50 years of James Bond

The behind-the-scenes story of “Never Say Never Again” is nearly as good as any Bond movie, and I hope one day someone makes a movie about it. On the surface, it hinges on the question of authorship and deals with the fact that before Eon Productions had made a single 007 movie, novelist Ian Fleming collaborated with producers Ivar Bryce and Kevin McClory on a story about stolen nuclear warheads and a massive extortion scheme that he later spun into the novel “Thunderball.”

But, like nearly everything in both Hollywood and the fictional world of 007, it’s really about money. Eon turned James Bond into the most successful franchise of all time, and McClory wanted a piece of it. After “Diamonds Are Forever,” Sean Connery publicly swore he would “never again” play Bond, but behind the scenes, he was evidently saying, ” If you pay me enough.”

Connery had already come back once before for “Diamonds,” and his salary on that film – £1.25 million plus a share of the profits that brought his total to an estimated $6 million – made him the highest paid actor of his time… until McClory and his team came calling to make an off-canon Bond movie based on the idea Fleming had borrowed to make “Thunderball” (reportedly offering $5 million and points).

Something not altogether different had happened once before with the rights to “Casino Royale,” but when the producers of that film failed to convince Connery, they spun the project off into the precarious realm of satire – tricky, considering how closely the 007 character treads the line of self-spoofery already. But McClory got Connery, and audiences in turn got a very rare treat indeed: a chance to see what a non-Eon 007 movie might look like, as directed by “The Empire Strikes Back’s” Irwin Kershner.

Of course, McClory had it easy, effectively copying the Eon formula in nearly all significant respects. Minor details, like Maurice Binder’s trademark gun-barrel/sexy-silhouette opening sequences or the fact that Q is referred to as “Algernon” during gadget-outfitting sessions, “Never” did without, but the format otherwise stuck relatively close to the model established over 13 previous Eon outings.

It should be said that Kershner and “Indiana Jones” d.p. Douglas Slocombe share the most stylish vision the character had seen to date. The plot, which plays awfully close to the outline for “Thunderball,” may be familiar (but then, isn’t that true of every Bond movie?), but “Never” serves up a great cast, including Kim Basinger as the most beautiful Bond girl of all time, Domino; Klaus Maria Brandauer as Largo, whose villainy is matched only by his insecure jealousy; and Max von Sydow making a brief appearance as Blofeld, complete with trademark white cat.

But the most important bit of casting, of course, was Connery, and “Never” drives home what a superior Bond he was. Though 52 at the time of filming, he was almost three years younger than Roger Moore and appeared tougher than he had in any of the previous adventures.

The entire scenario may have been preposterous, but screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (credited alongside Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais) chose to ground the character in reality. Long before Christopher Nolan made the decision to treat Batman “realistically” on the “Dark Knight” pictures, Semple wrote Bond as a scarred and aging action hero coping with the physical wear and tear that a career of saving the world entails.

Meanwhile, Connery could do with a smirk or a raised eyebrow what none of his successors had ever quite managed, which was to exist simultaneously in character and in communion with the audience, essentially telegraphing the fact that, no matter how silly or sexist any given moment might seem, he was doing it for our amusement… and because the producers had agreed to pay him enough money.

** The weekly Bond-revisited series will take the next three weeks off, while Variety senior film critic Peter Debruge covers the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. These essays will resume on Friday, Sept. 14 with “A View to a Kill.”

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