Friday, 7 September 2012

50 Years of Bond: "Dr. No"

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, and the 23rd Bond movie, Skyfall, is set to hit theatres this November. I thought now was a pretty good time to revisit several of the Bond films. I'll probably not cover every film but I'll discuss the most important films in the franchise as well as my personal favourites, which do overlap frequently. First up is the film that started it all: Dr. No.

What's funny about Dr. No is that despite being the film that brought author Ian Fleming's character of James Bond to the big screen and established the Bond franchise, it's a very stripped down and small scale film, one that's kind of quaint looking at it through a modern perspective-especially compared to the modern Bond films and even the later 60s entries The producers of the Bond series, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, hadn't quite found the Bond formula that would define the franchise over the decades-though you see the beginning of that formula in this film.

But what makes this film stand up even today is the performance of Sean Connery as James Bond. The introduction of Bond in this film is simply classic. Bond is playing baccarat at a casino and at first we only see the back of his head, (which is reminiscent of Cary Grant's introduction in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious.) We're also introduced to the very first "Bond girl," though she's very much a woman, Syliva Trench (Eunice Gayson, who'd reprise her role in From Russia With Love). We hear Sean Connery's scottish brogue cut through the chatter- "I admire your luck, Ms...?" She responds with "Trench. Syliva Trench." She then says, "I admire your luck, Mr...?." We finally cut to his face as he lights a cigarette. "Bond. James Bond" he purrs, as Monty Norman's iconic theme music chimes in. It's in this moment that Connery defined the character, suave yet rugged, oozing with a dangerous and masculine sexuality. Connery would continue to grow in the role over the next two films but from this moment he nevertheless made James Bond a fully formed character- and an instantly iconic one as well.

In this film Bond isn't the superspy he would eventually become later on- in retrospect he's a much more grounded and human character in this film. We learn he can be hurt- and nearly killed: his boss M (Bernard Lee) assigns him a new gun, the Walter PPK, to replace the Barrata that jammed on Bond in the field and landed him in the hospital. In this scene we see how important Bond 's gun is to him and it's strangely endearing. There's also a scene where Bond has a tarantula placed on him while he is sleeping-and while it may not be the most intricate a way the bad guys have tried to take out Bond-you can see he's genuinely afraid. When he finally kills the tarantula, each hit of his shoe is punctutated by Monty Norman's piano keys, each pounding key emphasizing Bond's fear and adrenaline.

The villain of this film is, as the title suggests, Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman). What I like about Dr. No is that for most of the film we don't actually see him, we only hear about him. Until he's revealed near the end of the film we only hear his voice once while talking over a speaker to Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson). I like this approach because it makes him more sinister and mysterious-as well as making him feel all powerful. It also foreshadows the way we're introduced to Bond's arch nemesis Ernest Stavro Blofeld in the next film From Russia With Love. Most Bond villains are introduced early on in the films and as a result they don't always have a sense of mystique. Wiseman makes Dr. No an emotionally restrained and calculating individual. We learn he was the "unwanted child of a German missionary and a Chinese girl of a good family" and was rejected by the Americans and the Russians when he offered them his services. He then joined the terrorist organization SPECTRE in order to get revenge on both America and Russia. This begins the plot thread that would run through the Connery Bond films, which is Bond's battle against this organization and its leader, the aforementioned Blofeld. Dr. No's plot is to topple American missiles from his island in Crab Key, Jamaica.

The main Bond woman is Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress). Andress has one of the most iconic moments in the Bond series, and in film history. She basically walks out of the ocean in a bikini, singing "Underneath the mango tree." It's so simple but it's still a very sexy moment and Andress arguably defined the Bond woman as much as Connery defined Bond. Honey has an interesting blend of innocence and danger to her. She tells Bond about Dr. No killing her father, a marine biologist, who got too close to Dr. No's island. The man who owned the place Honey and her father were leaving let her stay on for a while. One night this man raped her and in retaliation she put a black widow spider under his bed. "It took him a whole week to die," she says. After she tells this story, you can tell Bond is visibly shaken-it makes a nice parallel to Bond's earlier encounter with an anrachnid. Honey asks him if he has someone in his life. Bond is taken aback, unable to really answer the question. It's a small moment but one that speaks volumes about Bond's cavalier lifestyle. He never has a real relationship, does he? If we didn't know better, we'd suspect Honey was being set up as the woman who reels Bond in. I like that Honey does get a little bit of character development but unfortunately she is fundamentally there to fall in to Bond's arms at the end of the film.

I don't have that much to say about Dr. No beyond what I've already said. Connery is pretty great though he does rush a few of his line readings. As I mentioned earlier, he would perfect the Bond character as the series went on. I like that throughout the film we see how Bond behaves in different situations, whether it'd be with men who are trying to kill him-with a ruthless effiicency, or with women, where he is suave and seductive. Of course with the villianous Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), he's also quite cold. The scene where he murders the unarmed Dent was seen as quite controversial back when the film came out and today it still shows what a cold bastard Bond can be-he's definitely more in the film-noir anti hero mold than the matinee idol mode, which I kind of love.  

This is a pretty solid start for the franchise even though some of the stuff that's supposed to be thrilling isn't as exciting today. But I feel the next film is one of the best sequels ever made and one of the best Bond films as well. James Bond will return in: From Russia With Love.

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