Sunday, June 26, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: Dr. No (1962)

Dr. No (1962, Terence Young)
And so the official cannon begins with this outing. A interesting choice in that the film seems divided into two clear halves. The first has our hero perform his duties like any simple detective would. The importance to infuse the film with constant action, a strategy that would play a greater role in future instalments, was not felt as heavily, at least not in the early going of the movie. Bond is essentially talking to a bunch of people, trying to figure out what exactly is going on. This certainly makes for a ‘different’ kind of Bond, even this is actually the first one.

That isn’t to say that there is no fun to be had during the first 40 minutes or so. Bond does fool around with some women both at home just before called in for duty and once he is abroad. His little spy game of romance and cat and mouse with one of Dr. No’s minions (Miss Taro, played by Zena Marshall) is a lot of fun, and there is one especially effective and cool demonstration of his famous licence to kill. All in all, one can be forgiven for calling the first half of the movie ‘tame’, which it kind of is. One should remember however that at this stage in the yet to be franchise the producers and directors haven’t quite gotten the mixture of ingredients even the most casual of Bond fans have come to recognize. Nonetheless, I’m inclined to argue that there is some merit to this section of the movie. For the remainder of the series we won’t get to often see Bond just do some investigating like a detective, which is, in a sense, the real purpose of a spy (not, necessarily, saving the world from complete disintegration).  Among some of the other gems to be found during the earlier stages is the first encounter between Bond and Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), two of the coolest looking cats around. Lord and Bond, while not sharing a great amount of scenes together, both evoke a sense of cool  and smoothness that is hard to deny. Lord pretty much looks and sounds like an American Bond, so for me the fit with Connery feels as natural as can be.

The second half of the film (sorry, did I hurt some people by typing ‘film’ when talking about Bond?) engages in a far more fantasy laden escapade. Once Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) has taken the liberty of dragging Bond and his girl Friday, Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress, sexy and not a bad performance to boot), the tone suddenly shifts and the audience finds itself in a fairly different movie. His base of operations, while masquerading as some sort port, is in fact a sophisticated underground maze featuring a hotel, a nuclear reactor room and, naturally, a dining room decorating with some eclectic works of art. This is but the first in a long line of elaborate, possibly overly elaborate, villain lairs which make some of the hallmarks of the franchise. As silly as such headquarters may sound, one would be very hard pressed to overlook to work done by the production team in putting such sets together. Silly? Yes, I won’t deny that, but it is all part of the fantasy aspect of the 007 world, and the production team, led by the incomparable Ken Adam at this stage, are one of the central reasons why these work just work as damn fine entertainment. The climax is also filled with punches and explosions, two things Bond never shies away from.  Dr. No himself, played with appropriate iciness by Joseph Wiseman, possesses virtually all of the characteristics of a quintessential Bond villain. A previous accident which has left him scarred, a foreign background (which is something that definitely came from the books in which the villain was essentially never a Brit). The buildup to his introduction is superbly handled as well. The viewer doesn’t actually see the Dr. on screen until there is perhaps only 30 minutes left. It’s a build up before that, with characters mentioning his name, at times with a clear hint of fear and doubt in their eyes. Thankfully when our main antagonist finally does emerge from the shadows, the payoff is satisfying.
For these reasons Dr. No can easily be seen as a strange film, unsure as to what route it wants to take. Is this a detective story/ a spy story or a sci-fi and action story? Well, I answer by saying that Dr. No encompasses all of the best elements of the franchise, it just uses them in two perfect halves as opposed to sprinkling both ingredients evenly throughout. 

There is no 007 without the man himself or his girl du jour. There is a perfectly legitimate reason why so many consider Sean Connery to be the best Bond of all. I’ve read and heard some criticism of him as an actor, but I’ll be damned of he didn’t know how to play a hero of this stature and complexity. Sometimes engaging in frivolities, other times displaying a cold and calculating ability to dispatch foes with a sardonic sense of humour. He is both clearly defined and malleable. We know he’s good at what he does, that he enjoys some of the finer delicacies in life, that he has a supremely strong sense of duty and responsibility to his country and culture, that he is reasonably sophisticated and educated, etc. At the same time, what are the details of his background? What is his London life like? What are his fears? What makes him laugh? We have no clue, which is part of the fun because one can fill in those blanks with that what chooses. We know enough to have a solid enough grasp of the character, but never are we provided with a great amount of detail. Nothing about him is explained. What we know of him is what we see onscreen, no more and no less.  Ursula Andress, who went down in cinematic history with her impressive onscreen entrance in as she slowly walks out of sea one hot Jamaican morning, is decent despite the fact that she really hadn’t any acting experience prior to Dr. No. Her A lot of credit for the interest in her character should go its creator, Ian Fleming, who devised a the kind of female character that really could only exist in a male fantasy: young, unmistakably sexy, and a something of a wild thing. She lives life on her own terms and takes crap from no one at all. Essentially, she is like the wild animal waiting to be tamed by a man. Sounds sexist? Probably is, but these are the early 60s people, so don’t get your hopes up too much.
Many but not all of the regular supporting characters are introduced in this outing, among them the Chief of Staff M (Bernard Lee, strict) and his indelible secretary Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell, playful), the latter whom offers thinly veiled signs that she would jump on Bond if she had the opportunity. I wish I could have seen this movie back in 1962 to better understand the audience reaction to these scenes of flirtation and seduction. Were there many films back then in which the central character either bedded or flirted with a total of 4 women in the same film (Miss Moneypenny, Miss Taro, Sylvia Trench from the casino club early in the film and Honey Ryder). I have to admit that there is something about Dr. No that is undeniably sexy. It just seems like every second scene in the film has an undertone of sexual connotations. Oh, the things 007 does for England...

I spy:
-The game played in the London casino at the beginning of the film is chemin de fer.
-Traps to ensnare Bond are a bit more simple in Dr. No. Among them include sending a tarantula under his bed covers.
-Even though many of the characters on the side of evil are Chinese, we don’t see many Chinese actors or actresses onscreen. Joseph Wiseman and Zena Masrhall had makeup done so as to lend the appearance of Chinese facial features.
-00 licence: Bond is pretty cold blooded on more than one occasion in the movie. The first arrives when he awaits Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) at Miss Taro’s house. Rarely has 007 dispatched a foe in such cruel and calm passion. The second is when Ryder, Quarrel and he are hiding a swamp on Dr. No’s island. At one point Bond sees an opportunity to subdue a patrolling guard and basically just knifes him in the back. Cruel stuff.
-There is no pre-title sequence. Following the traditional gun barrel scene (the 20 second segment when Bond shoots at the audience and blood droops down the screen) we are immediately thrown into a colourful and playful title sequence with the original rendition of The James Bond Theme playing.
-The song Jump Up by Bryon Lee and the Dragonaires  which is heard during the nightclub scene with Bond, Leiter and Quarrel sitting at the table, did become a smash hit in Jamaica at the time.
-This is the one and only film in which the audience gets a view of Bond’s London flat.

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