Dr. No


Dr. No

A debonair James Bond enters M's office for his next assignment.

(United Artists) Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord, Anthony Dawson, Regina Dawson, John Kitzmuller, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell. Directed by Terence Young

There are few characters in the movies more iconic than James Bond. The suave, sophisticated British superspy can karate-chop a bad guy into submission, or kill him in a particularly gruesome fashion and save the day with an urbane quip. He can seduce just about any woman nearly at will. He is the man every guy wants to be and every woman wants to be with, and no actor embodied him as well as Connery, even to this day.

In his first big screen adventure (a television version of Casino Royale had been made some years earlier, but it had been Americanized and has been mercifully lost to the mists of time), Bond is summoned to Jamaica to investigate the murder of an MI6 field agent named Strangways who at the behest of the Americans had been investigating mysterious radio interference of rockets being launched from Cape Canaveral. Bond discovers that Strangways had been looking into a sinister place called Crab Key, an island off the coast of Jamaica that the locals are afraid of visiting because of rumors that a dragon patrols the beach. Bond also discovers that Strangways had submitted some rocks to his bridge partner Professor Dent (Dawson) to examine.

Bond is aided by CIA operative Felix Lieter (Lord) and Quarrel (Kitzmuller), a local boatman who has assisted the CIA in the past. Several attempts are made on 007’s life before he finally heads out to Crab Key along with Quarrel. They meet the fetching Honey Ryder (Andress), a comely but no-nonsense seashell collector who has been taking shells from Crab Key to sell in Jamaica. The three eventually discover that the island’s owner, Dr. No (Wiseman) has an evil plan up his sleeve and is the member of an organization called SPECTRE, bent on the destabilization of the world.

Coming up on its 50th anniversary, the movie holds up surprisingly well in some ways. Yes, it’s hopelessly dated in its attitudes towards women, minorities and politics, but if you can get past some of the special effects (which are admittedly primitive but keep in mind that this was a low-budget production even for its time) and the dialogue which can be laughable, you’re left with some wonderful action sequences, amazing set design and of course Bond.

Here is the first appearance of the James Bond theme, the first time “My name is Bond, James Bond” is uttered. It’s the first appearance of the Walther PPK, the first time we see M (Lee), the head of MI6 and his wonderfully efficient but oversexed secretary Moneypenny (Maxwell).

The Hollywood conceit of a megalomaniac on an island is essentially established here, one that would be followed in many a Bond movie to follow as well as in other spy and action movies over the next half century. The urbane Dr. No would be a model for Bond villains; suave, sophisticated, brilliant and egomaniacal but ultimately done in by his own hubris.

It seems hard to believe now but United Artists was not pleased with the choice of Sean Connery as James Bond (and Ian Fleming apparently wasn’t happy either, at least until he saw the movie for the first time). The rugged Connery was not the picture of a sophisticated upper class Englishman (Connery is a working class Scot) that the books had suggested.

When watching Dr. No, you can’t help but be aware of the times in which the movie existed. John Kennedy was president (and a big fan of the Bond series, which was one of the selling points for the movie) and the Cuban Missile Crisis was in full bloom, making nefarious doings in the Caribbean all the more believable for nervous American (and global) audiences. The Second World War was twenty years in the rear-view mirror and the Cold War was at its peak. The space race was just beginning and the New York Worlds Fair was only two years away (the architecture of the fair was foreshadowed by the ultra-sleek lair of Dr. No). It was a time of great optimism yet a time ruled by enormous fear.

James Bond played into both. Yes, there was much evil in the world, and evil geniuses plotting to take over but with Bond on the case, the Free World could rest easy knowing that 007 was laying the smackdown on wannabe world dictators (the memory of Hitler still fresh in the minds of many). He conformed to the ideals of manhood of the time; virile, decisive, rough, smart and sophisticated, able to wear an expensive Saville Row suit at the baccarat table with a stunning sex kitten on one arm, a (shaken, not stirred) martini in one hand, his trusty Walther PPK in his waistband and impeccably coiffed hair barely ruffled after beating the crap out of a thug (and uttering a bon mot over the inert body of his assailant).

Times have changed and feminists no doubt cringe at the attitudes of Bond, but all the same he still holds a fascination that has carried him through nearly five decades of nearly continuous missions that still continue to this day. Bond was, at the time, unlike any other hero that had ever appeared on the silver screen and is unlikely to be duplicated ever again (Indiana Jones comes close). Dr. No stands up today not just because it was first but because it’s actually a very good movie, despite its flaws.

WHY RENT THIS: This is where it all began. Connery is electric as Bond and the action almost never stops.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hopelessly dated, some of the dialogue and effects are laugh-inducing.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surprising amount of violence, much smoking (remember, that was common for the era) but still pretty tame by modern standards.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ah, where to begin? It’s the only Bond movie in which Bond sings and doesn’t feature a pre-title sequence. Also, Bond’s armorer is known as Major Boothroyd (not Q as in later films) and is named after a reader who wrote Ian Fleming asserting that a true British spy would never use a Beretta as Bond does in the early novels, but a Walther PPK. Fleming concurred and the incident was actually used in a kind of backhanded way in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The new Blu-Ray contains a digitally enhanced print that cleans up some of the graininess of the original and actually looks better than when it was released theatrically. There are a number of contemporaneous features about the premiere, and on-set featurettes. There’s a nice feature on the guns of James Bond and a piece on the restoration of the print.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Goldfinger

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Clash of the Titans (1981)


Clash of the Titans (1981)

Calibos is bummed that he couldn't get tickets for the Duran Duran concert.

(MGM) Harry Hamlin, Judi Bowker, Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Jack Gwillim, Burgess Meredith, Susan Fleetwood, Sian Phillips, Tim Piggott-Smith, Flora Robson, Neil McCarthy, Donald Houston. Directed by Desmond Davis

Among sci-fi and fantasy film geeks the name Ray Harryhausen is spoken in a reverent whisper. He was the stop-motion special effects guru responsible for such films as Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C. and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. He worked with the great director George Pal on Mighty Joe Young and brought to life the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The last film he worked on as an active special effects producer was this one.

Zeus (Olivier) is plenty peeved at King Acrisius (Houston) who is attempting to drown his daughter Danae and her infant son Perseus. It has been foretold that Acrisius would die if Danae would give birth to a son. In addition, she had the child out of wedlock, a big no-no in ancient society. However, unbeknownst to Acrisius Zeus himself is the father and as we all know it’s generally a bad idea to piss off a Greek God. Zeus orders Poseidon to unleash the Kraken, a Titan with a very nasty temper held captive by the Gods to be used to do their dirty work. The Kraken levels the King’s city and Zeus himself punches Acrisius’ ticket to the underworld, ironically fulfilling the prophecy that he was trying to avoid. Karma is a mean mo-fo and you just can’t get away from it.

Zeus arranges for mother and son to wash up on gentler shores, but things aren’t going to go much better for the two there. Hera (Bloom), the wife of Zeus, is pretty hacked off that her husband’s been stepping out on her and, now wanting to suffer the wrath of her husband, decides to take things out on Danae and her son.

Some years later infant Perseus is now strapping young man Perseus (Hamlin). In order to make a name for himself he must return home to Joppa whose Queen Cassiopeia (Phillips) has pledged her comely daughter Andromeda (Bowker) to Calibos (McCarthy), the son of the goddess Thetis (Smith). Once a handsome prince, he has been cursed by the gods to become a hideous misshapen grotesque. In order to secure his prize, he sends a prehistoric bird to fetch Andromeda’s soul in a gilded cage. To win Andromeda, Perseus must combat Calibos and solve a riddle posed by Cassiopeia herself or risk immediate execution. Love was sure tough back in the day.

In order to follow the bird to combat Calibos, he needs a flying horse. The only one for the job is Pegasus, and Pegasus is being kept by the loathsome Medusa, a snake-headed monster whose gaze can turn a man to stone. Perseus lops off the head of the monster and uses Pegasus to fly to the lair of Calibos, whom he defeats in combat. Calibos, humiliated, pleads with the gods for justice; the angry Thetis warns Cassiopeia that the Kraken will be released on Joppa unless she sacrifices her daughter. Can Perseus, who has by now fallen deeply in love with the beautiful Andromeda, save the day?

Even in 1981, this was an old-fashioned movie. Many of Harryhausen’s aficionados consider this an inferior work, despite that he had the largest budget he ever worked with and the movie would be the biggest hit of his career. Still, it’s a throwback to the movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s, relatively bloodless but entertaining. There is none of the gore that movies of the ‘80s were already awash in which may have worked against it. Despite the movie’s success, fanboys groused that the movie was too mild and boring.

Personally, I found such accusations immature and baseless. The movie is entertaining from start to finish, full of the kind of magic that first drew me to the movies to begin with. It has an absolutely dazzling cast, and some of them are having a grand old time. Olivier, in one of his last roles, still manages to command attention as Zeus; while his breathing is clearly labored (he suffered from pleurisy and a variety of respiratory ailments) he remains stentorian, a lion amongst lesser predators.

Hamlin, pre-“L.A. Law” is sufficiently callow and handsome. He makes a fine classical hero, and is matched very nicely to Bowker who sadly didn’t have the career afterwards that Hamlin did. The remainder of the veteran cast, from Meredith as a shabby poet to Andress a Aphrodite, elevate the proceedings above a typical “B” movie.

Still, the attraction back then was the fantastical creatures Harryhausen brought to life. Even in 1981, stop-motion animation was a bit of a dinosaur, as optical effects had taken over much as computer graphics have now. By today’s standards the effects are dated and a bit clumsy, but the care that went into them is easily apparent.

The recent Blu-Ray edition of the movie seems little more than a means of promotion for the remake. While the film has been cleaned up digitally somewhat, the effects shots remain grainy. Also, as Da Queen put it, there is a distinct smell of cheese throughout, particularly in the mechanical owl Bubo, who while Harryhausen claimed was conceived in the early 70s, still seems to be a sort of R2D2 by proxy.

The old master is still alive and will turn 90 this June 29. While the success of Clash of the Titans led to several offers, those films would never come to fruition; shortly after the release of Clash Harryhausen announced his retirement. He appears from time to time doing vocal work on animated features, or in retrospectives of his own work. Is Clash of the Titans his best work? I think it has some of his best work in it (the battle with Medusa for example) but it probably isn’t the best movie he ever made. Still in all, it’s the kind of movie they really don’t make any more, even back when it was made. It has a sweetness and charm to it that is all but lost to Hollywood, and was made by someone with the heart of a child. It is a reminder of an era and a storytelling style that is more or less extinct, but thanks to the magic of DVD and Blu-Ray we can still revel in it anytime we pop the disc into our player.

WHY RENT THIS: Clash has a place in cinematic history. It has the kind of fresh-faced energy that modern CGI films lack. The cast is amazing, considering the budget.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The look of the film is grainy even after the digital clean-up it received. There is a cheese factor that at times overwhelms the strength of the performances. Bubo the Mechanical Owl is clearly meant to appeal to the R2D2-obsessed kids on the block.

FAMILY VALUES: Very clean by modern standards; the monsters are for the most part not terribly scary compared to the computer-generated nasties of current cinema.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Kraken is not a beast from Greek mythology but rather from Scandinavia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a 2002 interview with Harryhausen that comes from the original DVD release but surprisingly (considering the hugely hyped remake coming out shortly) little more.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Clash of the Titans (2010)