Xander Markham and I are a little bit obsessed with James Bond. This entirely healthy and completely normal preoccupation with a fictional character has led to debates and discussions of much import. We’ve decided to bring that to you, and so over the next month we’ll be talking about all 22 Bond films leading up to the release of Skyfall in the UK and Xander’s review.
Xander will be jumping at the films from the perspective of the culture that created Bond while I come at it from the culture that, well, didn’t. Xander will also be taking a more literary slant to his takes because he’s British (you know, Shakespeare and stuff) and I’ll be focusing on the BOOM POW KABLOW (cause AMERICA!). We’ll of course be tossing in our expert opinions on the best Bond films, babes and all sorts of other Bond things as we go.
Let’s kick this off with Dr. No.
What’s always impressed me so much about Dr. No is how absolutely sure about itself the entire film feels. Maybe it’s just because I’ve always looked at it in retrospect, but Dr. No doesn’t seem to be establishing Bond norms it already seems to be in them. Yes, some things are missing like an opening action sequence, but it’s still Bond. A lot of series after a re-watch of the first one have the feeling that they’re getting into the swing of whatever the series became. It’s as if Bond came in mid-swing. No better example of this is present than the opening sequence, which introduces Connery as Bond without any other context like he’s the most badass man in the world. Of course Connery’s pitch perfect, dead pan delivery of “Bond. James Bond.” is what truly sells it.
Which brings us to Connery, who may not have been Flemmings first choice for the role, but was definitely the only actor until Dainel Craig came along to actually have that truly dangerous edge to him. Connery’s performance in Dr. No seems almost effortless, especially in comparison to his later films where it was obvious he was less and less enthused in the role. Here, without the ever escalating budgets and massive sets, Connery seems quite simply the smoothest man ever. I’m obviously not down on the bigger more overblown Bond that comes in the future, but there’s definitely something pure about Connery as Bond in Dr. No.
I think that constraint is also wonderfully present in Ken Adam’s set design in Dr. No. Adams designed many of the best known Bond sets, and they just kept getting bigger and more amazing with each film. In Dr. No, however, due to the fact that much of the film isn’t in an overblown villain base and probably because of budget his set designs are much simpler, yet still stunning. This might be best seen in the scene where Professor Dent picks up the tarantula to kill Bond. The room really makes very little sense, but it’s so striking and compliments the fear that Dent is feeling. It’s not the big sets he’d become famous for, but it shows off the skill he had in creating a sense of space.
It’s just impressive how Bond Dr. No is.
These early movies stick closely to Ian Fleming’s source material, but due to their relatively low budgets – even in 1962, a million dollars wasn’t a particularly princely sum in filmmaking terms – also represent the few occasions when the novels are more spectacular than their adaptations. In the novel, Bond fights a giant squid, and the eponymous Doctor is smooshed under a pile of guano. For anyone who claims Craig’s movies reflect the source material for being po-faced and serious, check again: Fleming had a definite taste for the absurd, but never descended into the wink-wink camp that blighted the worst of the Moore-era movies because he wrote it all with a straight face. The Dr. No movie keeps the tone low-key for the most part – be thankful producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman didn’t go with the first draft of the script, which called for Dr. No to be played by a monkey – although there are traces of Fleming’s sense of humour in Bond’s dry wit, which is fully formed out of the gate, if noticeably colder than in later iterations.
If anything, the character is more fun for being slightly despicable: I love how he nonchalantly has Miss Taro arrested after spending the day bedding her. All he needs her to do is call her contact in No’s organisation, but though he’s putting his life in danger, willingly surrenders to her attempts to make him stick around before bunging her in a police car when he’s had enough. Bond’s attitude to women has softened over the years, and while that makes him more appropriate for the times, also makes him less interesting. Bond first and foremost exemplifies a kind of post-rationing hunger (for fine food, tailoring, women…) which, these days, has mutated into a kind of hyper-consumerist narcissism. Yet there’s a clear sense, especially in the later novels, that Bond indulges himself out of recognition that his life could end at any moment. By making him more considerate towards his conquests and less sophisticated in his tastes (particularly in the Brosnan years, where he verged on metrosexualism), the basis for his cynicism and everything-or-nothing attitude is lost.
The scene immediately following Taro’s ungallant arrest, where Bond sits in wait for No’s assassin, is a rare instance of Bond biding his time, and the sight of him calmly playing solitaire with a silenced pistol by his side is a far cry from the whizz-bang-whallop of later movies. It’s a realistic demonstration of Bond’s fearsome efficiency: he sets a trap, then waits for the villain to ensnare himself. You get the impression Bond knew Dent’s gun was empty all along, but was waiting for an excuse to execute him. Bond isn’t a psychopath – in Fleming’s novels, he’s very much conscious of being a licenced killer, although too professional to let it affect him – but gets on with his job and kills people when he has to. Compare that to Tomorrow Never Dies or Quantum Of Solace, where he effectively goes on killing sprees, and it demonstrates the understated elegance of the characterisation in these early movies and Fleming’s novels. As the first movie in a fifty-year old series, countless essays could be written about Dr. No and how it laid the tracks for what was to come. Relatively little has been said about how perfectly the writing underlying Sean Connery’s flawless performance defines its hero, though. This and From Russia offer the purest representation of Fleming’s Bond ever put on-screen.