In a wistful mood, and coming across a super steal on Amazon for the 2 Disk Ultimate Editions of the first 20 James Bond films, from Eon Productions, I decided to plunge in, and write a film by film review and retrospective of the films and DVD features. Being born in 1965, the Bond that I really grew up with (and loved) was Roger Moore’s witty version, although I did see most of the six Sean Connery Eon Bond films on television, or in morning matinees during the summer, when film theatres, in those days, would play old prints of stocked films before the new releases started at noon (ah, for such lost rituals).
Of the six Connery films, I’m certain I saw Goldfinger and Thunderball on their network television debuts, and am pretty sure I did not see Connery’s final Eon turn, Diamonds Are Forever. Of the three remaining Connery films- Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and You Only Live Twice, I’m certain I saw Dr. No in the theaters, and likely the other two, as well, although I may not have. It will be interesting to gauge how scenes turn the memory machine, as I view.
Now, on to 1962’s first Bond outing- Dr. No. Producers Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had spent some years looking to produce any of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel, after a failed 1954 television production of the first Bond novel, 1953’s Casino Royale, from the anthology show Climax!, starring Barry Nelson as an Americanized ‘Jimmy Bond’- which would later become a comic spoof in 1967 (starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen), before Eon produced it, in 2006, as the first of the Daniel Craig led Bond films. They settled upon producing Dr. No, from the 1958 novel, after getting financing from United Artists, then hired director Terence Young- a solid studio director, and entrusted the screenplay adaptation of the novel to Richard Maibaum and Berkely Mather, with Johanna Harwood acting as script editor and revisionist. Together with Young, they crafted the essential persona of MI6 secret agent 007, James Bond, license to kill (signified by the two zeroes before his 7)- strong, tough, amorous, witty, with the finest tastes, and the soul of a remorseless killer, one little better than the bad guys he takes on. The transition from page to screen required some changes- such as the invention of a criminal syndicate called SPECTRE to replace the novels’ Soviet based SMERSH, as well as a good scene of the literary Bond’s need to upgrade from his classic old handgun (Beretta M 1934) to a more modern (at least circa 1962) weapon (Walther PPK)- a powerfully phallic symbol that states that this Bond is NOT the Bond of the books. This liberal use of and changing of novel tropes and narratives would become all the more common with later films, after Fleming’s death in 1964, and his books’ stories becoming increasingly outdated.
This film was produced on a moderate budget- $1 million, but the technical work- the cinematography, editing, and sets by production designer Ken Adam, are so striking, sleek, and economical, (even five decades on), that the film seems much more expensively made. It became an immediate hit around the world, although it did not achieve blockbuster status. It did, however, set the science fiction and gadgetry template that later films would use, including a great and bravura opening credits sequence (especially for its time), made by Maurice Binder, that set a formula that later films rarely deviated too far from. It also jumpstarted that decade’s fascination with espionage, in film and on television (most notably culminating in the peerless The Prisoner ), as well as parodies of same, such as the aforementioned comic version of Casino Royale, and the television show Get Smart.
The fast paced film opens in Jamaica, when a British intelligence officer, John Strangways, is ambushed and killed, by three assassins- the Three Blind Mice, from the opening credits. The shock of three black men with guns, mercilessly killing a white man and discarding his body must have been quite a jolt to, especially, mostly white middle class American audiences in 1962, in the prime stages of the Civil Rights Movement. We then cut to England, where Bond (Sean Connery) is at a casino where he is asked his name and utters the iconic, ‘Bond. James Bond,’ for the first time. He is called to his superior’s office. M informs him of the death of Strangways, and the possible ‘toppling’ of NASA Mercury rockets, from Cape Canaveral, due to radio interference from Jamaica.
Arriving in Jamaica, Bond is followed by any number of people- some who want to harm him, and others who want to help him. Right away, he staves off an assault on his life and disables a chauffer, who takes cyanide to avoid giving Bond his answers. Investigating Strangways’ death, he comes across a native boatman, named Quarrel (John Kitsmiller), tussels with him and another local, victors, and is then subdued by CIA Felix Leiter (Jack Lord, in a pre-Hawaii 5-0 role, in which he actually is coiffed somewhat like his 5-0 co-star James MacArthur). They then work together, and somehow, Leiter has not figured out that the mysterious, half-Chinese/half-German Dr. Julius No, who owns an island, Crab Key, and bauxite mine, could possibly be the one toppling the Mercury rockets. Bond zeroes in on a Dr. No henchman, Professor R.J. Dent (Anthony Dawson), who fails to kill Bond with a tarantula, and then six shots from a pistol. Bond mercilessly kills Dent (even shooting him in the back), after having had sex with Dent’s secretary, Miss Taro, the very sexy and buxom Zena Marshall, who is made to look more Oriental, and, given it was the 1960s, doesn’t look like a caricature, but a believable mix of the races. The same can be said, incidentally, for Joseph Wiseman’s portrayal of the mixed race Dr. No, although he doesn’t enter the 110 minute long film until 85 or so minutes in. Bond decides to land on Crab Key and infiltrate Dr. No’s operation, and Quarrel takes him there. They sleep on the beach, and, in the morning, is famously greeted by Ursula Andress’s Honey Rider (voiced by Nikki Van Der Zyl), emerging like Venus from the waves, in a white bikini with a side knife, in one of world cinema’s most iconic entrances. She claims she hunts seashells, even though her father was killed by Dr. No. The next day, Quarrel is killed by Dr. No’s flamethrowing tank.
After decontamination, they are drugged, and Dr. No, inspects them as they sleep. He has no hands, only metal prosthetics. Dr. No seems smitten with Bond, hoping to recruit him to work for SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion), but is mocked. Oddly, neither Bond nor M6, at this point, seem to have had any idea of SPECTRE’s existence- a distressing intelligence lapse, indeed. He then takes Honey away, and has his men beat Bond, who is locked up for later interrogation, as Dr. No prepares to topple another NASA launch- his headquarters get added realism, due to the use of monitors with real Mercury rocket footage in the background. Naturally, Bond escapes, disrupts the plans, overloads Dr. No’s private nuclear reactor, and drowns Dr. No in the boiling water of his own reactor, when his own steel hands cannot grasp the wet metal of the ladder from the reactor water. Bond and Honey escape in a boat, and are rescued by Felix Leiter and Jamaican officials.
This film sets the style for many Bond films- John Barry’s Bond theme and the gun barrel opening, sci fi extravaganzas, gorgeous women Bond has sex with (in this film, Miss Taro is the sexiest, by far- in fact, despite her iconic status, an argument can be made for Ursula Andress finishing in the bronze, behind both Marshall and Eunice Grayson’s Sylvia Trench (also voiced by Nikki Van Der Zyl), as well as the relationships between the major MI6 characters: Bond; his Secret Service superior, M (Bernard Lee); M’s secretary, Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), and the head of MI6’s Q branch, Major Boothroyd (Peter Burton). Starting in the second film, From Russia With Love, Boothroyd would be played by Desmond Llewelyn, and always referred to as Q.
That all stated, this film also is atypical from the later Bonds, of both Connery and Roger Moore, the two most filmed Bonds (7 times apiece, albeit Moore had 7 with Eon, while Connery 6, and one- Never Say Never Again- a Thunderball remake- with another production company), in that it is more straight forward and less campy. Yes, it is sci fi, and a bit corny, but it is on the fringes of plausibility, whereas later films would go way over the edge. This film also quickly establishes, in the early scenes, a general familiarity within the MI6 offices, and a plausibility of character that makes a viewer want to believe they are watching reality- a sign of a very good screenplay’s dappling of realistic behaviors in an otherwise implausible plot. Dr. No, too, has a certain believability, in terms of his character motivation, and the gadgetry addiction that later films indulge in is almost non-existent here.
As for the DVD features? The package comes in a 2 DVD edition, with Disk 1 having the film and its commentary, and Disk 2 the extra features. The film is sterling in its transfer and upgrade, resulting in what the restorers called making the film look like it is ‘set in the ‘60s,’ and not merely made in the ‘60s. Ted Moore’s cinematography is solid, and one has to consider that the special effects then as well as action scenes, crashes, and car chases, were groundbreaking in 1962. The only thing that does not work is the very outdated Hitchcockian use of rear projection in numerous chase scenes, and the like. The color film’s aspect ratio is 1.66:1. The audio transfer was also excellent. Watching this film actually made one want to watch it on the big screen, to get a sense of what viewers five decades first saw, and why the Bond series became so beloved.
The commentary portion could have been enhanced by having a film expert, historian, or critic add a second commentary to the one that is presented. The one we hear is a mish-mash of opinions and reminiscences from the film’s participants, such as Bond historian John Cork, director Terence Young, editor Peter Hunt, composer Monty Norman, actors Lois Maxwell, Ursula Andress, Eunice Gayson, Marguerite Lewars, Zena Marshall and Timothy Moxon, sound effects editor Norman Wanstall, special effects supervisor John Stears, art director Syd Cain, production designer Ken Adam, stuntmen Richard Graydon, Bert Luxford, and George Leech. It’s solid, but as in all such cobbled together endeavors, true fans of film and Bond are shortchanged by getting mere trivia, when understanding could be wrought. Also, many of the comments have no bearing on the particular scenes, but seem tossed in just so that the speaker’s remembrance can be heard, etc. Perhaps the best portion of it comes in the discussion of the tarantula scene, wherein some explanation of the use of a plate of glass between Connery and the spider was used, to the distress of some then contemporary film critics.
Disk 2 has many features, organized into spy like folders. Licence To Restore is 12 minutes long and features Lowry Digital Images employees talking on the processes they used to update the films in the series. The Guns Of James Bond is a 5 minute featurette from the 60s wherein gun expert Jeffrey Boothroyd- who inspired the Q-Boothroyd character, rails against the lack of understanding of firearms that Fleming and the film producers had. Premiere Bond: Opening Nights is a 13 minute feature with clips from the opening nights of all the Bond films through the Pierce Brosnan series. The longest and best featurette is the 42 minute Inside Dr. No, a classic behind the scenes featurette, made specifically for this DVD set. Most of the interviews and clips are of the late 1990s vintage, and some insights are given that make this well worth watching. The other very informative featurette is the 18 minute long Terence Young: Bond Vivant, on Dr. No’s director, who also directed From Russia With Love and Thunderball. He is credited with much of the first film’s style, and its impact on the rest of the series, as well as his own tastes being used to differentiate the screen Bond (Connery- whom Young regarded as the Eliza Dolittle to his Henry Higgins) from the books’ version. A 9 minute long black and white featurette on the film, from 1963, is also interesting. Also included are film and tv trailers and ads, as well as some radio spots, wherein British spies talk in American accents. There is also a booklet, with photos and text.
Dr. No was a hit, albeit not a blockbuster, bringing in almost $20 million in the US alone, and almost $60 million worldwide, in its few 60s era releases- all on a $1 million budget. Sean Connery is terrific as Bond, and one can see why some prefer his version of the character to the later replacements. I will always be partial to the Roger Moore version of my youth, as more faithful to the novels’ version, but a good case can be made that, while Moore’s Bond is more faithful and entertaining a character, Connery’s films are better, in toto. As I progress chronologically through the series, I shall bear this in mind. It’s also worth noting that Connery was not Choice #1 for the role. Moore was, but was busy with his tv series, The Saint. Cary Grant (who would agree to only one film, not a series), David Niven (who later played Bond in the ’67 spoof, Casino Royale), and Patrick McGoohan (tv star of Danger Man and The Prisoner) were also considered before Connery.
All in all, it’s a terrific DVD package of a seminal film, a film that, while not great cinema, was great entertainment, and, while not even near great, filmically, certainly qualifies as a genre great film, in terms of spy thrillers, and even science fiction- especially compared to its contemporary competitors. Dr. No is a film that fans of Bond certainly must see, but so should film history buffs, for the most successful franchise in movie history started here, in terms of longevity, finances, and thrills. Dr. No is an easy yes, in terms or recommendations.
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