Friday, October 30, 2009

Dr. No (1962)

This is my first film review. Anyone visiting my site for the first time should probably know this in advance. Regular readers, I apologize. I've never written a film review before. Can you believe that, given that I studied film along with rock music in college? I can analyze movies like it's nobody's business, but I've never done an proper review.

I guess that's my way of saying you've been warned.

This probably goes without saying, but there will be spoilers in this entry.

The James Bond series is one I have such a love-hate relationship with. At its best, you have a compelling story, some great acting, and some memorable action sequences. However, at its worst, you have recycled or completely laughable stories, some so-bad-it's-still-just-bad acting, and action sequences that are laughable or just plain stupid.

And I blame the producers. Bigger isn't always better. They learn this and re-learn it time and again throughout the existence of the super-spy's film franchise. Every Moonraker is followed by a For Your Eyes Only, but eventually they start beefing the films up and next thing you know Bond is fighting an axe-wielding Christopher Walken atop the Golden Gate Bridge while one of the replacements from Charlie's Angels squeals like a stuck pig.

It doesn't help - or maybe it does - that I'm also working my way through Ian Fleming's novels. Through the summer and early autumn I got through the first five, and oddly enough got to Dr. No before school work began to (appropriately) become my primary focus. The literary Bond isn't a wise-cracking womanizer. He's a rather cold employee of Her Majesty's Government, not enamored with his job, but dedicated to his duty.

The books have their drawbacks, which become more and more glaringly obvious as time marches on. Fleming was upper-class and English...and a man. So there's sexism (though not much eroticism, thankfully) and racist attitudes scattered throughout. It isn't uncommon for someone to be described first as being French or having traits "like all Frenchmen...". To me, it's just the words of an Englishman in the dying days of colonialism in the British Empire.

Deborah Lipp wrote a wonderful book of lists and reviews of the series. She runs a great blog site that features all things Bond. In her book, I feel she is a little too harsh on Fleming's racial attitudes. They're worth pointing out and calling them for what they are, but sometimes she's a bit too politically correct. (Other than that, though, she's a terrific writer and a very courteous site-runner. She warded off some pesky 13 year old who started a petty argument deftly.)

Her book, which I picked up in Dallas this June, inspired me as a pop culture junkie, to re-watch and reevaluate Bond. I hadn't seen any of the films since middle school, but I recalled watching them almost religiously. I also recall that Timothy Dalton's two films were my standout favorites. Of course, this eventually got displaced when I discovered Monty Python and their Flying Circus.

So, here goes. My first film review on this blog.

DR. NO (1962)
I really don't know why this was the first choice. Bond had actually been introduced to us on the CBS series Climax! in an adaptation of the first novel Casino Royale, with Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre and American (!) actor Barry Nelson playing Jimmy "Card Sense" Bond, a CIA agent...

...think about that for a minute. James Bond as an American. Oh, wait...

Anyway, the first Bond novel having already been put onto the screen, albeit on American television in the 1950's, was sufficient grounds for them to choose a different story. The books are in an entirely different order from the film series, which continues to baffle me. I've taken the liberty to list them here with their order in the films in parenthesis:

Casino Royale (21st)
Live And Let Die (8th)
Moonraker (11th)
Diamonds Are Forever (7th)
From Russia With Love (2nd)
Dr. No (1st)
Goldfinger (3rd)
For Your Eyes Only short story collection, which included
+ For Your Eyes Only and Risico, which combined to form the story for the film For Your Eyes Only (12th)
+ From A View To A Kill, which minus "From" was the title - and little else - for the 14th outing
+ Quantum Of Solace (22nd, though again, none of the story is on the screen. Just the title.)
+ The Hildebrand Rarity (incorporated into Licence To Kill, the 16th film)
Thunderball (4th)
The Spy Who Loved Me (10th)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (6th)
You Only Live Twice (5th)
The Man With The Golden Gun (9th)
Octopussy & The Living Daylights (13th and 15th, respectively)

What the Hell? Seriously! Oh, well.

I'll warn you this may just turn into "the rantings of an angry fanboy."

Whatever the case is, Dr. No lends itself to being a simple, yet effective, narrative. A field agent is killed and Bond is sent to investigate. It really does play out like a detective story...and that's kind of a drawback. We know Bond with 20/20 hindsight as a globetrotting secret agent, so why is he doing what seems like police work? Because that's how he worked in the novels. This is one of the closest adaptations we'll see in the franchise of the source material.

We first see Bond from behind, playing cards opposite the lovely Sylvia Trench, and in our first glimpse of the ruggedly handsome Sean Connery he gives us his iconic introduction while lighting a cigarette: "Bond. James Bond." It's so strange to think Fleming wanted the most ordinary name possible, because as you're about to see, those two simple syllables are pretty bad-ass:

See what I mean?

That said, (and this is my second draft of this review when I realized I was simply summarizing the picture without any opinions) I like this movie. But I don't love it. As an introduction to Bond, it is pretty good. However, this could have been any generic cop/CIA man following the clues...until he gets to where the clues take him.

I bitch a lot about the lack of realism in the films, but what makes Bond so special is that it's realism...with a twist. He exists in the real world, yes, but a dash of fantasy - just enough to make you think, "Could this actually happen?" - gives these films their oomph. So it is largely a cloak and dagger film, just set in Jamaica.

But then we get to where this search for clues is taking us.

Bond's journey eventually leads him to the lair of the title villain, Dr. Julius No (Joseph Wiseman), a mysterious half-German, half-Chinese with artificial hands. As far as Bond villains go, I like him, but several factors leave him very open to parody. It doesn't help that just about anything remotely ridiculous we see in the 1960's Bond outings was later made into comedy in the Austin Powers series, because Dr. No pretty much is Dr. Evil. He speaks in a robotic, monotonous tone, wearing a Nehru jacket with matching trousers, and he does little other than demonstrate that his artificial hands can do some serious damage. Oh, and they are both doctors - maybe they went to the same Evil School?

As menacing as he seems, he doesn't get much screen time. He's really only in two scenes. One is where he and Bond size one another up. And re-watching it, Dr. Evil be damned, Wiseman makes every second count!

(The armed goon with one line we'll see again later, much later, in The Spy Who Loved Me as the stumpy but formidable Sandor.)
He anticipates Bond's every move, even telling him to put the knife he'd hidden in his sleeve back on the table, while Bond does his best to verbally wound his adversary. It's here that Bond shines, because too much in this film does he come across as kind of a brute, body-slamming a thug and snapping "Get up!" as he wipes his hands with his handkerchief, throwing Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) around before learning he's a friend and not a foe, and his seduction of Miss Taro (Zena Marshall).

But in this scene, he shows that his greatest asset isn't his hand-to-hand combat skills or his seductive charm. It's his brain. We're meeting 007 not as some rookie eager to get his hands dirty; rather, he's a seasoned veteran. This tactic of being a smart-ass is one he'd clearly used before, and it had worked for him. But not this time. Dr. No even tells him it's to no avail, deriding him as "a stupid policeman" after offering him to join an organization called SPECTRE.

Thinking of it in 1962 terms rather than our post-post-modern outlook where nothing is sacred and everything is ridiculed, Dr. No is a chilling villain, an adversary intellectually and physically.

As for the girl, Honey Ryder (played by German actress Ursula Andress and dubbed by some English lady whose name I don't really feel like looking up) I think she's kind of overrated. Beautiful, yes, but iconic or memorable? Sorry, not really. A lot of the early Bond girls were dubbed and while this was probably a wise foreign-accent-masking move, I feel this gives them little presence.

The Department of Henchmen wasn't fully fleshed out in this first excursion, and we can forgive that. Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) is well-played, but everything about him from his voice to his demeanor seems to say "THIS IS A VILLAIN, HE IS NOT TO BE TRUSTED" from his first appearance. This really does remove some of the suspense before we see him report to Dr. No that Bond is an enemy to be feared.

Thankfully, there are some great allies here. Straight out of the novels are Felix Leiter (played here by Jack Lord, later to start in Hawaii Five-O) and Quarrel. Leiter is Bond's CIA counterpart, just as well-dressed and cool. I like Jack Lord's performance, although I feel he's underused as far as the film's action goes. Quarrel adds some comic relief, and he's very likable...but he also has the misfortune of being a black man in a film made in the early 1960's based on a novel written by an upper-class Englishman in the 1950's. He's pretty...token, prone to superstition, and when Connery says "Quarrel, fetch my shoes!" I really wish the guy would say back, "Fuck you! Get your own damn shoes!"

The action sequences are real hit and miss. Bond's car chase with the Three Blind Mice assassins was shot in a town called Rear Projectionville, and it's a bit much when their car goes off road (hitting NO bumps, mind you!) and bursts into flames. Then again, I say this without thinking to mention that instead of gasoline, cars in the early 1960's ran on nitro glycerin.

But then there's the scene where Bond has a tarantula crawling up his body in bed. What makes this so great is this isn't sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads (man-eating fish would become a Bond trope after being effectively used in the Bahamas-centered Thunderball). No, it's a spider. And it's so well done, because it's a real threat, and Connery's sweat-drenched face is pretty damn convincing that Bond is legitimately frightened.

The final showdown, when Bond sabotages the operation, goes too fast. Everyone immediately evacuates. Maybe it's just badly shot. However, there is a deal of tension during his fight with Dr. No, one reason being that a single carefully aimed blow from his opponent's metal hands and Bond's head would look like a crushed watermelon. The other is that they're on a platform lowering into a nuclear reactor which is quickly reaching critical temperature.

Overall, Dr. No is entertaining, with some good dialog and a smattering of tense action sequences, but it's not the first one that comes to mind if I want to see Connery at his best.

Score: 84% B

PS - Bond sleeps with three women in this movie. Yes, this was the era of JFK bedding anything that walked. This was the era of Mad Men.

PPS - How did you like my first film review? I thought it sucked - definitely not as good as my album reviews - but then I think all my stuff sucks.

1 comment:

Shelley said...

You are as bad as me when it comes to creating things. You are a very good writer.

This review is great! It's shorter, but at the same time, I feel like a lot more can be written on an album than a James Bond film. It would be helpful to give out more plot. I know they're spoilers, but just give a warning (which you did).

I agree with the letter grade you gave Dr. No. When I first saw it - before really seeing the others - I would have given it a C. But after seeing Roger Moore's films, I missed Sean's films. I mean, I like Roger, but I really like Sean (and don't get me started on Timothy).

The more I think about Dr. No, the more I think: "You know, not so bad. The plot was good - not ridiculous - pretty good action, and Sean is nice to look at." But I didn't like the villain (but he definitely wasn't the worst). Although, I'm usually underwhelmed by the villains anyways.

And I'm not going to mention the whole Sean having sex with 3 women. I just won't. But g-ross.

Oh, and no Q. But he didn't exist just yet.