Over the course of 2019 and into 2020, in the run up to the 25th James Bond movie, I am going to be deep diving into every Bond film in depth, revisiting one of my favourite franchises.
We start at the beginning with 1962’s Dr. No…
It struck me watching Dr. No just how much the most recent James Bond film to date, Spectre, called back to the very first cinematic outing for 007.
In Spectre, Bond pursues an urbane, calm and collected super-villain who wears Nehru jackets, like in Dr. No. Said villain in Spectre only truly reveals himself fully in the third act, while charming Bond and his female companion with a luxury suite and fine clothing, like in Dr. No. Given the villain in question is Ernst Stavro Blofeld, arguably the most iconic bad guy in the Bond lexicon, it is easy to suggest Spectre is first and foremost inspired by Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice, but Christoph Waltz’ modern take on 007’s arch enemy has far more in common with Joseph Wiseman’s Doctor No, certainly when it comes to performance and style. Dr. No may not be a film which perfectly nails the historic James Bond movie formula but there is not one of the twenty-four films that follow it across half a century that do not owe a debt to this somewhat quieter beginning.
It is easy to dismiss Dr. No as a stepping stone to the embarrassment of riches to come in From Russia With Love or Goldfinger, but that is to lend a disservice to a picture steadily growing finer with age. A picture that puts in place a range of Bond movie aspects that without question made the franchise a global, beloved success.
Dr. No is both a film completely of its time and yet ever so slightly removed from the early 1960’s in which it was made. This is an intentional choice the moment Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood & Berkely Mather’s script deviates from Ian Fleming’s source material (which it would at times significantly) in not aligning Doctor No with the Soviet Union but rather S.P.E.C.T.R.E (Special Executive for Counter Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), the legendary criminal organisation that would later become an integral source of antagonism in the films made in the 1960’s, and much later the mid-2010’s. This choice distances Dr. No from being overtly geopolitical, even while with hindsight you can see just how heavily Young’s adaptation is deep rooted in the political psychology of the ongoing Cold War between America and the Soviets.
Ian Fleming wrote the book on which Dr. No is based in 1958, just three short years before Eon Productions under the joint auspices of Hollywood producers Cubby Broccoli & Harry Saltzman won the rights to the majority of the Bond series and went on to create among the most fruitful and legendary partnerships in cinematic history. Much has been written about the history behind how Dr. No came to be so I won’t walk on well-trod ground (I would refer you to Matthew Field & Ajay Chowdhury’s exemplary book Some Kind of Hero for a thorough and accessible history of Dr. No, and every other Bond film to date’s production). However, Cubby and Harry kicking off Dr. No so quickly after Fleming’s book means there was not a great deal of updating to do in translating his story to the silver screen.
If anything, Broccoli & Saltzman film improves on the source material. ‘Doctor No’ was not Fleming’s strongest James Bond novel, not by a long chalk. The sixth book in the series, Fleming’s take has No interested in the same missile toppling and recovery technology we see in the movie, but whereas the screenplay unloads this right from the off as Bernard Lee’s M establishes the geopolitical threat, Fleming makes you wait until the cold confrontation between Bond and No in the final third of the book, with the initial case instigated when murdered MI6 agent Strangways was looking into complaints from the Audobon Society over the conservation of rare birds on Crab Key, No’s secret base, where he conceals his Soviet-backed intentions through shipments of guano aka bird dung. The screenplay wisely excises all of the ornithological aspects of Fleming’s plot and gives Bond a much clearer focus: someone is toppling missiles from somewhere near Jamaica, Strangways vanished because of it, and 007 needs to find out why, and who did it. Simple and far more effective.
One of the reasons Dr. No stands out from every other subsequent Bond movie, even From Russia With Love as it edges closer to the blockbuster template established in Goldfinger that the series would essentially replicate for the next five decades, is precisely because Bond is considered by many, including Fleming himself, as much a detective as a secret agent. This is no Conan Doyle intricacy and slight of hand, and Bond is no Sherlock Holmes making incredible deductive leaps, but Dr. No has him investigating, questioning and steadily putting the pieces together of what No is doing, and quite how he is doing it, for the entire first hour of the film before he heads to Crab Key for the final act. We are used to seeing Bond slide from one major action set piece to another as he edges closer to exposing and confronting the villain, but Dr. No devotes an entire scene to Bond placing a piece of hair over a potential entry point in a room as a detection measure in case of an intruder. It does not tick off the Bondian beats that would become formulaic, even expected, certainly by late in the Roger Moore-era. It is less casual.
That is not to say that Sean Connery doesn’t take to the role like a duck to water because, well… he does. Broccoli observed once that Connery walks “like a cat” and this is true; though towering and intimidating physically, Connery moves with a lithe grace that fashions the cinematic 007, immediately, into a different animal to Fleming’s namesake. Let’s be honest – James Bond was a level of wish-fulfilment fantasy for Fleming, taking certain aspects of his own past working for the OSS during the war and splicing them with the sophisticated exploits of a seductive panther, an educated ‘blunt instrument’ who owed more to the colonial Etonian set than Connery’s own working class Scottish background. Fleming wasn’t initially keen on Connery’s portrayal—which dials back the elitist Establishmentarianism and injects Bond with a gallows level of dry wit—precisely because it was less in tune with his 50’s era Bond. Connery seemed to understand, as did Broccoli and Saltzman, that you actually had to *like* the man going around sleeping casually with beautiful women and executing people for hire, if you wanted men to want to be him, and women want to sleep with him. Connery’s Bond is cold but accessible, not to mention unflappably graceful and magnetic. He is catnip for the lens. The camera loves him.
It’s important to recognise how the portrayal of Bond on screen represents the evolving attitudes in Western society with the dawning rise of counter-culture drip feeding in from America. Under Fleming’s pen, Bond represents a Britain clawing at the last vestiges of Empire, with as Philip French described it “a curious, outdated source of national pride” (he was describing the Bond movies there, but the same point applies). There is certainly far less brevity in Fleming’s ‘Doctor No’ and Eon’s Dr. No, and their alternative spelling almost underscores the contradiction: this film may have adapted Fleming’s work but it was approaching James Bond from an alternative vantage point, one aware of changing cultural mores. Broccoli & Saltzman were gregarious American moguls; big men who lived well, smoked cigars, and certainly in Cubby’s case had a deep love of British culture while, with the Bond series, stamping a definitively American stamp on how Fleming’s hero is brought to the screen which remains present to this day under the command of his daughter Barbara and brother in law Michael G. Wilson, both of them born in the United States.
Dr. No presents, almost fully formed, a post-colonial British hero for the 1960’s and the remainder of the Cold War era.
Before the arrival of Bond on screen, cinema had never really witnessed a character like him. Action heroes historically had cross-pollinated with the performers who portrayed them; Errol Flynn was as swashbuckling off screen with women as he would be in films such as The Adventures of Robin Hood; John Wayne became synonymous with the dominant 1950’s Western genre, particularly with The Searchers.
John Wayne rose to fame before the war by playing relatively uncomplicated gunslingers, men who would roam the wilds of Monument Valley because that’s where they were thrived. During the war, he was cast as an officer if not a gentleman, leading fighter squadrons on air raids and helping grunts raise the flag at Iwo Jima. But in 1956’s The Searchers, however, Wayne revealed a new shade of ugliness of action, leveraging his kidnapped niece into a genocidal crusade against the Comanches. His unrepentant racism was the scar of a fractured world, and the film ends with his character effectively being exiled from civilization, too deformed to reintegrate back into the society that he had risked his life in order to preserve.
This reflective masculinity blossoms in the 1960’s what we would see Bond become; cool, calm, deadly and *enviable*, despite an emotionally empty existence filled with pain, death and ultimately sorrow. Connery never feels as distinctly entwined with Bond as a character as Wayne or Flynn may have done with their incarnations, and famously he came very quickly to be disenchanted with the role once it started to define not just the popular culture of the 1960’s but also his career, and this is perhaps why 007 has survived six distinct cinematic incarnations to date. Dr. No paints him as a fixed entity that Eon’s two sets of custodians have made sure doesn’t vacillate too distinctly away from Fleming’s initial portrait, even if the cinematic Bond is a different beast to the literary incarnation.
Connery brought not just a raw masculinity to Bond but manages to humanise him through a glint in his eye throughout; it was partly his influence that led to the witty one liner that would define the series across the decades, witnessed here after killing his fake driver on arrival in Jamaica and depositing his corpse outside government house with a “Sergeant, make sure he doesn’t get away”. Connery is at ease both with Bond’s louche, rough edged urbanity and his calculated deadliness. While No may describe him as “just a stupid policeman”, Bond is also very distinctly a 00, a trained assassin. The entire inclusion of Professor Dent (a character not in the book) is paid off with Bond’s merciless execution of the man and the cold final words: “It’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six”. That could, indeed, be the moment James Bond is born on screen – for all the charm, quips and heroism, Bond is at heart a killer.
Again, this sets Bond apart as an action icon for the 1960’s, and particularly in how he became a Boy’s Own-pin up for a generation of hero worshippers with far less moral compunction than those who may have enjoyed the derring-do of Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks Jr in the dawning age of colour, or the haunted, post-war nobility of Wayne or Gary Cooper as the Japanese Ronin of the Old West, the listless gunslingers seeking solace or redemption. All Bond seeks is the warm bed of the nearest girl, a dry martini (shaken, not stirred) and the clinical satisfaction of protecting Queen and Country in glamorous global locations, such as Jamaica. Bond is a hero born out of Empirical hubris but fashioned by modernity, adapting like a chameleon to the changing sexual and social trends of the day. What wouldn’t be attractive about such a life to the common or garden bricklayer or council worker or schoolboy?
Beatlemania was less than a year away from Dr. No’s release. New British heroes were being born by the day.
The Bond we know is shaped in Dr. No, forged through From Russia With Love, and truly emerges in Goldfinger. In a moment taken from the book, Bond is gifted his traditional Walther PPK by SIS’s armourer (Peter Burton, a proto-Q before Desmond Llewellyn arrived in the next film), with M insistent his trusty Beretta is a gun better fit for a woman (the film is much less sexist than Fleming’s novel, but some of it undoubtedly creeps in). Bond is the prototypical Odysseus, an Arthur being given his Excalibur – his hero’s journey begins here with the accoutrements he needs to defeat the monster. His armour is his very nature. His weapon the Walther. In certain Bond films, that armour is pierced not by the villain, but by his companion and aside from Bond’s antagonist, the chief component on every journey Bond undertakes: the Girl.
Dr. No instigates the essential formula of most Bond films, which never feature just one woman for 007 to encounter over the course of his travails. Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) serves as the disposable love affair at the beginning (she is, like Dent, an entirely new creation for the film), Miss Taro (Xena Marshall) the femme fatale designed to entrap and try to kill Bond before he reaches the villain (a character who almost always suffers a deadly fate, as a result), and finally The Girl, the major love interest who aides Bond in his quest to defeat the villain, here in the guise of Honey Ryder (a dubbed Ursula Andress), a beautiful collector of shells who becomes entangled in Bond’s mission on Crab Key, and who has her own personal history with the antagonist (in this case a father murdered by No). Though these character tropes will be refined and improved upon in subsequent films, they almost always hold true through to the Daniel Craig-era, and even some of those films cleave essentially to the same formula.
Dr. Harriet Harriss argues in her essay Goodbye Mister Bond: 007’s critical advocacy for feminism & modernism, that the often-maligned Bond Girl trope established in Dr. No can have both a positive *and* negative feminist slant:
For many commentators, the names of some of the Bond Women such as Pussy Galore, Xenia Onatopp, Honey Rider, Octopussy, Plenty-O-Toole & Holly Goodhead, are viewed as demeaning to women due to their sexual overtones (Angelsey, 2012). However, a study into the etymological, lexical and phonological associations of Bond women’s names reveals their purpose to allude to more complex plot narratives (Vikstrand, 2006) or each character’s multiple and often contrasting identities. To perceive them as purely “disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits”, as Bond woman Vesper Lynd points out in Casino Royale (2006), is to underestimate them, with typically fatal consequences – three quarters of the 44 women Bond has slept with have tried to kill him – regardless of whether they were coitally claimed by him or not (Stokes, 2008). Subsequently, one might assume that Ian Fleming’s decision to name Bond after, “the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name” he could find (Sterling & Morecambe, 2003) was partly motivated by a desire to create a blank screen onto which the complex lives of the female characters could be more effectively projected. This advances Kingsley Amis’s view – captured in his 1965 book entitled, The Bond Dossier (Amis, 1965) – that Bond has no inner life in Fleming’s novels, so any opinions we give to him are our own projections. In either scenario, Bond’s ‘blankness’ resembles the ‘blank canvas’ or tabula rasa associated with the large slab of white-rendered walls favoured by early modernist architects.
Oddly enough, in the case of Dr. No, this is better articulated in Fleming’s novel than on the screen.
In the book, Honeychile (as her full name goes) Ryder has a far more complicated and psychologically disturbing backstory. The film hints at Honey’s historical rape following the death of her parents at the hands of a manipulative brute but it is really just a glance, one Young ensures we don’t dwell on for too long, lest we break the romanticism of Bond’s Girl Friday and Andress’ allure. Fleming, however, presents Honey as a distinctly child-like character; while Andress emerging from the ocean in a bathing suit singing ‘Under the Mango Tree’ has become an immortal cinematic image, in the book Honey is a bare naked goddess who Bond sexually fantasises about in one breath and treats like a wayward daughter in the next. Tied up with Honey’s stunted emotional growth while living in the basement of a Jamaican plantation as she suffered sexual abuse, Bond’s conflation in the novel between her beauty and her innocence is distinctly icky, and says more about Bond (and maybe Fleming’s) perversions than anything else.
The film largely (perhaps wisely) strips this away, maybe partly for the fact Andress would not have had the acting chops to craft such a creation (Honey also has a permanently broken nose in the book which clashes with her beauty and leads to even deeper psychological neuroses), but also because Broccoli & Saltzman understood that for the audience to buy into Bond’s adventure, it needed to be unencumbered with any sexual grey areas. We’re ok with seeing Bond gun a man down but having sexual fantasies about a child-like woman? That could have soured the pot. Honey is a simple, beautiful function for the story – a companion for Bond once his ally and stooge Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) is burned alive, and a figure for Bond to prove his mythic heroism to by rescuing once he defeats the villain. Honey’s presence, and the general presence of the Girl in these films, is to provide Bond with a humane salve without which he could just be a murderous, if classy, thug.
Dr. No works as hard in defining what makes a Bond villain as much as a Bond girl across this first picture.
From an archetypal sense, Fleming’s villains often represent the ‘Other’. They are frequently ethnic but hard to place (No is the son of a German missionary and a Chinese girl). They often have significant visual or physical deformities (No’s hands were cut off by a Triad gang and replaced with black metallic pincers). They sometimes are of unusual sexual persuasion (No could be read as asexual, as it’s easy to read Pleasance’s and even Waltz’ Blofeld, but perhaps how keen he is to chain Honey up puts paid to that). Ultimately, there is a reason why Fleming’s villains are never British, or if they are tethered to the Establishment (Sir Hugo Drax in ‘Moonraker’, for example), then they are corrupt. Fleming’s villains represent what we don’t understand. They are an existential as well as an ideological threat, given his other significant villains, SMERSH, represent the Soviet threat. There is a reason SMERSH are excluded from the movie series.
Fleming actualises this further in how he presents Crab Key. The island is talked of in whispers by locals in Jamaica, with the far more culturally immersed Quarrel in the book describing how people visit and never return. This is to some extent lost in the film, with Young more interested in capturing the beauty of the surroundings (in the same way Fleming captures the faded elegance of a Jamaica on the cusp of independence in the book) and of Honey Ryder, but the film does at least replicate the ‘dragon’ which stalks the island, and further mythologises Crab Key and what Doctor No has created. The dragon really doesn’t work in the film; designed in the book to be an intentionally bizarre machine which breathes fire painted with monstrous accoutrements, in the film it looks absurd and fails to conjure the same sense of terror. In the book you feel the horror of Quarrel being burned alive but it struggles to translate over to the same visceral degree.
Dr. No was released just one week before the famous Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, which saw a blockade by American military forces around Cuba to prevent the Soviet Union arming revolutionary leader Fidel Castro with Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that could pose a direct threat to the United States. It was the closest President John F. Kennedy and Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev, and by extension the two Cold War superpowers, ever came to a nuclear Third World War, averted just in the nick of time. The protocol of Mutually Assured Destruction was maintained subsequently until the Soviet Union collapsed 29 years later. Kennedy was assassinated just over a year later. The Cold War was never hotter and it’s quite remarkable just how timely Dr. No’s narrative—of, in the books, a Soviet-backed scientist working covertly to topple, steal and launch American missiles on American targets—really was. It speaks to that deeper societal, existential threat which undulates beneath every Bond film across the first half of the 1960’s.
Alexander Patrick Langer in his essay Dr. No & Dr. Strangelove: Cold War Anxiety in Film, 1962-1964, discusses how these fears play out in Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated satire that followed early in 1964:
At the end of the film, as the doomsday device was being activated, politicians in the War Room lamented America’s perceived gap in the mine-shaft race, mocking common fears about the Americans falling behind the Russians in the so-called “missile gap” and satirizing the fear of nuclear missiles that underlies Dr. No. That particular comment was a reference to a campaign tactic used by John F.Kennedy, accusing President Eisenhower, and by proxy Vice President Nixon, of falling behind in the missile race. When Kennedy became President, defense spending skyrocketed, even though the new Defense Secretary Robert McNamara found that no such gap existed. Dr. Strangelove was mocking the fears that underpinned earlier movies while acknowledging the real fears of nuclear destruction, but destruction based upon equal incompetence from both sides of the conflict rather than the one.
As much as Wiseman’s performance is a skilled exercise in chilling villainous restraint, especially given he only truly gets one full scene to play with, No is ultimately quite incompetent in his attempts to sabotage and ‘topple’ the American launch of a ‘moon rocket’ from Cape Canaveral, thereby stymying US attempts to try and equal the Soviet’s in the brewing ‘space race’. Bond prevents his success with relative ease. Thunderball would be the Bond movie, a few years hence, to truly deliver the nightmare scenario of a nuclear weapon—appropriately the film where SPECTRE and Blofeld begin hovering more directly into the picture—but that same threat exists in the psyche of Dr. No, if not directly in the narrative. With missile blockades, Soviet spies, emerging technology, and the consistent Communist fear—the ‘Red Scare’—within American minds, Dr. No is a decidedly anxious slice of pro-American Cold War rhetoric wrapped up in over the top escapism.
It’s why No is presented as the dilettante of a decidedly non-partisan, shadowy organisation. “East, West, just points on a compass, both as stupid as each other” No comments when Bond suggests he works for the Russians (as he does indeed in the book). No intentionally has chosen to eschew geopolitical sides (including his own Chinese heritage) to work for a colourful Illuminati, a cabal intent on controlling world affairs through surreptitious means. “World domination. Same old dream. Our asylums are full of people who think they’re Napoleon. Or God” Bond replies, speaking like a true colonial Englishman, smarting at the very notion No believes he can topple (pun intended) the deep rooted institutions that have existed for centuries. No has the misplaced confidence of all Bond villains, a trait that Mike Myers will successfully lampoon decades later in his Austin Powers trilogy, but he represents a distinct threat to order.
Not just to British interests but American ones too. Fleming was, of course, sympathetic to the comradeship between the UK and the US, born out of WW2, and devised characters in his books such as Felix Leiter (played here in debonair fashion by Jack Lord, the future star of Hawaii Five-O), who represents pure American, CIA interests. “You mean we’re fighting the same war?” Bond asks, after briefly quarrelling (again, pun intended) with Leiter’s men who he doesn’t realise work for the Americans. Cold War allies extend to a friendship battling the supervillain lexicon of this heightened world, one that Broccoli & Saltzman establish right from the very beginning of the Bond movie series. Leiter will have almost as many incarnations as Bond, and serves as probably 007’s closest recurring ally outside of Whitehall.
There is an interesting moment when Maibaum & Harwood’s screenplay seems to hint at a darker aspect of American geopolitical history as Bond suggests to No, during their tension-laden dinner (a scene which prescribes to the Alfred Hitchcock maxim of putting a bomb under the table of any scene – more acute given he was offered the chance to direct a pre-Dr. No version of Thunderball and did consider it), that “the Americans would value a scientist of your… calibre”. This is more than a coded reference to the American practice, post-WW2, of recruiting former Axis scientists in projects such as Operation Paper Clip, allowing them to live and work in the US, free from prosecution for war crimes, in order to aid the Cold War effort in winning the numerous races against the Soviets, particularly the ‘Space Race’. Bond questions why No wouldn’t, after fleeing the Tongs in China, have explored options with the Americans who were willing to sacrifice a certain post-war morally in service of the greater good. These are ideas that will be explored in fiction much further down the road (heavily in 90’s TV series The X-Files) but that awareness of the bigger picture is present in Dr. No. Is there some latent American guilt lurking deep inside the Bond series?
There is, at the very least, fear. It is one of the reasons James Bond is presented, right from the off, as a superhero. Not in the literal sense as portrayed in DC Comics or Marvel (about to make its stamp across this decade by creating characters thriving to this day), but rather that we are witnessing a man removed somewhat from reality. He is strong, witty, effortlessly charming, fighting villains too cunning and strange for local law enforcement in exotic global locations. He also appears, through Dr. No, totally unencumbered by the tragedy or pain seen in established comic book heroes such as Bruce Wayne aka Batman (though cinema would be some years off from portraying the character as such). Bond has the panther-like sexuality of a swinging young man with the assured, regal confidence of an Establishment figure. He is a product of two worlds – Fleming’s Britain and the Britain of the 1960’s to come. Dr. No is the beginning of a character who would be at the very heart of a counter-cultural revolution set to change the Western world forever, with Bond serves as the perfect ‘hero’ to fight colourful, dastardly villains ahead.
Dr. No absolutely improves with age. It may not be James Bond at his cinematic apex but it is absolutely the Rosetta Stone of the franchise. Underestimate it at your peril.
Reviews of the James Bond franchise will return with… 1963’s From Russia With Love…
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