Huffpost Entertainment
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

William Bradley Headshot

Bond at 50: Dr. No Is a Time Capsule From the Early Mad Men Era

Posted: Updated:

"The carrier wave is still established."

-- MI6 communications specialist in London reporting to his boss on the mysterious loss of contact with Station J Jamaica, despite use of the advanced technology known as radio, early in 1962's Dr. No.

It's 50 years since the first James Bond film, Dr. No, hit the theaters in Britain. Fifty years since the James Bond film franchise began in earnest. An immediate hit in the UK, it took longer to catch on in the US, where it appeared in May 1963, rather un-ostentatiously released in theaters in Middle America before hitting the coasts. Movies often rolled out much more slowly in these days.

That's only one of the ways in which Dr. No is a veritable cinematic time capsule from the Mad Men days of the early 1960s.

It wasn't until the second Bond film, From Russia With Love -- which received a big boost when President John F. Kennedy listed the Ian Fleming novel as one of his 10 favorite books of all-time -- that the Bond film phenomenon got underway in earnest in the US and around the world. And it wasn't until the third film, Goldfinger, that it became the blockbuster series that we know it as today.

But Dr. No is the film that started it all. Incidentally, you can see my articles related to the 50th anniversary of the franchise here in The Bond 50 Archive.

It's often forgotten that that notorious womanizer James Bond (not nearly such a hound in his last three incarnations) had a girlfriend in the first two Bond films. Played by Eunice Gayson, who was also playing the baroness in the long-running London production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music at the time, the very first "Bond Girl," Sylvia Trench, is the smart brunette playing baccarat across the table when we first meet Bond in the movies. Saying he admires her courage in betting, Bond asks her name; she gives it to him and notes: "I admire your luck, Mr. ...?"

"Bond," he replies, lighting his cigarette, "James Bond."

Now there's one of the more enduring catch phrases in cinema. He would be back.

An original Dr. No trailer from 1962. They don't make them like this anymore.

It's the first of a number of iconic moments in Dr. No, as we meet admiral-turned-spy chief M, executive secretary Moneypenny, CIA ally Felix Leiter, treacherous femme fatales, and technology-heavy plots as Bond demonstrates his expertise on many fronts, his savoir faire, his rather brutal charm, his penchant for quips, and his ruthlessly efficient nature.

While Bernard Lee, who's only been surpassed by the essential Judi Dench as M, and Lois Maxwell as the yearning and ever bantering Moneypenny were to stick in their roles for a very long time, the actor playing Felix Leiter was not. But not because he wasn't good.

Like Eunice Gayson, jettisoned after From Russia With Love with the producers deciding that Bond's only romantic attachments in future should be fatal, Jack Lord would not stick in the series. Even though his character Felix Leiter decidedly would.

Lord is a strong and charismatic presence in Dr. No, and clearly an experienced actor. Which the actor playing Bond, a fellow named Sean Connery, known in some circles for a small role in another Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, was not.

Ian Fleming had reportedly preferred someone like David Niven for the role. Which Connery was not, and which just goes to show you that writers shouldn't always be let loose around a film, even one based on their own work. Connery, a former Mr. Universe contestant, had the raw material for Bond: Rather cruel good looks, rakish charm, animal magnetism, and an assassin's physicality, but lacked polish and experience. Director Terence Young embarked on a crash course to turn the unpolished Scotsman Connery into the English "gentleman agent" Bond had to be.

Connery learned how to dress and how to act as that gentleman agent called James Bond, just as generations of men have learned from watching Bond, beginning with Connery's definitive incarnation.

With all that going on, the series probably didn't need a second lead who was already a polished product, albeit of the American variety, in Jack Lord's CIA officer Felix Leiter. Leiter continued, but with much more drab figures playing the role -- recast in every film until Jeffrey Wright's Leiter of the last two pictures -- figures who were usually no competition whatsoever for the shining light of Bond. And Jack Lord? He went on to become his own sort of iconic figure in a little show called Hawaii Five-O.

"Book 'em, Danno."

One iconic element that did not get booked in 1962 was John Barry's distinctively lush and jazzy musical scoring.

It's composer Monty Norman's tune we hear in the instantly iconic James Bond theme -- recycled, as it happens from an earlier song sung by Indian characters called "Good Sign Bad Sign" -- but it's John Barry's arrangement and orchestration that rockets forth. Norman's calypso-heavy score, with familiar sounding suspense and action music, is serviceable enough in Dr. No. But it isn't till Barry replaces him as the Bond film composer in From Russia With Love that the full-on spy jazz we associate with Bond really comes to the fore. But in Dr. No we do have the Barry-inflected theme, replete with Vic Flick's twangy, driving guitar.

Dr. No was filmed and released in 1962. Beginning in London and mostly set in and around Jamaica, the film coincides with Jamaica's year of independence. But, with Bond coordinating out of the British colonial governor's mansion, we see the late stages of the British Empire.

In Dr. No, Jamaica, where Fleming maintained a home called GoldenEye -- which would later become the title of one of the best Bonds, the 1995 film in which the series is rebooted with Brosnan as a post-Cold War Bond -- is still a colonial place. Black people are still second class citizens, useful helpers like the superstitious Quarrel or henchmen like the ill-fated chauffeur who collects Bond at Kingston's airport.

There is no dazzlingly confident Usain Bolt sort of figure. The Jamaica of Dr. No is decades away from being the global capital of sprinting, affirmed again two months ago at, fittingly enough, the London Olympics.

The late British imperial phase depicted in Dr. No speaks to the real genesis of Bond. Fleming, a committed Tory imperialist and something of a snob, had a good war, as the saying goes, departing World War II as former assistant to the head of British naval intelligence, an originator of daring special ops missions, having been made a full commander in the Royal Navy at age 25. That's a rank few of us would achieve at that age; making lieutenant would be more like it.

But as Fleming dealt with a decidedly more drab post-war life in journalism, he also dealt with a more downbeat reality for his country. Britain had won the war but was losing the Empire. The old saying that "The sun never sets on the British Empire" was already untrue and was growing falser by the moment.

Britain shattered itself in the all-out war against Nazism. It was America that was the real winner of the war, coming out with its homeland unscathed, with far fewer casualties than other leading combatants, an industrial might second to none, and a military might only distantly rivaled by that of the Soviet Union, with third place far in the rear view mirror.

From America's rear view mirror, struggling to rebuild from the devastation of war, its imperial heritage fast becoming unsustainable, Britain struggled for great power relevance. Its prowess in the covert world, established in the war by its Secret Intelligence Service (what most would be introduced to as Bond's MI6), Special Operations Executive, and Special Air Service (which would become a model for special forces around the world), seemed a path to continued relevance, if not the preeminence that had seemed the British birthright in international affairs.

So as the UK declined in relative terms, becoming a sort of uneasy junior partner to the rising US despite being its ancestral Mother Country, and as the British Empire slowly inexorably became the Commonwealth, Fleming invented his secret agent. And in Dr. No, we see Bond providing the sort of clandestine help to America that presumably the Yanks couldn't provide for themselves.

James Bond made his literary debut in 1953 in Fleming's Casino Royale. Though a strong beginning in the series of novels, it was to have a very checkered history cinematically, going through its first iteration in 1954 as a one-hour American TV film starring Barry Nelson as "Jimmy" Bond and incoherently wacky satirical theatrical film. It was only with the 2006 reboot of the franchise, with Daniel Craig as the 007 in the early phase of his career, that Casino Royale received a proper, and properly smashing, movie rendition.

Fleming's novel Dr. No was actually the sixth in the Bond series. With the Space Age then very much underway, Dr. No's plot was of the moment, concerning as it did a mission to prevent American space launches from Cape Canaveral from being thrown off course from a mysterious Caribbean island, a mission grown especially urgent by the American plan to "orbit a rocket around the Moon," as M describes it to Bond.

Truth be told, the first half of Dr. No is much better than the second half, even though the latter contains most of the picture's big action scenes and, of course, one of cinema's most iconic moments of all time, that in which Ursula Andress, wearing what today would be a very demure bikini, emerges from the ocean like a latter-day Venus minus her half-shell.

The moment would be re-created for the 40th anniversary of the Bond film franchise, when Halle Berry walks out of the ocean and on to the beach in Cuba in Die Another Day, another Bond film which is terrific in the first half and, er, not so much in the teched-out second half. Though hardly because of Oscar-winner Berry, whose secret agent rivals Bond himself, very well-played as always by Pierce Brosnan.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Bond film franchise. It's remained popular throughout, despite some clunkers and going through six actors in the starring role.

Andress is spectacular looking but delivers not so much a performance as a presence. In fact, she is dubbed. None of which apparently mattered in the early '60s. It was, as Mad Men fans and those who lived through the era know, a time of casual sexism and dismissal of women's whole selves. "Who cares what she says, just look at her!"

I've seen Andress in other films, in which she actually acted and delivered performances. But in Dr. No, her role is that of an ultimate object. An awesome object, but still just an object, albeit one with a childish facility for gathering seashells and letting black widow spiders loose upon her rapists.

How much more preferable the Halle Berry version, who can out-smart you, out-quip you, and quite possibly kick your ass, all while simply rocking an elegant evening gown?

After Andress's Honey Rider, the first in a long series of euphemistically named women, is introduced on Crab Key, Leiter's faithful black sidekick is killed and Connery and Andress's characters are captured by the nefarious Asiatic Dr. No, the first in a long series of Bond super-villains devoted to "World domination. The same old dream," as Bond acidly puts it, neatly prefiguring the series of Austin Powers spoofs to come 35 years later.

While we do see the first of production designer Ken Adam's stunning and elaborate sets, also iconic, despite the film's relatively low budget, what happens on the island is mostly cliche, all too familiar now.

After the not so good doctor helpfully reveals his nefarious plan to Bond, the craftily intrepid agent escapes, defeats the plan to disrupt the American space launch, destroys the complex, rescues the girl, and ends up in a boat in the beautiful Caribbean, where the pair have little else to do. Only to be rescued before they get too much into the doing -- it is 1962, after all -- by a patrol boat bearing a bullhorn-blaring Felix Leiter. It's that inconvenient Jack Lord fellow, who dropped out of the narrative just before Connery hit Crab Key, i.e., just before the picture's big action sequences.

Bond, of course, manages to set his and Honey's boat adrift once again, just as the music swells and "The End" flashes on screen.

But it's not the end, not really, even though this is the only Bond film which does not flash the closing legend: "James Bond will return."

Cliched and a bit rote at times though it may be, this is Dr. No, the cinematic ur-text, if you will of the Bond film franchise. While there have been some real clunkers among the Bond films, especially during the the charming but not all that nice version played by Roger Moore, the series has endured through generations of fans, with its 24th film coming up. (I count 1983's Never Say Never Again as a Bond film, even though it was a "rogue" production from other producers, because it's Connery's final outing as Bond.)

Next up? Skyfall, which premieres in London on October 23rd and opens wide across North America after the presidential election.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

William Bradley Huffington Post Archive