More noise than signal

Dr. No

Between some conversations about Timothy Dalton’s stint as James Bond with my buddy Craig a few weeks back, the recent confirmation that the next Bond instalment has been green-lit after MGM’s financial wobble and a conversation on one of the best Mac analysis podcasts, the underwhelmingly named “The Talk Show“, ol’ Jimmy-oh-seven’s been on my mind a little lately. So what better way to de-mindify him than by committing to watching a Bond film a week until I run out of them?

We’ll see how enthusiastic I am about the project once I hit the long dark days of Moore’s run, but I’ll kick things off with the obvious starting point, 1962’s Dr. No.

Perhaps the strangest thing, at least for someone who’s grown up with the idea of Bond films firmly entrenched in popular culture thanks to the Bank Holiday TV saturation Bond-bombing that used to go on in the days when it was occasionally worth tuning the telly to ITV, is that Dr. No isn’t really a Bond film. It’s a spy film about a spy called James Bond.

That sounds a little strange. Let me back up a little here. The Bond franchise had been going strong for seventeen years before I’d been born, and thanks to the above mentioned telly viewings going back as far as I recall most of the Bond films pre-Goldeneye, I think, all merge together into one big messy gestalt. By that time, “Bond film” really was a recognisable sub-genre of films, with it’s own familiar set of over the top cliches that fit like a comfortable pair of slippers.

Much like other “genre” films like horrors are generally judged in relation to other horrors, rather than to some set of generalised critical standards, Bond films tend to be judged in relation to other Bond films, at least until the recent reboot. Just as you understand the most of the horrors are about the stabbing and the screaming, the Bond films are about the silly gadgets, silly names, casual womanising, action set pieces and the villains with self-image and plans above their station. You know what you’re getting, and set expectations accordingly.

Going back to the original, it’s odd to see that few of what would come to be all-too-familiar narrative crutches are present, or certainly not to the extremes it would very quickly be taken to. For example, the most elaborate gadgets Q branch have cooked up for 007 are a geiger counter and a Walther PPK.

It’s not without its trips into the unusual, but even when Bond’s trying to fend off an assassination by spider, it’s played straight down the middle. On occasions, Bond is as shaken as the martinis he orders, which isn’t something that happened again to Bond until Daniel Craig’s current incarnation. Well, apart from a brief time under Dalton’s auspices, but we’ll get to that in due course.

Generally in Bond movies, Jimmy saunters through underground lairs filled with henchmen without getting so much as a crease in his shirt, let alone seeming to be in real mortal danger. Sean Connery’s first run through comes as close to Bond being portrayed as a human being rather than an immortal boogyman as you would have seen in decades, had you payed your money at the cinema on release. Hell, we’re even introduced to his day-job with M berating him for carrying a sub-standard gun that led to his hospitalisation.

Narratively, Dr. No stands head and shoulders above most of its stablemates. For those who forget the details, Bond is simply sent out to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of the local MI6 agent. For about an hour or so, what happens is.. well, police work,  an actual investigation of the sort that Bond wouldn’t normally sully his hands with. In later instalments, Bond just has to walk near a place and secret plans just unfurl themselves around him everywhere he goes. He works for his supper in Dr. No.

Speaking of the doctor, perhaps the least Bondian thing about Dr. No is the villain himself. Not, perhaps, in scope or achievement, but in as much as the bad guy in any given Bond film is usually waved about in front of us near-continuously. We don’t even hear Dr. No’s voice until over half-way through the film, let alone see him. In terms of a ‘normal’ investigative narrative this makes perfect sense, and it works well here, but it’s so different from the standard Bond operating protocol that it feels a little strange.

Secret island base notwithstanding, even Dr. No’s scheme itself doesn’t seem to be utterly implausible, certainly by comparison with later films. Remotely fiddling with America’s missile guidance systems seems to be an almost achievable and sane goal, although exactly why it has become so important to do so isn’t particularly well explained. Joseph Wiseman’s portrayal of No is suitably enigmatically restrained, and a welcome change of pace from the frothing madmen this franchise can occasionally throw at us.

Connery is the quintessential Bond, and this is perhaps the best acting performance he gives during his tenure,simply because he’s given some sort of emotional range. Later films would tend to have Bond be… smug, for want of a better term, throughout. Here, Bond occasionally gets rattled, and perhaps more of Fleming’s Bond rather than the one that visits the moon is seen in Dr. No than anything until the modern era. The ice cold delivery of “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six” is a glimpse at an emotionally deadened killer that the series would soon shy away from in favour of quips and kiss-off lines.

The only glaring element that dates Dr. No, apart perhaps from the first delivery of the series’ iconic introductory catchphrase with a fag dangling out of Connery’s mouth, is the effects work. It’s perhaps churlish to complain about it from this timeframe, but even amongst its contemporaries the back-projection on the car chase scenes is decidedly poor, and some of the miniature models used for the explosions would look no less realistic if Wallace and/or Gromit  was in there with them.

That aside, there’s really an awful lot to like in Dr. No, and very little to dislike. It’s a good film, and without the disclaimer of “compared to other Bond films”. This first outing, by virtue of not yet fully embracing the elements that made it the longest-running and most-successful film franchise, becomes a strong candidate for being the best of the franchise. Ain’t that a kick in the head?