Tom Mankiewicz and the Shifting Tone of the James Bond Films
Part Two: Habit, and a House Style
Last Time: The arrival of writer Tom Mankiewicz impacted the tone of the James Bond film series in unexpected – and arguably detrimental – ways. With his formal departure from the series, do things improve…?
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), reigniting the series after an unprecedented three-year gap, brought with it a slew of changes behind the scenes.
Production partner Harry Saltzman had left Albert R Broccoli to manage EoN alone, Lewis Gilbert (of the ill-regarded but recognisably Bondian You Only Live Twice, 1967) was brought in to direct, and Bond newcomer Christopher Wood was given the task of adapting an experimental novel Ian Fleming had insisted could be adapted in name only.
Wood’s approach was to broadly remake You Only Live Twice, but more seriously. The tone throughout his draft – as evidenced in his novelisation of the film – is that of a punchy, exciting, technologically heightened spy thriller.
Then it was rewritten.
And here’s where accounts differ, even if they point towards the same malaise. Richard Maibaum is the nominal rewriter, and it’s possible he injected some of the gratuitous silliness of the previous three films by way of maintaining continuity.
But… Tom Mankiewicz has alleged in his 2012 memoir My Life as a Mankiewicz that he was called in to complete an extensive rewrite – of whose draft is unclear – uncredited because of the Eady Levy’s restriction on the number of non-British key personnel on a production.
(This of course makes no sense, since he and Maibaum between them received the only writing credits on the previous three instalments, and the Levy’s requirements hadn’t changed in the interim.)
Whoever is to blame, there is blame to be apportioned. Despite the brutality of much of the film’s violence, a certain comic excess emerges from the very nature of grotesquely powerful villain Jaws’s apparent invincibility. His initial tussle with Bond is difficult to watch, not because of its intensity but because of how absurdly unstoppable he is. This is no prolonged train car fight with the likes of Red Grant (From Russia With Love, 1963), but a battle between a superficially gentlemanly Bond and a movable brick wall.
Worse still is Jaws’s ability to survive an encounter with a pool of sharks, the villain literally biting his piscine namesakes to death.
While these are minor in the scheme of things – indeed, it is possible to reduce Jaws’s worst excesses with a minimum of editing and significantly improve the tone of the film – the tendency to play the Moore-era silliness card remains. And Moore knows it, doing all he can not to throw the camera a wink in acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of it all.
Largely – if not wholly – absent from proceedings, Mankiewicz had left his stamp. The ‘Mank effect’ was in place.
Shakier still is Moonraker (1979), yet another nominal remake of You Only Live Twice – and again directed by Gilbert, unique in the annals of Bond directors for having essentially made the same film three times.
Here, Jaws is reduced to pure comic relief. The pre-credits scene sets the tone, having him free-fall from a plane without a parachute into a circus tent – and survive. Only to meet the petite, bespectacled Swiss blonde Dolly who, equally mute, becomes his love interest as the film progresses.
That Moonraker was produced in response to the success of Star Wars should in itself say all that needs be said. This is a Bond film thinking it needs to compete with a space opera, Broccoli producing a Bond film that climaxes with an outer space laser gun battle.
Wood returns to craft a solo effort as writer. Again dispensing with the source novel, perhaps under the mistaken assumption that this was de rigeur, he plays to the preposterous requirements of the brief with aplomb. Given the greater seriousness of his earlier work on the series, it is easy to speculate that he here worked to task, scripting material that suited the tone sought of him. The biggest change in his novelisation is the removal of Dolly, suggesting he was essentially comfortable with his screenplay.
Interestingly, Mankiewicz again alleges he worked on this film, drafting an extensive treatment that was largely rejected. Even allowing for Wood’s disregard of much of his material, the notion that he was involved in development – and his additional claim that he was occasionally on set – suggests his opinions were still sought and valued by EoN. Perhaps he was present to keep check on the film’s tone as he did with Superman around the same time.
Whatever the case, the Mank effect had become the house style.
John Glen, director of all five 1980s Bond films, sought to rein in the excesses of the 1970s entries. He did this by culling their high-tech outlook, curbing the low-brow comedy this instilled.
Despite his subsequent openness about this stance, and despite his best efforts in the (literally and figuratively) down-to-earth For Your Eyes Only (1981), a house style can be a hard thing to shake.
Especially when your leading man is comfortable with it.
There is an inevitability that comes with starring in four films all adopting a tone befitting your range as an actor. An ease emerges, a way of working that is less taxing and more straightforward to fall into. None of this is to suggest that with Roger Moore must come silliness: he was a better actor than that. But his ‘type’ was debonair, sophisticated and largely unruffled. Surround that representation of James Bond with vicious, serious threat and a vulnerability emerges that denies the hero his untroubled heroic status.
Surround it instead with a lightness of touch, a threat mediated by levity, and Moore’s version of Bond is more comfortable.
Which means, above all else, that comic cutaways to affronted bystanders continued to modify the gravity of action set pieces. A View to a Kill (1985), Moore’s final bow in the role, is a telling example. Its villain’s scheme a loose remake of Goldfinger – Maibaum had evidently learned a trick or two from Wood – the film is laced with a sadism unfamiliar to the series almost since the 1960s.
Glen’s casting of Christopher Walken as antagonist Max Zorin is a master stroke. Not yet known for his unique approach to the portrayal of undiluted psychopaths, Walken is as over the top as many of his antecedents, but he adds an unmitigated ruthlessness to the mix that makes the character truly terrifying. The way he dispatches allies and enemies alike, his threat to sink much of California under the Pacific for profit, the sheer glee he projects when massacring his workforce to tie off loose ends, all enhance his pure sadistic insanity.
Marring this cold ruthlessness are several Mank effect elements. Sir Godfrey Tibbett, Bond’s ally as played by Patrick Macnee, veteran of cult spy series The Avengers, is treated with a flippant dismissiveness at several turns. Questionable puns are littered throughout the script, few exhibiting the sophistication of their forebears. Two key action set pieces – a chase through Paris and another aboard a fire engine through San Francisco – are punctuated by the usual comic bystander inserts.
That parts of the film are allegedly based on sequences from Mankiewicz’s unused Moonraker script, and that Zorin’s plan bears striking similarities to Lex Luthor’s in the Mankiewicz co-written Superman, suggest the Mank effect had yet to leave the building.
Glen was fortunate when Broccoli asked him to return for The Living Daylights. Sporting a new Bond in the form of Welsh thespian Dalton, the film demonstrates all the qualities Glen had sought in directing For Your Eyes Only, and it achieves them with tremendous success.
Evidence remains that the script was originally conceived for Moore, and a few Mank effect elements creep in. They are, however, significantly toned down, Dalton’s more dour, introspective take on the role dictating a shift away from levity.
(One deleted scene is especially telling. Depicting Bond’s flight from his antagonists on what looks to bystanders like a magic carpet, a cutaway reveals an itinerant alcoholic ditching the bottle in response. Utterly Mank effect in tone, its comic cutaway was in fact guessed at by Andy Lane and Paul Simpson in their book The Bond Files years prior to their being able to view it on DVD. That two fans were able to predict the precise nature of the Mank effect confirms the time for its retirement had come.)
Broccoli must have agreed, Maibaum and Michael G Wilson’s screenplay for Licence to Kill (1989) dropping Bond into a revenge narrative that wouldn’t be out of place in the gritty, unforgiving world of the Daniel Craig Bond films.
The Mank effect had left the building, but its impact had both preceded and outlasted the stay of the actor whose era was most greatly impacted by it. An actor, it mustn’t be forgotten, who holds the record for his run in the part, across eight films and twelve years.
Mankiewicz, on the other hand, had imprinted to a greater or lesser degree ten films over sixteen years.
Did Tom Mankiewicz ruin the Bond film franchise? No, and certainly not single-handedly. What he did do was contribute probably far more than he’d ever intended to defining an era that encompassed a decade and a half of filmmaking. His style became the house style, and it is arguable that style did few favours to the adventures of an expert spy with a legal entitlement to assassinate as required.
But he made the Connery vs Moore fan debate stupendously easy to delineate.