Friday, August 28, 2020

Green Phoenix - Dr. No Review

 In the foreground, Bond wears a suit and is holding a gun; four female characters from the film are next to him.

Last week, I discussed several times how the character of Jack Ryan, from Tom Clancy's most popular works, is a bit of a parody and critique of the 1960s spy archetype best exemplified by the likes of James Bond. 

Following that review, I figured that it might be rather interesting to take a closer look at the titular spy's movie franchise to see whether or not this groundbreaking franchise still holds up.

Now I want to be fully transparent and admit that I grew up watching the James Bond series with my mother, so this has always been a franchise that has possessed something of a soft spot with me. I absolutely recognize that, especially among the older movies, the series has some very questionable and dated narrative and character decisions. And I will not hesitate to judge the film with that in mind.

All this being said, I feel like we obviously should begin our look into the James Bond franchise with the first film in the series. Released in 1962 and based of the 1958 Ian Fleming novel of the same name, Dr. No created nearly every precedent that the series would become infamous for. But even if it began the formula, does it do that formula as well as the rest of the series?

Let's find out.

***
  • Directed by Terrence Young
  • Produced by Eon Productions
  • MPAA Rating: PG
  • Running Time: 109 Minutes
***

SUMMARY

After an MI6 secret agent is murdered under mysterious circumstances, the agency sends their top operative, James Bond, to investigate the murder and the circumstances of the deceased agent's mission. 
 
Bond's investigation eventually leads him to the secret hideout of a notorious mad scientist named Dr. No, who is hoping to interfere with the Mercury space mission to instigate a war between the United States and the Soviet Union, under the orders of a mysterious terrorist organization known as SPECTRE.

Now Bond must team up with a local shell diver named Honey Rider to stop Dr. No's scheme and prevent a possible nuclear apocalypse.
***

REVIEW

It is incredibly fascinating to watch Dr. No from the perspective of it being  the architect of the James Bond film formula. The film is definitely dated in its elements, as is to be expected, and the franchise as obviously evolved with its audiences and the main character of Bond, but in many ways the core elements remain.

Bond has always been a symbolic representation of the masculine ideal of their generation of film, mixed with a degree of counter-culture bohemianism. The films present an air of sophistication and class while including elements from supposedly debaucherous and "low-class" entertainment. The series is a clash of contradictions, much like the protagonist himself. And that influence ultimately started with Dr. No.

The film stands out as iconic within franchise, not just as the first entry in the series but as an indication of how timeless the formula really can stand. While I personally prefer some of the later Connery-era films like Goldfinger and the campy action comedy of Roger Moore, Dr. No was the lightning in the bottle film that enabled the 60s spy genre to really take root in the popular consciousness.

VISUALS - 7/10

https://cdn.images.express.co.uk/img/dynamic/36/590x/secondary/dr-no-sean-connery-2233208.webp?r=1577543254909
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I really struggled to figure out how best to categorize and judge this segment of the review. It is an unfortunate fact that Dr. No is, even among many fans of the James Bond franchise, a comparatively unmemorable film. The film just doesn't stand out when compared to its sequels and successor films.
 
Why was this the case? That was the question running through my head for the greater portion of the week. At last, I had a thought about why this was the case. Dr. No is relatively unremarkable from a visual standpoint in the franchise because it was the prototype for the entire genre. It is hard to classify precisely because it helped to lay the groundwork for the rules the rest of the series would follow.
It is an inherent fact, that will be repeated several times throughout this and future James Bond film reviews, but the franchise as a whole is extremely repetitive when it comes to narrative and visual elements, rarely breaking new ground and largely only allowing for minor variances in the overall formula. There are distinct cinematic attitudes among generational films and specific Bonds, based on the personalities of their actors and I will touch upon those over time, but Dr. No formed the rough template. As such, the films pacing and visual aesthetic is a little primitive and comparatively slow when looked next to its sequel films.
 
Dr. No visual style was a mixture of the classic spy noir style that was popular in the 1940s and 1950s, and mixed it with a level of counter-culture anti-establishment that was becoming more popular with the burgeoning teenage audience of the early 1960s. James Bond began as a rather low budget series, especially Dr. No, and therefore had to rely on many B-movie and exploitation tactics to garner its audiences interest, which explains things such as the beach locale that would be popularized by the "beach party" film craze of the same era. Indeed, when I look at things like the opening theme, I can't but just feel the 1960s beach party vibe in the design. Beyond the beach party vibe, the more science fiction elements feel right out of Star Trek or Doctor Who and it can be quite distracting to a modern eye, but it honestly sort of fits the campy feeling of the 1960s James Bond films.
 
This style and utilization of exploitation to present more classic spy tropes would become the hallmark and Dr. No was the architect of that design. Which unfortunately means that it lacked the predecessors to correct the many issues that that visual style presents, especially in its comparatively slower and, occasionally, boring presentation of the story.

Oftentimes the cost of being ground-breaking is that you lack the template to make mistakes. Rather you become the template by which other films are judged and corrected for.

SOUNDTRACK - 9/10

Irrespective of the numerous narrative and visuals failings that the James Bond will possess as I go through the series (not all in one sitting, or even every other week), the musical identity of the franchise as remained an absolute high-point from the very first gun barrel shot. This is especially noticeable in Dr. No as the opening theme of the film is actually the "007 Theme" in general, mixed with two additional Caribbean-inspired musical segments that fit with the overall tropical theme that film goes for in its villainous location.
Future James Bond films would utilize a unique opening theme for each film, but for Dr. No, director Terence Young had to introduce audiences to the character of James Bond in a single musical motif and they accomplished that spectacularly, as that theme has remained an essential part of the character for nearly 60 years. In fact, it could be said that Dr. No's musical legacy is the most important in the entire franchise, since it is the one opening theme that is played in all succeeding James Bond films. The "007 Theme" was the first and became so attached that they needed to create unique intros to help individualize the rest of the franchise,and I think that counts for so much.

Outside of that iconic theme, the rest of the film has a very fun and "beach party" vibe befitting its setting, though the film remains largely understated and quiet, save for the very climatic or "epic" moments, such as the very first utterance of that famous "Bond. James Bond" line, when that jazzy beach guitar starts strumming. Dr. No is a much more cerebral and slower paced film than many of its sequels, as it was still figuring out the formula. As a result, the film is intercut with more quiet and subdued moments, which only make the moments of loud noise more noticeable.

CHARACTERS - 8/10

Now that we are focused on characters, we must discuss the elephants in the room because they are very big and important for context. Dr. No and the entire Sean Connery-era of James Bond films are products of their times and absolutely contain elements which are objectionable to our modern sensibilities.
 
The primary antagonist of the film, the titular Doctor Julius No, is a German-Chinese scientist who is played by Canadian-American actor Joseph Wiseman, making the character an unfortunate example of the very common practice of yellowface (sadly not the last, nor most egregious use of this practice in the Connery-era). On top of that, Connery's iteration of Bond is a very trouble combination of toxicially masculine elements; being sexually aggressive, demeaning to women, and violent. These aspects weren't okay when they were done in the 1960s and they aren't okay now, but it would be unfair to judge the film on those qualities. Rather we will recognize them for what they are, warn potential viewers of what this time capsule means and look at the characters for what they are.
 
Sean Connery's James Bond is, in my opinion, one of the best portrayals of the character, in spite of his objectionable and toxic behaviors. Connery really captures the anti-heroic nature of a secret agent. James Bond is not a good guy, but an efficient weapon of law and order. As such, Bond does several actions that are quite uncomfortable (not including the outdated behaviors of harassment). Connery's performance is supremely suave and charming and its hard to ultimately dislike the character, which explains his overall lasting appeal. In most popularity polls, Connery's Bond tends to be at the top of the leader board, with the more comedic Roger Moore coming in a close second.
 
Despite the very troubling casting, Joseph Wiseman's Dr. No is a very charismatic and sophisticated villain, unlike the more cartoony Ernst Blofeld from future films. Dr. No is a man with absolute dominion over his operation and his power and presence is felt even in scenes he is not present in. It is very effective at making us aware of his threat even before we truly meet him. While the final fight between him and James Bond isn't all that spectacular compared to future villains and his demise is rather lackluster, Dr. No set the standards for Bond villains incredibly high and would become the motivating force behind many future films as well, as his death who push SPECTRE to pay more attention to our British spy protagonist.
Ursula Andress in Dr. No.jpg

The final element of any good Bond film is the Bond girl, that is the leading romantic interest of our secret agent. Though romantic might be stretching it as Bond has the commitment capacities of a condom. Despite this, many of the Bond films are defined by their Bond girl and Dr. No actually gives us a rare glimpse into how the formula would develop and what almost happened. This is because Dr. No actually has two Bond girls in Sylvia Trench, played by Eunice Gayson, and Honey Rider, played by Ursula Andress, with both having their voices dubbed by Nikki van der Zyl.
 
Sylvia Trench is a remnant of an original but abandoned running gag for the franchise, where she and Bond would have repeated encounters in every movie, with Bond being forced away before anything can happen except promises to meet again. Though Trench would reappear in From Russian with Love in 1963, much of her role would be subsumed by Miss Moneypenny.
 
Honey Rider is definitely the more memorable of the two Bond girls, being played by Ursula Andress. She is, incorrectly, identified by most as the first Bond girl but perhaps it is more important that it is Andress' performance and character that would go on to form the template for all future Bond girls. The character of Honey Rider is relatively innocent of the entire conflict with Dr. No and finds herself drawn into the situation by accident when she stumbles upon James Bond. As such, we don't learn much about her character; but that isn't really what people are looking for in a Bond girl, now is it?
 
The film is filled with a few other minor characters, such as Quarrel, who meets an unfortunate end at the start of the third act of the movie. We have the introduction of Felix Leiter, Bond's American CIA counterpart, and well as several other characters who act as double agents for Dr. No (I won't spoil them for new viewers. They all perform their roles adequately, but do sometimes fall a bit flat compared to the powerhouse of personality that tends to follow a Bond actor.

As stated in previous sections, Dr. No acts as a blueprint for the rest of the franchise and, as such, grants us a unique look at what ultimately stuck with the series and what got left behind. It's fascinating to see the evolution of a formula from the perspective of a world with James Bond in it beforehand.

STORY - 8/10

Dr. No is a strange mix of Cold War political espionage and science fiction B-movie. The plot for the first half of the movie is ultimately a mystery surrounding the death of a British agent and the strange radioactive rocks that he found around Dr. No's private facility in Jamaica. James Bond is sent to investigate and is accosted by agents of Dr. No at numerous occasions before finally meeting with the criminal mastermind and, after several death-defying escapes, defeats the mad scientists plans and runs off with Honey Rider.

It is a formula that has been repeated in nearly every single following Bond film, though much of that is because the formula works really well. Dr. No's plan is ultimately an attempt to kickstart a war between the United States and the Soviet Union by interfering with the American space program. It is a strange plan that utilizes a lot of science fiction elements that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Star Trek but it works well enough, if a bit silly to modern sensibilities.

One element that Dr. No does succeed in is something that is surprisingly subtle to those who don't notice it. The James Bond franchise is one of the first franchises to plant seeds of future films and tease its audience about sequels. Until the 1990s, sequels were not really a very common occurrence for most franchises and the idea of teasing and promising sequels is considered even today as putting your cart before the horse. So to see the introduction of SPECTRE and promises of future films in the credits is rather extraordinary for the time.

It really makes you marvel because though it sounds silly in hindsight, the James Bond franchise was a massive risk for a comparatively small British production company. Though Eon Productions is legendary now, the company was started in 1961, the year before Dr. No was first released and its producers, Harry Salzmann and Albert R. Broccoli didn't receive much support for their creations. Dr. No had an incredibly small budget, even by 1962 standards and it was only because of Dr. No's commercial success that the series was even continued.

But the story, for all of its apparent narrative safeness, was a massive risk for the studio and still managed to tell a comprehensive story and lay the groundwork for literal generations of sequels and that is an accomplishment which must not be sneezed at.
 

FINAL THOUGHTS

If Dr. No has any real failing, it is that it has no previous James Bond film to learn from. The film was the framework by which the entire series is built, the prototype. As such, the film possesses many of the qualities that would propel future films to their iconic status, whilst also being weighed down by potential ideas that just didn't go forward nearly as well as the creators would've hoped.
 
Next week, we are going to take a step back into the realms of documentaries by taking a look at the sequel to one of my favorite documentaries of all times.
 
VISUALS
  • 7/10
SOUNDTRACK
  • 9/10
CHARACTERS
  • 8/10
STORY
  • 8/10

 FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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