A Little More Dr. No
What sort of American audience awaited James Bond in 1963? I hadn’t appreciated how familiar spy-spoofing was pre-007 until a recent airing of The Road To Hong Kong, a Hope-Crosby feature released a year before Dr. No, but remarkable for its parallel plot and situations. It was almost as though Bob and Bing were lampooning Bond before we’d been properly introduced to the character. Plenty was in the air to herald a cycle of super-spying and increased sex/violence tempos we credit to UA’s series. British advances since the mid-fifties were a secret kept largely from us thanks to spotty playdates groundbreakers received in the US. Violent rhythms of 007 to come were revealed in the pre-credit sequence of 1959’s Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, and there was Sean Connery amongst participants in a shoot-out edited much in the fashion of Bond openers (even as it preceded them by several years). Horror and science fiction out of Hammer suggested new directions as well, but other than certified hits Curse Of Frankenstein and Horror Of Dracula, few beyond youths were going to see them (Enemy From Space, aka Quatermass II, had only 5,473 bookings and domestic rentals of just $148,602 in this country). A distinctive nervous tempo was the common thread woven into UK thrill-making, with producers before and besides Bond quickening pace and making our thrillers look old-fashioned in the bargain. Dr. No might well have been the first time many adults (in this country) experienced such visceral sensation familiar to their offspring via matinee viewings of newly toughened Tarzans and monsters playing more for keeps. Picture yourself grown up and cosseted on a pre-1963 diet of action staged placidly in domestic fare, and suddenly there’s Dr. No's Strangways and his secretary shot down in a way so startling, so modern, that I’m still (happily) disoriented by it. Imagine how it played new, but consider too how quickly Dr. No would be supplanted and rendered passé by slicker Bond models. I remember seeing it the first time on the 1965 reissue with From Russia With Love and thinking how primitive it seemed compared to the recent Goldfinger. A short review in Castle Of Frankenstein that Spring (1965) indicated I wasn’t alone in reacting so … The years have already hurt the first of the Bond series; slickness of later films make this one seem awkward by comparison. Honing the formula did abbreviate the freshness of previous Bonds, but was awkwardness necessarily a bad thing? The more I see of Dr. No, the more endearing its gaucheries become, those edges all the better for being rougher.
My preferred Bond (and Connery) is Dr. No’s unpolished merger between a character in development and a leading man learning the ropes. Polish translates too often to predictable, and early Connery/Bond is anything but. Was 007 intended to be so surly and abrupt, even with presumed colleagues in the field? I like his outburst when told that Crab Key is off limits, as though straining at the bit to push forward the investigation and letting no slower device (or line reading) get in his way. Notice how Connery locks the door in his hotel room and yanks out the key. He’s even aggressive at strapping on a shoulder holster, both these performed while alone and with no threat imminent. My greatest pleasure in Dr. No comes of watching this unseasoned actor play at being a seasoned agent. The film takes its time and lets Bond putter about the room laying traps for would-be intruders (but wouldn’t any one of them notice a briefcase latch covered in talcum powder --- and the clearly visible fingerprints they leave behind?). I was even inspired to pluck a hair off my own head and spread it across closet doors at home just as 007 did, and it might have worked as effectively, but for several shades lighter color that made it near impossible for me to relocate the strand once I’d placed it. Getting to know James Bond gave us access to commonplace rituals thought unnecessary in later films. Dr. No finds the agent changing in and out of suit coats, adjusting his cuffs, and seeing to matters of dress and deportment that amount to privileged views we’d not enjoy once the series found its stride. I enjoyed watching Bond merely detect, routine investigation being the presumed lot of even an MI-6 man. Phrasing archaic by 1963, but pleasingly maintained in dialogue, includes 007 referring to himself as a clay pigeon, Crab Key as my beat, and in a Connery take on a line referring to casing the joint, tacit awareness that it’s dated and that he (and we) are hep to that. Dr. No is admirable too for holding its exotica in check until at least the second half, even if that makes it seem trifling in comparison with later ones in the series. Jamaican scenics are grounded in a welcome reality of gravel roads, calypso bars, and airy porches. It wasn’t yet policy to find only those locations most glamorous for Bond to visit, a suffocating aspect of entries where a Pierce Brosnan was so freighted with product placement and overwhelming backgrounds as to evaporate into them.
I assumed right through the sixties that England was a power player on the world stage. That came of going to movies lots more than reading newspapers. Practical considerations seldom intruded upon my confidence in Bond and his devices, though I wondered why a man who prevailed so handily at gaming tables would bother exposing himself to the bother and risk of being a secret agent. However tongue-in-cheek the Bonds played, always-lush production and those massive sets commanded my respect and neutralized whatever doubts I’d entertained as to their social and political assumptions. It was trust I maintained, along with countless others similarly impressionable, that got critics sufficiently hot under collars as to brand 007 fascist or at the least a very bad influence. Dour spy films were correctives to Bond’s irresponsibility, but (comparatively) lower domestic rentals even for quality the likes of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold ($2.9 million) showed our preference for agents we could laugh with (or at). Maybe there was comfort in knowing that for all the sinister power wielded by Soviet and US opponents, there was a SPECTRE looming that trumped both. At a time of such international uncertainties, a worldwide organization devoted to criminal pursuits was not only believable, but likely. The biggest noise Bond made at the time of Dr. No was with a silencer. The oft-referenced casual killing of Anthony Dawson’s Professor Dent was, I’m sure, a calculated bid to separate (absolutely so) James Bond from crimefighters that had gone before him. It’s a moment still startling, thanks largely to the icy way Connery plays it. His hesitation after Dawson attempts firing his spent pistol was not unlike Jack Palance savoring the moment before killing a defenseless Elisha Cook in Shane, only this time it’s the presumed hero in cold-blooded assassin mode. Judging by Dent’s expressed willingness to talk just prior to his second, and again failed, attempt on Bond’s life, it would seem more practical for 007 to take him in for what would have undoubtedly proven a fruitful interrogation, but as we’re all tired of the functionary’s double-dealing by this time, it’s as satisfying to see him disposed of, however questionable JB’s morality in doing so.