Sunday, February 10, 2013

Dr. No: Or The Tale Of A Spy More Lucky Than Skilled!

The Good: Entertaining, Interesting character, Generally decent acting
The Bad: Terribly racist dialect, A number of technical issues, Serious character issue
The Basics: The first of the films based upon the novels of Ian Fleming with the protagonist James Bond, Dr. No is a (mostly) satisfying start to the franchise.

Last year, I made a new friend who has quite a bit in common with me. We got together a few times, talked comic books and she and I proofread a script of mine while spending the evening at Dunkin’ Donuts and Denny’s and it was a lot of fun. Before the release of Skyfall, the latest James Bond film, she and her boyfriend were determined to watch all of the James Bond films. I told her that doing so was utterly unnecessary; that there was almost no continuity between the various incarnations of James Bond and that she really only had to watch the two prior films with Daniel Craig in order to be ready for Skyfall. She did not take my advice (or my advice that she just get them out of the library) and made a marathon series of viewings prior to Skyfall’s release. Well, now that I have an exceptional library system at my disposal and have pretty much run out of any stockpile of genre film reviews, I figured it was time I actually review the entire James Bond franchise. So, I am going back, despite having reviewed some before now, and starting at the beginning, with Dr. No.

Dr. No is the first James Bond film and the first to star Sean Connery as the popular pulp novel series’ protagonist. I promised myself that I would not complain about any of the spy thriller conceits in reviewing Dr. No - after all, the franchise was one of the major ones to establish those conceits, so it is somewhat ridiculous to expect it to defy the standard reversals, betrayals, and action moves over sensibility in the first film or two. To its credit, Dr. No employs shockingly few reversals. It is, in fact, a remarkably straightforward film (though there is a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued in the last few moments of the film from what amounts to a high-tech equivalent of a railroad track) that illustrates a spy doing what a spy does. In this case, James Bond’s mission is, oddly enough for a British intelligence agent, to save the U.S. space program.

The franchise begins, innocuously enough, with three apparently blind men entering a country club where they kill an MI-6 operative and his communications specialist. They steal a file from her office on Dr. No. James Bond, called out of a card game, is informed of the assassination in Jamaica. Given a new gun against his wishes, he arrives in Jamaica where he realizes he has been set up to be killed and he turns the tables on his would-be killer. He is met soon thereafter by his American counterpart, Felix Leiter and a local informant, Quarrel.

In investigating the death of operative, Bond learns of an island nearby owned by Dr. No and quickly learns that the files local intelligence has kept on Dr. No have gone missing. Despite Quarrel’s insistence that the island Bond wants to investigate – after nearly being killed by a geologist and a tarantula given to him by Dr. No – is haunted by a dragon, Bond goes there and meets a shell (conch) hunter, Honey Ryder. Together, they approach the lair of Dr. No and his tank, before Ryder and Bond are taken captive and Dr. No’s sinister plan to disrupt a U.S. rocket launch is revealed.

Dr. No is a straightforward espionage mission. Honey Ryder and Quarrel are exactly who they appear to be and end up as sidekicks for James Bond without having incredibly distinct character of their own (though a passing attempt is made by giving Ryder a backstory that is surprisingly dark, especially for a PG film!). Honey Ryder is more than just a woman walking on the beach in a bikini with a giant knife on her belt; she is hardened and self-reliant and surprisingly cool.

It is hard to say the same for this incarnation of James Bond. When first introduced, Bond is playing cards and he just seems exceptionally lucky, although given how much money he is winning off his opponent when he leaves, his confidence seems justified. But more often than not in Dr. No, that is the story of the character; he shows up and sees what happens and gets surprisingly lucky. He survives the tarantula attack not through any real skill of his own; he merely waits it out and when it gets off him, he leaps away from it and kills the giant spider with a shoe. It’s not skill, he just was lucky it didn’t bite him while he watched the creature in abject terror. Similarly, he is drugged by the Sisters who house Bond and Ryder on Dr. No’s island and wakes up to have a good meal, as opposed to being drugged and killed. Lucky, not skilled.

He is also fortunate that the villain is kept somewhat vague. Dr. No has powered his whole island with atomic power, which has destroyed his hands (he appears to have super-strong bionic ones underneath the gloves he wears) and a backstory that involves fleeing China with ten million dollars in gold to establish his island fortress. But he is somewhat oblique about his motives in wanting to sabotage the U.S. rocket launch and mess with the space program.

Still, Dr. No is treated better than poor Quarrel. Quarrel is the Jar Jar Binks of Dr. No. He is a caricature of a Jamaican and actor John Kitzmiller is unfortunately forced to live down to almost all of the worst stereotypes about black islanders. The American insults him, he drinks copious amounts of rum, and his accent is ridiculous. And there is no excuse for a Jamaican to think that a tank is a dragon, even if it does shoot fire (they have automobiles on the island, even in the era of this film!).

That said, Sean Connery does a decent job of establishing James Bond. He is charismatic as Bond and while some of his advances seem awfully rapey now, it’s easy to see how men of 1962 wanted to be him.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Dr. No is the editing and some of the technical aspects (like obvious bluescreen shots) that have not been fixed, even on the two-disc ultimate DVD release. That release comes packed with a commentary track, behind-the-scenes featurettes and a whole disc of featurettes on the production and history of the film. Cinephiles will have plenty to gush over.

Still, the film is far from perfect, though it is a good, basic spy film and very satisfying as entertainment, even if not anything deeper.

For other James Bond films, please check out my reviews of:
Die Another Day
Casino Royale
Quantum Of Solace


For other movie reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Bond's luck will not be isolated to just this film. This will not be the last time Bond will be kidnapped and treated like a guest instead of a prisoner. Nor will it be the last time Bond gets out by sheer luck (CASINO ROYALE's Bond did not survive LeChiffe's poison & his torture by his own skill). Suspend the disbelief a bit.

    1. I have no problem suspending my disbelief; my issue here is that as a character, James Bond is - in his first cinematic outing - established as a remarkably unskilled spy. He is not savvy, he's just lucky. That puts him professionally on par with Leslie Neilsen's character from the "Naked Gun" movies. :)

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment!

    2. You seem to ignore one of the most memorable '007-as-bastard' scenes in the series: predicting his assassin's actions, knowing the number of bullets in his gun, revealing that knowledge to the now-unarmed assassin, then shooting him.

    3. Heh, that was pretty good. But, there are so many scenes like that which kill the idea that he is a real casanova, like the way he lets one of the women he is with act as a human shield for a gunman to save his own life!

      Thanks, as always, for the feedback!