Thursday, October 11, 2012

Dr. No (1962)

According to Wikipedia, a quarter of the world’s population has seen a James Bond film. That’s proof positive of the enduring popularity of the franchise (23 films and counting); and to the success of Dr. No, the first of them. It all began with Dr. No. The Bond Girl, the Bond Theme, the gun barrel opening, the long-suffering Moneypenny, the martini (made you-know-how): all of it. You may not like Dr. No, but you cannot call it a failure. 

The plot is familiar. James Bond, Agent 007, is called upon to investigate the disappearance of a fellow agent in Jamaica. Upon arrival on the island he is nearly killed, then nearly killed several more times, always escaping through luck and guile. 

Bond (Sean Connery) uncovers a scheme, hatched by the criminal genius, Dr. Julius No, to divert a NASA rocket. Later, accompanied by Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), the blonde whom he first sees rising majestically (there is no other word for it) from the ocean, Bond penetrates Dr. No’s lair. He is captured; tortured; and taken to dinner, where the villain unveils his plan. Bond thwarts the plan. Bond saves the rocket. Bond gets the girl. 

Almost all subsequent Bond films follow this formula, so if you’re one of the three-quarters of the planet who hasn’t seen one, you don’t have to start with Dr. No. It isn’t the best of them anyway. Goldfinger is better; so is Casino Royale. Moonraker’s a camp masterpiece. But even with 40 years of hindsight, Dr. No still entertains.

Director Terence Young cuts suddenly and often. When he lingers, it’s usually to portray action of a subtler kind. Like the sex scenes, for example, or Bond proofing his room against burglars (as a spy would do); or the moment he finds a poisonous spider crawling up his arm. These scenes take time, because they have to. Scenes that don’t aren’t indulged. The movie’s lean and quick, like Bond himself.

As the first, and perhaps definitive Bond, Connery makes us believers. He is utterly confident, seductive, physically imposing. He is poised, but crucially, the poise seems learned—as though a brute of a man had been captured and refined, molded into this package. Connery’s Bond embodies promise: the promise of sex, the promise of violence and murder, the assurance of victory. He is a man in complete control—so controlled that he needn’t stifle his base impulses; he merely submerges them until they’re needed or wanted. He’s neither boor nor puritan. He knows his dark side and navigates it well. He’s easy to envy.

Ryder, too, is more than the sum of her parts. Andress’ famous bikini shot on the Jamaican beach has locked her firmly in the imaginations of generations of men, but pure beauty aside, it’s interesting to note how physically strong she looks, and how willingly she brandishes the knife strapped to her hip. Ryder is almost nonchalant when she tells Bond how she murdered the man who raped her. Seconds later she asks him if he’s seeing anyone. Like him, she’s capable of menace, and fears little. 

Dr. No was filmed on a low budget, but I don’t think you’ll notice. More glaring is its somewhat stereotypical treatment of ethnic groups. Bond’s ally, Quarrel, is a case in point. A Jamaican black man, Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), shifts awkwardly from cagey fisherman to jittery, superstitious flunky over the course of the film. This is familiar too, but not in a good way.

Joseph Wiseman plays the eponymous villain with the bionic hands. It’s not a charismatic performance. Dr. No’s lair, deadly to the outside world, feels like a conference centre on the inside—staffed with flunkies and technocrats who pose little direct threat to Bond. So the tension is missing. But what the film does establish, clearly, is the concept of a would-be global kingpin compensating for his own shortcomings. Sharing a table with James Bond will do that.

The Bond franchise is older than I am. I doubt it will end in my lifetime. And I hope it doesn’t. Dr. No, like all the good films in the series, stays true to the fantasies it embodies, and trusts us, as viewers, to appreciate good escapism when we see it. Like Bond, we know just when to let go. But for us, it’s the moment the movie starts.

Where to see Dr. No:
Dr. No screens at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox on Saturday, October 27, 2012, part of Shaken, Not Stirred: Bond on Film. The film will be preceded by a talk with Academy Award-winning costume designer Lindy Hemming, who will discuss the history of costume design in the James Bond series and her own experiences designing costumes for five consecutive Bond films.

The film screens again on Sunday, November 25, and Sunday, January 20, 2013.

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