When Sean Connery puts down his cigarette lighter, takes a puff of smoke while sitting at a card table playing Chemin de Fer, then purrs the words that would immortalize him—“Bond…James Bond”—it’s like 007 emerged fully-formed, Athena-like from Ian Fleming’s brain. Since then, the most famous agent in Her Majesty’s Secret Service has starred in a further 22 big screen adventures with varying degrees of seriousness and even outright different genre trappings—blaxploitation, sci-fi space epic, Miami Vice-style revenge thriller—but for the purest expression of all things Bond, I still go back to the very first, Dr. No. It’s one of the most influential movies ever made, responsible not just for establishing the template for future James Bond movies but much of what we take for granted in modern action cinema. Everything you love about the franchise is already here: the vodka martinis, the colorful opening credits sequence, the exotic locales, the double entendre-named Bond girls. Fifty years after it landed in U.K. theaters on October 4, 1962, Dr. No is still Double-0 heaven.
The key to Dr. No’s rousing success, in the hands of workmanlike director Terence Young, is that it was patterned, in part, on Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal, modernist thriller North by Northwest—Cary Grant was even considered a likely contender to first wear Bond’s tux. But Young, screenwriter Richard Maibaum (who’d pen scripts for the franchise for decades), and producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, made a few crucial tweaks that turned Hitchcock’s blend of Cold War espionage and paranoia into the ultimate male fantasy. Namely, they abstracted it.
Grant’s Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest, a Madison Avenue ad man mistaken for a CIA operative targeted by agents working for a foreign power, was an ordinary guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances. He still had a mother to bicker with and a couple ex-wives to pay alimony to.
Connery’s 007 is almost a cipher by comparison. We know nothing about him except he has impeccable taste and can be pretty ruthless. The allure of James Bond lies in how truly extraordinary his life is from the start. And unlike Grant's character, Bond is ready for whatever the universe throws at him. Whereas Thornhill has his humdrum life turned upside down when carried off by currents beyond his control, Bond is always in control—whether it’s with women, playing baccarat, or tangling with Nehru-jacketed villains. Beyond all the beautiful Bond Girls, the vodka martinis, the Aston Martins, the sun-drenched getaways where Bond does so much of his “work,” I’d say that the single most appealing thing about Bond for guys everywhere, is the effortlessness with which he approaches and handles life. That’s what makes him cool. That's why guys want to be like James Bond. But if we really found ourselves dealing with international intrigue, we’d probably end up acting like Roger Thornhill—only without being anywhere near as good looking as Cary Grant.
The most intoxicating fantasies, though, are those that seem attainable. For that to happen, the flight of fancy has to be grounded in reality. Dr. No works so beautifully because it keeps Bond very much life-size. During his first big-screen outing, he relies on little more than his wits and his Walther PPK. There are no fancy fold-up helicopters, cars that turn into submarines or (shudder) become invisible. The plot is plausible too. Bond travels to sunny Jamaica to investigate strange radio signals originating in the vicinity that have been toppling NASA rockets and the disappearance of the MI6 operatives who had already been looking into the matter. Think a British Philip Marlowe with a license to kill. Along the way he tangles with a couple of shady women and finds an ally in one particularly comely shell collector before meeting the elusive, Mandarin-collared title character who’s every bit as evil as the name Dr. No suggests. Pretty straight-forward.
But the way Dr. No mixed sex and violence—and the film’s casual attitude toward both--was revolutionary in 1962. Everyone knows the famous shot of Ursula Andress’s Honey Ryder emerging from the Crab Key surf. Her bikini alone represented one of the icons of the nascent Sexual Revolution. But think also of how quickly Bond goes from pulling a gun on Sylvia Trench, putting golf balls in high-heels after breaking into his apartment, to having her fall into his arms. To be exact: it’s 50 seconds. Or how he has sex with Dr. No’s ally Miss Taro, all the while knowing that he’s going to have her arrested immediately thereafter. Or Honey Ryder’s monologue about how female praying mantises eat their male partner after “making love.”
Even the suspense scenes are dripping with a cool, erotic dread worthy of Hitchcock. Where does Dr. No’s henchman plan to kill Bond? With the British agent in bed, of course! By releasing a deadly tarantula into his Kingston hotel room that’ll creep up on him in his sleep. And, to complete the Hitchcockian mood, who plays Professor Dent? Actor Anthony Dawson, who got a pair of scissors stuck in his back as the would-be murderer of Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder. Dent’s demise in Dr. No would also set a new standard for movie violence, when Bond shoots the unarmed professor twice, including once in the back.
Aside from all its cinematic firsts, Dr. No is just damn good storytelling. For one, it sets up its villain beautifully--he’s heard, as a disembodied voice in an echo chamber, before he’s ever seen. For another, the film immerses itself deeply in the local color of its Jamaican milieu.
Around the time Quantum of Solace came out, director Marc Forster told The New York Times, “In the ’60s and ’70s…a large part of the appeal of the James Bond movies was the travel to exotic locations, but that’s not such an attraction anymore. People travel a lot more now, and with the Internet they’re more aware of what the rest of the world is like.” That right there explains a lot of the visual drabness of Quantum of Solace.
Dr. No is by no means a globe-hopping adventure, but in its one real location outside England, Jamaica, it finds a level of romance and exoticism that’s still potent. Part of that may be because Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, the man who “discovered” Bob Marley, handled location scouting for the film. It’s also because, in place of a traditional score, the movie laces funky island grooves into its aural palate. I mean, this is a movie that begins with a calypso version of “Three Blind Mice,” dripping with a whole new level of ska-derived menace: “They looking for the cat/The cat that swallowed the rat/They want to give that cat the attitude of three blind mice.” Yes, James Bond’s cinematic life began with “Three Blind Mice.” If that doesn’t make him the ultimate cool cat, I don’t know what does.
[Photo Credit: United Artists]
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Enigmatic and deliberate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy makes no reservations while unraveling its heady spy story for better or worse. The film based on the bestselling novel by John Le Carre is purposefully perplexing effectively mirroring the central character George Smiley's (Gary Oldman) own mind-bending investigation of the British MI6's mole problem. But the slow burn pacing clinical shooting style and air of intrigue only go so far—Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sports an incredible cast that can't dramatically translate the movie's impenetrable narrative. Almost from the get go the movie collapses under its own weight.
After a botched mission in Hungary that saw his colleague Jim (Mark Strong) gunned down in the streets Smiley and his boss Control (John Hurt) are released from the "Circus" (codename for England's Secret Intelligence Service). But soon after Smiley is brought back on board as an impartial observer tasked to uncover the possible infiltration of the organization. The former agent already dealing with the crippling of his own marriage attempts to sift through the history and current goings on of the Circus narrowing his hunt down to four colleagues: Percy aka "Tinker" (Toby Jones) Bill aka "Tailor" (Colin Firth) Roy aka "Soldier" (Ciaran Hinds) and Toy aka "Poor Man" (David Dencik). Working with Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) a conflicted younger member of the service and Ricki (Tom Hardy) a rogue agent who has information of his own Smiley slowly uncovers the muddled truth—occasionally breaking in to his own work place and crossing his own friends to do so.
Describing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as dense doesn't seem complicated enough. The first hour of the monster mystery moves at a sloth's pace trickling out information like the tedious drips of a leaky faucet. The talent on display is undeniable but the characters Smiley included are so cold that a connection can never be made. TTSS sporadically jumps around from past to present timelines without any indication: a tactic that proves especially confusing when scenes play out in reoccurring locations. It's not until halfway through that the movie decides to kick into high gear Smiley's search for a culprit finally becoming clear enough to thrill. A film that takes its time is one thing but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does so without any edge or hook.
What the movie lacks in coherency it makes up for in style and thespian gravitas. Director Tomas Alfredson has assembled some of the finest British performers working today and they turn the script's inaccessible spy jargon into poetry. Firth stands out as the group's suave slimeball a departure from his usual nice guy roles. Hardy assures us he's the next big thing once again as the agency's resident moppet a lover who breaks down after a romantic fling uncovers horrifying truth. Oldman is given the most difficult task of the bunch turning the reserved contemplative Smiley into a real human. He half succeeds—his observational slant in the beginning feels like an extension of the movie's bigger problems but once gets going in the second half of the film he's quite a bit of fun.
Alfredson constructs Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy like a cinematic architect each frame dripping with perfectly kitschy '70s production design and camera angles that make the spine tingle. He creates paranoia through framing similar to the Coppola's terrifying The Conversation but unlike that film TTSS doesn't have the characters or story to match. The movie strives to withhold information and succeeds—too much so. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy wants us to solve a mystery with George Smiley but it never clues us in to exactly why we should want to.
And then there was 12. The Oscar camp has announced the dozen second-round qualifiers for the Best Documentary prize. And judging by the lineup, it doesn't look like the deciding committee is experiencing its usual "forgetfulness" when it comes to potential nominees.
The list is a virtual hit parade, including some of the year's most talked-about films -- from the absurd ("Mr. Death" ) to the sublime ("Buena Vista Social Club") and the farcical ("American Movie") to the serious "On The Ropes."
The following is the complete list:
"Amargosa" "American Movie" "Beyond the Mat" "Buena Vista Social Club" "Genghis Blues" "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr." "On the Ropes" "One Day in September" "Pop & Me" "Smoke and Mirrors: A History of Denial" "The Source" "Speaking in Strings"
A committee of Academy members selected the docs. Final voting is currently taking place in Beverly Hills, New York and San Francisco where voters will screen the flicks before voting for five that'll earn official nominations. Overall, 55 feature-length docs were eligible for the 1999 competition.
Nominees for all 22 Academy Award categories - including Best Documentary -- will be announced Feb. 15 at 5:30 a.m. PST.
ALL HAIL NERDS: The unsung heroes of the movie business - tech heads, hardware geniuses, overworked engineers, etc. -- are getting their moment in the so-called limelight, too.
The Academy Awards folks are set to honor the behind-the-sceners for outstanding scientific and technical achievement in ceremonies March 4 in Beverly Hills. (Of course, unlike the movie-star types, the nerds will receive plaques and certificates, not shiny statues.)
Also, unlike the movie-star types, the nerds won't have to wait to find out if they've won. The Academy released its list of 12 techie awards Tuesday.
The following is a list of the recipients and their achievements.
Scientific and Engineering Awards:
Nick Phillips, for the design and development of the three-axis Libra III remote control camera head.
Fritz Gabriel Bauer, for the concept, design and engineering of the Moviecam Superlight 35mm Motion Picture Camera.
Iain Neil, Rick Gelbard and Panavision Inc., respectively, for the optical design, mechanical design and development of the Millennium Camera System viewfinder.
Huw Gwilym, Karl Lynch and Mark Crabtree, for the design and development of the AMS/Neve-Logic Digital Film Film Console for motion picture sound mixing.
James Moultrie, Mike Salter and Mark Craig Gerchman, for the mechanical design of the Cooke S4 Range of Fixed Focal Length Lenses for 35mm motion picture photography.
Marlowe A. Pichel, for development of the process for manufacturing Electro-Formed Metal Reflectors.
L. Ron Schmidt, for the concept, design and engineering of the Linear Loop Film Projectors.
Nat Tiffen of Tiffen Manufacturing Corporation, for the production of high-quality, durable, laminated color filters for motion picture photography.
Technical Achievement Awards:
Vivienne Dyer and Chris Woolf, for the design and development of the Rycote Microphone Windshield Modular System.
Leslie Drever, for the design and development of the Light Wave microphone windscreens and isolation mounts from Light Wave Systems.
Richard C. Sehlin, Dr. Mitchell J. Bogdanowicz and Mary L. Schmoeger of the Eastman Kodak Co., respectively for the concept, design and development of the Eastman Lamphouse Modification Filters.
Hoyt H. Yeatman Jr. of Dream Quest Images and John C. Brewer of the Eastman Kodak Company, for the identification and diagnosis leading to the elimination of the "red fringe" artifact in traveling matte composite photography.
NEW LOOK: The official poster for this year's Oscars has been unveiled -- and its so-called "exciting new look for the year 2000" is not as forward-thinking as one might expect.
The millennium-themed poster, designed by filmmaker/graphic artist Arnold Schwartzman for the fourth consecutive year, is based on the 1926 Fritz Lang classic "Metropolis," a flick set in the dystopian future (translation: bad days) of the 2000.
The inspiration for the poster (the encircling numerals, to be exact) can apparently be traced back to a sequence in the silent classic where a robot is brought to life by circles of electricity. No word from Schwartzman if the anti-authoritarian values of the Lang's film also informed his design.
Audiences can judge for themselves when 50,000 posters hit theaters and video retailers this week.