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June 06, 2012

‘Bond, James Bond’ at 50: A man who needs ‘Dr. No’ introduction

Posted in: Movies

This is the golden anniversary of “Dr. No,” the film that introduced moviegoers to the most famous spy of them all: James Bond of her majesty’s secret service. To mark the anniversary we’ll be running excerpts from Bill Desowitz’s just-released “James Bond Unmasked,” which features interviews with all six Bond actors. Desowitz will be signing copies of his book at the American Cinematheque’s “007: The Complete James Bond Retrospective,” Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood and June 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica.

Sean Connery as James Bond (MGM)

“Bond. James Bond.” It’s the most famous introduction in movies, of course, establishing Sean Connery as Bond and his special mixture of danger and sex. Yet our first real intro to 007 is the more iconic gun barrel teaser by title designer Maurice Binder, which has become an indispensable part of the cinematic ritual.

White dots move across the screen and expand into the swirling rifling of a gun barrel, and then a silhouetted Bond walks, turns, and fires directly at us, causing blood to crawl down the screen and the barrel to wobble and fall. It’s pure Pop Art and symbolic of Bond always in motion and always in danger, according to Binder (better known for creating the erotically silhouetted girls in the main titles as further stylization). Bond is actually portrayed by stunt double Bob Simmons instead of Connery in the first three films (shot in black and white). But the trope has obviously been tailored for each actor while also becoming a reassuring sign of Bond’s return. That’s why fans were thrilled at the gun barrel’s deconstruction in “Casino Royale” but horrified when it was missing from the opening of “Quantum of Solace” (2008). Better late than never, though: the gun barrel appeared at the end to signal the completion of Bond’s rite of passage.

But, as Connery suggested, he had to create Bond on the spot. So when we discover him playing chemin de fer, his face is obscured, dealing cards, winning, and flirting with the tantalizing Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) to raise the stakes. Interestingly, our full glimpse of Bond in a tux, smoking a cigarette and looking self-satisfied, is both refined and rough (you can never take the Scot out of Connery). This makes Bond uniquely appealing and unpredictable.

Yet Connery couldn’t do it alone and generously gives Young most of the credit: “Terence’s contributions were enormous because he was always a great bon vivant,” Connery recalled. “He was very much up on the latest shirts and blazers and was very elegant himself — whether he had money or not — and all the clubs and that kind of establishment. And also he understood what looked good — the right cut of suits [the landmark, pared down Conduit Cut from his tailor, Anthony Sinclair,] and all that stuff [custom shirts with turned back cuffs from Turnbull & Asser and a Rolex watch], which I must say was not that particularly interesting for me. But he got me a rack of clothes and, as they say, could get me to look convincingly dangerous in the act of playing it.”

The cover of “James Bond Unmasked” (Spy Books)

Finding the right tone with Young was also essential: they decided to mix it up with drollness and irony. This kept Bond playful and provided a defense mechanism for dealing with his precarious existence: “I took it seriously on one level,” Connery recollected, “which was one had to be menacing, one had to be strong enough to do all this stuff. Or seem old enough to do it. And the humor was one element that was missing from the books of Fleming himself. And we did share a great deal of the same humor. So it was a combination.”

The wit is immediately on display between Bond and Trench with the double-entendres and his famous intro (ushered in by Monty Norman’s immortal “James Bond Theme”), and then later with gallows humor when leaving a dead body in the car (“Sergeant, make sure he doesn’t get away”). But Trench is as game as Bond — if not more so — as they leave the club and make a tentative golf date for later in the afternoon.

Here we are introduced to Connery’s graceful stride and instinctive ability to convey a sense of control. “You should be able to follow something of the drama by the walk and the body language without having to understand what the people are saying,” Connery divulged in GQ.

The actor’s sense of control is evident throughout, whether he’s setting up a hotel room for surveillance; tossing, flipping, and punching a driver with ease after arriving in Jamaica; overtaking fisherman Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) and his restaurateur friend with no more difficulty; or simply following Quarrel across the street.

But facing M (Bernard Lee), his gruff boss and head of MI6, is the most daunting task of all. However, Bond brings his cheery mood with him when summoned to British Intelligence headquarters in the middle of the night. He opens the door, tosses his hat onto the stand (a ritual that oddly anticipates the deadly Oddjob in “Goldfinger”), and flirts with Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), the endearing secretary to M. At first glance, she’s a clever go-between, using their witty repartee to defuse office tension between M and Bond (“Flattery will get you nowhere, but don’t stop trying”). Yet she’s also clearly smitten with Bond and fantasizes about domesticating him.

What’s interesting is that the Canadian-born Maxwell lobbied for the role of Moneypenny, but was also offered the part of Sylvia Trench, which Maxwell declined because she was uncomfortable looking too risqué in the following scene in Bond’s apartment. She had her chance to bed Bond. But it’s just as well — Maxwell was much better suited as “the in and out girl”: protecting Bond and keeping his misogyny in check (a role later expanded by Judi Dench’s more maternal M during the Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig eras).

Yet duty calls and Bond apprehensively enters M’s office for a briefing on the situation in Jamaica, where the station chief and his assistant have been murdered, and MI6 is helping the CIA investigate the disruption of Cape Canaveral missile launches by radio jamming.

Lois Maxwell, as Miss Moneypenny, shares a scene with Sean Connery in "Goldfinger." (L.A. Times Library)

Lois Maxwell, as Miss Moneypenny, shares a scene with Sean Connery in “Goldfinger.” (L.A. Times Library)

The relationship between Bond and M is unquestionably the most fascinating and complex of the franchise. Its evolution from Lee (who appeared in 11 films) to Robert Brown (who appeared in four) to Dench (who makes her seventh appearance in the upcoming “Skyfall”) is important in understanding the psychology of 007. But it’s clear from the introduction in “Dr. No” there’s an adversarial tone. It’s a holdover from the kitchen sink dramas: the disapproving authority figure that berates the defiant and undisciplined subordinate, who eventually fights back with his intellectual prowess in an escalating game of one-upmanship.

“And some of those meetings are my favorite moments in the early Bond films in that office,” Craig admitted, “with that big padded door and coming in and throwing the hat and hooking it. And it was always a sort of [penis]-swinging exercise when he sat there and, ‘Hello, he’s from the ministry,’ and all that bollocks going on. And I liked all that.”

It’s certainly fun watching Bond subvert M’s authority later on, but here he slyly smokes his pipe and humiliates 007 by taking away his gun. Since Bond’s Beretta jammed on his last mission and sent him to hospital for six months (derived from the “From Russia with Love” novel), M insists he switch to the now-famous Walther PPK. “When you carry a 00 number, you have a license to kill, not get killed,” M lectures. Major Boothroyd (Peter Burton), the armorer, presents Bond with his new handgun, and he unsuccessfully tries to slip away with his Beretta. M, as always, must have the last word, and even stops Bond from picking up where he left off with Moneypenny.

Judi Dench plays the head of MI6, "M," in "Casino Royale." (Sony Pictures)

Judi Dench plays the head of MI6, “M,” in “Casino Royale.” (Sony Pictures)

Still on edge, Bond returns to his apartment with the new Walther drawn and finds Trench, as if out of a dream, putting golf balls into a glass with his 9 iron, wearing only one of his shirts and high heels. It’s the first of only two glimpses thus far of Bond’s home (the other being in “Live and Let Die,” 1973), which is located in the novels near The King’s Road in Chelsea. “I felt that he was a sportsman and at the same time very British,” suggested Ken Adam in the Criterion laserdisc commentary. “And [it’s] a conventional apartment with a certain amount of antique furniture, but also showing a bit of his golf clubs to give him a personality, that this was a well educated person.”

Despite being caught off guard and having a plane to catch to Jamaica, Bond naturally finds Trench irresistible. She’s the ideal girlfriend for him: sexy, available, competitive, diverting. Yet, even for the swinging ’60s, she’s ultimately frustrated by Bond being constantly on the go. But then a committed relationship is out of the question for this free spirit — at least for now.

– Bill Desowitz

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