To celebrate James Bond’s 50th birthday on screen, we’re going to take a look at the character and his films. We’ve already reviewed all the classic movies, so we’ll be looking at his iconic baddies, and even at the character himself.
In many ways, Dr. No feels like a rather strange first instalment for a franchise that has managed to persist from half a century. Many of the trademarks we associate with the series are absent. There’s no pre-credits sequence. No powerful theme song involving the title of the film. Even the music playing over that iconic gun barrel shot sounds weird. There are no gadgets and gizmos, save for a Geiger Counter. The movie’s iconic Bond girl, Honey Rider, only shows up past the mid-point of the film.
As such, it’s amazing that the Bond villain emerged almost fully formed, with Dr. No providing perhaps the archetypal James Bond baddie.
To be fair, Doctor Julius No barely appears in the first two-thirds of the film. He’s on-screen for about twenty-minutes of a two-hour film. In that respect, he’s quite like Doctor Hannibal Lector from The Silence of the Lambs, in that he seems to cast a long shadow over the film around him. While not quite as iconic as that scene where Ursela Andress emerges from the water, Doctor No is still a massively recognisable pop-culture figure, and he goes in for a lot of the trappings we’d come to expect from generations of Bond villains who followed.
Unlike the other elements of the franchise that seemed to develop over the subsequent two films (From Russia With Love and Goldfinger), Doctor Julius No seems to check off the vast majority of items on the massive Bond villain checklist. He has the snazzy secret lair, with set design by the wonderful Ken Adams. He has three novelty henchmen, the “three blind mice” who get their own themesong, despite not featuring too heavily in the film. He has a massive chip on his shoulder, incredible resources and a plan to upset the global balance of power. Not bad for a guy who is barely in the film, eh?
Joseph Wiseman’s portrayal is actually pitched perfectly. He plays Julius No as a character simmering with ego and pride. A very petty man who has happened to become very powerful. The writer Kingsley Amis, the first scholar to treat Fleming’s writing as legitimate literature, has very convincingly argued that many of the best Bond villains evoke a stern father figure for Bond to rebel against. Consider this piece of dialogue from Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale:
“My dear boy,” Le Chiffre spoke like a father, “the game of Red Indians is over, quite over. You have stumbled by mischance into a game for grown-ups and you have already found it a painful experience. You are not equipped, my dear boy, to play games with adults and it was very foolish of your nanny in London to have sent you out here with your spade and bucket.”
I couldn’t help but think back to it when I first saw Javier Bardem boasting to a captive Bond in the Skyfall trailer. “She sent you after me knowing you were not ready and you will likely die,” the latest villain remarks of M. “Mommy was very bad.”
I agree with Amis to a large extent when it comes to Bond villains. However, I think there’s a rather seismic cultural shift between Fleming’s books and the films in question, if only because they reflect different times. I’d argue, for example, that many of the more modern Bond villains embody the opposite dynamic. Bond is no longer the rebellious youth responding to an older self-appointed authority.
Instead, many of the mid- and late-series instalments see Bond acting as a stern father figure charged with punishing young turks upsetting the established order, sorting them out for daring to step out of line. I am thinking, of course, of characters like Max Zorin or Franz Sanchez, both characters who weren’t created by Bond. (I also think that it applies to Gert Forbe’s rather wonderful Goldfinger.) Still, the film version of Doctor No supports Amis’ theory almost perfectly.
It is worth noting that Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood and Berkely Mather’s script actually did a lot of work with the character. The character in Ian Fleming’s Dr. No resembles the villain, but is very clearly even more of a Fu Manchu archetype:
Bond’s first impression was of thinness and erectness and height. Doctor No was at least six inches taller than Bond, but the straight immovable poise of his body made him seem still taller. The head also was elongated and tapered from a round, completely bald skull down to a sharp chin so that the impression was of a reversed raindrop–or rather oildrop, for the skin was of a deep almost translucent yellow.
It was impossible to tell Doctor No’s age: as far as Bond could see, there were no lines on the face. It was odd to see a forehead as smooth as the top of the polished skull. Even the cavernous indrawn cheeks below the prominent cheekbones looked as smooth as fine ivory. There was something Daliesque about the eyebrows, which were fine and black,and sharply upswept as if they had been painted on as makeup for a conjurer. Below them,slanting jet black eyes stared out of the skull. They were without eyelashes. They looked like the mouths of two small revolvers, direct and unblinking and totally devoid of expression. The thin fine nose ended very close above a wide compressed wound of a mouth which, despite its almost permanent sketch of a smile, showed only cruelty and authority. The chin was indrawn towards the neck. Later Bond was to notice that it rarely moved more than slightly away from centre, giving the impression that the head and the vertebra were in one piece.
The bizarre, gliding figure looked like a giant venomous-worm wrapped in grey tin-foil, and Bond would not have been surprised to see the rest of it trailing slimily along the carpet behind.
The original draft of the script featured Dr. No as a monkey. While the version that made it to screen isn’t quite as radical a departure from the source material, he’s still very much an evolved iteration of the character. The film retains several key details, many of which are typical of Fleming’s bad guys. The most obvious is the physical deformity that Fleming uses to reflect his villains’ warped natures. Blofeld has his scar. Largo is missing an eye. Dr. No lost his hands. In the novel, they are replaced with blades. Here they are merely crude mechanical replacements, perhaps an acknowledgement that science is marching on.
Fleming also suggests makes a point to question Julius No’s parentage, playing into the series’ questions of class. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would see Blofeld trying to pass himself off as an upper-class gentleman. Goldfinger would mock the crass nouvelle rich. Here, No confesses to being the “unwanted child of a German missionary and a Chinese girl of a good family.” It’s such the perfect encapsulation of the typical Bond villain origin that Doctor Evil even expressly parodied it in Austin Powers:
The details of my life are quite inconsequential… very well, where do I begin? My father was a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery. My mother was a fifteen year old French prostitute named Chloe with webbed feet. My father would womanize, he would drink. He would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark. Sometimes he would accuse chestnuts of being lazy. The sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament.
Still, this iteration of the character feels more like an evolution of the Fu Manchu archetype for the second half of the twentieth century. Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen would suggest that Julius No was a direct descendent of Fu Manchu, and it’s a very astute observation.
However, despite that, the film presents Dr. No as a strong paternal figure, to the point where his influence is felt long before he is seen. In our first direct encounter, we don’t even see him. We hear his voice directing his minions. We’re told that he never leaves his island, and yet his influence is keenly felt. His agent confesses, “Bond came to see me this morning.” The voice responds, instantly, “Yes I know.”
Later on, over dinner, Bond tries to bluff. He claims that he has back-up on its way, after radioing in the details of the good doctor’s operations. Doctor No smoothly responds, “You’ve not contacted your headquarters since you requested a Geiger counter.” He’s astute, and keenly aware. Over dinner, he solemnly advises his captive, “Clumsy effort, Mr. Bond. You disappoint me. I’m not a fool, so please don’t treat me as one. And that table knife, please put it back.”
Even before Bond and Honey encounter Doctor No, we’re informed that he’s been planning this for quite a while. In many respects, he seems far more competent than his successors. Bond arrives in his accommodation to find that they’ve been expecting him. “Come in… you poor dears. We simply didn’t know when to expect you. First it was teatime yesterday, and then dinner. It was only half an hour ago we knew you were on your way.” Even the stern father figure, he’s taken the liberty of arranging their meals and sending them to bed. “Of course, you’ll be wanting to see your rooms. Breakfast is already ordered and then you’ll want to sleep.” He even drugs them so they’ll be well rested for the conversation over dinner.
Now Bond and Honey are subjected to another great Bond villain tradition that owes a lot to Julius No. As Kingsley Amis comments:
Three of Mr Fleming’s favourite situations are about to come up one after the other. Bond is to be wined and dined, lectured on the aesthetics of power, and finally tortured by his chief enemy.
The movie does skimp a bit on the torture. Even Fleming would eventually soften on it a bit after the reviewers kept bringing it up.
It’s also interesting that – unlike so many Bond villains – Dr. No has managed to keep under the radar, despite a name like “Dr. No”, a mysterious island and the fact that American missiles are being shot down. Like so many villains in the sixties and seventies, Julius No has a fixation on the space race. Reflecting something topical at the time the film came out, it’s still a nice reflection of the patriarchal nature of the character, as he literally seeks to put a ceiling on the human race’s expansion.
“I’ve heard some funny rumours,” British consulate observes of the scientist’s island. “But no one’s ever complained officially.” Even the investigation officer Strangway seems somewhat oblivious to the curiosity he’s investigating. I love the bit of irony as he leaves his bridge game for the daily check-in, advising his friends, “And don’t doctor any hands for me while I’m away.” He’s a character who inspires such fierce devotion in his subjects that they refuse to talk, even when coerced. As Bond wonders at one point, “One takes cyanide, another would have let her arm be broken. Neither would talk. Who puts that scare into people?”
Naturally, the villain has the typical flaws that come with that sort of power. He demonstrates, to a lesser extent, the same sorts of character quirks that we’d see more fully realised in Goldfinger. Dr. No is proud, and arrogant. His first line to Bond seems intended to convince Bond of his legitimacy, and demand Bond’s respect. “One million dollars, Mister Bond,” he states about his fish tank, bluntly, not even introducing himself. “You were wondering what it cost.” Without a hint of even false modesty, he describes the aquarium, “A unique feat of engineering, if I may say so. I designed it myself.”
Bond jokes that the magnification of the fish reflects Dr. No’s magnification of his own self-image, and he’s not far wrong. Julius No seems to invite Bond to his lair so that he might impress Bond with his intelligence and sophistication, playing the part of a cultured gentleman with his stolen famous paintings and his exclusive wine. He warns Bond that it would be a shame to waste the wine, but it seems impossible for Julius No to even open the bottle with his hands reduced to those imprecise replacements.
His affectations of taste or class are nothing more, as demonstrated by his treatment of Honey Rider. Bond is marked by his sympathy towards her, while No has no empathy whatsoever. “I’m sure the guards will amuse her,” he comments indifferently as they drag her off. The obvious undertone is less than subtle. Of course, it doesn’t matter to the villain. He attempts to recruit Bond to his operation not because he’s an intellectual equal, but because he’s “less stupid” than those around him. Dr. No’s revenge against the West is motivated by the fact they declined to hire him as an energy expert.
Bond shrewdly recognises the doctor’s insecurity, and makes several decidedly petty remarks to hit No’s nerves, including the classic, “Tell me, does the toppling of American missiles really compensate for having no hands?” It’s less-than-subtle, but it’s perfectly spot-on. I think that Bond’s interaction with Dr. No is one of the most archetypal hero-villain dynamics in the entire series, and one that definitely involves the rest of the film series.
Dr. No as a film, feels like a bit of a dry-run for the series that followed, but its villain emerges surprisingly fully-formed, setting a template that the vast majority of Bond baddies find themselves playing up to or against. Given his limited screentime and the fact that he was really among the first villains of that type, it’s quite remarkable. It’s certainly one of the reasons I am quite fond of the character.
You might be interested in our other Bond villain character studies:
- Doctor Julius No (Dr. No)
- Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger)
- Ernst Stavro Blofeld (You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever)
- Francisco Scaramanga (The Man With The Golden Gun)
- Aristotle “Aris” Kristatos (For Your Eyes Only)
- Max Zorin (A View to a Kill)
- Franz Sanchez (Licence to Kill)
- Alec Trevelyan (GoldenEye)
- Elektra King (The World Is Not Enough)
- Le Chiffre (Casino Royale)