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July 29, 2012

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Movie Review – Dr. No (1962)

by HELEN GEIB

Without those credits would it have launched a 23-movies-to-date series? Opening literally with a bang, the title sequence of Dr. No is a masterpiece of graphic design. Playing over the iconic images is the inimitable “James Bond Theme,” from its first fanfare the franchise’s indelible signature. Decades of imitation and parody haven’t put a dent in their fabulousness.

MI6 agent code name 007, Britain’s most famous spy- real or fictitious, James Bond would be Sean Connery’s breakthrough role. He’s impossibly virile and attractive, Cary Grant with a steely edge and a sexy Scottish accent. Title notwithstanding, Dr. No is all about Bond. Connery owns the movie so completely that it comes as a moderate shock to learn he wasn’t the producers’ first choice. Of unmet contract demands, disinterest, and scheduling conflicts is film history made.

The movie was a hit at the box office in the US and Europe, scored respectably well with critics, and generated some free-publicity controversy. Just the year before, the 007 series had received the ultimate celebrity endorsement when President Kennedy included one of the novels in a list of his 10 favorite books. Ian Fleming’s spy thrillers shot from good seller in a niche market to international phenomenon. Readers who picked up Dr. No after seeing the movie got what they expected, but the first film’s fidelity to its source would prove the exception. The adaptations more commonly stopped at Fleming’s titles even before the producers ran out of books (12 novels and two short story collections).

The author’s lasting contribution to the movie franchise he spawned is the Bond identity. The vodka martini, baccarat in the classy casino, the daring escape after the requisite beating, the Bond girl, M, the premature demise of the second banana, the Beretta. Innumerable sequels, spoofs, and inspired-bys later, it’s tough to be the movie that created the paradigm. Impossible to watch Dr. No in 2012 and not be waiting, at least in some corner of our minds, for when he orders a drink. (Will he ask for it shaken, not stirred? He did? Cool!) We relax at each first appearance and note the absences with surprise (Q, for example, who made his bow the following year in From Russia With Love).

Yet it’s a relief to go back to the beginning. Before each new entry had turned into “the next Bond movie” and not just the audience, but the filmmakers too began operating under the checklist mentality. Dr. No didn’t need to be, wasn’t trying to be, anything but itself. Inside the space of this first movie, the martini is just a martini.

The series has seen back to basics movements over the years, typically coinciding with the introduction of a new Bond. One thing none of the sequels has attempted to emulate is the progenitor’s shoestring budget. That they were designing on a dime doesn’t show in the elaborate production design. Nor in the costumes; the legendary bikini worn by prototypical Bond girl Ursula Andress and Connery’s tux look like a million bucks. It’s obvious, sometimes painfully so, that the special effects team was saving its pennies for the big finale, but the low budget is evident mostly in the contrast with subsequent entries (there’s only one exotic location?!).

The absence of gadgets and big big bigger action set-pieces doesn’t take anything away from the movie’s watchability. In fact, it’s in keeping with the refreshingly human-scaled Bond; spy not superspy. When a minion tries to kill him with a tarantula, he doesn’t panic but he does feel fear, and shows it. Waiting alone to spring an ambush, he plays patience- solitaire to us Americans- to pass the time. Mercifully, there are only a couple of one-liners at the expense of dead flunkies.

This is a movie very much of its own time in ways good: the cars; bad: it’s one of the last gasps of the ignoble tradition of casting white actors as Asians; and inescapable: the space race and nuclear fears feature prominently. Connery’s Bond, on the other hand, is forever. With 1960s fashion and design back in style, Dr. No looks as good at 50 as it did when it was new.

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A version of this review was originally posted on the Indianapolis Museum of Art blog in connection with the Summer Nights 2012 screening of Dr. No.


8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Miriam
    Jul 29 2012

    I know there have been successful series before the Bond movies – Lassie and the Thin Man come right to mind – but it’s surely unrivaled for longevity and the ability to continue beyond the original stars. It’s interesting that the producers repeated the opening graphics for the second movie, before it was really established as a series. Granted the opening and theme music are fabulous but the impulse or pressure to do something new is always strong.

    Small point of local interest, Ian Fleming’s papers are in the Lilly Library at IU. Ironic that the globe-trotting Bond should rest in small town Indiana.

  2. Jul 30 2012

    Another point of interest is that when Casino Royale 2006 came out, many James Bond fans complained that Bond didn’t use any gadgets. Well, guess what? He didn’t use any gadgets in Dr. No either! And it’s not the first book in the series. :O)

  3. Ken
    Jul 30 2012

    I’d pencilled IMAs screening in on my calendar, but had something else come up. I’ve seen all the Bond movies, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The silly ones too!

  4. Jul 31 2012

    My 007 theater viewing started with THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (still my favorite Bond movie, by the way). The Brosnan era wore me down and I skipped the last two of his. CASINO ROYALE is a terrific return to form for the series. I’m glad the studio finally got its financial house sufficiently in order to make another movie with Craig.

    I _think_ I’ve seen all the Connery and Moore titles. I’m not 100% positive because I watched most of them in my channel surfing days, when there always seemed to be at least one Bond movie on (usually on TBS). Later Connery and most Moore tend to run together in my memory.

  5. Jul 31 2012

    @Helen, I’m just glad that you hadn’t watched Die Another Day. Not only is it the worst Bond film in the entire series, it’s also one of the worst action films ever made. It attempts to resemble Loony Toons and that’s just wrong.

  6. Aug 1 2012

    @Nir: I have no problem believing DIE ANOTHER DAY is terrible (no problem at all), but it’s hard to credit that it’s worse than OCTOPUSSY. I am very much not a fan of THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH either.

  7. Aug 1 2012

    I actually liked The World is Not Enough but that’s because of its bad guy. I find that The World is Not Enough and Octopussy aren’t nearly as bad as Die Another Day, Moonraker, and Never Say Never Again, which not only sucks but is a blatant rip-off of Thunderball.

    Then again, I don’t think that there are many actually good Bond films. I used to love them when I was a kid; I grew up with the Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton films and when Pierce Brosnan came around I was already tired of Bond. I eventually worked my way backwards and found that Sean Connery is the best Bond, and has most of the best Bond films.

    I own only two Bond films at home (obviously on Blu-ray): Goldfinger (THE quintessential James Bond film and Casino Royale (2006). Those are the only ones that people really need to watch.

  8. Aug 24 2012

    Nir, ‘From Russia with Love’ is another great Bond film and Lotte Lenya, the famous silent film actress, is great as the villian. I think ‘Diamonds are Foever’ is a good one too. ‘Moonraker’ is without question the worse Bond film. I’m glad you like ‘Goldfinger’.

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