' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Dr. No (1962)

Friday, September 11, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Dr. No (1962)

The first film of any long-running movie series is uniquely positioned, of course, though that feels doubly true of “Dr. No”, the 1962 kickoff to the James Bond franchise that now runs 24 movies, 25 once “No Time to Die” is finally released. If movie franchises are often about deepening character and situation, the Agent 007 franchise is more about adding flourish and accentuating old bits, things like gadgets and quips and martinis. The latter means that even the smallest moments in a Bond movie feel oddly weighted, like everyone is waiting to see just how this Bond orders his martini. That’s why the moment in which Daniel Craig’s 007 model orders a martini by pointedly eschewing the historical shaken edict felt like a reaction to all these aesthetic prerequisites, like isn’t this all so exhausting? These films are ostensibly just big dumb thrill rides yet they are rife with their own form of baggage, which has caused their run times to increase and to become bigger and more bloated; account for everything! That can necessitate a Back to the Basics approach, which in some ways “Casino Royale” (2006) was, but you only get to be the first movie in the series once. And though “Dr. No” is, in some ways, a bit darker than subsequent films, it also comes across, through the lens of 24 other movies, light on its feet.

The curtain on “Dr. No” raises not with some elaborate action sequence but an MI6 Station Chief in Jamaica being killed. This death is what prompts MI6 to send Agent 007, James Bond (Sean Connery), to the Caribbean Island to investigate. This sets up director Terence Young’s saga as less a barn burning blockbuster than a detective story, the facts leading him to a remote island called Crab Key where the enigmatic eponymous character resides, ready to disrupt a space launch with his patented radio beam. 007’s getting to Crab Key, however, requires the aid of boatman Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), hailing from the Cayman Islands, which, in tandem with the prominent Jamaica setting, cannot help but draw out colonialist themes. Why Jamaica gained independence only a few months before “Dr. No” was released, giving the entire adventure a whiff of a last hurrah, this debonair Brit emerging to save the day. This idea is only enhanced by the stereotypical presentation of Quarrel, constantly drinking from a jug of rum, laughed by Bond and a white American CIA agent for believing Crab Key houses an evil dragon. Quarrel’s demise at the hands of that dragon, however, which proves to be a dragon-esque flame-throwing tank, proves the single most affecting moment in the whole movie, the slightly crude production design enhancing an unlikely sensation of vérité, truly epitomizing a nightmare coming true.

It is troubling, then, if not revealing, that “Dr. No” hardly lingers on this death - nay, does not linger on this death all. After Quarrel is killed, Bond does not shed a tear, does not even mention Quarrel’s name again. No, once Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), the legendary bikinied shell collector appears, she becomes 007’s sidekick, as if the movie is trading a native for a white tourist. It is doubly illustrative of Bond’s casualness. Just like discovering the driver sent to pick him at the airport was not really sent to pick him up at all but take him out, or that Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), the Government receptionist, is a double agent, he hardly bats an eye, wading right into danger before leisurely turning the table. That’s true of all future Bonds, of course, and, like drinking shaken martinis, nonchalance in the face of danger has become a kind of recurring joke. And though Connery frequently walks through this movie, even through scenes in a radiation suit, with significant nonchalance, he sometimes seems to take the proceedings with such a lack of seriousness that he shades into smug misogynist. Sometimes, like in his scene with Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), where he cuddles her at her desk like they are beneath the moonlight, he does both.

Dr. No, meanwhile, the chief heavy played with considerable eccentricity by Joseph Wiseman, might deserve to be judged by his own merits rather than comparing him, long after the fact, to the Mike Myers parody of him as Dr. Evil in the “Austin Power” series. But much like “Airplane!” was so dead-on in its parody of “Airport” that it is hard to take the latter seriously, so has Dr. No, through no fault of Wiseman, been rendered moot in his villainous power. Watching him is like watching Dr. Evil deem his master plan the Death Star and not understanding why everyone is cracking up. That is not, however, to say that Dr. No is entirely incapacitated where evil is concerned. Quite the contrary, as the scene where he remains unseen, just heard, ordering a flunkie to take a tarantula and sick it on Bond retains all its power. This scene, apparently, came to be only because the production had next to no money left and set designer Ken Adam was forced to get creative, marking “Dr. No” as a throwback in more ways than one. The new Bond, “No Time to Die”, cost $250 million, the previous Bond, “Spectre”, cost anywhere from $245 to $350 million. Adam, by his own estimate, had all of 450 pounds to render Dr. No’s lair, a persuasive argument for not just throwing money at your problems and relying instead on a little good old fashioned ingenuity. I’d drink a martini, shaken or stirred, to more of that.

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