Tuesday, 25 January 2011

'Dr. No' and his friends, the Messrs. Bond

This is the first in a series of monthly pieces on the James Bond franchise, as part of The Incredible Suit's great Blogalongabond. For more info, check out here, and here. Everyone else seemed to be having fun so I decided to be awkward and pretentious because I'm like that, HA. 

Given that, at least in filmic form, James Bond is pushing fifty, it’s not all that surprising that the man’s changed a bit over the years. Even without the periodic facelifts, the seemingly unflappable agent with a license to kill has nevertheless had a few...identity crises. For, as time wanes on, the Britain Ian Fleming wrote within becoming an ever more distant memory, the Bond films find themselves in a bit of a dilemma; how can they continually present this figure as fresh and contemporary whilst still holding to his roots? It’s a question with interesting answers, particularly when Bond’s debut, Dr. No (1962), is considered.

And what an auspicious debut it is! Like the man himself, the disarming charm of Dr. No hides a self-assured, measured approach to violence that results in an engaging, often intelligent work, subtly balancing Jamaica, the sinister Crab Key Island, and of course, 007 himself. The parts fit together with an ease later films struggle to emulate. Connery’s Bond hasn’t yet had a chance to become caricature - a new cinematic figure, the Bond of Dr. No is an all-round more calculating figure, not yet having to rely utterly on the gadgets of Q or a more contrived appliance of his occasional gallows humour. In short, the reason this 007 takes the sheer liberty of actually wearing a hat is because he’s yet to become confined to his role as an institution rather than a living, breathing character.

The Bond of Dr. No is by no means vulnerable – indeed, his awareness of his own charms is perhaps at its most astute; in a wonderful double-bluff on the audience, Miss Taro fools us into thinking she has perhaps fallen for Bond’s charm, only to have staged another attempt at his life. Bond’s playing with the situation in turn becomes so explicit that, when he does ‘win' the wily Miss Taro, it becomes coldly clear that this is a man who uses sex as a weapon. Somewhere along the way of 007 becoming a collection of character traits, these more alarming tendencies have got lost by the wayside. Whether this is a product of modernity or numbing, or both, will hopefully be revealed more over the course of this series, but it is interesting to note that, in his first on-screen appearance, James is surrounded by the same old, white males who run the fading Imperial Britain he was conceived in. In the hazy nostalgia of this smoke-filled casino, a cinema scene hard to find in today’s age, his youthful vigour may stand out, but it is clear that these people equally represent a system 007 is a part of.

Naturally, as the first of its kind, Dr. No is also one of the most complete feeling Bond films; the audience needs no prior knowledge of expected tropes or character traits upon which the plot has been daintily hung, and a feeling of the ephemeral is rejected in clear allusions to a future threat, SPECTRE – a sense of continuity that has only recently returned to the franchise with Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008). As themselves something of a more concrete, ‘fresh start’, there are clear implications regarding Bond’s own sense of character in these later films that will be returned to when we reach them. For now, I’d like to close with a slightly off-track piece of information that, I think, will help illuminate the particular reading of the Bond series I'm pursuing here. In 2008, Sebastian Faulk’s Devil May Care was released. The first new Bond novel in six years, its plot returned Bond to the character’s original world of the Sixties, directly continuing from Fleming's own timeline. The following Bond novel, Carte Blanche, by Jeffery Deaver, is due later this year. Not only has it rejected the Sixties setting of the previous book in favour of modern day Dubai, it has done so to confront issues of Bond’s single-mindedness and sense of entitlement – in short, the essence of his character, which happens to be rooted in a very traditional, patriarchal sense of Britain. This might all seem a bit wishy-washy, but stick with me; it’s a thread I intend to return to in later Bond movies with a bit more clarity. After all, in Dr. No, SPECTRE was just a name, and James Bond will return...

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