Directed by Terence Young
Screenplay by Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkley Mather
Release Date: 5th October 1962 (U.K)
James Bond has been around for what feels like forever. The movie franchise is on the cusp of reaching its sixtieth year of existence, while the character himself made his debut in 1953, meaning he is reaching the age of seventy years. It’s hard to imagine there was a time when he didn’t exist.
A popular character who had a massive effect on the pop cultural landscape of the 1960s, here is a character and a series of movies that have retained a high degree of commercial success in a vast pendulum of fashion and social changes, while being equal parts loved and controversial.
Created by Ian Fleming for the novel Casino Royale published in 1953, James Bond made his debut on screen not long after. We may now think of our first time seeing 007 on screen being Sean Connery, cigarette in his mouth coolly introducing himself as ‘Bond, James Bond’, but the first out of the gate was future manager of The Overlook Hotel Barry Nelson, albeit slightly rechristened as Jimmy Bond for CBS’ production of the first novel for their ‘Climax!’ strand of live television productions, which was broadcast in 1954.
There was even a radio production from South Africa in 1956 that saw future British quiz show host Bob Holness play the role in an adaptation of Moonraker.
There had been various other attempts at getting Bond on to the screen, as a television series and controversially through an original story in the shape of Thunderball, the story elements of which Fleming decided to turn into the eighth full-length James Bond novel, and with it a series of legal issues that would plague the series into the early 21st century.
When we think of James Bond on the cinema screen, and the near sixty year rite of passage it has been for several generations of filmgoers, we think of the gun barrel opening, we think of iconic theme songs set to Maurice Binder’s title sequences, superlative musical scores from John Barry, Ken Adams’ elaborate production design, some of the most famous stunts and gadgetry put to screen, while its soon to be twenty-five film cycle invites much in the way of debate and fun arguments on what the best film is, who the best Bond is, the best Bond woman, the best run of movies and whatnot.
What is strange to think of is that there was a time when those things were never argued about because they never existed and had to be figured out.
Produced by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, a partnership that would last into the mid-70s when Broccoli would eventually go it alone as producer of the series, Dr. No made its way to cinema screens in 1962 directed by Terence Young, with a screenplay by Johanna Harwood and Richard Maibaum, the latter contributing to many of the films about to follow, with a central musical theme written by Monty Norman, also on scoring duties, and rearranged to dazzling effect by John Barry and a title sequence created by Maurice Binder, the film being distributed by United Artists.
The first three James Bond pictures are not what you would refer to as experimental works, but you can see the cogs in the machine being figured out by everyone in 1962, 1963 and 1964. Many of the elements are there, and you can see them being refined with each film, but they are there, so while they may not be as fully formed, even from the first time out of the gate, you can see Eon Productions have an idea of how to approach a James Bond film.
Terence Young’s three films of the series feel the more old-fashioned in terms of approach, with the works of other Bond directors of the decade having a more modernist approach, yet the one thing that is still there in Dr. No (although it would be absent in From Russia, With Love) is a feeling of 60s futurism.
It sometimes feels like a joke, but there seems to be a mentality that everyone in the 60s thought the future would look like The Jetsons, an idea that Brad Bird said was his approach to the aesthetic of his Bond-flavoured superhero animation The Incredibles (the Michael Giacchino music scores for those movies are the greatest Bond scores never used for a Bond film), and while Dr. No has an approach to it that is more in line with a grandiose pulp detective story than the over the top theatrics that would come to define the series from Goldfinger onwards, this is still a movie, albeit one with a lower budget than what was to come, with a love of technology.
Alright, the first gadget that Bond gets from The Armourer (we’d have to wait one more movie for the iconic Desmond Llewelyn to appear as Q) is his Walther PPK, and with it the very non-PC observation that Bond’s previous weapon, a Beretta, is more befitting for a woman’s handbag, but with a plot line involving a megalomaniacal villain attempting to destabilise space rockets, the film reeks of both Cold War-era political concerns (the Space Race) and love of the technology that was in development; even in a more lower budgeted movie, Dr. No has a control room filled with extras and all sorts of technology that feels positively science fiction-like.
Of course, the only thing missing here is Bond and an army rampaging through the place, but a more restrained version of the tropes and love of gadgetry were there right from the off, not to mention there already being a wonderful taste of imagination in the production design from Ken Adam.
If Dr. No was on the cusp of launching a movie franchise centred fancifully around so many of the things that were actually dominating the news headlines (spies, the space race, the cold war), it was also about to be as male gazey and controversial in its portrayal and visualization of women as Playboy magazine, which had launched just nine years before and seemingly setting a tone for heterosexual masculinity.
Bond sleeps with three women during the movie, one of whom is a character he knows has set him up to be murdered but who he talks into a sexual tryst anyway before having her arrested for treason. Sex is everywhere in Dr. No, just as it was in Fleming’s novels. It is a running joke amongst viewers of the films that many wondered how Bond never fathered an illegitimate child or developed the world’s worst STD given how many women he slept with during a single film.
The films would never become too sexually explicit, although some of the Pierce Brosnan movies pushed it a little bit more, particularly in Goldeneye and Die Another Day, but for a series of films drenched in its lead character’s sexual activity, the films always stayed the right side of family friendly, at least in terms of what it would show on screen, and it’s for this reason the films became firm favourites in the UK either through family trips to the cinema, or television screenings on countless Bank Holidays or Christmas’ where many of the films were screened to high ratings on the ITV network after the annual broadcast of The Queen’s Christmas Speech.
Bond’s relationship with each film’s female characters is still one of its most controversial legacies. Some of its actresses, as seen here when Ursula Andress walks outs of the sea, would become iconic parts of cinema, but at times they would also simply be sexual conquests for the leading character, while other movies not released long after (Goldfinger, Thunderball) are still controversial for key scenes involving the character trying to sleep with women in a manner that felt deeply uncomfortable even before the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp.
Then there is also the fact that Bond is a character with a licence to kill. Bond pictures have never strived to be a John Le Carre-type exploration of what it means to be a spy, to be a killer or to have a licence that allows you to essentially be a state executioner. Later films would explore the character a lot more in depth, sometimes to a mixed reaction during their initial release dates, but which would swing the other way to acclaim in later years (Lazenby, Dalton) and which would give future films more incentive in taking a serious approach to the series and the stories (Craig), but right from the off there is a touch of humour that allows us to laugh at moments of high suspense.
Bond kills someone or escapes with his life and then follows it with a joke, a technique honed in by future action stars such as Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, and which would pretty much define nearly the entire run of Roger Moore films where comedy would take over more prominently.
Dr. No is a vintage film of the kind that straddles the line between the fifties and sixties. Like the earlier part of any decade, one can feel the carry over from the decade before just before it starts to become its own thing, and that is true of Bond. A more pop flavour approach to the movies would be evident come Goldfinger where more heightened action and spectacle would come into play. Dr. No feels more like a pulpy detective thriller that could function as the opening episode of a television series, almost like the type that would be launched to cash in on the blockbuster success of later Bond entries.
There is action here, but it’s staged sparsely, with more emphasis on physical altercations, while a car chase later in the film relies more on rear-screen projection work than high octane staging, while the final stretch of the movie has the feel of a sunny beach adventure. In fact, the whole demeanour of the film is very sunny, no surprise given that much of it takes place in Jamaica, although the image of Bond going to a Caribbean country and basically ordering around the citizens who are there to help him in his mission fees visually troubling, bringing to mind aspects of British colonialism that the film isn’t actually commenting on.
A box office success, the next film in the series, From Russia With Love, would follow a year later, and would jettison any space age concerns and sunny beach settings altogether for a more old-fashioned spy film, although it would be tremendously effective for it. In 1962 James Bond arrived on our cinema screens and barring moments of times when financial problems would arise behind the scenes courtesy of Bond’s distributors’, he would never go away.