Beginning this week (and leading all the way up to Sam Mendes’s Spectre), I’m starting a run of James Bond retro reviews, looking back at the many cinematic exploits of Ian Fleming’s unflappable super-spy. So let’s start at the start: Dr. No.
By 1962, James Bond 007 had become a well-known, worldwide literary phenomenon, with even President John F. Kennedy among his fans. The spy novels by author Ian Fleming, inaugurated in 1952 with Casino Royale, were packed to the gills with espionage, intrigue, and sexuality, and were the perfect companion to keep with you on a long commute or on your nightstand. Bond’s screen debut actually came in a 1954 television adaptation of Royale for the anthology series Climax! which starred American actor Barry Nelson as “Card sharp” Jimmy Bond, an American CIA operative, and which also featured Peter Lorre as baddie Le Chiffre.
That version of the character didn’t make much of a mark, in the ratings or with critics, and it would be another eight years before Bond returned to the screen, this time with a truer version under the guidance of producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, whose Eon Productions held the rights to most of the Fleming catalogue (though a few legal hurdles would soon manifest, which we’ll discuss in due time). For their first opus, which they were confident would spawn several follow-ups (though I doubt even they realized just how many follow-ups), they chose Dr. No, Fleming’s sixth Bond novel.
Dispatched to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of an undercover operative, British secret agent James Bond (Sean Connery), whose “double-0″ status gives him a license to kill, learns of a plot by the first of many world-beating masterminds he’ll eventually encounter (the metal-clawed Dr. Julius No played by Joseph Wiseman), to disrupt American space launches and bring about a conflict between the world’s superpowers. This is all on behalf of the organization SPECTRE — SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion — whose influence will continue to be felt on the series for the remainder of the decade.
. Anyway, before you can say “Shaken, not stirred,” Bond has to come up with a plan to beat the bad guy, stave off World War III, and end up in a clinch with the girl. I’ll give you one guess as to whether he finds a way.
What’s most notable about Dr. No today is how small scale it seems. Relatively, of course. I mean, it has most of the accoutrements we’ve come to expect from five decades of Bond-ing, but Dr. No’s hateful dismissal of 007 as just a “police officer” rings remarkably true, with the story feeling at times more like a television procedural than a big budget blockbuster. The film’s value, then, comes primarily from its serving as the starting gate for everything that follows, betraying all the growing pains of the pilot episode for a long-running TV show, where all the familiar pieces are in evidence, but there’s still a bit of trepidation as the key creatives attempt to find their footing.
So, given that Dr. No is a solid, if unspectacular, start to the longest-lived movie series of all time, it becomes even more important to dissect it a bit and attempt to figure out what precisely the celluloid alchemy at work here was. For that, one probably doesn’t need to look much further than the Scotsman wearing the tailored tux. Believe it or not, when Sean Connery was first announced as the producers’ choice to take on the role of Fleming’s character, the casting was greeted with a fair degree of skepticism, not least was from the author himself, who’d always imagined someone more in the vein of the refined David Niven than the rough-and-tumble Connery.
The producers themselves approached actors as varied as James Mason, Cary Grant, and Roger Moore (who we’ll talk about more later), all of whom were either unable or simply unwilling to take on the part, for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, it was in Connery, the former truck driver whose biggest role to date was a featured part in 1959′s Darby O’Gill and the Little People, who embodied exactly the mixture of comeliness and cruelty that Broccoli and Saltzman were searching for, locking the then-31 year-old into a part that would not only cement his place as an icon, but would, with three magic words, change cinema history forever and always:
There was more to it than just Connery, of course. There was also the elaborate moviemaking machineworks constructed around him, from editor Peter Hunt to set designer Ken Adam — all of whom helped create an edifice so resolute and reliable that it would withstand the tumultuous tides of time and stand strong for decades to come. The unsung hero of the franchise is actually director Terence Young, whose pre- and post-Bond filmography isn’t especially remarkable, but who nonetheless set the tone and style for the series from the start. (Young would return for two subsequent entries.)
Realizing early on that the overt sexuality and shocking violence that were both hallmarks of Fleming’s prose (let’s not forget that the novel of Casino Royale had its lead character’s testicles mercilessly flogged while tied to a chair — a scene that wouldn’t make it to the screen for quite awhile yet) would likely be too much for ’60s auds, Young chose to play up the arch, humorous aspects of Fleming’s world while at the same time balancing the need to play it straight and not laugh at the situations. Thus was born the Bond we know, the dapper double-0 who men want to be, and women want to be with.
Also of note is the snazzy, psychedelic title sequence created by artist Maurice Binder, a template the series has never strayed too far away from, as well as the iconic theme music. Though often ascribed to composer John Barry, who would go on to make an indelible mark on the aural identity of the suave secret agent, the da-da-DA-da music, which has underscored every Eon iteration of the character, was actually composed by Monty Norman, who had nothing to do with the films beyond this entry, but whose sole contribution to the canons was a considerable one, creating a sonic “hook” that’s simply inseparable from the hero it represents.
One of the most important things Dr. No does is establish many of tropes that would come to typify the Bond oeuvre: initial briefing from ever-suffering agency head M (Bernard Lee), innuendo-laced flirtations with Ms. Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), and gadget hand-off from Q (referred to here by his proper name of Major Boothroyd, and played for the one and only time by Peter Burton). I doubt viewers at the time had any inkling just how integral these seemingly throwaway moments would grow as the films extended further and further into the future, providing a valuable tether to how it all started.
Upon its release in early October of 1962, Dr. No was a financial success, easily earning back several times its (relatively) piddly production budget of just over $1 million. Despite a very mixed critical response, there was no questioning how well-received James Bond was by filmgoers, many of whom were primed by a decades’ worth of best-selling novels. For home studio United Artists, which took a chance on the brand after just about every other studio in Hollywood turned it down, this was cause for celebration. As for Broccoli and Saltzman, they’d get the chance to prove very shortly whether Dr. No‘s success was just a fluke.
(Spoiler: it wasn’t)
To be continued…