Saturday, February 9, 2013

Blogorium Review: Dr. No

 Dr. No is the first James Bond film, and accordingly the first 007 film to feature Sean Connery as the super-spy for MI6. Of course, there is that 1954 teleplay of Casino Royale with Barry Nelson and Peter Lorre, but good luck finding that. With respect to the James Bond "canon" (read: anything in the 50th Anniversary boxed set from 2012), Dr. No is where it all begins, and while it is a comparatively subdued adventure for 007, Ian Fleming's creation is off to a pretty good start.

 It's difficult to view Dr. No separately from the other films in the series, particularly if you are (as I am) familiar with the tropes that came to be identified with subsequent adventures. Trying to remove the mental "checklist" of James Bond cliches while watching his first film is like trying to stay invested in Janet Leigh's story in Psycho, pre-shower - almost impossible. With that in mind, let's get that out of the way for those of you who count Skyfall as your entry point into the series:

 - There is no pre-credit action sequence, just the "gun barrel" opening followed by a colorful musical opening.

 - There isn't necessarily a "theme song" so much as the Bond theme playing over the credits, followed by an awkward transition to bongo drums and then "Three Blind Mice," which does payoff in the opening of the film.

 - M, Moneypenny, and someone who isn't exactly Q but who serves that purpose, briefly appear to give some context to MI6 before Bond is sent to Kingston, Jamaica for his mission.

 - There is not Ashton Martin, no gimmicky weapons, and very few quips from 007.

 - Bond is introduced playing cards (and winning), seducing the woman he played with, and almost immediately after we first see him, Connery utters the line "Bond, James Bond."

 - He likes his martini shaken, not stirred, although the first time anyone mentions it, the drink is "mixed, as you requested, not stirred."

  I'll address the "Bond Girl" in a bit, but that does cover the bases. Oh, if you're coming into Dr. No from Skyfall or the more recent Casino Royale, then the ouroboros-like continuity of the series might throw you a bit, as M insists that Bond abandon his Beretta in favor of the Walther PP7 at the beginning of the film. I realize that the way Skyfall ends is designed to reorient nu-Bond with the series as it began, but we must make do with what we're given, so do try to keep up*.

 In Kingston, Jamaica, British Intelligence Station agent John Strangways and his secretary are murdered while preparing for routine communication with home. MI6 Agent 007, James Bond (Connery) is sent to Kingston to rendezvous with CIA Agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and discover who killed Strangways and why. Leiter suspects a mysterious figure named Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) is planning to disrupt U.S. missile tests from the nearby island of Crab Key, where Strangways had been visiting.

 No sooner has Bond arrived than attempts on his life are made, from the men responsible for Strangways death, as well as a suspicious geologist who knows more than he's letting on. It's unclear who these men are working for at first, along with a photographer intent on getting Mr. Bond's picture. 007 is adept in a chase and can handle himself in combat, but has a nasty habit of letting important leads slip away from him or, more importantly, in getting himself captured.

 It turns out that the first time he's caught with a gun to his back that Felix Leiter is holding it, and that it's part of a misunderstanding, but this James Bond isn't quite as infallible as the one we'll see later on, even before Connery passes the torch to Roger Moore. He's a clever spy, and he covers his tracks, but he also makes dumb mistakes like drinking the coffee Dr. No's servants offer him. For every "cool" trick he uses, Bond tends get himself in trouble. Except, of course, when it comes to the ladies.

 Speaking of which, it's worth pointing out that Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) is almost totally unrelated to the main story of Dr. No. She comes across Bond and Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) by accident on Crab Key. She's visiting the island looking for shells, and just happens to walk onto the same beach where Bond is hiding. There's a half-hearted attempt to connect her to Dr. No's tendency to murder anyone who comes to Crab Key unannounced, but she is, by and large, a bystander who has no connection to the hero or villain.

 I was a bit worried when the mysterious "Chinese" scientist, Dr. No, turned out to be played by Canadian Joseph Wiseman, but a quick line explaining that he's "half Chinese, half German" covers up the fact that he doesn't look remotely Chinese. Besides, it's Dr. No's underground Atomic lair and metal hands that are of primary interest to audiences. Dr. No also suggests the existence of SPECTRE, the organization behind most of Bond's early battles, which I suppose the Skyfall set isn't going to know much about. As someone who entered the 007 series with From Russia with Love, it was nice to see the groundwork for the series being laid.

 The underground lair, complete with a nuclear reactor and decontamination showers is the closest you're going to get in Dr. No to the James Bond stereotypes lampooned in Austin Powers. Most of the film is Bond searching for clues in Kingston while avoiding assassination attempts. There's a car chase and a half, one fight scene, and a deadly tarantula. This is not to say that Dr. No isn't fun to watch, but if you expect all Bond films to be as bombastic as, well, most of the ones that follow the first film, you might be surprised. Comparatively speaking, Dr. No IS the "stripped down" James Bond film that modern audiences seem to think we're getting with each subsequent Daniel Craig outing.

 For my money, I'll take From Russia with Love or Goldfinger over Dr. No as preferred Connery 007 films, but as a starting point, it's easy to understand why audiences wanted to see more of James Bond after the first adventure.

* For those of you who haven't seen Skyfall yet, Bond (Daniel Craig) is introduced to Q (Ben Winshaw) for the "first time" and during their meeting, 007's new "Quartermaster" gives him a Walther PP7 that will only fire when he holds it. Q suggests Bond think of it "less as a random killing machine and more as a personal statement." I won't spoil the end of the film, but I think you'll find it links up with the Connery world of MI6 quite nicely.

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