Monday, 27 July 2015

James Bond films and books, Part 1! *DR. NO!*

I decided to add another marathon to my neverending list.  It just popped into my head one day, that I spent all my childhood Bank Holidays and Christmases watching Bond films with my dad (and lesserly, mum), and on and off to this day, I still think of them as a special treat and still associate them with holidays. If a new one comes out at the cinema, it’s STILL a big deal, for me.

As a child, I don’t remember what I thought of Bond himself.  I just remember thinking he could DO cool things, was very fit, seemed quick witted and clever – very powerful (just what the little bullied girl wanted to see).  My dad seemed to appreciate him as an epitome of control, style, and wit.  My mother seemed to view him a rather suspect (which really meant he MUST be fun, since she never worried about things unless they were interesting).  Only as I grew with the films did I start to notice their clustered traits, the things I (we?) considered Bond-like.  I started to know what to expect from them as a subgenre film, a little niche of its own: the main things being exotic locations, sweeping epic music, action set pieces, ridiculous villains that you adored to hate, beautiful women being sly or gauche, side-kicks being American (a nice change).  I remember paying scant attention to the plots, and more to the dialogue.

As I grew older still, I ended up with a love-hate relationship to Bond: on some days they were excellent nostalgia pieces to my childhood (where Roger Moore was my main timeline Bond, and therefore, of course *THE* Bond); on others, they offended my burgeoning feminism something chronic (just like my beloved Carry On films – some days I loved them, some days I got really narked watching them).  That seems to have passed now.  If I spent all my time being annoyed by subtle and not so subtle sexism, and thinking about power relations etc, I would be grumpier than I already am – it’s like nuclear war, I had a year of being TERRIFIED of the possible reality of that as a child, then woke up one morning and realised I couldn’t live life this way, I couldn’t worry about it all the time.  Also, historically, these films are wonderful social documents of how we thought, or how people wanted us to think, both reflection and refraction.  Then isn’t now.  

The way I decided to do this marathon was I got the idea to watch all the films in order, and then I thought (bearing my vast Who-athon in mind); I should read the Ian Flemings too!  Each film review will be paired with its relevant book, to see how they match up, and what’s different, and if I like the books, never having read them!  Grand!  Then I realised, after 2 minutes of research, that I had chosen a very arse over tit method.  In trying to retrace my childhood perception of screen Bond, and add to him via books, I had not gambled on the films being all out of order with the book sequence.  Or on some of them being short stories and not books at all.  And some of the later ones being written by different people.  Then I got ambitious and decided that when I had exhausted the individual film-book pairings, I would then go back to book order, strict book order, and read anything not filmed, short story or novel were there any left; followed by reading all those other Bond series’ I had found – the Charlie Higson’s, the John Gardner’s, the Raymond Benson’s; as well as the stand alone newer ones: Sebastian Faulks, William Boyd et al. 

Even having only watched 3 films so far and finishing one book, I already realise this is going to be an extremely fun and confusing marathon.  Dr No is the first film, but the 6th Fleming book.  In it references are all over to other books (damage done in From Russia With Love; reference to Solitaire from Live and Let Die, which by film sequence, I will not meet till much much later…but in book sequence, was the second one!).  I would have read the Fleming books in order had this marathon been themed differently.  But it is me chasing my childhood idea of FILM Bond and wanting to see how he develops; with the books as an interesting sideline (that I suspect I will enjoy much more than I first imagined from what I’ve read so far).

I’m not going to get all technical and talk about production etc in these posts – I’ve had a look out there and a thousand others have supplied much much more info.  If Stanley tells me any little facts I find interesting I’ll include them, if I find them relevant.  But this is about me and Bond and how we grew up together, and what influence he had on me, and what I see him having on the wider world of reality and film.  It’s all about my opinion (yes, said in a Lebowski way).  So let’s start, in Jamaica, introductions over…

Dr. No (1962)
Plot in one sentence or so, by IMDB, to orient you: A resourceful British government agent seeks answers in a case involving the disappearance of a colleague and the disruption of the American space program.

And now the rest of this post is me…
I hadn’t seen this one for a long while.  All I remembered of it was the ‘underneath the mango tree’ song, which I liked as sounding happy.  Watching it felt like watching a film I barely remembered at all.

I have to leap straight into my opinion here: it felt slow and boring.  I didn’t fall asleep, not that kind of boring – just poorly paced [especially compared to the book].  I’m not fond in life so far, of Sean Connery as an actor: I think he is very handsome, but there’s something very cruel on his face, and no amount of tender expressions remove it.  That’s my problem with him.  I’m wondering if during this re-watching of all these Bonds, most specifically and in order, I might grow to appreciate him better.  We’ll see.

The first real thing to notice is how incredibly easy it is to retro apply thinking to the film.  I kept looking at this and that and commenting to myself how ‘Bondean’ it was or wasn’t – which is silly as this is the first film, setting the initial tone for all that’s Bondean or not.  It’s a work to be built as we go along, and I’m going to enjoy enumerating each instance of whatever I think is valid to my idea of what’s Bondean. (So obviously start by pointing out that the gunbarrel shot is there right from the first film; apparently it was a stuntman, not Connery doing the posing, right until  Thunderball…now Stanley told me that, I kept wanting to rewind and see if the body looked right, tsk!)

At this early stage I was looking at Bond and thinking – who actually are you?  Why are you doing this?  What’s your reasonings?  Of course, you don’t get all that latter day exposition about Bond being a lonely orphan dedicated to the state and to M especially, as his projected family that he must honour and protect till much later films.  The only real clue you get in this film is when Dr No describes Bond as “just a stupid policeman”, and Bond also describes himself as a policeman, euphemistically, when trying to explain to Honey what he does.  At this stage he has the internal life and characterisation of an enigmatic intelligent man doing a job, no more no less.  A good start, really.

Everything was very dark green, brown; fabrics were matte, women older and more heavily made up than I associate with Bond – another sign of its date, its time.  I didn’t know the famous scene with the spider was actually partially done behind glass, as Connery was not fond of spiders at all [Stanley forced me to watch some extras].

I was happy to see Quarrel, who I remembered immediately when faced with him.  His portrayal though, made it feel a bit like a colonial adventure, more Boys Own, with the Americans showing up as smooth facilitators in their differently tailored suits.  Such clashes in my mind between what was then, of that society; what was good screen action; what I expect from Bond, and what’s actually there, for whatever reason. 

The car chases, for example, are small and quick, not the set pieces of massively extended drama we came later to expect. The sex, the seduction, the man-ho behaviour, the needless car chases and explosions, the constant repetition of the Bond or the 007 Theme – not the same thing!, the epic scenery.  Those are just some of the things I came to associate with Bond.  There are no real action set pieces in this.  A couple of small fights, and a noticeably ruthless shooting by Bond that set the stage for how he will be, to come.

Watching Connery’s Bond in this one, I see him as almost reptilian rather than mammalian [unless he was a rather mean snobby cat?!] – he is cold.  He seems self-contained and manipulative, which are excellent qualities for his job.  I was getting a bit of a sociopathic vibe, possibly from the way he moves and looks at people.  Stanley perceived it as a sort of animal magnetism: needs, instincts, people as tools.

I was really surprised that Ursula Andress doesn’t even show up till the last third of the film, as Honey Ryder.  Does this qualify as first Bond Girl with a silly name?  Not sure, what with her being an orphan and it being Honeychile in the book, where she was raised by her Jamaican nanny.  If anything, it indicates her aloneness, now the nanny is gone.  The film picked up when she came on the scene.  Her interactions with Bond were interesting.  She was vulnerable but testy, a good character.

There was some strangely inappropriate music going on here: some cheesy humourous bits, and some B movie action bits [e.g. in the swamp where Honey and Quarrel are hiding].

I notice the first bit of Bond film wish fulfilment in Dr No’s large underwater prison – the room where Honey is taken off to, and there is a whole wardrobe filled with clothes for her, in her size: that strange immediacy that we all imagine vast wealth to bring.  The lair itself, with its strange mixed up décor, all those exposed stones and that huge ornate desk: there we are, the first limitlessly wealthy Bond villain with his hideout.  And the scene where Professor Dent is given the spider to take to Bond – that domed minimalist room – a very Bondean set, that, stylish and spare. 

There’s also a setting of the behaviour to come of the appreciation Bond has for the finer accoutrements of life, in the exchange about the 55 Dom Perignon, where Bond prefers the 53.  I am always boggled and bewildered by this sort of conversation, as I know nothing about things like this.  My own expertise is solely limited to suddenly drinking/eating/ being in a nice car, and thinking: ooo, I like this one, I’ll try and remember it!  I notice, and wonder if I’ll see it as the films go on, that these conversations never ever seem to be two buffs swapping opinions, they always seem to be one-upmanship and power gaming. [I must say I am cheating now, as I also watched From Russia With Love, and when I do that review, I’m going to come right back to this point, as it gets developed in a quite delicious and funny way.]

I suppose the scene near the end counts as a big Bond scene, the running about the nuclear reactor and escaping.  Oddly, very oddly, I had no recollection of ever seeing this bit before, and I know I must have, lots of times.  I was a bit confused at this point, asking Stanley why Dr No and SPECTRE wished to sabotage the US space programme in particular, and got the answer ‘for shits and giggles’.  There was no extortion or terrorism as such, or blackmail or racketeering, of the later films.  That’s a bit strange – the book will flesh this out, I’m hoping.

Have to leave this one with the comment that that was a very Bondean ending, right from the first film: being discovered kissing a woman in a boat and then untethering yourself so you can carry on doing so…only spoiled by the cheesy muzak over that bit, why was I thinking of Tom and Jerry?!  Anyway…hmmm, this is most interesting.  There’s elements of my childhood Bond here, that strange patchwork of a man.  Let’s see what the book says, next…

Dr No, by Ian Fleming (1958)
This book was a revelation.  I was not really expecting to enjoy these – in my mind, I didn’t realise till I began to read, but I had pre-judged the books as probably nothing but gung ho, hey ho posh Boys Own action, with little characterisation and nothing but guts for glory leaping about.  Which makes me wonder why I decided so suddenly to read them at all!  I was quite wrong. I enjoyed this book very much, from the characterisations of Bond, Quarrel and M, done without fanfare but clear and salient; to the immensely well written action sequences, which seemed to go on for ages, and me able to picture everything, even things I think I didn’t really understand very well – technical matters or large industrial spaces.  Calmly and clearly written.  I cared about what was going to happen next, I cared about the characters (all but Dr No, who fell into my category of Annoying As Hell Villains, for talking about himself at length, and boring me). The book was very well paced and didn’t flag at all, the quiet patches handled as well as the busy ones.  Patches of exposition and description were interesting – I learned stuff, and I always enjoy that.

For example, of that last: a list of organs you can do without, from very early in the book, as M discusses Bond’s health with a doctor – and for your information: “gall bladder, spleen, tonsils, appendix, one of his kidneys, one of his two lungs, two of his four or five quarts of blood, two fifths of his liver, most of his stomach, four of his twenty-three feet of intestines and half of his brain”(p.14).  The list unhelpfully does not delineate which half of the brain can be done without, and whether we can take it off as a slab or whether it’s in sections, which would make things harder, where you proposing to remove…er…anyway…

This discussion because of damage done to Bond in From Russia With Love, the novel preceding, where he was dosed with fugu poison (“from the sex organs of the Japanese globe fish”, I did not know that), which causes respiratory paralysis.

The M of the book is a very hard and so far, rather unlikeable character (in complete contrast to the amiable if coldish M of the early films).  He clashes with Bond over the issue of changing his gun (Bond prefers the Beretta, and instead of this being a very short exchange, as in the film, this is a long section of the book, discussing the merits of different kinds of guns and the power struggle between M and Bond over why Bond must change; all done very quietly, but there was a wealth of headbutting and resentments there – and no, I didn’t get bored at the detailing of the different guns, quite a feat in itself).  He sends Bond away to Jamaica to investigate something he feels is unimportant, it’s a sort of recuperation leave for Bond, and instead of being given to him, is foisted on him as a punishment for getting injured in his last mission, and as a sarcastic sop, a break in the sun for a broken tool.  Bond knows it and resents it. It’s all very nicely conveyed by tone, and Bond’s internal reactions.

And then there I am learning again as he’s briefed about the disappearance of Strangways and his female cypher: all about the Roseate Spoonbill sanctuary and the birds habits, the Audubon Society, and then later in the novel, all about the entire guano industry and its mechanisms (pp.46-48, p.121).  Guano!  A large portion of this book revolves about bird poo, and its industry – and even as “Bond prepared to be bored” (p.46) hearing about it, and so did I – oddly I wasn’t.  All I can conclude is that if something is explained well enough, it’s interesting no matter what the subject matter.

Once Bond begins his investigation he calls on Quarrel, a character I remember liking from the film very much.  In the book he’s both harder, rougher, darkly sexist (he wants to go and try out a girl later, implication against her will, and Bond advises not, dryly) and also more of a friend to Bond.  He’s altogether a more complicated and dynamic character.  In a way he is a perfect sidekick character, as he’s the right hand man and happy to be so, but he has almost too much character to be so; I got the odd feeling the only reason Quarrel wasn’t having his own rather darker adventures was that he was happy to help Bond, loved the excitement of the cars chasing about and the hiding from assailants etc.  Both a laugh and a job.  He also has a presentiment of his own death, asking Bond early on to take out a life insurance for him, and respectfully and affectionately, Bond does, an expensive one (p.60).

In the cause of noting what’s different and the same: have to note a massive difference of a famous part of the film – that spider sent to Bond’s bed, is in the book a deliciously described giant centipede (p.56): its little feet frilling over his hip and up his chest and over his face is one of those extraordinarily well-described sections where it was so well conveyed I was squirming and making faces all the way through, miming Bond’s keeping still and tensing up, just like him.  What good writing!

Honeychile Ryder shows up a good deal earlier in the book than the film: only a third of the way through.  She’s an even more striking character in the book.  With her large and erratic knowledge (gained from reading an encyclopaedia, not yet finished, and her vast knowledge of local flora and fauna), and with her almost completely self-sufficient ways, she’s a puzzle.  She tells her own story when asked, and it’s an odd mix of lonely survivalism after early orphaning, and great adaption to circumstances as they arise (for example, her treatment of the drugging and rape she suffers [p.96]). That is where the spider incident in the book is: she kills her rapist with one; that she has starved for a few days to be sure it’s properly hungry and claustrophobic (ibid).  

Bond’s reaction to her from the start is not the womanising we come later to expect from the films.  He admires her, as he first sees her almost totally naked (she thinks she’s alone), but he’s polite and protective and respectful. At several points in the narrative she comes off more earthy than him:
You needn’t be so careful of looking at me. It’s no good minding those things at a time like this. You said so yourself. (p.82)

…more naturalistic in understanding sex urges, despite her bad experience (she wants to go and be a call girl in America, as she thinks it’s the quickest way to earn money to fix her nose that got broken in the rape struggle; she’s very practical).  He tries to suggest she do something else, but he doesn’t boss her, he holds her company carefully, even whilst noting that in a way she’s a hindrance to him and his mission (“in combat, like it or not, a girl is your extra heart”, that was an interesting way of phrasing it [p.82], and I shan’t get into women in the military here – I think it depends on the kind of woman).  He spends time trying to keep up her spirits and look after her when they are captured – not because he sees her as inept or lesser than him as a female, but clearly because she hasn’t been around people much, and that is unsettling her as much as their actual predicament.  Their interaction enthralled me the whole way through the book.  She chases him, in the end, but in a very sweet young girl with no experience sort of way: direct and understanding of her effect on him, but not manipulative.  

A fascinating thing in this book was the way it bleeped swearing.  It was very sweet.  There was lots of “You ___!!  Or “Get the ___ing limey!”  You knew exactly what was being said, but you weren’t looking at it.  I listened to a radio interview with Fleming after reading this (I got rather fascinated with his louche voice; I kept imagining him and George Sanders having tea and smoking together), and he commented that plenty of swearing went on his life, but he hated seeing it written.  So he didn’t.  It was a bit of a surprise to see it there that way, ‘specially in this era, when swearing is everywhere and I do it here if I want – but it wasn’t a distraction whilst reading.  Took a few pages to notice he was doing it, even. What I did notice and it threw me off a bit here and there, was some slang that’s old now and no longer current usage – referring to Honey as “the doll” (‘get the doll’, ‘bring him and doll’ etc – p.103) – it grated the same way dame does when I read it, just so alien now.

Quarrel’s death is described sparely but sadly.  He’s shot and burned to death by the reinforced tank thing made up to fool islanders seeing it from afar into thinking it’s a dragon.  In the book, Bond goes quietly over to the body after he and Honey are caught, and apologises to Quarrel’s remains, sadly, feeling the full weight for letting him down and losing a man under his care and responsibility (p.107).  These touches of caring and feeling are quick and not overdone, but they add huge layers to the otherwise unutterably smooth Connery Bond of the early films.  

Dr No is the oddest character.  His steel pincers for hands in the book are there because his hands have been cut off for stealing from the Tongs and getting caught; instead of from the nuclear reactor work as in the film. Before he puts Honey and Bond through their ‘trials’ he drugs them and then comes and watches them naked while they sleep.  Creepy. It seems as though he is assessing them for bodily muscle and fitness, which is borne out by part of his later ramblings about experiments with pain and what the body can withstand etc etc yawn yawn. Bond does politely interrupt his self-satisfied life story at one point and note: “…but Dr. No, you are still a man who eats, sleeps and defecates like the rest of us…” (p.130), which made me want to cheer, especially at the reference to less glamorous and needful things like shitting in what is now one of the most dehumanised, glossy and over glamourised franchises we have…How nice Fleming didn’t actually write it that way.

It’s oddly prescient that Dr No claims total power through privacy, in that no one knows what he is doing, therefore he does exactly what he wants (p.132).  On the one hand, that may sound like the sneaky sort of logic I employed as a 6 year old; but it’s also how TTIP and the corporate takeover of the Western world is largely progressing in present day real life (much as later portrayed in Brosnan Bonds, weirdly).  Bond does argue back to the concept, countering that once discovered, the larger community will bring a greater power to bear, therefore calling illusion on Dr No’s concept of power, but it doesn’t dent his egotism or reasoning one bit (he merely counters that art, death, beauty, life – all these too are illusions, just concepts; he swats them away as sophistic philosophical musings; I can see Time Traveller thinking about all that bit!)

It must be noted that on p.128, Bond does indeed request a “medium Vodka dry Martini – with a slice of lemon peel.  Shaken and not stirred, please. I would prefer Russian or Polish vodka.”  Right, then.  What a When Harry Met Sally salad-dressing-on-the-side order that was.  Again, I’m bewildered by things like this, and now think I should try a Martini (which I haven’t), and with and without lemon slices, and with both different types of vodka, to see if I can detect any difference…and feel myself clearly a Philistine if not…

The trials bit near the end of the book is one of the most lovely sustained action sequences I’ve ever read.  I think it’s a really underestimated talent to be able to write a sequence, specially a very long one, where a character is not talking and constantly moving about alone, acting against creatures or elements.  It’s just as much of a talent as being able to convey the speed, weight and impact of a fight sequence.  The section near the end where Dr No takes Honey away to feed her to crabs (rather stupidly it turns out, but it’s what keeps Bond going, the idea that he has to go and fetch her because he got her into this mess) is excellent.  Bond starts by crawling through air vents (as one does in these sorts of stories be they book or film), and suffers from terrible heat and burning, then cold. Then a room full of tarantulas which he fights off, in a tiny space, using a lighter and makeshift spear wrenched from a window bar (pp.158-159).  Lastly, and OH WHY DIDN’T THEY DO THIS IN THE FILM??? – he fights a giant squid.  Yes, a plausibly written giant squid.  I would not have put a bet on that either.  But it’s true.  He spends ages stuck in the sea, hanging off a sort of fence thingy, coiling himself round it as best he can, close to death and at the limit of his energy, while a squid tries to prise him off, and makes terrible red sucker mark stings on his stomach.  Vivid and entirely believable; except when you put the book down and think: GIANT SQUID???  Well done to Fleming!  The way he conveys all Bond’s thoughts and reactions, the matter of factness of his survival instinct: so well done.

The other thing to note is that he does kill some people, but none of them are unnecessary or gratuitous in the way of modern films, and all are quick.  There’s no lingering, not even a sense of a man coolly doing his emotionless job; Bond does care about the killing, he doesn’t like it, and apologises to Honey as they go, when he finds her; again she is more understanding of the circumstances than he thinks she is. In the end it’s all about simply getting away alive.  There’s none of this destroying the nuclear reactor and causing total one man army chaos – no, he gets away, fights through, takes Honey with him and the death of Dr No is written as a necessity rather than a coup de grace to the plot needs.  He also manages an ignominious death, thrown into and smothered by the guano he didn’t really appreciate.  (Bit like the end of Trumper in the Shaun the Sheep movie recently; which made me wonder if they were doing a Dr No reference as they did a Silence of the Lambs reference, little funnies for the grown ups in the audience).  The sorting out of the nuclear reactor and the aftermath of Dr No’s criminal masterminding operation and the island altogether, is left to the men in the local ministry, Pleydell-Smith (he of the guano history section earlier in the book), and some of the less likeable older characters.  Bond simply recounts events to them, and then leaves them to it.

His end in this film is half what we expect from a Bond film.  He does end up with ‘the girl’, but it’s at her tumbledown house, where he goes to have dinner, and then she sweetly seduces him away.  It feels less like a man indulging his many lusts as a respite from his when you think about it bloody stressful and rather horrible job despite all that excitement; and more like a man embarking on the start of a relationship, or an extended fling.  Though fling sounds too jaunty and frivolous.  He cares about Honey and she him.  They are going to ‘hang out’ (as I’d say nowadays) for ‘a bit’, starting with …and Fleming determinedly shuts the door, just as one of my earlier romances would have done.

Nice.  Classy.  The whole thing was a brilliant surprise.  Looking forward to the next.

 Ian Fleming, looking as louche as he sounds
 I was reading: the 1965 imprint, 19th printing, of the Great Pan edition, all page refs to that.

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