3 A.M. FILMS
by Brundage, James Brundage
Copyright © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
There's no business like show business, and nobody knows this like the men who made Dr. No. After all: what other business is there where a movie can not only be a hit in its own time, but be a hit 20 years later? What other business than those dealing with intellectual property allow you to survive the death of the writer (Ian Fleming), God knows how many (I believe it was 7) different actors in your main character, 19 different girls playing the same part, dozens of utterances of the two catchphrases ("Bond, James Bond" and "Shaken, not Stirred"), two parodies, one of which broke the fifty-million mark in its opening week of release, two incarnations of the same spoof show, one incarnation (later copied by Jhonny Quest) of a spin-off series involving the British secret agent's song, plenty of tongue-in-cheek jokes, and the same basic plot being used over and over again?
Although there actually is another business where basically the same gimmicks can be pulled (that is, politics), show business is the only one in which people will not only take the same thing over and over again - they will love it. They will take Bond-mania into their culture, make it part of the collective psyche of Americana, and further propel the preexisting anglophilia built upon the brow system into levels previously unforeseeable.
Not that this is a bad thing. Sure, the rules of the horror franchise according to Jamie Kennedy state that all franchises must end, but Bond isn't going any time soon. Bond will probably live on after its producers die. It will probably live on after Bond himself has died. It has already survived the end of the Cold War - the largest barrier to its success as a film series. It's here, and it's probably here to stay (at least as long as they keep putting "Bond will return" at the end of each Bond flick).
But how many people have actually seen what started it all? How many people have seen the original franchise maker? Before Halloween, before Friday the 13th, and before Nightmare on Elm Street, there was Bond. And Bond started in 1962 with Dr. No.
In Dr. No, we have all of the familiar elements that have formed the population of Bond films ever since. We have the CIA agent, Felix Leiter (Jack Lord). We have the oddly-named female, Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress). We have the thoroughly messed up villain, Dr. No (Joseph Weisman). And we have Bond, James Bond (Sean Connery). We actually have a moderately complex plot, although what happens in the next five minutes is never an incredible surprise.
By modern standards, the special effects and the action level is cheesy, and by modern standards, the plot is too complex for an action movie. The jokes are still cheesy, and, at long last, I know what Mike Meyers was on about all this time. As an individual film, Dr. No is unimpressive yet wondrous, inexplicably enjoyable, and a nice taste of wry fun - a walking contradiction. But it is not a cinematic classic.
So why am I watching it?
The answer is that I am a curious person. Someone who has somehow gotten to be dubbed as a movies expert on Epinions, I consider myself more of an expert in Americana as much as anything else. I know modern mainstream films - more so ever since I began getting in free when I made friends with the staff at a local theatre in 1993 and even more so when I ended up in my current job as a film critic. I had not seen that many movies before that period, and the ones I had seen are either because I went out to see them at a reissue or because I decided to wander the isles of a video store looking for an older movie. Yet I have an enormous respect for my cinematic forebears, if only because I am curious as to how things became this way. That is why I have this column, and that is why I continue to actually pay to see older movies.
So the question raised with Dr. No, hindsight being 20/20, is what was special about it? What made producers choose Ian Flemings' spy series out of all of the espionage serials of its kind during the 50s to adapt into a film, and what made them continue to make one film into a franchise. What made the corporate heads of Hollywood look at Dr. No in 1962 and proclaim "a franchise is born."
Let it be known for the purposes of this retrospective that, although I have two of the Bond books (one adapted, another not yet adapted) in my closet, they are only collecting dust - I have never read a Bond book. But, since the last three Bond films have been original screenplays, it hardly matters. What matters in this is that people took a look at Bond and decided that Bond meant money - and lots of it: and those people were right.
How did Bond become brand?
In order to create a franchise, one must have the template in the form of the first movie. Writers can deviate from the template later, but the basics are still the same, and Dr. No has every single thing that almost every Bond film has had since. To illustrate this, I will show you the basics of my almost infant theory on the Bond action instigation template (MAI TAI), and how this existed in some form both in the first and most recent Bond films.
Item one: A lot of letters.
First we have "M." We always have "M." Although "Q" didn't show up until a few flicks later, we've always had a bunch of letters and numbers around - par for the course in espionage. In Dr. No, we had MI-6, the CIA, and a fictitious group called SPECTRE that played heavy roles in the plot. In The World is Not Enough (TWINE), we again had the participation of MI-6, a very brief cameo of the CIA, and the actual organization OPEC (which was why the bad girl needed to detonate a nuke, so she could steal OPEC's business (with gas prices today, can we really blame her?).
Item two: two girls and a guy.
Almost every Bond film has at least two girls going after Bond and Bond himself. There is almost always one good girl and one bad girl, and at least one of them gets a name that lends itself to puns. (i.e. Xenia Onatop). In Dr. No, the name twisted into pun is Honey Ryder. In TWINE, it is Christmas. In Dr. No, about three different actresses we never see again try to kill Bond, and in TWINE, it mainly is Sophie Marceau.
Item three: the villains.
Although the villains have ranged from the really cool to the really pitiful, they have always been a might odd, providing that extra touch that makes us love Bond getting the better of them so much. Dr. No had no hands, whereas Robert Carlyle's character in TWINE had no nerve endings.
Item four: the catchphrases.
Bond has always said "Bond, James Bond" and "Shaken, not Stirred" - but he was also the original action hero to use kill-the-villain catchphrases. Although said catchphrases are only used in Dr. No when the first henchman is dispatched (after the man is already dead, Bond tells a porter at the British magistrate Not to "let him get away."). I believe TWINE's catchphrase was "he lost his nerve."
Item five: the transient plot.
More than one would think, most plots fade quickly. They can't live for more than five years, because the films make too many cultural references. Bond, however, has avoided making references to the future and instead made references to the recorded historical past - not to what surrounds them. Although Dr. No's opening sequence is a hoot to watch after having seen Austin Powers, its opening sequence is about the only time Bond ever makes a reference to exactly when it is culturally. With a few tweaks, the story can be completely revamped and shipped out again. This is perhaps the most important item to the franchise, because the franchise needs to endure longer than the culture it represents. Each Bond film makes only minute references to the others - and anything that is referenced more than once is part of the franchise: the template itself.
If you examine other franchises (and franchise attempts), the same basics tend to be present. The Bond template is everywhere, albeit with variations (spoofing Kirsten Dunst in Interview of the Vampire - "a template of templates: how avant-garde"). Dr. No made the template, and its progeny have broken the template when convenient - and, in hindsight, that is what makes Dr. No at the very least an interesting study in Americana to watch, and required viewing for all those who will continue to patron Bond and Bond's spoofs.
Dr. No (1962)
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Terrence Young
Producer: Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman
Writer: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkley Mather
Starring: Sean Connery, Ursula Andress (in various states of undress), and Joseph Weismann
James Brundage has been a freelance writer and film critic since 1995. He has lost count of how many movies he has seen. One of the only writers to only receive payment for online work, James has been working for online publications since 1997. He is now something of an Internet guru, running the electronica band "Godard is Dead" off of MP3.com, managing the electronic syndication group Hypocritical Syndication, being one of the most popular film reviewers on Epinions, and running the fledgling Flash 4 website design company Unfinished Productions. He is also editor-in-chief of Short Stuff a short film reviews site. He attends Kent State University.
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