**½/**** Image A+ Sound B Extras A-
starring Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord
screenplay by Richard Maibaum & Johanna Hardwood & Berkely Mather, based on the novel by Ian Fleming
directed by Terence Young
by Ian Pugh Sean Connery looks utterly lost in Dr. No. From the vantage point of this first crack at a big-screen James Bond, it's easy to see why Ian Fleming initially dismissed him as an "overgrown stuntman." Unable to convey much beyond a dashing, self-important man of the world, his attempts at cold-blooded murder and forceful interrogation are dispassionate and wooden at best. Considering how his individual performances as Bond rose and fell with different interpretations of the formula1, one wonders if Connery served as a barometer of the filmmakers' confidence in the series' early days. It's evident that no one involved with Dr. No had a very clear idea of what that formula was, or would be. How far should we go in directly translating the book for the screen? Even the possibility of sequels turns out to be a question that distracts from a successful product: A little too bombastic for a leitmotif, Monty Norman's now-familiar "James Bond Theme" follows our hero around as if testing the waters, toying with the possibility that this character could support a series.
While Dr. No would also jumpstart the film franchise's long-standing tradition of toning down its fantastical source material (in the corresponding novel, Bond disposes of the titular nemesis with an enormous pile of bat shit, shortly before battling a giant squid), it's also the picture that most closely approximates the torturous filler of Fleming's prose--resulting in a boring, hour-long travelogue of Jamaica as told by people who don't really believe that such a place could exist. But there's that question of confidence again: No one is entirely sure of how the search for a missing Jamaican liaison can lead to a showdown with a preening Fu Manchu sporting metal hands (Joseph Wiseman), so Dr. No prefers to concentrate on how completely fucking awesome it is to be a secret agent.
All of the excitement and adventure revolves around you: the exotic locales just waiting to be explored; the assassination attempts just waiting to be foiled; and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to bed dangerous, exotic women one moment and toss them to the wolves the very next. It's precisely what helped propel the James Bond series into the public consciousness as a reliable source of masturbatory escapism, but it's almost surreal to watch this film struggle to cobble these elements together into a cohesive narrative. Of course, it's tempting to say that we've become too jaded in the span of forty years to be thrilled by Dr. No's analog antics (compared to the litany of CGI in Die Another Day, it's downright quaint for Bond to stick a hair across his closet door to confirm that it will be searched in his absence), yet its skeletal structure and stodgy racism more or less prove that it was destined for obsolescence within a few short years.
In fact, the film practically pre-empts itself once Bond finally lands on Doctor No's sinister lair on Crab Key Island. Ursula Andress's deified entrance from the sea became iconic in popular culture--a pivotal moment in the cinema's sexual revolution--because it brings the idea of culpability into the proceedings, turning the victorious he-man into a passive voyeur at the mercy of those who allow his hypersexualized derring-do to happen. Bond squirms as Andress's Honey Ryder casually relates a story about murdering an erstwhile rapist with a black widow2, shortly before they're captured and sent naked through a humiliating decontamination bath for all of No's security guards to see. (Their eventual banishment to a prison cell, decorated like a pseudo-domestic modernist paradise, is nothing less than disturbing.) Even at this early stage in the game--at Honey's suggestion?--Bond acknowledges the Freudian motives that would drive megalomaniacs of No's stature ("Does the toppling of American missiles really compensate for having no hands?"), resulting in a brief, almost ineffable moment of sympathy and understanding on his part that casts the final confrontation as a complex struggle for power.3 It's too bad the movie chickens out just when it's getting interesting, bypassing a fair share of loose strings with a hastily-assembled happy ending offered by the exploding lair (which went on to become all too common in movies like this)--but the promise introduced at Dr. No's eleventh hour would thankfully be fulfilled by its immediate sequel.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Time will tell, but for now the most pristine Bond film on Blu-ray is also, curiously, the oldest. Pillarboxed at 1.66:1 and presented in 1080p, Dr. No looks mind-bogglingly clear on the format, with just enough telltale grain to let you know there's no funny business going on. At first the letters of the opening credits seem a little soft, but then you realize they're faintly outlined in black, slightly dulling their edge against the black backdrops of the title sequence. Colours are unbelievable; on BD, the movie has a heretofore-unseen palette of rich pastel hues, while the Jamaican scenery is now properly paradisial, a true Garden of Eden. Any disappointment will stem from returning to the drabness of real life, though the newfound obviousness of everyone's spray-on tans may dismay some. Less sensational is the 5.1 remix, offered in DTS-HD Master Lossless Audio; stick with the DD 1.0 "original mono" option, which isn't as broad but by the same token isn't as harsh. On another track, find an oral history of Dr. No meticulously compiled by disc producer John Cork, who bridges comments from an impressive array of film personnel (including composer Monty Norman, actresses Lois Maxwell and Ursula Andress, production designer Ken Adam, and director Terence Young) with his own informed insights into the production.
Thing is, you can get a substantial amount of the information contained therein in half the time and without the distracting eye candy of Dr. No by watching the supplemental "Inside Dr. No" (42 mins., 1080i), an origin story for the film featuring many if not all of the yakker's participants. I suppose a lot of this material will be familiar to Bond-philes besides, but the organization of it is the selling point--and I do believe this was my first official confirmation of the meanings behind the obscure names of the two main companies that produce Bond films, Danjaq and EON. We also learn the contemporary significance of Doctor No having Goya's "Portrait of the Duke of Wellington" in his lair. Oh, the jokes that are lost to time. And did you know that Monty Norman cannibalized a passage of his own score for the play A House for Mr. Biswas to create the immortal James Bond theme? Actually, I was equally if not more surprised to discover that non-musical theatre used to have scores.
Joining this doc under the heading Mission Dossier are the love-in "Terence Young: Bond Vivant" (18 mins., 1080i) and the hilariously staid "Dr. No 1963 Featurette" (9 mins., 480i), hosted by an unidentified gun fetishist. The former reiterates for the umpteenth time in these extras that Young, despite being nobody's first choice to helm Dr. No, was Bond and that his role in shaping the franchise cannot and should not be underestimated. Maybe you can never hear it enough, considering that Ian Fleming traditionally receives the lion's share of the credit for defining the Bond lexicon as we commonly know it. (In a generous move, Cork lists a complete filmography for Young at the end of the piece.) And speaking of gun porn, launching Declassified: MI6 Vault is "The Guns of James Bond" (5 mins., 480i), another retro featurette. Connery briefly appears, but most of this BBC program is given over to a British weapons expert who in not so many words calls Bond (and, by extension, Fleming) a pussy for the insufficient heat he packs in the novel of Dr. No. Said authority goes on to demonstrate the difference between a Beretta, a Walther PPK, and a .44 by firing all three at a giant juice can. It's hilarious for two reasons: 1) because English gents and Magnums are less than complementary; and 2) because it presciently satirizes the series' increasing reliance on firepower. Less ridiculous and even strangely compelling is "Premiere Bond: Opening Nights" (13 mins., 480i), a montage of footage from Bond's various premieres over the years (bypassing Never Say Never Again and predating Casino Royale) breathlessly narrated by long-time Bond producer Michael Wilson. I kept wanting to interrupt and ask questions, such as, Was it really George Lazenby's decision to not reprise the role? Hilariously, every single woman at the after-party for A View to a Kill could be mistaken for Vanna White (except Grace Jones, of course). Last but not least, we have an extensive "Image Database" that divides a "retro photo gallery" into the following categories: The Filmmakers; Portraits; Jamaica; Pinewood; The Lost Scene (i.e., Ursula Andress vs. frozen crabs); Ian Fleming - Jamaica; Ian Fleming - Pinewood; and Around the World with 007.
Simultaneously rounding out the platter and filling out the section called Top Level Access (yes, I've done this bass-ackwards) is "007: Licence to Restore" (12 mins.), a self-congratulatory look at the restoration efforts of Lowry Digital rather bafflingly rendered in standard definition. While I predictably geeked-out once they got down to brass tacks, I can't say I found it terribly cute when MGM's Scott Grossman teased that they may or may not have digitally removed a camera's reflection from a shot in The Man with the Golden Gun--you'll have to wait for the DVD (now Blu-ray) to know for sure, he says. I hope they left it alone, for what it's worth, but what really irked me is that at that moment I felt like I'd been tricked into watching an infomercial. Originally published: November 6, 2008.
1. Which is to say that the entries generally regarded as classics (From Russia with Love, Goldfinger) allow Connery to inject some much-needed humour to offset the general coldness of the character, while the later multi-million dollar fantasias (You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever) only serve to accentuate his growing boredom with the role. All things considered, Connery was incredibly lucky that he was able to play trial and error with the character. return
2. A brave implication at this early stage to so clearly associate Bond with rape--one that is timidly cast aside by film's end after Ryder is removed from Doctor No's presence to "amuse" his guards, only to be rescued without comment. return
3. Bond's brief tussle with Doctor No represents one of the few moments where the film's awkward straightforwardness benefits it greatly: Wiseman's robotic fighting techniques--swinging his bionic hands around like blunt objects--certainly emphasize how Bond and No are yin and yang locked in a battle for phallic supremacy. (No is, naturally, done in by the inherent failings of his own member(s), unable to grab onto any smooth surfaces as he descends into a pool of boiling water.) return