Monday, January 17, 2011

The Beasts from the East: Dr No and the Manchurian Candidate

It's 1962.

This is confusing, because the opening titles of Dr No are some mad, plinky-plonky music, combined with geometric shapes wobbling about the screen. If it wasn't for a man in a pork-pie hat shooting at the camera in the first moment, you might be forgiven for thinking you were watching an experimental Czechoslovakian cartoon, aimed at communist children in the Eastern bloc. Or the product of some hippies and a lot of LSD in 1969. In fact, if it hadn't been for the shooting at the start, a time traveller from the Eighties would be really confused about what he or she was watching: no silhouettes of naked women, no massive-lunged songstress belting out a song that tangentially mentioned the film's title, no before-the-credits action scene or anything to suggest this was a Bond film.

Instead, the outlines of three old duffers gradually metamorphose into three old coffin-dodgers wandering the streets of Kingston, and then four more old duffers playing cards. Despite their omnipresence, we don't ever learn much about games of cards from Bond films, except in Dr No. The rules are simple: play bridge and there's a 50-50 chance you'll get shot, and playing chemin de fer will mean mentally unstable, golf-playing nymphomaniacs will break into your home and try to make you miss your flight.

48 years ago, sexual harassment was a perk of the job, as Commander Bond demonstrates by bouncing Moneypenny on his knee before wandering in to see M. A bit of banter about his ladies' gun, before he gets his Walther PPK (is this the first product placement in the film?) and then, golf-playing nympho aside, the action really starts when Bond touches down in Jamaica.

The Bond of Dr No is oddly schizophrenic; one minute he's sharp and observant, figuring out that the man sent to collect him from the airport is up to no good, and the next he's wandering blithely into a woodshed so that the barman can try to put him in a bear hug, and when he manages to extricate himself from that, he gets held up by a man in a natty suit and Dame Edna Everage's sunglasses.

Luckily, that turns out to be Felix Leiter rather than an evil assassin, but Bond is hardly the lethal killer we expect our double-o operatives to be. Perhaps he can be excused it - this Bond is almost the youngest he'll ever be. (OK, Lazenby will be two years younger than Connery when On Her Majesty's Secret Service rolls around, but that didn't turn out too well either...) He shows his age, whether it's that awful hat he wears that makes him look like the inept Sinatra impersonator from down The White Swan in West Wickham, or the way he has sudden bursts of SHOUTING at the hired help / the police captain / anybody else, or just the fact that as an impressionable youth, he thinks it's a good idea to take part in car chases in a vehicle with an exhaust note like a wet fart.

It's thus rather an uneven film: the sets are beautiful (to pick just one example out of the air, it should be chastening for George Lucas to think how rubbish the carbonite-freezing scene from Empire Strikes Back looks, compared to Dr No's control room) but the plot proceeds as though Bond is incapable of reason half the time (or is just very, very curious1). There's no reliance on dumb gadgets, but on proper spy work (the understatement of the hair on the wardrobe or the talc on the briefcase is great), but then there's the dumb stereotyping of everyone Bond comes into contact with.

Still, although it's uneven, it's not a dumb film. Although Bond gets hardly any good lines ("that's a Smith and Wesson, and you've had your six" is as good as it gets), there are lovely moments, like the syncronised orchestral stings as Bond beats a tarantula to death with his shoe, or the surreal nature of an island where people can drive hearses at breakneck speed, totally unremarked upon. Unfortunately the climax is, well, anti-climactic after all the build-up and "You'd better throw us a line" is not the greatest last line of any film made in 1962, let alone ever. It's a shame that Quarrel doesn't get to do much more than make stupid faces as his eyes boggle out of his head at the dragon, and it's difficult to say if the film is being ruthless in immolating him, or just conforming to the Hollywood rule that the black side-kick always gets it.

This is also quite a special film, and one to be cherished, because it's almost inarguably an improvement on the source text; after all, wouldn't it have been terribly prosaic for Dr No to die beneath an enormous heap of guano, rather than in the bubbling depths of a nuclear reactor, no matter how unrealistic?

And what have we really learned, when it's all over?

Apparently, all Asians are interchangeable. Dr No's meant to be Chinese, but "No" isn't a Chinese name I've heard anywhere in Hong Kong or Singapore or Taiwan or the People's Republic. Dr Ng would be a more likely name, but Fleming probably guessed right that to the untrained English ear, "Doctor Ng" would sound more like the undignified last words of somebody expiring before their physician, not a criminal mastermind. So Dr No isn't really Chinese at all, but possibly Vietnamese or Japanese? Who knows? His staff consist of every Oriental-looking type the casting director could find. Or that they thought looked a bit Oriental. Or that they named after a vegetable popular in south-east Asia (come in, Miss Taro).

Not that Dr No is the only example from 1962 of the apparent terror of the Yellow Peril; this is the same year, after all, that The Manchurian Candidate was released, and they managed there to actually cast Frank Sinatra, rather than a bloke who'd borrowed one of his hats. I'm not trying to say that these two films were an attempt to show that there was a vast horde of villainous Chinese, readying themselves to wreck western civilisation.

No, by the end of Dr No you should have realised that all foreigners are either evil (the duplicitous receptionist at the hotel, the chauffeur, the 'freelance photographer') or noble but highly suggestible savages like Quarrel. Even the Professor, who's as English as they come (and strangely reminiscient of Jesper Christensen in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace 44 years later) has probably been infected by being in too close contact with foreigners on the island, which is why his moral sense has been infected and he's turned bad, a wobbly legged fool who carries tarantulas at arms length and doesn't know how to count to six.

I don't think it's got a racist agenda; it's more that Dr No is a product of its time, when anything that wasn't properly British was immediately suspect. Bond doesn't wander Jamaica complaining that slavery is no longer legal, and actually treats everyone, regardless of race or gender, with an equitable rudeness to all.

The final irony has to come when Bond confronts Dr No at the dinner table, and suggests that his career in Spectre is a waste of his talents; he would have been highly valued by the governments of the West. (I suppose this is true, if Her Majesty's Government was desperate for a man skilled in bauxite mining and rocket toppling.) Dr No doesn't even bother to dismiss this out of hand, but if he had, he would have been right: Europe is full of squabbling civil servants and lawyers, not a technocratic utopia run by the scientists.

How do I know this to be true: my own brother is a highly qualified researcher in the field of nuclear waste reclamation, while I'm an indolent parasite whose job involves calculating the tolerability of extra inconveniences to travellers on long haul flights. Which one of us lives in a garden shed while his brother enjoys the high life, and which one of us do you think deserves to?

To summarise, then:

Chemin de fer is a safer game than bridge.
Everyone born east of India and west of the Pacific is Exactly The Same.
Jamaica is a terrible holiday destination, unless you enjoy cement factories or bauxite mines.
When in a super villain's base and served breakfast, don't drink the coffee!2
Sunglasses were different in the Sixties.
At MI7's spy school nobody ever warns you about being sneaked up upon from behind.

1 About women, or dank tunnels, or what it feels like to be decontaminated by having white spooge sprayed over you by a man in a diving suit. There's something Freudian here, but I just can't put my finger on it.
2 I had a cup with similar effects to that once. Starbucks and Spectre are clearly in cahoots.

Maybe you've come here from: If you liked this, go there and look for other things in the same vein. If you didn't like it, go there and look for something different...


The Incredible Suit said...

But what's the point of reclaiming nuclear waste? Unless he's plotting to hold the world to ransom with a nuclear waste bomb, obviously.

Mr Cushtie said...

You may be on to something there. He's always been rather evasive on this subject when it's mentioned at family gatherings.

Minnie Bus said...

I've never watched a bond movie before and this article is still hilarious. I say yes to Dr. No.!

The Incredible Suit said...

You need to get on that immediately, if not sooner.

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