Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Behold the birth of Bond! Dr. No (1962)

The first film in a series often isn’t typical. As with comics, the elements that come to define a series often aren’t there at the first, and that’s somewhat true with Dr. No. It sets up many staple components of the series but departs from the Bond formula — which of course didn’t exist yet — in other ways. The opening credits, for instance, take place in front of an abstract pattern of dots rather than scantily clad women; that had to wait for From Russia With Love.

The creative team for Dr. No have talked about how they wrote and filmed it to have a faster, more driving pace than other contemporary adventure films. By the standards of later films in the series, though, it’s unbelievably slow. Not dull or leaden, but slow. The fights are much simpler and less drawn out: when Bond takes out a chauffeur working for Dr. No, it takes just a couple of blows to wrap it up.

Sean Connery’s Bond is much more coldblooded than he’d be in most of the later films; I don’t think that side of the character re-emerges until Daniel Craig. When 007 interrogates a female photographer in the pay of Dr. No, he’s ready to have his sidekick Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) break her arm to make her talk. He sleeps with treacherous Miss Taro (Zena Marshall)—they make love twice in a row—even though he know he’s going to arrest her when she’s done. Another SPECTRE agent empties his gun into Bond’s bed, unaware 007 is watching from the shadows. Bond then coldbloodedly executes the man.

Like several of Fleming’s books, Bond is very much a servant of the British Empire here. His initial mission is to investigate the murder of a British agent in Jamaica, which was still a British possession when they were filming (by the end of ’62 it would be independent). The attempts to kill Bond lead back to Dr. No’s private island, Crab Key. Slipping onto the island with Quarrel, Bond meets Honey Rider, who scours the beach for rare shells she can sell to tourists. Dr. No’s flame-throwing tank kills Quarrel, after which No holds Honey and Bond in his elegant underground fortress.

No reveals that SPECTRE (“Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Revenge, Terrorism and Extortion.”) is going to demonstrate its power by destroying America’s next space launch, a stock plot during the years of the space race. Bond, of course, puts a stop to that. It’s a very good film and Wiseman’s turn as the icily calm Dr. No ranks with Gert Frobe’s Goldfinger as the best villain of the Connery years.

The movie’s treatment of Quarrel, though, is unpleasantly racist. The man is a CIA asset but Bond treats him like a flunky. Worse, Quarrel fits the “superstitious darky” stereotype: Dr. No has decked out his tank to resemble a dragon and Quarrel, like other Jamaicans, believes that’s what it is. Bond, Quarrel’s white superior, offers rational explanations — see the tank tracks? — but Quarrel won’t listen, insisting they’re dragon footprints.

Despite the differences from later films, Dr. No does establish a number of elements that would become standard in the series. For example, Britain here is a Great Power rather than a fading empire. Even though Dr. No is already interfering with Cape Canaveral missile launches, when Bond meets the CIA’s Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) the latter makes it clear he’s deferring to Britain’s man on the scene. That was not at all how MI5 and the CIA interacted back then but it’s typical of what was to come in the series. In Goldfinger Leiter defers to Bond even when they’re dealing with crimes on American soil; in You Only Live Twice Britain is at a high-level Moscow/Washington conference despite having no dog in the hunt.

Other familiar aspects? There’s the Bond girl. The villain’s impregnable fortress. A sense of absurdity in having the fortress run like an underground country club. The villain refusing to eliminate Bond immediately. Bond flirting with Moneypenny. Bond”s quips such as “they were on their way to a funeral” when a SPECTRE car goes over a cliff. The humor is restrained enough that it isn’t as annoyingly ROFL as Roger Moore’s films often try to be.

One intended series element that didn’t take was Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) whom Bond meets and beds early on, with Sylvia taking the initiative. She returns in From Russia With Love but that’s the last time we see her.

By the standards of the day, the film’s sex and violence were almost too raw. A few years later, my parents were fine with me as a tween catching Diamonds Are Forever. The series changed, something I’ll look at in another post soon.



  1. Edo Bosnar

    Haven’t seen it in ages, so I don’t know what I’d think of it now, but back when I was really into the Bond films, back in my teens, Dr. No was one of my favorites. It was the first non-Moore Bond movie I’d seen, and as a result Connery immediately became my preferred Bond after that. Also, I still love the soundtrack, with all of that great protoreggae Calypso music.

    1. My first Bond was You Only Live Twice, followed by Diamonds Are Forever. I’m not sure when I caught Dr. No but I think it was well into the Moore years — can’t remember any strong reactions to it back then, though.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    The flaws that you cite are pretty much there because they were in the original book. Dr No is one of the more faithful films, in terms of the original novels and Dr No is one of the best of the novels. The structure of the film and a large volume of the scenes are taken from the novel. The film even includes the scenes with the armorer, Maj. Boothroyd, as Bond gets his new Walther PPK and they include the reference to his .25 cal Beretta letting him down, on his previous mission. In the novel series, the preceding book was From Russia With Love and Fleming basically took a page from Conan Doyle and has Bond seemingly meet his doom, at the feet of Rosa Klebb. The books hadn’t been doing that well, internationally and Fleming had decided to kill Bond off, but From Russia With Love was named as one of John F Kennedy’s favorite books and sales took off, in America and Fleming comes up with an out, early in Dr No. In fact, the mission is considered a doddle, to test if Bond is fully recovered, before sending him on something more dangerous.

    Quarrel had been introduced earlier, in Live and Let Die, and his depiction was pretty racist (as was that whole book). Racism permeates this novel, as the villain is a cheap Fu Manchu rip-off, though Fleming added enough touches to make him interesting. He worked for SMERSH, as there was no SPECTRE, yet, in the books. His staff are all Asian or mixed race Afro-Asian, who Fleming refers to as “chigroes,” a portmanteau of “Chinese” and “Negro.” There had been several large Asian communities in the Caribbean, including Jamaica and Fleming used the mixed race members of the communities to signal that Dr No’s people are outsiders, as he was also an ex-patriate from the Tongs. That element isn’t exatly played out in the film, though you have the assassins in the beginning and the Asians you see later.

    From Russia With Love is largely faithful to the novel, with the exception of SPECTRE replacing SMERSH and the scenes on SPECTRE Island. That also led to changes in Red Grant’s back story, though mostly making him more mercenary than the novel turncoat.

    Goldfinger really establishes the film formula and the film is a mix of the book and new ideas. After that, the films series departs heavily from the books, until they introduce new Bonds, though Live and Let Die has little in common with the books. For Your Eyes Only adapts large segments of two short stories and treats things more seriously, which was a welcome change. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is mostly faithful, apart from the nods to the past films.

    In the novels, Bond is a pretty cold blooded, ruthless killer, who is sent out to slay the wizards and dragons who threaten the British Empire. It was all a fantasy, by a member of the upper class, who longed for the days when Britain ruled much of the world, as well as the adventure of the war, which Fleming mostly saw via dispatches and debriefings, rather than directly experienced. The Bond of the novels has more in common with hardboiled detective fiction that the espionage of writers like Graham Greene or the more personally informed works of John Le Carre.

    Connery is my Bond and I prefer the more serious to the jokey Moore material (though Diamonds Are Forever falls into the same trap of bad writing and thin plot). I do enjoy Moore and Dalton was actually quite a bit like the literary Bond, without the endless 9/11 metaphors of Craig, or the repetitious betrayal and personal sufferings that made large chunks of Craig’s films insufferable, to me. I liked most of Casino Royale, but, felt like was watching the same thing again and again with the rest and didn’t ever find it entertaining, like the earlier generation of Films. I liked Brosnan as the character, but Goldeneye was the only film I really enjoyed. The others had bits and pieces or performances, but were extremely uneven or were overwhelmed by bad material and committee-written scripts.

    1. I like the Brosnan run way more than most people. The Craig run, not so much.
      Dr. No is one of the Fleming books I’m not familiar with so thanks for the detail. Joseph Wiseman’s performance is definitely what makes him work on screen

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