EXCLUSIVE BLU-RAY REVIEWS - Dr No & From Russia With Love

Almost 24 hours on and i'm still smiling. That's the grin-inducing effect of watching the first two James Bond films - Dr No and From Russia With Love - on Blu-ray.

The films are due out on October 20th, along with a seemingly random initial collection of other Bonds on Blu-ray - including Live and Let Die, Thunderball, Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only and Die Another Day.

They'll be followed on October 31st by the cinema release of the new 007 outing - Quantum of Solace - and then the rest of the Bond back-catalogue, all fully restored and remastered for the Blu-ray format. Expect a full Blu-ray boxset in due course - no doubt at a size and price that'll have your eyes watering just like Bond's did when Le Chiffre was applying his testicular torture...

Can Blu-rays of old movies ever look good?

But back to the Blu-rays in question: the first two James Bond movies, released in 1962 and 1963 respectively. Surely such old films aren't fit for the HD age?

Wrong. Good old 35mm movie film is actually higher-definition than digital HD formats, able to show more detail and with a wider dynamic range. How else would it be able to fill huge cinema screens?

However, film is a fragile medium, which can scratch, fade and even go mouldy. Even the Bond films – which have been meticulously stored in the MGM archives – needed a freshen-up for their HD debut.

And so successful is that makeover that the new Blu-ray titles may look better than the public has ever seen them.

Bond gets a two-year Blu-ray makeover

I spoke to Mike Inchalik, chief operating officer at Lowry Digital, whose team of technicians have spent the last two years painstakingly remastering and restoring the 20 pre-Casino Royale Bonds, frame by frame.

He says: “these Blu-rays will look better than you’ve ever seen Bond – even in the cinema – because we’ve gone right back to the camera negatives and original prints. There’s colour and detail no-one’s seen since the day they were shot: some of these films are 40 years old, but they look like they were shot yesterday”.

The films had previously been remastered for DVD, but Blu-ray is such a big step up in terms of detail-visibility that the Lowry team had to start from scratch – literally, in the case of Dr. No.

“Blu-ray is a very discriminating format, so you have to make sure the films are up to it,” explains Inchalik. “Dr No was a pretty low-budget movie, and it shows in places. There were lots of ‘gate-hairs’, scratches and problems with principle photography that we had to take out”.

Subsequent, bigger-budget Bonds had different problems. “More money meant more effects and faster edits, which mean more restoration work for us: every time you cut into the film negative it can make the image look softer, or introduce ‘noise’.” Inchalik says many frames of the films have been rebuilt to match the original image.

Dr No - only the plot seems familiar!

When I popped Dr No into the disc tray of my Blu-ray player, Inchlik's claims were fresh in my mind. Could it really look as good as he said?

Oh yes - and some! Not only did I see so many details in the movie i've never noticed before - from the atmospheric backgrounds of the opening casino scene to the lived-in look of M's office to the true terror on Dent's face as Dr No bawls him out - but I heard so much more, too.

The disc features corking DTS 5.1 HD Master Audio sound that kicks in with force from Maurice Binder's iconic title sequence onwards. Every gunshot, scuffle and explosion rips into your room, while dialogue is crisp and clear.

It seemed like a whole new film, brimming with life and oozing early-sixties retro appeal - thanks to the details on everything from cars to clothing to make-up that are suddenly apparent.

Yes, there are parts that still look a little grainy - one suspects, for example, that the shots of the Pan Am planes landing are shoddy stock material - and it's undeniably film-like, without the clinical insight that some more modern, digital originals have.

But this is a big step up from what's been previously available - even the most recently remastered, Ultimate Edition DVDs can't get close to this level of detail, sonically or visually, while if the last time you watched Bond was on a Bank Holiday Monday TV showing, you'll be stupified by the increase in quality.

From Russia With Love - was it a stunt bum?

With the sound of the James Bond theme still ringing in our ears, out came Dr No and into the Blu-ray player went 007's second movie outing - From Russia With Love.

Again, it wasn't too long before the high-definition glory impressed: the sights and sounds of 1960s Istanbul; the nuances of expression you hadn't picked up before; even the product placement (yes, it was even going on back then!) seems more obvious because you can easily pick out the brands.

The brief glimpse of nudity - as Tatiana slips into Bond's bed - has long been talked about, but in HD there really is no doubt that Daniela Bianchi (or a stunt double) is naked. Maybe not the most cultured argument for Blu-ray, but certainly a tantalising bonus for many, i'm sure (the reverse is true of Sean Connery's hitherto imperceptible back hair, revealed in the previous scene).

As with Dr No, there are still some grainy scenes, but otherwise the Lowry team - and their DTS sonic siblings - has done an incredible job making From Russia With Love look as fresh and exciting as it was in 1963 - back when it was the last film President Kennedy saw (in a private White House screening) before flying off on his one-way trip to Dallas.

Add excellent menus and a host of extras we haven't yet had the chance to check out (of which more in subsequent reviews) and these are Blu-rays that are definitely on my pre-order list.

It's just a shame - though obvious studio tactics (thanks, Fox!) - that the collection isn't all available at once, as I have a horrible feeling i'll be buying boxsets in chunks, then an 'ultimate' boxset will come out i'll pine for.

Incidentally, I'd expect the second wave of Bond Blu-rays to emerge around the same time Quantum of Solace makes its Blu-ray debut - by Easter 2009.

Next up on our Bond Blu-ray viewing schedule is Live and Let Die - we'll let you know how high-definition deals with Roger Moore's 'special' safari trouser suits, Jane Seymour's 'creative' make-up and all the snakes, creole and chaos of Baron Samedi and chums.

All together now: "When you were young, and your heart was an open book..."