Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Brandon Peters dissects the 007 series part 01: Dr. No (1962)

With Skyfall dropping in theaters in just a few months, along with the 50th anniversary of the James Bond series, a close friend and fellow film nerd, Brandon Peters, has generously offered to do a comprehensive review of the entire 007 film franchise. Tonight is his first entry, of course dissecting the series's initial film, Dr. No. I hope you enjoy what will be the start of a pretty massive feature leading up the November 9th release of Skyfall. I'll do my best to leave my two-cents out of it, give or take a few items I have up my sleeve (including a guest review from my wife as she sings the praises of her favorite 007 film, you won't believe what it is). But just because I'm stepping aside doesn't mean you should, as I can only hope for robust discussions in the comments section. Without further ado...

Dr. No
111 minutes
Director: Terrence Young
Starring: Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Jack Lord, Joseph Wiseman
Rated: PG

by Brandon Peters

(lets keep a tally on some things, shall we?)
Bond Girls:  Sylvia Trench, Miss Taro, Honey Rider
Kills*:  3, 1 Spider
Car:  Sunbeam Alpine Series II (blue)
Locales:  Jamaica
Odd Villain Characteristic: Dr. No has strong metal prosthetic hands

by Brandon Peters

Dr. No provides a nice introduction to the character and world of James Bond without ever feeling like an origin story, yet leaving viewers with little to no question or care as to what could have preceded it.  The film provides our first look at some common tropes the series would later come to be known for whether good or silly.  Some of which work, whereas a later entry trying to create such a moment would miss the point.  The film is escalated by a star making performance for legendary actor Sean Connery as he energizes and enthralls in every frame he appears. 

When a British intelligence agent stationed in Jamaica disappears, MI:6 sends agent 007 (James Bond) to investigate.  The agent, John Strangways (Timothy Moxon) , was working with the American CIA on finding out the source of a series of radio jams disrupting Cape Canaveral rocket launches.  007 teams with CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and local informant Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) to finish the investigation and find out what it has to do with a fear inducing mysterious man who lives on a nearby private island who goes by “Dr. No” (Joseph Wiseman).

We open the film with the famous “gun barrel” sequence.  Unlike the following films, this one does not lead into an opening teaser scene or elaborate stunt sequence.  Instead, we go right into the credits.  The theme song for Dr. No is simply the James Bond theme.  I find it somehow fitting, as this is our inaugural visit to the world of 007.  There’s nothing fancy or exquisite about the opening titles like the later films.  Simply the credits are just a series of dots dancing around to the theme.  It later abruptly cuts to what can be described as iPod commercial-esque silhouettes dancing to a bongo-led song “Three Blind Mice”.  The opening credits are fitting of the score for the film.  The music is probably the weakest element in Dr. No, as it is disjointed and all over the place.  Aside from the abusive use of the Bond theme throughout (one could almost get embarrassed showing this to a Bond nonbeliever), it feels as if 5 separate people made a score for Dr. No and they used their favorite pieces from all 5.

Familiar faces whom will populate a majority of the films in the series, be it characters and actors, make their debuts in Dr. No.  Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) gets her typical “007 enters the office” flirtation that will come to be a common place.  Maxwell and Connery share a wonderful chemistry and you can fill in the blanks yourself as their relationship without any dialogue explaining it.  Bond’s boss, M (Bernard Lee) gets a brief scene that is pretty much exposition with a few quips.  Q does show up, but is called by his actual name, Major Boothroyd (Q is short for “Quartermaster”).  This is the first and only time he was played by actor Peter Burton.  Q’s first “gadget” he ever gives Bond in the film series is the signature Walther PPK.  Bond has a tough time letting go of his trusted Berretta in the trade off.  Rounding out our familiar characters is CIA agent Felix Leiter.  Leiter is first introduced as a red herring for a goon of Dr. No.  When at first he reveals himself I felt like clapping.  I can’t tell you why other than I am a geek.  Connery and actor Jack Lord (who only plays Felix Leither in this film) provide a great work related teamwork, but with a suppressed layer of competition between the two.

Sean Connery absolutely steals this film and runs with it from the moment you hear his voice.  The moment you first lay eyes on him as he’s playing a high stakes card game, lighting a cigarette and introducing himself as “Bond, James Bond”, you never want him to leave the screen.  You know exactly who this guy is and how he is going to be.  No back story necessary or demanded.  He proves suave, yet respectful with the women (as long as they’re not trying to kill him) and is always one step ahead of the opposition at most times.  Dr. No’s James Bond isn’t without a few one liners played for yucks.  Some are tolerable (“I thought you invited me up for the view”) while others make you want to gag (“I think they were on their way to a funeral”).  From what I have gathered, these one-liners were inserted to keep the film from being too dark and to maintain a PG rating.  However, these one-liners would grow to be a trend and influence films not just in the 007 series.  Connery’s Bond like the Daniel Craig Bond of today, also bleeds.  In the final act, after Bond is taken hostage by Dr. No and beaten by his henchmen before imprisoning him.  He’s dirty, cut up, bruised and bleeding.  And yes, on his pretty face too.  This was supposedly a “new” concept for 2006’s Casino Royale, yet 1962’s Dr. No was already there.  Casino Royale more or less revisited this aspect.  Let’s see if further installments hold on to this aspect at all.

 Bond’s first nemesis, Dr. No, stays in the shadows largely until the final 20 minutes of the film.  He is a half German/half Chinese man with heavy, metal prosthetic hands due to an earlier incident with radiation.  His scheme is to disrupt the Project Mercury space launch using his atomic-powered radio beam.  Something like this is more or less a “ripped from the headlines” plot of its time.  The US at the time had a real concern of Cuba doing something similar during this era.  Dr. No also makes use of the first, of what I’m guessing will be many, dinner table scenes.  These scenes usually are when the villain, instead of killing 007, sitting him down at the dinner table, divulges their whole plan and decide to torture or put Bond to a slow death afterward.  I was ready to laugh and shake my head, but Dr. No had something else in mind.  This dinner scene was actually to impress Bond with the work he’s doing and also to reveal that he is only 1 piece of a much larger more diabolical organization, SPECTRE.  Having been thwarted by 007 throughout the film, Dr. No wants to coax James Bond to join SPECTRE.  No only keeps 007 alive in hopes after some torture and more proof that his power is not to be taken lightly, he will change his mind.  Bond escapes his imprisonment and not only stops the radiation beam, but also kills Dr. No and destroys his lair (a bauxite mine) in the process.

One can’t escape talking about the women of James Bond when discussing a 007 feature.  The first, Sylvia Trench has the claim to fame that she wrote “FIRST!” on the James Bond talkback.  The second, Miss Taro is a bit more of a devious affair on Bond’s behalf.  Working under cover for Dr. No she arranges for Bond to meet at her apartment.  Bond isn’t supposed to make it as she has set a trap.  Bond survives and is aware that Miss Taro is working for No, but as if he hasn’t a clue anything is amiss.  Miss Taro has no plan B, and still believes she must maintain her cover.  007 takes sexual advantage of the situation.  There’s very sinister vibe conveyed from Bond as this is happening.  It’s rather dark and creepy.  He claims to call a cab and really has arranged to have her taken into custody. She is absolutely furious when she realizes Bond knew the whole time. The ‘main attraction’ Bond Girl is Honey Rider.  She gets the iconic moment of coming out of the water onto the beach.  The shot isn’t as great as we all seem to recall and it seems to be cropped/reedited to look better in montages and things.  But it is sold well by Andress.  Honey is thrust into the conflict mainly just by being there.  They give her a little back story (father killed possibly by Dr. No) but this doesn’t get touched upon again which renders it pointless.  She is kidnapped with Bond, but mainly to play the “damsel in distress” card later.  All in all, Honey is just as we’ve always remembered her – eye candy.

The 007 series through time has been known for its elaborate stunts and over the top action sequences.  Dr. No falls very short in meeting that quota.  The film has a car chase, a couple fist fights and an escape from an exploding mine (which isn’t much).  This one plays more like the poor man’s Alfred Hitchcock film.  It wants to rely a little more on character and suspense.  However, unlike a Hitchcock spy film, our main character isn’t the one being chased.  He’s hunting down the enemy.  Dr. No is more mystery and a character study.  It serves well to spend time with Bond and get to see him do some detective work, all the while dodging light attempts on his life.

Dr. No doesn’t prove very dated and can be enjoyed very much by a film lover or someone studying film.  The modern casual film goer or action fan looking back to this will definitely finish Dr. No severely underwhelmed or bored.  It’s a patient film that is very much a sole character story.  It is a little dated in look, but that shouldn’t be a turn off as it looked very much like an episode of Mad Men at times.  It introduces some of the tropes of the Bond series but not all.  It’s a very good start that generously leaves the door open to be outdone and improved upon.  In a planned series of 5 films, it is refreshing that the first entry is very much self contained.  It’s also nice to have a series where we don’t harp back on that “the first one is the best” rule.   I was quite satisfied revisiting this one, definitely good 007 film.  When this is all over I’m sure this will be in the “one of the best” category.

Brandon Peters will return in From Russia With Love
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*One of the men Bond captures takes a cyanide pill and a car chase ends in a hearse going off a cliff.  I don’t know if I wanna give Bond full credit.

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