It’s putting it mildly to say that producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli took a risk on him. The resolutely rugged and working class Connery was far removed from Ian Fleming’s snobbish and disdainful protagonist (who was it that described Bond “an upper class thug”?), leading director Terence Young to groom Connery into the character, getting him used to the suits, the casinos, the gentlemen’s clubs and the high life. It’s the polarity between actor and character which generates the frisson inherent in Connery’s portrayal of Bond.
‘Dr No’ was the sixth of Fleming’s novels, but was chosen as the first film after an original script developed by Fleming, Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham – with the horribly prosaic title ‘James Bond, Secret Agent’ – wound up in a legal wrangle when Fleming decided to rework it for his 1961 novel ‘Thunderball’. The producers settled on ‘Dr No’ as having an exotic locale in Jamaica, a streamlined narrative, and one only really expensive set-piece (the explosive finale at Crab Key, the heavily-guarded island Dr No uses as his base).
At just over $1million, ‘Dr No’ was moderately budgeted even for the early 60s. Purpose of comparison: released the same year, John Frankenheimer’s ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ cost twice as much, John Ford’s ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ three times, and David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ burned though $15million, a budget that wouldn’t be equalled by a Bond movie until 1977’s ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’.
Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood and Berkley Mather worked on the script, with uncredited additions from Young. Mather had generally worked in television and would have no other involvement in the franchise. Harwood returned for co-writer duties on ‘From Russia With Love’. Maibaum became a series regular, contributing to thirteen Bond movie scripts up to ‘Licence to Kill’.
Opening with a somewhat psychedelic and very dated set of opening credits (it’s the first and last Bond not to feature a pre-credits sequences), the story begins with the assassination of Jamaica-based British agent Commander Strangways (Tim Moxon) and the theft from his office of files on Crab Key and Dr No (just in case, you know, the title hadn’t tipped you off as to the villain’s identity). In London, spymaster M (Bernard Lee) briefs Bond (Connery) on Strangways’ disappearance and his investigation, on the Americans’ behalf, of tracking interference with Cape Canaveral rocket launches that seems to be emanating from his neck of the woods. (I’m assuming that in the early 60s it was reasonably plausible that America might need a bit of help from a handful of upper-class Brits.)
Bond’s mission is compromised from the off: no sooner has he arrived in Jamaica than there’s an assassination attempt – the first of several. One antagonist kills himself rather than talk, leading Bond to wonder who wields that kind of power. That’ll be the eponymous Dr No (Joseph Wiseman), whom Young teasingly keeps out of sight until the last third. No’s first scene shows us not the man himself but his power over his minions, as he puts the frighteners on Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) and exhorts him to kill Bond.
Setting the pattern for most of the Bond villains, Dr No is refined, cultured (an in-joke has Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, stolen the year before the film went into production, in Dr No’s possession), articulate, megalomaniacal and the proud owner of a fully kitted-out secret base hidden from the eyes of the world. He works for SPECTRE (the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), an underground organisation that takes on more significance in later films on account of its CEO, one Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Setting the pattern for several decades of straight-up sexism, Bond takes an unreconstructed view of women and punctuates his spying with shagging as he dallies with baccarat-playing rich girl Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) before he leaves for his mission, fools around with the treacherous Miss Taro (Zena Marshall) and enjoys an amorous encounter with Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) as a reward for saving the day.
Unlike many of its successors, ‘Dr No’ is gadget-free. Q is present, but referred to not by the initial of his department but by name as Major Boothroyd. He’s also played by Peter Burton. Desmond Llewellyn wasn’t cast until ‘From Russia With Love’, when Burton was unavailable to reprise the role. Bond’s opposite number from the CIA, Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) also gets his first outing.
In terms of action, Young crafts a sleek and efficient thriller from his limited budget, with car chases, gunboats, shoot-outs, hand-to-hand combat, and an explosive denouement washing across the screen in glorious Technicolor. His direction, though, is often perfunctory and early scenes are padded with local colour. Viewed fifty years down the line, it’s an entertaining way to pass an hour and three quarters, but back then it was something new and exciting, banging at the doors of mainstream entertainment with enough force to create a global phenomenon. There’s no end credits promise that Bond would be back – ‘From Russia With Love’ kicked off that little tradition – but the box office receipts made it an inevitability.