Sometimes, the first of anything turns out to be the best. Now, I’m not suggesting that “Dr. No,” the initial entry in the Bond series, is the best of all–in fact, I believe the next two installments improved the formula–but certainly “Dr. No” must be ranked among the best. What’s really nice is that MGM’s new “Special 007 Edition” justifies its re-release status by offering ample bonus materials to supplement this seminal, trend-setting adventure film.
The first thing producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman needed was a script. The most obvious choice would have been author Ian Fleming’s first novel, “Casino Royale,” but it had already been produced for television in 1954 with Barry Nelson as Bond and Peter Lorre as the villain; and, besides, Broccoli and Saltzman didn’t have the rights to it. What they had was “Dr. No,” which worked out well because it was set in Jamaica where Fleming lived, and he could help supervise the production. It was, indeed, an ideal choice of script and location. The exotic locale not only contributes heavily to the story’s atmosphere, it was close enough that Fleming, a former journalist and member of British Naval Intelligence, could keep an eye on things.
The right director was also necessary to carry the first show to fruition. Broccoli and Saltzman found their man in Terence Young, an experienced filmmaker with exactly the kind of sophistication they were looking for. He did so well, he was asked back to do two more Bond films, “From Russia With Love” and “Thunderball,” before he bowed out. According to the accompanying documentary on Young, the director infused the character of James Bond with much of his own worldly taste and predilections, shaping the Bond character in the choice of clothes to wear, food and wines to order, and gun to carry. It is even said that if Bond opened a bottle of Dom Perignon in a Young film, you could bet it was the real thing. So Young gets credit for most of the series’ style that would continue, more or less, through the next four decades.
Of course, some of that early style has changed in more recent Bond efforts, chases and explosions, for example, replacing tension and suspense. “Dr. No” has exactly one car chase and one major explosion, yet it’s by far one of the most action-packed entries in the Bond lineup. Young was big on realism, no matter how absurd the situation. One minor caveat: For Bond’s first appearance behind the wheel, Young puts him in a little, four-cylinder Sunbeam Alpine. I mean no disrespect to Alpine fanciers, but the car is hardly in the upper echelon of exotic sports cars. We would have to wait a while to see him in Bentleys, Aston Martins, Lotuses, and BMWs.
Next, the producers needed a star. Their first choice was Cary Grant, but his price was too high. In addition, they knew that even if they could get Grant, he wouldn’t sign on for more than one picture, and they needed someone who would continue on with the series. Fleming’s top pick was Roger Moore, but he was tied up at the time with television work. They considered Michael Redgrave and Patrick McGoohan for the part, and then somebody looked at Sean Connery in the 1959 Disney fantasy, “Darby O’Gill and the Little People.” Connery seemed perfect: early thirties, tall, cool, elegant, and ruggedly handsome. Of course, they couldn’t have made a better choice, and most Bond fans recognize Connery as unsurpassed in the part. It’s interesting to compare Connery in this early feature to his performances in the role several years later. He is noticeably less polished here, and the twinkle in his eye had not yet fully developed.
“Dr. No” is fairly serious compared to later Bond releases, to the point where in several instances Bond is actually seen to sweat! And there is one controversial segment where 007 shoots and kills an unarmed man with not the slightest remorse. The cold-bloodedness of the scene served as moviegoers’ introduction to the meaning of the double-0 number. The films got progressively more tongue-in-cheek after that, reaching their apex of silliness with the middle Moore issues. Attribute the start of all this to Young and Connery, though. When they noticed that viewers liked Bond’s zinging deadpan one-liners, they started throwing more of them, puns and double entendres, into each film, and the rest is history.
Then there was the supporting cast to consider. Fleming wanted his pal, writer and performer Noel Coward, to play the part of the villainous Chinese-German heavy, Dr. No, the guy who desires nothing less than to topple the U.S. missile program. Coward resolutely refused, however, particularly when he learned he’d have to wear metal hands for the role. By good fortune, the part went to Joseph Wiseman, who set the standard for every Bond super-villain to come. Was there ever a more cold, calculating, ruthless, menacing bad guy than Wiseman in this film? He makes more recent Bond villains seem like mere henchmen. And the filmmakers had to have a supremely beautiful and sexy actress to play the first of many Bond heroines. Who can forget Ursula Andress’s first appearance as Honey Ryder, wading through the surf like Venus rising from the sea. Again, a standard was set that was only equaled by Diana Rigg in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”
Naturally, there would have to be continuing characters, and here the choices were again fortuitously correct. Bernard Lee was cast as “M,” head of the British Secret Service. He would continue in the role for decades, exuding just the right air of maturity, authority, intelligence, and understanding. Lois Maxwell got the part of Miss Moneypenny, again a role that she would renew in numerous subsequent Bond epics. Nevertheless, the one most frequent Bond actor, Desmond Llewelyn, was not to appear as “Q,” gizmo expert nonpareil, until the second film. Instead, in “Dr. No” the part of Major Boothroyd, later dubbed “Q,” went to Peter Burton, who probably would have continued in the part had he not been unavailable for the next project, “From Russia With Love.” Jack Lord, later of “Hawaii Five-O” fame, was the first of a batch of varied actors to play the part of CIA agent Felix Leiter. Marvelous cast!
Script, director, performers, style, atmosphere, and locale wonderfully merged to produce exactly the right milieu for the picture, but the producers knew they needed the proper music to tie it all together. John Barry took over the musical reins in the second film, but it was Monty Norman who introduced the world to the “James Bond” theme in “Dr. No.” True, director Young overuses it throughout the film, but the tune is good enough that it remains indelibly with the series to this day. In fact, Connery’s own production of “Never Say Never Again” wasn’t able to use it, and that film didn’t feel the same without it. Still and all, hearing the same theme every time Bond does even the most mundane things, like stepping off an airplane or going into a phone booth, seems excessive. A couple of other good songs make their appearance in “Dr. No” and help set the mood; Calypso was hot in ’62, so “Jamaica Jump Up” and “Underneath the Mango Tree” worked in well, the former becoming a number-one hit in the West Indies.
The picture quality of this older Bond feature is not much to speak of. The aspect ratio is presented at 1.74.1, close to its original 1.85:1. The image is brightly lit but a little grainy, especially in large patches of light or dark, like bright sky or inky night. This rough, gritty condition is slightly mitigated by easing down on the sharpness control, which ought to be set pretty low, anyway.
The mono sound exhibits a reasonably wide frequency and dynamic range, but it’s a bit hard and clangy, too. Thankfully, the audio is free of background noise.
“Dr. No” is a good film, but even if you don’t care much for it, this Special Edition DVD re-release is worthy if for no other reason than for the documentary that comes with it, “Inside ‘Dr. No,'” made in 1999. It’s forty-two minutes long and tells you just about everything you’d ever want to know about the genesis of the Bond series; plus, it includes numerous recent interviews with cast and crew members, including Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Monty Norman, and others. There is also an audio commentary with the voices of the director, cast, and crew. Since Terence Young died some time ago, his and other comments come from previous interviews, spliced into the film at appropriate spots. In addition, there is a twenty-two-minute documentary called “Terence Young: Bond Vivant” that sheds light on the director’s life and manner of filmmaking. A brief, well-worn, black-and-white production featurette made at the time of the film’s creation provides some historical insight. The more-expected items include English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles, a still gallery, MGM’s usual informational booklet, a generous thirty-two scene selections, several theatrical trailers for the film, plus TV and radio spots. It’s another useful collection of extras from the company that practically started the DVD revolution.
By the way, in Fleming’s novel, Dr. No is killed when he falls into a huge vat of guano. I sort of missed that in the screenplay.
“Dr. No” may be purchased separately or in a box set with “Goldfinger,” “The Man With the Golden Gun,” “The Spy Who Loved Me,” “Licence to Kill,” “GoldenEye,” and “Tomorrow Never Dies.”