Sunday, November 11, 2012

Movie Review: "Dr. No" by David Pretty

The remarkable thing about the James Bond franchise is that so many of its trappings were securely in place from the very beginning.  Starting with Dr. No back in 1962, that famous surf-rock guitar riff has always accompanied the iconic gun barrel P.O.V. shot.  Many of these distinctive elements have remained constant throughout twenty-two films produced over the past fifty years.

After the groovy pop-art credits finish rolling, the song "Three Blind Mice" is used to introduce a troika of unlikely assassins.  Viewers are caught completely flat-footed when these three seemingly innocent-looking blind dudes suddenly gun down the British Intelligence contact for Jamaica, John Strangways (Timothy Moxon).

Director Terrance Young then treats us to one of the most memorable character reveals in cinema history.  As soon as Sean Connery introduces himself as "Bond, James Bond" we know that we've just witnessed cinema history.  Connery is perfectly pimp: coolly measured, impeccably attired, supremely confident and apparently inhumanly skilled at baccarat.  It shouldn't be to anyone's surprise when he manages to nail slinky Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) within the first fifteen minutes of the film.

After sexually harassing an oddly complicit Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), Bond gets his first on-screen briefing from M (Bernard Lee).  As it turns out, Strangways was helping the C.I.A. track down the source of radio interference against Cape Canaveral rocket launches.  Naturally, 007 is tasked to fly to Jamaica and investigate. 

Bond's very first equipment requisition scene is a humble yet historic one.  M forces 007 to turn in his beloved Beretta, which we're told jammed on him during his last mission, nearly resulting in his death.  His replacement field weapon: the iconic Walther PPK.  Although he's very hesitant to make the switch at first (even attempting to smuggle the Beretta out of M's office), it's fun to watch James, with his new toy as it begins to serve him well during the mission.

Dr. No may not have all the whiz-bangery of more modern entries in the series, but what it lacks in spectacle it makes up for it in smarts.  Upon his arrival in Jamaica, James is instantly skeptical about his airport chauffeur.  After his contact at Government House confirms his suspicions (and Bond soberly admits that he may be "a few minutes late for lunch") he knowingly springs the trap and turns the tables on the duplicitous driver.  Unfortunately his captive soon suicides with a cyanide cigarette.  Wow, try saying that five times really quick.

007's smarts continue to be exhibited in subtle ways throughout the picture.  After chillin' with a vodka martini (shaken, not stirred, natch), Bond spit-glues a hair across his closet door and sprays his briefcase with a fingerprint-revealing aerosol in order to detect snoopers.  En route to meeting his C.I.A. equivalent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), James is forces to beat ass after a slight misunderstanding occurs with local boat-pilot Quarrel (John Kitzmiller).

Together the three of them begin to untangle the connections between a nefarious "freelance" photographer (Marguerite LeWars), her enigmatic boss Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) and a local geologist named Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson).  The mystery deepens after Bond catches Dent in a blatant fib about radioactive rock samples lifted from a verboten region of Jamaica called Crab Key.  It's not long before 007 rises to the top of Dr. No's shit list. 
Subsequently, Bond finds himself running afoul of a rather sizable tarantula.  The peril of this particular scene is tarnished somewhat by the fact that (A) tarantula bites are rarely, if ever, fatal and (B) Sean Connery insisted that a plate glass window be interjected between him and the arachnid.  Although this looks blatantly obvious now, the film-makers can be forgiven for not anticipating the development of high-def home video.               

The two car chases in the film are also a mixed bag.  The exteriors are tense and dynamic but every time director Terrance Young opts for rear-screen projection, the scenes begin to resemble out-takes "Toonces the Driving Cat".  Although the second high-speed chase (set along a winding, cliff-side dirt road under construction) is the superior set piece, both scenes give Bond an opportunity to spout some of the first one-liners in action movie history.

Despite persistent rumors that Crab Key is inhabited by a dragon, Bond finally persuades scaredy-Quarrel to take him there.  Initially, this seems like a boffo idea since the exterior locations are stunning and we also get our first glimpse of the equally lovely Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder.  When Ursula emerges from the Caribbean sea wearing that iconic white bathing suit, you can't help but sit up any pay attention.  Male theater goers in the early Sixties must have inadvertently knocked the bottoms out of their popcorn tubs.

Since Ursula's real voice sounds a lot like Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico after a whiskey bender, director Terence Young made the wise choice to dub her with vocal stand-in Nikki van der Zyl.  Between Nikki's seductive purr, Ursula's alluring charisma, and the character's innuendo-infused name, Honey Ryder is still at the top of the heap when it comes to Bond Girls.

In order to find Dr. No's compound our heroes are forced to endure a video-game like litany of  threats including machine-gun equipped gunboats, armed guards and packs of vicious dogs.  They have a particularly tough time dealing with the island's legendary "dragon", which essentially functions as the scene's "end boss".  Quarrel's fears are vindicated after he gets turned into a briquette and the dragon's keepers threaten Bond with a 100% bonus in the navel department if he doesn't surrender.

The end the film is a veritable laundry list of classic James Bond tropes.  James and Honey are transported back to an UNDERWATER LAIR where they're TREATED LIKE GUESTS by an UNNERVINGLY POLITE VILLAIN.  With his pristine white Nehru suit, pneumatic metal gauntlets and the sort of back story that makes Dr. Evil's origins look like Jerry O'Connell's, Joseph Wiseman's slow-burn performance as Dr. Julius No sets the bar pretty high for his successors.  His debate with Bond over dinner is still compulsively watchable and rife with the sort of squirm-inducing tension rarely seen in today's films.

Also classic is Bond's imminently escapable jail cell and the laughably inefficient drowning trap that Honey Ryder gets shackled into.  In a scene that George Lucas might have cribbed for Star Wars fifteen years later, 007 steals a radiation suit and uses the disguise to throw a monkey wrench into the not-so-good Doctor's plans.  Eventually it comes down to a mano-a-mano duel in which the villain's imposing bionic mitts prove to be rather impractical.  I love it when writers find a way to make gimmicks like this pay off in the finale.     

Except for a few notable exceptions, most directors in the early Sixties really didn't bother with a distinct visual style.  Clearly Terrance Young was a working director who's main goal was to document the script as competently as possible.  Subsequently, a lot of the "action sequences" in the film look like second unit footage produced by Kevin Smith.  But frankly, in this day and age when dynamic scenes are always shot in hyper close up with epileptic editing, I find this style to be refreshingly concise.

I love it when I can follow the strategy of a fistfight, the tactics of a car chase and the unique narrative told during a showdown between a secret agent and a flame-throwing amphibious vehicle.  Dr. No was made during a time when people craved realism, even in their spy films.  We even get a scene in which Bond cleans his gun after he gets it wet, just to make sure that no wise ass in the audience can call bullshit when he uses it without fail in the very next scene.  It's this sort of attention to detail that makes Dr. No seem real, even when things go completely and totally batshit nuts in the final act.

The film's attention to detail also comes across in the remarkable production values.  The choice to shoot on location in Jamaica gives the film a sumptuous and exotic quality.  The villain's underwater grotto is equal parts Hugh Hefner and Jules Verne.  The main command center, with its multiple levels, gantries, complex instrumentation and built-in nuclear reactor is ominously convincing.  Dr. No may have been made for only $1 million dollars (best said in a Dr. Evil voice) but it actually looks like it was made for twenty times that amount. 

Dr. No is a fantastic kick-off to the James Bond franchise.  Many of the elements that characterize the series are already present and accounted for, yet its scale is modest enough to give future entries a chance to expand.

      Tilt: up.

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