to perfection. He was the underdog who had somehow made good, and this is precisely how his Bond was presented. There is a resentment of authority, although a brilliant air of chastised schoolboy charm to his relationship with his own superior, M. His politeness towards would-be assassins only masks a deadly dark resolve to eradicate them, and his flirting with the fairer sex is just as camouflaged and, in many cases, equally as brutal.

    All the actors who have played him bring something of their own to the role of Bond. But when you return to the early Connerys there is no disputing that he was the real McCoy. Even Fleming would adapt the literary equivalent to mimic Connery’s portrayal, and you can’t get much more definitive than that.

    Bernard Lee, still the best M that Bond has ever worked for, and Lois Maxwell, as Miss Moneypenny, find that sure-fire niche of, respectively, grudging admiration/exasperation and heartfelt yearning-cum-eternal tease with 007 that would carry on for a good couple of decades. In fact, if it wasn’t for Peter Burton’s appearance as Major Boothroyd, the Q that Desmond Llewellyn would later become, the MI6 sequence, replete with hat tossed onto the coat-stand and secretarial lust, could fit in anywhere within the Connery tenure, so smoothly rendered is the chemistry and humour of the players that you would swear that they’d been doing it for years.

    “East. West. Just points of the compass … both as stupid as the other.”

    As would become the norm, the cast is eclectic and international.

    Jack Lord waltzes in as a tremendously charismatic Felix Leiter, the CIA man that becomes Bond’s reliable contact and friend throughout several adventures, and face-changes for them both. Lord would only play the role once and, although good, he comes across as mostly set decoration. He would go on to great success as Hawaiian supercop Steve McGarrett in TV’s HawaiiFive-O. But the good-natured bonhomie that would form the basis of the relationship between Bond and Leiter definitely manifests itself here. We would get precious little of it with Cec Linder as the CIA link in Goldfinger or Norman Burton in Diamonds Are Forever. But both Rik Van Nutter and David Hedison would return the affection to the part of Bond’s brash buddy. In the Craig years, though, Jeffrey Wright has brought a rather charmless and grumpy air to Leiter’s more dishevelled and cynical incarnation. It is more realistic, maybe, and certainly in-tune with the whole shadiness of the world that the two men live in, but here’s hoping that the older camaraderie finds its way back in.

    As Quarrel, John Kitzmiller is impressively rounded. He initially comes across as a potent threat for Bond’s wry probing down at the harbour, but he swiftly reveals himself to be a dependable asset, and even quite courageous when it finally comes down to him facing his fears of what lurks on the mysterious island. Eunice Gayson heads up the roster of Bondian babes, as the delectable Sylvia Trench, and her casino pick-up at the start is still a very memorably sexy conquest. Let’s face it, Bond can catch up on some sleep during the flight to Kingston. Former Miss Jamaica and flight ticket clerk Margaret LeWars is equally irresistible as Dr. No’s photogenic photographer, who snaps too many illicit pictures of the good guys for her own good, and almost gets a snap that she didn’t expect – of her twisted arm – for her interfering ways. And then there is Zena Marshall’s stunning Miss Taro, the duplicitous section secretary that Bond catches in the act of eavesdropping, and is forced to reprimand in that special 007 manner. The conquest of Taro is certainly a deed that furthers his mission and helps to root out another couple of cogs in Dr. No’s wheel of misfortune, but it also reveals a darker, more sexually predatory side to our James. He will go on to use many more women as either “disposable playthings” or conveniently vital stepping-stones, but the way that Connery plays this is both amusingly ultra-red-blooded and quite ruthless.

    But if there is one woman for which Dr. No and, quite possibly, the entire James Bond phenomenon is best remembered for … then it is Ursula Andress’ shell-hunting beach-babe, Honey Ryder.

    Andress was nervous as all hell in the role that Kirk Douglas and her husband John Derek insisted she take on. Her pale Swiss skin meticulously given a specially created tan that would be the envy of the munters on TOWIE and her cream-coloured bikini and diving knife going on to become cinematic legends, her arrival, like a goddess, from the azure surf rolling up against one of Jamaica’s most idyllic spots still takes the breath away. Although dubbed with a sexier, sultrier and less heavily accented voice, this is the sort of vision of heavenly femininity that would make even a blind man’s tongue pop out. You can see the impact that she has on Connery, whose reaction underneath the cool veneer of Bond goes beyond anything learned in acting class. He even sings, for God’s sake.

    Sadly, like so many heroines, Honey starts off as wildly impulsive and individualistic, and possessed of an assured and capable exterior – I mean she sails out to a forbidden island and even knows how to evade the roving patrols - but is then swiftly relegated to naïve damsel in distress. Mind you, she still gives one of Dr. No’s radiation-suited goons a savage backhand swipe, and later on, at the beastly boffin’s dinner-table, she staunchly insists that she is staying with Bond despite the menace that surrounds them – and this is the same man that she met only a few hours ago, and who has gotten her into so much trouble. The dye had been set – Bond would meet many strong women over his career, and he would crush their will beneath him, subjugating them with the power of his charisma until they were broken down to needy waifs who wouldn’t survive without him.

    “That’s a Smith & Wesson … and you’ve had your six.”

    Bond can battle as many henchmen as he likes … but his missions are still defined by the big villain who is pulling the strings. There’s been classic ones, camp ones, naff ones, sinister ones … ones who want to manipulate the media (oooh, scary!) and those who are interested in water (huh?) … and there are those who may only appear towards the end of the show but whose presence has been felt all along, simmering like a vat of lava. Joseph Wiseman’s Dr. Julius No is certainly a great example of the latter. He’s got the mini-army. He’s got the base. He’s got all the connections with SPECTRE. And he’s got the big Ken Adams-designed super-suite equipped with all manner of object d’art and then luxuriously enwrapped within the biggest aquarium this side of Jaws 3D. Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me was clearly impressed with this guy. His scheme is pretty sketchy, though. He’s using radiation from the island’s active rocks to disrupt and hopefully destroy the American Space Program as a show of SPECTRE’s strength. All very elaborate and costly, but something that set in motion one of the most engaging plot-elements that the franchise would celebrate – the SF qualities that all the best super-villains would utilise.

    Perhaps it is down to the nerves he purportedly had, or the Asian makeup he was wearing, but Wiseman has the ability to keep his face perfectly still and rigid with oriental inscrutability. Even though this title role is actually quite small – Bond villains from this point onwards would gain ever more screentime and much more dialogue – Wiseman gives his Dr. No immense gravitas, albeit of the amusingly eccentric variety. Yet, despite his metal hands and curious zombie-like face and colouring, he has one of the better criminal conversations with Bond, their exchanges charged with mutual intelligence, veiled cunning and verbal one-upmanship. He was also clearly an influence upon Mr. Han with the interchangeable hands in Bruce Lee’s chop-socky Bondian megahit, Enter The Dragon. No would also engage in a fight with Bond, something that many ensuing master-villains would not be capable of. Still wish their final tussle went on for a little bit longer. Interestingly, those super-strong metal hands would be his and not just a gimmick attached to his leading henchman. Christopher Lee, who had played oriental villains before in Hammer’s The Terror of the Tongs and the dreaded Fu Manchu in a series of pulp thrillers, had been considered for the role, and would have been quite a vigorous and aristocratic adversary for 007. Of course, he would be precisely that – albeit with a third nipple – in The Man With The Golden Gun as ace assassin, Scaramanga.

    Wiseman sticks in the mind, though, as a foe with the appropriate refinement to go alongside his abject mania.

    Okay, start humming that tune … now.

    Swinging London club musician Monty Norman was man who supplied the score to Dr. No. He took the opportunity to fly out to Jamaica with his wife and to engage the local leaders in the native music scene to help him imbue the film with the requisite ambience and exotic, pulsating rhythms. To this end, the Byron Lee Band’s act formed the basis for several infectious source cues that Norman wrote. If you watch the dancing during the rendition of Jump Up, you’ll witness something akin to voodoo frenzy taking place with one wild practitioner, especially!

    But the film is also the first time that we heard the glorious James Bond Theme that has become synonymous with the franchise and immediately recognisable and hummable the world over.

    The controversy over who actually came up with the famous theme-tune – Monty Norman or John Barry - raged for a great many years. Norman wanted a distinctive theme-tune for the hero and the movie and whilst Broccoli and Young seemed keen on having the beautiful Under The Mango Tree, he won out when he recalled the catchy beat from his own 1960 stage musical number, A House For Mr. Biswas. And this did, indeed, form the basis of the famous theme. But it was John Barry who arranged it in such a spectacular and memorable fashion, altogether altering its beat and power and giving it that brassy, raucous and flame-grilled pizzazz that we all instantly recognise. The problem that I used to find with this inaugural presentation of it is that we hear it far too often. During the film it becomes a musical mantra every time Bond is on the move. There was absolutely no way that audiences were ever going to forget it after being virtually brainwashed by it. But nowadays I don’t mind its stonewall determination to identify the character and the style of Bond so damn implacably. And, if it is actually possible, the signature riff is at its most aggressively raw, sizzling and pronounced in this first adventure. Played magnificently by the ace monikered Vic Flick of the John Barry Seven on a Clifford Essex Paragon DeLuxe acoustic guitar, with a DeArmond pick-up and a Fender Vibrolux amplifier, with the plectrum working near the bridge of the instrument to help achieve that distinctively exaggerated sound (thanks to musical notes from Jeff Bond – no relation – for this information), the riff burns with bravado, eclipsing the 60’s jazz that created it and becoming a timeless musical beacon that immediately makes men swagger with the pride of the pack Alpha, and hints at the intoxicating promise of action, danger and sex. A combination that, let’s be honest, nobody can resist.

    The action is low-key in comparison to what would follow, straddling the fine line between being believable and stupidly over-the-top. Confrontations are limited and mostly take place in secluded places – a deserted lay-by, a boat-shack and an isolated house – and this aids the film’s sense of the clandestine. Later Bonds would think nothing of chasing a baddie through crowded streets, over rooftops and around national monuments, recklessly endangering civilians left, right and centre. Here, such activities seem realistically kept in the shade. Then again, when one terrifically cold-hearted moment sees Bond shooting the traitorous Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson, who has a great death-mask face even before he bites the bullet!) in the back as he writhes, wounded, on the floor, you can see why such deeds are kept under wraps. The car chase is hardly spectacular, but the image of the henchmen-laden hearse hurtling down the side of a mountain, and erupting into flames, was the explosive catalyst for more vehicular mayhem in the years to come than even Mad Max could comprehend. The big showdown in Dr. No’s radiation bunker/HQ is also curiously lacking in spectacle – when you compare it to the type of establishments that Bond will regularly blow-up on subsequent missions – and it never seems quite as populated as it should be, but this is compensated for by some tense moments in a ventilation shaft, and the sheer awesomeness of Adams’ designs.

    “That’s a Dom Perignon ’55. It would be a pity to break it.”

    “I prefer the ’53, myself.”

    Whenever someone embarks upon a fiendish scheme, they should factor-in the potential for destruction from the direction of a certain Meester Bond. Just when their grand scheme for world domination or the deconstruction of the geopolitical map is about to succeed, up pops 007 to throw a Walther PPK-shaped spanner in the works. You capture him, rough him up a bit, perhaps even kill one or two of his accomplices to show him that you mean business, and then make that now clichéd mistake of telling him exactly what your masterplan is within crucial minutes of it coming to fruition – those crucial minutes that would be better spent putting a slug between his eyes rather than just locking him away somewhere that a man of his assured ingenuity can easily break free from with mega-thwartage on his mind. You brainy bad guys just never learn, do you?

    With all the outrageous and even stratospheric adventures that James Bond has been on throughout fifty glorious years of fantasy, you could be forgiven for thinking thatDr. No might not deliver in the thrills and spills department, but this is simply not the case. There might not be anywhere near the same amount of explosions and gun-battles and chases as we would become so heartily accustomed to, but the film is a tremendous showcase for a hard-edged 007, nevertheless. The Jamaican setting is as vibrant now as it would have appeared to audiences back in 1962, the beauty of Dunns River Falls (I’ve been there) just as entrancing. The story is clever and full of the sort of mystery and intrigue that the series would often forego in favour of simply strung-together set-piece action and villainous scenery-chewing. We see Bond actually indulging in secret agent antics - detective work and contact-sussing like it was genuinely second-nature to him – and there is a wonderful cohesion to the narrative that takes its time to unfold, so that when we finally get to Crab Key Island and the film becomes a proper, SF-tinged world-domination game of egos, we are persuasively blown away by the raising of the stakes from the simple cat-and-mouse antics of traditional spying.

    In truth, there are not that many movies in the series that actually take on the mantel of the spy game. Vendettas and grand schemes take away from the basics of the job and the bread and butter of the 00 licence. Here, we understand the remit of Bond and his ability to operate in relative freedom from MI6 and indulge in his obsessions for gambling and bedding wenches, yet we can also see how this is all just part of a profession that he has the unique skill-set for. It’s all for Queen and Country, after all.

    “Tell me, does the toppling of American missiles really compensate for having no hands?”

    Having spent all my life watching, adoring and trying to be Bond, with the last couple of months being the absolute zeitgeist of my own peculiar fascination – what with this spectacular box set and the arrival of Skyfall at the flicks – it didn’t seem at all jarring going from Daniel Craig’s latest to this vintage debut from Connery’s primary incarnation. In fact, I was surprised at how downright un-jarring it was. Bond is Bond. Whether he has thick, bushy dark eyebrows, wears a toupee or a kilt, has a post-AIDs aversion to unsafe sex or an Irish lilt, or blonde hair and sticky-out ears – he remains the constant beacon for roguish machismo in a world that is ever changing its tastes and its fads.

    Boys love their toys, and Men want to be Bond because Bond has the best. And he gets the Girls. It doesn’t matter what government we have, what society we create, or how gender roles evolve – there will always be room for a sexist, misogynist dinosaur to save us from over-the-top, vainglorious calamity.

    Bond will never die … this, or any other day.

    His cinematic birth is a rare treat. It is watching an icon being groomed and equipped to mount an all-out assault on popular culture. And when watching Dr. No, even all these years later, you can unmistakably see just how effortless a task that was for him.

    A rip-roaring success and an absolute classic film that wrestled the conventional espionage thriller to the ground and then rose up, victorious, in its place, Dr. No allowed James Bond to emerge as a rough diamond forever.


    The Rundown


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