In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll state at the outset that Ian Fleming’s Doctor No has always been my favorite James Bond book. I believe it was the first one my father gave me to read as a youth, and while I might not have known it at the time, the fact that it was also adapted into the first Bond film (its title abbreviated to Dr. No), also a lifelong favorite, didn’t hurt. Fleming was now firing on all cylinders after the impressive accomplishment of From Russia, with Love, and although that novel had a handful of splendid bad guys, he here created not only the first of two successive villains who were iconic enough to get books named after them, but also the woman who—at least as embodied by Ursula Andress onscreen—set the standard for future Bond girls.
As with its predecessor, it’s an interesting experience to revisit this book after having seen the film so many times, because once again, almost everything that’s in the novel made it onto the screen, and most of it faithfully enough that you see the movie in your head while you read. But this time, Eon Productions added a little more in the way of plot and characters, with one of the biggest retroactive surprises being the fact that Bond’s CIA pal, Felix Leiter (played by soon-to-be Hawaii Five-O star Jack Lord), isn’t in the novel at all! He was reportedly a holdover from an earlier plan to kick off the series with Thunderball, but his presence is largely logical in any case, as Dr. No is threatening an imminent U.S. moon shot, the British space program being a bit thin.
True to Fleming, Bond is issued a Walther PPK in place of the Beretta that jeopardized his prior mission (“You’re licensed to kill, not get killed,” M acidly observes) and sent to Jamaica after station chief Strangways and his secretary disappear, shot before making their daily report. Bond teams up with Cayman Islander Quarrel (John Kitzmuller)—introduced, with Strangways, in Live and Let Die—to investigate Dr. No, who has agents everywhere, including a freelance photographer (Marguerite Lewars) and a snooping secretary, Miss Taro (Zena Marshall). Bond is nearly killed by a critter in his bed (a poisonous centipede in the book and a more manageable tarantula in the film) before he and Quarrel sail to Dr. No’s island, Crab Key, where trespassing is usually fatal.
On both page and screen, they encounter shell-stealing wild child Honey Ryder (Andress), and the three are pursued through the swamp by Dr. No’s soldiers, who incinerate Quarrel with the “dragon”—in reality a converted marsh buggy—that patrols the island. The captured Bond and Honey are welcomed with lavish hospitality and bizarre courtesy by Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), a former Tong member with metal replacements for his missing hands, who is using a radio beam to “topple” American rockets and plans to eliminate the couple just as he does anybody else who gets in his way. Escaping from his cell through an apparent series of ventilation shafts, where he faces extreme heat and other hazards, Bond kills Dr. No, locates Honey, and beats a hasty retreat.
In the movie, Bond meets Quarrel and Leiter for the first time (the latter serving as a red herring when 007 arrives in Jamaica and is “taken for a ride” by a henchman who poisons himself rather than talk), and it is unclear whether he knew Strangways. In the book, Honey’s name is spelled “Rider”; she rises from the sea as naked as—and is compared with—Botticelli’s Venus, although one wonders how much more of an impact this would really have had than her white bikini, even if they could have gotten away with that in 1962, or in the ratings-conscious films that followed. The literary Dr. No has steel pincers instead of prosthetic hands, having lost his real ones as a punishment for raiding the Tong treasury to fund his endeavors, rather than in an atomic mishap.
In addition to Leiter, the screenwriters add the character of metallurgist Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson), who conceals from Bond the fact that the samples Strangways picked up on Crab Key were radioactive. Miss Taro’s role is expanded, allowing her to lure Bond into a trap; after 007 has bedded and had her arrested, Dent arrives to spring the trap and is shot by Bond, who utters the immortal line, “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six.” Fleming’s Dr. No dies in a shower of guano (!), rather than the pool of his overheating reactor, and his shafts constitute a true obstacle course that includes a cage of tarantulas, prefiguring 007’s cinematic visitor, and ends in a battle with a giant squid that would have been quite beyond the filmmakers’ resources.
Sean Connery is given one of the greatest entrances in screen history, with only his back or his hands visible at first while he plays chemin de fer—which I was relieved to learn is just a form of baccarat, since I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the difference between them—with Eunice Gayson. “I admire your courage, Miss…?” he says offscreen, and she responds, “Trench, Sylvia Trench. And I admire your luck, Mister…?” Then, choreographed with impeccable precision by director Terence Young, his face appears for the first time as he suavely lights a cigarette, Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme” (arranged and played by John Barry with his orchestra) is heard on the soundtrack, and Connery utters his signature line, “Bond, James Bond.” Ecstasy, ecstasy.
Fleming, who shared with 007 such traits as a naval and intelligence background, was writing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service at his Jamaica home, Goldeneye (which provided Pierce Brosnan’s Bond debut with its title), during location filming. Prior to the Eon deal, he had made numerous attempts to get Bond or a reasonable facsimile on the screen, and Doctor No was one of several books cannibalized from such efforts, in this case a television script known variously as James Gunn—Secret Agent and Commander Jamaica. Often said to resemble Bond himself, Young put his own indelible stamp on the films by taking Connery under his wing, selecting his tailor and polishing some of the rough edges—fortunately, not too many—from the Scots ex-body builder.
Half German and half Chinese, Dr. No is played with wintry menace by Wiseman, whose face is not shown for the first 87 of the film’s 110 minutes. Yet, as with Harry Lime in The Third Man (on which both Bernard Lee, who plays M, and future Bond director Guy Hamilton had worked) or Father Merrin in The Exorcist, he is a palpable presence throughout, despite his limited screen time. Other 007 regulars on board from Day One included screenwriter Richard Maibaum, here credited with Johanna Harwood and Berkely Mather; Lois Maxwell as M’s flirtatious secretary, Miss Moneypenny; cinematographer Ted Moore; editor Peter Hunt, whose fast-paced cutting techniques were innovative; production designer Ken Adam; and title designer Maurice Binder.
Many of the cast and crew came from producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli’s Warwick Films (a disagreement about the viability of a Bond series contributed to a split with partner Irving Allen, who later produced the Matt Helm films), while Harry Saltzman had been associated with Tony Richardson and John Osborne in another company, Woodfall. These sometimes uneasy partners formed Danjaq, derived from the first names of their wives, as a holding company for the Bond property and Eon to produce the films. After a deal with Warwick distributor Columbia Pictures fell through, United Artists—beloved by filmmakers for the autonomy they allowed—bankrolled Dr. No for $1 million, and its smashing success launched one of the cinema’s biggest franchises.
Addendum: Although the extras on the Dr. No DVD are commendable, there is one conspicuous error in the Inside Dr. No documentary, which asserts that Miss Taro did not appear in the novel.
Go to Goldfinger.