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Dr. No (1962)

by on 2011/01/26

I’ve been to Jamaica twice in my life, once long ago, and once fairly recently.  For some reason, I don’t remember either trip feeling as real to me as Dr. No.  Despite the fact it predates me, there’s an odd familiarity in its lush exotica.  A time capsule from a world as yet unplundered by Hollywood, maybe it appeals to the nostalgia freak in me.  Or maybe I’ve spent a few too many hours living in the world of James Bond.

Directed by Terence Young, reputed to be not unlike Bond himself, Dr. No tells the story of the mysterious recluse, played by Joseph Wiseman, on the island of Crab Key.  Which is rather to say it tells the stories of those caught in his thrall, orbiting the invisible myth of a monster in its lair.

When a British surveillance contact doesn’t report in on schedule, agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is sent to investigate.  Joining forces with the CIA’s Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), local fisherman Quarrel (John Kitzmuller), and a diver named Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), he uncovers a deeper plot against the American space program.

Because author Ian Fleming had already written numerous Bond books by 1962, this film benefited from hindsight.  Little time is spent “finding itself” as numerous trademarks appear, fully realized.  The secret agent is variously considered a detective and policeman.  He’s a card sharp, has a way with the ladies, is issued a Walther PPK, reminded of his double-oh status, and already a fan of medium dry vodka martinis, “mixed like you said, sir, and not stirred.”

We are introduced to M (Bernard Lee), Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), and Major Boothroyd (Peter Burton), later called Q.  Conventions of far-flung locales, elaborate headquarters, and fatalistic one-liners appear.  The seeds of SPECTRE are sown.  There’s even a suggestive Bond girl name, though Honey enjoys a more substantial back story than most of her followers.

Other aspects are familiar, however unformed, fascinating for a glimpse into Bond’s onscreen evolution.  Hardly surprising that these elements are less literary in origin.  The opening gun barrel is punctuated by electronic sounds and chimes.  We move directly into a credits sequence created by Maurice Binder but little reminiscent of his later work.

While we first hear John Barry’s (performance of the) James Bond theme, much of the score is a festive affair from Monty Norman.  Norman favours a local sound over the usual lyrical and action cues.  The soundtrack benefits from songs, including “Jump Up” and “Under the Mango Tree”.  Unfortunately he tends to punctuate the onscreen action a bit closely for my taste, a practice known as “Mickey Mousing”.

Other touches are unique to this piece, things we wouldn’t expect from the eventual “superspy” Bond becomes.  I was impressed with the incorporation of simple practices into his usual routine, including the instinctive covering of his face around cameras, pasting a hair across a closed door, and kicking sand over his steps on a beach.  Many such moments made him more believable to me.

And in case you normally find Bond too light, you’ll appreciate his original ruthlessness here.  He kills in cold blood, a rarity despite his “licence to kill”.  He is beaten senseless in a torture scene common in the books, but less so in the movies.  His hands sweat and he admits to being scared.  Connery’s debut is hardly middle of the road.

Admittedly most viewers will have two reasons to watch this film:  the (theatrical) introduction of James Bond, and the emergence of Andress from the sea, one of most famous scenes in cinematic history.  In fact there are many more reasons to see it.

On its own, it’s a modest, solid mystery, rich in the details of its bygone place and time.  As the first in a sprawling series, Dr. No manifests many qualities common to its successors, as well as some unusual strengths, too rarely revisited again.

* * * *

Rated PG for adult situations and violence

110 minutes

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