“The name is Bond. James Bond.”
The words are among the most iconic catchphrases in Western cinema. They conjure images of dry martinis, tuxedos, guns, and gadgets. But there was a time when they were just an introduction.
Growing Up on Bond
I grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s, and one of the rare treats I would experience every so often was getting to stay up late for a James Bond movie on ABC. I remember excitedly watching the ABC Sunday Night Movie bumper play just before the movie, then hearing announcer Ernie Anderson’s dramatic voice narrate the trailer and read the “parental discretion is advised” disclaimer, knowing I was about to see something amazing. And then I did.
Roger Moore was the first James Bond I remember, in the form of movies like Moonraker and The Spy Who Loved Me, but I saw plenty of Connery, too. My uncritical child’s mind loved all of them, even the terrible ones. They were an indelible part of my childhood that I cherished as I grew up. Once I was grown and left home, I made sure to catch every new Bond movie in the theaters as it came out. Goldeneye hit theaters just as I got to college. I even got to take a class in James Bond film criticism taught by one of my favorite film professors, the late Dr. David Daly.
But after that, I didn’t really have the occasion to watch most of the early ones again. I picked up a handful of favorites on sale on DVD, but most of them remained consigned to my childhood memories. When even one movie could cost $20, how could I afford to buy almost twenty of them?
But recently, I happened to catch a sale on the 23-disc Bond 50 Blu-ray set of every official Bond movie from Dr. No through Skyfall. (The new version of the set has all 24 films now for $75, what a steal.) It was like having a piece of my childhood returned to me. The one thing that worried me was how well they would hold up on repeat viewing. What would I think, watching them again through grown-up eyes?
Well, there is only one way to find out.
Dr. No (1962)
In 1962, James Bond was hardly a household name. The series of action-adventure spy novels by Ian Fleming were selling extremely well, but were thought too violent and vulgar to be popular literature. Nonetheless, Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman liked them enough to take a chance, and managed to convince United Artists to give them $1 million to make a movie. (President John F. Kennedy listing From Russia With Love as his 9th favorite novel helped.)
It was such a gamble that there is a persistent rumor that Broccoli and Saltzman chose to name their production company EON Productions as an acronym for “Everything or Nothing.” (Although Broccoli denied this rumor, it was persistent enough to provide the name for both a James Bond video game and a 2012 documentary film about the Bond franchise.)
Though Dr. No ended up going over $100,000 over budget, it proved to be a great hit with audiences and a great financial success—and a franchise was born.
When it came time to watch the movie on Blu-ray, I remembered fairly little about Dr. No apart from the villain having mechanical hands. I did recall that, as a child, I had thought it a little boring because it had no gadgets and fairly little action compared to later Bond movies. Fortunately, my tastes have evolved since then. I put the disc in, and was amazed.
In the run-up to releasing the Bond 50 set, most Bond movies went through a complete digital restoration to remove picture flaws and rebalance the colors. Dr. No is no exception. The film is presented slightly pillarboxed to its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and the picture quality is phenomenal. I can only imagine this is what it must have looked like in the theater in 1962. The original mono soundtrack is remixed to 5.1 surround, and I had no complaints there either.
Dr. No introduces us to James Bond, British Secret Service agent, assigned to investigate the disappearance of another agent and his secretary in Jamaica. Over the course of his investigations, Bond discovers a conspiracy on the part of half-German, half-Chinese nuclear scientist Doctor Julius No, who is using a nuclear-powered transmitter to disrupt American rocket launches. Taken prisoner, Bond nonetheless manages to escape, set No’s reactor to overload, kill No, destroy the base, and end up with the girl—par for the course for our favorite superspy, except that this is the first time he’s done any of it on the silver screen.
How did it come off? Extremely well, on the whole. The story follows Fleming’s book fairly closely, save for adding more humorous elements to try to distract the censors from all the violence. The pacing is a touch slower than we expect from movies now, but the story still moves right along. There are relatively few plot holes, apart from the ridiculous attempt to assassinate Bond with a tarantula that isn’t even particularly poisonous. The only big one is wondering why Dr. No didn’t bother to have any armed guards in his reactor room, or at least have all the workers in the room dogpile onto James Bond when he was sabotaging the reactor instead of going it alone and letting Bond kill him. But these are forgivable.
A few of the special effects are dated, and probably look worse thanks to being visible so clearly from the restoration. There’s some fairly terrible rear projection during a car chase, as well as a scene where a plate of glass is plainly visible separating Connery from a spider supposedly crawling over his body. But on the other hand, the movie also features authentic location photography in some of the most beautiful areas of Jamaica, digitally restored to vivid color. It looks almost too gorgeous to be real, and yet it is. Equally gorgeous is the first of many great James Bond set designs by iconic designer Ken Adam, who effectively created from whole cloth the modern supervillain lair. Stanley Kubrick was so impressed that he hired Adam to design the sets for Dr. Strangelove.
And then there’s Connery. Many early installments of movies or TV series feature awkward acting from actors who haven’t quite found their way into their roles yet, but Connery inhabits Bond’s tuxedo with aplomb from the very beginning. He’s not quite as confident in the role as he is in later films, but he’s mostly there. There is very little difference between his performance in Dr. No and his appearance in later Bond films.
As for the lack of gadgets and action that my younger self found “boring,” it does serve to keep the movie focused on the characters and story. As enjoyable as later movies were, the gadgets could often steal the spotlight. It wouldn’t be until Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale that Bond went this far back to basics again.
Finally, it bears repeating that this movie was made on a budget of $1.1 million in 1962—the equivalent of about $8.5 million in 2012. For comparison, Skyfall had a budget of $200 million. The low-budget look and feel makes the film feel similar in a lot of ways to some of the frankly terrible B movies from that era that ended up on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Although the filmmakers did a phenomenal job of getting every penny they could on the screen, the low-budget nature is still visible here and there—in a few special effects shots that haven’t aged well, and in the large number of continuity errors that crop up in editing. Most of them aren’t obvious unless you know to look for them, but there are quite a lot of them. Bond changes guns several times, sometimes in the middle of a scene.
But editor Peter Hunt wasn’t worrying about continuity; he was too busy making sure the movie flowed properly given the availability of shots he had. Hunt was a master at making lemonade with the lemons the directors handed him. Indeed, his fast-paced “cut to the chase” style of editing in the James Bond films effectively changed the way movies were edited in general.
And it’s good that they had Hunt’s expertise, because there are also a few places where the filmmakers weren’t able to get all the shots they needed in the time they had. For example, when the hearse pursues Bond down the mountain road, it was probably meant to have the “three blind mice” assassins in it—they had used the hearse earlier in the movie, and are never seen again in the rest of the film. But there are no insert shots clearly showing them in the car during the pursuit, or reacting to going off the cliff.
On the whole, Dr. No is an exciting first outing for Bond. If it does show its age, it at least manages to be a compelling spy story in spite of it.
The movie isn’t the only reason to watch the disc. There are a lot of great extra features included, such as documentaries on the making of the film and the film’s director. There are also a couple of promotional film clips from when the movie was originally made, including one in which the real-life Geoffrey Boothroyd (a fan and gun enthusiast who sent Fleming a letter correcting some errors in his stories) demonstrates the effectiveness of Bond’s preferred pistols. There is also a commentary track.
These extras are all very interesting and educational, but perhaps the most interesting extra for Dr. No is the one that was not included on the disc. When the first three Bond movies were released on laserdisc in the early ‘90s, Criterion put together commentary tracks for them without running them past “Cubby” Broccoli—who ordered the discs recalled and the commentary tracks excised from future pressings as soon as he heard them. Fans have since taped off the “banned” commentaries and made them available on-line so anyone can download them and have a listen.
After listening to both commentaries, it’s easy to see why Broccoli objected to the Criterion ones. The Criterion commentary includes the people who were most responsible for the movie—director, editor, script writer, and so on—and the discussion is all considerably more frank than some of those being discussed might prefer, including discussions of mistakes in the movie and drug use among some of the crew. The disc commentary has some discussion from the creative staff, but mostly tracks down every bit part cast member and minor crew member it can find for their recollections of working on the film, and is not nearly as informative.
You can learn some very interesting things from this extra material. There are a lot of things about the movie that have been forgotten as time goes by. Dr. No introduced a new style of fast-paced editing on action that was revolutionary in its time, but now everyone does it. There is a ripped-from-the-headlines joke about a painting that had just been stolen at the time the movie was made, which elicited 30 seconds of laughter from theatrical audiences but isn’t even obvious as a joke in the present-day. There is also a scene that was controversial for its violence, in which Bond emptied his gun into a would-be assassin who had already used all his bullets. (At the censors’ behest, it was edited down to Bond simply shooting him twice.) It seems remarkably tame in retrospect.
All in all, spending time with Dr. No has been quite an education. But next time you hear from me, I’ll be speaking to you From Russia with Love.