Friday, November 14, 2008

James Bond review: Dr. No (1962)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Not the best Bond, but it was the first. We bow to that.

BOND, JAMES BOND: The scene in which Connery is introduced is immortal. First the back of his head at the baccarat table, then his hands, then a woman gazing at him flirtatiously; then we hear his voice, and finally, we see his face as he says, “Bond, James Bond.” Connery owns the role from this moment until whatever time he chooses to relinquish it. Hell, he could play Bond today and still make it work… In this first movie, the character has more than a few hints of darkness. Now, pay attention to the scene in which he first returns to his hotel room after the day’s activities. He checks his traps, finds that people have been in the room, starts to pour himself some vodka, realizes that bottle has probably been poisoned, then without batting an eye takes out a spare and pours from that. Then he sits down and drinks - alone. There’s a certain hint of stoic sadness here that would almost completely disappear from the series hereafter. It adds depth; does Bond need depth? We don’t profess to know, but it’s a nice touch here… Check also his utterly dispassionate dispatch of Dent. Killing an unarmed man and not flinching or weeping. Right away we realize what it means to have a license to kill. Heady stuff for 1962.

BAD GUYS: Max Wiseman does a great job at Dr. No, making of him the template for all Bond baddies to come: mysterious evil genius bent on ruling the world, but also educated, sophisticated, a lover of the finer things in life - he comes to feel that perhaps only Bond can understand him. Of course, his plot is never explained very clearly (what in the hell does he expect to gain by “toppling” things anyway?), and nothing in his lab ever matches the weird modernist menace of his interrogation room. He also lacks a henchman—that part of the pattern wouldn’t fall into place until the third movie… Dr. No, you’ll recall, works for SPECTRE - the Special Executive for Counterrevolution, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. Most of the Bond villains of the Connery era do - and none thereafter. Does anybody else miss SPECTRE?

GRATUITOUS SEX: There are Bond girls and there are girls who are in Bond films. A true Bond girl sleeps with Bond, or at least has some sort of erotic entanglement. There are also lots of pretty girls that show up in the scenery (here that would include Dr. No’s photographer spy, the hotel receptionist, and Dent’s secretary), but in my world only the ones Bond beds get to be called Bond girls. Here we have three: Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder, Zena Marshall as Miss Taro, and Eunice Gayson as Sylvia Trench, even though she only appears in the first couple of scenes. Needless to say it’s Andress, rising out of the sea like Venus in that white bikini, who defines what it means to be a Bond girl. Details: it’s the knife belt, as much as anything, that does it. Miss Taro and Sylvia are also quite wonderful in that early-sixties voluptuous manner, but no one can touch Ursula (even if that isn’t really her voice)… We must make special mention here of Moneypenny, who is neither strictly wallpaper nor quite, ever, a Bond girl. Lois Maxwell plays the character perfectly, and it’s quite easy to believe their banter in these early movies…

AND VIOLENCE: The assassinations in this movie are well-staged - the initial one of Strangways, and Bond’s of Dent. The fistfights are nice. But the climactic scene doesn’t feel very climactic forty years later. A couple of explosions, some claxions, and that’s it. Plus, nobody seems to worry that Bond has started a nuclear meltdown there on Crab Key - aren’t those kinda dangerous?

BOYS WITH TOYS: The gadgets are not really an element of this movie. Low-tech is the byword here. However, the business with the Walther is a defining Bond moment: we must know what kind of gun the man uses… On the other hand, the “dragon” is just silly.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Only one Exotic Location in this film, making it feel a bit cheap in retrospect, although I'm sure it didn't feel like that at the time. For anybody like me whose image of Jamaica was formed mostly by The Harder They Come, it’s quite a shock to see it imagined like this…

ETC.: Monty Norman’s theme music is here right from the start, and my is it wonderful. Breathtaking. Pulse-pounding. Yeah, baby. There isn’t a theme song per se, although “Under the Banana Tree” does show up at key moments, and a pleasantly calypsified “Three Blind Mice” eases us out of the opening credits… The Maurice Binder visuals in the title sequence are mesmerizing, if primitive compared with what was to come… Jack Lord was the best Felix Leiter of them all: about this there can be no debate… In the end, though, this movie has always felt a little long to me. The action was undoubtedly eye-opening for the time, but hasn’t aged well. And Dr. No’s Evil Plot is so sketchily drawn that it’s hard to really find any menace in him – charm, yes; menace, no… All told, a promising beginning, but not a perfect one.


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