Burt Bacharach’s soundtrack is probably the least maligned aspect of producer Charles Feldman’s 1967 film version of Casino Royale. For connoisseurs of cinematic disaster, the problems that beset that production are well familiar. Kaufman, who held the movie rights to Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, intended to make a canonical James Bond film, but upon failing to secure the cooperation of Eon Productions, decided instead to mount a spoof on a grand scale. The film’s star, Peter Sellers, was fired halfway through production, requiring that the remainder of the already loosely structured film be written and shot around his absence. On top of that, multiple directors were engaged, each delivering a “chapter” of the film marked by their own individual sensibility. The result has been railed against as a shamefully self-indulgent work of anti-cinema, a triumph of – not style over substance – but style as substance.
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.
At this point, I don’t think there is much cause to recount the ninja craze that swept the world in the 1980s (you can piece together the story from our reviews of The Octagon and Enter the Ninja). From Hong Kong to Japan, Bollywood to the United States and of course Turkey, these black-clad shadow warriors fanned out and did that really rapid baby-step ninja run into our hearts. Although the ninja originated in Japan, and Hong Kong produced more ninja films, for my money the United States was still ground zero for eighties ninjamania (many Hong Kong ninja movies were made purely to export to the United States, as often as possible, with as many different titles for the same movie as distributors could dream up). But while the US was inarguably the capital of ninja fanaticism in the western hemisphere, we were not entirely alone. In the snowy northern land known as Sweden, a man named Mats-Helge Olsson was building a sizable filmography of hyper-violent, mostly terrible action films that shocked and disappointed his countrymen. That Mats Helge would make a ninja film was inevitable. That he made two is unfortunate.
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.
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.
Owing to its proximity, my interest in poking about in history, and the ease of getting to it by mass transit means, Washington DC has become my most common short holiday from New York. As I am not one who finds visiting well-trodden tourist destinations to be distasteful or unfulfilling, I have logged more than my fair share of time at the city’s sundry monuments and museums. I have gazed upon The Bill of Rights, the Korean War memorial, that painting of George Washington we put on our money, and the Wright Brothers flyer. But while I consider destinations like The Smithsonian to be among this country’s great national treasures, I am also a fan of slightly less respectable educational endeavors and spectacles.