Page to Screen: Dr. No (1962)

Dr. No
based on the novel by Ian Fleming

Okay, I caved. I have decided to copy my intrepid friend Natalya and watch the entire James Bond cinematic canon. Over Thanksgiving, I picked up the first two at my local library and watched them with my family. (They did have Thunderball, but they didn’t have Goldfinger. I have to watch them in order; it is my pop culture curse.) I thought I’d at least seen Dr. No once, but it turned out I had no memory of the film—I probably saw Goldfinger on television once and mixed the films up.

Dr. No is the first cinematic outing of Ian Fleming’s super spy James Bond. When an MI6 agent, Strangways, and his new secretary are murdered in Jamaica, James Bond is sent to investigate. MI6 suspects his murder is related to Strangways’ collaboration with the Americans investigating malfunctions with rockets at Cape Carnavale. Bond’s investigations lead him to the mysterious Dr. No, who owns the island of Crab Key, an island the locals—including Quarrel, a friend of Strangways, and Honey Ryder, a local shellfish collector—are deathly afraid of. American agent Felix Leister makes an appearance.

Pacing was different back in the sixties. I’ve noticed this when I’m watching Star Trek: The Original Series; perhaps it’s how our attention spans have devolved over the past fifty years, but Dr. No is a bit… slow. Not painfully so, mind you; apparently, Peter R. Hunt’s editing technique was considered quite innovative at the time, with its use of fast cuts and fast motion. But I must admit, I fell asleep at a certain point. (To be fair, I’d not been getting enough sleep and it’s so cold in my parents’ house that I occasionally fall asleep out of self-preservation.) It’s not that I am bored, but rather that technological progress has marched on, and what passed as a thrilling pace in the sixties doesn’t exactly move this digital native. All of this is not to say that Dr. No doesn’t move; I was surprised to find such short scenes. It’s merely the pace within scenes that lags a bit.

From what I can gather, Ian Fleming’s Bond novels (which I have little desire to read, given the fact that even people at the time were wary of the “snobbery and sadism” of the books) are more or less serious. Terence Young, the director, decided to play Dr. No much more tongue in cheek than the original novel: “a lot of things in this film, the sex and violence and so on, if played straight, a) would be objectionable, and b) we’re never gonna go past along the censors; but the moment you take the mickey out, put the tongue out in the cheek, it seems to disarm.” Thus, the cheerful sociopath that is Bond was born, as well as his incredibly cheeky context. Sean Connery plays him with an easy mix of brutality and elegance here and casually owns the role. Whether that’s a function of the fact that no one knew the Bond franchise was going to pull a Doctor Who (no one even knew what pulling a Doctor Who would mean yet! Oh, you tiny boomers) yet or because he’s basically perfect for the role is anybody’s guess. (Apparently, Fleming was so taken with Connery’s take that he gave Bond Scottish ancestry in the novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.)

But for its dated pacing, tongue-in-cheek nature, and the awkward nature of being the very first installment in a series that would later become so iconic, Dr. No is still Bond, with all the thrills and problems that entails. While the Bond aesthetic is still being developed, the production definitely knows it’s aiming at sharp suits, clean lines, a sort of patronizingly bawdy wit, and extravagant sets—I mean, the climax of the film occurs on Dr. No’s secret island fortress. Anyone who isn’t a white male doesn’t fare particularly well; Quarrel, Strangways’ Jamaican friend, is superstitious and cowardly, while Honey Ryder is pretty useless for anything but having sex with Bond. You can also probably guess how the villainous half-Chinese Dr. No ends up. How delightful. And yet… Sylvia Trench, an odd relic of the first two Bond films (she was intended to be Bond’s long-suffering girlfriend; you can imagine how that panned out), is the one who feeds Bond the famous “Bond. James Bond.” line by introducing herself in that fashion first. (That’s right, Bond stole it from a woman just as cool as he is.) And I think I was destined to love Miss Moneypenny. She’s smitten with Bond, but gives just as good as she gets, snarking, rolling her eyes, and otherwise being the kind of prim, mildly square, but utterly fabulous mid-century woman that I can’t help but love.

Bottom line: Dr. No is in an awkward position as the first installment in an iconic series, with its dated pacing and tongue-in-cheek nature. But at the end of the day, it’s still Bond, with all the thrills and problems that entails. Still, Miss Moneypenny is the bomb.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

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