James Bond appeared in a series of 12 novels and two collections of short stories, starting with Casino Royale in 1953. Ian Fleming, former banker, journalist and Naval Intelligence Officer wanted to write about a tough spy unlike any other. And in doing so, started a phenomenon.
Fleming saw Bond as a ruthless and violent agent, not a traditional hero, who worked hard and played harder. Critics then and now struggle with the idea of this spy who breaks the rules, commits horrific crimes, and treats women appallingly. Others struggle with his habit of introducing himself and usually getting at least one ally killed on every mission!
The James Bond novels became well known in the US when President John F Kennedy included “From Russia With Love” on his list of top ten books. And the world during Kennedy’s presidency in 1961-62 was a place in turmoil, achievements like Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin becoming the first man in space paired with increasing US/Soviet tensions, the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis where for a short time it looked like Kennedy and Soviet leader Khrushchev were about to press the red button.
This turmoil did not inspire the production of Dr. No, as the producers had been trying to get a Bond film financed for years, but it must have been an appropriate backdrop to the debut of the international superspy. Interestingly, the top films and TV series of the time were very different from the world of Bond. Films like West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, El Cid, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and popular TV shows like Bonanza, Wagon Train were nothing like 007. The time was right.
Dr. No opens with electronic beeps and a sequence where the audience is watching the spy from inside the barrel of the gun. The agent shoots, blood runs down the screen, and Monty Norman’s brassy James Bond theme assaults our ears. Pay attention, audience.
The opening credits are a funky, pop-art via Vegas visual assault with animated circles transitioning to colourful silhouettes of females dancing to a fast bongo drum beat. Maurice Binder’s design and Trevor Bond’s animation really makes you sit up and take notice. The bongos then crossfade into a rendition of “Three Blind Mice” sung in a calypso style, befitting the opening location in Jamaica, with three blind men crossing a busy street.
The story starts immediately, with a Mr Strangways passing the three blind men, who promptly shoot him five times then bundle him into a hearse. At Strangways home, we learn that his assistant is a spy communicating with a hidden radio before she is brutally shot, a vivid rose of blood seen on her white shirt as two hoods carry her off, the third stealing a file stencilled with the name DOCTOR NO.
Meanwhile, in a casino in London, we see a group of people playing baccarat, including the lady in red Sylvia Trench, who sits opposite a man whose identity is initially hidden. As he lights a cigarette and introduces himself as “Bond, James Bond” the Bond theme kicks in again.
Soon Bond has shared innuendo with Miss Trench and returned to his office “Universal Exports” where secretary Miss Moneypenny chastises him for being hard to contact. It is very clear from his first two interactions with Trench and Moneypenny that Connery is having a whale of a time in the role. The Edinburgh-born actor, known for small parts in forgettable films (although Hell Drivers is worth a look) looks so self-assured that you can’t help but admire him.
He is then briefed by his boss, codename “M”, learning that Strangways was working with the Americans to identify why missiles were being thrown off course. M tells him he’s to go to Jamaica to see the CIA agent Felix Leiter. “Major Boothroyd” arrives to give Bond a new gun (his ten-year-old Beretta jammed, leaving him in hospital for six weeks – a seemingly throwaway line that hints at an existing back story for the spy), M mentions Bond’s double-O licence to kill status and tells him to carry the Walther PPK. Even as he leaves, M buzzes Miss Moneypenny to tell her to avoid the usual repartee with Bond – this economical scene sets up many of what will become Bond tropes.
After spending some quality time with Miss Trench, who is inexplicably playing golf in his room, Bond is at the airport in Kingston and being watched by a suit in shades and being offered a lift by Mr Jones from Government House. The first car chase happens, and Bond is easily overpowering the fake chauffeur with some nifty hand-to-hand combat, although to avoid interrogation the driver crunches down on a suicide cigarette. As he drops the car and the body at Government House, Bond quips to the doorman: “Make sure he doesn’t get away”.
The on-location filming looks fantastic, and in the recent remastering and digital clean up, the photography is great. The car chase is largely filmed for real and increases the stakes for Bond, deepening the feeling of the risk that he is placing himself in. After gleaning two leads from Strangways house, Bond freshens up in his hotel while a waiter mixes his drink: “a medium dry vodka martini, mixed like you said sir and not stirred”. Bond turns on spy time, putting a thin layer of talcum powder over the locks of his briefcase, and putting a hair over the door opening. Remember this spy time – it disappears as the films develop!
Bonds leads take him to the quayside where he meets with a local “Quarrel” and CIA’s Felix Leiter (he was the suit in shades from the airport). We learn that Strangways and Quarrel were snooping around the coast, looking for a likely location for whatever was messing with the missile guidance systems. The final location, Crab Key, is owned by a Chinese gentleman, Doctor No. I always forget that the villain is supposed to be Chinese. We’ll come back to that soon.
Lead two from Strangways house takes Bond to a Professor Dent who examined soil samples provided by Strangways. Later, a spooked Dent makes his way to Crab Key and for the first time, we see our evil villain’s lair. Yet our villain remains unseen for Dent is ushered into a fabulous Ken Adam designed room with great lighting effects, to be spoken to by a sinister disembodied voice.
Bond arranges to meet a suspicious secretary from Government House (Miss Taro) who gives him elaborate directions to her place. He drives there, accompanied by the Bond theme (again), and then we are hit with car chase two with some unfortunately dated back projection – such a shame after the actual location filming earlier. Bond arrives at Miss Taro’s door (Bond theme again) and she is shocked to see him alive. They sleep together before Bond hands her to the authorities, much to her dismay. He sets her house up to look like they are still there: pouring two drinks, putting on some music (“Underneath the Mango Tree” is heard several times in the film), and reordering pillows under the bedsheets. Soon an intruder, duped by this setup, shoots at the “figure” on the bed multiple times. It is Dent, and Bond apprehends him.
As Bond reveals his suspicions, Dent grabs his gun and tries to shoot Bond, but he’s out of bullets. Bond coldly asserts – “that’s a Smith and Wesson, and you’ve had your six”. He then shoots Dent. Twice. The second time once Dent is already flat on the floor. Brutal. Not the most efficient interrogation though, let’s be fair.
After Bond and Quarrel sneak onto Crab Key we hear a female singing “Underneath the Mango Tree”, and Ursula Andress comes out of the sea in a white bikini. An iconic image is born. So iconic that we all forget that Bond sings the song too.
She introduces herself as “Ryder, Honey Ryder” who is searching for seashells to sell. They hide as guards in a high-powered boat arrive and shoot at them. The guards announce they’ll return with dogs and Honey suggests the three of them head up the river, Honey explaining that it throws the dogs of the scent. Spy time, from a non-spy.
Shortly afterwards they are apprehended by an armoured tank armed with a flame-thrower which promptly fries Quarrel. Thoroughly scrubbed of radioactive contaminants, they are passed to “Sister Rose” and “Sister Lily” who take them to their luxurious high-tech designer rooms. Dressed in vaguely oriental costumes, Bond and Honey are taken to meet Doctor No for dinner in a fantastic room hewn out of rock, featuring ornate furniture, tapestries, and a huge aquarium.
Doctor No appears: Joseph Wiseman slowly walks towards them, beige oriental suit, slicked hair, black metal hands and wait, what’s that with his eyelids? Oh, right – I had forgotten, our villain is supposed to be Chinese. Wait, does that mean Miss Taro, Sister Rose and Sister Lily were supposed to be Chinese too? Well, it was a different time, maybe genuine Chinese actors were hard to come by. Besides, the make-up is relatively subtle. At least they don’t get too silly with it. (That would come in You Only Live Twice).
Dr No: “A medium dry martini, lemon peel, shaken not stirred”.
Dr No: “Of course”.
Everybody seems to know what this undercover spy drinks.
During a terribly polite dinner Doctor No reveals he’s the “unwanted child of a German missionary and a Chinese girl of a good family”, his hands were damaged as a result of his work with radioactive materials, he knows a good Dom Perignon, is neither allied to East nor West as the superpowers didn’t want his expertise. Instead he is a member of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion). The men continue to bait and test each other, Doctor No even suggesting that he was trying to assess if Bond himself would be a suitable candidate for SPECTRE. This organisation seems to know EVERYTHING (a great idea which reappears memorably in later films – including the great “Quantum of Solace”. Yeah, you read that right).
“Unfortunately, I misjudged you, you are just a stupid policeman.”
The finale is too easy – Bond escapes, presses buttons and causes the base to explode. A brief scuffle with Doctor No leaves the villain unable to climb out of the radioactive pool (metal hands just can’t grab the safety rail). Bond rescues Honey and they drift in a boat as Felix Leiter (remember him?) appears on a navy boat to pick them up. The film ends with “Underneath the Mango Tree” again, Bond and Honey kiss, Felix shakes his head, and the Bond theme kicks in as the credits roll.
As a tough spy thriller, Dr. No is a little ahead of its time. It created a new kind of spy movie that wasn’t quite hard-boiled film noir, not quite detective, not quite espionage thriller, with lashings of violence and blood, exotic locations and sexual situations that other films shied away from.
Is it a great movie? I don’t think so. Yet it is a great introduction to the spy to an audience who may not have read the books. The film has a brutal efficiency that later Bonds would lose yet introduces so many of the Bond tropes that we have come to know and love, and perhaps roll our eyes at.
It’s rough around the edges, and the character of Honey Ryder adds nothing – NOTHING – to the story, but Bond was finding its feet. The heavy lifting had now been done, clearing the way for the second Bond movie which, freed of the burden of establishing the world of Bond, produced a cracking adventure. Bond 2 is FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, and we will investigate what is arguably the best Bond film in our next retrospective.
Producers Albert R “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry H Saltzman.
Director: Terence Young
Writers: Richard Mainbaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkley Mather
Based on the novel by Ian Fleming
London Premiere October 1962