11th May 2017
Brady Major takes an in-depth look back at Dr. No
By Brady Major
In this fifth part of an in-depth review of 'Dr. No', we focus on the creative elements and analyze the work of the team behind the camera.
When considering all the directors of the Bond films, it’s hard not to see Terence Young as the maestro of them all. Young was a true character himself and had such a dramatic hand in forming the image of the cinematic James Bond as we know him, it’s impossible to underestimate his contributions. He worked with Maibaum to bring Fleming’s creation to life and trained Sean Connery in ways of gentlemanly etiquette, taking him to Savile Row and out to dinner to ensure he would know how a man such as Bond would look and act in a variety of settings.
In many ways, Terence Young is the Michelangelo of Bond directors. He took a film and character that was nothing more than a blank, expressionless block and carefully chiseled every angle of it into a perfectly realized and statuesque creation. The iconography and greatness of Bond was trapped inside that block, and Young led the charge to coax it out for all audiences to see. If Dr. No was a block of granite, then, and Young was the chiseler, I imagine the statue he’d coaxed from the angles would be that of Sean’s Bond down low on one knee, his left arm and hand-drawn out, his right hand pointing his trusty PPK at the viewer. In a word, he chiseled the cinematic Bond to its every feature.
Opening Title Design
For such a simple, nascent title design, this one is actually extremely meticulous in execution and structure. In many ways, the opening title design of Dr. No is a study in transitions. We lead directly from the gun barrel into the titles without pause as the Bond theme iconically takes over as sequences of dots and what look like strips of film feverishly flash before us. The mix of the vibrant color palette and the shifting, rhythmic blinking of the graphics create a fun sensation that makes me bop my head along with it all.
Over time, the design introduces us to the silhouettes of gyrating bodies feverishly moving to the calypso beat that starts itself up. The colors of the silhouettes shift from warm hues to cool ones, a nice visual for the Jamaican climate, and The Three Blind Mice tune “Kingston Calypso” kicks in to finish the sequence off. This is probably my favorite section of the titles because it has a lot of thematic resonance to the rest of the movie. The song is a great flip on the script and depicts a predator/prey relationship shifted. Instead of the cat holding the power over the mice, the mice are the ones banding together to “knife” the cat for killing a rat.
If you view the song as symbolic of the coming film, Strangways is the sly cat who’s messed up things for the Mice and Dr. No, so now the three hitmen have set off to get their payback. Carrying that symbolism through even further, if we take the song literally, the blind mice would be walking around searching for the cat until their dying days with no sight to locate the fiend, no matter how much they might have wanted to get their revenge. The song, then, is a nice little metaphor for Bond’s world as well, and its dangers. You go into missions blind, and at times that lack of sight or insight makes it a struggle to know who to trust, and it's often impossible to track down those you want dead. “Kingston Calypso” in relation to the Bond film it accompanies delivers a clear message with its blind mice going on a bloodthirsty hunt for a cat: revenge, more often than not, will allude you in the end.
In addition to its lyric’s thematic nature, the sound of “Kingston Calypso” is beautiful in its contradictions. It’s a song about a group of mice premeditating murder, yet its tune is so light and fun. The nature of the tune as a relaxed and tropical sounding calypso beat collides wonderfully with the dark brutality of what The Three Blind Mice are plotting to do to Strangways.
Eventually, the opening titles beautifully continue its genius transitions as, just like the gun barrel directly led into them, the titles hand off to the very first scene of the movie as we follow the Three Blind Mice as they travel off to kill Strangways in real time. On the whole, it’s a beautifully constructed sequence from beginning to end, and artfully crafted though, on the face of it, it seems so simple and ordinary.
When it comes to Bond scripts, it seldom gets better than Dr. No. As I haven’t read the novel, I can’t accurately comment on how well Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood and Berkely Mather realized Fleming’s vision, but what I can comment on is the amazing structure and pacing of the script.
As I stated previously, Dr. No, out of all the Bond films, feels more like a detective novel than anything, and that is what makes it so engrossing. The writers take us down a twisty mystery with Bond as the private dick getting entangled in all the duplicity. For reasons we won’t understand until a long while later, a man named Strangways is shot in cold blood along with his secretary by three men faking blindness, and two files are taken from his Jamaican office by the trio. With no questions answered and nothing in our heads but the strange images we’ve just witnessed, we head to London where we are gradually introduced to an equally mysterious and intriguing man in the form of James Bond, who, over the course of the next few scenes, takes on the case to uncover just what trouble is brewing in Jamaica. This is when things really get interesting.
Put simply, the entire script of Dr. No is a study of essentials. Not one moment or one line is wasted or worthy of being tossed. Maibaum and co. give us all we need in ample proportions, and structure the film through a series of character interactions that tells us things we wouldn’t know otherwise about each character through the accompanying performances of the actors and their slight mannerisms. Bond and M’s discussion in the MI6 office underscores M’s intimidating figure and control as a head of the department, and we see Bond bend at the knee to his orders as a son would a father, M being the only man he is willing to do that for. As we hit Jamaica, the scenes between Bond and Quarrel, then Bond and Felix, then Bond and Felix and Quarrel, Bond and Dent, Bond and Taro, and on and on slowly build up the mythic nature of Crab Key and Dr. No in an artful way that can’t be underestimated. With each new scene, the mystery behind the toppling shuttles, Strangway’s murder, and the radioactive rocks become more intense as Bond navigates his way through an endless line of liars and conspirators, outmaneuvering their many attempts to snuff him until he’s silenced or tricked them all with devastating precision.
And, for all the marvelous, intricate scenes the script delivers us, my favorite moments often happen to be the quieter ones. I’m on the edge of my seat, fully engrossed in a scene where we just get Bond alone in a hotel room, as he plucks a hair from his head, lathers it in saliva and sticks it in between the shutters of his closet or peppers powder over the knobs of his suitcase all with the ultimate goal of finding out if he and his room are being inspected and surveyed by outside forces. Scenes like this, and others where Bond sniffs a bottle of alcohol, questions its contents and chooses another he’s assured is safe to drink display his intellect as well as his nature for always being 12 steps ahead of his enemies, like a true detective would need to be. Moments such as these build up Bond to monolithic proportions, and he soon feels like a man who would be impossible to defeat, he’s so on top of things and prepared for every single eventuality.
On the whole, for the little moments and the big ones, the loud sequences and the quiet ones, Dr. No’s script is something for the ages.
When I think of the cinematography of Dr. No, the adjectives “vibrant” and “wide” come to mind. The colors of the film are gorgeous to look at and give a great life and vitality to the shots we see. Reds and blues dominate, and everything pops.
As far as shot composition goes, so much of what we see on screen feels large because Ted Moore’s composition takes us farther back from the action unfolding than you’d expect. This film’s camera isn’t zoomed in or scrunched up to Bond and his allies in scenes where they talk, refusing to get in close to their faces. Character moments are shot such that we either see the actors cut off only to the knees in the frame, giving us a great picture of them in the scene, or in other instances, the camera pulls all the way out and we see the actors in full form navigating the sets or interacting as they play the scenes out. I love the moments where the camera pans far out to give us these kinds of distant perspectives on the action, like when Bond is following Quarrel to Puss Feller’s, or when he’s infiltrating Dr. No’s lab where the reactor is housed and navigating through all the workers, trying his best to blend in.
Another favorite is near the end when Bond is racing to evacuate Dr. No’s facility, at which point the pulled out camera with its wide perspective on the action makes us feel the dramatic chaos of all the frantic bodies running around like their heads are cut off. As Bond and Honey move outside the lair as the place gradually goes up in flames, with workers diving past the frame and into the water below, the hysteria is magnetic and visceral, finished off by a great bit of stunt work by Simmons as Bond jumps with Honey to a boat, fights the two men on it, and they race off.
I read a reviewer once comment that Dr. No is shot like a stage play, and I completely get that viewpoint. It's very much a movie that is shot like a stage performance, and because it doesn't rely on some of the heavy close-ups or shaky camera movements that run rampant in the films of our day, it's a real pleasure to be able to watch a film where you know how and why everything is going on because you see it all unfold lucidly in a clear and wide cinematic image.
John Barry makes cinematic history forever with his iconic arrangement and orchestration of the music that Monty Norman desired to become the Bond theme. What we hear in the beginning half of the opening titles can’t be underestimated for its genius, as Barry’s handling of the tune changed everything and introduced what we still call the “James Bond sound” to this day. In arranging the theme for Dr. No, Barry dipped his toes into the water of James Bond score composition. With From Russia with Love onward, he dived in and gave us an unforgettable catalog of Bond music with a legacy as strong as the characters. More Barry love will be coming in the very near future, of course.
Monty Norman, though often forgotten, also makes great contributions here. His music gives a great life to the Jamaican surroundings, and he incorporates the Bond theme to make it sound more tropical and natively in touch with the climate. Of course, Norman also had great versatility and his compositions that play when Dent is grabbing the tarantula cage and later when Bond confronts the tarantula and maneuvers his way towards killing it add an uneasy sense of peril with their notes that make those moments beyond visceral.
My favorite contributions Norman makes to the film, however, are his original songs like “Kingston Calypso,” “Jump Up” and “Underneath the Mango Tree.” “Kingston Calypso” introduces the brilliant image of the Mice and“Jump Up” provides a bopping, frenzied feeling to the club scene where Bond and Quarrel meet “Freelance.” It’s “Underneath the Mango Tree” that makes it into the history books, however, as it’s impossible to forget the moment that the first real-deal Bond girl is introduced as Honey hums the tune as she rises from the ocean, which Bond then joins her in singing. When I think of Dr. No, the first image that comes to mind is Bond and Honey on that beach, and a lot of that is owed to Norman’s music.
This film features the birth of the jump cut as we know it. Peter Hunt’s work in Dr. No adds a sense of increasing drama to each scene he holds dominion over cutting. Fast jumps in mid-action like in the scene depicting the murder of Strangways’ secretary are brilliant to watch as the camera quickly moves in on each of the Three Blind Mice as they storm and pillage the place. Hunt also amped-up the sound for these kinds of scenes, giving all the action we witness a visceral punch. While at the time it was editorial blasphemy to make a cut while the camera was still moving, Hunt dared to be different in this work here and made history because of it. Pays to be a maverick.
When it comes to the costume design of Dr. No, as with so many elements involving the production, simplicity wins out in the end. The thought was that Bond should look good and sophisticated in a British sense, but like any good spy, he should never attract too much attention to himself in his outer style.
For this reason, Bond’s suits express from Anthony Sinclair are kept simple yet gorgeous, with Sean shifting from suits of blacks, blues, and grays throughout, which he pulls off to perfect effect. Because the suits are so simple in color and style, they were destined to always remain in fashion, while a flashier ensemble would’ve been in danger of feeling passé in just a few decades. That’s why, over fifty years later, you could replicate Bond’s style exactly as it’s depicted on screen in Dr. No and you would be dressing just as fashionable as Sean was way back in ’62.
The suits Bond wears in Dr. No not only look good, they are sensible for the climate. Many of the suits he wears once he’s in Jamaica are composed of lighter fabrics with suit coats and pants that would be comfortable to wear in that climate and that would allow for the range of movement Bond would require as a man of action. The details of the suits connect to this idea of sensibility and comfort across the board, even down to the Daks tops on Bond’s trousers that allowed the spy to comfortably adjust the pants with just buttons and elastic, making them more comfortable to wear since they wouldn’t require a fussy belt. The ensembles are finished off with immaculate navy grenadine ties, which would become a staple of Connery’s Bond style.
While suits are what makes the Bond films style time capsules, a very special mention must also be made to the magic that the Jamaican-born actress and fashion designer Tessa Prendergast brought to Dr. No. Prendergast was a woman of exquisite beauty, so much so that she could’ve easily been a Bond girl herself, and her Jamaican roots meant she knew how to look and dress sensibly in that climate. She made film history when she was hired by the production to give Ursula Andress’s Honey Ryder a wardrobe of clothes to wear in the film. It was Prendergast who worked with Andress to develop the now classic ivory bikini the actress wore while coming out of the ocean, an ensemble that showed off her feminine beauty without making her look indecent or revealing too much. What came after Dr. No’s release was a revolution in women’s swimwear that propelled Andress into the stratosphere, providing the James Bond series with one of its most unforgettable scenes and pieces of wardrobe we’ve ever seen. Many thanks, Ms. Prendergast.
Other honorable mentions in the costume design department include Bond’s unforgettable tuxedo that he wears in his big debut and Dr. No’s iconic ensemble, where Wiseman is seen wearing a Nehru suit long before it was cool (looking at you, Blofeld). I guess now we know where SPECTRE’s No. 1 got his fashion sense from.
Like Terence Young and Peter Hunt before him, Ken Adam had no idea just what he was helping to create when he signed on as production designer for Dr. No. Just as Barry gave Bond his sound over time, Ken Adam is as responsible as anyone for giving Bond a look and atmosphere.
Adam’s sets live in history because they are at once perfectly geometric, yet askew and off-kilter. So much of his pieces are constructed in shapes of circles or squares realized in metals or rock, which give them an earthy feel. Adam said that he wanted to create “space” with his sets, and that’s exactly what he accomplishes here. Like no other set designer, he makes the characters feel small and in over their heads through his compositions of rooms, a perfect visual metaphor for the dangerous landscape of spy craft Bond finds himself operating inside. Adam was a master manipulator of proportion, material, light, and shadow, and knew how to construct sets that would best serve the atmosphere and overall feeling the film needed and had a keen sense of what designs would be most visually engrossing when put on celluloid.
Adam’s work in this film may be best represented by the anteroom, where No reprimands Dent and orders him to take the tarantula. We’ve got that stunning big circle that overtakes the ceiling of the set with bars across it that cast a dramatic shadow, cutting right into Dent. Adam plays with space, making the set large to underscore how insignificant Dent is in the face of Dr. No and the job ahead of him.
Adam’s set work in the rest of the film, namely at Dr. No’s headquarters on Crab Key, is just as masterful. No’s lair gives off a suitably earthy feel, as so much of it looks carved with rock, stone, metal and wood. Adam tricks you into thinking that he really burrowed underneath the ground and built his sets right into the rock of the seabed, the designs are so magnificent. His sets also tell us much about No as a character and feed directly into the script itself, like his use of a magnifying glass that gives a larger view of the sea life out in Crab Key’s waters that underscores the villain's desire to impress people, while for Bond, it represents how No purports to be a whale, while in reality, he’s only a minnow. My favorite aspect of Adam’s set work in No’s lair, however, is the frequent usage of those big metal doors he adds to transition the sets from room to room. Every time Bond and Honey are escorted to a new area and one of Dr. No’s aids twists those thick, wheeled doors shut behind him, you wonder how they’ll ever get out alive. Adam’s design in this instance helped to transmit to the audience just how inescapable Crab Key may be for Bond, and how much he may have fatally underestimated Dr. No’s power.
Honourable mentions must also go to Adam’s design of the regal and elegant casino where Bond makes his debut, as well as M’s office, which I praised earlier in my analysis of the character himself. We have Adam to thank for single-handedly creating the blueprint for just what M’s office should look and feel like, and what its particular atmosphere should relate to us as viewers. His use of strong wood for the walls and the items hinting at M’s naval service and overall “Britishness” are immaculate.
And he did all this amazing work, for the first time out, on a ridiculously measly budget. That’s true genius, right there.
Part six will draw conclusions on Dr. No'.
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The opinions expressed in this review are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MI6-HQ.com or its owners.