Few production designers are household names, yet they’re often more responsible for a film’s look than its celebrated director. As “Ken Adam: The Art of Production Design” tries but fails to illustrate, its subject is one of those key behind-the-scenes artists who deserves much greater recognition.
Christopher Frayling makes the case that Adam is the real genius behind the iconic images of the James Bond films, “Dr. Strangelove,” “Barry Lyndon,” and even “Star Trek” (he designed the Enterprise spaceship). Clearly, Adam’s work is the only reason to watch such duds as “Sodom and Gomorrah” and “King David.” But without many visual examples, this tome defeats its own noble purpose.
The entire text is presented as a Q&A between Frayling and Adam. Mostly achronological and devoid of narrative flow, it at least retains the essential aspects of Adam’s eventful life.
Adam fled Germany with his family during Hitler’s regime, and then served in the RAF, before getting a job as an art director in the post-WWII British film industry. His creations (including the terrif Trojan horse in the otherwise tepid “Helen of Troy”) were acknowledged by his peers, but Adam did not always receive screen credit.
Promoted to production designer with “Around the World in 80 Days” in 1956, Adam became much sought after, and at 85 is still working.
In the most entertaining passages, Adam details the birth of several cinematic classics. It is revealing and amusing to discover that Stanley Kubrick wanted Adam to design “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” because he had admired Adam’s Bond picture, “Dr. No”, two years earlier. On the darker side, Adam describes how he had to fight to get paid for toiling a full year on Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar-sweeping “The Last Emperor” and, as a result of the battle, failed to secure any screen credit.
Film historians will also lap up info about an unrealized version of “The Fantasticks” that never found a director, and “Mermaid,” a 1983 fantasy left unproduced because of the simultaneous emergence of Ron Howard’s “Splash.”
The highlights should be photos from the films themselves, but there are surprisingly few. Where are Adam’s expressionistic sets from the cult horror classic “Night of the Demon” or the film’s famous monster itself? A small, discarded sketch of a devil figure is the only illustration to accompany the entire chapter. Other drawings demonstrate Adam’s artistic finesse (e.g. the laser room from “Goldfinger”), but the finished film products would have been nice to see, too, even if they had to be in black and white (there are no color plates in the book).
Without these accompanying images, a book that might have been a great coffee table tome would have been better served in a smaller version as a treat for movie buffs and scholars alike.