Strangways, here we come. We shan’t be arriving at Ian Fleming International Airport. It doesn’t exist yet. Nay, not till 2010 would the quite-real airport process its first international passenger (the singer Jimmy Buffett, as it turns out) under its newly christened name. When James Bond arrived in the history of cinema, he disembarked at Palisadoes Airport (now Norman Manley International).
The year was 1958. The place Jamaica. Dr. No operates his guano mine on an island nearby to Kingston. In the film it would become a bauxite mine. Indeed, by the time Fleming wrote Dr. No (his sixth James Bond novel) he had been enjoying a yearly retreat to his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica to write for some years. He first purchased the land for the estate in 1946 and, after having a house built from his own personal sketch, began spinning Bond tales in 1952.
A centipede becomes a tarantula. Mafia-severed hands become radioactive-experiment-casualty hands. These are the changes of creative license. One might call it “the Hollywood version,” except that this and almost all the other Bond films made to date have been produced by Eon Productions based in Piccadilly, London (and operating from Pinewood Studios, Buckinghamshire). No, Hollywood can’t be blamed directly. This is simply a case of too many brilliant details to pack into one film (and some details which were either not cinematic enough or rather too complex to neatly tie up over the course of 109 minutes).
In the book Dr. No himself quotes Clausewitz. Quite an erudite flourish for an author who was, in his time, attacked for being an unethical hack writer on the order of John Buchan or Raymond Chandler. Film historians will no doubt realize the compliment contained in that shortsighted slight. For it was John Buchan to whom Alfred Hitchcock looked when he needed a story in 1935 (The 39 Steps). And it was Raymond Chandler’s ’39 novel (his first) The Big Sleep to which Howard Hawks gravitated (eventually making the 1946 masterpiece film adaptation with Bogart and Bacall).
No, Fleming was no hack writer. Of all the contributions which the Cahiers du cinéma crowd made to film philosophy, one must not overlook their bold esteem for authors like David Goodis. Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste was based on Goodis’ novel Down There. Even Godard acknowledged the writer by naming a character in Made In U.S.A. after the author.
No, there was something special about Fleming. Paul Johnson of the New Statesman eviscerated Fleming and surmised that the author had, “no literary skill.” Yes, Ezra Pound had it right when speaking of Tropic of Cancer. There are “unprintable” books which are “readable,” but far too few. Thank God for Henry Miller and Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
It’s funny now to imagine that Dr. No (the novel) could have truly ruffled feathers as being immoral, but the year was (after all) 1958. The aforementioned Paul Johnson keyed in on sadism, “sex-longings” (oh my) and snobbery. Not exactly the stuff of offence nowadays.
But I’ve hardly spoken of the film…
Yes, four years later Dr. No came to the big screen. Some details had changed. Honey Rider appeared as Ursula Andress in a white bikini. And the world got its first glimpse at the New World Order in its most grotesque form: SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion). Yes, 1962. Bay of Pigs had been 17 April 1961. By November 22, 1963, J.F.K. had been mysteriously assassinated. But what did Fleming know? He was just a hack writer, right?
Fleming was, in fact, not just a hack writer (if at all a hack writer). He was British Naval Intelligence and specifically involved in planning and oversight for two intel units (during WWII). Sure, he did in fact write Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (yes, that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), but he had been recruited to be the personal assistant of Britain’s Director of Naval Intelligence in 1939. The guy wasn’t just pulling stuff out of his ass (pardon my frankness).
Yes, indeed…it would take a man named Broccoli (“Cubby” Broccoli) to bring (together with Harry Saltzman) the world what Hollywood apparently thought was simultaneously too British and too sexual. How’s that on the oxymoron scale? No, this wasn’t Georges Simonon (nor even Agatha Christie’s Poirot). This was Ian Fleming: Brit. And an agent with a name so uninteresting that from any other voice than that of Sean Connery it would have fallen flat and flaccid. But it didn’t. Excuse the fragments. Bond was white-hot shrapnel.
All of this brings me to a crucial point: the reconsideration of Terence Young as an auteur. The Cahiers crowd managed to canonize Hitchcock (rightly so) and Hawks (likewise). A close study of Godard reveals more filmmakers who became sublime upon passing through the French imagination…names like Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, etc. What, I would like to know, makes Terence Young any less of an auteur than, say, Fuller? Fuller no doubt had moments of brilliance…from Shock Corridor to The Big Red One–engaging film noir (some even in color) like House of Bamboo and The Crimson Kimono… I can get behind The Steel Helmet…even Hell And High Water. But what about all of those schlocky noir films like Underworld U.S.A. (not to mention the dire Westerns like The Baron of Arizona)? Even The Naked Kiss is a little dodgy as regards auteurist pretensions. Perhaps this is why by the time Godard made Histoire(s) du cinéma in the 1990s (1988-1998) he had seemingly dispensed with his admiration for Fuller. Indeed, there is not a single Fuller film referenced in that gargantuan 4 1/2 hour epic.
So…Terence Young. Aside from the three early Bond flicks he did, his filmography doesn’t exactly read like a John Huston’s. It is even alleged that Young was the editor for a six hour Iraqi telenovela about the life of Saddam Hussein in 1980. Hard times indeed. How bleak was the Young house in and around 1980? Fleming, for his part, had been commissioned in 1960 by the Kuwait Oil Company to write a history of Kuwait and its oil industry. The government Sheiks eventually found it unpalatable and it was never published. Perhaps Fleming is the auteur after all in the case of Dr. No (the film). One thing is certain: this is a highly-entertaining and visually engaging film which has kept moviegoers entranced now for half a century. It would be the first of many such triumphs owing a debt to “the British disease”–that now transcendent fascination with espionage which has conquered lands and minds far and wide for the Queen by way of the James Bond franchise.