by Andrew Galvin
Le Cercle casino, London. The camera moves steadily towards a beautiful woman in a red dress playing blackjack. She confidently plays a hand. Everyone at the table folds, except one handsome, mysterious man facing her. He plays too and beats her. They play again, and she’s beaten.
The woman looks her opponent up and down, “I admire your luck, Mr...?”
The man lifts his cigarette to his mouth, lighting it. His face is fully visible for the first time. “Bond,” he says, snapping shut his lighter, “James Bond.”
As introductions to cinematic icons go, it takes some beating. In October 1962, Dr No shook the film world with its fast pace, gritty violence, beautiful women and exotic locations. In short, Dr No invented the modern action thriller as we know it.
Commander James Bond of British Intelligence was born nearly a decade earlier, when 41-year-old journalist and naval intelligence veteran Ian Fleming sat down to write “the ultimate spy novel”. The result was Casino Royale, an international best seller in 1953. Now, the appeal of a James Bond film series seems obvious: pulpy, fast-paced, and with a structure designed to keep you reading, it’s almost comic book style infused with wit, style and exoticism, but James Bond’s route to the screen wasn’t as easy as you might expect...
Bond’s first appearance was pretty inauspicious for a start. Heard the one about Bob Holness being the first person to play Bond? Well, it’s not quite true. In 1954, American TV network CBS produced an adaptation of Casino Royale, with MI5 swapped with the CIA. Barry Nelson got to the part first, playing American agent Jimmy Bond. They’d never get away with it now.
It was a minor flop with audiences and was quickly forgotten. It would take two American producers to give Bond another chance for his licence to kill the movie world.
While in London searching for new projects, producer Albert R “Cubby” Broccoli picked up several of Fleming’s books, instantly falling in love with the idea of getting the character onto the screen. While caring for his ailing first wife in New York, Cubby set up a meeting between Fleming and his production partner Irving Allen. It was a disaster, with Fleming informed that his books weren’t even good enough for television. Months later, Broccoli and Allen parted ways.
Later in the 60s, Cubby revealed to a friend that he was desperate to do the Bond films. Fortunately, the friend knew the man with the rights, another American producer called Harry Saltzman. The pair met, and almost immediately decided to form a partnership. United Artists’ president David Picker agreed to fund the project in a meeting lasting less than an hour.
“Saltzman and Broccoli understood the Bond books,” Picker told an interviewer in 1999. “They understood the films that we hoped they’d make. And they made them.”Dr No was chosen as the first film because, according to Picker, it was the easiest to film and the most accessible introduction to Bond’s world.
With funding and a director secured in the form of suave Brit Terrance Young, the next challenge was to find their Bond. Big names were mentioned from the start: according to Broccoli’s second wife Dana, Cary Grant was frontrunner: “But Cubby knew if he asked Cary to do it, it would be a one film deal, then he would have to start all over again.” Saltzman meanwhile campaigned for an unknown named Roger Moore, but he was considered too boyish for the role at that time.
Over in California, Cubby found himself chatting to Lana Turner at a party, and she introduced him to a former Scottish milkman by the name of Sean Connery. Cubby was struck by this handsome young man, but Saltzman and Picker were less convinced after an audition saw Connery described as “the richest kid in the poor house”. Saltzman was more impressed over time: “I liked the way he moved, and he had a lot of acting experience. But he moves extremely well,” he told an interviewer in 1962.
The rest of the cast quickly fell into place: Lois Maxwell and Bernard Lee were installed as series regulars Miss Moneypenny and M. Ian Fleming wanted his friend Noel Coward for the villainous role (his reply was a curt, “Dr No? No, No, No!”), which was eventually won by Joseph Wiseman. A photograph is all it took to cast avenging angel Honey Ryder, played by Swedish actress Ursula Andress, whose emergence from the sea, bikini-clad, would be beloved and parodied for generations.
Filmed mainly in Jamaica, Dr No lacks much of the globetrotting of later Bond films and, unusually, sticks pretty close to the source material (a sequence in which Bond fights a giant squid is, mercifully, cut). In the film, Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of MI6 agent Strangeways. When there, he stumbles across Asian-German terrorist Dr No, and his evil scheme to destroy American space shuttles after launch.
Dr No had a lower budget and faster pace than action films before it, and was a genuine breath of fresh air in a grey post-war Britain dominated to black and white kitchen sink dramas. But not everyone was convinced by the exotic Jamaican adventure. Studio bosses were unimpressed, while, in his book “Sean Connery: Neither Shaken Nor Stirred”, Andrew Yule quotes Ursulla Andress as calling the film a “crappy thriller”, and that she thought it was “ghastly”.
All worries were set aside though when the film became a modest worldwide hit. Bond would be bigger, but this was a good start.
Of course the real winner from Dr No was Sean Connery, still one of the most handsome men to ever grace the screen. In a later interview, his director Young was quick to compliment the Scottish actor saying, “If I was asked what the three key elements to a Bond film are, I’d say Sean Connery, Sean Connery, Sean Connery.” As the film series continued over the next three years, he was to become the film equivalent of The Beatles: a British personality who created pandemonium and screaming wherever he went.
Dr No might have aged, with plot holes you could drive an Aston Martin through, but it was exciting and new, and set up a template that is still going fifty years on. Can it continue? We’ll have to see in October, when Daniel Craig and James Bond return in the 23rd adventure, Skyfall...