Skip to main content

Unfortunately I misjudged you, you are just a stupid policeman... Whose luck has run out.


Dr. No
(1962)

The early Connery films tended to be viewed as something of a sacred benchmark for what the series should aspire to, existing in a purified state before complete formula set in. But the first film, based on the sixth Bond novel, is very much finding its feet. Whilst the plot mechanics of the first half wouldn’t look out of place in any classic spy movie of the era (and, as such, relate quite fluidly to the content of the next Bond movie), the later stages establish the series’ template of a larger-than-life, crippled villain and grandiose set pieces.


I’ll readily admit that I find the earlier sections of the film much more engrossing than anything we see once the titular character is introduced. It may have provided a firm foundation for the likes of the Flint series, and later Austin Powers, but in context we see a pronounced shift from relatively localised, down-to-earth interactions to cartoonish, world domination antics. The Bond films can take in many different styles approaches to narrative but attempting them within the same film can be jarring.

The premise finds Bond called upon to investigate Jamaicans (it seems) interfering with Cape Canaveral rockets, but the larger canvas is almost incidental to the personal interactions of Bond. We first see him, iconically, at a game of baccarat. Except we don’t, initially. He’s introduced from behind, as the victor, and the announcement of his identity sets the standard for later films. Other examples of this in the early scenes include his flirtation with Moneypenny, throwing his hat onto a hat stand, his use of a Beretta versus a Walther PPK, his slightly insubordinate relationship with M. It all looks so easy and well-established, with the benefit of 50 years hindsight.


Once he’s in Jamaica (and a hallmark of the early films is a lack of frenzied location-hopping, something that allows the characters and story beats to breathe more easily) we see other soon-to-be standards. The local sidekick (Quarrel, played by John Kitzmiller) and Felix Leiter (Hawaii Five-O’s Jack Lord) appear, but the main thrust is identifying Bond’s character.


Much has been noted of the influence of Terence Young on young Connery’s more unrefined physicality, and the result is charismatic mixture of the urbane and brutish. Bond’s happy to stroll (or ride) into danger, getting into a car he knows wasn’t sent for him (there are two car sequences in the first half of the film, the second a more traditional chase). But the strongest character beat is his cold amorality, shooting his unarmed, would-be assassin Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) without a second thought.

Bond: That’s a Smith and Wesson. And you’ve had your six.

If Dirty Harry became famous for a speech based on similar logic, it’s no coincidence that both characters have embedded themselves in the mass psyche as anti-heroes with no sympathy for liberal morality.

Other points to note from this section include the allying of US and British forces to oppose a fantasy threat (“You mean we’re fighting the same war?”) and the allusions to this threat as something as terrible as Hitler (“Dr. No runs the place like a concentration camp”). There is an over highlighting of Bond’s superiority to other nations and cultures throughout, and this is underlined once the plot’s more fantastical elements take hold. As the guiding rationalist, he mocks the belief of both Quarrel and Honey Rider in a dragon patrolling Crab Quay (the investigative elements of plot don’t hold up to much scrutiny; it seems unlikely that there would be any question of what was going on, who was doing it and what needed to be done to take him down). He also tells Quarrel, “Fetch my shoes”, ever the unreconstituted colonialist.


The playful first encounter with Honey (Ursula Andress) is justifiably famous. The scenery is lush and idyllic (as is Andress herself) and we’ve been primed for “Under the Mango Trees” twice already by this point. The series’ suspect attitude towards women is present and correct; not only was Honey molested when she was younger (“I scratched his face – but he was stronger than I was”) but the villain plans to allows his guards “to amuse her”). Bond’s sexism is allowed because in contrast he has a veneer of refinement. And, he doesn’t need to take what he wants because he is irresistible.

Honey: What are you doing here? Looking for shells?
Bond: I’m just looking.

Joseph Wiseman is fine as Dr. No, but the character just isn’t very interesting. Nor is his big plan. And his science, despite some  decontamination window-dressing, is highly unstable.

Bond: It was a good idea to use atomic power. I’m glad to see you can handle it properly.

It’s an amusing quip (possibly the best in the film), but somehow Bond returns to fight another day despite exposure to probably lethal doses of radiation.  No introduces a long line of crippled villains (his hands were damaged in the course of his radiation experiments) who announce their entire plan just before they have the tables turned on them.

Dr. No: I only gratify your curiosity because you’re the one man I’ve met capable of appreciating what I have done. And keeping it to himself.

It also fans the idea of Bond as an exemplar of cultured manliness; even geniuses respect him. The desire of the producers not to fan less savoury prospects (of power bloc antagonism) results in the series latching onto an interesting identifier.

Dr. No: East, West, just points of the compass. Each as stupid as each other.

The Doctor is a member of SPECTRE (the bizarrely named Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge (!), Extortion) but his philosophy could mark him out as your average multi-national.

The dinner with the No is mildly enjoyable, but it doesn’t really have much bite to it. After which we have what will become par for the course; Bond escaping and blowing up Ken Adam’s expensive set (which requires him to overload the reactor).
The final scene is also de rigueur Bond; he’s in flagrante with Honey. While Bond is clearly finding its feet with the humour elsewhere, the ending could have been placed in any of the series.



Dr. No scores highly in many respects, most especially in Terence Young’s direction, Peter Hunt’s dynamic editing (he would cut on action, not generally a “done thing” at that point) and John Barry’s score, as a script it is less satisfying once it finds its absolute rotter. It would only take one more film to firmly for the series to firmly finding its footing.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

You use a scalpel. I prefer a hammer.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
(SPOILERS) The latest instalment of the impossibly consistent in quality Mission: Impossible franchise has been hailed as the best yet, and with but a single dud among the sextet that’s a considerable accolade. I’m not sure it's entirely deserved – there’s a particular repeated thematic blunder designed to add some weight in a "hero's validation" sense that not only falls flat, but also actively detracts from the whole – but as a piece of action filmmaking, returning director Christopher McQuarrie has done it again. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an incredible accomplishment, the best of its ilk this side of Mad Max: Fury Road.