I'm not going to argue that it's one of the greatest Bond movies. I'm not going to have it in my top 5, or even my top 10.
And yeah, it doesn't have a "classic" teaser, opening credit sequence or theme song. And there's no Q, and no gadgets.
But what the movie does is, almost as well as possible, set the stage for the future of the franchise. Yes, there are laconic stretches. There are pacing and structural problems. But viewed from the right angle, this film is like looking at a childhood photo of someone you know--if you squint, you can see the features developing then that are so familiar now.
Last week, I discussed what could have happened had someone else besides Broccoli and Saltzman gotten ahold of the rights to all the Fleming novels. Well, Broccoli and Saltzman seemed to realize that, too, as they start out the film by making explicit comparisons between past conceptions of spy films, and what they had in mind.
Look at how the film begins: we see what a British agent looks like: a middle-aged man sitting playing bridge with his crusty companions. His "spying" consists of using a radio (gasp) to transmit a signal to London. Receiving that signal? A room fool of nerds in glasses, bow ties and sweaters. Their idea of "urgent" is to have a secretary rush a note over to someone on the other side of the same room. So, that's what MI-6 is like? It's all very Alec Guinness/Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which may be the most accurate view of what spying was actually like, but will it make a good film series?
But wait...suddenly this tranquil set-up is shattered by the bizarre. The three fake blind men (fake blind...I'm presuming that they're really men) shoot Strangways IN THE BACK!! They gun down his helpless secretary, a WOMAN!! They use a HEARSE!! Peter Hunt's editing helps makes it clear, this is not a menace from the normal world, and it's not something the "normal" British agents can deal with!
But now, we're at the Ambassador's Club, perhaps the antithesis of the casual country club at Jamaica. No middle aged man in a linen suit, playing bridge for dollar stakes with lads. When we meet Bond, he's wearing a tuxedo, playing exotic baccarat with gorgeous playgirls for thousands of pounds. It's almost the same scene as when we meet Strangways, but in so many ways the complete opposite.
And when we first see Bond...wow. Unlike Barry Nelson, Sean just looks comfortable and at home in the tux...yet still lean and hungry and dangerous. We don't know Bond yet, but we already believe he's smart, sharp and able to kill. (Fun fact most people don't remember: Bond only introduces himself as "Bond--James Bond" because that's exactly how Sylvia Trench introduces herself seconds earlier..."Trench--Sylvia Trench." And he passes up the chance to do so when Honey introduces herself the same way...So that whole cliche was really started by Sylvia!!)
And with the next scene, we realize that Bond wasn't even at work yet...that's just how he relaxes!!
And what a scene comes next...the writers are brave enough to throw us into M's office as if this universe is already "lived in." There's not a lot of plodding exposition. Bond already knows Moneypenny, long enough to already have the joking relationship. This isn't Bond's first 00 mission. M respects him, but knows when to be firm with him, making him adopt the Walther PPK. Yet he doesn't get upset when Bond tries to sneak off with his beloved Beretta...he knows this kind of risk-taking and stubbornness are needed for Double-0 missions. When Bond leaves, M intercoms to Moneypenny to "forget the usual repartee," again making us think this is just one more mission in a long line.
The whole scene...information is gently seeded into the normal conversation, not pounded into our heads in an exposition dump, as happens today in so many movies.
In those first 15 minutes, the basics of the franchise are established so successfully, they could have come from any of the Bond films (excepting, of course, for Q's absence). And we also have the Bond films' mission statement: this is no button down, Good Shepherd type of spy. The 00 branch is for the unusual, the aggressive, the things "normal" spies can't handle. Despite Dr. No's dismissal, this agent was nore mere "stupid policeman."
And then we get to Jamaica. Let's say first, the locations are used beautifully, the set designs wonderful. But our pacing...well, this is where we're not quite at the "mature" Bond films yet. It's over an hour into the movie until we even meet the Bond Girl, Honey Rider. We don't meet Dr. No in the flesh until 1:27 into the movie...with only 20 minutes to go!! That means we spend about 45 minutes touring around Jamaica, essentially killing time...and about half an hour hiding out on Crab Key waiting to get captured.
It's not that some of what happens isn't good--some of it is quite good--but do we need a 4-minute scene of Bond using hair and talcum powder to see if his room has been tampered with, and then another 3-minute scene where he examines them? There's lots and lots and LOTS casual loafing around until we get to the point, which makes the movie feel slack by today's standards.
There's also way too much establishing that everyone is scared of No, that Quarrel is superstitious and drinks, that Jamaica is beautiful. But, then again, you can never get enough of this hotel clerk checking out Bond's ass
One good thing during the film's languid middle is that we do get to establish what a ruthless, cold-hearted bastard James is. The game he plays with Miss Taro is almost too cruel. And casually popping that extra bullet in Professor Dent's back is so cold, it was almost censored from the movie.
When we finally get to Dr. No, he becomes the prototype Bond villain: urbane, physically deformed as a symbol of moral deformity, megalomaniacal. Jospeh Wiseman isn't given a lot to do...the vocal in the scene with Dent, and maybe 12-15 minutes of actual screen time. But he is the quintessential foe, the flawed but powerful maniac who can't be stopped by normal means. He's why every Bond parody villain where a Nehru jacket (hey, isn't it time for those to make a comeback?)
And check out his waiting room:
It's been said before, and it will be said again, but KEN ADAM IS A FREAKIN' GENIUS. I mean, look at that. Right from the start, Adam was taking his penny-ante budgets and creating scenic art that served a purpose: making sure that we knew down to our souls that Bond's world was not a normal one, that no mere agent could ever survive this. James Bond was in a heightened, one half-step into the future world. Kudos to Adam--and kudos to director Terrance Young for having the wisdom to set the scene well and properly use the sets Adam created.
Anyway, because of the slack middle portion of the movie, the ending does comes across as quite rushed. After the dinner with Dr. No, there's only 15 minutes left, and more than 5 are spent following EVERY INCH of Bond's escape (please...more ventilation shaft footage!). The last 5 minutes are spent with Bond and Honey escaping/being rescued. Which means the whole final "confrontation" with No takes less than five minutes, half of which consists of a disguised Bond just standing around watching No test his reactor. As a result, it's one of the least satisfying villain deaths in the series.
Fortunately, Bond does find time for love at the end, which again is pure Bond.
So what is Dr. No? Adolescent Bond...still stretching out, still getting used to how this new type of spy movie is going to work. It's far from perfect. But Broccoli and Saltzman manage to find all the perfect people: Connery, screenwriter Richard Maibaum, Director Terrance Young, editor Peter Hunt, designer Ken Adam...These people would cement the future of the Bond franchise forever. They're not quite there yet--this was the shakedown cruise. But they established the who, what and how of Bond marvelously. And by the next picture, everything would get tighter, tauter, sharper and better.
But the seeds are all here. So let's show Dr. No a little more respect.
SNELL'S RANDOM THOUGHTS AND QUESTIONS
**Uhh, after the nuclear reactor explodes, shouldn't that whole section of the Carribean, including Jamaica, be an uninhabitable radioactive wasteland? Just asking.
**How, exactly, did Sylvia Trench get into Bond's apartment? And, wouldn't you think James Bond might have a somewhat better security system?
**Bond had to send all the way to London for a Geiger counter? Really?
**Maybe it's a generation gap thing, as I hear those older than I constantly raving about the "Ursual Andress rising from the sea in THAT bikini" scene. Maybe it's because by the time I got to this movie, there were much, much skimpier bikinis everywhere. I was just never that impressed. Not to diss Ursula, because damn, she is gorgeous...but this scene didn't start me early into puberty or anything.
**This should have been a commercial:
**Note to evil geniuses...if your reactor reaches the "DANGER LEVEL" at 25, don't design the switch so you can turn it up all the way to 50. Really, what's the point of that?
**Back when Tomorrow Never Dies was released, some movie critic (sorry, I forget who) railed against the producers for "sell-out" product placement...I'm paraphrasing, but he declared "James Bond would never drink Smirnoff!!"
So what's Bond drinking in Dr. No?
***UPDATE: I found that review...Owen Gleibeman in Entertainment Weekly, who opines the the opening paragraph: "Still, they raise the question: Would James Bond really be caught dead drinking Smirnoff vodka? Sadly, the very notion of a Smirnoff martini blends all too well into the harsh-grained mediocrity of Tomorrow Never Dies." Sad, isn't it, when the crtics become snobbier than Bond...
***Compare and contrast: Jones, the fake driver sent to intercept Bond, kills himself with a cyanide pill concealed in a cigarette. In Die Another Day, Bond tells M he threw away his cyanide pill "years ago." Inpsired by Jones' painful death, perhaps?
**Bond score: 3. Sylvia Trench, Miss Taro (for at least 2 hours!), and Honey Rider. And he sure could have had that desk clerk if he wanted...
**Bond isn't very good at palming things...M catches him trying to sneak off with the Beretta, and Dr. No catches him trying to hide the dinner knife.
**References to things I wanna know: Destructor bags?? The mission where his Berreta jammed and he had to spend 6 months in the hospital? Tell us more!!!
**Another note to evil geniuses. Have your henchmen wear names badges with photos, so you can recognize when the hero is dressed as one of them. This won't be the last time Bond pulls this off...then again, Darth Vader had that same problem...
**Is there only ONE song in the WHOLE of Jamaica?!?!? Holy frak, I'm so sick of that damned mango tree song...
This wasn't in the credits, but JAMES BOND WILL RETURN in FROM RUSSIA FROM LOVE. be here next week.