Reel Talk

Dr. No and the Formation of the Franchise

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Hello everyone, and welcome to the first installment of Bondathon, my quest to write up essays about all of the James Bond films throughout the month of July. Now, I’ve talked a bit about Bond here on the site before, but let me establish right here and now that I’m a big Bond fan. I’ve been more or less obsessed with this franchise and character since I was in middle school, and got my first taste. My dad put on some of the films when I was young, and for a long time I just thought they were kind of corny. But then my folks brought us to a screening of The World Is Not Enough, I believe because they couldn’t find a babysitter, and suddenly it clicked. I then became fascinated with this character, and started devouring everything  Bond related I could. Which was not that hard, because around that time they were re-releasing all of the Fleming novels, the Benson novels were actively coming out, and Spike TV was incessantly marathoning the films because they had nothing to fill air time with. And since then the character has been a very important part of my life. James Bond has become one of my favorite fictional characters and the stories that he’s in are some of my all time favorites. Despite how terribly they’ve aged. I want to get that out of the way immediately. I love James Bond, but I fully understand if people don’t feel the same way. He’s a misogynist, and his stories are often full of racism and homophobia. These stories are emblematic of their time, which doesn’t excuse them, but it does provide context. But I’m thoroughly of the belief that you can enjoy a story while accepting that some aspects of it are deeply flawed. James Bond is not a good person,and not something to emulate. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s been in some of the most consistently fun adventure/mystery stories of all time. So, I decided to write a series of articles about the James Bond films, and why I love them. So they’ll be coming out every day this month.

Which means we have to start with the film that birthed this whole franchise. A simple little action movie from 1962 that began a media empire that’s stretched 55 years, six actors, and 26 (canonical) films. And I have to imagine that when they were making Dr. No that they had no idea just what they were starting. It’s an unbelievable accomplishment, a series of films unlike anything that had come before it,  and it all started here. Put together after a couple failed attempts by Ian Fleming to get his character onto the big screen, Dr. No hit the scene and completely changed movie making, legitimizing a form of action film that had barely been seen before. And I’ll tell you, it still holds up.

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Based on the Ian Fleming novel of the same name, Dr. No serves as our first introduction to James Bond, but not the first story for the character. This isn’t an origin story, it’s the tale of an agent who is just going about another mission, and doing the same level of work that he always does. It begins in Jamaica, when a local British intelligence officer who has been investigating a series of strange radio signals is killed. This murder draws the attention of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and James Bond is sent into investigate. We learn that these radio  signals are managing to interfere with American rocket tests from Cape Canaveral, so while James is tasked with solving the death of the agent, his real goal is to figure out who or what is causing these interference. So he gets to Jamaica and is immediately tossed in a complicated world of double-crosses and mysterious allegiances. Whoever is behind the signals clearly has a wide network of help, and they start putting pressure on Bond almost immediately, doing everything they can to get Bond out of the way. But he’s helped along by a CIA agent named Felix Leiter, and a local fisherman named Quarrel who had been helping the previous agent narrow down the location of the signals.

And with the help of those two allies, and after skirting several assassination attempts, Bond puts it together that the signals have to be coming from the nearby island of Crab Key. Unfortunately Crab Key is owned by a mysterious recluse named Dr. No, and no one is allowed onto the island. So Bond and Quarrel sneak onto the island, and end up running into a woman named Honey Rider who visits Crab Key to hunt for sea shells. And while they’re dealing with Honey Dr. No’s forces find them, kill Quarrel and bring Bond and Honey into Dr. No’s compound. Which is where the movie really gets nuts, because Dr. No has basically built a fully functional hotel/nuclear power plant that his goons live and work in. Bond and Honey are then brought to an uncomfortable dinner with Dr. No where he reveals what’s really going on. Turns out Dr. No is a brilliant scientist who was rejected by both the United States and Russia, and because they wounded his pride he’s going to actively work against them and try to destroy America’s progress in the space race. And he’s doing this with the help of SPECTRE, a group of international criminals who are obsessed with seeding chaos around the world so that they can profit. Dr. No then locks Bond up while he prepares to ruin the latest rocket launch, which prompts Bond to escape his cell and journey through the secret base. Bond eventually comes across Dr. No’s main control room, and throws the whole facility into chaos as the overloads the nuclear ractor, causing everyone to flee for their lives. Bond kills No by dropping him into the pool that contains the reactor, drowning him, and heads off to save Honey. The two escape, just in time, and sail back to Jamaica while Dr. No’s base goes up in an explosion that surely must be bathing the Caribbean in radiation.

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Dr. No is a hell of a film. When you watch it you can really tell that films, specifically action films, have changed quite a bit in the decades since it was released, but it still holds up remarkably well. There are certainly pacing issues with the film, but it’s still a tense and exciting little adventure film. There are other issues of course, namely the misogyny and racism that are so typical for the era. There’s a whole lot of straight-up white people pretending to be Asians in this movie. And a lot of slapping women. But that’s something you’re going to get from this era. If doesn’t excuse it, but you also can’t really hold it against the film. Instead you can just marvel at a tightly crafted mystery film that introduced us to the most prominent spy in the world. And despite some film-making issues that were prevalent in the day, the movie is actually well-made and full of some great performances. Sean Connery is an amazing James Bond, and he’s in rare form in this film. He’s just James Bond, from the get go. We don’t deal with James Bond becoming who he is, he’s just James Bond from the first moment that he comes into the picture, and changes film history. Joseph Wiseman is wonderful as Dr. No, what little he’s in the film, and gives the character a little more gravitas than a man with goofy metal hands maybe should deserve. And basically everyone else in the film is excellent. There’s some hokey acting and bad choices to be sure, but overall you really get transported to this world of espionage. Not to mention the absolutely fantastic set designs, and just general production design, that make this a really visually engaging and delightful film.

But the thing about Dr. No that really stuck with me on this viewing was the fact that in one movie it completely set up the formula that would come to define this franchise. Obviously a good deal f that work comes from the fact that this film was a pretty faithful adaptation of the Ian Fleming novel, which was the sixth novel in the series, but the film puts in a lot of work in the formation of the franchise. James Bond movies are nothing if not reliable. For so much of the franchise these things moved like clockwork, using a template that had been hammered out over the decades to create a fun and exciting film. And this is the film that crafted that template. We see James Bond get his mission, travel to an exotic location, meet his allies, investigate, dodge assassins, meet the mysterious villain in his secret lair, get the plan explained to him, and then come out on top. But beyond that, this film sets up the idea of the Bond Girl with one of the most iconic of them all, it gives us the idea of the elaborate title sequence (although this one is a bit of an anomaly, since it has three separate songs), the martinis, the gun, M, Moneypenny, Q, Felix Leiter, and countless of other things that came to define the series. Hell, this movie even introduces the concept of SPECTRE, the organization that will prove to be the thron in James Bond’s side for years to come. And it somehow accomplishes all of this without being bogged down in exposition. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of exposition, but this film handles its world-building pretty fantastically, creating this fully lived in world that you just kind of slip into. This doesn’t really feel like the first James Bond film. It feels like you’re just peaking into another adventure in the ongoing saga of James Bond. Which you’d think would made this a hard film to follow if it actually was your first James Bond film, but it somehow weaves that world-building and exposition into an easy to follow story that gets the formula across, and gets you addicted to it. So please join me in working through the history of James Bond, Agent 007.

Dr. No was written by Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, and Berkely Mather, directed by Terence Young, and released by United Artists, 1962.

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