‘That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six’
Dr. No might seem a little tame by today’s standards. The famous gadgetry is notable by its absence (as is its inventor, Q) and the villain’s lair isn’t based inside a vast, hollowed out volcano or similar. 007 doesn’t drive the flashiest of sports cars, neither does he jet to a series of glamorous locations. But make no mistake - Dr. No rightly establishes a template for everything that is to follow. And it’s better for its lack of gimmicks. Bond has to rely on his wits or brute force in order to prevail and the concept thrives as a result.
On its release in 1962, Dr. No was an enormous international success. It isn’t hard to see why. Setting a movie in Jamaica adds a sheen of gloss that must have figured rarely in the output of the time. Instead of using a studio backlot or thinly disguising some English location as a foreign clime, the action really does take place in the Caribbean and that must have mattered a lot to the hard-up, working class audiences who wouldn’t get to see such sights otherwise. It’s also clear that rather a lot of money was plunged into the movie. Set explosions take place on a large scale. Dr. No uses a decadent, imposing dome as an interview room and that’s before we get to see the monstrous scale of his headquarters.
But it’s no real secret to suggest that the true heart of Dr. No’s success is its star, Sean Connery. Previously a little known jobbing actor, Connery was selected for the part ahead of the likes of Cary Grant, which turned out to be a masterstroke. In Grant’s capable hands, Dr. No would have been a vehicle for its star. Instead, Connery is Bond. Emerging fully formed and enjoying one of the most accomplished introductions ever lent to a movie character, Connery simply enjoys himself, playing (as ever) a variation of his own personality to great effect. It helps that the agent can appeal to both sides of the gender divide. Bond’s dress sense, impeccable taste and utter coldness in the field must have appealed to male viewers, whilst women got to see a leading man who was all man and incredibly handsome to boot. The series of ladies he beds in the film, not to mention all the others who lust after him unrequitedly, are as in thrall to him as at any other time in the series, but in Dr. No it’s made clear he has charm as well as raw charisma. Women don’t just melt at his feet. Bond has to put in a bit of work himself, but he’s always up to the task. In short, it’s never been truer that his is a character that men want to be and that women want to be with.
In his co-star, Connery got a similar unknown whose introduction to the film is every bit as iconic as his. Ursula Andress plays Honey Ryder (sparking off a succession of Bond girls with deliciously risque names), a local shell collector who gets involved in Dr No’s machinations by complete accident. The image of her emerging from the sea is the stuff of poster legend, equal to the famous shot of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. True, her lines were dubbed (by Nikki van der Zyl) but she has enough presence and natural beauty to shine next to 007.
A number of actors were considered for the role of the evil Doctor. By all accounts, Christopher Lee was a name in the mix, as were those of Max von Sydow and Noel Coward, the latter responding to the offer with a telegram that pithily read ‘No, no, no.’ Joseph Wiseman took the part of the German-Chinese nemesis and gives a splendid performance, albeit one that has been mimicked by Bond baddie after baddie over the years. Unlike most larger than life movie villains, No doesn’t start cackling at his own schemes; he doesn’t even go nuts when his plans turn to naught. Instead, his is a wholly understated turn, one of almost unnatural calm even as Bond goads him over dinner. The only ‘cartoon’ aspect of his character are his hands, but these don’t define him, a point that gets sadly missed all too often in other 007 films.
Terence Young directs with a real sense of pace, if not momentum. The action sequence-exposition-action sequence-exposition successionism of the plot might seem obvious to twenty first century eyes, but it holds together and Young ensures that the movie’s muscular 110-minute running time never lags. Quite simply, Dr. No doesn’t have time to get dull. Too much is going on for the action to sag and there is even a sense that Bond is in danger from time to time, something that doesn’t always happen elsewhere, when the agent is virtually invulnerable. Helping the movie along is Monty Norman’s score. The crucial element of John Barry isn’t quite in place yet, though he was consulted over various aspects of the music, including the world famous Bond theme. Talking of which, that particular series of notes appears often, accompanying almost every shot of 007 during the first half of the movie and it’s every bit as impressive as it is intended to be. Elsewhere, we get ‘Under the Mango Tree,’ especially written for the movie, whilst during the opening credits there’s an extended bongo drum sequence, which films in the sixties were clearly obsessed with.
007 would return, and with better results, but Dr. No is a fine start to the series and contains scenes that even now are fairly shocking, such as the rather merciless slaying of Professor Dent, who is shot in the back for his villainy. Bond barely twitches, an insight into the man with a license to kill and the cold bloodedness to carry it out. It’s a teasing hint at character depth, unfortunately one that would be developed only occasionally as 007 is transformed from a movie secret agent into a cinema icon.