After having switched actors to play the part of James Bond for the previous entry in the series, the producers were concerned that the series was falling out of favour with audiences, and wanted to reignite the spark at the box office. They wanted to go back to the formula that had been so successful for movies like Goldfinger and Thunderball. The problem was finding someone to fill in the shoes of Sean Connery.
Back to basics
Having gone with an unknown, and inexperienced actor like they had for the previous movie, hadn’t really worked out for the producers. It didn’t help the grounded, realistic, and somewhat gritty approach that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had taken. In order to be more faithful to the source material and present a more adult movie, Peter Hunt had kind of walked away from everything that had made the Bond movies so successful; the outlandish plots, larger-than-life, and highly charismatic villains, and the gadgets that got Bond out of any kind of sticky situation over, and over again. The public wasn’t ready for that yet. Martin Campbell would successfully pull it off years later, but the mindset, and the era, were completely different back then. And even though the movie did make money, the producers wanted to go with a safer formula; one that would put them on the number one spot of the box office once again. And for that, they hired the director and writer who had given them the massive success of Goldfinger; Guy Hamilton and Richard Maibaum. Hamilton accepted, because he felt he’d been away from the character and its world long enough that he could bring something new to the table. Richard Maibaum started working right away on a first draft that would be loosely taking elements and characters from Fleming’s book, but coming up with an entirely new villain for the piece. He decided to re-use Goldfinger as a starting point, and so came up with a twin brother for the main villain in that movie who would be Bond’s new archenemy. But there was one missing element that they had to get, in order for it to work out the way it used to; Sean Connery. The heads at United Artists were adamant that they wanted Connery back in the role, whatever the cost. The casting people had been over a few names already, to replace Sean in case he said no. Of all of them, the chosen one was American actor John Gavin. He was a TV and stage actor, who’d had a supporting role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), alongside Janet Leigh. He had the good looks and the presence, and the producers were even willing to give hime an American persona, which would’ve gone against everything Fleming wrote about the character. He was actually already under contract by the time the producers managed to lure Sean back with an offer he couldn’t refuse. In addition to paying him the record-breaking sum of $1.2 million, which was unheard of at the time, UA also agreed to sign him up for a three movie deal in projects that would interest him. In the end, he would only manage to do one of these three movies. Another condition Connery had was to take a look at the script, the first draft of which, he didn’t like very much. Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman decided to hire another screenwriter to re-write Maibaum’s script. They wanted an American writer, but someone who was adept at writing in the English idiom as to not sound too jarring when compared to previous movies. Tom Mankiewicz, the son of legendary Hollywood director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, of Cleopatra (1963), and All About Eve (1950) fame. The result was the seal of approval by Connery after having read Mankiewicz’s first 40-page draft. Mankiewicz was a very young screenwriter who injected a lot of wit and dynamism into the script. After having secured a director, screenwriter, and an experienced leading man who could carry the movie through; it was time to seek out the rest of the crew and cast that would accompany Bond in his next cinematic adventure.
Old friends and new ones
Most of the all guard came back. Trusted people like Production Designer Ken Adam, Director of Photography Ted Moore, and Composer John Barry, were all on board from the very beginning. These were all people whom Hamilton had worked with in Goldfinger, and whom he trusted implicitly. For the newly rewritten script, Cubby Broccoli had come up with an idea that pretty much outlined the entire plot of Mankiewicz’s script. Broccoli had had a dream in which he was being called out by a familiar voice; that of his long-time friend Howard Hughes, and when Broccoli turned around to face him, there was a complete stranger there. The eccentric Texan millionaire was already a recluse at that time, and Broccoli wanted the story to play around with the idea that a Howard Hughes-type, completely made up for the movie, but clearly based around Hughes real-life persona, had been kidnapped, and secreted away atop his own private building; pretty much like Hughes was at the time, for his personal fortune, and unlimited resources to be used for nefarious purposes by a third party posing as him. The person who replaced him was none other than Ernst Stavros Bloefeld. This would make the fourth appearance of the character in the series, played by as many actors. After having being played by Anthony Dawson and voiced by Eric Pohlman in Thunderball, and by Donald Pleasance and Telly Savallas in You Only Live Twice, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service respectively; another familiar face would come into the part; that of known British stage actor Charles Gray. Gray had already played the part of British Secret Service Japanese liason Henderson in You Only Live Twice. His take on the character couldn’t have been more different than that from the previous actors. His Bloefeld, as Mankiewicz so aptly describes him, was a much fussy one, but equally cruel. Mankiewicz had also some very interesting ideas when it came to casting the villain’s henchmen. He thought it would be an amusing idea to have a gay couple of assassins doing Bloefeld’s biding; Mr Wint and Mr Kidd. For the roles, the director went outside the usual channels. Putter Smith was a bass player who’d played alongside Thelonious Monk. It was indeed while he was performing in one of Monk’s shows that he was spotted by Guy Hamilton. Putter had no previous acting experience, and would never act again after. His perfomance as the quirky, but deadly Mr Kidd is quite good, and amusing; considering the lack of experience. For the role of Mr Wint, Hamilton chose American actor Bruce Glover, father to Crispin Glover, of Back to the Future fame. Both actors complement each other brilliantly on-screen, and have some of the most amusing scenes and lines of dialogue in the movie. As the bulk of the movie would be shot in location in Las Vegas, the producers ended up recruiting a lot of actors and artists who either lived, or worked there. That’s why people like stand-up comedian Leonard Barr, and country-western singer Jimmy Dean were cast in prominent roles. The first one as Shady Tree, a full-time stand-up comedian, part-time crook for hire, and Jimmy Dean as “reclusive” millionaire Willard White. American actor Norman Burton was also the fourth actor to be cast in the role of CIA agent Felix Leiter. On the recommendation of screenwriter Mankiewicz, both Jill St. John and Lana Wood were chosen to play the role of this entry’s Bond girls. The first one as Jewel smuggler, Tiffany Case, and Lana Wood as Casino working girl Plenty O’Toole, continuing with a long tradition of funny names given to Bond girls. This time around, though, this fact wouldn’t be exclusive to female characters. Making full use of his penchant for black humour; Mankiewicz gave the name of Morton Slumber to the owner of the funeral parlour where Bond escapes one of the most impossibly tricky snake-pit situations in which the character had found himself in thus far; being locked inside a coffin, and almost burned alive in the parlour’s cremating oven!!. This little character role would be played by American actor David Bauer, in a rather amusing exchange with Bond. The rest of the cast were all pretty much returning members like Bernard Lee as Bond, Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny, and Desmond Llewellyn as Q.
Living the American dream
Being set as it was, mainly in the city of Las Vegas, the crew moved early on to the Nevada State, and the city of Los Angeles to shoot everything in, and around the eternal gambling city. The entire crew moved into the Riviera Hotel, and filmed most of the scenes in Las Vegas thanks to the collaboration of long-time friend of Cubby Broccoli; Howard Hughes. It was thanks to him that the crew was able to close down downtown Vegas for the car chase between Bond’s Red Mustang and Las Vegas Police. The scene was a combination of in location and back lot shooting. Universal Studios was the place chosen by the producers to do most of the on- set filming while on the US. It was a three-night shoot in downtown Las Vegas, where the amount of ligts illuminating the Strip was a blessing,on the one hand, as the DP didn’t have to set up any artificial lighting; and on the other hand, the constant mass of crowds was something of a hindrance. This car chase finished with Bond squeezing the Red Mustang through a narrow alley by leaning it on the right side. Unfortunately, due to a mistake of the stuntman doing the flip, the car came out the other side leaning on the left side. By the time the editors realized this, they were already back in England, and couldn’t go back to the States to repeat the stunt. They came up with the solution of doing a flipover,midway through the alley in the Studio in Pinewood, with Jill St. John and Connery riding a mocap of the Mustang mounted on a gimble. The footage was hastily integrated into the footage shot in location, and the end result, though not physically possible; was an agreeable compromise. The Hilton Hotel doubled for Willard Whites’ The White House, whose top part was replaced with a matte painting by the amazing matte artist Albert Whitlock, who’d made a name for himself working for Alfred Hitchcock in movies like The Birds (1963). Other locations were an industrial plant, out in the Nevada desert, which doubled for Willard White’s Space Lab, around which the Moon buggy chase was staged. This would prove to be one of the most difficult action set pieces as the flimsy structure of the moon exploration vehicle coupled with the rough and rocky terrain of the Nevada desert, would force the filmmakers to constantly re-stage and reset these scenes, until they came up with the idea of fitting the lunar vehicle with a sturdier and wider set of tires to keep the vehicle from constantly tipping over. The three-wheeled buggies with which the stuntmen were chasing it, didn’t fare any better. A lack of control, and speeding would cause more than one close call. Other important set pieces in the movie were Bond climbing onto an elevator to access White’s Penthouse, and using a python gun to climb the rest of the way hanging onto a ledge hundreds of metres over the blinking lights of the city. This last part of the climb was recreated on a set in Pinewood, put together by Production Designer Ken Adam, and with a matte painting of the city in the background to give it realism. Another striking looking set was the privately owned hilltop mansion, that was basically built around the mountain, and which served as Willard White’s reclusive site, guarded by Bambi and Thumper. The idea of having two gymnasts be White’s custodians was entirely Guy Hamilton’s. He didn’t want to have another Odd Job-type character play the heavy once again, and thought it would be interesting to turn the idea of having a strong male play the heavy on its head, and change it for two graceful, agile but, at the same time, lethal henchwomen; who give Bond a run for his money. For the scene of the diamonds exchange, the crew had to go on location to a real Casino/Circus that had been running for a few years already. The owner of the place, which was called Circus Circus; allowed the crew to use the location on the condition that he could do a cameo in the movie. One final filming location off the coast of San Diego was an unused oil rig that doubled as Bloefeld’s base of operations. It was a very dangerous location to film around, especially during the finale, in which a serious amount of explosive charges had to be set up to go off on cue with the helicopter attacks. The cast and crew had to travel to and from the oil rig either by boat or helicopter each day, which proved to be something of a nerve-wracking affair for the likes of Tom Mankiewicz. The interiors of the oil rig were recreated on set in Pinewood Studios, as were most of the interiors like Tiffany Case’s apartment in Holland, Bond and Tiffany’s Las Vegas hotel suite, the interior of Bloefeld’s mini submarine; a replica of which was built by the prop department, and used for exterior shots, the complete interior of the small and narrow, glass elevator in which Bond fights Jewel smuggler Peter Franz, was also recreated in Pinewood, and the crown jewel of them all; Willard White’s Penthouse suite. The set was a sprawling, futuristic and elegant design which is among the best ever designed by Adam.
Critical and Financial reception
As expected, the movie was a success. Overtime, though, people have regarded it as one of the silliest, which is understandable to a certain extent; but so are most of the Bond movies, and one of the worst; which is confounding. And I’ll explain why in a second.
I hadn’t seen this movie for a long time before I did it for the purposes of this review, and I must say; I had a ton of fun. It’s outlandish, witty, with very funny and very well executed action set pieces, (the the moon buggy chase, the car chase through downtown Las Vegas), memorable characters and scenes ( the scenes in the tacky Las Vegas-style funeral parlour had me in stitches, they were so funny), very well written, and quotable dialogue and one-liners, and Connery seems to be having the time of his life. Maybe because he knew that, for once, he had one over the producers and was getting the money and conditions he wanted to play the role. Plus, this was the last time he would be officially playing the role under the EON/UA banner. He was well into the role by the time he did From Russia with Love, but he seems at his wittiest and most comfortable here. If there is one thing that really stands out above all of the above mentioned, is the script and the dialogue. Mankiewicz was given the freedom to take the basic idea of the novel, and let his imagination fly. Things like having a couple of homosexual henchmen was something that would be frowned upon in this day and age, and for the life of me; I don’t have the slightest idea how they got away with it back then. It was an outrageous concept for the time. And to come up with the idea of calling the owner of a funeral parlour Morton Slumber. Who doesn’t find that funny? It’s not all laughs and giggles, though. Connery toughens up when he needs to. The pre-credit sequence in which he beats the hell out of a bunch of people to get to Bloefeld, how he disposes of him later on, the elevator fight between him, and the Jewel smuggler in a cramped space of broken glass and metal. How well choreographed, executed and shot it is. The use of John Barry’s soundtrack during that scene; which amps up the tension and action in the scene. Somethings that reminds you of a scene out of a Alfred Hitchcock movie. The quips between Bond and Tiffany during their first meeting; the sexual innuendo implicit in Bond’s words. Again, not something you would find in today’s cinematic and social landscape.
All of the cast do a marvellous job. Even Charles Gray does a surprisingly good turn as Bloefeld. He comes off as breezy, not so stiff; but definitely menacing. Jill St. John does what is probably the best performance out of a Bond girl since Honor Blackman in Goldfinger. It does help that she’s given wonderful dialogue to work with. Actually, the movie is peppered with little great performances, and moments from all of the actors. Bruce Glover and Putter Smith do a superb job as Mr Wint and Mr Kidd. They have such good chemistry on-screen, and theirs are the funniest moments in the movie. Everything they say, or do, has a double meaning. The movie is not without its goofy moments, of course. The moon buggy chase and the Mustang spinning through an arrow alley on its side come to mind, but I find those moments of levity and humour necessary to lighten up the movie’s mood. It’s the total opposite of what Peter Hunt did on the previous movie, but then again, Guy Hamilton was someone who was always in for the tongue in cheek stuff. As for why people seem to have a problem with this one, and they usually rank it amongst the worst in the series, is something beyond me. The movie offers exactly what the movie-going audience expects from a Bond movie. All of the above. Plus, Shirley Bassey is back singing one of the most emblematic and recognizable credit’s songs in the series with John Barry in tow offering a dynamic and melodic soundtrack in his best tradition. For those who’ve never seen it, or haven’t for a long time; don’t mind the bad reviews. You’ll have a lot of fun. Sean’s back.
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