Dr. No (1962, Terence Young). STYLE

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On a hot day in Jamaica, agent Strangways, head of section J for London, is shot down by three seemingly harmless elderly men masquerading as blind beggars. After offering them some coins out of charity, Strangways is gunned from behind by the ‘three blind mice’ just before he can enter his vehicle. This same gang infiltrates the agent’s base of operations later on, brutally murders his assistant and steals a very specific file, that containing all known information on Dr. No…

London’s communications room quickly notices that Strangways is ‘off the air’ When word of this disturbance reaches the people concerned at MI6, they send of their 00 agents (double-oh) to investigate. James Bond 007, licence to kill, is shipped to Jamaica to unravel the mystery behind Strangways’ vanishing act, but he’ll discover far more than anticipated on this mission.

Tone

Contrary to many of the 007 films that followed, Dr. No is a slow burn that prefers to turn up the sense of mystery and suspense little by little. It has intense and thrilling action sequences, but they are offered in short bursts. For the greater part of the first 2/3, the film functions far more like a mystery adventure than any straight-up action thriller. Seeing as how it was only the first entry in the franchise with no assurance at the time of its release that there would be a sequel, it’s safe to presume that the producers, American Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Canadian Harry Saltzman, had not found the precise formula that would prove to be a success time and time again later on. Many of the ingredients are in fact present, but overall there is a slightly different feel about this one, and much of it has to do with the pacing. That isn’t meant in any pejorative sense, quite the contrary in fact. It’s one of the few ‘different’ Bond adventures.

If the high-octane action comes in smaller doses, then what exactly does Bond do in the film? Well, as the agent sent to Jamaica to uncover the truth behind Strangways’ disappearance, he mostly plays the role of a detective, complete with some interviews and snooping around to discover what clues may help guide him. Friends of Strangways from the local Queens Club to close colleagues, Bond tries to get as much information as possible out of them, or at least whatever he thinks might prove to be useful. 007 doesn’t even throw as many quips as usual in this adventure, further lending a more serious tone to the movie.

Bond clearly has some good instincts, and it isn’t long before he is hot on the trail of those who eliminated Strangways. Facts and suspicions point to a recluse scientist named Dr. Julius No who has set up a heavily protected bauxite operation on a small private island off the coast of Jamaica. Just prior to the disappearance of Strangways, it had been made known that strange radio frequencies originating from the region were interfering with the U.S. shuttle launches in Cap Canaveral. In the world of 007, facts fall into place rather quickly most of the time, and before you know it Bond has a good hunch to work with. Strangways must have caught on that that this mysterious Dr. No was behind the radio interferences but was murdered for becoming too curious (Strangways was an avid diver and swimmer and has made some unwelcomed passes near Dr. No’s island). Bond, with the aid of CIA operative Felix Leiter and the former’s local contact Quarrel, must infiltrate Dr. No’s island where the answers to this bizarre mystery surely lie. It’s frightfully well guarded location, so much so that locals don’t dare set foot on it, some of which even believe it to be kept by a dragon! Bond doesn’t heed such warnings however, and along with Quarrel, arrives on the private island throughout the night.

It’s only once Bond and Quarrel reach Dr. No’s island that the plot and tension shift into top gear. With the portion of the film set on the private island, Dr. No attempts to show off the best of both worlds 007 worlds. Up until that point, Bond has mostly been snooping around, gathering intel. It was a more realistic story with some glamour and sex appeal thrown in for good measure. The audience knows Strangways was murdered, they’ve seen it happen in the opening scene of the film. When Bond is sent to Jamaica to found out ‘what happened’, we know he is walking into trouble but the character doesn’t. The final third of the movie offers a more fantasy laden atmosphere to the story, what with 007 and original Bond girl Honey Ryder being held captive in Dr. No’s underground hotel/science lab compound.  The effect is a bit jarring when watching the film for the first time. It can feel like two different movies rolled into one, the first being a detective thriller, the second being a sci-fi action adventure. When you’ve seen the film as many times as I have however, both styles merge into one cohesive film easily enough. But I think it’s understandable if an uninitiated viewer finds the turn of events a bit odd. The biggest bang is reserved for the climax naturally. Once Bond tampers with Dr. No’s project by offsetting the intensity of the radioactive energy which powers the complex radio frequency devices, the entire compound falls apart. Employees are running scared for their lives in a moment of sheer panic. Even the surface level section of the headquarters erupts in a massive explosion. This would be but the first of many villain lairs to blow up like victims of the apocalypse. Yet another hallmark of the franchise was set.

Discovering Characters

Not everything Bond and Quarrel encounter on the island is hostile though. It is there, after all, that our intrepid protagonist meets Honey Ryder, one of the most famous Bond girls of all, if not the most famous, period. There are several excellent reasons why the character, played by Swiss model and actress Ursula Andres, struck such a chord with audiences, the most obvious being that she was an absolute bombshell of a woman who much of her screen time perfecting the art of looking sexy. But she owned many other qualities that made her an intriguing character. The viewer quickly learns that she is far from a push over princess. Upon being surprised by Bonds appearance, she immediately retrieves her blade, ready to let any blood spurt if need be. She even taunts Bond, who is clearly a formidable physical presence. Later on she explains how she murdered an abusive man by unleashing a poisonous tarantula on her victim. Arguably her most interesting traits are her knowledge and intelligence, which were solely acquired through experience and personal effort. An orphan most of her life, Honey has fought for her spot in the world (however tiny it may be), travelling a lot and educating herself by reading an encyclopaedia. Granted, that may sound a bit strange, but Andres sells the character very well and I believe Honey Rider as a three dimensional and unique person. She possesses the looks, the smarts and the abilities to be a formidable and unforgettable Bond girl. This balance of essential qualities would be captured by so few leading female characters in the adventures to come sadly. She is this hybrid of a wild adventurer with remarkable intelligence and wits.

The movie was directed by Englishman Terence Young (born in China for those who enjoy trivia), who had a great sense of story telling and character. This is most evident in the way he introduces several of the principal characters. His attention to detail and the idiosyncrasies of the players involved is excellent. Let’s consider of these introductions. Bond isn’t seen until perhaps 10 minutes into the movie. Before then, we have seen hot sweaty Jamaica and a stuffy radio communications room. Suddenly we are transported to a classy London casino. Bond, dressed in a tuxedo and sitting at a Chemin de Fer table, is only seen from behind. The shots cut from shots of his hands on the table when he plays his cards to the reactions of his opponent for the evening, the radiant Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson). She is losing, and soundly at that. Bond’s hands calmly and confident deal cards and play his own hands. Sylvia shakes her head in dismay. Eventually she admits to having met her match.

-007 (still unrevealed): I admire your courage, Mrs…?

-Sylvia Trench: Trench. Sylvia Trench. I admire your luck, Mr…?

-007 (now seen from the front, lighting a cigarette): Bond. James Bond.

Seminal. That’s what you call a ‘money shot.’ Actually, that’s what I call a money shot, but this is my blog, so deal with it. Confident, sophisticated, a winner, all these describe Bond and they are all shown within a 2 minute scene.

Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) is provided his own unique introduction. Although Bond is told during his briefing that he will be working with the CIA agent, neither 007 nor the viewer knows what he looks like. From the moment Bond lands in Jamaica, we can see a rather well dressed Caucasian with sunglasses lurking in the background. Enemy agent sent to destroy Bond or a very secretive protector? Later on when our hero has been led into a tight space by Quarrel and another local (who at that time have not been revealed to be allies), he tried to make a clean getaway, but is caught from behind by the man with the shades. That’s it! The man was sent to eliminate 007! Nope…the man finally reveals himself to be non other than CIA operative Felix Leiter. Quarrel and his friend are the American’s contacts in Jamaica. From that point onward, 007 and Leiter become great partners in this adventure and many more afterwards.

Arguably the best crafted introduction is reserved for the title character, Dr. No. Like so much about the film, there is a careful build up to the character’s reveal. In the opening minutes, he is but a name typed in the cover of file. Later, that name is spoken when Bond, Leiter and Quarrel discuss the prospect of inviting themselves to his private island. Eventually the viewer hears is voice through a speaker system in a hollow room with a booming echo. The audience is teased yet again when the character’s shadow cuts through a shaft of light emanating from a narrowly opened doorway. Eventually the big reveal happens and by then he has earned his status as a terrifying and intimidating villain. Joseph Wiseman, the actor portraying the villain, gives a marvellously cold and calculated performance. Many of the adversaries our hero would battle in later adventures showed some flare or bravado, but not Dr. Julius No. His rage and determination are evident only through his piercing gaze and his diabolical accomplishments.

Buiding Bond

Director Young was often described as  having a bit of a James Bond persona. Charming, witty and an admirer of fine living, he helped pave the way for the Bond style that would ooze from the following films. Sean Connery, although a fine, fine actor, lacked a bit of polish,  a bit of that sophisticated touch that movie goers associate with the cinematic 007. The character found in the novels is indeed very intelligent and efficient, but isn’t quite as suave. It was deemed important to spruce Bond up a bit for the film. Connery is perhaps a bit rough around the edges in certain specific moments, but there’s no denying the fact that overall he’s pretty slick. Terence Young’s directing on the set and coaching off the set (such as finding the right clothing) went a long way to creating the James Bond we all know and love. Connery may have played the part of 007 in front of the cameras, but there was another 007, Terence Young, guiding the show from behind them. The walk, the swagger, the tone of voice, the clothing, etc, almost all of this was the result of the collaborative effort by Young and Connery.

Dr. No is rarely mentioned in peoples top Bond films lists. This is understandable seeing how, when compared to some of the later entries, it feels as though the Bond formula hasn’t been quite perfected yet. It does get a lot of praise and respect, but when crunch time arrives and people name their true favourites, it often gets lost in the shuffle of the other great episodes. Even though the style would be perfected later on, Dr. No showed tremendous promise.

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~ by edgarchaput on September 5, 2009.

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