Friday, February 14, 2014

Bond-arama: No. 00? Dr. No (1962)

As we enter the top three, I’m going to avoid putting a rank on these for the moment. Instead, I’m going to outline the cases pro and con for each being number one. Today we start with Dr. No. Dr. No is not the first time Bond has appeared on the screen, but this is the first James Bond film in the series... this is the film which started it all and which made Sean Connery into a superstar. It is a solid film with no real plot holes and all the elements we have come to expect from Bond. It has only a couple minor weaknesses. Could it be No. 001 of 0023?

Plot Quality: Dr. No’s plot is superb. Dr. No opens with the murder of British Intelligence Station Chief Commander Strangways and his secretary in Jamaica. His disappearance sets London into motion. A man is summoned. This man is found playing Chemin de Fer in a casino. He has amazing luck and he defeats a woman named Sylvia Trench, a woman who will follow him to his room. This man is Bond, James Bond.
Bond is briefed by M, the head of MI-6, and sent to Jamaica to investigate. Upon arrival in Jamaica, he is picked up by a driver who works for the bad guys. Bond captures the man, but the man kills himself rather than being questioned. This tells Bond the type of villain he is up against, a man who strikes suicidal fear into his henchmen. This also establishes the fact that Bond is not just your average police man. He deals with a special type of criminal.

Bond meets with his local contacts and learns that Strangways had been investigating an island named Crab Key, which belongs to a man named Dr. No. The issue at had is that NASA is planning to launch a rocket in a few days and the CIA is concerned that an attempt will be made to topple the rocket using radio jamming. Strangways thought he was on to something when he vanished.
As Bond investigates, he finds that one of the men closest to Strangways (Professor Dent) lies to Bond about this. He also finds the man who took Strangways to Crab Key. This is Quarrel, and he is working with CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord). He tells Bond that Crab Key is off limits because of stories of a dragon. This intrigues Bond and he focuses on Dr. No. This leads Professor Dent to make an attempt on his life, which fails. Another attempt is made by Miss Taro, the secretary of a British official, but Bond foils that as well. Bond has her arrested and kills Dent when he arrives at the scene.

Bond now sets his sights on Dr. No. He and Quarrel venture to Crab Key, where they find Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), a nomadic woman who collects sea shells from the beach. They are attacked by Dr. No’s men and taken prisoner. Bond finally meets Dr. No and learns that he works for an organization which is tying to set East against West by toppling the rocket... SPECTRE. Bond eventually defeats Dr. No and destroys the base, saving the American rocket.
Everything about this film works. The travelogue feel is fantastic. The story is larger than life with huge stakes. The whole film has Bond doing actual spying, something he doesn’t do in later movies. The characters are richly drawn and interesting; they don’t feel cardboard. And this film establishes all the elements we want in Bond.

The only real downside to this film is after Bond is captured by Dr. No. It feels a bit like the film didn’t know how to create a real climax, so the story gets wrapped up too easily. It’s still a decent ending, but could have used something more. And what’s really missing is a more personal struggle between Bond and Dr. No.
Bond Quality: This is the first Bond in the series, so no one quite knew how to play him. Connery would set the standard. And while he is a little stiff in this compared to his future films, his Bond here is still suave and charming. Bond in this film is also one of the most cold-blooded of any in the series. The way he lets Dent build up his hope that he can escape his fate and then coldly shoots him down when he is essentially unarmed is something you just won’t see again until Daniel Craig. Even the cold-blooded Bond in Thunderball isn’t particularly cruel, but Bond is in the Dent scene. His misogynism is strong in this one as well, particular related to Miss Taro, the secretary who tries to kill him. He thinks nothing of having sex with a woman he is about to kill or have locked away. At the same time, Connery lets slip some genuinely warm and loyal moments, particularly when he’s among friends like Felix. Connery sets the bar amazingly high here.

The Bond Girl: The Bond girl is Ursula Andress, as Honey Ryder. She’s a creature of the 1960s. She’s an uneducated girl in a bikini whose job is to look up to Bond with awe and she does that well, but she’s hardly an engaging character. Nothing highlights this more than when Dr. No drugs her so that he and Bond can speak without having to worry about her being at the table as well. This moment feels as if the film itself tired of her. Still, she’s adequate when it comes to the task of creating “The Bond Girl.”
Villain Quality: Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) is one of the hardest villains to judge. On the one hand, he’s the prototype for the super villain. He’s a man without a country who punches at the level of a superpower. He owns an island. He terrorizes the locals. He’s taking on the United States and winning, and his plan could lead to a whole host of bad things.

He has an interesting backstory too. A half-Asian, born to a Chinese girl and a German missionary, Dr. No became the treasurer of a Chinese crime syndicate, the Tongs. From them, he stole $10 million and he fled China. He then offered his serves as a scientist to the US and the Soviet Union, both of whom turned him down. He subsequently joined SPECTRE and set out on his plan to topple an American rocket for profit and revenge.

One of the more fascinating things Dr. No does is finish Bond’s character for us by telling us that he believed Bond to be more than “a stupid policeman” and he had hope Bond could join SPECTRE. That tells you that Bond is something truly special if he’s that respected by this organization of super villains. It also tells us something further that Bond shows no interest in the offer. This scene does a lot to lift Bond beyond the level of just being another secret agent.
On the other hand, all is not perfect with Dr. No. He’s one of the first to underestimate Bond. In fact, he seems to have no security whatsoever after having captured this super spy. That makes him a much weaker challenge for Bond than he’s been built up to be. He’s also not a very interesting character on screen. He speaks in monotone and affects being bored by everything. That makes him rather dull to watch. And in the end, he never really has his moment to take on Bond one on one.

So how should this film rank? Well, it’s a fantastic film with a weaker-than-expected, but still solid ending. The villain is great until you meet him. The Bond girl is iconic, but a little dull. Connery is in top form, even if he isn’t yet perfect in the role. And most importantly, this film set the series off to the right start. On the other hand, in terms of the public, this one always plays in discussions of the top film, but rarely wins. Its box office also was surprisingly weak, coming in at 19th.

So where should this film rank? Is it worthy of the top spot? You tell me.

23 comments:

shawn said...

Number 3.

As you said, the girl and the villian are pretty bland characters. And I always thought "The Dragon" idea was pretty stupid. Did anyone back in the 60's beleive in dragons? They could have used "Private Game reserve" or "Waste site" instead to keep people from the place.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, True, the dragon idea is pretty silly. I guess we're supposed to believe that these people are just very superstitious.

You know, it is interesting that this is still such a fantastic movie despite the bland Bond girl and bland villain. That says a lot about the plot and about Connery's ability to carry the film.

As an aside, I think this also accounts for something I notice when I watch this one, which is that after Bond gets captured, I kind of lose interest in the film. Everything up to that point really holds my focus, even having seen it a million times, but once he ends up a guest of Dr. No, I find myself debating doing something else.

Kit said...

I could never understand why so many people ranked Ursula Andress so highly. Yes, she had a great body in the bikini but aside from that? Not much. I actually found her rather annoying whenever she opened her mouth.

Think about it, had she been cut out of the movie would that have changed anything? I would say it might even have been better.

tryanmax said...

Dr. No is tighter and has fewer problems than Goldfinger, so I'd have to give it at least the #2 spot. In fact, I was expecting Goldfinger this week and am a touch surprised in made top 3. I could've easily swapped it for Casino Royale.

ScottDS said...

I haven't seen this film in years but I remember thinking just how "in place" everything was. Yeah, it was the first film and later films would perfect certain things, but plenty of franchises have been born out of worse!

And I agree with Kit: Ursula Andress never really did anything for me, iconic intro and swimsuit notwithstanding. But she was the first - if it wasn't her, it would've been someone else.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I concur. She is an annoyance to the film, not a benefit and could be removed from the movie without anyone missing her. That's what makes the scene where Dr. No drugs her feel so right -- he's annoyed by her too and taking her out of the movie and Bond seems ok with it. My guess is that she gets rated so highly because she is in a bikini.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I see Goldfinger as deeply flawed, but it does routinely win the "best Bond" discussion. I think there are reason for that, but we'll see it all stacks up.

In terms of this one, this is probably the tightest Bond film. The plot moves quickly and efficiently and interestingly. There are no soft spots or moments where things drift or fall apart. The one big weakness is that the ending comes too easily, but even that it covered up by his needing to sneak around the base.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, What is striking about this film is just how perfectly it handles everything. Most franchises, even when they have a solid first entry, end up making serious revisions to the character, the storylines or even their worlds so that the sequels work better. Dr. No really gets everything right and nothing needs to change. Moreover, Dr. No includes all the elements we will come to expect. It's not lacking pieces that then have to be added in later films.

I agree with you and Kit about Andress. She doesn't really add anything to movie.

Kit said...

"My guess is that she gets rated so highly because she is in a bikini."
Yep. I am so glad to have finally found someone who finds her annoying, too.

I get tired of the praise heaped on her: "She was the BEST Bond girl!"

Two Bond Girls right off the top of my head who are better than Ursula: Tatiana Romonova of From Russia With Love and Natalya Simonova from Goldeneye.

Both had at least some smarts, especially in the case of the latter, and both had at least some impact on the plot. There.

And both were boyhood crushes of mine. Far bigger than the rather dim-witted Honey Rider.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Yep. You are not alone. I think what happens is that once something become conventional wisdom, a lot of people adopt the view as "truth" and then they become incapable of making an independent judgment. That's when people get upset that you don't share their view.

Totally love Tatiana Romonova! :D My other favorites include Domino from From Russia With Love and Jane Seymour from Live and Let Die.

Kit said...

Tatiana Romanova is underrated.

Kit said...

Because she never wears a bikini and doesn't have a pun name.

AndrewPrice said...

True. But she is fantastic. :D

Koshcat said...

I think it deserves one of the top positions, and maybe it doesn't really matter exactly which position. It set the tone of future Bonds and the Bond character here may be the closest to the one from the books. If this movie would have been a total dude, there wouldn't have been any others. That said, it also set up bad habits like not killing Bond when had multiple chances, underestimating Bond, trying to kill him with some elaborate method, and the Bond girl. You don't have to have some hot chick as the token "Bond Girl" in every movie. Sure you can have some movies with a hot chick, but some movies were fine with a weak one. By always having it, some of the girl placements are really strained (Dr. Christmas Jones for example).

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, True. This one set the table nicely for the rest. If this one hadn't been as good as it was, then there probably would not have been others -- at least not from this crew. On the other hand, yes, they definitely left some bad habits that would get worse. I agree completely about the multiple chances to escape, the elaborate executions, and the Bond girl -- not every film needs a Bond girl.

The closest we've come to acknowleding that is actually the Daniel Craig movies. Quantum of Solace didn't have a traditional Bong Girl because she never has a sexual attraction to Bond, and Skyfall only had a Bond girl for a few minutes.

Critch said...

My brothers took me to see this when it opened in Memphis, I was in the 3rd grade.. My straight-laced mom had a fit. I'm a Bond fan...always have been. Dr No is great on many levels, but it always seemed to me that it was written hoping there would be a sequel. Ursula Andress was hot in her day, not so much looking back..my favorite Bond girl is Carole Bouquet from FYEO,,,Although Barbara Bach in TSWLM is hot also.

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, I'm curious where you see Dr. No written as if they were hoping for a sequel?

Critch said...

I'm not sure really, the movie just didn't have a real ends tied up ending. It just has the feel of a series. Maybe the writers, etc were just being optimistic.

AndrewPrice said...

Interesting. I'm not doubting your feeling, I just never felt it with this movie. But I do get it all the time where you can just tell they're doing things to allow a sequel. You could be right that they were thinking a movie or two ahead.

PikeBishop said...

You know in the book Honeychile is nude in her first appearance. Would have liked the producers to have stayed more faithful to the text here. ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That would have been an interesting choice. I suspect they would have had a problem with their rating however.

Kit said...

"I suspect they would have had a problem with their rating however."

A problem? They would've been lucky if British Board of Film Censors even allowed it a release.

Tennessee Jed said...

just to let you know, I have not forgotten Commenterama. I was down in Florida for a week, and had gotten my mini-ipad ripped off, so I was not connected. I really pretty much concur with all you said about Dr. No. As the first, it set the tone, and that, just by itself, is something. That first glimpse of Connery as Bond in a tux pretty much set a standard impossible to surpass.

The best of the movie was the first half. The scene where Quarrel gets his cheek cut with the flash bulb is a classic. The killing of Dent is a great kill, surpassed only by his duel to the death with Red Grant. Weisman COULD have been a great villain. I think the script did him in. I will say that Bond's escape was much more exciting to read than how it played out on film, and having Dr. No buried by Guano is a wonderful Fleming touch. Ursula Andress was simply a horrible choice to play Honeychile Wilder. Were it not for Odd Job vs. Bond in the bowels of Ft. Knox, I'd rate this one second rather than third while admitting it's merely personal preference rather than anything objective.

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