Editor’s Note: Welcome to Pop-Break’s Countdown to SPECTRE review series. Much like our popular 31 Days of Horror, we’re going to be looking at films from the James Bond franchise in anticipation of Bond’s latest SPECTRE to be released in November. However, this isn’t just a film review series — we’re breaking everything down. We’re looking at the actor playing Bond, the history of the release and production, the girls, the villains, the iconic opening songs, the books by Sir Ian Fleming, and ultimately how they all came together as a Bond film.
The Bond: Sean Connery, who many argue is the best Bond, though nobody on the production team was terribly enthusiastic at the time. Bond author Ian Fleming, however, was so taken with Connery’s performance that he eventually wrote a Scottish heritage into the character’s background in 1964’s You Only Live Twice.
The Release: Dr. No didn’t have an easy road to the screen. Producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli originally tried to get the rights to the Bond novels with producing partner Irving Allen in 1957, but the latter insulted Fleming at a meeting and the deal fell through. Canadian theater producer Harry Saltzman eventually bought the rights for all the novels (except Casino Royale, which had already been adapted for American television) and after an introduction by a mutual friend, Satlzman and Broccoli teamed up to form Eon Productions. The pair then combined with United Artists for distribution.
Dr. No took the world by storm from the moment of its UK premiere on October 5, 1962. It grossed $6 million at the time and nearly $60 million to date after numerous rereleases. Not bad considering it cost a little over a million to make. While critics took issue with the film’s depictions of sexuality and violence, audiences loved it. Well, except the Vatican, which condemned it.
The Girl: Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder. From the moment she appears standing on a Jamaican beach singing “Mango Tree” and dressed only in a white bikini and hunting knife, she’s unforgettable. Zena Marshall also appears as Ms. Taro, a white woman dressed to look Chinese. Eunice Gayson plays Sylvia Trench, the very first woman Bond seduces onscreen—or vice versa really. Trench was originally meant to appear in all subsequent movies as Bond’s steady friend with benefits, but she last appeared in From Russia with Love. There is also, of course, Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny, the only steady girl in Bond’s life.
The Villain: The titular Dr. No, played by Joseph Wiseman, who is not remotely Chinese. Even so, what he does here sets the tone for all future villains. Quiet, menacing, megalomaniacal and slightly Other, he’s just weird enough to be frightening. The fact that he’s going to steal America’s rockets and has metal hands also helps.
The Gadgets: Considering this is the movie that sets up the franchise, it’s surprisingly low tech. Bond turns in his beloved Beretta for the iconic Walther PPK 7.65m, but it’s really all about Dr. No’s lair. Created by set designer Ken Adam, the lair is modern, intricate, opulent and colorful. The most memorable feature is the giant, underwater magnifying window that makes up one wall of the dining room. Costing “one million dollars” and completely absurd, it’s the sort of crazy opulence that came to define a good Bond villain.
The Song: While this movie doesn’t have a signature song like later installments, it has an even more iconic piece of music: “The James Bond theme”. Monty Norman was originally hired to write the score, and while he undoubtedly took the theme’s melody from an earlier play called A House for Mr. Biswas, John Barry arranged it into the score we know today. Authorship of the song has been the subject of numerous court cases over the years, but regardless of who is responsible, it set the tone for the score in every film since.
The Book: While later installments took the title and nothing more, Dr. No is surprisingly faithful to its source material. Though From Russia with Love was the next film in the franchise, it actually comes before No in the book series. The film surprisingly retains the continuity between them, making Bond switch guns because his gun jammed at a critical moment during his last mission. It’s odd to keep in considering the metaphorical implications of impotence, but the movie works very hard to tell us what a lothario Bond is otherwise.
However, in the book, he gets one girl: Honeychile. The movie drops the “chile” as well as the backstory that she was raised by a black nanny after her parents died in a fire. Screenwriters Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood and Berkely Mather also made other major changes to the character. First off, she isn’t nude when she gets out of the water, but that’s probably thanks to censorship more than restraint. They also seem to make her older than 20 (Andress was 26 to Connery’s 32) to minimize Bond’s savior complex and at least don’t explicitly state that Honey’s only sexual experience was a rape that left her with a broken nose. Unfortunately, they also take away a good deal of her spunk. Fleming’s version is more knowledgeable than Bond about the island and she lets him know it. She even outwits Dr. No, easily escaping his outlandish death-by-carnivorous-crabs setup to sneak through his lair to attempt to kill him. The only reason she doesn’t is that James gets there first. Book Honey also gets to stay in the room when No reveals his past instead of being dismissed for being a woman.
No is different too, somehow both more and less outlandish. To start, he has metal pincers for hands. On a bigger scale, in the film, he sabotages American rockets at Cape Canaveral. In the book, it’s nuclear warheads on Turks Island. Initially, though, Bond thinks the island just produces bird guano. The mission is supposed to be softball reconnaissance, something simple for him to do after years of close calls (Casino Royale, Moonraker, Diamonds are Forever and From Russia all come before this), but it turns out to be a bit more complex.
No–and Fleming–are deliberately testing Bond’s mettle. The titular doctor is a sadist and scientist and he basically puts Bond through a series of strange tortures as an experiment. The movie retains almost none of that, restricting it to the scene after Bond too easily escapes his cell and crawls through a heated ventilation duct. No’s torture is far more perverse and includes poisonous spiders and a giant squid. His death is also more satisfying in the film. Watching Bond throw him into a nuclear water reactor and blow up his base is cooler than the original ending where he’s buried in guano and then Bond quietly escapes with Honey back to Jamaica.
The Movie: While Dr. No is enjoyable, it’s perhaps most interesting now for what it says about both gender politics and race. Book Bond is a one woman at a time kind of guy and he also hates when romance gets in the way of the work. But as Fleming puts it in Casino Royale, “like all harsh, cold men, he was easily tipped over into sentiment.” That’s not true here. In the book, James goes full white knight and plans to take Honey to America to get her nose fixed, even find her a job after he leaves. In the film, he looks bored as Honey relays the story of her rape. He only reacts when she says she indirectly killed the man later, and even then it’s with a joke. The women here are ornamental and given little do except fall prey to Bond’s charms.
The racial politics are just as problematic. In the books, Quarrel and Bond first met in Live and Let Die. That history is erased here out of necessity, but the character is further reduced to a superstitious, mildly foolish man. Like Honey, all the competence and skill he has on the page is given to Bond. The film also uses a lot of racial coding to mark who’s bad and who isn’t. All of Dr. No’s henchmen are Chinese or, in the case of a photographer, Chinese and black. The only positive thing about its depictions of race is that nobody says the word “Chigroes” like in the book. And that’s some low praise.