Sunday, March 25, 2012


Sean Connery: milkman, truck driver, coffin polisher, bodybuilder, actor. Oh yeah, and the definitive James Bond. Although he’d been a jobbing actor for a decade before he was cast as 007, his only lead role had been in the fey musical ‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People’. A son of Edinburgh, his trademark Scots burr would remain in place throughout his career, whether he was playing an Irish-American cop, a Russian submarine commander or an English secret agent.

It’s putting it mildly to say that producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli took a risk on him. The resolutely rugged and working class Connery was far removed from Ian Fleming’s snobbish and disdainful protagonist (who was it that described Bond “an upper class thug”?), leading director Terence Young to groom Connery into the character, getting him used to the suits, the casinos, the gentlemen’s clubs and the high life. It’s the polarity between actor and character which generates the frisson inherent in Connery’s portrayal of Bond.

‘Dr No’ was the sixth of Fleming’s novels, but was chosen as the first film after an original script developed by Fleming, Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham – with the horribly prosaic title ‘James Bond, Secret Agent’ – wound up in a legal wrangle when Fleming decided to rework it for his 1961 novel ‘Thunderball’. The producers settled on ‘Dr No’ as having an exotic locale in Jamaica, a streamlined narrative, and one only really expensive set-piece (the explosive finale at Crab Key, the heavily-guarded island Dr No uses as his base).

At just over $1million, ‘Dr No’ was moderately budgeted even for the early 60s. Purpose of comparison: released the same year, John Frankenheimer’s ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ cost twice as much, John Ford’s ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ three times, and David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ burned though $15million, a budget that wouldn’t be equalled by a Bond movie until 1977’s ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’.

Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood and Berkley Mather worked on the script, with uncredited additions from Young. Mather had generally worked in television and would have no other involvement in the franchise. Harwood returned for co-writer duties on ‘From Russia With Love’. Maibaum became a series regular, contributing to thirteen Bond movie scripts up to ‘Licence to Kill’.

Opening with a somewhat psychedelic and very dated set of opening credits (it’s the first and last Bond not to feature a pre-credits sequences), the story begins with the assassination of Jamaica-based British agent Commander Strangways (Tim Moxon) and the theft from his office of files on Crab Key and Dr No (just in case, you know, the title hadn’t tipped you off as to the villain’s identity). In London, spymaster M (Bernard Lee) briefs Bond (Connery) on Strangways’ disappearance and his investigation, on the Americans’ behalf, of tracking interference with Cape Canaveral rocket launches that seems to be emanating from his neck of the woods. (I’m assuming that in the early 60s it was reasonably plausible that America might need a bit of help from a handful of upper-class Brits.)

Bond’s mission is compromised from the off: no sooner has he arrived in Jamaica than there’s an assassination attempt – the first of several. One antagonist kills himself rather than talk, leading Bond to wonder who wields that kind of power. That’ll be the eponymous Dr No (Joseph Wiseman), whom Young teasingly keeps out of sight until the last third. No’s first scene shows us not the man himself but his power over his minions, as he puts the frighteners on Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) and exhorts him to kill Bond.

Setting the pattern for most of the Bond villains, Dr No is refined, cultured (an in-joke has Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, stolen the year before the film went into production, in Dr No’s possession), articulate, megalomaniacal and the proud owner of a fully kitted-out secret base hidden from the eyes of the world. He works for SPECTRE (the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), an underground organisation that takes on more significance in later films on account of its CEO, one Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Setting the pattern for several decades of straight-up sexism, Bond takes an unreconstructed view of women and punctuates his spying with shagging as he dallies with baccarat-playing rich girl Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) before he leaves for his mission, fools around with the treacherous Miss Taro (Zena Marshall) and enjoys an amorous encounter with Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) as a reward for saving the day.

Unlike many of its successors, ‘Dr No’ is gadget-free. Q is present, but referred to not by the initial of his department but by name as Major Boothroyd. He’s also played by Peter Burton. Desmond Llewellyn wasn’t cast until ‘From Russia With Love’, when Burton was unavailable to reprise the role. Bond’s opposite number from the CIA, Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) also gets his first outing.

In terms of action, Young crafts a sleek and efficient thriller from his limited budget, with car chases, gunboats, shoot-outs, hand-to-hand combat, and an explosive denouement washing across the screen in glorious Technicolor. His direction, though, is often perfunctory and early scenes are padded with local colour. Viewed fifty years down the line, it’s an entertaining way to pass an hour and three quarters, but back then it was something new and exciting, banging at the doors of mainstream entertainment with enough force to create a global phenomenon. There’s no end credits promise that Bond would be back – ‘From Russia With Love’ kicked off that little tradition – but the box office receipts made it an inevitability.


Bryce Wilson said...

Frisson is right. The subtext I always took from these Connery Bonds (ironically first brought to my attention in an offhand line in Goldeneye about the 00's being taken from orphanages and raised) is that Bond is basically this working class Pitbull that the upper class has raised and groomed and every once in a while finds useful to let off the chain and maul someone.

I keep waiting for the one where he turns and mauls his owners. Er that isn't Die Another Day.

Neil Fulwood said...

I'm reminded of Fleming's own description of Bond as a blunt instrument wielded by the government. Accordingly, he gave the character what he considered the "dullest name". Must have been galling for him to see the character reinvented as iconic. Still, the animalism of Connery's working class physicality makes the early films work superbly. As well as his ruthlessness. I'll be looking at the ruthlenessness of Bond in my review of 'From Russia With Love'.

Re: 'Die Another Day', I can almost imagine the production meeting:

WRITERS: Blunt, non-iconic opening. Bond mistrusted. Bond goes rogue. Back to basics, stripped down, punchy.

PRODUCERS: Yet, whatever. Just make sure you have a fuckton of girls and gadgets in the second half. Hey, how about an invisible car? Yeah, let's go with that.

Bryce Wilson said...

Yeah I feel sorry for Bronsan. I like him and I think it is obvious that he wanted to take Bond in the darker they eventually went with Craig. It is particularly obvious in Die, which yeah you nailed, great opening, nifty sword fight, giant pile of shit elsewhere.

His films are SO bad. I would say three out of the four are genuinely unwatchable. And The World Is Not Enough is my own pick for worst in the series.

When the best film on your tenure is Tomorrow Never Dies, something has gone wrong.

Tim said...

Not to just straight-up repeat Bryce, but you've absolutely nailed what made Connery's Bond the most interesting in terms of both performance and theme.

And with that, I'm going to have to not read any more of these, because I'm starting my own Bond-a-thon in a couple of months, and I don't want to even inadvertently steal any of your ideas. But if all of the entries are as good as this one, I look forward to a fun catch-up session in November.

Bryce- "When the best film on your tenure is Tomorrow Never Dies, something has gone wrong."

I would genuinely love to hear your thoughts on why TND is better than GoldenEye, my own pick for the only Brosnan picture worth a damn. But they're all a bit limp, aren't they?

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Tim, I'm going to have to repay the favour and not refer to your Bond-a-thon, just to keep my own perspective fresh. I think I'll book some time off work round about 'Skyfall' and get in some heavy-duty Antagony & Ecstasy time.

I must admit, with the exception of 'Goldeneye', I haven't reapproached any of the Brosnans since they first flickered their disappointment across my retinas on the big screen. 'Goldeneye', while watchable, plays like a "greatest hits" package of the preceding films, and I remember the others simply as a collection really great pre-credits sequences followed by demonstrably lousy movies.

Christ, that's my autumn written off!

Bryce Wilson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryce Wilson said...

@Tim: The thing about Goldeneye is that the opening sequence is genuinely fantastic, but it just kind of loses momentum after that. Sean Bean is a weak villain ("Strawberries James") none of the set pieces are particularly creative.

Really though the problem I have with it is the problem I have with all the Bronsan Bonds (as from The World Is Not Enough which I just hate for being so damned dull after its spectacular opening) in that it never finds a proper tone. It doesn't know if it wants to be a Moore like campfest (Xenia Onotop) or a film in the grittier Connery, Craig mode (super serious scenes shot in graveyard of Soviet Statues). So it splits the difference and just is kind of schizophrenic.

Tomorrow Never Dies definitely has its flaws (coughJohnPrycecough), but at least chooses a consistent tone of light action, has Michelle Yeoh and has at least one good action scene, (the motorcycle slum chase).

All in all there's not a great deal of difference between the two, I'd give Tomorrow the same B minus I'd give the average Moore Bond, and Goldeneye a C.