No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Dr. No’

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008 when I was way behind on my 007 watchlist. RIP Sean Connery.

I keep hearing over and over telling me Sean Connery was the best James Bond and still is. And yet after all these years and so many 007 movies later, I have only seen a few of the ones starring Connery. Until yesterday, the only ones I had seen all the way through were “From Russia With Love” which remains one of my favorite Bond movies ever, and the rogue Bond “Never Say Never Again” which brought Connery back to the role for the first time since “Diamonds Are Forever.” The James Bond I really got weaned on as a kid was Roger Moore who played the character like a flamboyant playboy who got caught up in events he looked as though he had no business getting caught in. Nevertheless, Moore managed to get the job done even as the franchise started to descend into parody.

Yesterday, New Beverly Cinema, my favorite movie theater in Los Angeles, had a double feature of the first two Bond movies ever made: “Dr. No” & “From Russia With Love.” I had seen bits and pieces of “Dr. No” previously, but never the whole way through. Watching it today, this 007 adventure seems like an average Bond with the megalomaniac villain bent on world domination. I was starting to get sick of this in the last few films which starred Pierce Brosnan as Ian Fleming’s famous spy. Every once in a while, I like to see Bond go head to head with a villain who is not looking for an infinite level of power, but instead one whom he just wants revenge over like in “License to Kill.”

It helps, however, to keep in mind what action movies were like before James Bond came along. Compared to “Dr. No,” they were nowhere as gritty. Shooting female characters in a film was not allowed back in 1962, and this Bond quickly did away with this unwritten law. There was a lot more going on than just your average good guy here. While it might appear to be something of an average film for those seeing it today, “Dr. No” was in many ways a groundbreaking film which led to a franchise which has lasted longer than so many others.

OK, I am in agreement, nobody played James Bond better than Connery, and this is even though I consider Daniel Craig to be a very close second. His very first appearance as 007 in “Dr. No” was truly brilliant as you could see him at the card playing table, but you did not see his face until he uttered one of the most famous lines in cinematic history:

“Bond. James Bond.”

My dad is always telling me what made Connery so great in playing Bond is that he was so believable in how he could romance a woman one second, and then slap her when she was holding back information from him. There was a raw danger which Connery brought to this iconic character, and he set the bar almost impossibly high for the others who inhabited Bond after him. When he lets a driver take him to his destination, even though he knows this driver is up to no good, shows how quickly Bond can change from being suave and debonair to lethal and dangerous in a heartbeat. Connery’s Bond kept his cool and managed to get his way in the end. The bad guys think they have him cornered, but this is what he wants them to think.

It is endlessly interesting to see how the Bond movies have evolved since “Dr. No.” It remains the only 007 film to not have a pre-titles scene which the others are famous for having. It just goes right into the gun barrel opening in which Bond shoots right at us. The titles look cheesy today as “Dr. No” and “007” are put everywhere on the silver screen. It was the first of many opening credits sequences designed by Maurice Binder, and this one remains the most disjointed of the bunch. It goes from the unforgettable Monty Norman theme we all know to three men superimposed over the credits to the tune of “Three Blind Mice.” The audience at the New Beverly laughed at this part, and I couldn’t help but laugh myself. Things have changed a lot since “Dr. No” came out.

Seeing Bond flirt for the first time with Miss Moneypenny (the late Lois Maxwell) here makes me miss the banter these two characters have had from one film to the next. Miss Moneypenny was not in “Casino Royale,” and I have no idea if we will ever see her again in the future. But seeing these characters here for the first time reminded me of how great and fun their banter was until M made her buzz Bond in for his next assignment. Just when things got interesting between the two, business comes to obliterate pleasure.

In “Dr. No,” Bond actually gets to bed several different ladies instead of just one. Connery makes seduction look so easy to pull off. The fact such seduction is not this easy in real life is utterly frustrating. This lucky bastard of an Oscar winning actor had quite a selection before he came to meet the first Bond woman ever, Honey Rider (Ursula Andress), whose entrance in a flesh colored bikini is still one for the ages. This also marked the first time Bond actually sang, and he has not sung since. I can’t help but wonder if this was a good or bad thing. Then again, I can’t quite picture Timothy Dalton singing “Thunderball.” As for Brosnan, I never want to hear him sing again after “Mamma Mia.”

One of Bond’s first death-defying moments involved a tarantula, and just typing out this particular spider’s description sends shivers down my spine! UGGH! This may have been why I never bothered to watch “Dr. No” earlier in my life. Those damn things creep me out like nothing else. Seriously, get that creature away from me! Easily one of the scariest moments in any Bond movie, the tension escalates so quickly to where the rest of this movie can never quite match it. Still, it wouldn’t be the last time we saw spiders in a Bond movie. My brother covered my eyes during one scene in “Octopussy” which included them. I think it is just as well that he did.

Watching “Dr. No” was fun, and it is an excellent Bond movie in many ways. Time has not been exactly kind to it though. We can see the green screen being used, so we have to snicker some. The pace is a lot more leisurely, and no Bond movie can move so slowly these days. Norman’s Bond theme is played endlessly here to where we threaten to get sick of it. But decades later, it is impossible to tire of this theme as it is to tire of John Carpenter’s theme to “Halloween.”

The print New Beverly Cinema had of “Dr. No” was in peak condition, and it was a recent printing down for the occasion of United Artists’ 90th anniversary. It was great to see it on the big screen all the way through instead of just on television. From here, the Bond series had nowhere to go but up. The formula was more or less perfected with “From Russia With Love,” and the producers did not mess with this formula until after “Die Another Day.” I enjoyed “Dr. No,” and I love how it paved the way for many more exciting adventures with this British spy. May there be many more in the years to come.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Soundtrack Review: Ennio Morricone’s Score to ‘The Untouchables’

WRITER’S NOTE: I wrote this review back in 2012 when this limited edition of the soundtrack was released. This edition has since sold out, but it can be found on websites such as eBay, Amazon and Discogs. Of course, this edition does not come at a cheap price, so be sure to do your research. I am presenting this review here out of respect for the great Ennio Morricone who passed away on July 6, 2020 at the age of 91 years old.

Ennio Morricone’s film score for Brian DePalma’s “The Untouchables” remains one of my favorites of his from the 1980’s. It covers the gamut of musical themes from victory to tragedy, and it captures the corruptness of the city our heroic characters played by Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith have to fight against. Now, La La Land Records has put together a long-awaited remastered edition of this soundtrack which has Morricone’s music sounding better than ever. It features two discs, has over two hours of music and contains an informative booklet written by Jeff Bond, all of which makes for a release fans of Morricone will be pleased to add to their collection.

The first disc contains the original motion picture score for “The Untouchables,” and the tracks are sequenced in the order in which they appeared. This was not the case when the original soundtrack was released in 1987. That version started with the movie’s end title for some odd reason. There’s still no beating “The Strength of the Righteous” which gets the movie off to a thrilling start, and it’s one of those pieces of film music I never get sick of listening to. “Al Capone” perfectly illustrates the obscene wealth and greedy nature of a man who is more than willing to use violent means to achieve his goals.

Listening to this soundtrack for “The Untouchables” also reminded me of how beautiful Morricone’s music is. He captures the idyllic home life of Elliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) and his family so well to where it makes you wonder if your own family life can ever compare. Other tracks like “Four Friends” help to elevate the tragedies the main characters suffer. I remember watching “The Untouchables” when it came out on VHS, and it was the first film I saw where the heroes do not make it to the end with a pulse. This shocked and saddened me, and Morricone’s “Four Friends” emphasizes not only the loss of life but of what that life meant to those who remember him dearly. Some of my other favorite tracks include “Waiting at the Border” which has Ness and company waiting in Canada for the arrival of Capone’s liquor shipment, and I love how the track starts soft and continues to build dramatically throughout. There’s “Courthouse Chase” which adds a lot to the big action scene between Ness and Frank Nitti (played by Billy Drago). The end title of “The Untouchables” is also one of those thrilling pieces of music as it celebrates the victory of those characters who scored one for justice, and listening to it always raises my spirits.

There is also no forgetting Morricone’s masterpiece of this score which is “Machine Gun Lullaby,” and it shows his brilliance in how he escalates the suspense and tension of certain scenes in DePalma’s movie. The first disc also contains tracks of Morricone’s which were not used, most of which are short transitional cues. The second disc contains the remastered version of the original soundtrack release from A&M Records, and the order of the tracks remains the same. Hearing it again might seem redundant for those who spent an hour listening to the first disc, but some still hold the original release of “The Untouchables” as sacred so it is here for them to enjoy with a better sound quality than ever before. The second disc also has several bonus tracks which include different versions of “Machine Gun Lullaby” and “On The Rooftops” among others. There’s also the “Love Theme from The Untouchables” which is sung by Randy Edelman and did not make it into the movie.

Jeff Bond, who has written informative booklets for many special edition soundtrack releases, writes us another great one for this release of “The Untouchables” which is entitled “The Strength of the Righteous and the Triumph of the Police.” Most of Bond’s booklets are usually written in two halves; one half details the making of a movie, and the other half details how its soundtrack came together. With “The Untouchables,” however, Bond is more interested in focusing on Morricone and the working relationship he had with DePalma. Bond even takes the time to write about every single track on each disc and the specific instruments which stand out and help to define certain characters and scenes.

“The Untouchables” actually marked the first collaboration between Morricone and DePalma, and the composer came to work with DePalma again on “Casualties of War” and “Mission to Mars.” In the booklet, Bond quotes from an interview with Morricone in which he describes DePalma as being “a great film director” and “wonderful to work with.”

“At a human level, too, he is a wonderful person, even if he gives the appearance of being a very reserved sort,” Morricone said of DePalma. “Behind that gruff exterior is a very kind soul.”

Morricone has still never won an Oscar for any of his scores, but he did deservedly receive one for lifetime achievement in 2007. Then again, he does not need one to prove to the world what a prolific film composer he is, and his output of work over the decades is amazing. “The Untouchables” remains one of my favorite film scores of his and it takes listeners through a wave of different emotions, some sad and others which make you happy and fulfilled.

La La Land Records has limited this special edition of “The Untouchables” to only 3500 copies, so be sure to get yours soon before it sells out. They have once again put together a great release of a truly unforgettable film score.

ADDITIONAL WRITER’S NOTE: Morricone finally won the Best Original Score Oscar which had long eluded him in 2016 for his work on Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” To say this was deserved is to point out the bleeding obvious.

Rest in peace Ennio.

David Mamet Looks Back at Writing ‘The Untouchables’ on Tax Day

David Mamet photo

There were more than enough film buffs who filed their tax returns, or applied for an extension, on April 15, 2010, in the nick of time to check out a special screening of Brian De Palma’s 1987 classic “The Untouchables” at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. Following the story of how Elliot Ness and his select group of men who worked to bring down infamous crime boss Al Capone on tax evasion charges seemed like the perfect way to celebrate Tax Day. Finally seeing it on the big screen in glorious 70 mm was great after first watching it on VHS years ago.

But I do have to admit though that this movie really screwed me up for a time after I first saw it. It was one of the few times my parents let me watch an R-rated movie with them when they rented it on video. Having seen it reviewed on so many different shows like “At The Movies,” “Sneak Previews” and of course “Siskel & Ebert” (which had both hosts clashing over it passionately) had me excited about watching it eventually, and this was back in the day when I rarely, if ever, went out to the movies. But it was one of the first times where I realized the good guys didn’t always make it to the finish line. To see them get killed off in a most gruesome way was painful for a 12-year-old to take in as I always believed the good guys, those who work for justice would be the ones left standing. Back then, I was starting to learn how unfair the world can be.

The Untouchables movie poster

Anyway, this evening had a special reason for us to come out other than seeing the film in 70 mm as David Mamet, who wrote the screenplay for “The Untouchables,” was also in attendance to engage in a Q&A. Instantly recognizable in his beret and those huge yellow glasses of his, Mamet had many stories to tell regarding the making of De Palma’s film, writing the script for it and his thoughts on writing and Hollywood in general.

The first question asked was how Mamet got hired to write the script, and he replied that he got the job by default. Apparently, the job was first given to the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein who had won a Pulitzer for “The Heidi Chronicles.” She must have done quite a bit of work on it because Mamet said the Writer’s Guild of America still wanted to give her a credit. But he never hid the fact that what attracted him to writing the script was, as he said, “a lot of money.” The way Mamet described it, writing for someone else is known as “whoring.”

Being one of America’s most acclaimed playwrights and having grown up in Chicago where “The Untouchables” takes place should have made Mamet the most obvious choice for this motion picture. Mamet talked about how he grew up there with gangsters all around him and of how everyone lived and breathed the same air as them. As for the cops, he got to know them better while working as a cab driver. He also went on to say several of his family members kept telling him stories about Capone from time to time.

For years, Chicago has been known to be a city engulfed by corruption, and Mamet did nothing to hide the fact it is full of crooks. He described it as a machine that is run downstate and remarked the mayors occasionally go to jail. He also remembered a saying once told to him when he asked someone in politics what the difference was in running for one office or the other. The politician told him, “the girls get prettier.”

It seems many natives of this city have the same romantic view of Chicago as Mamet did, and he said it best, “In Chicago, we love our crooks!”

 A lot of Mamet’s inspiration for “The Untouchables” came from all of Chicago, he said. He tried to include as many famous landmarks such as The Anchors Restaurant and The Lake. Much of downtown Chicago was used to great effect throughout, and I wonder if there has been a movie since which is as superb in the way it brings Prohibition-era Chicago to life.

With De Palma directing “The Untouchables,” Mamet said he just hoped the director would stick to the script he wrote. Looking back, he said De Palma did actually stay true to his script to a certain extent, but that there were moments where he felt aliens had come down and sucked the brains out of those making the film. In terms of differences from his original script, Mamet said they took out the crawl he put at the end of what happened after the Prohibition Era ended and of how gangsters are still with us today. Mamet also said De Palma was the one who added the “cockamamie baby carriage” sequence.

During the making of “The Untouchables,” Mamet said he was never on the set. He was actually quite happy he wasn’t there which was surprising to here as you’d figure any writer would want to be there even if it annoys the hell out of the director. But while most writers want the opportunity to be on a film set, Mamet said he feels better off staying out of the way.

One of the main sources behind the screenplay was Elliot Ness’ autobiography which Ness wrote with Oscar Fraley. When an audience member asked Mamet if he believed what Ness wrote about, Mamet replied quite simply, “I don’t believe anything anymore.”

At its essence, Mamet described “The Untouchables” as a melodrama. Lest people see this as him looking down on the way De Palma shot this now classic movie, he was quick to quote from Stanislavski, “Tragedy is just heightened melodrama.” Looking at the movie as a melodramatic piece actually makes perfect sense as audiences got so swept up in the story to where it affected them more emotionally than they could have anticipated.

Other tidbits Mamet shared included that aside from Robert DeNiro’s method preparation in playing Al Capone, he ended up saying just what was in the script. The line uttered by Sean Connery’s Malone character of “here endeth the lesson” came from the book of common prayers. But the one which really stood out was what Mamet said Connery first told the producers when he came to make this movie, “Broccoli never paid me a dime to play James Bond!” As for “the Chicago way,” Mamet said it was something he just came up with. The philosophy behind it was when you take something, burn it down to the ground and then build it back up again.

Many in the audience were also eager to hear Mamet talk about the art of writing, and he had much to say on the subject. As a dramatist, he said his job is to take out the narration and go with the plot and characters. Watching the plot for him is where the enjoyment comes from. The problem is actors and directors end up wanting to put all the narration back in. They want to spell out everything for the audience, but dramatists make you want to know more about what’s going on. The way Mamet sees it, you just need a plot and an actor to get the ball rolling. A play or a movie cannot start from an ongoing situation. Of course, writing a plot can be very hard. In terms of plots, he views “Wag The Dog” as his “Casablanca” in that it was the easiest plot for him to write. Once he was finished, Barry Levinson started shooting the movie a month later, and the shoot went very quickly. As for all the other plots he has worked on, they were nightmares.

In talking about some of his other projects, Mamet said the coffee’s for closers speech with Alec Baldwin from “Glengarry Glen Ross” might have come from sitting in an office where he once worked. There was also some talk of how he wrote the script for “Ronin,” which was directed by the late John Frankenheimer, and never got credit for it. Mamet said he had always wanted to write something anonymously, and “Ronin” became that something because he was not originally hired to write it. What happened was Robert De Niro pleaded with him to do a rewrite as he felt the script was not up to speed. Mamet said he eventually caved in and rewrote the whole script in a week.

In addition to being a writer, Mamet is also a director of film and stage. When asked about his approach to directing, he said he wants to know what the story is about and how each beat contributes to the action. From there, everything comes together along with some unforeseen difficulties. When asked if movies would ever become an art form again, Mamet said, “Movies were never an art form, they were entertainment. It just evolved into an art form from there, and it’s still evolving in different ways.”

Mamet was up onstage for almost an hour at the Aero Theatre, and it still didn’t feel like he was there long enough. This writer, who grew up a working-class man and went to Kaminsky Park on a regular basis (yes, he is a Cubs fan) was full of anecdotal moments which made us want to learn more. When it comes to “The Untouchables,” he gives all the credit for its success to De Palma as he made all the elements work perfectly. He said almost everything good that happens is an accident, so it’s safe to say “The Untouchables” is a glorious accident and one which invites repeat viewing.

I personally want to thank David Mamet for saying something he once heard from a judge; that being quoted out of context is “the definition of a quote.” This makes writing articles like these so much easier! As for his line about critics being “illiterate swine taking the bread from my children,” I won’t take that one personally. Oh yeah, he also said the lizards in Hollywood will be the last ones to die, and he believes their last words will be, “I want to know more…”

The Hunt For Red October

the-hunt-for-red-october-movie-poster

My dad just watched John McTiernan’s “The Hunt for Red October” for what seems like the 600th time. After all these years since it remains one of the few movies he never gets sick of watching. While I was at first annoyed with him wanting to watch it instead of something he hadn’t seen before, it didn’t take long for me to be reminded why this movie is so compulsively watchable. The cast is excellent, the direction is taut, and it is far more thrilling than the average PG-rated movie. I remember my friends not taking this movie very seriously when it came out as they were more interested in sneaking into the latest R-rated movie, but they didn’t know what they were missing.

This was the first cinematic adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel and, as a result, the first instance of him getting pissed at Hollywood for not faithfully adapting his work. I still have not read the book, so I have no idea how it differs from the movie. At this point, I’m not really sure if I care because book to film adaptations are not going to work if you’re going to be 100% faithful to the source material. Not everything transfers over to the big screen for a number of reasons, and if Clancy were still alive I’d tell him he should be happy this movie helped sell more copies of his books.

I’m not going to bore you with all the plot details. All you need to know is that it involves a new Russian submarine called the Red October which contains a propulsion system which allows it to run silently to where it cannot be detected by sonar. It is commanded by Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) who lives a lonely life now that his wife has passed away, and many soon become convinced he is out to attack the United States before the country can even realize it’s under attack. CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), however, becomes convinced Ramius is actually trying to defect and becomes obsessed with proving his theory to where he’s willing to put himself in harm’s way.

On top of this being the first Clancy novel brought to the silver screen, it also served as an introduction to the hero of many of his books, Jack Ryan. Of all the actors who have played this CIA analyst to date, Baldwin remains my favorite as he makes Ryan into an accidental action hero, not a man out to save the day. But Ryan’s brilliantly analytic mind allows himself to see and understand things others cannot due to their mistrust and their Cold War obsessions, and this makes him a necessary part of the action whether he likes it or not. Unlike all the other military generals, Ryan has met Ramius and knows how his mind works.

Sean Connery is as legendary as his character of Marko Ramius is to the Russian military in this movie, and it should go without saying he is perfectly cast here. Seeing those eyes of his on the big screen at the start gives us an idea of how human Ramius is, and Connery renders him a fascinating individual whose life cannot be boiled down to one sentence. The former James Bond actor could have given a ridiculously over the top performance, but he instead underplays his role to where we truly accept him as a submarine commander and that there is more to him than we can see at first.

Seriously, McTiernan got the perfect cast for “The Hunt for Red October.” Back in the 1990’s when this movie came out, it was hard to think of another actor other than James Earl Jones who could play Ryan’s superior Vice Admiral James Greer. Jones gives each scene he’s in an immense gravity, and he makes it look like he doesn’t even have to try. Scott Glenn is coolness personified as Captain of the U.S.S. Dallas, Bart Mancuso, and watching him keep his emotions in check throughout the is fascinating. When Mancuso does lose his cool, you want to make sure you’re not the reason why he is.

Next, you have Sam Neil who plays Vasily Borodin, Ramius’ second in command. Neil has the captain’s back when others begin to doubt him, and I love the scene where he talks to Connery about the possibility of living in Montana. Neil is sublime in this role, and his last scene is a real heartbreaker.

Then you have actors like Tim Curry, Fred Dalton Thompson, Richard Jordan, Joss Ackland, Stellan Skarsgård and Jeffrey Jones inhabiting their roles to where you feel like you’re watching actual Washington officials and military personnel instead of just a bunch of performers. It’s impossible to imagine “The Hunt for Red October” without any of these actors in it. Furthermore, they are each blessed with a number of classic one-liners provided to them by screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald B. Stewart.

One actor I want to point out in particular is Courtney Vance who plays Sonar Technician Ronald “Jonesy” Jones. His performance ended up being this movie’s most underrated as we watch him listen to the noises he heard to where you cannot doubt the conclusion he comes to. While the computer tells Jonesy he’s listening to a “magma displacement,” he knows he really heard something which has got to be man-made. Watching Vance as Jonesy is a joy because he makes this character much more than the average petty officer aboard a ship.

McTiernan’s genius in directing “The Hunt for Red October” is in keeping things down to earth and not bombastic like you would expect to see in a Michael Bay movie. Right from the start, he’s intent on bringing us into these characters’ lives to where we don’t feel like we’re watching some ordinary film. Unlike “Die Hard” which he made before this, it is not an action-packed movie until the very end, and he has us getting far more invested in what the characters are up to. As a result, it seems unlikely this movie could be made in the same way today as studio heads would most likely expect something far more formulaic.

If there are any flaws to be found in “The Hunt for Red October,” it is with some of the special effects as the torpedoes look kind of fake. While McTiernan and his crew appear to have all the other details down perfectly, this one doesn’t work the way it should. Still, that’s just a minor thing that doesn’t do much to take away from one’s pleasure in watching this submarine classic. It really is one of those movies which is impossible to get sick of watching, and it holds up more than twenty years after its release. Outside of “Das Boot,” this remains one of the greatest submarine movies ever made.

* * * * out of * * * *