How Dr. No helped us escape reality
Written by: Jord Schaap
The heroine of Ian Fleming’s 1962 novel The Spy Who Loved Me lost her virginity in a dilapidated Berkshire cinema. That makes one wonder which film was worth enough the attention shift from screen to things of more, uh, personal business. This film could have been Look Back in Anger (1959), a drama starring Richard Burton who as a market ventor constantly rants about the injustices of the class system. Or perhaps the film was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), a film about a bored factory worker who struggles with his dreary suburban life. A third option could have been the film Room at the Top (1959), acting about a working-class hero who marries a factory owner’s daughter in order to better his lot.
Bond and the sink
These three films are all examples of the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ cinema that dominated British film industry during the end of the 1950s. Its social-realistic films focused mainly on the life in the back streets, canals and workshops of grim industrial towns. The tone was grim, the style was gritty. These films weren’t about adventurers and larger-than-life events; they focused on life itself, using natural lighting and real locations. Social-realistic cinema itself resulted from an international film renaissance, started by the French New Wave movement. Its existence was short, and lasted only four years. By 1962, British New Wave had practically disappeared from the film screens.
It is therefore a possibility that the film the two lovebirds saw in The Spy Who Loved Me was titled Dr. No, a strange newcomer in British cinemas, but nevertheless a huge hit when it was released during the fall of 1962. It attracted large and enthusiastic audiences all over the country, and was subject to discussion almost everywhere it appeared. It was something Britain had never seen before. The hero of Dr. No was the exact opposite of the working-class heroes of social-realistic cinema; instead of a critic of the class system, this hero was a member of the jet-set, enjoying the snobbish pleasures of upper-class life in casinos and night clubs. More strongly, Dr. No meant an aberration of everything Britain had seen in cinemas prior to its release. The character of its hero was only reminiscent of that of the legendary Sherlock Holmes, and its spectacular and surrealistic sets were only reminiscent of the alienating world of German Expressionism. The hero of Dr. No wore a black tuxedo, and never touched a kitchen sink. His name was soon to become widely spread. For he was Bond, James Bond.
Terence Young, director of Dr. No, once said he believed that the film was “the most perfectly timed film ever made […] I think we arrived [in] not only the right year, but the right week of the right month of the right year.” It is a known fact that the release of Dr. No marked the beginning of a 40-year long era of succesful Bond films, but meant the beginning of this era also the end of another? Meant the unexpected and unprecedented success of Dr. No the ultimate end of ‘kitchen sink’ cinema, and the dull film decade of the 1950s? And are social-realistic cinema and the style of Dr. No really as incompatible and opposite as they seem? This article tries to find some answers about a legendary film release, this week 40 years ago.
Dr. No’s Fantasy
It is tempting to say that Dr. No symbolizes the ultimate break with social realism, and that the film rung in the glorious comeback of blockbuster movies in the 1960s. After all, apart from the ‘kitchen sink’ dramas there were no dominant genres during the 1950s. There were some crime thrillers and a series of British comedies, such as the famous Carry On films, but these films were widely regarded as backward-looking and unimaginative. The decade of the 1950s is seen as a hiatus between the golden age of the 1930s and 1940s and the new, vibrant cinema of the 1960s, with only the New Wave and social-realism as movements that caught eye. Together with that, cinema admissions were falling dramatically, from 1,365 million in 1951 to 500 million by 1960. Harry Saltzman, producer of Dr. No, declared that he was finished with social-realistic cinema: “All films were designed to show how the other half lives, but for God’s sake, we are the other half! I thought it was time to get back to big entertainment and I saw in the Bonds the bigger than life thing.” Terence Young was of the same opinion: “People were getting tired of the realistic school, the kitchen sinks and all those abortions.”
However, one could argue that the conclusion that Dr. No forms a complete aberration from the social-realistic tradition is too simplistic. In British National Cinema, Sarah Street writes: “In terms of ideology, the Bond films were not escapist aberrations. Bond’s globetrotting and proven success with women reveals another, fantasy aspect of the social realist films’ masculine nightmare of being trapped in the provinces with a wife and family.” In his excellent academic work Licence to Thrill: A cultural history of the James Bond films, historian James Chapman states: “Yet for all these differences in style, it is possible to trace some thematic links between New Wave cinema and the Bond films. In certain respects the character of Bond can be compared to Joe Lampton, the protagonist of Room at the Top. Lampton […] is a northern working-class hero with a […] burning ambition for money and status: what he wants is ‘a clerk’s dream – a girl with a Riviera tan and a Lagonda’. James Bond, it might be argued is Joe Lampton’s fantasy alter ego. […] In the persona of Sean Connery, Bond has all the abrasiveness of Lampton, but he inhabits a very different world of elegant Mayfair clubs and Whitehall offices.”
When we enlarge our perspective from the working-class heroes of social realism to the reality of British society in the 1950s, the enormous and unexpected success of Dr. No gets quite another meaning. Where the leading characters of the ‘kitchen sink’ dramas see the life of Bond as their ultimate fantasy, the world of Dr. No meant also an escape for the masses of cinema-goers in Britain. Stucked in a society that retrieved itself from a exhausting world war, and paralysed by a class system that was at that time still very oppressive, the man in the street saw Bond as some sort of cinematic medicine for the boredom and dreary character of everyday life.
This escapist, fantasy aspect of Dr. No doesn’t get solely form in the narrative of the film; apart from the tantalizing story and the imaginitive characters – a sophisticated secret agent, an evil megalomaniac, and some beautiful women – it is mainly the outward of the film that catches eye. In their alienating greatness the impressive set designs of Ken Adam directly refer to the cinema of German Expressionism. These expressionist films also focused on fantasies in the mind of the man in the street, and the psychological experiments of madmen; in a strange way, Dr. No can be seen as such a ‘mind game’, too. The film offered its visitors a direct glance into the world of their own fantasies. James Chapman writes: “Perhaps the most visually striking set in the film is the eerie chamber where Professor Dent […] receives his orders from […] Dr. No: with its grey walls, low ceiling and a large grille which casts cross-patterned shadows over the floor, the design foregrounds visual style over narrative logic and marks the moment at which the film breaks decisively from any pretence of realism.”
When reality isn’t that cheerful to observe, people want entertainment, or at last a distant vision of adventure and fantasy – things they can’t obtain by themselves, but things they can see in cinema. We saw that in the 1950s, and we see that again in our post 9/11 society. More than ever, the function of the Bond series is to entertain, to fantasize. Striking is the fact that Dr. No was showing in cinemas during the heights of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not only this crisis rendered the film more momentum – the film deals with an island madman with a secret missile base in the Carribean -, the fantasy aspect of Dr. No was just great enough – and just fun enough – to make the film a welcome escape from the daily reality of a threatening world crisis.
The Bond series are in more than one aspect medicines which offer us an escape from the boredom of reality. Said more strongly: without this escapist aspect the series would never have existed. Ian Fleming, the creator of the Bond character, decided to start writing his novels as a “panicky reaction to the threats of marriage”. His life was about the struggle against routine. His freedom as a human being, as an adventurer and as a dreamer was without any doubt the most valuable thing he possessed. In his novels, Fleming wrote down his frustrations about life. After more than 40 yeas, both readers and cinema-goers all over the world still thankfully use his creation as an escape from these frustrations, too.
Chapman, James. 1999. Licence to Thrill: A cultural history of the James Bond films
Fleming, Ian. 1962. The Spy Who Loved Me.
Street, Sarah. 1997. British National Cinema