26 May 2012

BOND FOR GLORY

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.

DR. NO
Directed by Terence Young
Written by Richard Maibaum & Johanna Harwood & Berkely Mather
Premiered 5 October, 1962

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
NA - the only Eon Productions Bond film without a pre-title sequence.


TITLE SONG
This being the first-ever James Bond film and all, some of the kinks were still to be worked out, and one of those is the title sequence: instead of a pop song using the title as an inexplicable lyric (which I imagine would have included the refrain "Dr. No! Dr. No! Dr. No! Dr... Yesssss!", Dr. No makes do with one of the most insanely iconic pieces of film scoring in history: the James Bond Theme, composed by Monty Norman and arranged and performed by John Barry. You know it: "DUH-duh duhduh DUH-duh duhduh DUH-duh-DUH-duhduh." And so forth. Not hardly a better way to introduce world cinema to one of its most enduring heroes than to launch into his ecstatically '60s leitmotif, incorporating a sort of brassy jazzy sound with surf rock guitars.

The only problem, though, and it's a biggie: there comes a point where it sort of drifts away to be replaced by a bright but largely anonymous bit of calypso, that then shades into another calypso song, a cover of "Three Blind Mice", unimaginatively setting up the three blind assassins who start the plot off. None of it sounds wrong, as such, but it doesn't flow worth a damn.

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Rating: 4 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
The first of Maurice Binder's many wonderful title sequences is largely centered around circles and lines - beginning, of course, with that instantly-recongnisable line of white dots sliding across the screen before transforming into a gun barrel, through which we watch stuntman Bob Simmons shoot us dead as our blood trickles down the screen.

From then it's on to a cavalcade of primary-colored shapes, an marvelous abstract Pop-influenced animation that suggests in a vague way computers, or a sound mixing board, or God knows what - but my word, is it ever the early 1960s. Then, as the James Bond Theme disappears, we get the series' very first dancing girl silhouettes! And even these are primary-colored and Poppy, and all in all it is just about as terrifically sleek in its graphic cleanness as you could conceivably want. It's not the best of the title sequences, but it's one of the most distinctive, and it set the tone not just for the series, but for dozens of other credit sequences in films for years and years to come.

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Rating: 5 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
Adapted from Ian Fleming's 1958 novel - his sixth James Bond adventure - Dr. No strikes a good balance as an adaptation, leaving most of the book intact (far more than the bulk of its sequels, anyway) without strangling itself with fidelity. Herein, Bond (Sean Connery) is sent to Jamaica to investigate the death of another MI6 agent; as he pokes around, Bond quickly discovers that the agent was investigating the peculiarities surrounding Crab Key, a private island some miles away. Recreating the information that his predecessor was killed over, Bond eventually arrives on the island to find that it is the centerpiece of a plan perpetrated by SPECTRE - the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, an international crime organisation - to knock American manned space flights out of the sky and thus rule the world. The details are a bit foggy, as is pretty much the entirety of the finale, at least to me: other than "it is evil and must be stopped before they destroy the Mercury Program", I've never quite followed what's happening in the evil control room or how, exactly, SPECTRE intends to rule the world by dicking around with NASA. And, while the low-key mystery plot and the resolutely human-sized drama of it all makes this one of the sanest of all Bond pictures and thus guarantees it a fair number of partisans, I invariably find myself wishing for a few more crazy flights of fancy whenever I watch it.

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Rating: 3 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
Dr. No is meant to be a half-Chinese, half-German engineering of an icily precise demeanor and impeccable taste, and Joseph Wiseman manages half of this balance flawlessly; but he looks about as half-Chinese as Scott Baio. This is not necessarily a slam against the villain or the performer, but against the low-boiling racism present throughout the movie; Fleming's novels were all rather, as it were, colorful in their dismissal of people who skin color came in any other hue than pasty English pink, and Dr. No is one of the two films produced by Eon Productions where this unsavory element of the source material was carried over the most.

That being said, Dr. No still isn't very much of a bad guy. This does have something to do with our ability to read forward to the excessive cartoon villainy that will start showing up in the very next picture - as a genre film villain, Dr. No doesn't have much besides his mysterious black-gloved hands to distinguish himself - but there's more to it than that. From the title of the film itself on down to the many conversations where his name is spoken in a sort of half-hush, Dr. No is set up throughout the movie as a kind of menacing puppetmaster, and the payoff for that needed to be superb - Harry Lime in The Third Man superb, I mean. And he's just not. I do not blame Wiseman for this, who did what he could, and was certainly terrific at the refined, strangling sense of intellectual superiority that the bad doctor displays during his only major scene. But there simply wasn't much to work with: a tacky, trite back story and a crazy expensive aquarium and a pleasant, very nice dinner simply cannot impart the menace the character is stated to have elsewhere in the film.

villain_2half
Rating: 2.5 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
Not even James Bond himself got such an iconic introduction as Honey Ryder, portrayed by Swiss sexpot Ursual Andress and the distinctly non-Swiss voice of Nikki Van der Zyl: Andress, sauntering out of the Caribbean in a white bikini is such a famous moment that it hasn't just been parodied God knows how many times, it was even re-done twice in future Bond movies (once with a future Bond Girl, and then with Bond himself). You can't argue with that kind of legendary status, except, well: Andress isn't that great an actress.

Which, obviously. The reason we call them "Bond Girls" and not "Bond's Sophisticated, Sexually Independent Women" is because they represent the series' male fantasy element at its most unadorned and anachronistic. They are objects to be seduced, protected, and fucked, though the order changes from film to film. And in that regard, at least, Andress is a perfect fit: it wouldn't take much to make the argument that she's the single most physically attractive woman of the Connery pictures, and one of the top 3 or 4 overall.

But then, even within the straitjacket of the franchise's reflexive sexism, there are many actresses who were both ridiculously attractive and able to to meet Bond on his own terms, at least briefly: ones with spice and personality and wit all their own. Andress's Honey Ryder - one of the less beat-you-on-the-head sexual puns that these characters will be saddled with - is just one vacant stare after another: I don't doubt the language barrier was a problem, but there's still a profound deer-in-the-headlights quality to most of her time onscreen that makes the objectification of her undeniably fine figure all the more queasy-making in its borderline misogyny. Still, since I am trying to meet the Bond tropes on their own ground, I have to give her some bonus points for being that immensely hot.

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Rating: 2.5 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMEN
One could argue that there isn't one; Bond goes a-detectiving and survives a few attempts on his life, but there's not that one thug he keeps crossing paths with over and over again. There are, however, two "featured" minor bad guys, at least one of whom gets more screentime than Dr. No himself: and that would be Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson), the craven geologist who was part of the conspiracy to kill the last agent and is tasked with killing Bond (he fails). There's also the first of the Bond femmes fatales in the form of Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), who allows Bond to have sex with her even though she already knows that he's outwitted her plot to kill him. They're both fairly thin characters whose narrative function is almost solely to be bad at their jobs, and that is just not the stuff of great thriller-making.

henchman_1
Rating: 1 set of Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
We meet Bond at a fancy casino playing some obscure card game - it's not called baccarat, but it sure looks like it, not that I'm a baccarat expert - against the beautiful Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson), whom he invites to his room in the most presumptuous way possible. Fulfilling her narrative duty to be not absolutely hot, Sylvia has weirdly-shaped eyebrows; and she serves literally no purpose other than to demonstrate that James Bond is such a rugged slice of condensed testosterone that he can have any woman with absolutely no effort. She doesn't even get killed by the bad guys, hoping to get to Bond himself - she's not around that long. And yet, in the casually sexy moment where she's chilling Bond's hotel room by herself, hitting golf balls across the floor, she manages to have so much more autonomy and charisma that Andress manages, oddly. So there's that.

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Rating: 2 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
The Bond movies very quickly stopped being anything resembling spy stories; the novels didn't until they started to be influenced by the movies. But at the time of Dr. No, the emphasis was still much heavier on intelligence gathering than on adventuresome exploits, and there is, I do not doubt, less action by volume in this film than in any other. And of that, only the film-ending explosion of Dr. No's lab really works on any particularly exciting level. Other than that, it's a few curt, efficient fistfights, and one dodgily-executed car chase. Oh, and a scene - it's not "action", but close enough - where Bond is menaced by a tarantula, and it is the absolute worst scene in any Connery film: it could not possibly be any more obvious that a glass pane separates him from the spider, and the cutting to the stuntman who has the tarantula on his shoulder does not match the geometry of the shots of Connery at all.

action_1half
Rating: 1.5 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
Very much a product of the later, more absurd films, the closest we come here is when Major Boothroyd (Peter Burton) of what is not yet called Q Division, informs Bond that all agents are to start carrying the Walther PPK 7.65mm handgun. And since that gun is as much Bond as vodka martinis, it is a good choice; but not really what this Bond trope really means. Rating not appropriate.


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
This film and its immediate successor are, to put it bluntly, the "cheap" Bond films: since they had not yet come out and changed the entire world market for action cinema, it wasn't clear yet that they were going to make enough money to justify spending a lot. This means that Ken Adam, who would later create some of the most ridiculous sets in all the movies, couldn't play around as much as he would later; and thus I am compelled to grade on a curve. But even so, Dr. No's island lair is a fascinating place: all imposing concrete walls and support pillars with inexplicable touches like a bookshelf carved right into the cement, or halfhearted attempts to give the monstrous place a homey feel with delicate Asian touches. And Dr. No's office/dining room, while cramped, is a really clever way to get the most mileage from a small number of elements; sleek and futurist while also being grim and industrial. It's a dry run for what is to come later, but it still works damn well: too bad about the chintzy control room with its glowing nuclear pool and spinning wheels of High Tech Doom everywhere.

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Rating: 3 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
Fleming's books presented a Bond who liked the good things but was also a bit of a rough animal plucked up from the working class because of his usefulness as a "blunt instrument"; but Terence Young, the director of three of the first four movies, didn't just like the good things, but viewed them as the very reason life existed, and he made sure to emphasise that element of the movie. Not for nothing are we introduced to Bond being glamorous in eveningwear at a classy casino; and there are moments that creep in through the cracks all throughout Dr. No that make it clear that while he might be a spy, and a good one, he enjoys things like food and drink more: the quintessential moment for Connery's version of the character in any of his films is, to me, when he has been stopped from clubbing one of Dr. No's henchmen with a bottle of wine. The doctor informs him it was a '55 Dom Perignon, at which Bond pauses, gently and very deliberately slides it back into the ice bucket, and idly comments that he prefers the '53 - not to bait Dr. No, nor to prove his superiority, but with the airy smugness of a connoisseur who suddenly realises that he has met a kindred soul. There would unquestionably be Bond films with more elegance than this one, but arguably, none where it was so surprising or pervasive.

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Rating: 3.5 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
What we know: MI6 needs to send "James Bond" to Jamaica to deal with this situation. Cut to a casino, where we deliberately are not allowed to see the face of a man dealing some sophisticated and dull game. His opponent continues playing in defiance of the pile of money she's losing, and he compliments her courage in a thick Scottish burr. She gives her name - Sylvia Trench - and compliments "your luck, Mr...?" The camera jumps straight to Connery's face, blandly lighting a cigarette and clearly aware that he is the most impressive man in the room. "Bond. James Bond" he responds, hardly looking at her.
Forced or Badass? It can hardly be anything but badass, this being the first movie and all, but as a character-defining moment - this man is ice-cold, suave, and does not have a shred of genuine empathy for other humans - it is so flawless that it would be, regardless.


BEST QUIP
Though the film has a certain cool humor to it, Bond isn't the jokester he'd become yet. So even though this is kind of weak sauce, it will have to do:
MONEYPENNY: "You've never taken me to dinner."
BOND: "I would, you know. Only M would have me court-martialed for illegal use of government property."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
Dr. No is a first movie, and you can feel that over the whole thing: the obvious cheapness of the whole affair, with its small number of ambitious sets, minimal action setpieces, and single location - in fact, it was because the novel would suit itself to a relatively small-scale production that Eon Productions head and series mastermind Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli selected it for the first Bond movie.

50 years on, it's awfully damn hard to judge the film on its own merits: there are both big things and small that are just far enough from what they'd become to be distracting. For example, Bernard Lee's M and Lois Maxwell's Moneypenny aren't the fleshed-out people they'd become: M is just Bond's crisp boss, and Moneypenny is just the boss's flirtatious secretary. And Connery, though I am certain this is reading things in that were not there yet, simply isn't as comfortable as he'd be later on: I can't quite bring myself to call it his worst performance in the role, but the insouciance that, for me anyway, makes Bond Bond hasn't completely gelled, though in certain scenes - the casino, his banter with Moneypenny, his interrogation of a fake driver and would-be assassin - it's so close as to not matter.

Mostly, though, Dr. No is primarily notable for how shockingly low-key it is; and this was very much not how it was received in 1962, which is what I mean about it being hard to judge it on the merits. "Low-key" is not bad, and "more of a real spy movie than an action thriller" is not bad - the very next movie in the series, From Russia with Love, is more of the same, and it's my favorite entry of them all. But it's not tentative in the way that Dr. No sometimes can be.And there are the other things keeping it from really rising above itself: the slightly horrifying way that non-white characters are depicted, the general incoherence of the third act, the lack of any characters besides Bond we can hang onto until well past the halfway point.

That said, there's still a whole lot to enjoy about the film, much of it because even more than the rest of the Connery films, it's a real time capsule - were I less of a fan, I'd say that it's the most dated of the '60s Bond movies. And, of course, there's the simple fact of Connery himself, who is not the best all-around actor to play James Bond - I can't imagine anybody denying that honor to Daniel Craig - and is not the closest to to the James Bond that Ian Fleming wrote - I remain somewhat uncertain where I'd land on that question, and it will come up again before this retrospective is over - nor the most glamorous, smartest, breeziest, or whatever - though he is probably the best of them all at action, in later films than this one.

What Connery did that separates him from the rest of the Bonds, and makes him, unquestionably in my estimation, the best of them, is that he's the only one ever make James Bond a movie star turn: not only because it is literally the film that made the minor actor a movie star, but because of how he inhabits the iconic side of the character; we might say that he asserts Bond rather than performs him. The later Bonds were all obliged, owing to Connery's ownership of the role, to play variations of Bond, self-conscious attempts to highlight this or that element of the character; Connery isn't playing anything, just inhabiting the character and erasing the distinction between Bond's presence in the film's world, and his own presence on the movie screen. Even in this not-quite-there version of the character, Connery is wholly magnetic, and it's this X factor of watching a new star who feels completely formed already, and not the undernourished plot or the thin ensemble or the lax action, that lends Dr. No its unmistakable but undefinable potency. Even after generations of Connery being Connery, there's something that feels raw and new about his work here, and as many of the individual elements of the film feel limp and flat, the whole thing is anything but.


OVERALL SCORE
28/50 [eq. 33.6/60]
I should hasten to point out that this is artificially low: that score is relative only to how I would judge it as it fits the Bond formula, and that formula not yet existing, Dr. No can hardly be expected to exemplify it.

3 comments:

The.Watcher said...

Awesome. I can get used to seeing this every Sunday morning! I've seen all the Bond films at some point in my life, though there are so many that they have all blended together into an unrecognizable mess. I was curious to start watching them all again, but maybe I'll just keep reading your retrospective and only watch the ones that score a B+ or higher.

Either way: awesome!

jjjonatron said...

I watched all the Bond films like four years back, and while I would love watching them again, I'm kinda busy watching all the Godzilla movies. However, I can at least recall all the films pretty clearly and it makes me so excited to have you doing this.

Dr. No instills in me the same kinds of feelings you get from it. I think it's pretty slack when compared to From Russia With Love or Goldfinger or whatever other good Bond movie you want to namedrop (I probably 'like' more of them than you do), but there's still all the great elements it does have--Connery's first performance, the title sequence, etc. etc. It's not bad, just not jaw-dropping as some would be later on.

As for Ursula Andress, I've really never understood everyone's obsession with her. Sure, that moment is iconic, and I love it just as much as anyone else, but I can't say I've ever found her too attractive. Her body shape looks weird to me. I mean maybe this has something to do with how her bikini fits her, but I dunno. I don't think so.

redwood said...

Agreed on Andress. It's pretty difficult to surpass that entrance - and that's what made her the "perfect example" of the Bond girl, however average the performance is truly. I think you're right, Tim, that she's the most physically beautiful of Connery's period. But she's just not a standout in performance. Part of it, though, is the part. As has been mentioned before, this was a less expensive early Bond project - and it shows its seams. It's a 60s spy thriller and a fun one, at that. Nevertheless, that's its distinction, to me. Connery's great and I actually do find this to be a great start for Ken Adam and Bond (LOVE Dr. No's lair, based on my own personal taste). I just wanted to add that I would completely agree on the tarantula scene, too, but on the blu ray I just watched, it actually appears to possibly ... look better ... maybe? Perhaps a bit of work has been done?