Spy movies had been popular for years of course. North by Northwest had been a huge hit for Alfred Hitchcock just three years earlier. The differences in style and approach between North by Northwest and Dr No really are startling. North by Northwest is full of implied sexuality but the sexual elements in Dr No are more overt. Bond bedding one of Dr No’s female agents is simply taken for granted - such casual sexual encounters treated quite openly were something new. The violence in Dr No might be tame by later standards but it’s much more overt than anything in Hitchcock’s film.
And Bond was a whole new type of movie spy. Prior to this villains were allowed to be ruthless but a ruthless killer as hero was something quite new. There’s a scene in which one of the bad guys is quite defenceless. His gun is out of ammo and Bond knows this, but Bond casually shoots him anyway, and then shoots him again to finish him off. Movie spy heroes simply didn’t do such things before Dr No.
There’s also the sense of outrageousness (which is present in the Bond novels) which was something new to the spy movie. Previous movie spies were usually tying to get their hands on secret documents or secret formulae but Dr No adds a new ingredient - an outlandish plot for world domination. Ian Fleming had been heavily influenced by Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels, which invariably involve a threat to Civilisation As We Know It, but spy movies hadn’t dealt very much with such ideas prior to the Bond movies.
And of course there’s the subtly tongue-in-cheek feel, which was another innovation in a spy movie.
There are a few changes from the novel but they’re mostly fairly minor. In the book Dr No’s fortune is based on guano harvesting - there’s a surprising amount of money in bird poo. In the film it’s bauxite mining. Dr No’s master plan is revealed earlier in the film, which is understandable because it immediately establishes that the movie is dealing with space-age technology. CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) is added to the story for no obvious reason other than perhaps to give the movie a more transatlantic feel. Honey’s bizarre backstory from the novel is dropped in favour of something more conventional.
The action finale is different. Fleming’s version is perhaps more fun but it would not have been sufficiently cinematic. The movie needed something more spectacular.
Overall however the plot is fairly close to that of the novel. Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of MI6’s Head of Station there. Bond has reason to think there’s a connection with odd happenings connected with the island of Crab Key, just to the north of Jamaica. And to the mysterious and secretive Dr No, the owner of that island.
With a Cayman Islander named Quarrel (who works for Felix Leiter) Bond sets off for Crab Key. Maybe he’ll get to see with Dr No’s dragon which has terrified all the locals so that they won’t go near the island.
And of course we have the celebrated iconic scene of Ursula Andress as Honey Rider, emerging from the sea. Not naked, as she is in the book, but definitely memorable in a bikini.
Bond and Honey do encounter the dragon, and they end up in Dr No’s vast secret headquarters. Dr No has plans for dealing with these interlopers. And Bond awaits his chance to turn the tables on Dr No, if he lives long enough.
Fleming’s Bond novels had changed the face of spy fiction, adding (by early 1950s standards) a lot more sex violence but also adding a hint of cruelty, and a great deal more glamour. It was fairly obvious to the producers that the movie adaptation of Dr No would have to do the same thing for the spy movie. It would have to redefine the genre. That process starts with Maurice Binder’s opening titles sequence (the first of many he would do for the Bond films) which immediately lets us know that this movie is going to be something new and exciting.
Terence Young’s approach as director, Peter Hunt’s approach to the editing and Ken Adam’s production design all reinforce the impression that this is a new kind of spy movie, faster and more viscerally exciting and more outrageous than anything seen before. And with a whole new type of spy hero, one who has no compunction about killing people in cold blood.
Sean Connery was an almost unknown and very raw actor but his rawness helps. It gives his performance a real edge. Bond can be smooth and sophisticated but he can be brutal and ruthless and Connery conveys both sides of Bond’s character with total conviction.
Dr No also established several precedents that would be followed not only by subsequent Bond movies but by countless imitations - the spectacular finale with lots of explosions and the elaborate secret headquarters of the Bond Villain. Interestingly in this film Bond doesn’t make use of any gadgets but Dr No’s headquarters has enough high technology to make up for this.
The budget was quite low but the movie looks like it cost four or five times as much as it did - it’s not how much money you have to spend, what matters is having the right people with the necessary talent and imagination. Later Bond movies would have much bigger budgets but they would still rely on talent and imagination.
Dr No was of course a major success. It was not just a terrific movie, it was a movie that was perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist of the 60s. In fact it helped to define that zeitgeist. You could argue that Dr No was the first truly 1960s movie.
It looks great on Blu-Ray. My copy is from the Blu-Ray boxed set which includes all the Bond movies up to and including Spectre. It cost me a hundred bucks, which for 24 Bond movies on Blu-Ray is pretty impressive value.
Dr No isn’t just a great spy movie, it’s one of the most influential spy movies of all time and it’s highly recommended.
I recently reviewed Fleming's Dr No novel on Vintage Pop Fictions.