Moore Silliness

Tom Mankiewicz and the Shifting Tone of the James Bond Films

Part One: A Direct Presence

There was a time, pre-1995, when one’s appreciation of the James Bond films was measured against a single overriding criterion.

Connery or Moore.

It didn’t matter that somewhere in between, George Lazenby had made his single outing as the fictional spy. Still less care was given to the fact that Timothy Dalton had dynamically made the part his own in two highly underrated, highly effective late-80s series entries.

You were Connery or you were Moore.

And this said a lot about you as a Bond fan. Were you into the hard-hitting no-nonsense of the Connery films, or an aficionado of the lighter, frothier – and significantly longer – Moore era?

Sean Connery in Dr No

That these divisions are as arbitrary as their utter exclusion of Lazenby and Dalton was irrelevant. That to be on Team Connery you had to ignore the increasing silliness and extravagance of his series entries. Then there was the dark horse of 1983: the independently produced Never Say Never Again, a patchy remake of the already credulity-straining Thunderball (1965) featuring a grey, fifty-something Connery after twelve years away from the franchise. As a member of Team Connery, did you grudgingly accept it, or overlook it in the way you could overlook the 1967 spoof Casino Royale?

Matters were no easier for members of Team Moore, for the simple reason that the Moore era is much maligned, to this day. Levity was notched up about a thousand points, Moore’s interpretation of the role reflected the attitudes of a different social class (more Eton than the streets of Edinburgh), and wit was traded in for a more mechanical dependence on silliness.

Roger Moore in a James Bond publicity pose

But again, this is a generalisation. The truth is a little more variable.

Nevertheless, a shift did occur. While it’s easy to pin that to the necessary change in tone that comes with such a pronounced recasting of the lead role, there’s something else at play. Something that arrives before Roger Moore.

That something is the writing of Tom Mankiewicz.

Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz

Probably best known as the screenwriter son of Hollywood Golden Age writer-producer-director Joseph L Mankiewicz and, in his own right, peculiarly-credited co-writer of the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films, the younger Mankiewicz joined the EoN Productions fold on Sean Connery’s first return to Bond, Guy Hamilton’s Diamonds Are Forever (1971).

Having been suggested by United Artists president David Picker, Mankiewicz was enlisted to rework Bond stalwart Richard Maibaum’s original draft. By Mankiewicz’s own admission, the idea was to bring in an American writer to tailor it to the narrative requirements of American gangsters and Las Vegas setting.

Which is odd, because Maibaum was a New Yorker who therefore presumably knew a thing or two about the United States.

Whether or not Mankiewicz is responsible for bringing an American sensibility to the franchise – and it’s arguable that Maibaum himself did a pretty good job with the Kentucky-set sequences of Bond mega-success Goldfinger (1964, also directed by Guy Hamilton) – he did inject one element that, while seen sparingly in earlier series entries, came to dominate for the next fifteen years.

Silliness.

Not lightness, not levity, certainly not wit. A sense, instead, that the audience wanted something tongue-in-cheek; that it expected a spoof of what had come before. Nothing so outlandish as Casino Royale (the 1967 version, natch), but a film that nonetheless parodied itself.

This manifested itself in a number of ways, some more lasting than others. Quips, once sharp, increasingly descended into lazy double entendre. Violence was treated more lightly, despite continuing to be sadistic in nature. Bond, a secret agent whose life depends on anonymity, acquired notoriety within the fiction of the films akin to a famed playboy.

Mercifully, Connery defaults against the jokiness throughout, but the script is thick with an acknowledgement that James Bond has become such an institution it doesn’t need to take itself seriously any more.

Sean Connery returns to the Bond series in Diamonds are Forever (1971)

Part of this sea change could be attributed to the circumstances surrounding the return of the ‘real’ Bond, which saw Connery earn a record $5 million and receive guaranteed backing from UA for two vanity projects.

But mostly it’s down to the re-enlistment of Hamilton in the director’s chair. He’d helmed the first Bond blockbuster, Goldfinger, where he’d set a more jovial tone than his predecessor Terence Young but without being excessive. In Diamonds, the brief appears to be ‘more – much more – of the same’.

Director Guy Hamilton at work

What makes Mankiewicz’s tonal shift more acute is what the series had to come back from. The earnest On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) had ended with the newlywed Bond’s bride lying slain in his arms, a victim of nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

While this ending could have been ignored, Connery’s return allowing OHMSS to function in a sort of parallel universe, Diamonds opens with Bond searching ruthlessly to enact his vengeance on Blofeld.

Unfortunately, no concession is made to Blofeld’s trademark baldness in the casting of Charles Gray and, death-match with Peter Franks aside, the raw aggressiveness of this pre-credits sequence dissipates relatively quickly.

Charles Gray as an uncharacteristically hirsute Blofeld

Someone at EoN must have liked what Mankiewicz delivered, because he was given a solo run on the next film, Live and Let Die (1973). That it again has a predominantly North American setting, along with an American villain, would have factored in the producers’ thinking.

What else undoubtedly came up was finding a writer who could deliver a Roger Moore vehicle.

Moore was at the time very well known in Britain on the big and small screens, but his Stateside claim to fame was in his lengthy stint on ITC’s The Saint. Playing a suave socialite who isn’t averse to violence – or the ladies – but who is gentler in his approach to crime-fighting, Moore must have been viewed from the outset as a softer alternative to Connery’s cold ruthlessness and Lazenby’s brutal vitality.

Who better, then, to write his maiden outing than the man who had brought an effortless postmodernism to the franchise?

From the off, Mankiewicz – with returning director Hamilton – establishes Moore as a frothy, jokey, ITC-level Bond. Ramping up the comedy stakes, Mankiewicz introduces the character of Sheriff Pepper, played with tongue planted firmly in chewing tobacco by Clifton James.

Clifton James as comic relief Sheriff Pepper in Live and Let Die (1973)

Whereas comedy had always had a place in the Bond films, Pepper was its first fully-formed comic relief character. He exists purely to deliver shtick in as unsubtle a manner as possible. The character is belittled and ridiculed throughout with a knowing sense of deservedness, and it is through him that the series is introduced to a feature it would fail to shake off for more than a decade to come: the silly comedy cutaway.

Appearing well into the 1980s, if reduced in Dalton’s first outing The Living Daylights (1987), this cutaway consisted of shots interspersed into otherwise thrilling chase scenes of bystanders looking comically flummoxed by the fact that they had come a cropper by virtue of having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), produced and released hot on the heels of Live and Let Die, further consolidates the Mankiewicz/Hamilton approach to the series, and can be seen as the closing entry in a minor – if horribly impactful – trilogy.

Roger Moore (right) with Christopher Lee as The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

Maibaum’s return as co-writer brought with it a sense that something familiar from the 1960s films was being salvaged, but the Mankiewicz influence remains pervasive. Pepper returns for no apparent reason that could be described as a good idea, giving the film an excuse to revel in still more comedy cutaways and the humiliation of an unnecessarily deserving character.

Next time: Mankiewicz leaves the franchise – at least as far as the credits are concerned – but his spectre lingers on…

2 thoughts on “Moore Silliness

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s