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Sunday, December 28, 2008

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 The 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 with domestic rentals of $148,602 in this country). A distinctive nervous tempo was  common thread woven into UK thrill-making, with producers before, and besides Bond, quickening pace and making our thrillers look old-fashioned. Dr. No might well have been the first time many adults (in this country) experienced such a punch familiar to their offspring via matinee viewings of newly toughened Tarzans and monsters played 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 a 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 make locating the strand afterward nearly impossible. 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 enjoy 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 entertain as to their social and political assumptions. It was trust I kept, along with countless others similarly impressionable, that got critics hot enough under collars 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. 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. It is a moment still startling, thanks icy way Connery plays it. His hesitation after Dawson attempts to fire 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 by now tired of the functionary’s double-dealing, it’s as satisfying to see him disposed of, however questionable JB’s morality in doing so.


Blogger Michael said...

I think much of the brutishness of Fleming's Bond comes from Mike Hammer-- and much of the sardonically funny brutishness of the movie Bond comes from Kiss Me Deadly. Bond is a Hammer who instead of being crude and stupid, knows his wines and evening wear-- which of course transforms him into a much more interestingly contradictory character. When two-bit Hammer's a thug, he's just a thug, but when a guy who dresses like Adolphe Menjou is a thug, it's surreal, like the moment in Bunuel when the kindly-faced village priest listens to a confession, leaves the room for a moment, and comes back toting a shotgun like Charles Bronson.

Anyway, I think a lot of the casually cruel, sick-humor edge to Bond (does anything signal the 60s are going to be different like Bond swirling his girl into position while they're kissing so she'll shield him from bullets?) is straight out of Aldrich's film, though obviously he was before his time and Bond was right on it.

9:35 PM  
Blogger Devlin Thompson said...

I recently saw Broccoli & Saltzman's Call Me Bwana for the first time on a local TV station and was struck by its many points of correspondence to the Bond films (it was released only a month after Dr. No), starting with the Maurice Binder credits, continuing through a scene with Hope being issued special gadgets (Not by Desmond Llewellyn, though), and just generally having the air about it of a weak Bond parody...except that it was made before there was really enough of a template to work from. It was an odd filmgoing experience... and not too successful, beyond the added novelty value of the Bond comparison.

9:41 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

While channel surfing last night, I just happened to catch DR. NO being shown on a virtual loop on BBC AMERICA last night on THE BRIT MOVIE.

9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I certainly remember seeing "Dr. No" when it was first released. It was at a very popular theatre in West L.A. all we kids attended on Saturdays, called "The Picwood". Very nice neighborhood house. It's now a huge shopping center. Next door to it was a bowling alley, where we would usually adjourn-to afterward (unless we had to get home for dinner!) Anyway, I remember it was playing I think that week as the LOWER HALF! of the bill, but it was the one my then best-friend from school and I remembered and talked-about. I remember that all through the film, my friend, whose name was Billy Nickel, (that's strictly for me, he didn't later change-it to George Clooney or anything), kept saying how "slick" the Bond - character was -- this was early-60's-ese, for what is now commonly referred to as "cool". I also remember distinctly going-home and telling my dad about it, and all he asked me about was Andress and how she looked in her bikini --I must have said "slick", having no other available adjectives at-hand.
It was only a year or so later, that my parents' picked me up from school one day, and very excitedly started telling me about a "pilot" they had just come from. A number of writers had been invited out to the CBS studio to see this, as the network had high-hopes for it's success and needed some good stories for the projected-series. "What do you think of this, Rick", they said "A James Bond-like agent in the old west, outfitted with all these gadgets and devices that get him out of trouble, living on a luxury-train they supply him with, so-on". "Sounds good to me", I responded. The series of course became "The Wild Wild West".

Again, my very best to you and yours for the New Year, John. Thanks for all the wonderful posts and your diligent work and first-rate writing!


11:17 AM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

I was just introduced to the world of James Bond with this film. Seeing as I haven't seen any of the other Bond films, I didn't notice the awkwardness you mentioned, but it will definitely be interesting to see how the series progresses as I watch the movies.

Great post!

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Phyllis Kirk lived-out her days in a very nice condo on Sunset Plaza Dr. in West Hollywood, where two-lady friends of mine lived. Occasionally, we'd see her hobbling by the pool area, with her cane. Sad to say, she was not in terrific health, suffering from a debilitating disease She was,however, always very friendly. What I found amusing,though, was that in that part of the rather spacious-complex, living just above her(or below, can't remember),was Andrea ("Beast with Five Fingers") King, and across from them, Tab Hunter. As all three had been under-contract there, at different times, I used to refer to it as "The Warner Bros. Wing"!

Again, best wishes for The New Year!

6:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Received the following very informative comment from Don Brockway, whose terrific site, "Isn't Life Terrible", is a must for me ...

The above is Don's coverage of the Stereo Realist camera in addition to the following which he sent via e-mail ...

Not sure if you were serious about this request, and others may have already answered, but:

No, they stopped making Stereo Realists in 1972. I’ve had one for years and have run tons and tons of film through my 3.5 Realist; it’s my favorite camera ever. There are still plenty of Stereo Realists around, and since they use standard 35mm film, so you can shoot, have your slides processed and returned as an unmounted strip of film. The supplies to mount your slides are readily available from a number of dealers. There are people out there who refurbish old Stereo Realists to like new condition, and these usually go for a few hundred dollars.

The cameras are so strange looking – with the two taking lenses on the front and the wiefinder lens between them – that you can often get away with taking pictures where you are not supposed to – I once shot in concert pictures, and when the usher said, sorry, no photography, I held the came out to him and said, these are binoculars. And he went away.

Stereo Realist ran a long campaign about Hollywood stars using their camera – and it wasn’t made-up, paid for endorsements. Dick Powell and Harold Lloyd were at the forefront of the club. Some of Harold Lloyd’s figure studies were released a couple of years ago in a book, in 3-D.

The most interesting aspect of the cameras, to me, was the film advance. The two lenses were spaced apart by roughly the distance between an average set of eyes, so the first picture you shot would, of necessity, have a black strip of film separating them. But the camera designers came up with a great solution – the camera advances the film the width of TWO pictures every time you wind it to the next shot.

I wish I could draw, but here’s the idea: Let’s call the first pictures on a strip of film 1 and 4. Between them, the distance is exactly two frames. So you take the first two pictures (every stereo must have two shots, one for the left eye and one for the right. Holding the cameras up to your face, you expose frame 1 and frame 4 –

1 2 3 4

2 and 3 are blank. Now, when you wind the camera forward, it advances 2 frames, so you have this on the roll

1 2 3 4 5 6

And you have two blank frames to take the next picture, frames 3 and 6:

3 4 5 6

Frame 4 has already been exposed, but because of the double-advance, it won’t get double-exposed– the next set of two will be frames 5 and 8:

5 6 7 8

And the next set of exposure will be frames 7 and 10.

There are a number of ways to produce 3-D stereo photos on a digital camera, and amazingly, you need no special equipment to do it! As long as nothing in your picture is moving, you use the “cha-cha” method – shoot one frame with your body weight shifted to the right leg, then, by shifting your weight over to the left leg, move the camera approximately the distance between a set of eyes. Then, a free program called Stereo Photomaker (this is the one the serious amateurs and pro’s use) will automatically line up the shots for you, correcting any mistakes you made while taking the shot.

You can post these as “stereo X-Views” online – which can be seen in stereo without the use of special equipment, if you can train your eyes to slightly cross.

Check out to see some digital stereos.

I put a small piece on my blog about the Realist – accompanied by a stereo photo of the one, the only – Marlo Thomas.

Thanks for your great site, which I’ve been reading for years!



Thanks for this great info, Don!

2:55 PM  
Blogger Joel Bocko said...

I've linked to your Walt Disney post in my year-end round-up of favorite blog entries. You can read it here:

8:41 PM  

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