Nobody Does It Better: The Complete Uncensored Unauthorised Oral History of James Bond by Mark A. Altman & Edward Gross (book review).

With ‘Nobody Does It Better: The Complete Uncensored Unauthorised Oral History Of James Bond’ by Mark A. Altman & Edward Gross, we have another title with a very long name. Although I could have relied on the main title as an identifier to that agent fella, Bond, James Bond, the qualifier is in the sub-title. Don’t expect a love letter to 007 here. Much of this book is given to quotes from a lot of people both who’ve played in, acted and produced, as well as a number of the usual and less unusual suspects about the character and films and no one holds back.

Don’t read if you want to know details about the film plots, this book is really about production and impact on the world. It even covers the rival Bond films. Some of which you might share similar thoughts. I agree with Jeff Kleeman and probably the reason I avoided the Pierce Brosnan era, that an invisible car, let alone being driven remotely was going too far in a Bond film. Even more so, as with any Q-based gadget, just how can Bond do these things with no practice with the gadgets? Think of your first time with any new gadget.

Reading about how Fleming sold ‘Casino Royale’ as a TV episode to America and what would become ‘Thunderball’, but not to Brocolli and Saltzman, will make you sit up and think, more so with the latter as he didn’t actually come up with the plot.

The focus on comments for each film, starting with ‘Dr. No’, does raise a lot of interesting facts. I love how director Terrance Young describes how he sophisticated Sean Connery by modelling him on his own tastes. Equally, how much the Bond elements owe so much to Hitchcock’s ‘North By North West’ (1959) film. There was also a narrow escape from co-writer Wolf Mankowitz wanting to turn the ‘Dr. No’ into a parody, adverted when he was removed. Dr. No as a parrot throws up all kinds of weird things. Even more remarkable was the budget at around one million dollars and how little set designer Ken Adam had to work with. No one, especially studio United Artists, expected the film to do as well as it did, more so as Bond killed with impunity. What hero does that?

There’s also some insight into Connery in a good way, arriving early to get to understand the crew’s problems. I should also mention with the films, there are bridging paragraphs explaining events from each film and main members, including their other credits, but it does need some familiarity with the films. Then you’d have to be a Bond fan to buy books on the subject. I never knew that Robert Shaw was also a novelist. Interestingly, a lot of other books and films are noted, with many of the latter also being shown on Channel 81 at the moment which has suddenly become an added bonus. It gets infectious checking on these things and whether I want to pursue them later. Keep a notepad ready.

Those of you who are Bond fans are aware that many of the foreign cast had voice dubs and you get them all noted here. I hadn’t realised that time that Paul Dehn spent on scripting ‘Goldfinger’ also laid the foundations for standard later Bond tropes. Interestingly, Roald Dahl’s more fantasy elements added to ‘You Only Live Twice’ put the finishing touches to what is used in a Bond film. The various discussion points about ‘Thunderball’ does reveal its weaknesses and director Terrance Young points out that if you start thinking about it while watching, you do see the potholes.

When the authors said ‘Complete’, they aren’t joking. There’s the remarks of people who made ‘Casino Royale’ (1967) and people who’ve watched it. I have to confess that the best part of the film is the Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs from it. It was also scriptwriter Ben Hecht who first suggested that there is always a new spy who takes on the James Bond identity for each generation. Presumably, this also applies to Felix Leiter, M, Moneypenny, Q and Blofeld as well. Sounds a lot like the Phantom to me.

There’s also a brief look at other spy films and TV series that were influenced from the Bond films, especially the Flint films. Oddly, where these are concerned, I do wonder why there have been no books about Derek Flint as this is the most I’ve read anywhere about him and this isn’t even a book about him nor mentioning him bumping into Bond briefly in his first film, ‘Our Man Flint’ (1966).

Seeing the list of potential Bond actors after Connery left shows quite a selection from across the board and countries. In many respects, they were probably right to go with George Lazenby. He might have been a known face from advertising but would have had less baggage when it came to acting. Even so, discovering that the German born actor Eric Braeden was being considered does make me wonder if he would have been accepted and a missed opportunity to have him play a villain.

Something else that came out of this is explaining Bond’s changed appearance and even the management were pondering on this from plastic surgery to being a new person before realising the character was the same, just not the actor. Oddly, it is plastic surgery that is used to change Blofeld’s appearance all the time and no one seemed bothered by how often Leiter changed.

It’s very weird reading the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s Bond films as I don’t think it ever lost its core audience. The real problem was attracting a younger audience brought up by seeing the early films on TV.

An interesting observation MGM/UA executive Jeff Kleeman is how often Bond faces megalomanias who want to blackmail or destroy the world with nukes that became the cliché. My own observation is when you reach such a pinnacle, where else can you go?

Director John Glen describes in ‘For Your Eyes Only, the trickery used by Derek Meddings to have Bond and Melina underwater without actually being there and it looks like the same technique he did it in the Anderson productions.

I think I’m going to have to have to re-evaluate my feelings on ‘The Living Daylights’, more so as I was losing interest in Roger Moore’s final two films and the enthusiasm didn’t pick up when Pierce Brosnan took over with the invisible car and tiny remote seen in promo-clips making me think they’ve gone too far from reality. Seeing the number of scriptwriters employed on each film, it becomes pretty obvious why no one was keeping an eye on that aspect.

Oddly, it was the third Brosnan film, ‘Die Another Day’ (2002) that had the invisible car. Significantly, it barely gets a mention or much about the plot compared to the discussion points from the other films which surely must speak for itself and even Roger Moore was diplomatically not keen.

Of course, the latest Daniel Craig films are covered but, obviously, not the latest. It does give an under-lay as to his reluctance to do a fourth film because of some of the failings of them. Interestingly, the observations that in ‘Skyfall’ that Bond was all about failure is very telling, proving that he isn’t perfect.

As you can tell from the length of this review where I am mostly reacting or commenting, there is a lot of material here that has made this book a fascinating read and eye-opener. Even spreading it out, looking at each film entry a day, this book took nearly a month to read so is definitely worth its money. To end on a comment about changing Bond’s ethnicity, actor Yaphet Kotto gives the best argument that Bond is always the white guy. Cue musical theme. Nobody can do it better.

GF Willmetts

February 2020

(pub: TOR/Forge. 716 page hardback. Price: $29.99 (US), $39.99 (CAN), £23.14 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-250-30095-9)

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