Tag Archives: James Bond

Skyfall Countdown Day 24: Dr. No

“Bond… James Bond.”

It’s been a bit of a dry spell for us fans of James Bond of late, a drought not seen since the dreaded 1989-1995 hiatus when a combination of lawsuits, hostile takeovers and general public ennui made it seem like 007 had had his day.  The financial woes of the legendary MGM have kept Bond off the big screen since 2008, but as anyone who’s seen the trailers for Skyfall can attest, he’s ready to roar back in a big way, with Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes at the helm and a powerhouse A-list cast including the likes of Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney.  It occurred to me this morning that there are 24 days until the movie is released here in North America, and that there have been 24 James Bond films preceding this one (if you include the “non-official” 1967 Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again).  What better way to celebrate this new Bond than to review one 007 adventure a day culminating with my take on Skyfall (because you know I’ll be there on opening night)?  So let’s get down to it then – with the movie that started this 50-year rollercoaster ride.

Dr. No seemed an unlikely choice to kick off the film series in 1962 – it was Ian Fleming’s sixth James Bond novel and hardly the most cinematic of the ones he had written up to that date – to say nothing of that oddball title, a moniker probably more suited to a goofy 1930’s Flash Gordon-type serial.  True enough, producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had wanted to make Thunderball first, but it was tied up in litigation.  And the unknown Sean Connery was not anybody’s first choice for the leading role – Fleming himself wanted David Niven, and offers had been rejected by bankable stars of the day like Cary Grant, James Mason and Patrick McGoohan.  Yet it’s difficult to imagine any of them defining the role the way Connery did, particularly in his introductory scene.  There’s a sort of laissez-faire to the way Connery announces “Bond… James Bond,” cigarette dangling from his lips, like he just doesn’t give a rat’s arse whether you care who he is – he’s that confident in his awesomeness.  (One can imagine Grant delivering the line with his customary wink and smile – James Bond would have been Cary Grant, not the other way around.)

There has been a copious amount of criticism written around the “James Bond formula” – the exotic locations, the women, the cartoonish megalomania of the villains.  Many of the elements are introduced in Dr. No, but almost seem like they’re in rough draft form; indeed, it’s difficult to look at the movie objectively 50 years on.  The plot is probably one of the simplest of the film series – a British agent is murdered in Jamaica after looking into reports of radio interference with American space launches, and James Bond is sent in to investigate.  Bond is assisted by CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and local boatman Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), and eventually crosses paths with the half-German half-Chinese, handless Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), agent of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), who is using his private nuclear reactor to knock the American rockets out of the sky.  And of course there’s eye candy in the form of Eunice Gayson as Sylvia Trench, Zena Marshall as Miss Taro, 1961’s Miss Jamaica Marguerite LeWars as a photographer, and most famously, the voluptuous Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), whom Bond famously encounters as she strolls out of the ocean in a white bikini, knife on her hip, singing “Underneath the Mango Tree.”

Dr. No is a tough sell to modern audiences if it isn’t the first Bond movie you’ve ever seen.  It was made on a shoestring budget of $1 million (nowadays, that wouldn’t even pay for a third of an episode of CSI) and a lot of it does look very cheap.  The acting is pretty painful across the board, and Connery himself tends to flap his gums and yell his lines as he tries to figure out the character, not yet realizing that intensity doesn’t require volume.  Andress begins a long tradition of Bond girls having their lines completely dubbed by another actress, and the effect can be greatly distracting.  Apart from Wiseman, who is aware of his character’s cartoonishness and underplays to compensate, none of the villains are terribly menacing.  The fight and chase scenes are nothing special.  The “dragon tank” is a goofy excuse for a prop that belongs on Gilligan’s Island.  The latter half of the film, once Dr. No finally enters the picture, slows down and drags where it should be building tension to a breaking point, such that the climactic battle between Bond and the villain seems a bit like an afterthought.  Apart from the singular James Bond theme (which is regrettably hacked up in the opening credits) the musical score is cheesy and instantly forgettable.  Yet compared to the largesse of some of the later films, there is a rawness to this adventure and more of a sense of Bond as a bruiser of a man relying on his skills, wits and fists to extricate himself from sticky situations, rather than the finely-tailored dandy with nary a hair out of place who always has the right gadget at the right time.  When a bloodied, battered Bond is crawling through an air vent to escape Dr. No’s lair, you truly worry whether he’s going to make it out alive.  And there are several memorable scenes that help to define Bond as a new kind of morally uncompromising hero, most notably when he shoots an unarmed man in cold blood, and callously turns a woman he’s just slept with over to the police.  Bond is always at his best when he’s being an unrepentant badass.

In most recaps of the Bond series, Dr. No tends to rate around the middle, which is where I’d probably place it.  It’s a little low-key for how I like my James Bond, and really shows its age in certain places, particularly in its pacing.  It has not yet acquired the panache and greater sense of fun of the mid-60’s Bond pictures, and the cheapness of its budget is quite evident throughout.  In recipe terms, Dr. No is a soufflé with all the right ingredients that doesn’t quite manage to rise all the way.  But you certainly cannot argue that without it and its success to set the stage, we would never have had the James Bond that we’ve grown up with all these decades and continue to love.  That alone tends to earn it both a pass for its faults, and a greater appreciation of what it is – a competently-executed thriller bursting with promise for what is to come.

Tomorrow:  From Russia with Love raises the bar.

The charms of James Bond’s Vesper

“Once you’ve tasted it, it’s all you want to drink.”

“I had never tasted anything so cool and clean.  They made me feel civilized.”  Ernest Hemingway on martinis, in A Farewell to Arms

Sitting here this morning listening to Adele’s new Skyfall theme song – a definite callback to the heady days of Shirley Bassey after the well-meaning but ill-advised collaboration that was Jack White and Alicia Keys’ “Another Way to Die” for Quantum of Solace – it’s a struggle to encapsulate in less than several thousand long-winded words exactly the impact James Bond has had on my life, how he has been a reliable friend in darker times and something of a model for far more men than just I as what exactly it is to be a man.  I can admit that Ian Fleming is probably the third in the holy trinity of writers who have helped me forge my own style, along with Gene Roddenberry and Aaron Sorkin – less in the overall philosophical approach of the latter two but more in how to shape narrative, twist one’s plots and compel readers to turn pages.  But enough about all that.  It’s James Bond Day and it’s an occasion to celebrate literature and cinema’s most enduring secret agent.  Today I’m veering away from the usual heavy stuff and talking about drinks.  In particular, James Bond’s drink of choice:  the Vesper martini.  As originally described in the Casino Royale novel, to be served in a deep champagne goblet:

“Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

I love martinis.  They are a drink of sophistication and elegance – with a martini glass in your hand it’s natural to find yourself standing a little straighter, feeling a suaveness surging through your veins.  Perhaps they even brace you with enough confidence to approach the voluptuous brunette in the slinky dress at the end of the bar who might just be a Russian agent.  The effort to prepare the martini just right, as opposed to say, simply pouring a scotch over some ice, only adds to its charm.  Admittedly, the definition has gotten a bit fuzzy as they’ve become more popular, to the point where simply putting anything in the right glass is considered a “martini.”  But even though I might enjoy the diversion of a chocolate or berry martini from time to time, when it comes to the martini experience in its purest form, you have to go back to something like the Vesper. 

Ingredients for the perfect Vesper are not as easily found as you might think, making the experience of one a rare sensory pleasure.  The first wrinkle in the ointment is the Kina Lillet.  Lillet is not vermouth, it is what’s called an aperitif wine.  Kina Lillet, unfortunately, isn’t made anymore.  The substitute is Lillet Blanc, and even that can be tricky, but not impossible to track down.  The fortunate thing about it is unless you are planning on having two or three of these daily, one Lillet bottle should last a good while.  Your choice of gin and vodka matter also – I’ve read that the process of manufacturing them has changed somewhat since Ian Fleming’s time, and that the typical Gordon’s or Smirnoff/Stoli/whatever else available commercially are not as strong as they would have been in 1953.  The impact for me seems to be largely in the vodka.  80 proof is the strongest you can purchase in Canada, so I’ve made it a point to stop in at the duty free whenever we’re vacationing across the border and pick up the 100 proof blue-label Smirnoff.  I have noticed, and those I’ve served it to have commented also, that the stronger vodka seems to cut the intensity of the gin somewhat and make for a smoother drink.  Above all, it’s critical that the mixture remain ice cold – a warm Vesper can taste a little bit like lighter fluid.  I find it helps a little to pre-chill the glasses, then pack the shaker with as much ice as it can reasonably handle before adding the ingredients and shaking away.  If one measure as described above = one shot, you will usually have enough to serve two completed drinks (depending how you pour) and don’t forget the critical slice of lemon peel.  Or, you can try the Felix Leiter variation from the movie:  “Bring me one as well, keep the fruit.”  I find that the citrus oils from the freshly sliced lemon are a nice accent though, and after all, the best way to enjoy a Vesper is just the way Bond ordered it.

The quote accompanying the photo is accurate – the Vesper spoils you, it’s that good.  Next to it, appletinis and crantinis and other varieties of fruitinis might as well be watered-down Kool-Aid.  The Vesper is more than a drink; it’s a statement, a marking of one’s territory as a man of refined taste, someone who can cut through the superficial and home in on the richness of life lurking beneath the surface distractions.  There is a world-weariness to James Bond the character – he is essentially a contradiction of a man who is cynical about civilization but still finds it within himself to fight for his ideals of good versus evil.  In his reflective moments, Vesper in hand, the potent potion trickling through his bloodstream, he may find himself questioning the point of it all – why fight on, why continue posing as St. George, when there will always be another bad guy – another dragon – around the next corner?  It is in the fight itself that the resolve of one’s character is proven, win or lose, and like it or not, Bond is not Bond without that fight.  Nor are we.  (See, I can’t escape the philosophical stuff even when I try.)

Happy 50th James Bond – have a Vesper on me.

In fairness, I did like The Lord of the Rings too (Part 1)

Frodo eyeing Sting for the first time, duplicating my skeptical look at the prospect of a Lord of the Rings movie.

The Huffington Post quoted me praising Star Wars in their “battle of the franchises,” in which, following preliminary rounds that have seen spirited contenders such as Harry Potter and James Bond fall by the wayside, Jedi now fight hobbits in the quest for the ultimate prize – the top rank in a meaningless, statistically-flawed survey of genre popularity.  Judging such things is a bit like trying to assign criteria to beauty – everyone has his own preference, and for infinite different reasons.  The same can be said for how I and many like me weigh Star Wars against The Lord of the Rings.  How we view them depends on who we are, what our circumstances are when we experience them for the first time, and how those experiences evolve as we grow and accrue the cynicism of wisdom to find endless fault with what once sparked only wonder.

I grew up with Star Wars, but can’t say the same for The Lord of the Rings.  I saw the Ralph Bakshi animated version at a friend’s birthday party when I was six or seven and what I recall most was the entire group of youngsters finding it tiresome and cheap and quickly shutting it off to listen to the newest Duran Duran record instead.  As I got older, it was one of those elements of popular culture that I was always aware of, but never terribly interested in exploring further (kindly recall that this would have been when the idea of sitting down with three enormous volumes of Tolkien prose would be quickly supplanted by the sight of a shapely pair of tanned legs strolling by).  And I was jaded by cinematic fantasy throughout the 80’s and 90’s:  endless chintzy, low-budget productions with lousy special effects, cruddy-looking monsters, embarrassing writing, hammy acting by D-list performers and the infuriating cliché of the “magical portal to Los Angeles.”  After all, why pit your dashing heroes against dastardly villains in a wondrous setting of visceral imagination (you know, something you’d actually have to pay somebody talented and expensive to dream up) when you can have them duke it out on Sunset Boulevard while hip-hop plays over each swing of their enchanted swords?  On television, mainstays like Hercules and Xena were amusing diversions, but drowned in smirking, anachronistic pop culture references, and characters’ ability to die and resurrect ad infinitum, what a friend once called “a day pass to the underworld,” undermined any sense of stakes when the scripts could be bothered trying to aim for it.  You got the sense that the creative sorts behind these ventures considered their target audience strictly ADD-afflicted kids.  Given little consideration was any semblance of “the big ideas” that fantasy can tackle, or any sense that these characters were remotely human.

Around the turn of the millennium I’d heard rumblings here and there that a new movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was underway.  Oh yeah, that crummy cartoon, I thought to myself.  The CV of director Peter Jackson was not encouraging either; the few minutes of The Frighteners I’d seen were silly.  When the appalling Dungeons & Dragons limped its way onto the screen in 2000, I thought it was a pretty accurate barometer of how the new LOTR would turn out.  Nobody could do this right, not with the kind of verisimilitude that fantasy cried out for, and this unknown New Zealander with a few weird-ass movies on his IMDb page certainly wasn’t going to be the first.

Then, in early 2001, someone sent me a Fellowship of the Ring promotional calendar.  And I was floored by what I saw – portraits of esteemed actors like Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett and Ian Holm in richly detailed costumes as wizards, elves and hobbits.  Steven Tyler’s daughter looking simply radiant as Arwen.  North and Rudy as Frodo and Sam respectively.  The grizzly-looking guy who played Satan in The Prophecy as Aragorn, and what’s this… the MAN himself, Sean Bean as Boromir.  Okay, I thought, there might be something to this after all.  Especially since the quality of this calendar proved that some serious coin had been poured into this endeavour, it wasn’t a one-off “let’s-cut-our-losses-and-sell-the-rights-to-Taco-Bell” promotion.  Maybe, I dared to hope.  Maybe this time, they’ll get it right.  Thus, unbelieving me decided it was finally time to set about reading the books, so I could see how, despite all this incredible design work, the filmmakers would screw everything up.

Certainly a lot of Tolkien’s original work is decidedly uncinematic (not that it’s a bad thing, just some stuff fundamentally works better on the page).  Goofy Tom Bombadil seemed like a train wreck waiting to happen, and I cringed every time Sam burst into tears or characters broke into song at the drop of a wizard’s hat like they were starring in a Middle-earth revival of Guys & Dolls.  Realistically, I thought, for this to be adapted faithfully you’d have to turn it into a ten-hour musical.  But coming to it late, in the shadow of the upcoming films, I didn’t find any story beat I was particularly attached to, or dying to see realized in 35 millimeter.  I thought it could have made a great movie; I was just saddled with memories of 20 years of bad movies and could visualize the visible matte lines, crude animation and histrionic over-emoting under a synthesizer score that could have resulted.  Even as the months ticked away, trailers leaked out into the world, a traveling exhibit of the movie’s props and artwork made a stop in Toronto around my birthday, part of me tempered my excitement with a pestering reminder that after all of this promise, the inevitable letdown was soon to come.  It still could have gone so wrong.

Then, just after midnight on December 17th, 2001, the lights went down and the screen came to life…

(To Be Continued)

Going home again (or not)

Catching up on my James Bond gossip today, as I am wont, I came across a snippet of an article about how Pierce Brosnan doesn’t like to watch his Bond movies.  This is not an uncommon stance among actors.  In fact I can’t think of a single actor I’ve ever heard of claiming that he or she enjoys checking out their old stuff.  Maybe it’s a stock reply because they think that otherwise they’ll come off as immodest.  But it’s probably genuine.  I can recall attending sci-fi conventions and being surprised, at least at the early ones, that the actors knew far less about the work they’d appeared in than the fans in the audience.  How could they not know?  They were in it, for Pete’s sake, they must have watched it a thousand times too!  Of course they should be aware that you can’t fire the phasers by pushing the seventh button on the display panel, it’s the eighth button.  Sheesh.  (Cue the Simpsons nerd saying “I hope someone got fired for that blunder.”)  So I read this article about Brosnan and I’m reminded of the post I wrote defending George Lucas’ right to tinker with his creation.  It’s an interesting contrast between the artist who abandons his work without a second thought and the one who obsesses over getting it right for years on end.  The spectrum of writers must be of the same diverse breadth.  Look back, or move ever forward without the mirror?

George Harrison wrote in the liner notes of the 2000 CD reissue of his 1971 triple album All Things Must Pass that he had to resist the temptation to remix every song.  As I’ve admitted previously, I’m a tinkerer when it comes to my words.  I edit and re-edit, deleting and shifting words around in pursuit of the perfect sentence.  It’s probably not the best way to flex one’s writing muscles – not nearly as productive as simply letting go and watching the words pour out.  That is the notion behind NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, what those of us who can’t grow mustaches well do in lieu of Movember), in that you are not permitted to go back and edit until you have completed the month’s worth of writing (and finished a first draft to boot).  But frankly, there are days where I just don’t have it in me to create much new stuff, and editing is a stopgap way to keep the juices trickling, if not flowing.  I’m aware of the school of thought that says that on days like that you should force yourself to write anyway.  Perhaps that’s true.  That is one of the reasons I find blogging refreshing.  Something can be written spontaneously about the events of the day, completed and sent off into the void with little thought to looking back and changing things around.  It is another step towards pure creation.

But is there value in going back?  I’m of the opinion that there is, despite some seeing it as narcissistic navel-gazing.  For one thing, given that all writers are tremendously insecure and at our core, believe that we suck and no one will ever read us (admit it!), it’s healthy to revisit something that you wrote that really shone.  Somewhere amidst the hundreds and thousands of words of triteness and crap that will never voyage beyond your hard drive, the gems are lurking.  You can probably imagine such a passage off the top of your head.  A few dozen words scribbled or typed late one night in the midst of a short story or unfinished, Proustian behemoth of a postmodernist novel that just for one moment, scraped against the door of greatness.  And then you remind yourself, on your worst, most doubting day, that yeah, you can do this.  You’ve done it before, you’ll do it again.  Or, you look back to remind yourself of how much better you’ve become.  How you’ve abandoned your overreliance on adverbs and polysyllabic words and found your clarion voice.  It’s the evolution of you, the honing of the mark you are going to make on the literary canon, a blade sharpened and polished one paragraph at a time.

Pierce Brosnan may not want to watch his old movies anymore.  But I’m happy to take a stroll through the memories of old works whenever it suits me.  Because at the risk of hauling out one of those trite expressions that as a maturing writer I should never, ever use, you can’t know where you’re going until you understand where you’ve been.  And every so often, you have to glance at the map again.

Mr. Bond, Dr. Freud will see you now

“Oh please, James, spare me your Freud.  One might as well ask if all the vodka martinis ever silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed.  Or if you’ve found forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women… for all the dead ones you failed to protect.” – Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) to James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) in GoldenEye

After four years of speculation, rumor, tabloid nonsense and the customary story about the Bollywood flavor-of-the-month who is “perfect” for the female lead and the “desperate” choice of the producers, the truth is out.  The 23rd James Bond movie, SkyFall, started shooting on November 3rd.  Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes reteams with Daniel Craig after their collaboration on Road to Perdition, and brings along for the ride the most incredible cast ever assembled for a James Bond movie:  Javier Bardem (Oscar winner for No Country For Old Men), Ralph Fiennes (Oscar nominee for Schindler’s List among other things), Albert Finney (four-time Oscar nominee and star of the Best Picture winner Tom Jones) along with Judi Dench and the two new ladies – French actress Berenice Marlohe and Pirates of the Caribbean star Naomie Harris.  Longtime Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins is the cinematographer and Stuart Baird handles editing.  The script is by Bond veterans Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Gladiator writer John Logan, based on a premise by The Queen screenwriter Peter Morgan.  With all that talent it would take an act of Satan himself to forge an A View to a Kill-style misfire.  Then again we haven’t heard who’s doing the theme song yet.  Is Shirley Bassey still available?

About the plot, little is known beyond the postage stamp synopsis released by the production team – basically, that Bond finds himself fighting to save MI6 after a dark chapter of M’s past comes back to haunt them both.  When Judi Dench was first cast as M for Pierce Brosnan’s Bond debut GoldenEye, much was made in the entertainment press of the idea that a woman was taking over as the boss of the most chauvinistic of all cinema spies (sorry, Austin Powers.)  However, throughout the four-film Brosnan era, apart from a few sparse touches the relationship between Bond and M was not played that different than it had been with Bernard Lee (or to a lesser extent, Robert Brown) in the past.  Beginning with Daniel Craig’s tenure, the producers have opted to treat the relationship differently.  Obviously with an actress of Judi Dench’s caliber you don’t want to limit her to sitting behind the office desk and disappearing after the first act.  In expanding the character of M, the producers have created a more maternal bond (pardon the pun) between her and her star agent.  Indeed, their relationship is unique in the 007 universe, as M is the only woman who does not see Bond sexually (the reverse being true as well.)  When Bond was broken in Casino Royale by his betrayal by Vesper Lynd, and set out to bury his demons in Quantum of Solace, his loyalty to M remained.  Indeed, when one thinks of Bond as doing his duty for queen and country, it is not necessarily Her Majesty Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor he is thinking of first.

Bond movies can be a curious entity.  In many of the more forgettable entries there was little attention paid to character development or emotional engagement.  It was just a fun ride.  And that’s fine if that’s all you’re looking for.  Clearly it worked or we wouldn’t still be talking about it 50 years on and 23 films later.  As the second generation of Bond producers has gotten older and responded to the changing audience, and in particular seen Bond struggling to stay afloat in a field swarming with imitators of the genre it essentially spawned, they have come to realize that the character of James Bond has considerable depth worth exploring.  Who is he?  What drives the core of this man whom men want to be and women want to be with?  Consequently the producers have tried to craft plots that are emotional journeys inasmuch as they are excuses for implausible action scenes.  Sometimes with mixed results.  The World is Not Enough was the first real attempt in the modern era to make a character-driven Bond movie and the elements did not blend together well – rather like a martini where the proportions of vodka and vermouth were just slightly off.

Some Bond fans balk at the character-driven approach, suggesting, and not unreasonably, that not every mission needs to be personal.  But I’ve maintained that that resonance is the crucial meat and potatoes alongside the chocolate and the whipped cream.  We need to begin to care about the people on screen, about Bond, as opposed to just watching him do cool stuff.  That cool stuff will always be essential to Bond – one would not necessarily care to see him simply talking about his problems on a psychiatrist’s couch for two hours – but probing into his soul takes it from the realm of popcorn movie into that of real cinema and makes it a truly memorable experience.  I suspect that with the above-the-line talent who have been brought on to shape SkyFall, the producers are aiming for just that.  Of course they want to make a great entertainment, but let’s have a little something for the grownups too.  I think Ian Fleming would be ok with that (actually, he would have flipped out at the suggestion of a female M, but I won’t tell him if you don’t).