Tuesday, April 24, 2012

THE BOND VOYAGE: #1 - Dr. No (1962)

Try and imagine a world where James Bond, as we know the character today, did not exist.  Despite the meek popularity of Ian Fleming's serial novels, James Bond was not the worldwide phenomenon in 1962 it has since become.  So producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli had work to do in order to sell the spy to the masses.  The version of James Bond in the Fleming novels was a brute, less clever, and without the distraction of sex appeal.  But this was the sixties.  James Bond was smoothed out around the edges and given a great deal of wit and cunning by the producers despite the desire for Fleming to have David Niven play the character over the now legendary Sean Connery.  There were any number of plates to balance with this first big screen adaptation of Special Agent 007, and for the most part Dr. No handles these aspects well.  You can see the rough sketch of what would grow into parody over the years, but thankfully in this first entry the ironic self awareness had not yet ruined the franchise.

That is not to say Dr. No is one of the best Bond films.  It simply has the advantage of being the first major motion picture in the franchise.  There are no expectations, there is no formula to which to adhere, so the entire exercise feels rough and grainy, just slightly out of focus.  Bond is a suave super spy here, but not quite as slick or armor-plated as he would become later.  In a fight later on in Dr. No, Bond is left bruised and battered, bloody, though victorious.  There are very few gadgets and the entire adventure aspect is stripped down.  This is no doubt due to the minimal budget of a burgeoning franchise.  But there are things you cannot deny, even here in the opening film of the series. 

First and foremost, the team of Saltzman and Broccoli picked the right man for the job.  From the start, when we see Sean Connery as James Bond, there is no separation between actor and character.  From the first click of that Zippo, the sly curve of the eyebrows, and the delivery of those legendary words (Bond... James Bond) Connery inhabits the very existence of James Bond more than any actor would ever be able to do again.  Connery was a bit of an unknown in the States in 1962, but he would never again be an anonymous face.  Connery embodied the sex symbol of the sixties, a rugged and, well, a musky middle-aged man.  Picture Don Draper with a British accent and you have what was attractive to women heading out to the cinema in 1962.  It never hurt that Connery was a fantastic and fun actor in the role from day one.  There is also Miss Munnypenny and M, characters who would forever become staples in the franchise.

And, of course, there was Honey Ryder, the first and arguably the most memorable of all Bond girls.  Even after all these years, after twenty-one pictures to try and top Honey Ryder, nothing has come close to the emergence of Ursula Andress in that bikini on the beach.  Andress' entrance into the film, into the franchise, and into film history, has been mocked in films ever since.  It has even been mocked in the Bond franchise throughout the years, and given a fresh spin in Casino Royale.  Honey Ryder serves as Bond's guide to Crab Key Island in a plot that is very stripped down when examined from this place in time.  The plot is not as important as the pieces Dr. No puts in place, but I suppose it should be given at least a little service.  There is a villain, albeit a forgettable one in Dr. No himself (Joseph Wiseman), and a plot about a missing agent.  But when compared to the more elaborate plots that would follow in just a few more films, the story of Dr. No is decidedly lacking and not terribly interesting.

Dr. No is not one of the best James Bond films in the franchise, but it is in a tough spot.  It has the advantage of a clean slate, and at the same time it has the disadvantage of not being able to capitalize on some of the elaborate contraptions and contrivances of the series.  It is setting the pieces in place, and it shows us the power of Connery in the title role.  It also shows us how important a Bond girl will become.

GOLDEN GUNS (Out of Five):