Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part One: Dr No (1962)

After a long hiatus, followed by two postponed release dates, and then a change of director, we are now less than a year from the next entry in the James Bond series. This will be Daniel Craig’s final turn in the tux, and the 25th installment in the official EON productions series: a series born on 5th October 1962, with the UK release of Dr No.

With over half a century of films behind us, we will be building up to Bond 25, with a look back at all 24 entries in the official series.  We’ll also be taking a look at 1983’s ‘Battle of the Bonds’ as we cover the Sean Connery-starring Never Say Never Again.  To round out this retrospective, we’ll take a look at the 2017 George Lazenby docu-drama, Becoming Bond, as well as the 2012 authorised 50th anniversary documentary, Everything or Nothing, which tells many of the stories behind both the genesis and the development of the series.

Read any of Ian Fleming’s novels, and his description of James Bond is decidedly not Sean Connery.  With a slim build, cold blue-grey eyes, a three-inch vertical scar on the cheek, ‘cruel’ mouth – and Fleming himself noting a certain resemblance to the actor Hoagy Carmichael – the description of the literary James Bond would, in modern terms, probably be closer to a Jason Isaacs than a Sean Connery (and, even then, it would have to be a much slighter version of him).

Fleming had hoped to persuade David Niven to take the role – something Niven would do (after a fashion) in the 1967 spoof-so-bad-we’re-not-covering-it Casino Royale (more on how that came to be when we discuss the official EON version of that movie).  After tentative talks with both Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant (see the next entry for the closest thing we ever get to a Hitchcock Bond film), EON producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, and Harry Saltzman settled on seasoned British director Terence Young, and 31-year old Scottish actor Sean Connery to direct and star in, respectively, the first James Bond adventure.

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Born in 1930, Connery was a former milkman, a member of the Royal Navy, and, incongruously, had placed third in the 1950 Mr Universe contest.  Though still relatively new to feature film acting, Connery’s performance in 1959’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People – a light tale from Mary Poppins director, Robert Stevenson – caught the producers’ attention.  With Connery working class to his core, it fell to Young to teach his leading man how to inhabit the character – the walk, in particular, being key.  There are tales aplenty of Connery sleeping in his new suit, in order to get used to such attire.

As for the choice of story, Dr No was the sixth book in the literary run.  That the opening entry in the corresponding film series was not the first novel, Casino Royale, or the first attempt at a screenplay – which became the basis of the ninth book, Thunderball – is something we’ll cover in our looks back at 1965’s Thunderball and 2006’s Casino Royale – as well as the 1983 rival entry, Never Say Never Again.  As will become clear, this series has been no stranger to legal wrangles.  As for why it was Dr No, that’s simple: the story was seen as straightforward, and relatively action-light (or to put it another way, enough action to satisfy audiences, but few expensive set pieces to challenge the tight budget).

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Dr No was made for a budget of a shade over $1 million.  For context, 1959’s Ben-Hur cost around $15 million to produce, whilst 1963’s Cleopatra came in at an eye-watering $31 million.  For an example from a closer genre, 1959’s outstanding North by Northwest cost a little under $4.5 million.  To be clear, Dr No was not an expensive film by any of the standards of the day.  This was exacerbated, as a British production, by the exchange rate of the time.  $1 million today would equate to around £750,000.  In 1961, when the budget for Dr No was set, this would have been closer to £300,000.  In such an environment, the series could have ended up shot in the cheaper black and white, and have used studio sets exclusively, eschewing expensive location travel.  That the producers emphasised colour and location, and made efficiencies elsewhere – the set where Dr No provides Professor Dent with the tarantula being knocked-up for under $600 – is an approach directly responsible for both the longevity of the series, and the endurance of the early films – with all of the 1960s entries having been given pristine restorations in recent years.

Dr No tells the tale of the Jamaican branch of the British Secret Service – and at this stage it is secret, using the alias ‘Universal Exports’ (the final ‘s’ missing in the literary equivalent for some reason) – going dark, with both Strangways, Head of the Kingston branch, and his secretary murdered by three assassins, all of whom affect blindness: the Three Blind Mice of the title music.  Called in during the middle of the night, direct from the casino, agent 007 – still in his dinner jacket – is briefed by Head of Section, M, and deployed to Jamaica to investigate.

Through the events of the film, Bond learns that Strangways was killed on the orders of Dr Julius No, of Crab Key, a part-Chinese, part-German scientist, who has lost his hands, due to radiation exposure, and, hence, wears prosthetic metal replacements. Dr No reveals himself to be an agent of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion), and he plans to disrupt the Project Mercury space launch from Cape Canaveral with his radio beam.  Captured along with Honey Ryder – a beautiful woman Bond has met collecting shells on the beach, whilst investigating the area – Bond must escape, and thwart No’s evil plan.

As we’ll see, it takes about four films for the series to lay its formula down fully.  Whilst the series continues to evolve throughout its life, with different actors and directors – and different times – bringing different styles, by Thunderball all of the key, recognisable traits of the Bond series will be in place.  So, Dr No has no pre-title sequence – the live-action sequence that goes before the song in every other Bond film.  The film goes straight into music, with Monty Norman’s Bond theme segueing into the aforementioned ‘Three Blind Mice’, performed here with an appropriately Caribbean flavour.  It sort of looks like a Bond opening: but, sort of… not.

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There is, however, the beginning of the series we know: the gunbarrel is present – where white dots move left to right on a black background, opening up to show Bond entering from the right, turning and shooting, with blood then running down the screen.  Interestingly, though, our first look at Bond isn’t Sean Connery: the gun barrel being performed by stuntman Bob Simmons.

There is a Q scene – of sorts.  With Desmond Llewellyn not appearing until next time, Peter Burton portrays Major Boothroyd (the armourer of the novels and, essentially, the same character as that portrayed by Llewellyn), and is present to give Bond his iconic Walter PPK, replacing the Beretta (which jammed on him during the events of the book From Russia, With Love – the two books being the other way around from the films).  Though the crusty, cranky Q, weary of Bond’s disrespect for the equipment would not be realised fully until Goldfinger.

There is also the fully developed Bond-M relationship.  The books portray M lovingly, and the relationship as one of deep respect.  Bernard Lee’s portrayal is still the gold standard for the character, and here he is born fully-formed.  It is also worth noting that the playful Bond-Miss Moneypenny relationship is fully intact at this stage too, with Lois Maxwell making the first of her 14 appearances in the role.

There is also the beginning of the romantic, quipping, all-action secret agent.  The humour dials up more from film three, with spectacle really following in film four, but this Bond still has humour (“I think they were on their way to a funeral”), and scale, with Dr No’s entire operation ending explosively – the film also establishing the concept of the villain’s lair.  This Bond is also a lover, ending the film in the arms of Ursula Andress’s Ryder.

As for quality, Dr No is two-thirds of an outstanding film, even today.  Bond’s introduction at the baccarat table is rivalled, perhaps, only by Darth Vader in Star Wars, and, maybe, Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (itself influenced heavily by Bond) for iconic character reveals.  His summons to MI6 (MI7 in original dubs of the film) in the middle of the night is classy and dramatic in a way that the source material doesn’t match, with similar events in the book taking place at a different time of day.

Though it would take until Thunderball for the series to switch to the cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (requiring the filming of a new gun barrel – where, finally, Connery would get to perform it), Dr No – at a ratio of c. 1.66:1 – demonstrates that the series would prioritise visuals, with the film looking beautiful in every frame.  Sets, though not as lavish as those to come – are designed beautifully by Ken Adam, and Connery owns every frame he’s in.  Rarely has there been such a confident debut in a role.  By Goldfinger, Connery will have filled out a little, and look a bit more seasoned in character, but this is a truly spell-binding debut.

Less successful is the actual Dr No section of the film.  Events become a little more ponderous once Joseph Wiseman’s antagonist arrives, and it’s fair to say action cinema has come a long way since 1962.  Social politics too: neither the childlike portrayal of Honey, nor Bond ordering a person of colour to “Fetch my shoes” would be acceptable today.  This is, on the whole, however, a terrific debut, and a film that – by and large – stands up today.  With a worldwide take of $59.5 million dollars, the Bond series was underway, and in style.

The Road to Bond 25 will return with From Russia with Love (1963).

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