Ahead of the release of SPECTRE this autumn, the Bond Reloaded series takes a weekly look back at each film in the iconic James Bond franchise. It starts with Sean Connery’s debut appearance in Dr. No.
In 1962, the face of cinema changed forever when Ian Fleming’s gentleman spy James Bond made his first appearance in cinemas. The film was Dr. No – an adaptation of the sixth novel in Fleming’s series of thriller novels.
Almost $60m at the worldwide box office and 22 sequels later, it’s acknowledged as firing the starting pistol on a franchise that – when inflation is taken into account – is the highest grossing series ever.
Benefiting from its charismatic lead actor, taut plotting and a number of standout moments that would become iconic, Dr. No is a fitting starting point to examine just what it is that makes Bond tick.
Sea, Sex and Silencers
When Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli acquired the rights to the James Bond books, they wanted to kick the series off with Thunderball. However, as a result of a dispute over the screenplay that wouldn’t be resolved until 1964, they instead opted for Dr. No. Given concerns over Cape Canaveral rockets being interfered with at the time, the 1958 storyline had a topicality to it.
The film follows Bond (Sean Connery) as he joins CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) to investigate the disappearance of a fellow agent in Jamaica. He is soon led to the island of Crab Key, home of the reclusive Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), where Bond meets shell collector Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress).
“World domination – the same old dream. Our asylums are full of people who think they’re Napoleon. Or God.”
With its slightly-too-simple plot and relatively lean runtime compared to indulgent future films, Dr. No is very much Bond for beginners. The first hour of the film whizzes by as logical detective work pushes Bond from set piece to set piece, avoiding death with a couple of bullets and the obligatory one-liner. It loses pace when the plot relocates to the sun-kissed beaches of Crab Key, but soon fires up again for its explosive conclusion.
Early incarnations of the franchise formula begin to appear, with Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell establishing their roles as, respectively, MI6 boss M and flirty secretary Moneypenny. Dr. No does a terrific job of establishing the chemistry between these recurring characters as Bond flirts with Moneypenny and engages in macho sparring over guns with M before leaving quicker than you can say phallic symbolism.
The conventions of the Bond film are soon present and correct. Connery spends much of the film burning his way through cars, guns and women at an alarming rate, setting the tone for what was to come in the franchise. Dr. No might not be a particularly flashy film, but there’s plenty to admire in its elegant setting up of Bond’s future.
By the time an entire island of criminals explodes at the film’s climax, it’s clear that Bond has arrived – licence to kill and all.
Bond… James Bond
Of course, Dr. No would never have become a cinematic reality without the right man behind the cigarettes and the Walther PPK pistol. Sean Connery, with the benefit of hindsight, seems like the perfect choice. But he wasn’t always in the frame.
Originally, Broccoli and Saltzmann sought film icon Cary Grant to portray Bond. However, upon learning that Grant would not be able to commit to more than a single outing in the role, they opted to look at other actors, including David Niven, who subsequently played the role in non-Eon production Casino Royale in 1967. Roger Moore, who would ultimately take the role for 1973’s Live and Let Die, was also considered.
“That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six.”
In a huge risk, however, the producers opted for unknown Scottish actor Sean Connery. According to Christopher Bray’s 2010 book on Connery, he arrived at the audition in a scruffy state, but won over those present with his devil-may-care machismo. In that sense, Saltzmann and Broccoli made a perfect choice.
More than any of the actors who have subsequently portrayed Bond, Connery embodies Bond at his most abrasive. He isn’t a clean-cut hero. He’s a sexist, arrogant man who succeeds by virtue of intelligence rather than bravery. This is a gentleman spy only in the most superficial of senses.
However, it’s Connery’s flawed character who makes Dr. No such a joy to watch. Director Terence Young – who would return for From Russia With Love and Thunderball – directs the entire film with tongue firmly in cheek, which provides a great vehicle for Connery’s wisecracks.
The film’s slightly troubling attitudes to race and gender might be firmly rooted in the 1960s, but Bond’s cavalier character is every bit an early example of modern “lad” culture.
Bikinis and bombshells
The introduction of James Bond himself in the film’s opening act is a truly iconic moment of cinema. It is more than matched, however, by the scene in which Ursula Andress – as the fiercely independent Honey Ryder – emerges onto the beach at Crab Key.
The scene has been imitated many times – not least by Halle Berry in Die Another Day and Daniel Craig as Bond himself in Casino Royale. It immediately established Andress as the quintessential Bond girl.
Her character is an interesting one. She is equal parts damsel in distress and badass action woman. It’s as if 1960s cinema was unsure what to do when presented with a character that had the potential for a feminist approach. The arachnid punishment she describes dealing out to a rapist showcases an icy mean streak, but she spends much of the film’s final act being tugged around by Bond as he solves problems.
“I put a black widow spider underneath his mosquito net. It took him a whole week to die.”
Perhaps Honey Ryder’s bizarre treatment exists as a result of Dr. No existing almost solely to establish Bond as the most masculine of heroes. Nowhere is this more clear than in Bond’s confrontations with the eponymous villain of the movie, portrayed with relish by Broadway actor Joseph Wiseman.
The film wisely holds off on showing Wiseman until the beginning of its third act. Emerging as a more well-spoken version of Team America’s Kim Jong-Il, Dr. No is a genuinely menacing villain, who bats away Bond’s attempts at slyly macho antagonism. He meets his maker a little too easily, but one brief dinner scene is enough to cement him as one of the better early Bond villains.
Making an impact
Released following an extensive promotional campaign, Dr. No became the highest grossing film in the UK in 1962. It also proved a success in its subsequent American release, which emphasised the sexier side of the film with its poster, which became a blueprint for Bond’s promotional material.
It’s not the best Bond film, or even more than a decent spy outing, but the resulting franchise has become, in the words of the UK Film Distributors’ Association, the “backbone” of the British film industry.
There was also an impact on the popularity of Fleming’s books. Jeremy Black claims, in The Politics of James Bond, that 1.5 million copies of the novel were sold in the seven months after the film hit multiplexes.
Ladies’ fashion also felt the impact of Bond thanks to the immediate popularity of Ursula Andress’ bikini. The star became an instant household name worldwide and she was responsible for an enormous increase in sales of similar swimwear after the film’s release.
“I can assure you, my intentions are strictly honourable.”
The most obvious impact of Dr. No, though, is the films that followed it. With this film as a starting point, Eon turned a series of British novels into a multi-billion dollar film franchise. Dr. No may be a rather subdued beginning for a series that is now anything but humble, but it fired the starting pistol on something very special that has now spanned more than half a century of cinematic history.
What do you think of Dr. No? Where does it stand in the pantheon of Bond films? Is Sean Connery the best lead in the franchise’s history? Let me know in the comments section and keep your eyes peeled for more Bond Reloaded next Monday.