When Sean Connery puts down his cigarette lighter, takes a puff of smoke while sitting at a card table playing Chemin de Fer, then purrs the words that would immortalize him—“Bond…James Bond”—it’s like 007 emerged fully-formed, Athena-like from Ian Fleming’s brain. Since then, the most famous agent in Her Majesty’s Secret Service has starred in a further 22 big screen adventures with varying degrees of seriousness and even outright different genre trappings—blaxploitation, sci-fi space epic, Miami Vice-style revenge thriller—but for the purest expression of all things Bond, I still go back to the very first, Dr. No. It’s one of the most influential movies ever made, responsible not just for establishing the template for future James Bond movies but much of what we take for granted in modern action cinema. Everything you love about the franchise is already here: the vodka martinis, the colorful opening credits sequence, the exotic locales, the double entendre-named Bond girls. Fifty years after it landed in U.K. theaters on October 4, 1962, Dr. No is still Double-0 heaven.
The key to Dr. No’s rousing success, in the hands of workmanlike director Terence Young, is that it was patterned, in part, on Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal, modernist thriller North by Northwest—Cary Grant was even considered a likely contender to first wear Bond’s tux. But Young, screenwriter Richard Maibaum (who’d pen scripts for the franchise for decades), and producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, made a few crucial tweaks that turned Hitchcock’s blend of Cold War espionage and paranoia into the ultimate male fantasy. Namely, they abstracted it.
Grant’s Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest, a Madison Avenue ad man mistaken for a CIA operative targeted by agents working for a foreign power, was an ordinary guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances. He still had a mother to bicker with and a couple ex-wives to pay alimony to.
Connery’s 007 is almost a cipher by comparison. We know nothing about him except he has impeccable taste and can be pretty ruthless. The allure of James Bond lies in how truly extraordinary his life is from the start. And unlike Grant’s character, Bond is ready for whatever the universe throws at him. Whereas Thornhill has his humdrum life turned upside down when carried off by currents beyond his control, Bond is always in control—whether it’s with women, playing baccarat, or tangling with Nehru-jacketed villains. Beyond all the beautiful Bond Girls, the vodka martinis, the Aston Martins, the sun-drenched getaways where Bond does so much of his “work,” I’d say that the single most appealing thing about Bond for guys everywhere, is the effortlessness with which he approaches and handles life. That’s what makes him cool. That’s why guys want to be like James Bond. But if we really found ourselves dealing with international intrigue, we’d probably end up acting like Roger Thornhill—only without being anywhere near as good looking as Cary Grant.
The most intoxicating fantasies, though, are those that seem attainable. For that to happen, the flight of fancy has to be grounded in reality. Dr. No works so beautifully because it keeps Bond very much life-size. During his first big-screen outing, he relies on little more than his wits and his Walther PPK. There are no fancy fold-up helicopters, cars that turn into submarines or (shudder) become invisible. The plot is plausible too. Bond travels to sunny Jamaica to investigate strange radio signals originating in the vicinity that have been toppling NASA rockets and the disappearance of the MI6 operatives who had already been looking into the matter. Think a British Philip Marlowe with a license to kill. Along the way he tangles with a couple of shady women and finds an ally in one particularly comely shell collector before meeting the elusive, Mandarin-collared title character who’s every bit as evil as the name Dr. No suggests. Pretty straight-forward.
But the way Dr. No mixed sex and violence—and the film’s casual attitude toward both–was revolutionary in 1962. Everyone knows the famous shot of Ursula Andress’s Honey Ryder emerging from the Crab Key surf. Her bikini alone represented one of the icons of the nascent Sexual Revolution. But think also of how quickly Bond goes from pulling a gun on Sylvia Trench, putting golf balls in high-heels after breaking into his apartment, to having her fall into his arms. To be exact: it’s 50 seconds. Or how he has sex with Dr. No’s ally Miss Taro, all the while knowing that he’s going to have her arrested immediately thereafter. Or Honey Ryder’s monologue about how female praying mantises eat their male partner after “making love.”
Even the suspense scenes are dripping with a cool, erotic dread worthy of Hitchcock. Where does Dr. No’s henchman plan to kill Bond? With the British agent in bed, of course! By releasing a deadly tarantula into his Kingston hotel room that’ll creep up on him in his sleep. And, to complete the Hitchcockian mood, who plays Professor Dent? Actor Anthony Dawson, who got a pair of scissors stuck in his back as the would-be murderer of Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder. Dent’s demise in Dr. No would also set a new standard for movie violence, when Bond shoots the unarmed professor twice, including once in the back.
Aside from all its cinematic firsts, Dr. No is just damn good storytelling. For one, it sets up its villain beautifully–he’s heard, as a disembodied voice in an echo chamber, before he’s ever seen. For another, the film immerses itself deeply in the local color of its Jamaican milieu.
Around the time Quantum of Solace came out, director Marc Forster told The New York Times, “In the ’60s and ’70s…a large part of the appeal of the James Bond movies was the travel to exotic locations, but that’s not such an attraction anymore. People travel a lot more now, and with the Internet they’re more aware of what the rest of the world is like.” That right there explains a lot of the visual drabness of Quantum of Solace.
Dr. No is by no means a globe-hopping adventure, but in its one real location outside England, Jamaica, it finds a level of romance and exoticism that’s still potent. Part of that may be because Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, the man who “discovered” Bob Marley, handled location scouting for the film. It’s also because, in place of a traditional score, the movie laces funky island grooves into its aural palate. I mean, this is a movie that begins with a calypso version of “Three Blind Mice,” dripping with a whole new level of ska-derived menace: “They looking for the cat/The cat that swallowed the rat/They want to give that cat the attitude of three blind mice.” Yes, James Bond’s cinematic life began with “Three Blind Mice.” If that doesn’t make him the ultimate cool cat, I don’t know what does.
[Photo Credit: United Artists]
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