Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Countdown To 007: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger


In the buildup to my Skyfall review on its UK release date next Friday, I'm republishing here my contributions to Flixist's ongoing feature, Across The Bond, where fellow Bond nerd Matthew Razak offer our thoughts on each movie in the fifty year old series and their relation to Ian Fleming's literary oeuvre. Here, I'll be covering three movies per day, starting today with Dr. No, From Russia With Love and the iconic Goldfinger.

Of course, there'll be more to this celebration of Bond that that. I'll also be providing a review to my review of the upcoming Bond video game 007 Legends, set to be published on Hit-Reset on Friday, and a review of Bond documentary Everything Or Nothing is also on its way. In the meantime, let's get started with three of the strongest movies in Bond's illustrious cinematic history...
  
DR. NO


These early movies stick closely to Ian Fleming's source material, but due to their relatively low budgets – even in 1962, a million dollars wasn't a particularly princely sum in filmmaking terms – also represent the few occasions when the novels are more spectacular than their adaptations. In the novel, Bond fights a giant squid, and the eponymous Doctor is smooshed under a pile of guano. For anyone who claims Craig's movies reflect the source material for being po-faced and serious, check again: Fleming had a definite taste for the absurd, but never descended into the wink-wink camp that blighted the worst of the Moore-era movies because he wrote it all with a straight face. The Dr. No movie keeps the tone low-key for the most part – be thankful producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman didn't go with the first draft of the script, which called for Dr. No to be played by a monkey - although there are traces of Fleming's sense of humour in Bond's dry wit, which is fully formed out of the gate, if noticeably colder than in later iterations.

If anything, the character is more fun for being slightly despicable: I love how he nonchalantly has Miss Taro arrested after spending the day bedding her. All he needs her to do is call her contact in No's organisation, but though he's putting his life in danger, willingly surrenders to her attempts to make him stick around before bunging her in a police car when he's had enough. Bond's attitude to women has softened over the years, and while that makes him more appropriate for the times, also makes him less interesting. Bond first and foremost exemplifies a kind of post-rationing hunger (for fine food, tailoring, women...) which, these days, has mutated into a kind of hyper-consumerist narcissism. Yet there's a clear sense, especially in the later novels, that Bond indulges himself out of recognition that his life could end at any moment. By making him more considerate towards his conquests and less sophisticated in his tastes (particularly in the Brosnan years, where he verged on metrosexualism), the basis for his cynicism and everything-or-nothing attitude is lost.

The scene immediately following Taro's ungallant arrest, where Bond sits in wait for No's assassin, is a rare instance of Bond biding his time, and the sight of him calmly playing solitaire with a silenced pistol by his side is a far cry from the whizz-bang-whallop of later movies. It's a realistic demonstration of Bond's fearsome efficiency: he sets a trap, then waits for the villain to ensnare himself. You get the impression Bond knew Dent's gun was empty all along, but was waiting for an excuse to execute him. Bond isn't a psychopath – in Fleming's novels, he's very much conscious of being a licenced killer, although too professional to let it affect him – but gets on with his job and kills people when he has to. Compare that to Tomorrow Never Dies or Quantum Of Solace, where he effectively goes on killing sprees, and it demonstrates the understated elegance of the characterisation in these early movies and Fleming's novels. As the first movie in a fifty-year old series, countless essays could be written about Dr. No and how it laid the tracks for what was to come. Relatively little has been said about how perfectly the writing underlying Sean Connery's flawless performance defines its hero, though. This and From Russia offer the purest representation of Fleming's Bond ever put on-screen.

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE 

 

Red wine with fish is one of my favourite lines in the Bond series, not least for Sean Connery's look of utter disgust at himself for not immediately shooting his dinner guest in the face for such a disgraceful cenatory faux-pas. Each actor brings something different to their Bond, and though in no way supported by anything in the movies, I like to think of Connery's interpretation as a slightly working class/blue collar version of the character, a man whose manners and tastes have been learnt rather than inherited, making him slightly self-conscious about them. (Roger Moore, in contrast, was the aristocratic Bond). It also demonstrates one of From Russia's less frequently acknowledged qualities, its wonderful sense of humour. From Bond's hints at a dirty trip to Tokyo with M, to Kerim Bay's majestically filthy one-liner after his mistress begs him to come to bed ("Back to the salt-mines") and Bond's riposte when entering Kerim's office the following morning to find the back wall destroyed and the mistress run away ("Found your technique too violent?"), it's easily one of the most quotable Bonds, despite rarely being given due credit.

The movie follows the plot of Ian Fleming's novel quite closely, though there are a few interesting differences. The 'red wine with fish' line is a movie creation, despite being as perfect as anything Bond's creator ever came up with. Donald 'Red' Grant is given a lot more backstory, with the first third of the novel dedicated to how he came to be chief executioner for SMERSH, the Russian secret service. (In the movie, he works for criminal organisation SPECTRE, which only entered Fleming's canon with Thunderball). Grant is set up as the anti-Bond, and has the pointless but sinister characteristic of being at his most dangerous and feral under a full moon. Rosa Klebb is also characterised more precisely as a sadistic torturer who uses her repugnant sexuality to extract information. She's hinted at being bisexual - the novels' sexual politics are very much of their time - and first appears in front of Tatiana wearing lingerie, making some rather blunt advances. ("Turn off the light my dear. [...] We must get to know each other better."). Fleming tactfully describes her as looking like 'the oldest and ugliest whore in the world'.

From Russia was hurried into production after John F Kennedy named the novel as one of his top ten, and with the cast and crew having cut their teeth on Dr. No, the key elements of the formula were already in place and the source material so strong (one of Fleming's best, which is saying something) that the resulting film is not only the best movie in the Bond series, but one of the most accomplished, well-rounded action movies ever made. The final third is as explosive as any modern release, swapping between trains, trucks, boats and helicopters, with each sequence offering something different, but equally exciting. The only thing missing is Fleming's cliffhanger, where Klebb succeeds in stabbing Bond with the poisoned blade in her shoe, yet the movie probably works better as a self-contained piece, despite the final scene's hilariously dismal back-projection.

The movie even offers a bit of series continuity by having SPECTRE target Bond as a result of his killing Dr. No. Sylvia Trench also makes a return appearance, intended to be a recurring character - whom Bond was possibly intended to marry in On Her Majesty's Secret Service - before finding no place in Goldfinger. If anyone states Quantum Of Solace was the first direct sequel to a preceding Bond movie, be sure to correct them before their ignorance extends to ordering the wrong wines.

A few other trivia notes: the novel's title has a comma after Russia where the movie's doesn't. One of the gypsy fighting girls is played by Martine Beswick, who previously appeared as a dancing shadow girl in Dr. No (having auditioned for a main part) and later as Paula in Thunderball. Anthony Dawson, Professor Dent in Dr.No, plays Blofeld here (although the voice is dubbed), and his right hand man is Walter Gotell, who later portrayed General Gogol throughout the Roger Moore / Timothy Dalton eras. Finally, the insanely charismatic Mexican actor Pedro Armend├íriz (Kerim Bey) committed suicide shortly after From Russia was released, having been severely ill at the time of filming, but his legacy lived on when his son was cast as a corrupt South American presidente in Licence To Kill. The Bond 'family' has been pretty tight knit over the years, yet even twenty-two iconic movies down the line, From Russia marked the moment when all the elements came together to produce a genuine masterpiece of its time and genre.

GOLDFINGER

  
I recently published an article for Bond Day about Goldfinger's impact on six year old self, then unprepared for deadly hats, golden girls and circumcision by laser. Objectively, From Russia With Love is the most artistically accomplished entry in the Bond canon, but Goldfinger is my favourite, not to mention the Bondiest Bond of all. It's lighter and broader than its predecessors, but takes the threat against its hero just seriously enough to be a credible thriller as well as groundbreaking piece of entertainment. The aforementioned laser scene balances silliness with agonising suspense, hitting the sweet spot between the two where the Bond formula is at its most shamelessly pleasurable.

Despite being among the series' most beloved movies, the novel is not one of Fleming's best. There's a glaring plot hole which the movie writers resolve brilliantly - the book's plot has Goldfinger planning to rob Fort Knox, ignoring the logistic impossibility of moving so much gold in a short space of time; the movie has him attempting to irradiate it with an 'atomic device', vastly increasingly the value of his own stock - while Bond's success relies entirely on a turn of blind chance. More fun is the novel's hilariously antiquated perspective on lesbianism: Pussy Galore, whose sexuality is only vaguely hinted at in the movie ('You can turn off the charm, I'm immune'), is given history as the former leader of acrobat troupe doubling up as cat burgulars, groaningly called 'Pussy Galore And Her Abro-cats', before becoming head of a Harlem lesbian gang called - get this - the Cement Mixers. It may not be very progressive, but that name gets a laugh out of me every time. Better yet, Galore spends half the book putting the moves on Bond's female companion, annoying him no end before his manliness wins out and he 'turns' her in that way only '50s men could.

The movie doesn't make things much better in that regard, just less funny - Bond could be accused of getting a teensy bit rapey in that barn - but everywhere else is one of the most visually and verbally quotable movies ever made. From the moment Bond strips out of his wetsuit to reveal a crisp white dinner jacket, the movie becomes a non-stop procession of moments not only emblematic of the Bond series, but engrained in cinematic history. There's the golden girl, the golf game at Stoke Poges (where Goldfinger does the worst putt I've ever seen), Oddjob (the Korean manservant whom my wonderful black labrador is named after), all those snappy one-liners, the assault on Fort Knox, Goldfinger getting sucked out of a plane (Oddjob's fate in the novel) to play his golden harp... it never ceases to amaze quite how much a single movie has contributed to modern pop culture.

As much as I love From Russia, Bond wouldn't have survived fifty years had Goldfinger not brought pizazz and levity to a series then consisting of two superlative but straightforward genre thrillers. All modern blockbusters owe the movie a debt, whether in visual style, tone or structure. Plus, Connery gets to utter the immortal line 'You're a woman of many parts, Pussy', and that in itself is a total win on anyone's terms. 
 
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5 comments:

Silent Hunter said...

Good article.

One other thing about Goldfinger that you forgot to mention - in the novel, Goldfinger's plan is to use the nuke to open the vault...

Xander Markham said...

Glad you enjoyed it, always encouraging to get positive feedback from a fellow Bond fan! And yes, that's another aspect of Fleming's Goldfinger plot which is, perhaps, not among the best thought out of his literary canon...!

Paul Tully said...

A fascinating set of articles, but I'm absolutely flabberghasted that you have neglected to examine the impact of Ursula Andress's Honey Ryder character (as she was recently voted most iconic Bond girl) nor the actor Joseph Wiseman's (himself an accomplished Shakespearean actor) intriguing portrayal of Dr No. In fact, given the initial Connery films are clearly a stated favourite, these omissions are quite considerable. There is also no review of the highly unsatisfactory ending to this first Connery film, leaving the audeince completely underwhelmed (given the impressive first half). Whilst I agree with you that goldfinger has some memorable sequences (including the title song, Shirley eaton's demise, the laser sequence and the introduction of Honor Blackman), the plot is nonsensical and the ending a huge anticlimax. Connery's cool assassin in the first two movies begins to get rather tedious, and I for one was thankful that Roger Moore came in to give Bond a sense of class and charisma. Whilst I share many of your comments - insightfully made -on the the Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only movies, I feel you have undersold Moore's Live and Let Die which offers genuine mystery and mystique. I agree - JW Pepper is a dreadul, truly dreadful invention - and lets down an otherwise excellent Bond movie, and certainly a tighter story than Goldfinger.

Xander Markham said...

Thanks for your comment, Paul. The great thing about Bond and its fandom is the diversity of opinion, with any actor or movie having no shortage of defenders and detractors. Many people adore LALD for the reasons you cite, and it is a lot of fun, but I'm a fan of the more serious, Flemingian Bond.

As for Honey Rider, unfortunately there are always things that have to be left out short of each article stretching to several thousand words, and in this case, despite the bikini's obvious impact, I felt other areas of conversation were more important.

Silent Hunter said...

Re Honey - the bikini is justifiably well-known, but the character is atrocious.