Musings on Bond at 50: Dr. No

Posted: 30 July 2012 in entertainment, film
Tags: , , , ,

Dr NoAs the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film franchise and the release of the 23rd entry Skyfall approaches let’s celebrate by taking a look at each of the preceding 22 films. Beginning with the film that gave birth to the cinematic legend: Dr. No.

So iconic is Sean Connery’s association with the role of James Bond it’s incredible to think that he was not even close to being the first choice to play agent 007 on the big screen. Indeed when producers Albert R “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman told United Artists that they had their leading man they were advised that they could “do better”. Other candidates considered before Connery were Roger Moore (who was not approached as he was busy with The Saint TV series), Patrick McGoohan (who as a devout Catholic turned the role down on moral grounds); and director Terence Young’s preferred choice Richard Johnson (who turned the offer down as he did not want to be tied to a multi-film contract).

Thankfully the confidence of Broccoli and Saltzman in Connery overrode the concerns of the studio and it was later said that the phenomenal success ($59.6 million box office on a budget of $1 million) of Dr. No, and the subsequent franchise, could be attributed to three key factors: Sean Connery. Sean Connery. Sean Connery. Though he would later tire of the role, with the boredom clearly reflected on screen in You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever, in his first outing Connery is never less than electric in every scene in which he appears and is a commanding screen presence. Even if the 007 cinema franchise reaches its 100th anniversary any actor playing James Bond will always face comparison to Connery.

At one point Cary Grant (who was the best man at Cubby’s wedding to Dana Wilson) was seriously considered for the role of Bond but the producers knew he would only do a single film and that they would be back to square one casting-wise for the second film. From the very start it was their intention to make a series and not a one-off. In tandem with mulling over Grant as 007 Broccoli and Saltzman also courted Alfred Hitchcock to direct, though again this would have most likely resulted in a one-off gig. The Hitchcock/Grant classic North By Northwest was a huge influence on the visual template of the early Bond films, as was The Guns of Navarone.

Originally Thunderball was to be the first James Bond film but there was issues with the rights as it was caught up in an on-going legal dispute between Ian Fleming and Kevin McClory, who had co-written the original screenplay on which the novel was based. Given that the 1965 film version of Thunderball would ultimately cost 9 times what the producers had available to them in 1962 the choice of the less technically complex Dr. No to introduce 007 seems to have been a wise one.

Oddly enough the film’s straightforward plot contains parallels with the traditional three-part structure of a comic book:

  • Birth of the hero: the London-based section with Bond’s introduction at the casino and his scenes with Sylvia Trench, Miss Moneypenny and M.
  • Hero’s struggles against general evil-doers: Bond battles with Professor Dent and assorted thugs in Jamaica.
  • Hero’s ultimate battle against the archenemy: Bond confronts and defeats Dr No in his lair on Crab Key.

Sean Connery as James BondThough Connery’s presence was an undeniably vital factor in the film’s popularity it’s important to remember that he was merely the tip of a talented film-making iceberg assembled by Broccoli and Saltzman. Without director Terence Young the series would not have been launched with the class and style that it was and most likely would have been forgotten as a generic one-off spy film. Many colleagues have frequently commented that Young was himself in effect James Bond and that much of the cinematic character’s style originated with him. Witty with fine tastes in food, drink, suits and women, Young took the rough-around-the-edges Connery under his wing and schooled the Scotsman in style and flair. Connery and Young worked extremely well together and between them would develop the throwaway dry humour that the series would become famous, and ultimately infamous and ridiculed, for. The three Bond films that Connery and Young would make together (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball) are generally viewed as highlights of the series.

Other acclaimed and vital contributions to Dr. No came with the innovative editing style of Peter Hunt and the stunning production designs of Ken Adam, who astounded the cast and crew with his sets upon their return from location filming in Jamaica. Connery’s performance in the studio scenes was more relaxed than the one recorded on location and perhaps the surroundings assisted his settling into the role. And once in the studio he got to meet fellow members of the British Secret Service in the shape of Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell as M and Miss Moneypenny respectively. The flirtatious relationship between Bond and Moneypenny was conceived by the filmmakers and became a much-welcomed part of each subsequent film. In the novels M is pretty much the only person that Bond respects without question or hesitation and the casting of Bernard Lee was perfect. Connery greatly respected Lee and this is reflected in the on-screen relationship between Bond and M where it quickly becomes clear that the latter is in charge of the former. And so it would remain.

As the first film Dr. No is the template for the series and introduced elements that remain 50 years on: Walther PPK; über-villain; Bond girl; bonkers scheme of the villain; hidden base; Bond being wined and dined by the villain; hidden base blows up in spectacular fashion; dry and dark humour; Bond’s gambling addiction/skill; lush foreign locations. Unlike later films it also grounded the fantastical in real-life settings, showed 007 pursuing a mystery with genuine detective skills, and made it clear that he was a small but vital part of a much larger organisation. It also gave Bond one of the best, if not the best, character introductions in cinema history with the “Bond. James Bond” line to Sylvia Trench in the casino.

50 years on the poster tagline for Dr. No remains accurate: Now…meet the most extraordinary gentleman spy in all fiction…James Bond Agent 007.


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