Friday, November 4, 2011

REVIEW - Dr. No (1962)


Dr. No
UK - 1962
Directed by - Terence Young
Starring - Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord
Color / 110 Min / Rated PG

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.”  - Ian Fleming, Casino Royale (1953)

The opening line of Fleming’s first spy novel is ingeniously recreated by Terence Young in Dr. No, and serves as the introduction to one of the greatest adventure heroes in cinema history. Surrounded by rubbernecking would-be gamblers, the voluptuous vamp in red loses another hand of baccarat to the dark haired man across the table. She continues to play, despite the odds being firmly stacked against her. The man comments: "I admire your courage Miss..?"

"Trench, Sylvia Trench. And I admire your luck, Mr..?"

The man has a cigarette firmly in the corner of his rather cruel mouth. He finishes lighting it, then answers the woman in his own time, gently mocking her introduction.

Bond, James Bond.

(No caption necessary)
It is at this moment that an ominous electric guitar lick swells, a piece of music that would become synonymous with the James Bond character. The theme tune tells us everything we need to know - that the devil may care in the perfectly tailored suit has arrived. No matter the borderline camp dialogue. Nor that no person in their right mind knows what the hell is going on during a game of baccarat. The scene is held together by the aura of unflappable cool emanating from the paradoxically suave brute with the cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

While you typically don’t hear of Dr. No being bandied about in discussions concerning the best Bond movies, you rarely hear anyone say a bad word about it either. While there were certainly big-screen thrillers featuring elements of espionage before this, Dr. No was undoubtedly the progenitor of ’spymania’. This was the film that set the template for all the adventures to come for 007, and also launched dozens of imitators who would come and go throughout the rest of the 60’s and beyond. Many contemporaneous critics simply didn’t understand what the fuss was about, with one famously referring to Sean Connery as a "great, big, hairy marshmallow" who consistently looked like a blundering lout. Your average cinemagoer obviously thought different. Never had they seen an on-screen hero quite like James Bond. He was ruthless, witty, and charming; equally cavalier about sex as he was killing in cold blood. I can only imagine how the character must have scandalized audiences in ‘62 and ‘63, and yet at the same time they couldn’t get enough of him.

The plot of the film, which sees 007 sent on assignment to Jamaica to investigate the sudden disappearance of British operative Strangways and a possible connection to Cape Canaveral rocket launches being disrupted by radio jamming in the vicinity, is fairly faithful to Ian Fleming’s novel version of Dr. No, save for a few omissions that probably wouldn’t have worked out very well on-screen (Bond’s epic battle with a giant squid anyone?), and a few stylistic changes, most of them for the better. (Dr. No’s original cover story in the book was that he was running a guano quarry! That‘s just batshit crazy.) The criminal SPECTRE organization, who would return to taunt Bond in subsequent films, was a new addition added exclusively to the film. The semi-recurring character of CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) was also plucked from Fleming’s novels and placed in the film despite originally playing no part in this particular story (and it shows in the film; Leiter really doesn‘t do anything of note). A cynic might be inclined to believe adding a popular American star to the cast was a means of gaining an ‘in’ with audiences in the States.

"East, West, just points of the compass, each as stupid as the other."
Joseph Wiseman is the original Bond villain here, and while I don’t particularly care for the silly makeup he was given to make him look half-Chinese, Dr. No is still a chilling, unpleasant sort of character with an almost believable Napoleonic psychosis. His cold and calculating banter with Bond in the dinner table scene is priceless (“That‘s a Dom Perignon ‘55, it would be a pity to break it.” Bond: “I prefer the ‘53 myself.”). Most fans seem to think No could have used a deranged or disfigured henchman in his employ to go up against Bond physically, and I agree, but the evil henchman device wouldn’t be mined until the next Bond film, From Russia With Love.

We can't talk about originals in Dr. No without mentioning the original 'Bond girl', Swiss beauty Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder (not quite as goofy a double entendre as Pussy Galore, but still proof that Fleming loved his juvenile gags). Unlike the masses, I don't share the opinion that Andress is the best of the Bond girls just because she was the first. The character just comes across as too much of a damsel in distress for me, which seems to clash with certain aspects of her backstory. For instance, I have a hard time buying the seemingly guileless Honey as a person who could put a poisonous black widow spider in a man's bed and then watch him die slowly over the next few days as revenge for raping her. Actually, that's... pretty fucking dark for a Bond film when you really think about it. Still, the lovely Andress made a huge impression on the impending sexual revolution of the 60's, no doubt about it. A lasting impression too. The bikini she wore has its own friggin Wikipedia page for crying out loud.

"Are you looking for shells too?"
Dr. No moves along at a pleasant pace, though I believe like most Bond films it’s a film of two halves. The first half which sees Bond given an assignment and then left to his own devices to slowly unravel the mystery, and then the second half when all hell typically breaks loose and many things explode. To me, the first half of the Bond formula is always best. While he is a trained killer, Bond is also an investigator, and his wry creeping about and initial verbal sparring with the villains is always a treat to sit back and enjoy. In this particular film we see 007 outwitting crooked chauffeurs, matching wits with a dubious professor (Anthony Dawson), and catching a nosy secretary cum enemy agent (Zena Marshall) in the act and charming his way into her bed before ruthlessly handing her over to the police while the afterglow has barely had time to subside. I’m not saying the film is bad once it reaches the second half, but by the time Bond finally does reach Crab Key island and Honey Ryder comes sauntering out of the sea wearing that notorious bikini the film goes well over the edge into Boys’ Own adventure story territory.

But at the end of the day, it all comes back to Sean Connery and how he would go on to define the role of 007. So much ink has already been used up in discussion of the James Bond series, particularly in the initial casting of the character. A number of potential candidates were offered the part or tested before Connery came along - among them big names of the day such as David Niven, Patrick McGoohan, James Mason, and Cary Grant (not to mention up-and-comers at the time like future Bulldog Drummond portrayer Richard Johnson). While any of those actors could have done a respectable job as Bond, the producers without question made the correct decision in gambling on the still relative unknown Sean Connery as their man. Terence Young deserves an equal share of the credit, as it was thanks to his tutelage that Connery flourished and became the suave Scot we came to know and love over the next forty years on the big screen (Zardoz notwithstanding). Young took Connery under his wing and showed him what it was like to live the playboy lifestyle, and Sean never looked back.

Dr. No is certainly worthwhile viewing if you've never seen it before, though if you're completely new to Bond I might suggest easing into some of the more well-known entries first and then coming back to Dr. No to see how it all began.

4 / 5

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