Saying yes to franchise that started with 'Dr. No'

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Dr. No

Poster from the film "Dr. No." (September 27, 2012)

'Dr. No' Has Suave Hero, Lots of Girls.

That was the headline on the May 24, 1963 Chicago Tribune review of the first James Bond picture.

The headline had truth on its side, to be sure. The anonymous reviewer, filing under the coy, long-standing Tribune moniker Mae Tinee, sniffed at the "suave, slightly smug and incredibly indestructible hero in a story loaded with sex, sadism and bloody corpses." But times and tastes were changing. Another early review of "Dr. No," from the London Guardian newspaper, responded more warmly to this brash espionage emblem of what its critic called "the guided-missile age."

Taken from the sixth of novelist Ian Fleming's Bond adventures, "Dr. No" received its world premiere in London 50 years ago next Friday. If you choose to celebrate this cinematic anniversary by dispatching an archvillain's anonymous minion while muttering a wry, punny aside...well, you should reconsider, because in the real world you'll likely be charged with manslaughter-by-piranha-tank.

Perhaps it's best simply to revisit "Dr. No," which in retrospect is a surprisingly modest affair, made on a tight $1 million budget. Is it the best Bond? Probably not. Some think so. Sean Connery doesn't hurt. The justly legendary Bond theme doesn't hurt. Our first full view of Connery (with a cig), at the gaming tables in a posh London club, is accompanied by that "danger" music, and the combination of music and movie star in the making is undeniable.

David Mamet once wrote: "I was raised on James Bond and Hugh Hefner's Playboy philosophy. Bond went through life impressing people with his gun, and Hefner went through life in a bathrobe; and the capper was that, of the two of them, Hefner was the one who actually existed." Bond lived the life, and saved the world. Again and again.

Today, after so many Bonds and so many Bond movies, "Dr. No" endures as a disarming relic from that guided-missile age. Recently the Guardian critic Philip French wrote about "Dr. No," saying it remained his favorite Bond on film, though he thought the recent "Casino Royale," the first of the Daniel Craig outings, was probably the best and truest to Fleming. (Hear, hear.) With Bond dispatching Jamaicans and Chinese with imperialist impunity, "Dr. No," he wrote, nonetheless feels "freshly hatched, unself-conscious, curiously innocent, less knowing, not yet stamped with copyright signs declaring their proprietary nature." He added: "Ursula Andress comes out of our romantic, adolescent dreams rather than the pages of Playboy."

In its sociopolitical attitudes and physical details much of "Dr. No" is as dated as the sunglasses worn by the disposable American sidekick to Bond, the CIA agent played by Jack Lord. But none of it is as dated as the silliest of the Bond silliness decades later, involving invisible cars and the like, in the lamest of the Pierce Brosnan outings.

The new Bond, "Skyfall," opens Nov. 9. If it's roughly halfway between the quality level of "Casino Royale" and the second Bond film starring Craig, the errant and forgettable "Quantum of Solace," it'll be worth seeing. It'll be worth seeing to learn if director Sam Mendes, not known for his large-scale action, has a knack for this universe. It'll be worth seeing to find out if the custodians of this long-running franchise still believe in the franchise, begun back in the days before anyone in the movie business used the word "franchise."

mjphillips@tribune.com

@phillipstribune

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