Thursday, January 1, 2015
Dr. No - 1962
Before reviewing the film and my reaction to it on the umpteenth viewing I need to say a few words about how the reviews will be set out.
I'll begin with the background behind the making of the film (as Dr. No is the first one that section will probably be a bit longer in this one), then cover the story and my observations on it, followed by some words about casting, music, gadgets, the girl/s, and the other things that we have all come to expect from a Bond film over the past 50 + years.
Background: once Broccoli and Saltzman had their funding they had to pick one of Fleming's works to film. You'd think that they may have opted for Casino Royale, it was the first book after all and it had already been filmed once, although in a significantly altered form, so it could be done. However the film rights to the book had been sold in 1955 and Harry Saltzman did not have access to them. In fact MGM did not manage to get hold of the filming rights until 1999.
Dr. No was actually an odd choice. It was Fleming's 6th Bond novel and one of the worst critically received. The thinking behind the choice may have been influenced by the fact that a good deal of it could be set and filmed in Jamaica, Fleming's home away from home, it was possibly also cheaper to film there, and they found it quite adaptable to a screen treatment.
The Film: there's a lot going on in Dr. No and a lot of background for newcomers (in 1962 you really had to assume that every person through the ticket box was a newcomer) to be made familiar with.
The heart of the story regards the assassination of two Jamaica based MI6 agents, presumably because they were getting too close to who was behind the 'toppling' of American rockets.
On viewing this one, the viewer is continually reminded that it was made in 1962. It's not just the cars and the fashions (men nearly always wore hats in the '60's), it's in things like the attempt to contact MI6 in London from Jamaica. A rather large and bulky radio set is used. The centre where the communication is received is staffed by a large number of clerks, not a computer screen in sight and everything is written out by hand. It's rather surreal looking at it over 50 years later. Then there is the casual sexism. This was a failing of a number of the early Bond films. There's one sequence when Bond is in the company of the 'Bond girl' Honey Rider (a very Flemingesque name, the more ridiculous the name was, the more he seemed to like it), and is offered a case containing cigarettes, Honey is offered nothing, so clearly ladies weren't supposed to smoke.
Jamaica is clearly still very much under colonial rule, and that's made quite clear in scenes involving government house and at the club where the ruling class gather to drink and play cards. The majority of the population are non white and they do menial tasks and stay in the background, some of them are villains (the assassins for instance and those working for Dr. No).
Some of the characterisation was a little inconsistent, especially Honey. She's quite squeamish when Bond kills one of No's soldiers, yet blithely confesses to James in a quieter moment that she had no qualms about using a black widow spider to kill a man who tried to take advantage of her following her father's death.
Bond himself has a ruthlessness in this film, and a few of the early Connery ones, that they tried to smooth out later on. He has no problems with killing Professor Dent even though he knows Dent has already used his allotted number of shots, so is effectively unarmed, in Bond's defence Dent did try to kill him. I feel this may have been a decision to illustrate how hard Bond has to be as a 00 agent. To obtain a 00 ranking the agent has to kill at least twice in defence of the country. They are then issued their licence to kill. This means that the agent can kill in defence of the country or while performing their job (this is later highlighted in Licence to Kill it's also referenced in the 2006 version of Casino Royale) and face no charges for doing so.
Some of the stunt work was extremely dodgy. The car chase about midway through the film is very clearly Sean Connery driving a car in a studio with a green screen behind him showing footage of the road. In the famous scene where he discovers a large and venomous tarantula in his bed, the spider can be seen walking up the sheet of glass in between it and the actor's body. However it's a really big bloody spider and gives me the heebie jeebies.
SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) is first introduced to the public in Dr. No. Fleming used the name SMERSH in the books for his organisation that tried to thwart MI6. No seems to be a bit of a freelancer and SMERSH was Russian backed, so he may not have worked for them in the book. I know the book is significantly altered. The name is extremely clunky and as my wife remarked 'Someone must have really wanted their initials to spell SPECTRE' which references a similar comment made in the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Although we now know that SPECTRE was run by Ernst Stavro Blofeld there's no mention of Blofeld in Dr. No, and No gives the impression that he runs the show. He also never really gives a concrete reason for his interference in the US space program. What he does doesn't benefit him financially or strategically, it's rather like he does it simply because he can.
It's somewhat uneven in the way the story is presented. I'd never really noticed this before, but it's an example of how having a fresh pair of eyes on things can help. Partway through my wife remarked that it was very much a standard spy thriller. I didn't say anything, because I knew how science fictional the film was about to become. In that way it really is a film of two halves. It's almost as if they're two separate films. One film is about Bond's investigation into the deaths of two agents and the perpetrator's subsequent attempts to kill him and the second is about a megalomaniacal lunatic with seemingly limitless funds who is angry at the world and determined to make it pay.
The film ends with Bond and Honey canoodling in a rowboat that is bobbing around somewhere in the Caribbean. It made me recall Austin Powers' line from the ending of his first film: 'All my films end this way, baby!'
It's a fun ride, although it has dated badly and there's little hint of the cinematic juggernaut it would become.
The Director: the directors of the films are as important as any cast member, so I'll include them in this. Broccoli and Saltzman wanted a hip, young director to helm their Bond films and while they no doubt approached and sounded out a number of directors (Guy Hamilton amongst them) they got Terence Young.
Young was actually an excellent choice. He was rather Bondian himself. He was public school educated and served with distinction in the Second World War, although in the army, not the navy as Bond and his creator did.
He liked the finer things in life and spent quite lavishly, he was also considered rather handsome and charming. In fact it was Young who advised Connery on how to dress and even walk when playing James Bond.
Terence Young favoured a rather harder edged and stripped back Bond, he didn't like the over the top Bond that was becoming more in vogue when the films were first made. He very much put his stamp on the films he directed.
James Bond: even back in 1962 news of who would play James Bond was keenly anticipated. A number of actors were approached. There have been rumours that both Cary Grant and James Mason turned it down. I've heard stories that said differently. Dana Broccoli claimed that Grant was never offered the role, she said that if Cubby had asked him to do it, he would have due to his friendship with the producer (he was best man at Broccoli's wedding), but he would only agree to one film and after that Cubby would have been back to square one. Harry Saltzman did most of the dealing with James Mason. He would have accepted the role, but he didn't have much faith in the concept, was only doing it for the money and wouldn't agree to more than two films. This wasn't acceptable to either Broccoli or Saltzman.
Fleming himself said he saw Bond as David Niven physically (he also saw him as Hoagy Carmichael), but it was felt he was too old at the time. He did later play a retired James Bond in the Woody Allen spoof Casino Royale.
Roger Moore was also approached, but turned the role down in favour of playing the Bondesque Simon Templar on TV series The Saint.
Connery was very much a late choice. Broccoli saw him in the Disney combination animation live action film Darby O'Gill and the Little People, playing an Irishman of all things. I'm not sure what thinking led to him casting Connery as James Bond, but he did. Connery later said that he was largely chosen because he was cheap (even in 1962 $1,000,000 wasn't a lot to make a feature film on). David Picker wasn't happy with the choice, he was nervous about committing that amount of money to a film that didn't have a recognised star in the cast.
Dr Julius No: again there was no standout choice. Noel Coward was a neighbour of Fleming's in Jamaica, but his telegrammed response to the invitation to play the role was: 'No! No! No! I will not be Dr. No!' Eventually Canadian theatre, film and TV actor Joseph Wiseman was cast. He had makeup applied to make him appear Eurasian, and I don't think any actor of Asian background was ever even considered. He played it very straight and did an adequate job, but never really owned the role for mine. He seemed a bit flat.
Peripheral roles: the Bond's have a few regularly appearing characters. M, Miss Moneypenny, Q and CIA agent Felix Leiter. Veteran British actor Bernard Lee was cast as Bond's boss M. It was believed that Lee had the right appearance and manner to play a crusty old former British naval officer, running MI6. He definitely had something going for him as he reprised the role 11 times until his death in 1981.
Canadian actress Lois Maxwell was cast as M's secretary, the flirtatious Miss Moneypenny. She also worked well in the role, guiding 3 Bonds through the films and appearing in 14 films from 1962 until 1985. She got too old later on, but here she has it dead on, imbuing the character with the right amount of affection and sass.
Neither the name Q or his division Quartermaster (which is what Q actually stands for, it's not really the agent's name, although people accepted this over the course of the series) are mentioned in Dr. No. He's actually referred to as Major Boothroyd the armourer, and he was played in this instance by Peter Burton. Desmond Llewellyn, who became identified with the role, did not make his first appearance until From Russia With Love.
Bond often encounters the CIA agent Felix Leiter in his missions. For this first outing he was played by American Jack Lord. Lord had the perfect look for a CIA agent, they could have used a picture of him to show prospective agents what they thought they should look like. His acting was rather wooden, but then that was largely how Lord always acted, even as Steve McGarrett in Hawaii Five-O.
There's also a character in the first film by the name of Sylvia Trench. She's a mysterious lady that Bond encounters across the baccarat (both the agent's and Fleming's game of choice) table in a London gambling establishment. It is in fact to her that Connery speaks his first words as Bond. They are of course: 'Bond. James Bond.' I don't believe she ever appeared in any of the books, she was an idea of Young's that didn't quite work out. The role was played by actress Eunice Gayson, and although Gayson was English her voice was dubbed by Nikki van der Zyl.
Honey Rider: before going into this I have to explain my definition of a Bond girl. Many define it as any woman who appears with Bond or has a liaison with him. I tend to think of it as the girl with whom he has the most connection, or who plays a significant part of the adventure in the film. In Dr. No that is Honey Rider, played by Swiss actress Ursula Andress. Andress' voice is also dubbed by Nikki van der Zyl, as while she spoke good English, she had an accent which they didn't think would work for Honey. In the book Honey is Jamaican, descended from an old colonial family. Her nationality in the film is never covered, but she came across as quite American. Nikki van der Zyl's accent was quite generic. Andress wasn't really required to do a lot more than look appealing in a bikini, something she accomplished admirably, the shot of her rising from the ocean wearing only a white two piece has become iconic. She also screamed for help a bit. I'll also use this section to cover 'The Curse of the Bond Girl'.
The Curse of the Bond Girl: it seems that very few of the actresses who star alongside James Bond go onto much after it. This could be caused by the fact that most of them are cast purely on their looks and acting ability seems to be coincidental. Ursula Andress actually credited the role of Honey Rider with giving her success and making her financially independent. She owed a lot to the white bikini. Its arguable as to whether she would have achieved the same sort of notoriety as a sex symbol without it. It is unlikely that she would have played the role of Vesper Lynd in the spoof version of Casino Royale if she hadn't ever been cast as Honey. Following Dr. No, Andress mostly traded on the reputation the role gave her as a sex symbol.
Gadgets: Dr. No is largely gadget free. Director Terence Young eschewed the gadgetry that abounded in the books and later films. He wanted to make Bond into a 'real' agent, not one who relied on high tech gadgetry. He seemed to see them as a bit of a gimmick. The only 'gadgets' and neither of them is an actual gadget, that Bond has in Dr. No, are his gun. Boothroyd only comes in to replace Bond's preferred Beretta with the more powerful Walther PPK, which the character would become associated with. There's a book reference made that the Beretta jammed on him once and nearly got him killed. He also gets a geiger counter from London to help him check some samples that the unfortunate agent Strangways obtained before his untimely death. No has an entire evil villain's lair on the island of Crab Key and that's full of all sorts of pseudo scientific equipment. The other 'gadget' is a packet of cigarettes with cyanide capsules that No's agents use to kill themselves rather than be discovered or give up their employer.
Pre credit sequence: this largely concerns the killing of Strangways and his assistant by three assassins posing as blind beggars. It bears little resemblance to the big budget pre credit sequences that are now a hallmark of the films.
Music: there's no song called Dr. No. The only songs that were associated with the film were the calypso flavoured numbers called 'Jump Up' by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires and 'Under the Mango Tree' which is regularly heard playing on the radio and as a record. Honey also sings it to herself and Connery joins her for a line or two. This is also the first time John Barry's James Bond Theme is heard and it plays more than a few times during the film.
James Bond will return in From Russia With Love.