Dr. No Backstory


The Back Story

After reading Dr. No several times, I realized that there was no way I could paint anything that would compete with the scene in the movie where a gorgeous Ursula Andress rises from the ocean like a modern day Botticelli’s Venus de Milo, wearing a bikini. Ask anyone what they remember most about the movie, and this vision springs immediately to mind. So any attempt of creating watercolour versions of female pulchritude was right out. In the novel, Fleming has Honeychile Ryder searching for Venus Elegans cowrie shells, completely naked except for “a broad leather belt around her waist with a hunting knife in a leather sheath at her right hip…She was Botticelli’s Venus, seen from behind.” 

Literally on the fourth reread, I had my own eureka moment. Bond is almost always deadly serious. He is the killing machine, and unlike in the movies where they tried to inject witticisms, puns and plays on words, in the books Bond’s lot is down to a nasty job but one that someone had to do. That someone was him. 

Humor doesn’t come easily for anyone with a license to kill, although Bond does make light-hearted conversation with his secretaries, banter about with old friends like Felix Leiter, and is an inveterate and scandalous rake and roué with the women. But it was the secondary characters that provided Fleming with an outlet for a lighter touch in dialogue and action.

In the chapter Facts and Figures Bond meets Colonial Secretary Pleydell-Smith, a “youngish shaggy-haired man…one of those nervous pipe smokers who are constantly patting their pockets for matches, shaking the box to see how many are left in it, or knocking the dottle out of their pipes. After he had gone through with this routine two or three times in his first ten minutes with Bond, Bond wondered if he ever got any smoke into his lungs at all.” Fleming continues in this vein for a several paragraphs.

Pleydell-Smith is a foil for Fleming, a humorous version of the classic British bureaucrat - in this case, an upperclassman from King’s College, Oxford, who becomes Bond’s ally in Jamaica. When Bond later retires to his hotel, he is told that a large basket of fruit had been sent up to his room by the Acting Governor’s office. He knew that this was unlikely, since the Governor had proven to be quite uncooperative. So Bond proceeds to check the fruit, and finding tell-tale signs of being tampered with, tips the contents - tangerines, grapefruit, pink bananas, soursop, star-apples and nectarines - to the floor. 

He has the fruit sent to Pleydell-Smith for analysis and in the next chapter, Night Passage, he receives the following telegram: “Each object contained enough cyanide to kill a horse. Stop. Suggest you change your grocer. Stop.” 

Change your grocer, indeed! I laughed out loud - here was Fleming at his self-deprecating and humorous best. This would be the visual: a sunny Jamaican version of an old Dutch masters still life of a basket of fruit, including the addition of every poisonous creature that could be found in Jamaica. It would be a nod to the inspirational visual I found by the 16th century Dutch Golden Age painter Balthasar von der Ast, combined with the artistic license of “what else is possible or probable” within the context of Fleming’s imagination and James Bond’s hotel room!

Pictured in the painting are two Scolopendra Gigantea centipedes, two poisonous Blue Dart frogs, an ocellated gecko, poisonous News bug, deadly tarantula, Bond’s suitcase with his Walther PPK in its Berns-Martin Triple Draw holster, a Sea Island blue cotton dress shirt and Sea Island white briefs, his black knitted silk tie, the Venus Elegans and other assorted cowrie shells, bowl of hibiscus flowers that were on the Governor’s desk, and a fly on the envelope attached to the basket - in a nod to Bond artist, Richard Chopping. 

In the background out the hotel window - Crab Key Island - the last resting place for Dr. No. 

Note: original back story appeared on the Literary007 website on September 22, 2016


Diamonds Are Forever Backstory


The Back Story

Fleming at his best, Diamonds are Forever is one of those stories that suck you into the pages of the book and don’t let go until Bond is either reveling in a secluded location with his Bond Girl du Jour, or wrapping up the assignment with yet another license to kill notch in his 007 belt. In this case, he gets both - Tiffany Case and “Bofor’ing” ABC’s helicopter out of the French Guinea desert air, thus closing down the pipeline and putting an end to the global smuggling operation. 

With a story as iconic as Diamonds are Forever comes the responsibility of the artist to provide a visual interpretation that does the story justice, gives the viewer a new perspective on characters, events and subplots, or fills in the lacunae of the reader’s imagination - all inspired by the text and the author’s skill at creative myth-making.

Diamonds are Forever is a difficult task-master - the story leaps and bounds across the globe - from the deserts of Africa, to the posh purveyors of luxe goods in London and New York, from the monied aristocracy and the purebreds of the racing set at Saratoga, to the mob-run casinos of Las Vegas and back again. It’s a dizzying flight of imagination, colored by Fleming’s prose and acerbic wit. There’s Fleming’s line by Bond vis-a-vis the mob: “There’s nothing so extraordinary about American gangsters. They’re not Americans. Mostly a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meat balls and squirting scent over themselves.” Or, Bond reading about Saratoga through the eyes of Post sports columnist, Jimmy Cannon. “The Saratoga…of the twentieth century looked out at him from that piece of newsprint and bared its teeth in a sneer.” There were the usual “hicks and hoodlums” running the show, and the article ends with “It was a stinking town…but all gambling towns are.”

Finding a line or scene to encompass the collective attributes of the story is one of the hardest I have encountered to date.

Despite the globe-trotting aspects of Diamonds are Forever, and the constant flux of characters and cast, I found myself focusing upon just one member of the tale: Tiffany Case. What she provided was a constancy, from beginning to end, and her introduction to Bond was a goldmine of visuals and inspiration for the painting. 

In her intro chapter, Feuilles Mortes, Tiffany greets Bond with her back turned to him, sitting half naked astride a chair, and staring into a mirror. “The black string of her brassiére across the naked back, the tight black lace pants and the splay of the legs whipped at Bond’s senses.” I’ll bet! A record was playing - Echoes of Paris by George Feyer, with rhythm accompaniment - a Vox 500 recording. Bond takes it all in…they discuss how he will smuggle diamonds into the US. How his payoff will be made. The crew of mobsters he will be working with. And some cautionary admonitions about the retribution he might face if he tries any “funny business” on his own. Tiffany then dresses to go out, wearing a “heavy gold chain bracelet” - presumably from Tiffany’s of New York. She reveals how she was named after the store, and after settling on the details of their caper, leaves to make contact with her mob controllers. In typical Bond fashion, he asks her out to dinner - once they successfully get to New York City. 

I found the Feyer album in perfect condition on Ebay. Bond’s golf balls - Dunlop 65’s - were there as well. Incredibly, a 6” long Pandinus Imperator scorpion (Chapter One, The Pipeline Opens) was available online. It came dried out and mounted in a display case, but I was able to rehydrate it and manipulate it into an attack position. Fleming mentions beds of “forced gladioli” - a neighbor’s garden provided the flowers. Tiffany boxes were found. My Fairbairn-Sykes commando knife served as the visual for the mobster’s throwing blade used to prise the smuggled diamonds out of Bond’s Dunlop 65’s. The chapter Acme Mud and Sulphur describes the mauve paper ticket Bond received for his $1.50 treatment in the baths. A few cigarettes were tossed into the flower beds, and fake diamonds rounded out the imagery. 

Lest I forget, a fly - in a nod to the master Bond book illustrator, Richard Chopping - perches on top a Dunlop 65 golf ball. Thank you Richard!

Note: original back story appeared on the Literary007 website on August 1, 2016