The good, the bad, and the Bond: Re-evaluating 007 – Dr. No

TO CELEBRATE the legacy of one of cinema’s most enduring icons, the Film section at SCM is undertaking probably its most ambitious project to date, providing fresh – positive and negative – looks at each instalment in the Bond series, all the way up to the November release of Spectre. There’ll even be a surprise or two along the way. For now, however, we go back to basics. We start with the first adaptation of Ian Fleming’s spy novels, the one that kicked off the whole shebang: Dr. No.

Daniel Abbott: Fans of James Bond, accumulated over the course of 50 long, celluloid years, have become accustomed to the 007 formula: Exciting setpieces, gadgets, pithy quips and sexy women, all clumped into a villain’s plot to take over the world. The series has thrived on this simple yet effective treatise; its rare deviations (i.e. Quantum of Solace) have been met with torrents of scorn and cries of betrayal.

It wouldn’t be remiss to suggest that the longevity of the brand is down to a rigid adherence to convention. Of course, over-reliance breeds laziness. At their worst, Bond films are misogynistic, overblown and ludicrous, with absurd stakes and groan-inducing lines that stretch the patience of even the most die-hard aficionados. How strange then that Dr. No, the first in the series, doesn’t really bear many hallmarks of its subsequent lineage.

Certainly, there are the recognisable traits. The gun barrel intro makes its first appearance, and there’s the trippy 60s psychedelia of the opening sequence with coloured silhouettes of women swaying, both created by Maurice Binder. Sean Connery’s Bond purrs his legendary introduction: “Bond, James Bond.” There are several sexy ladies (Ursula Andress, Zena Marshall, the lovely Lois Maxwell). There’s even the requisite exotic locale of Jamaica, casting dappled rays of light on proceedings.

But the Bond in Dr. No is taut, rugged and ravishing. Free from decades of expectation, Connery lends his portrayal a smoulder that belies an inherent brutality. Terence Young’s direction is assured, peppering the slower sections with a playfulness that would inform many of the films to follow. Joseph Wiseman’s titular villain is a treat, bringing muted, simpering disdain to his appraisals of Bond’s ability; their eventual, impeccably mannered confrontation is the highlight of the film, the two flanked by a large aquarium (which, due to budget constraints, actually comprised of magnified goldfish stock footage).

The extent of gadgetry is replacing Bond’s Beretta with a Walther PPK, a far cry from the jetpacks and invisible cars to come. Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell make their first appearances as M and Miss Moneypenny respectively, both on hand to provide some comic levity. Dr. No has a smidgen of camp to offset an otherwise dangerous tone, but it never quite strays into pantomime. Monty Norman’s score is emphatic, his ‘James Bond Theme’ (arranged by John Barry) reaching instant classic status.

Receiving a mixed reaction on initial release, Dr. No certainly has its pacing problems, especially in a cumbersome middle act, but it’s done to bolster the central focus of espionage and subterfuge that later films would forget in their rush to excite. It isn’t perfect, but it served as an appropriate template for the Bond films to follow, providing plenty of groundwork for its successors to build upon.

Jozef Raczka: So here’s where it all begins. Dr. No. Let’s start by being honest with ourselves: It’s not really the best start, is it? Sean Connery came into the world fully-formed as James Bond, the smarmy but inexplicably charming spy, but the film surrounding him is far less impressive. Perhaps it’s just a victim of the time period and changing attitudes to filmmaking, but the debut of this series suffers from incredibly weak pacing.

The plot concerns, well, I’m not entirely sure. It may have been the poor mixing of the copy of the film I was watching but the dialogue was never entirely clear in setting up the plot, preferring instead to go for tone and colour. So, the villainous Dr. No wants to take over or destroy some portion of or the entirety of the world; Bond has to stop him, and Ursula Andress turns up along the way.

If we take the film in context, it’s probably a symptom of the 60s style, but speaking as a fan of the Daniel Craig films, returning to an earlier, far brighter style just exposes the lack of threat or tension in the early action sequences.  You have a brilliant score by Monty Norman and John Barry and it’s wasted on a series of walk-and-talks around various (admittedly beautiful) Jamaican locations. Give it some room to breathe or at least a tight little car chase to go over.

I’m not saying it’s the worst film in the series (we’ll get to that, The World Is Not Enough). It has its strong points, among them the aforementioned score. Connery and Andress are at the top of their game and have great chemistry, even if Andress is underwritten to the point of near parody and there’s certainly enough potential to suggest why this series has kept on chugging.

But really, why was this the film they had to make? Ian Fleming’s books were dark, hard, intense cold war thrillers (the closest to his style, and best Bond so far, has been Timothy Dalton), and this first outing was throwaway nonsense at best. I wanted to be impressed but all I was left with was a feeling of, “Is that the best you can do?” Luckily, as history shows, no it was not. This would have been a very small segment otherwise.

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