Action/Adventure / Bond / Films / Thriller

James Bond Retrospective: Dr No

The James Bond franchise is one of the great cinematic staples. It’s been around forever and almost everyone has seen at least one Bond movie. It’s one of my favourite franchises and has been since childhood, and it seemed time to take a look at the series as a whole. This retrospective will run through each Bond movie, though some – the better films – will get more attention than others, and some of the weaker films may be clumped together. Looking at the series as a whole is an interesting way to examine the highlights and low points of the franchise, as well as the consistencies and changes within the series. Bond adapts with the time, with each actor and movie representing a microcosm of the styles and themes of the era – the suave 60s, the campy 70s, the violent 80s, the post-modern 90s and the rebooted, character focused 00s. The series, based on Ian Fleming’s novels (though the movies often take titles and characters and not much else) was produced by Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, who began the films back in 1962.  As Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, had already been adapted as a television play, legal reasons pushed the producers to adapt the sixth novel instead – Dr No – which with its smaller scale was deemed a suitable introduction to the character. The film was made on a modest budget, and it’s unlikely the that the two producers could have imagined Bond’s success at this point.

Dr No begins with the murder of Strangeways, a spy working in America and investigating a missile jamming scheme. British Secret Service agent James Bond 007 (Sean Connery) is sent to investigate. On the way, he picks up our first Bond girl Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) and takes on shady SPECTRE operative Dr No (Joseph Wiseman). For memory reference, this is the Bond where Ursula Andress walks out the sea.dr2When looking back at Dr No, 22 films and one very successful franchise later, two things stand out about it. The first is that a large amount of Bond staples are present from the beginning. The film opens with Maurice Binder’s iconic gun barrel shot. The Bond score is already in place. Bond mutters his catchphrase ‘Bond, James Bond,’ within the first 25 minutes. Both M (Bernard Lee) and Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) are already established, as our their relationships with Bond. We’ve got a Bond girl (though she doesn’t appear till the last 40 minutes) an exotic location, and SPECTRE quickly established as the Big Bad. The world feels lived in from the start and though this is the first adventure we’ve seen on screen, there’s a sense of history to the series already, and it feels like one story in an existing arc. Continuity is strange in the Bond world – Bond doesn’t get older, and the films don’t quite fit together though certain characters and elements stay the same. The series works as a series of solo adventures featuring the same archetypes and it’s interesting that this idea is present from the beginning. The restrained, crisp cinematography gives the movie a timeless quality but the stylish tone firmly sets this in the 1960s.dr4The second noticeable element is the opposite of the first – where Dr No differs from the rest of series. There’s no pre-credit sequence, and the credit sequence itself lacks a song – instead we’re treated to John Barry’s hugely iconic score, which frankly is one of the best in all of cinema. Maurice Binder’s psychedelic visuals are unusual here – there’s no girls, guns, nothing but a series of rolling circles and non of the motifs which define a Bond credit sequence. All of that was to come in time. The film, directed by Terence Young, is paced differently to other Bond films – there’s very little action sequences and the movie works more as a Hitchcockian spy thriller. This works in the movie’s favour, and the quieter suspense elements – such as the one involving the spider – are some of the movie’s best. Adding to this, there’s no Q and no gadgets, which makes this Bond feel more grounded, and the more fantastical elements – such as the dragon – are rationally explained away. The series is a few movies away from spiralling into its outlandish silliness and it’s hard to see at this point how the franchise got where it did. This seems like a taut spy thriller, not the start of one of the world’s biggest movie chains. dr5It’s the first Bond and the first with Connery in the lead role. It’s generally accepted that Connery was the best Bond and it’s hard to argue against that. He is. His first scene here is iconic and wonderful. He’s suave, charming and devilish, with a cool 60s edge – he feels fashionable but utterly masculine with a hint of no-nonsense violence within him. It’s easy to see why women would throw themselves at him, and believable that he could take care of himself too. With no gadgets, Bond here is more cunning, reliant on his wits, which is refreshing given later elements in the series. At this point, Connery hadn’t quite nailed the cinematic version of the character and leans more towards Fleming. Fleming’s Bond was darker, more violent, and Bond in Dr No reflects this; he’s rougher around the edges – the scene where he murders one of Dr No’s unarmed colleagues is cold and crude, one of early Bond’s darkest moments and though it has a big impact, doesn’t gel with the later versions of the character. Connery is still finding his footing here and though and does remarkably well – the character is there from the start, almost fully-formed, but it’s not until the next movie that Connery truly nails it.05_Flatbed_1 OCTOBERJoseph Wiseman is an iconic first villain. He’s not the best, certainly no Blofeld, with a relatively small scale missile jamming plan and little else to do. But he’s got the look – cream suit, metal hands – which makes him stand out; he’s instantly recognisable as a Bond villian but it’s Wiseman’s performance which really counts he. He rarely, if ever, blinks, and speaks with an icy indifference, working as if some kind of lizard. As a starting bad guy, he’s decent, and paves the way for superior future villains. For the first film, there’s a lack of henchmen, and the climax is smaller in scale than usual. Ursula Andress of course is iconic too, more so than Wiseman – her beach appearance is one of cinema’s most remembered scenes; it’s one of the best cinematic entrances of all time actually She’s also so attractive that her role basically threw a bunch of young 60s boys into early puberty. Her character has a sweet, childish edge undercut with a darker, violent tone and her and Bond have a nice chemistry. Like a lot of early Bond actors, Andress however was dubbed over, with Nikki van der Zyl doing her voice. For a 60s love interest, there’s not much else to the character, but she serves her point within the narrative. Bond girls will be one of the most interesting elements of this retrospective, as they more than any other element of the films best reflect changing attitudes of the time. Of course Bond movies are sexist – there’s a no win policy to the women; they need to be independent and strong, but also need to fall into Bond’s arms at the end. It’s a difficult balance and becomes far more noticeable once we get into the 80s.dr6This isn’t the best of the Bonds, though it’s a great starting point, and it’s interesting to see the series in its roots. Looking back, Dr No is a great film for fans, if only to comment upon what’s there and what isn’t. A more stripped back, tight thriller, elements of this movie do drag and there’s not quite enough to it justify true classic status. That comes with the next two movies, which built upon the elements of Dr No and turned them into something far greater. It’s a solid movie. It’s just not quite a Bond film yet. James Bond will return in From Russia with Love – possibly the best film in the series.

4/5

Carl’s Note: If you liked this, check out my other Bond retrospectives:

From Russia with Love
Goldfinger
Thunderball
You Only Live Twice
Goldeneye
Die Another Day
Skyfall

And I’ll follow up with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service soon (which might be my favourite in the series) before eventually working my way through the entire series…

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7 thoughts on “James Bond Retrospective: Dr No

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