So it’s the day of our lord Thanksgiving, 2012. I have eaten of the fatted bird, I have baked of the fatted pumpkin, and all that is left is the James Bond marathon on teevee. This happens every year. In fact, I might have planned on it. See, I saw Skyfall when it came out a few weeks ago, and like you do whenever you see a Bond movie, I considered all the Bond movies I had seen and those I had not. A friend came into town to see it with TheKittyMeister and me, and lo! he knows all there is to know about them. In about one minute he sketched all the movies, in order, and I saw I had seen many, maybe around half. And, well, despite my growth and my grown-up job and my dissertation and all that shit, I am still a child of the nerdery. I want to have seen all of anything I like, and though I don’t think about them all the time, I do really like the Bond movies and the phenomenon they represent. So, fuck it, why not? Let’s watch all the Bond movies, shall we? The first one’s Doctor No, right?
OK, I’m not always going to go point by point through the film, and I won’t exactly this time. But the opening is non-standard, I suppose. It opens with a bunch of trippy visuals,followed by silhouettes of three blind men set caning around, set to the tune of “Three Blind Mice.” What is this in my Bond movie, hey? But this not only makes sense, it’s important. The three blind men are hitmen, who are not actually blind (this is not a kung-fu movie); they kill some British dude and his secretary. Turns out he’s trying to figure out what’s fucking with Cape Canaveral’s rocket launches. Spoiler: it’s Doctor No.
Bond is off at his club playing baccarat, the game that, if I remember Pinky and the Brain correctly, precisely one person (mouse) in the entire world understands how to play. He goes off, meets M at three in the morning, having been playing cards at two in the morning, I guess, gets orders, gets dressed down for carrying a non-standard weapon (a Beretta) and then finds the lady he was playing with in his club in his apartment. They get it on and Bond gets on a plane.
OK, a little less summary. Compared to other Bond films this is a strange one, but not only do I like it, I wish some more would have tried to do what it does. This film is about fear and paranoia. Doctor No isn’t revealed, save his voice, until very late in the film. It doesn’t matter, he’s not a secret – we know he’s the fucking villain. And the actor isn’t a surprise, like back when Boris Karloff played Frankenstein’s creature. It’s just that Bond is trying to find him, so we struggle against the forced mystery as well. He plies his trade, using hairs and baby powder to check for intruders in his hotel room. He has no idea who he can trust, and indeed people who seem to just be goofballs at the dead man’s club are in fact lieutenants in Doctor No’s organization. They all fear him desperately, something Bond comments on.
Indeed, Bond is also afraid. It isn’t fair to say that Bond is never afraid in the later movies, but certainly by Brosnan’s time they had to remind themselves as they made the movies that Bond should be afraid sometimes – and Daniel Craig’s movies so far have, of course, tried to be antidotes to that tendency to lose Bond’s fear. But he is desperately afraid throughout this movie. Near the end, he breaks out of a prison cell and is simply terrified before he does so. He is alone, and every time he is alone we get to see him like this, worried, frustrated, nothing like the persona he shows everyone else – and the film makes clear it is one. The most famous example, I suppose, is when he finds the spider in his bed. Doctor No orders one of his minions to put it in Bond’s bed, and he wakes to find it already on hi. He sits, entirely still, while it slowly crawls up him. When it wanders onto his pillow he leaps from bed and smashes it with his shoe, over and over. Long enough that it’s nearly uncomfortable. He stares startled around his room, sweaty, half-wrapped in the bedclothes. Then the movie cuts immediately to him, laundered, confident, walking into an office. It draws an immediate contradiction, and leaves us knowing he feels that way all the time. He says as much to Honey Diver (look, I know, I didn’t name her) in Doctor No’s fortress. She is comforted to find his hand is as sweaty as hers.
The film also takes less time to explain every little thing because, honestly, there’s not much to explain. Bond reads telegrams we never see, responds to tells in people the camera doesn’t focus on. It’s refreshing, honestly. The terror, the mystery, the lack of information (even though I never felt lost), they all add up to a sense of dread, even though James is threatened about as often as he is in the later films. I wonder if it has anything to do with the paranoia prevalent at the time. It was the rough part of the Cold War, after all (as though any of it was an easy time?). And there’s a whole other essay about the imperial holdings question – a British agent, aided by an American (Felix Leiter), in Jamaica, with a caricature of a Jamaican sailor as assistant who believes a dragon will kill anyone who steps foot on No’s island. Doctor No himself is the child of a missionary (German, I believe?) and a Chinese woman. Honey Diver never had any formal education, traveled the world with her father, who was a marine biologist (who didn’t figure his daughter needed to go to school, I guess?) – she also believes in the dragon.
Oh, and the movie does use the Bond theme mostly for 007 walking and driving around, and never really when he does something really cool. Honestly, the theme of the movie isn’t the music that plays in the intro., it’s “Under the Mango Tree.”
Look forward to another post tomorrow about the sequel, From Russia with Love.