We take it for granted now. 007 has become an pop culture cornerstone. A Bond movie is as close to a sure thing to be a big success as there is in the movie business. But there was a time when movie audiences had never heard of James Bond. As hard as it is to imagine, there was a time when a James Bond movie was not a surefire huge grossing film. When, in spite of shining prospects, a misstep could have cut short an entire franchise.
Thankfully, the first movie they made was the brilliant “Dr. No”. A tone setting film that established the world of James Bond in almost every way. Its success would propel the Bond series to become one of the longest running, most successful movie franchises of all time.
Ian Fleming wrote the first James Bond novel in 1953: “Casino Royale”. It was an enormous success, selling out several print runs. He would go on to release one new Bond novel a year (including two collections of short stories) for the next fourteen years.
By 1958, producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli began getting interested in bringing Bond to the big screen. He was able to set up a meeting between his partner at Warwick Films, Irving Allen, and Ian Fleming (He himself could not attend due to his wife’s illness). However, the meeting did not go well. Allen didn’t think as highly of the property as Broccoli did, and went so far as to insult Fleming, telling him his character couldnt even cut it on TV (in 1954, Bond was featured in an underperforming made for TV movie based on “Casino Royale”).
Needless to say, a deal did not get made.
Fleming (left) and producer Harry Saltzman
Other producers were waiting in the wings. Harry Saltzman had just gone out into producing on his own, and in 1961, after reading the novel “Goldfinger”, he purchased the rights to James Bond for six months. He paid the sum of $50,000, an enormous amount of money at the time. Unfortunately for Saltzman, he couldn’t get the production deal finalized. He was a Hollywood outsider with a light track record, and couldn’t secure a distribution deal for the pictures.
Luckily, Broccoli wasn’t done pursuing the franchise. His Warwick Films partnership had just filed for bankruptcy after producing the controversial “Oscar Wilde” (which couldn’t be marketed in the States due to homosexual themes). His intense desire to produce the Bond series of novels led to a meeting between he and Saltzman. Saltzman was running out of money, and also running out of time on his option. Regardless, he held firm at the meeting. He refused to sell his rights to Broccoli outright and insisted on forming a partnership, instead. Broccoli agreed. The men formed two companies. Danjaq (a name formed by combining the first parts of their wive’s first names) to actually hold the rights to Bond, and Eon productions, to produce the films.
Eon Productions has produced all 22 official Bond films to date, and will release the 23rd, “Skyfall”, next month.
“Cubby” Broccoli (left) and Harry Saltzman (right)
Unbeknownst to either Broccoli or Saltzman, United Artists had also been circling the property. They were interested in having Alfred Hitchcock direct a film (an idea that obviously did not pan out). So when EON brought a proposal to UA, a deal was done immediately. Saltzman and Broccoli left their initial meeting with an agreement to make the film. “Thunderball” was the film they wanted to do first, but due to a legal battle with co-writer Kevin McClory (which decades later would give rise to “Never Say Never Again”) they landed on “Dr. No”. One of the primary reasons “Dr. No” was selected was the relatively reasonable production values involved with filming that particular novel.
Things did not go smoothly in obtaining a director for the film. Directors Guy Green, Guy Hamilton, and Ken Hughes were all offered the job, but they each turned it down. Hamilton would eventually make his mark on the franchise, directing four films: “Goldfinger”, “Diamonds Are Forever”, “Live and Let Die”, and “The Man with the Golden Gun”. Ken Hughes would in his own way, as well, directing 1967’s “Casino Royale”, a spoof starring David Niven and Peter Sellers amongst many other notables.
But thankfully for “Dr. No”, they landed on Terence Young. Young would be incredibly influential in setting the tone and style of the entire franchise.
By many accounts, Young himself was something of a James Bond type, personality-wise. He had led an adventurous life himself. Young was born in Shanghai, China, and had been a tank commander in WWII. During filming “From Russia With Love”, Young and a crewman nearly died when their Helicopter crashed into the ocean. He was back filming half an hour later.
As a director, he was mostly known for war films prior to his stint on Bond. He had worked for Cubby Broccoli before, however, which helped him land the job.
By many accounts, Terence Young was influential not just in putting the film together, but in creating the onscreen persona of Bond, as well. Young himself is said to have been debonair, sophisticated, and impeccibly dressed. He reportedly influenced every facet of how the character should hold himself. Per Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny) Young coached Connery how to walk, how to talk and how to eat. It’s been said that Connery’s performance as Bond was, in part, a Terence Young impersonation.
Connery would need the coaching. Our impression of him now has been shaped by years of seeing him as a suave secret agent, but the truth is at the time, Sean Connery was a bit rough around the edges. He was a Navy man, and a bodybuilder. He had a blue collar background and had worked a number of wide ranging jobs in order to support himself prior to acting.
He was lucky to have landed the role. Cary Grant was considered, but the producers knew Grant would never commit to more than one film. Patrick McGoohan (later of “Avengers” fame) turned an offer down. Roger Moore was also initially desired for the role, but he was tied up in television.
Connery had been introduced to Cubby Broccoli by Lana Turner. The high point of his filmography at that point was a Disney film entitled “Darby O’Gill and the Little People”. Connery wasn’t even Darby O’Gill. But Broccoli saw something in him and began considering him for the part. In spite of reluctance from UA, he and Saltzman offered Connery the part, and Bond as we know him was born.
In those early days of the Bond Franchise, the intetnion was to take what Flemming had written and put it on the big screen. Thus, “Dr. No” is a film that hews relatively closely to the source novel. 00 agent James Bond is sent to Jamaica in order to investigate the disappearance of the local station chief. He is followed and threatened from the moment of his arrival, and survives several attempts on his life.
He eventually uncovers the operation of Dr. Julius No (Joseph Wiseman), a former member of the Chinese Tong, now working with SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion). No has built a facility intending to sabotage American space missions taking place at Cape Canaveral, for the benefit of the Soviets.
But the story is only part of the picture. What really is the essence of the film is the style. No isn’t just any villain. He’s a Chinese/German scientist and gangster. He has mechanical hands. His assassins plant poisonous spiders, and set traps utilizing beautiful women. They bear poisoned suicide cigarettes.
Bond is suave and unflappable. In spite of multiple attempts on his life, he stays cool and calm. He plows relentlessly ahead. He shoots a would-be assassin even after the man is out of ammunition, and thus unarmed. He has inferred sexual relations with three different women.
The tone for Bond is being set. He’s a well dressed ladies man with a license to kill, and he won’t hesitate to use it.
Other signature traits of the Bond series are also making their first appearance. “Bond Girls” can trace their lineage back to this film as well. Eunice Gayson would appear onscreen first, as the gambling Sylvia Trench. Miss Taro would be the series’ first femme fatale, setting up a romantic liason with Bond in order that No’s henchmen could make an attempt on his life. But of course, most famously, Ursula Andress appears as Honey Rider. He emergence from the sea in her white bikini has become one of many iconic images associated with the Bond franchise.
The part of Rider was still uncast two weeks before shooting was to begin. Then Harry Saltzman saw a picture of Andress, taken by her husband, actor John Derek. They offered her the part prior to ever having met her. In spite of the fact that her dialogue would need to be dubbed, and that her bronzed tan was actually the reult of hours makeup work, Andress won a Golden Globe for her role, and she would permanently set the tone for Bond girls to come. They needed to be world-class attractive, and competent in their own right (Rider was a self educated world traveler who states she once killed a man who took advantage of her).
Bond and Dr. No have a drink together and discuss events at the end of the film. Dr. No actually offers Bond a chance to switch sides and join SPECTRE. Of course, he declines… in a flippant way (Bond’s trademark dark wit was already in place here, as well. Earlier in the film he had quipped “Sargeant, make sure he doesn’t get away” in reference to a corpse, and “I think they were on their way to a funeral” as he watched a carful of assassins explode). The exchange between Bond and Villain has become a trademark of the series, and its at its best when, as is the case here, it’s set in an opulent lair.
The “lair” has become such a hallmark of the franchise, thanks in large part to Ken Adam’s remarkable set designs. While the cast an crew filmed their shots in Jamaica, Adams was left to his own devices in London at Pinewood studios to create the sets. He made an indellible contribution to “Dr No”, and the franchise as a whole. The class of M’s office, the dangerous cool of the rounded room where Professor Dent is given the tarantuala, and of course, Dr No’s lair, replete with nuclear reactor room. Adam would contribute to seven films in the franchise. In addition to “Dr. No”, he would serve as Production Designer for “Goldfinger”, “Thunderball”, “You Only Live Twice”, “Diamonds are Forever”, and “The Spy Who Loved Me”.
In 2003, he was knighted for his contribution to film.
There were other ways that “Dr. No” established Bond trademarks, as well. The opening “Gunbarrel” shot was in place, with Maurice Binder (who would contribute a total of 16 different title sequences to the franchise) employing a pinhole camera to shoot the interior of a .38 gunbarrel.
And of course, the legendary James Bond Theme.
Harry Saltzman had reportedly suggested putting “Underneath the Mango Tree” to open the film. However, Monty Norman, who was working on the music for the film, knew that that wouldn’t be appropriate. He had previously created a song “Good Sign, Bad Sign” for a musical, “A House for Mr. Biswas” It has the main musical note structure of the theme in place… They then handed the tune to Composer John Barry to arrange. Barry recorded using orchestral fanfare, interspersed by a jangling guitar riff with tons of echo that was reminiscent of the surf rock craze so in vogue at the time. The theme is perfect for Bond. The big blaring notes represent the action, and the slick guitar sounds dangerous, like a man on the lookout for trouble. It truly represents the spirit of the films perfectly.
It has become one of the most popular theme songs in film history. And it was in place from the first moment of the franchise.
“Dr. No” was a huge smash in the UK immediately upon release in 1962, in the US it wasn’t released until the spring of ’63. It grossed more than $20 million worldwide in its initial run. However, in the era prior to home viewing, theatrical re-releases were common. Dr No was re-released on multiple occasions (usually concurrent with new films in the franchise) until 1966, for an eventual theatrical cume of $59,600,000. That’s over $425 million, adjusted for inflation to today’s dollars.
“Dr. No” is a great film in its own right. It’s a classic spy film with tons of colofrul characters. But it also gave birth to one of the most succesful franchises in movie history. The 22 official Eon Production Bond films have spanned 50 years and have grossed more than $5 billion dollars worldwide. Almost all of the traits that we associate with Bond films – the girls, the villains, the clever quips, the unforgettable theme song, the dazzling sets – were in place right here, right at the very start. It not only spawned progeny that are still going strong today… its influence can still be felt in them.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.