Monday, November 02, 2015

007 Week: Dr. No (1962)

Dr. No (1962) is the first James Bond film.

Let that concept sink in for just a moment.

The film, directed by Terence Young, is the starting point of a fifty-three year (so far…) cinematic journey.  

That cinematic odyssey has taken audiences through the End of the Cold War -- the original historical context of Ian Fleming’s British secret agent -- through some of the most difficult days of the 1970s (such as the energy crisis in The Man with the Golden Gun), to Iran-Contra in the 1980s (The Living Daylights [1987]) and even to the rise of the 24 hour news cycle (Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997).

Yet despite some changes in background or context over the decades, it is also amazing how much the Bond films have remained consistent. Indeed, a number of key ingredients in the franchise are cemented almost immediately in Dr. No, from Bond’s sardonic persona and the immortal 007 theme by Monty Norman, to the famous gun barrel opening. 

We are also introduced by film’s end, to an urbane, brilliant, arrogant, physically disfigured villain, and his sci-fi headquarters (in this case, located on a mysterious island).  Dr. No, of course, possesses metal hands, but over the years we would meet villains with metal teeth (Jaws), a third nipple (Scaramanga), webbed fingers (Stromberg) and a bleeding eye (Le Chiffre). Despite his physical deformity, Dr. No speaks from a place of total superiority, a superiority that is questioned only when a “stupid policeman” (Bond) dares to speak truth to power.

We also get a mention of Bond’s mysterious new nemesis, SPECTRE, in Dr. No, and that organization would prove a crucial narrative factor in the Bond franchise through the 1960s, twice in the 1980s (For Your Eyes Only [1981] and Never Say Never Again [198]), and is set to return in a few days, in 2015’s SPECTRE.

Another motif that appears occasionally in the Bond films appears here too, in Dr. No, for the first time: the idea of superstition cloaking or hiding some high-tech criminal or terrorist organization. This notion, epitomized by the “dragon” of Crab Key, recurs in efforts such as Live and Let Die (1971), and in a way (thanks to Wayne Newton’s religious retreat…), in Licence to Kill (1989).

On a much larger scale, Dr. No concerns, very broadly, how ideological, technological combatants in the Cold War can be manipulated by a third party.

Here, American rockets are being “toppled” by SPECTRE.

In You Only Live Twice (1967), the Soviet Union and the United States are similarly manipulated by SPECTRE, but this time involving disappearing spacecraft.

Similarly, in the Spy Who Love Me (1977), the U.S.S.R and U.S. are nearly drawn into nuclear war over “stolen” submarines (taken by a businessman, Stromberg).

And in Tomorrow Never Dies, the British and the Chinese are manipulated into a naval confrontation by a Rupert Murdoch stand-in.  James Bond, stalwart agent and patriot, is always on hand to stop the ideological opponents from destroying one another.

Ursula Andress plays the first “Bond Girl” in Dr. No -- Honey Ryder -- and is most famous for her impressive first appearance in the film.

I doubt your memory needs refreshing, but Honey emerges from an ocean -- a veritable Goddess -- in a white bikini…with a knife-hilt on her hip. She is fit, gorgeous, and, in some way, wildly natural/innocent too. 

Spying Honey for the first time, one cannot help but remember the creation myth of Aphrodite or Venus, born from the sea foam; emerging from the ocean perfectly formed, and perfectly beautiful.  Even Honey’s arrival on the beach in the film has become a key element in the Bond series. 

In Die Another Day (2002), Halle Berry --- an African-American Bond Girl – is afforded the same loving once-over upon her debut in the film, arising from the sea, thus signaling immediately that the old movie traditions and stereotypes involving race are no longer operative. 

Ironically, this shot -- of a physically gorgeous specimen being birthed by the sea -- has appeared a third time in the canon too: in Casino Royale (2006), this time with Bond (Daniel Craig) himself as the camera’s object of beauty and lust. The focus on a male physique, for the first time, really, is an indication that Bond himself has fully become a sexualized figure too. We live in an equal opportunity world for eye candy, and can ogle Honey Ryder, Jinx, or 007 himself without judgment.

The other Bond Girl in Dr. No -- whom you may know in other incarnations by names such as Fiona Volpe, Fatima Blush, or Xenia Onatopp -- is the femme fatale.  This is a character who works for the villain of the film, is sexually carnivorous, and both a lover and a threat to 007. In Dr No, we meet the first such femme fatale character: Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), a woman who arranges a brutal death for Bond, and then is surprised when he shows up at her home, ready for an assignation.

With little choice, she follows through.

In terms of pre-title sequences, Dr. No provides one that looks fairly modest by today’s high-tech, high-budget standards, although it remains clever.  No amazing stunts or chase sequences are featured, and instead we see a series of assassinations by hit-man who pretend to be (or present as…) being blind.  Later pre-title sequences in the series are, obviously, much more elaborate. Still there’s a viciousness and directness to this sequence that establishes, immediately, the level of danger one can expect in the world of 007.

Oppositely, Dr. No features some points clearly intended as continuing ingredients in the film series, but which don’t make the cut, such as the character named Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson), a prospective lover for Bond.

She reappears in the second film, From Russia with Love (1963) too, and then is never referred to again.  Apparently, she was intended to be a recurring character throughout the first several Bond films, and then made a lead “Bond Girl” on her final outing.  Too bad that it didn’t happen.

Finally, no discussion of Dr. No would be complete without making mention of the star-making turn by Sean Connery as 007.

For many fans and critics, Connery remains the definitive cinematic Bond, and it is easy to see why his popularity endures. His incarnation of Bond is smooth, witty, and yet very human.  We see him sweat, winded after a brutal fight, for instance.  He is suave and charming yes, but he is not a superman.  Like all of us, he has feet of clay, but Bond makes up for these foibles with an ever-active mind and a finely-developed sense of survivor skills.

There are moments in Dr. No wherein Connery flashes an expression of fear, or discomfort, and these moments humanize him immensely.  I also like his Bond because he transmits as pragmatic, or even economical in his behavior.  When he plots the interrogation and murder of Professor Dent, for instance, Bond just sits in a chair behind a door, and waits silently with his gun at the ready.  He doesn’t put on a show.  He’s not a drama queen. He does his job in the simplest, easiest way possible. He sits smoking while he waits for the action to start.

I also enjoy how Connery portrays Bond’s edge, or cunning side. Bond knows full well that Miss Taro wants him dead, and never expected to bed him. He shows up at her house, and ignores all this…and beds her anyway.  Not exactly nice, but he doesn’t care. This is the world he travels in, and we get the sense that Bond will insist on his pleasure, wherever (and with whomever) he finds it.

Finally, it’s true that some aspects of Dr. No also feel a little out of touch with our 21st century mores, from the, let’s just say “colonial” depiction of Quarrel -- and particularly the line, barked imperiously: “fetch my shoes!” -- to the idea of casting a non-Asian as the Asian titular figure, Dr. No. 

But the real story here is not how out-of-date or old the first James Bond feels, but rather how well Dr. No still holds up.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:15 AM

    Dr. No is also interesting in that its James Bond is possibly the closest to the literary Bond, at least until the latest Casino Royale (the first book). And the movie is probably the closest to one of the books, too. Too bad the series went camp fairly soon thereafter.

    The Beretta incident in M's office is actually about the finale from From Russia, With Love.

    And yes, 007's world is a tough one. Recall that when Bond and Quarrel grab Taro at the club, she breaks a glass and rakes Quarrel across the face with it. He just grins and asks Bond is he should break her arm.

    I'm of the opinion that the literary Bond is a satire on the genre. In the book Casino Royale, Bond is chosen precisely because he's more flamboyant and takes too many risks compared to other agents, which qualities are necessary in order to gamble the way that the caper needs. Yet in the movie Dr. No one can still see hints of his training. Also in the books, Bond usually seems to make a mess of things, and only gets saved by plot twists, which I think was Fleming's way of saying that being a secret agent wasn't all it's cracked up to be.

    The movie itself is pretty slow and plodding compared to its successors, which makes it a lot more like some of the books.

    Also note that I don't have a problem with No being played by a non-Chinese, as in the book he's half-Chinese, half-German.