Every franchise has to start somewhere. For James Bond, that beginning came with Dr. No. Looking at the movie forty six years (and twenty two movies) later, it’s pretty evident that the movie may have been a good starting place for Bond back then, but his first adventure doesn’t exactly hold up well.
Now before you go ballistic over that negative introduction, let me state clearly that Dr. No is firmly lodged in cinematic history, with some of film’s most memorable moments of all time. In fact, this film is all about introductions. That first appearance of James Bond, sitting confidently at the smoky card table and uttering that famous introduction of, “Bond, James Bond” for the first time, is an iconic moment for all time. The same can be said of Ursula Andress’s classic first appearance, emerging from the ocean as a bikini-clad goddess with such style that the Bond franchise has recreated the moment in a later film. These are moments that are forever burned into our cultural memory.
But for an introductory story, Bond’s first adventure is also a little stale - a lot of talk with very little action. It’s a solid reminder that the Bond films used to be based more in drama and mystery than in the action pieces they’ve become today. The movie spends five minutes changing out Bond’s firearm with dialog that might be of interest to gun enthusiasts, but really doesn’t matter to the common viewer. When the villainous Dr. No finally does appear on screen, he indulges in an expository monologue that completely justifies all of the parodies and spoofs of the genre that have followed.
Many of the iconic concepts we associate with Bond are absent from Dr. No. The movie’s high tech gadgets include a Geiger counter and cyanide cigarettes, while the only world traveling Bond does is from England to Jamaica. Both of these things would change with time, but now that we’ve gotten used to a gadget wielding, world-traveled spy, it’s hard to look back at the first mission with contentment, even if those were part of how this movie got made in the first place (this was chosen as Bond’s first adventure on film specifically because of the low budget costs of only needing one foreign location).
Additionally, very little of Dr. No’s story really feels like a spy story. Bond’s mission is to find out what happened to a radio post that broke off in mind-contact. Just about everything that happens from there is a series of conveniences. Bond doesn’t go after Dr. No as much as he stumbles into his plot. There’s very little espionage in play here, and almost no subterfuge. Bond has maybe one or two really solid moments of spy antics here, and the rest is dry dialogue and far too expansive exposition. This Bond simply doesn’t pop, and is definitely a product of its time that would never play well in today’s world.
For all of my negative comments, I do think Dr. No is a necessary part of Bond’s history. For one, it’s always good to revisit a franchise’s roots to see how far it’s come (or how far off track it’s gone). Also, this also justifies the more recent Bond movies a little bit more. When we first met Sean Connery as Bond (who has the role down pat from the moment he first appears on screen), we see an experienced spy with a back history of success and failures. We never see a rookie version of Bond, even though we are told about shortcomings of his previous adventures in a conversation with “M”. That conversation made me want to know more about Bond before he was a super spy. It’s taken almost half a century, but we’re finally seeing that aspect of the character’s development.
For people who want to see the film origins of James Bond, Dr. No is the starting ground on a lengthy mission, and an important part of film history. Now that the character has become more action star than dramatic hero, however, his first adventure might not satisfy many audiences. Even as a fan of the classic, golden age of Bond, I have to admit I find this martini a little dry by comparison.
We are assured in the packaging of the new James Bond movies on Blu-ray that “Blu-ray was made for Bond.” I’d like to think that’s true and that the spy’s world travels can really be shown off in the new high definition format. If Blu-ray was made for Bond though, why are we getting DVD content on the Blu-ray disc? I’d like to think that’s because MGM has already put out everything they have for the Bond movies on previous releases, and that re-releasing the same content in high definition was the only option, but there’s a part of me that’s concerned future theatrical Bond movies will continue to offer an excuse to re-release Bond in whatever format is popular, and new content will be found to further supplement those releases.
For this release, almost everything that has been included has been seen before, from the patchwork commentary track (put together from interviews with director Terence Young and cast and crew) to featurettes on the making of the movie, the celebration of Bond, and even vintage material, some of which hasn’t even gotten the high definition treatment, or even a low definition remastering.
The movie does look rather impressive in high definition, and there’s no arguing that this is probably the best presentation ever of Bond for home theaters. That difference in quality is both good and bad. Jamaica looks beautiful, albeit still portrayed in the muted colors of the era, and I challenge anyone to keep their breath in the high definition arrival of Ursula Andress from the ocean. At the same time, that plate glass separation of Bond and the tarantula during the classic assassination attempt is made even more evident with this version, as is the fact that Andress is wearing a bathing suit during the radioactive shower sequence, ruining the wet dreams of future generations of Bond fans everywhere.
For real video fans (who are still the likely owners of Blu-ray players), there’s a nice short featurette about the new transfers of bond titled “007: License to Restore.” The information of how the film has been restored from the original camera negatives is really interesting, but then it started to refer to Bond movies that haven’t been included in this first wave of Blu-ray releases. That’s when I realized this featurette was copyrighted 2004, and most likely had appeared on a previous DVD release. Interesting information, nonetheless, and it’s interesting to note that they were laying the foundation for these high definition releases when they scanned the negatives several years ago.
Even though most of the disc’s content has been seen before, a lot of it has been transferred to high definition for this new release. “Inside Dr. No” is a 45 minute look at the making of the movie that looks pretty good in high definition. So does a look at director Terence Young (“Terence Young: Bond Vivant), although you quickly realize the two share a lot of the same interview footage, becoming redundant.
Not everything has been remastered for the new release however. A 1963 featurette and vintage trailers are great reminders of how movies used to be marketed, but the scratches and visual noise are quite a distraction.
The biggest disappointment on the disc, which I expect will disappoint me on the other Bond on Blu-ray releases as well, is the “007 Mission Control Interactive Guide.” The guide lists key figures, locations, gadgets, and the like from the movie, and instantly takes you to the part of the movie where the person, place, or thing is introduced or explained. Basically it’s just a shortcut to the applicable part of the movie, not really a guide of any sort. The only exception to this is the “exotic locales” part of the guide, which does actually have a very brief explanation of this film’s exotic locale - Jamaica.
The problem with repetitive content like this is that a movie like Dr. No is mostly going to appeal to true Bond fans - fans who have most likely already collected Bond on DVD and now want to upgrade their collection to a high definition version. For a movie that doesn’t hold up as well as other Bond adventures, it’s the bonus material that helps sell a new edition, but most of this is probably already in an interested fan’s collection. Unless you absolutely need the high definition cut of Dr. No, this is one Bond movie that isn’t worth the upgrade.