Monday, December 28, 2009

Movie Review: Dr. No

Directed by Terence Young. 1962.

I recently revisited Dr. No, this time with the DVD commentary track turned on. The commentary features a variety of clips from people associated with the film’s production and one phrase came up with disturbing frequency, tongue-in-cheek; first from the director, incredibly referring to the first shot of Bond when he introduces himself, and then regarding the art direction. Let us add a quote from Richard Maibaum, who adapted Ian Fleming’s novel into the Dr. No screenplay:
A bright young producer accosted me one day with glittering eyes. ‘I’m making a parody of the James Bond films.’ How, I asked myself, does one make a parody of a parody? For that is precisely, in the final analysis, what we have done with Fleming’s books. Parodied them. [1]
I had, in fact, known about Maibaum’s quote before my recent viewing of Dr. No, but there was something about hearing it directly from the horse’s mouth that set me aghast. Dr. No, tongue-in-cheek. . . really? You are making fun of James Bond. . . why?! What exactly about him do you find it necessary to mock? His wit, cleverness, adaptability, strength, dashing, success? That he is irresistible to women, that he trounces his enemies with cunning and technological superiority, that he defends his country? To my mind I have yet to list something I would not consider an asset or laudable characteristic. Aside from being the hero of the plot in the films and novels, why would one mock someone who embodies these characteristics? When one hears the name James Bond what comes to your mind? Some months ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education Michael Dirda wrote:
The first words we think of when we describe James Bond — at least the 007 of the films — are suave, debonair, cosmopolitan. All those are shorthand for Bond's supreme personal characteristic, what Renaissance courtiers always aspired to exemplify: sprezzatura. That is the ability to perform even the most difficult task with flair, grace, and nonchalance, without getting a wrinkle in your clothes or working up a sweat. Bond not only is cool, he always looks cool, at ease in his skin, at home in the world. Whatever his surroundings, he's the best-dressed guy in the room. [2]
Do you think of that, or something like it, or do you laugh, and think, “Oh silly James Bond, he thinks he can do those things! No one can do those things!” With the inevitable and dejected, if suppressed, conclusion following, “I certainly can’t.” And how do you feel? Exhilarated at the thought of such feats and desirous of emulating them in some fashion, or envious?*

As I have observed, the public reaction to the series has been overwhelmingly closer to the former. The situation is not dissimilar from that of the television program The Avengers, which was apparently conceived of as a parody but went onto be taken seriously by the public and likewise on to great success.[3]

In her book, The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand discussed this issue of self-mockery and succinctly summarized the contradiction:
One may laugh with a hero, but never at him–just as a satire may laugh at some object, but never at itself. . .

In Fleming’s novels, James Bond is constantly making witty, humorous remarks, which are part of his charm. But, apparently this is not what Mr. Maibaum meant by humor. What he meant, apparently, was humor at Bond’s expense–the sort of humor intended to undercut Bond’s stature, to make him ridiculous. . .

[Such tongue-in-cheek thrillers] require one employ all the values of a thriller in order to hold the audience’s interest, yet turn these values against themselves, that one damage the very elements one is using and counting on. It means an attempt to cash in on the thing one is mocking, to profit by the audience’s hunger for romanticism while seeking to destroy it. [3]
The audacity of James Bond: taking himself seriously! I recall once reading an introduction to Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, one which went to various lengths to try to explain away the fact that title character too, like Bond, takes himself seriously, though we should not. (I tore the introduction from the book.)

Regardless of the director, screenwriter, and production crew’s intentions, in Dr. No James Bond is in full form and people love him. He is indomitable, getting the better of the increasingly-dangerous array of goons until defeating the arch villain himself. He is indefatigable, engaging in hand-to-hand combat, gun fighting, and working his way through the defenses of Dr. No’s island. Whether he is laying traps setting up his room so he will know if it was searched, or springing the henchmen’s traps and then turning the tables on them, Bond remains unfazed. He is irresistible, winning over several gorgeous women. Indeed, Bond is so incontestable when Dr. No, whose unlimited resources have failed to get the better of Bond, remarks to the spy, “you cost me time, money, effort. . . you damage my organization. . . and my pride. I was curious to see what kind of a man you were” we rather appreciate the praise for Bond, despite its source.

In the same article, Dirda concluded, “Bond has become as archetypal as Hamlet or Sherlock Holmes, a hero with a thousand faces — and among them are yours and mine.” [2] Indeed. Junior year in high school I was asked by a teacher what literary character I would like to be and replied: James Bond. I haven’t changed my mind.

[1] NY Times. December 13, 1964. Selection reprinted in The Romantic Manifesto. Rand, Ayn. 1971. Signet, A Division of Penguin Group. NY, NY.

[2] Dirda, Michael. James Bond as Archetype (and Incredibly Cool Dude). The Chronicle of Higher Education. June 2008. [Link] (subscription required)

[3] Rand, Ayn. The Romantic Manifesto. 1971. Signet, A Division of Penguin Group. NY, NY.

*In the Aristotelian usage.

Bonus: Six Lessons in Manliness from James Bond, via The Art of Manliness.

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