You know the name. Remembering where it all began for the irrepressible 007
The spy thriller is a film genre that goes back a long way. Before good-looking intrepid secret agents trieD to foil the plans of terrorists with spectacular gadgets and death-defying stunts, even before the Cold War made the game of international espionage glamourous and sexy, there was the simple spy. Dressed in a long trench coat, fedora pulled down over his brow, probably lurking in some dark alley or even hiding in a plain sight as he stalked his prey. He was usually armed with little more than a small pistol, maybe a camera, and a seemingly endless supply of cigarettes. And it wasn’t always a man. Women could be spies, too. In fact, the women were maybe even more effective since they could use their charms on weak men who were easily distracted by such things.
In the 1930s and 40s, the subject matter of spy thrillers revolved mostly around combating the Nazis. Sabotage, cracking codes, stealing secrets, that sort of thing. After World War II, the Soviets became the bad guys, with an occasional long-mustachioed Asian stereotype thrown in for good measure. The bad guys were usually suave and sophisticated, several steps ahead of the law, and resolutely dedicated to a purpose at odds with the goals and beliefs of the free world. The spy who dared go into the lair of the evil genius risked death in a variety of ways, faced high stakes, and had us on the edge of our seats wondering if he or she would get caught or if they would inevitably save the day.
The early master of pulling all these elements together in his work was Alfred Hitchcock. Known for directing taut thrillers, Hitchcock sometimes dabbled in the espionage game with splendid results. The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Saboteur, Notorious, and of course, North by Northwest are all considered classics of the genre. Ideologically pure Nazis and commies, cases of mistaken identity, sneaking around in the shadows, vile villains, and gorgeous dames—Hitchcock checked every box on the spy thriller movie list. Aside from Hitchcock, though, most of the spy thrillers produced in the 1950s were forgettable efforts, capitalizing on Cold War headlines and hysteria and featuring two dimensional heroes battling one-dimensional villains.
It was during this time that Ian Fleming, a retired World War II British intelligence officer, started putting out a series of sharply written novels and stories featuring the exploits of a British secret agent carrying out the Cold War in the shadows. Fleming grew up in a respected British family and spent much of his early adulthood bouncing around wooing married women and failing at jobs in the banking industry. When World War II came, Fleming joined the Royal Navy and became part of its intelligence directorate. He was associated with some major intelligence operations, including cracking the German diplomatic code which would have a major impact on the outcome of the war.
M: Take off your jacket. Give me your gun. Yes, I thought so. This damned Beretta again. I told you about this before. You tell him. For the last time.
Major Boothroyd: Nice and light in a lady’s handbag. No stopping power.
M: Any comments, 007?
Bond: I disagree, sir. I’ve used the Beretta for ten years. I’ve never missed with it yet.
M: Maybe not. But it jammed on you last year, and you spent six months in hospital in consequence. If you carry a Double-O number, it means your licensed to kill, not get killed. You’ll carry the Walther, unless of course you want to go back to standard intelligence duties.
Bond: No, sir, I would not.
M: Then from now on you’ll carry a different gun. Show him, Armorer.
Major Boothroyd: Walther PPK, 7.65 mil with a delivery like a brick through a plate glass window. Takes a Brausch silencer with very little reduction in muzzle velocity. The American CIA swear by them.
After the war, Fleming went to work for the Sunday Times of London, managing its worldwide correspondents. He bought an estate in Jamaica, which he made his vacation home. Named Goldeneye after an intelligence operation Fleming developed during the war, this retreat was where he worked on his own writing. In 1952, he published Casino Royale, an espionage thriller that featured a hard-drinking, womanizing, dispassionate British secret service agent named James Bond. Bond worked for MI6, and his designation was 007. In the world that Fleming created, the Double-Os were the elite of British intelligence, carrying a license to kill either at the behest of their superiors or if they determined that the successful completion of their mission required it. Fleming freely embellished his own experiences and those of his comrades in World War II, adding layers of action and style to spice up the work. In real life, the name James Bond belonged to an ornithology expert whose book on birds was in Fleming’s library.
Publishers weren’t very interested in Casino Royale initially. It was mostly due to Fleming’s connections and the help of his brother, already an established author, that the book ever saw print. But once it hit the stands, booksellers couldn’t keep it in stock. Casino Royale became a bestseller, and more Bond books followed. Fleming’s creation became a literary phenomenon, and he put out a new best-seller every year.
The success of James Bond couldn’t be confined to print for long. In 1954, American television network CBS produced a one-hour adaptation of Casino Royale. It kept most of the same beats of the original story, save for the cringe-worthy moment when Bond is called “Jim” by another character. The TV adaptation of Casino Royale came and went and was quickly forgotten. Then along came Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.
Broccoli and Saltzman were two successful film producers who had just split from previous partnerships and were looking for new material. They acquired the rights to the James Bond catalogue of books and formed EON Productions (which supposedly means “Everything or Nothing,” though the proprietors never admitted to this) to produce the Bond films, and Danjaq to maintain the lucrative franchise rights.
American film studios were wary of producing a film with a British hero. United Artists saw promise in the property, though, and agreed to make a James Bond film. But which one? By 1961, when the deal was signed, there were already nine Bond novels in print. Thunderball was the most recent title on the shelves, but Dr. No seemed timelier because its subject matter reflected the growing space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In casting the man who would play James Bond, Broccoli and Saltzman originally went after big names like Cary Grant and David Niven, but neither would commit to doing more than one film. Eventually, they settled on Sean Connery, an actor who had performed in his fair share of roles but had yet to become a household name. Connery was considered too “working class” for the role of the suave secret agent, but after some dialogue coaching and a couple of pointers on etiquette, he signed a five-picture deal with EON Productions.
Broccoli hired the accomplished screenwriter and director Terence Young to helm Dr. No, based in part on their previous work together and the fact that Young embodied some of the qualities of the character of Bond. Young was a classy guy, as sophisticated as they come. He loved fine clothing, fast cars, good liquor, and he put this stamp on the Bond franchise. Fleming, who was also a connoisseur of the finer things in life, infused Bond with similar qualities and approved of Young’s approach to the character. Many people on set, including the producers, would jokingly say that Young was James Bond. The look and tone he established for the film would become a guide for all the Bond films that followed, and Dr. No is replete with moments and characters that would become indelible parts of the Bond franchise over the years.
It all starts with a stylized opening title sequence that we’ve come to know by heart. Looking down from inside the barrel of a gun we see a man walking across our view. At the last moment, he turns and fires at us. The POV turns red, wobbles from side to side, then drops down into the bottom right corner. It is here where the brash “James Bond Theme” kicks in, quickly followed by Maurice Binder’s dazzling and colorful animated title sequence that was unique for its time and would become a mainstay in the Bond franchise. In fact, for the hardcore Bond collector, there is even a video collection that strings together all the title sequences from all the films. It’s better viewed on YouTube, though, rather than purchased, since you would need to buy a new copy every two to four years.
The introduction of James Bond would itself become one of the most iconic moments in the franchise and in all of movie history. We first come across him at the baccarat table of a posh London casino matching wits and big bets with the lovely Sylvia Trench. We don’t see his face, only his hands as he holds the winning cards that send her reaching for her bankbook. When she inquires as to his name, the camera pans up and reveals Connery’s chiseled features. “Bond. James Bond.” Without even realizing it, we instantly believe he is who he says he is. When the promotional spots used to say, “Sean Connery is James Bond,” they weren’t kidding.
Dr. No sets up many moments and tropes that became mainstays in the franchise over the years, the briefing at headquarters among them. Bond reports to the offices of Universal Exports, which is the front company MI6 uses to send its agents all over the world. He casually tosses his hat on the hat rack, then flirts with the secretary, Miss Moneypenny, played by Lois Maxwell in 14 consecutive films. It’s never clear if their repartee would actually go anywhere, because they are always interrupted by M, played by Bernard Lee in every Bond film through Moonraker. M is unmistakably the boss. He doesn’t have a sense of humor, and he lives a life of immutable punctuality and detail, good qualities if you are going to be running Great Britain’s secret service. His role is to fill in 007 on his mission (M never, ever calls Bond by name), then get annoyed at how unusually knowledgeable he seems to be about every subject, and get even more annoyed at 007’s flippant attitude.
The specific mission in Dr. No has to do with uncovering the mysterious disappearance of an MI6 operative in Jamaica who was investigating strange goings-on related to recent troubles the Americans are having getting their space rockets off the ground. Before Bond is sent off, he is called upon to surrender his Beretta. He and M are joined by Major Boothroyd from the Armor Department. Named after a real-life firearms expert named Geoffrey Boothroyd, the character (played here for the only time by Peter Burton) will later be better known as Q (Quartermaster). He casts a snide comment about Bond’s Beretta being nice and light for a lady’s handbag with no stopping power. After that insult, Boothroyd provides him with a Walther PPK. 007 still uses that gun to this day.
The story follows some tight twists and turns, with mysterious henchmen trying to do in our hero with guns, tarantulas, and reckless driving. Along the way, Bond is aided by CIA agent Felix Leiter, a character who will pop in and out of the franchise over the years, but played this one time by actor Jack Lord. Together, the two men piece together that the American rockets are being “toppled” (knocked off course) by a radio beam that appears to be emanating from Crab Key, an island owned by the reclusive Dr. No. Yes, the very same No the movie is named after.
Bond makes his way to Crab Key, where he discovers the source of the nefarious radio beam, but more importantly he also meets Honey Rider, played by Swiss actress Ursula Andress. Rising up out of the surf, with golden skin and wearing a white bikini with a knife on her belt, Honey burns into our collective conscious the image of the first and perhaps most iconic Bond Girl in cinema history. Bond Girls would become integral to the franchise over the years, with dozens of beautiful women playing roles that would launch careers, fill many a page in Playboy magazine, inspire fashions, and incite more than a few protests over the objectification of women in film. Fleming was so smitten by Andress when he met her on the set of Dr. No., he mentioned her by name in his next novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, published in 1963.
Bond and Honey are captured and taken to the stylish post-modern secret lair of Dr. No. The look of the villain’s headquarters is one that would resonate on other Bond films throughout the years. In fact, the more megalomaniacal the villain, the more magnificent his lair. No, who aside from being a sociopathic megalomaniac, is also an astute art collector. Among his impressive collection is Goya’s “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington.” In the real world, this painting had been stolen in 1961. If you had been following the headlines at the time Dr. No was released, you would have caught the clever joke insinuating that it was Dr. No who stole the painting, which wasn’t recovered until 1965.
Bond: With your disregard for human life, you must be working for the East.
Dr. No: East, West, just points of the compass, each as stupid as the other. I’m a member of SPECTRE. Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion. The four great cornerstones of power headed by the greatest brains in the world.
Bond: Correction. Criminal brains.
Dr. No: The successful criminal brain is always superior. It has to be.
Bond: Why become criminal? I’m sure the West would welcome a scientist of your caliber.
Dr. No: The Americans are fools. I offered my services, they refused. So did the East. Now they can both pay for their mistake.
Bond: World domination. That same old dream. Our asylums are full of people who think they’re Napoleon or God.
Dr. No is played with quiet menace by Joseph Wiseman with the help of some prosthetic makeup to make him look more Asian. (Yes, this was that time when it was preferable to make actors look Asian rather than hire Asian actors.) Rumor has it Fleming was pushing for Christopher Lee, who was actually his step-cousin, but Lee wouldn’t get his chance to join the iconic Bond villain roster until The Man with the Golden Gun in 1975. Wiseman makes quite an impression as the first Bond villain, with a knack for working with nuclear power and two powerful metal pincers at the ends of his arms because his hands were destroyed due to radiation exposure. Okay, so maybe his nuclear know-how is a little overstated. The bad Doctor readily admits to being behind the toppling of American missiles, and that he works for SPECTRE, the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Revenge, and Extortion. This organization is new to Bond, but he will certainly hear more from them in the years to come.
Bond and Honey are each sent to their doom, but Bond escapes. He infiltrates the reactor control room as Dr. No and his men get ready to topple an American rocket that is moments from launch. Bond sabotages the reactor and chaos ensues. Everyone flees for their lives while Bond and Dr. No engage in hand-to-claw combat. Bond gets the better of the villain, who can’t keep from slipping into the boiling reactor pool because of his clumsy metal claws. Cutting through the chaos, Bond rescues Honey and they leave the burning island on a boat built for two. Mission explosively accomplished.
Dr. No was released to the world on October 5, 1962, and it was a major hit in Great Britain and Europe. America took a little while to warm up to the film. Few Americans knew who James Bond was, and United Artists launched an ad campaign months in advance of the American release to raise awareness. The film drew solid box office in the U.S., and it would be re-released multiple times to large audiences throughout the decade as part of a continuous campaign to stir interest for the next Bond film’s release.
EON Productions struck gold. James Bond was a hit and already having an impact on popular culture. The music found commercial success on the radio and the album charts, with the full soundtrack by John Barry and the “James Bond Theme” single by Monty Norman both selling briskly. Music would become an important feature of the Bond films, with Barry composing 11 more Bond scores and popular artists performing hit singles again and again. A bikini modeled after the one Honey wore in the film (minus the knife) became a popular seller, and licensing deals with various high-end consumer products that might be associated with James Bond kept 007 in the public consciousness. President John F. Kennedy, a professed Bond fan, requested a screening of Dr. No at the White House. This inspired Broccoli and Saltzman to choose From Russia with Love as their next Bond film because it was rumored to be Kennedy’s favorite Bond tale.
James Bond will return.