Ken Adam and Dr No

The casino in Dr No, seen at the film’s opening when we hear for the first time ‘…Bond, James Bond.’

Ken Adam is synonymous with James Bond but in fact he only designed seven of the films; Dr. No (1962), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). Even in that early sequence he missed out on From Russia With Love, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In part this was, he once said, because there were times when he needed a break from Bond so that his creative juices could be recharged.

The tarantula room, a design that was echoed in No Time To Die

In this first Bond film Adam created a unique visual style which defined the series perhaps best described as the use of exaggerated space. Early on this is seen, for example, in Dr No, by the so-called Tarantula Room, where Dent was told to kill Bond by planting a tarantula in Bond’s hotel room.

When it came to the villain’s lair he was an exponent of heightened reality rather than a real-life look – something that was in direct contrast to the rather mundane world of M and, though rarely seen, Bond’s flat. In all the films, the lair had to be intimidating, convey the sense of power, and present the villain as potentially the equal of Bond. He was never going to be a push over. At the same time they often used cues that suggested that the villain was a ‘loner.’

Yet the Bond films almost didn’t happen for Adam. After he read the initial treatment for Dr No, he failed to be impressed. Nor was his wife. ‘You can’t possibly do this,’ he recalls his wife, Maria Letizia, protesting at the time. ‘You would prostitute yourself.’ Even the producer ‘Cubby” Broccoli described his own films before Bond as ‘profitable crap’. In the end, Adam agreed, ‘So you could say it all started for me with Dr No and [director] Terence Young . It was the first Bond and it was low-budget stuff and I had nobody who was standing behind me looking over my shoulder – they were all in Jamaica filming.’

‘I was sitting in Pinewood and I had to fill three stages with sets, so I just went ahead. And they arrived on the Thursday and they had to start filming on the Monday and if they hadn’t liked it, it would have been a disaster. But Terence said he loved it, because nobody had quite done film sets like that before and once I won Terence over, the two producers Cubby [Broccoli] and Harry [Salzman] were on side and then everyone loved it. And that helped me enormously, with my confidence.’

‘After we encounter Dr. No – his voice anyway – on the island of Crab Key, I adopted a slightly tongue-in-cheek, slightly ahead-of-contemporary approach: the mixture of antique and modern in his underground apartment, with the Goya Wellington portrait propped on the couch and a magnified aquarium in the stone wall.’

As is reasonably well-known Goya’s Wellington was an in-joke. Connery’s James Bond and Bond girl Honey Ryder have been captured. As Dr. Julius No takes them to dinner, for a moment the camera pauses on the painting. As does Bond who recognises it as the painting that had been stolen from London’s National Gallery a year previously. (According to director Terence Young, the idea for the stolen painting came from the film’s co-screenwriter Johanna Harwood.)

Dr No’s underwater apartment combined what was then an emerging mid-century style which, for most people, would not be something they would be familiar with and hence had a hint of the future, along with a smattering of antiques that in truth was the standard decor used in films and TV to denote taste and money. The avant garde is suggested by the use of rocks framing a magnificent aquarium, and a real tree (albeit one with no leaves) in the room’s middle. The aquarium was a fake as it used stock footage projected onto a screen. This came with a problem: the footage featured extreme close-ups of fish, and hence a quick script rewrite had Julius No explain that the glass worked as a magnifying glass.

The film also featured a nuclear water reactor in a laboratory designed with angular slanting columns and futuristic consoles, and which took up over 18,000 square feet. Geometrical architectural forms were to become a common motif in Adam’s designs, often accentuated by the set’s lighting.

The lab’s design was checked by scientists from the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Oxfordshire, who also supplied scientific equipment said to have been worth close to £100,000. ‘I knew nothing about reactors! And it had to work. Even though we didn’t use radioactive material … It was really frightening, actually! We knew so little about it.’

The reactor and control room.

What we see with Adam’s designs are that they are not backdrops to the action but integral to creating the essence of the film.

Come the end of filming Dr No, Adam had overspent his budget but the producers in this instance did not quibble and actually used their own money – or at least a share of future profits – to bridge the gap. His budget in old money was originally £14,500 but eventually he had spent £21,000, and while the producers didn’t worry, Film Finances – who were underpinning the cost of the movie by providing a completion bond – had greater concerns. In the end, Film Finances said they would not force repayment of the set overruns but in return, Danjaq SA, the holding company for Eon Productions, agreed on April 10, 1962 to grant five percent of Dr. No’s profits to Film Finances.

Even so, some of the scenery was done on the cheap with M’s office using cardboard paintings and a door covered in a leather-like plastic rathe than the real thing. This also happened to be the first scene shot back in Pinewood when the crew returned from Jamaica. Shot on Monday, February 26, 1962, this first take was Slate 310 at 11:25 a.m. on Stage D.

‘The budget for Dr. No was under US$1m for the whole picture. My budget was £14,500. I filled three stages at Pinewood full of sets while they were filming in Jamaica. It wasn’t a real aquarium in Dr. No’s apartment. It was a disaster to tell you the truth because we had so little money. We decided to use a rear-projection screen and get some stock footage of fish. What we didn’t realize was because we didn’t have much money the only stock footage they could buy was of goldfish-sized fish, so we had to blow up the size and put a line in the dialogue with Bond talking about the magnification. I didn’t see any reason why Dr. No shouldn’t have good taste so we mixed contemporary furniture and antiques. We thought it would be fun for him to have some stolen art so we used Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, which was still missing at the time. I got hold of a slide from the National Gallery…and I painted a Goya over the weekend. It was pretty good so they used it for publicity purposes but, just like the real one, it got stolen while it was on display.’

With Bond, though, Adam was always innovating. “What people don’t realize today is that our principal on the first Bonds was to be real. Even things that I had nothing to do with like the jet pack in ‘Thunderball’ were real. And sure, the [‘You Only Live Twice’] volcano, I could’ve built parts of it with models, but to see hundreds of stuntmen coming in on ropes and to see actual helicopters flying in added a dimension that was real. Today, they are all done by computer and nothing is left. What is that?”

And the last word:

‘…if they (Salzman and Broccoli) hadn’t liked my work I would have been in serious trouble. But as it was Terence was the first one who said it was quite brilliant…Then the producers sort of reluctantly agreed. They possibly saw I am going to ask them for more money. It really started a very free sort of debate by every member from the prop man to the cameraman of the film unit…Everybody came up with ideas, some good, some not so good…’

Dr No’s guest room.

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All images courtesy of the Ken Adam Archive and Deutsche Kinemathek.