NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: DR. NO Revisited

The release of a new James Bond film is always a worthy cause for celebration. For nearly 60 years, roughly half as long as the existence of cinema, the Bond franchise has captivated, endured, and influenced filmgoers and filmmakers alike. It’s been quite fascinating to chart the series’ linear trajectory, and observe how each subsequent installment evolves, reflects, and becomes a statement of its era.

No Time to Die, the 25th official entry in the saga of 007, is slated to be Daniel Craig’s fifth and final film as Bond, offering a lead actor the rare chance to give their interpretation of Ian Fleming’s famous spy a proper sendoff. After years of delays and false starts, the project finally got off the ground and geared for an April 2020 release. Needless to say, I eagerly awaited its release with much anticipation.

And then a global pandemic happened and the release date got pushed back to November and everybody is stuck indoors. Bummer.

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: DR. NO Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

As a means of staying sane while practicing safe and proper social distancing, I’ve decided to take the reins of this golden opportunity: I will revisit and write about all previous 24 films in the series, plus the two “unofficial” entries. Being the impassioned fan that I am, I’m opting to expend my creative energy on doing something I love, and will therefore utilize these next seven months discussing, dissecting, and examining all things Bond.

Will I discover new things and solidify my fandom of this franchise? Or will this exercise finally turn me against Bond and inevitably drive me crazy in the process? We shall see. Without further ado, let’s travel back to the year 1962, and take a look at the life of one very negative doctor.

Introductions

A beginning is a very delicate time, and few understood this better than producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. When it came to adapting one of Fleming’s novels, this powerhouse duo landed on Dr. No (originally the sixth book in the series) to be the first film, as its narrative and content were deemed relatively achievable within the means of their limited budget (a pay sum of one million dollars – $85 million by today’s standards). With director Terence Young at the helm, it was a gambit that paid off handsomely, and we forever have Broccoli and Saltzman’s efforts to thank for gifting us with the greatest movie franchise to have ever existed.

As is customary, our first glimpse of Bond is in the gun barrel sequence, but note that the figure you see is not Sean Connery firing; it’s stuntman Bob Simmons, offering a strange “leap-and-shoot” technique. Anyways, the gun goes off, blood fills the screen, and Monty Norman’s immortal theme roars to life. Music is an integral part to the success and longevity of James Bond, and Norman should forever be championed for crafting such an indelible guitar riff.

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: DR. NO Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Our proper introduction to Connery is nothing short of exceptional. Everything you need to know about the James Bond universe can be distilled down to this one sequence: a sharply dressed man in a tuxedo, seated at a Chemin-de-fer table, deals cards to himself and his opponent, a beautiful dame in a striking red dress. She continues to lose to his hands, yet remains undeterred, wanting to up the wagers. This exchange then occurs:

“I admire your courage, Ms…?”

“Trench. Sylvia Trench. I admire your luck, Mr…?”

“Bond. James Bond.”

Instantly iconic. What I love about this scene (and this is something that largely gets overlooked when considering the history of Bond) is that his classic catchphrase is not even an original line – it’s a lightheartedly sarcastic response to her delivery of her own name. There would be no “Bond, James Bond” without “Trench, Sylvia Trench.” Kudos to actress Eunice Gayson for carving out such a memorable moment out of her limited screen time and have it echo through 24 following films (and, as of 2020, being the first of two Bond girls to appear in more than one film).

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: DR. NO Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Since we’re here, let’s discuss Connery. I think he’s absolutely fantastic as Bond: suave, seductive, burly, yet moves like a panther stalking its prey. Never without a sense of charm. Dr. No is mainly comprised of scenes of Bond just merely walking around rooms, and even that is immensely compelling to watch, thanks to Connery’s fully-formed performance. Everybody has their favorites – and we’ll get to those down the line – but as far as Connery’s debut goes, nobody could have done it better.

More introductions follow suit. Lois Maxwell positively shines in her brief appearances as Miss Moneypenny, offering moments of playfulness and lighthearted flirting to the proceedings. Better is Bernard Lee as the irascible M, Bond’s superior. No-nonsense and perpetually grumpy, M’s increasing annoyance with Bond’s “know-it-all” persona becomes an effective running bit in the series. These characters don’t tend to hang around in the pictures for long, but they are essential to the Bond mythos and still manage to leave resounding impressions during their limited screen time. No part is too small in the world of Bond.

Laying the Foundation

So, let’s talk plot. If I’m being perfectly honest, plots can be amongst the least interesting things in a Bond film. Not to say they’re immaterial; they’re just so often heavy-handed and convoluted that when you boil them down to their working parts they’re really only a variation on “Bad Guy wants to do Bad Deed and Bond must stop them.” That’s not necessarily a terrible thing – simplicity has definitely contributed to Bond’s enduring fandom. I just find that character, wit, and charm are far more important ingredients for a Bond film’s success.

As the series goes on, there are some films that still lose me in their machinations (Octopussy, Quantum of Solace), but Dr. No keeps things relatively simple and can be summed up thusly: “After the murder of MI6 operative Strangways in Jamaica, secret agent James Bond 007 is dispatched to investigate if his death has anything to do with radar jamming occurring off the coast. There, he encounters the local Honey Ryder, before both are captured by the nefarious Dr. No, an operative working the clandestine organization SPECTRE.” There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

This being a spy film, I couldn’t help but feel giddy over the low-tech spywork Bond implements throughout the film. The tiniest of details – dust sprinkled on a suitcase handle, a single strand of hair planted on a closet door – work wonders to get the juices flowing. It’s tools like these have seemingly fallen to the wayside in contemporary Bond films, though I suppose modern technology is to blame for supplanting any actual sleuthing. C’est la vie.

Globetrotting is another necessary component to Bond. While the average film in the franchise travels to no fewer than five countries, Dr. No is comparatively less adventurous – only England and Jamaica are visited. But Dr. No still makes the most out of these locales, and the real star of the show might be Ken Adam’s gorgeous production design. Adam would go on to design only six more Bond films (we have him to thank for “evil volcanic lairs”) but much of that “Bond look” so unforgettable is derived from his artistic brilliance.

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: DR. NO Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Consider the room Professor Dent visits to obtain his objective from SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion). Spare white walls, no furniture save for a single wooden chair, and an ominous-looking skylight. Minimalism at its finest. Whenever I watch a latter film – say, Die Another Day – I yearn for quaint moments like these.

Bond’s murder of Professor Dent is another crucial piece of character development. Anticipating the ambush, Dent only manages to unload his pistol into Bond’s bedsheets before having the tables turned on him. After some light interrogation, and without so much as raising his voice (“It’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six”) Bond shoots the unarmed man – twice, to be sure. Ice cold, 007.

While in Jamaica, Bond encounters three allies that would further establish the Bond formula. The first is Quarrel, the “local ally.” Throughout the series, Bond will usually have a point of contact that is more informed about the area than he is (and they usually have to die to prove how dangerous Bond’s mission truly is). With that regard, Quarrel is a fabulous ally – jovial and handy, yet stoic enough to handle a broken flashbulb slashed across his face. A-scores all around. It’s just a shame about his superstitions – Quarrel meets a ghastly end at the dragon spouting diesel fumes. RIP to a real one.

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: DR. NO Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The second ally is Felix Leiter, an operative with the CIA. Leiter’s appearances date back to the first Fleming novel, and he pops up every now and again to offer some stateside assistance to Bond. Trouble is, unlike M or Moneypenny, Leiter is portrayed by a different actor in nearly every film he appears in. Here, he’s played by the supremely cool Jack Lord, later of Hawaii 5-0 fame. Legend has it that Lord wanted more money to return as Leiter in future movies, but was rebuked. Clearly even he knew this series was onto something.

Perhaps the finest introduction is saved for last, in the form of one Honey Ryder. Ursula Andress’ emergence from the ocean in a white bikini very nearly trumps Bond’s reveal at the card table – it’s no wonder the producers have returned to this image twice more (Halle Berry in Die Another Day, and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale). Ryder makes for a stunning and extremely capable Bond Girl, firmly filling in the Bond Girl archetype for years to come (for better or for worse). And get this: she’s the only one to get Bond to sing. Top that.

For such a notorious villain, Dr. Julius No does not show his face until the final twenty minutes of the film. Joseph Wiseman plays the part as quietly menacing, lightyears away from some of the stratospheric performances in later efforts. His key scene – discussion over dinner with Bond as captor and captive, respectively – is another important piece of Bond lore, highlighting the general hospitality of Bond Villains. They will kill Bond, but not before they ensure he’s comfortable.

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: DR. NO Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The showdown in the missile launch control room is brief but exciting (the tracking shot through all the bits of machinery is Ken Adam’s money shot). Bond crawls through an air vent and makes the building go haywire, Dr. No drowns in some radioactive water, and Bond and Honey Ryder escape in a watercraft. The lair explodes, the day is saved. It’s your typical Bond ending, with Bond and Girl embracing in a lifeboat as the credits roll. Never not a classy dude, that 007.

Conclusion: Dr. No

Of course, everybody has their favorites, but when asked what their favorite Bond film…odds are it likely isn’t this one. Which is a shame, really, because Dr. No is actually very good, something that is easy to overlook as the series grows more grandiose (or outlandish, as it were). Stylish, armed with handsome production values, and sporting a confident lead actor, Dr. No is a strong entry point, elemental in kickstarting the global phenomenon we know and love.

How exactly does one follow this one? We shall see: The No Time to Die Countdown will return with From Russia with Love.

What do you think? Is Dr. No your favorite Bond film? Let us know in the comments below.

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