James Bond January: “Dr. No”
Director: Terence Young (From Russia with Love, Thunderball)
Novel: Ian Fleming
Screenplay: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkely Mather
Producers: Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman
Starring: Sean Connery, Jack Lord, Bernard Lee, John Kitzmiller, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman
MPAA Rating: PG
Running time: 110 min.
This is the first in a series of reviews that are part of the James Bond January blog-a-thon started at paragraphfilmreviews. Each day throughout the month a new review of each of the films in the 007 franchise by various bloggers, fans and critics. Enjoy!
As a child of the 80′s and 90′s I’m much more familiar with the more gadget driven Bond, popularized by Roger Moore and later more gimmickily and outlandishly from Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan. Dr. No on the other hand, the first in the Bond empire and a first time watch for me, is much simpler; leaning dangerously close to simple detective story rather than a cloak and dagger, spy picture. Sure there’s some international intrigue and some exciting action moments, but more than half of the film is searching for clues, interviewing suspects and gathering information from the (almost bumbling) local law enforecment. Of course in retrospect, I suppose that all of the Bond films do this in some respects, but with Dr. No it feels much more straight forward and simplistic. I better understand now why Daniel Craig’s Bond (specifically Casino Royale) was touted as returning to the roots of the 007 franchsie.
Now that is not to say the Bond conventions are not present. Quite on the contrary. The femme fatales with inuendo names (Honey Ryder), the menacing henchmen, the not so surprising traitor and of course the mysterious evil genius with a unique character trait (in this case, super-human, robotic hands). Many of the things we expect 007 to say and do are all present here and with all of the ensuing entries in the franchise, they almost feel like cliche caricature traits at this point. Of course this isn’t a bad thing. This is what makes Bond one of the most beloved characters in cinematic history. Being the first film in the series, this is the picture that sets the tone and general style of the adventures and the tenets of the character for years to come.
On the surface, Dr. No falls easily into two very distinct sections. The first half of the film was clearly made on the cheap and is as much about style as it is substance. It sets up characters and makes every effort for things to look hip and sophisticate while getting the audience in a “cool” mood. It’s very 1960s in that way but holds up very well in the artistic department never feeling like what Austin Powers tries to farce. Everyone is dressed to the nines and behaves with a suave demeanor; never over the top. The first hour wants to show you the cool cars, the interesting and exotic locales (Jamaica in this case) and the director’s ability at making atypical set designs feel like somewhere you’d like to visit (even the more ominous places) with great cinematography and camera angles. This first bit is all about even pacing and giving the audience something to revel in, rather than worrying about being a spectacle.
The second half however gets into more over the top Bond escapades we’ve come to know him for. An exotic and mysterious island complete with a mechanical “dragon” a sci-fi looking set deep underground with the domination of the planet the intent of its owner. Here is where the movie loses a bit of steam for in both intrigue and style. It’s at this point when the film tries to cram all of its action into a five minute block – and without the budget, it pushes the boundary past slick technology and into schlock. Perhaps at the time (1962) it was something to marvel at but now it looks dated and skimpy. A rather uninteresting and typical action sequence with a fist fight lasting an incredilbe thirty seconds and a damsel rescue lacking anything remotley resembling suspense or desperation. Everything just feels rushed at the last minute, culminating in the same way every Bond films ends. Some may ask for more money in order to do the things it strives for in the end, but I would have just asked that the film makers try for something a bit more subtle and less ambitious in the end.
Still, from a nostalgic point of view and stylisitically speaking (at least for the first two thirds or so), Dr. No is a great enjoyment for the most part. Sean Connery is the embodiment of Bond and for many people there simply is no substitute. I think that for the era in which these films were made I’m inclined to agree. Connery’s class and sophistication melded seemlessly with a tough manliness underneath has no comparison. With that and many of the other Bond films and actors that played him in mind, along with budget consideration and the fact that there was no standard to predicate the film on, thus unsure of what the public expected, it’s tough not to argue that this is probably one of the greatest 007 film ever made.