Saturday, November 15, 2014

Dr. No

  For my 400th post, I'm pleased to kick off my 007 marathon with a review on the first ever James Bond film, the  undeniably classic... Dr.No. I've seen this movie several times, but my first encounter with it was on ABC when I was 7 or 8 years old. It was the movie of the week I believe, and I didn't catch the whole thing, but what I saw was simply entrancing. It wasn't the quickest paced movie for a kid who's attention span was catered to by the likes of Power Rangers and Star Wars. However, even back then, there was something captivating about Dr.No. Sean Connery's James Bond glided through the movie with uncanny grace under pressure and a suave yet steely resolve. It certainly left an impression on eight year old me. Yet it wasn't just one thing. It was also the vibrant colors, the massive sets, the architecture of the villain's lair, the tropical setting... It was all top shelf escapist fantasy. It didn't need a breakneck pace or non-stop action. It still doesn't.

  I'm glad to report that it holds up better than one might think, especially in the face of the modern 007 with it's tightly edited, faster paced, and far more brutal sensibilities.  Dr.No wasn't a slouch either. For those who would say it has languid pacing, I would ask them "Where?". Right as the film starts, a trio of seemingly blind beggars turn out to be ruthless hitmen, killing a man and whisking his body away immediately. It kicks off the movie with a bang, and it rarely lets up from there. Providing of course you're not expecting an action thriller that moves like one today would. It was a movie made in a very different era and by a different set of standards. Even so, it's fairly action packed, and at times toes the line between action and violence.
There's a classic scene in which Bond corners a man who was sent to kill him, the man tries to shoot him but his gun is out of bullets. Bond makes a quip, and shoots him dead in cold blood. It's a chilling scene regardless of what era you're in.

  The movie clicks along at it's own pace, recognizing that Bond is a secret agent, not a soldier or an assassin. If this were a movie about soldiers or assassins, I'd expect something entirely else. As it is, James Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow agent, and from the get-go runs into all kinds of trouble. Assassins, traitors, femme fatales, poisonous spiders, and all this is before we even get to Dr.No's island fortress in time for the climax. The film is a bit rough around the edges, overly eager in it's execution sometimes. Certain music cues run too long and spill over into the next scene quite needlessly, or certain shots feel way too short, but this was the first James Bond movie. Everyone saw the bigger picture, and without this fantastic starting point we wouldn't have the more refined movies that followed. I do think that this roughness is also part of the appeal to Dr.No. It still feels a bit fresh. Hot off the presses, if you will.

  None of Bond's cliches really even exist yet. It's just as raw as say... Casino Royale. There's no Q yet, no real gadgets, and Bond is seen really thinking his way through situations, not just magically knowing what to do, as it would end up in some of the later movies. Bond is much more of a brawler here, though of course that could be said about Sean Connery's take on the character in general. Speaking of Connery as Bond, he's the top dog in a cast full of entertaining and vibrant characters that feel pulled right off the page of a thrilling spy novel.  You have the American CIA agent, Felix Leiter, the local boatman, Quarrel, the beauty hidden away from the world, Honey Rider, and of course the eponymous Dr.No. The actors bringing these characters to life couldn't have been better cast. Even though makeup prosthetic was used on actor Joseph Wiseman to make him look slightly more Chinese, it manages to be less noticeable and less offensive than the same methods used on another peripheral character earlier in the film.

  Wiseman ends up being absolutely fantastic as the villain of the movie, seeming like he'd been playing this role for a long time in a well established franchise. He is instantly recognizable, not just as a villain, but as a Bond villain. When you finally see him, you can see how he clearly set the bar for all future Bond villains. His performance instituted the formula for what makes a good nemesis in this universe. He doesn't even need to be seen for the first 3/4ths of the movie. His assassins do his bidding throughout the movie, upping the body count every chance they can, building Dr.No up to a very ominous and all-seeing status. By the time he has any direct onscreen role to play, it's just his voice. It's a chilling scene, and incredibly effective.   Dr.No is one of my all time favorite villains, not only of the franchise, but in general. As simple as the concepts were bringing him to life and to the big screen, I don't think I'd have it any other way.

  Of course, there are plenty of things about this movie that would clash with modern audiences. The 60's was a very different time and as much as Ursula Andress brought Honey Rider to life with a fiery and independent personality, most of the women in Dr.No were little more than decorative objects. They're all attractive, and moreover they're all attracted to James Bond. It's played up to an extent that at times, it comes off as hokey. Even in later movies in the franchise. I never got over that. One girl, two girls yeah. But random peripheral characters? Waitresses? Receptionists? Every single female? Perhaps Q branch developed some sort of double-o pheromone for Bond. This early in the series, that seems more likely, as Connery was still working on the finer points of the character's charisma and charm. He's suave, but he's also a bit of a thug. Which of course, isn't a bad thing here.

  I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the last quarter of the movie all by itself. When Bond finally gets to Dr.No's fortress island, things really kick off. Bond, Rider, and Quarrel try to escape No's soldiers and run into all kinds of harrowing situations. Of course, all is for naught when they're eventually captured and taken inside the underground complex. The complex is massive, seemingly. It has a decontamination area, laboratories, an ornate and flamboyant dining hall, which seems to double as a trophy room no less, and a whole wing that seems like a floor of a five star hotel. The sets are gigantic, lavish and colorful. They are perfectly suited to the larger than life performance by Wiseman as Dr. Julius No. It's a fantastic setting for Bond and No to match wits and brawl with for the explosive finale. Bond has to sabotage the facility before No and his scientists can execute their plan, and as per usual, in trademark 007 fashion, it's quite thrilling.

  I can't help but fall in love with this movie every time I see it. It's classic escapist fantasy.  It's because of this movie that we think of villains as hiding out in underground fortresses and having huge wall-sized aquariums, and the like. Many subsequent Bond movies, and even movies that had nothing to do with 007, took a page from Dr.No when it came to creating their villains. Despite the fact he barely has 10 minutes of screentime, Wiseman's Dr.No is the real star of this movie. Without him, without that island fortress, this movie would've been worse off. Maybe even a total waste of time. Connery is great as Bond, but a hero is only as good as his villain. I've said it before, the success of a 007 movie lies in whether or not you can market the movie around the villain, and people would still want to see it. With a character as ruthless, enigmatic, and larger than life as Dr.No... you can't go wrong. Dr.No manages to not only be one of the best James Bond movies in a 23 movie franchise, but it's one of my personal favorites as well.

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