What new light is there to be shone on Dr. No? Well I like that we are reappraising Bond in a post-Mad Men world, where the style, peccadilloes and buried paranoia of 1960 are viewed through a postmodern telescope. Principally we get a fresh perspective on the style and presumptive, casual misogyny of the entire male cast. What's also interesting from the TV show is that we get an inkling of what it's like to live a domestic life in 1960, with all its misgivings, aspirations and paranoia. The show is set on the brink of the defining decade of hedonism and the gravitational pull towards escaping the conformity of the suburban American life is hugely powerful. Dr. No, with its New Wave-inflected style (Godard's Breathless appeared two years earlier), international backdrops and danger-glamour cocktail caters for this.
Principally, of course, it's the characters that are the object of audience identification and transference and James Bond is the focus for all those looking beyond the office or white picket fence. Terence Young manufactures a brilliant, defining sequence & first shot of Sean Connery as James Bond at the table of London's Le Cercle Card Club. Even the camera finds it hard to find the eponymous and thus confusingly enigmatic spy at first, with a dolly from the entrance to the casino, then a triple take at the card table where only a slow zoom out reveals the back of his head. His hands do the talking to begin with but finally, at a direct question, the shot cuts back to Connery. Insouciant, impeccably dressed, he is almost caught unawares by the impertinence of interrogation - he's in the middle of lighting a cigarette. By parroting the qualified surname delivery of his his opponent "Trench, Sylvia Trench" he creates the character's most enduring catchphrase. We cannot tell whether he is flirting with or being dismissive of the woman. All that we do know is that his answer, as John Barry's music cuts in to tell us, is definitively opaque.
His name is Bond - James Bond - but that tells us absolutely nothing. For a whole generation of men not only in America but also in the UK, brim full of conflict-accelerated experiences and contingent emotion that they dare not share, this is the essence of modern manhood. This is the character of Mad Men's Don Draper (above, right), a man whose name may also be an alias, and for whom the conquest of women has moved from adventure to pastime.
But Mad Men examines the drama of an inner psychology. Bond's obscurity screens an uncomplicated man of action. Mad Men investigates, digs back. Bond looks outwards and forwards, not brooding, just restless. This is the adventure that the repressive post-war commuter wants to escape on and that his home-locked wife wants not only to join in on but to shape.
Ah yes, the women. Eunice Gayson (the aforementioned Sylvia Trench, right) stops the armed Bond in his tracks with the very sight of her legs (and playing the women-exclusive game of golf) - total control. Ursula Andress appears with all the guilelessness - and impossible beauty - of a mermaid, but still has the tenacity to stay with Bond through the Magic Flute-like trials of fire and water in the operatic third act of the film, and win him at the denoument. And of course there's Lois Maxwell's Miss Moneypenny, the suave secretary that makes even Mad Men's Joan Holloway look vulnerable, and who, in Freudian terms, may be his only unconquerable nemesis.
What's important here is that this is the basic perception of the man on the screen. I'm unfamiliar with Fleming or the novel (his 6th Bond) on which the film is based. No doubt Fleming had a substantial character in mind with considerable backstory and psychological purpose. In terms of the film and the development of the franchise though, it's the fickle surface detail that survives, the tics, tropes and lines that suggest fun to be had, not answers to be dredged. Later films pay lip service to the enigma of Bond the man in an attempt to lend the franchise ballast but it's the flotation tank of escapist cinema that the audience returns for and what the producers provide. Dr. No should be seen as something of a minor miracle then, for hitting on so much of the formula at the first attempt.
*BlogalongaBond is a loosely convened forum reviewing the past films of the canon, once a month, ahead of the release of Bond 23, Nov 9, 2012. More information can be found at the Facebook group, facebook.com/BlogalongaBond
It might look fresh today, but ‘Dr No’ must have seemed like ‘Avatar’ to post-war British audiences. A transgressive explosion of colour, exoticism, modernity and impetuous sex, James Bond’s first mission sees the imperious Sean Connery saunter through an overripe cocktail of Caribbean intrigue abetted by Jack ‘Hawaii Five-O’ Lord as his shifty CIA opposite number Felix Leiter and Ursula Andress as racy cockler, Honey Ryder, all of whom are variously hot under the collar for the bionic hide of Dr Julius No – major player in the Spectre spy organisation we shall become all-too familiar with in further instalments. The bad doctor is the first of many Bond supervillains to crave global domination, but when ‘Dr No’ made its million-dollar budget back 109 times over, it was immediately clear that 007 had come out on top – and would be back for more.Dr. No is 81st in Time Out's 100 Best British Films, 8 February 2011