It’s become popular in recent years for authors to write stories with the high concept of, “What if James Bond creator Ian Fleming had real-life James Bond adventures?” There have been several books published by several different authors using this as a premise, and two made-for-television movies (the most recent one airing on Sky in the UK and BBCA in the United States in February 2014). Certainly Fleming’s biography lends itself to such supposition. He was, after all, a notorious womanizer and drinker, a gadabout of the first degree from a well-heeled family that circulated in the rarefied airs of British society. And it’s true that he was a member of British Naval Intelligence during the Second World War and rightly earned a reputation for cunning and original planning (but no cunning plans as cunning as a fox that’s just been made professor of cunning at Oxford University).
Time to Frolic Afield once again for my monthly article on The Cultural Gutter! As a fan of cyberpunk from the 1980s, I often wonder if there’s any decent example of the genre that makes sense in what is basically our post-cyberpunk reality. Cyberpunk for a Cyberpunk World looks at why cyberpunk didn’t survive, why it should have, and how David Louis Edelman’s Jump 225 trilogy is the best example of post-millennial cyberpunk literature
Owing to his tendency to wear bland trousers, a bland blazer, and a bland, too-billowy white shirt with no tie, I have often referred to Timothy Dalton’s two turns as James Bond as “the Casual Friday Bond.” Because Roger Moore explored the questionable sartorial indulgences of the 1970s, he is often cited as one of the worst-dressed Bonds, but at least his safari suits and flairs had a certain memorable boldness to them which, if not the equal of Connery’s timeless style, at least stood out from the crowd without looking like a clown (relative to the style around him). Dalton’s Bond — as well as Brosnan’s — commits the sin of being terribly, terribly boring in his dress. I would not have wanted James Bond to indulge the extremes of 80s fashion — no one needs James Bond to don a pastel t-shirt and parachute pants — but I do want him to look like something other than a mid-level bank manager on casual Friday.
In 1964, James Bond creator and sole author of the James Bond books, Ian Fleming, passed away. While the future of the movies, which had taken on a life of their own, was not in doubt (at least not for a couple more years, which was when Sean Connery left the series), the novels seemed like they might go to the grave with Fleming. After scrambling around for a way to continue the series, the Fleming estate and its publishing wing, Glidrose, chose acclaimed British novelist and well-known asshole Kingsley Amis to continue the series. Amis, who had previously written some Bond non-fiction and seemed to take the job solely so he could indulge his hatred of the character M, wrote the first post-Fleming Bond novel, 1968’s Colonel Sun. It was received about as well as one could expect (actually, about as well as any of Fleming’s novels before the rose-tinting set in after his death), with common criticisms being that it wasn’t Fleming enough, or that it was too Amis, or it was Amis writing down. So on and so forth. Whatever the case, plans were for Amis to continue, though when one hears some of the ridiculous ideas he had, including killing Bond off with an exploding martini, one thinks that it was perhaps for the best that these plans fell through. Similarly, plans to hire a series of authors who would all write Bond novels under the same pen name — Robert Markham — never came to fruition.
Jimmy Sangster is known to most as the writer of a brace of seminal Hammer gothic horror films. From his pen came the scripts for The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula/Horror of Dracula (plus their immediate sequels) and The Mummy, not to mention the likes of Jack the Ripper and Blood of the Vampire for rival producers. Sangster’s place in the history of cinema is assured, but what’s not quite so well known is he didn’t have any particular interest in period horrors. Sangster got into screenwriting largely out of necessity, to supplement his meagre salary as a production manager at Hammer Films. His first script for the studio was a short subject, A Man on the Beach, made in 1955. This mini-film was directed by Joseph Losey and starred English theatre ogre Sir Donald Motherfucking Wolfit and Hammer regular Michael Ripper. Even at this early stage in Sangster’s career, Beach featured elements that would come to be recognised as his trademarks, including a honking great twist at the end.
By the time The Silencers was in theaters, producer Irving Allen was already kicking off production on the next Matt Helm film. Originally planned to be The Ambushers, for whatever reason (and not that it mattered, given how thin the connection between books and movies was) Allen moved things around, and Murderers’ Row became the second Matt Helm movie. Although I can’t imagine any fan of Donald Hamilton’s books holding out hope that the movies would be anything like the novels after the drunken hijinks of The Silencers, it still must have given readers pause to hear that Murderers’ Row was the next to get the swingin’ cocktail treatment. The fifth book in the series, published in 1962 immediately after The Silencers, it is among the bleakest and angriest of the Helm stories.
When Ian Fleming passed away in August of 1964 after suffering a heart attack, his reported final words — said to the crew of the ambulance that was rushing him to the hospital — were “I am sorry to trouble you chaps. I don’t know how you get along so fast with the traffic on the roads these days.” His untimely passing left in doubt the future of his most enduring creation: James Bond. While the movies had taken on a life of their own, the novels were very much of Ian Fleming, and without him, it didn’t seem like there was any way they would continue. His final book in the series, The Man with the Golden Gun, was published posthumously and against Fleming’s desire. He had just finished the first draft before his death, and he felt the entire thing was rather a mess and wanted to redo it. His publisher, perhaps feeling that any Bond was bankable Bond, insisted that the book was perfectly fine.
In February of 1966, audiences got their first look at the finished product that started with the dark, violent Matt Helm novels of Donald Hamilton and ended up in the hands of ill-tempered producer Irving Allen and boozy Rat Packer Dean Martin. Leading up to the release of the first film in the series, The Silencers, there had been a barrage of publicity, most of it focused on the bevy of semi-clad beauties populating the film (Dean Martin himself was busy with other film projects and the launch of his very popular new TV variety show). There was little in the pre-release marketing to inspire hope in fans of Donald Hamilton’s books that this Matt Helm would bear any resemblance at all to the character of the same name in the novels. As the lights went down and the curtains parted (yes, we used to have those in movie theaters), it was time for Irving Allen and Dean Martin to deliver their idea of America’s response to James Bond.
Director-producer Irving Allen has been charitably referred to as a bit gruff, or rough around the edges. Less charitably, a bully. Even less charitably, a complete asshole. Working his way from junior editor up through the ranks, he eventually carved out a pretty successful if low-key career as the producer or director of a number of shorts, including the Academy Award winning Climbing the Matterhorn. Wanting more from his career though, he partnered with another struggling producer, Brit Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, to form Warwick Films. Based out of England so they could take advantage of lucrative tax breaks, Warwick made a number of successful “boy’s own adventure” style films that allowed Allen to indulge his taste for costumed mini-epics and Broccoli a chance to make a name for himself with the help of his mercurial but close friend and partner.
“I was taking a martini across the room…”
If that line, the first sentence in the first Matt Helm novel by Donald Hamilton, had been the only sentence in the book, then there would have been very little stylistic conflict between the Matt Helm of the books and the incarnation of the character that eventually fond its way onto movie screens. Of course, a single sentence doesn’t exactly make for a great novel, and we soon learn that Matt Helm is taking the martini across the room to his wife during a dull suburban cocktail party. From there, things get a lot darker and more violent.