Light Bondage: “Dr. No”

James Bond. If ever there was a mythic figure cinema could call its own, it would be James Bond. Sprung from the mind of writer Ian Flemming, the action star/secret agent/killer has far outstripped his beginnings in espionage novels to become something far bigger than the creator or even the people involved in any given movie have ever intended. It’s been 22 (soon 23) movies spanning 50 years and hundreds (if not thousands) of people. Bond is bigger than any of his roles, as indelible a part of cinema as any lone character could ever be.

As we roll into 2012 and the 50th anniversary of the first Bond movie, I figured it would be a good time to look back at all the movies and see just how relevant or interesting they are in today’s world. The Bond of 1962 is a very different man than the Bond of 2012, but it’s the legend that matters most–remembering the stops both brilliant and hilariously misguided along the way. This is the first of what will probably be a biweekly series chronicling the history of Bond. I probably will save the 1967 Casino Royale until near the end, but otherwise this should be chronological. I also intend for these to be kind of easily digestible and serve as weekend fluff to my other, usually weightier pieces, so (I am sincerely hoping for my sake) they’re going to run a bit shorter.

This is a lot of intro, so let’s hop right in.

Dr. No (1962)

It’s hard to look at Dr. No now knowing all of the things we know about where the series is gone and not come away a little surprised. There’s a lot of the touchstones of the Bond series established right from the opening shot of the movie, but in many ways Dr. No is a far different movie than the things that would come before it. Sure, it opens with the typical James Bond walk/gunshot, and it has M and Moneypenny and Bond girls aplenty, but it’s all in a movie that is … well, very un-Bond.

We open up with a mystery, an MI6 field agent in Jamaica has gone missing and James Bond is summoned from a card game to fly across the world and figure out what happened. This first Bond movie is heavy on espionage and investigation and light on action right from the beginning. Bond is shown as incredibly competent, and its made clear he has a license to kill, but he is notable throughout most of the movie for his inaction more than his actions. Put in a hostile environment, much of the movie is spent with him trying to feel out the various actors in play before he does anything. Late in the movie Dr. No calls him “a stupid policeman” and while it’s more or less an empty villain taunt he is much more policeman in this movie than I ever recall the later films bothering with.

Everything James Bond pared down to a single, ridiculous picture.

I wouldn’t want to call the movie low-key, because it has its fair share of car chases and shooting and explosions, but compared to how ridiculous this series will eventually become it feels conservative. It’s certainly not done on the same budget the movies are now known for, but it leads to a certain visual inventiveness that casts the movie in very 60s mod-culture sets and lighting. From the weird purple rocks straight out of Star Trek to the giant, modernist sets that turn no resources into something special, and weird touches like the magnified video of normal fish that make up the Doctor’s exotic aquarium, Dr. No is awash in stylism that puts all the slow burn spy game stuff in a weirdly off-kilter frame.

This is especially true when most of the movie takes place in sun-drenched Jamaican towns and coastlines, firmly entrenching Bond in the kind of visual shorthand that’s more appropriate for adventure films than spy thrillers. It’s a weird genre mashup, happy to delight in its lush setting and slow escalation of danger almost at the expense of the plot. The villain doesn’t show up until the last 20 minutes, and when he does the whole world domination and eventual saving of the day stuff seems almost perfunctory. Which I suppose is fitting, James Bond’s world is one of texture, more interested in the intrigue and the women and the thrills of cinematic spywork than the actual stuff of plot and narrative.

Watching this scene, I was struck mostly by just how amazing this bare bones set looks. It's so cool!

I’ve always really liked Dr. No, and I feel like it’s uniqueness and its novelty really make it one of the movies I would suggest even for people who normally don’t bother with Bond movies. There’s a reason this series has continued on so long, and much of that groundwork is laid out solidly here. Of all the Connery Bonds, this is the one I’ve remembered the most fondly and the one I feel is most important. In fact, I’d argue that if you’re going to watch one Bond film, this is the one to see.

That said, upon revisiting it I couldn’t help but notice that while much of its look and beats have aged fairly well, the way it treats the black supporting cast and the array of Chinese villains is, frankly, super racist. From Bond’s fisherman buddy Quarrel shouting “They’s comin’!” as if he was straight out of a minstrel show to the obviously-not-Chinese Joseph Wiseman playing the titular Dr. No as only one step above a Fu Manchu style caricature. It’s the kind of nonsense that reminds you just how far popular culture has come, and I mostly shake my head in vague amusement at it, like one would do your racist grandpa, but I feel it’s worth noting.

The Theme Song/Opening Titles:
No big vocal theme here. The film opens with the classic James Bond theme presented for the first time over a great animated sequence that is still exciting and interesting to watch even today. I’m surprised more movies don’t open with the normal Bond theme, as it’s far more iconic than much of the garbage (hilarious though it may be) the series eventually came to rely upon. It’s remained a staple of the series for good reason.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:
Shock of all shocks, this movie is without gadgets. It’s one of the Bond staples that simply wasn’t around at the beginning, though perhaps that’s for the best as the absence of fanciful gadgets leads to all sorts of actual inventive spy stuff instead of the usual one-use space age MacGuffins. So this award goes to the single hair Bond plucks from his head and wets before placing across the doors of his hotel room to alert him to any break-ins while he’s away. Because the simplest methods are often the best.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
This is the part where I just put this picture here and we all nod in agreement:

There’s a certain inherent misogyny in the Bond girl role, I have to admit. They’re disposable arm candy, often useful in a fight or part of the plot in some tangential way only to be discarded between films for the next big thing. That said, they’ve become as iconic a part of the series as Bond himself, and I feel I’d be doing a disservice to the sometimes great, sometimes awful performances of the many actresses who show up if I didn’t give them special note.

That said, there’s something special about Ursula Andress’ ‘performance’ (she was dubbed over by actress Nikki van der Zil due to her thick European accent) as Honey Ryder that makes it worth special note. It’s that scene the picture portrays, with her emerging from the ocean in the bikini, clam knife at her side, that speaks to all the surface sexuality and heavy promise of adventure that the films, at their core, encapsulate. She spends the rest of the movie mostly getting in the way and being in peril, and that sucks, but for that one amazing scene she went down in cinematic history as the ideal of the Bond girl.

Best Bondickery:
This is a personally important category of mine, because being an awful liberal hippie asshole that I am I normally kind of take umbrage at movies that glorify killing, sexism, racism, or generally dickery as part of what a hero does. There’s going to be a lot of this in Bond movies, and on some level I’m fine with that, but it’s nice to look for the moment when it just gets so ridiculous that you remember that deep down, Bond is a crazy man who murders dozens people and then jokes about it while sleeping with EVERY LADY and we’re supposed to root for that.

Dr. No‘s moment takes place about halfway through the movie when Bond is being chased by obvious rear projection involving some bad guys in a hearse. Bond manages to race them up the side of a mountain, then slides under the arm of a cherry picker sitting in the road only to watch as the larger hearse blinks at the last second and careens off of the cliff in a massive fireball. Bond, getting out to watch some strangers burn from a distance, stands next to the guy who has just watched these people die, fearfully asking Bond “What happened?” as any concerned citizen would do upon watching a carfull of people die in front of them.

“I think they were on their way to a funeral.” quips Bond, looking at the guy as if expecting him to break into a smile or laugh along with him, as they stand and watch the car crash flaming into the forest below. The other guy, potentially in shock and decidedly disinclined to laughter, looks at Bond incredulously. Bond, oblivious, walks off to the date he was heading towards before half a dozen men got in his way. And people treat desensitization to violence like it’s a new idea.

JAMES BOND will return in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Light Bondage: “Dr. No”

  1. Gametavern says:

    Doctor No, and to the same extent, From Russia with Love will always have a special place in my heart because of just how different and grounded they are compared to the rest of the series.

    This movie, unlike the rest of the series, can be enjoyed as a cool spy thriller for the most part. Until the climax anyhow.

    I also wanted to point out, that you point out the Bond girls, the racist undertones, but completely forget to mention how Bond treats his “girlfriend” in this movie. And again at the start of FRWL

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