With the recent on-line release of the trailer for Spectre, Eon Productions’ 24th James Bond thriller, the Bond franchise is once again in the news. (Eon Productions is the producing company established in 1961 by producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman expressly for the Bond pictures. “Eon” is an acronym for “everything or nothing.”) The trailer indicates that Spectre will be yet another two-hour plus cinematic marathon of gunfights, car chases, and lots and lots of stuff that gets, in the immortal words of SCTV’s Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, “blow’d up good, blow’d up real good!” It is also the first Eon’s Bond film in 44 years to use SPECTRE (acronym for Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion), the sinister top secret international organization that served as Bond’s nemesis in the first seven Bond films from Dr. No (1962) to Diamonds Are Forever (1971). And therein lies a tale.
In 1961, Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, based his latest Bond novel Thunderball on an unproduced screenplay he’d co-written with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham without their permission. The two men sued Fleming for plagiarism and, as part of the court’s judgment, the film rights to Thunderball went to McClory. When Broccoli and Saltzman licensed the rights to Thunderball in 1965 for the fourth entry in their franchise, they agreed to McClory’s condition that the remake rights revert back to him after a decade.
When McClory started seeking to take advantage of reacquiring those rights by producing a rival Bond film franchise, a series of protracted court battles with Broccoli and Saltzman began that would stretch on for almost a decade. One of the upshots of these legal proceedings was Eon losing the rights to use SPECTRE or its diabolical leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld in their Bond pictures, necessitating a last-minute rewrite of the script for the 1977 Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me to remove references to both. (In 2013, the Broccoli family finally settled with McClory’s estate, giving them the right to bring SPECTRE back into the franchise.) McClory’s bid to remake Thunderball probably wouldn’t have seen fruition if Sean Connery, who first played Bond for Eon Productions, hadn’t become a major participant in the project.
Even to this day, Connery is still considered by many fans of the movies and novels to be the only real James Bond. Although the Bond series deservedly made a major box office star out of Connery, it’s well known that he grew to despise the franchise that he owed his success to. But unlike the way that Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett became sick of playing (and being identified as) Sherlock Holmes, Connery’s distaste wasn’t directed at the character of Bond himself. Rather, he became tired of being under the thumbs of Broccoli and Saltzman. Indeed, Connery retained enough affection for Bond that he wanted to bid farewell to the role on his own terms. That opportunity came his way in 1983 when Warner Brothers and producer Jack Schwartzman joined forces with McClory to produce Never Say Never Again, as the long-planned remake of Thunderball was retitled to avoid confusion with the original. (The title was suggested by Connery’s wife, inspired by his oft-quoted declaration to never play Bond again.) The result was the first serious James Bond movie not made by Eon Productions, (The less said about the other non-Eon Bond film, Charles K. Feldman’s disastrous 1967 spoof Casino Royale, the better.)
That Never Say Never Again was made at all was a testament to the tenaciousness of McClory and then-novice Schwartzman, who produced the film for Warner Brothers. (Warners had become interested in the project after marketing research for their own Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry series indicated that audiences tired of the increasingly campy Roger Moore Bond films would gladly pay to see Connery return to the role.) Despite the ongoing court conflicts with Eon Productions that continued all the way through the making of the movie, Schwartzman managed to put together an outstanding filmmaking team that included director Irvin Kershner (fresh off of the first Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back), screenwriters Lorenzo Semple Jr. (TV’s Batman), Dick Clement (TV’s The Avengers), and Ian La Frenais, cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, and composer Michel Legrand, who also collaborated with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman on the catchy title song sung by former Brazil ’66 chanteuse and current Mrs. Herb Alpert, Lani Hall.
From the mid-80s and mid-90s, while it was still being distributed by Warner Brothers, Never Say Never Again was the most accessible of the Bond pictures, frequently turning up on local television stations’ weekend matinees. But then, after being bought from Warners by MGM and licensed by Sony as leverage for their own alternate Bond franchise, the rights to Never Say Never Again ended up belonging to the Broccoli family and Eon Productions, who wished the film had never been made in the first place. A “Collector’s Edition” was issued on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2009, but it is now much more expensive to purchase than any of the other Bond pictures. (It can, however, be rented on-line at Amazon as an “Instant Video” for between $9.99 and $12.99.) It is not inconceivable that the availability of Never Say Never Again will become increasingly scarce as Eon Productions tries to minimize the film’s existence with all the determination of those in the USSR who supervised the revisionism of Russia’s post-revolution history.
Which is a shame because, despite the plot being a rehash of Thunderball (SPECTRE hijacks a couple of nuclear missiles from NATO and blackmails the world with them), Never Say Never Again has many qualities unique to this particular Bond film, not the least of which is Connery’s dry performance. His relaxed, laid-back attitude reflected that he was obviously enjoying himself far more than when he was working for Broccoli and Saltzman. Connery’s good spirits were especially evident in his willingness to indulge in some depreciating humor about his age. And, at 52, he looked much better than when he gave his last performance for Eon Production twelve years earlier in Diamonds Are Forever. (The 70s-style sideburns he was forced to wear in Diamonds didn’t help.) Speaking of Connery’s age, it was Never Say Never Again that first introduced the concept of Bond being looked down upon by his superiors as a politically incorrect anachronism. (While this became de rigueur in the later Bond films with Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig, Connery’s maturity made the idea far more credible than it did with Brosnan and Craig at ages 42 and 38, respectively, when they made their Bond debuts.)
Although Never Say Never Again had a limited budget that was only a fraction of what Eon spent on their Bond pictures, the filmmakers, particularly Kershner (who actually bragged about the tiny budget in his DVD commentary), made the proverbial lemonade out of the situation. Instead of making the film a wall-to-wall series of spectacular action set-pieces, the emphasis was more on characterization and suspense, not unlike the original Fleming novels. The scriptwriters also had the wit to milk some humor from the miniscule budget, most notably in the character of MI-6 weapons master Q, played here by that superb British character actor, Alec McCowen. Unlike Desmond Llewelyn’s Q in the Eon films, McCowen’s Q, nicknamed “Algy” (short for Algernon), not only doesn’t have a state-of-the-art workshop capable of manufacturing all manner of futuristic weapons and gizmos, but the weapons he’s barely able to cobble together in his spartan, underheated basement (a joke on Thatcher’s austerity measures) aren’t even foolproof. In fact, the most reliable weapon he arms 007 with, a watch that doubles as a laser beam, is actually a Russian-made device provided by a defecting agent. (McCowen also has the movie’s single best line when he welcomes Bond back into action: “Good to see you, Mr. Bond. Things have been awfully dull around here. Bureaucrats running the old place, everything done by the book. Now you’re on this, I hope we’re going to have some gratuitous sex and violence.”)
The movie’s impressive trio of villains are portrayed by celebrated performers representing three different nationalities. The great Swedish actor Max von Sydow excels as the movies’ best Blofeld, head of SPECTRE. (With his three-piece suit and natty bow tie, von Sydow’s Blofeld has a definite sartorial advantage over the previous Blofelds, thanks to Broccoli and Saltzman’s inexplicable preference for dressing their head villains in Nehru jackets.) Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer plays psychotic billionaire philanthropist Maximilian Largo with a neurotic vulnerability reminiscent of Peter Lorre that makes the character both scary and poignant. And Nicaraguan actress Barbara Carrera practically steals the show with her over-the-top take on the role of ruthless assassin Fatima Blush, which she plays like a cross between a film noir femme fatale and Disney’s Cruella De Vil.
Other notable performances include Bernie Casey as Bond’s American CIA counterpart Felix Leiter (the first time a black actor had been cast in the part), Edward Fox as Bond’s prissy, aristocratic snob of a boss M, and comedian Rowan Atkinson making his film debut as bumbling British consulate Nigel Small-Fawcett. Only 29-year-old Kim Basinger, playing Largo’s naïve mistress Domino, was out of her league among these veterans, but in all fairness, it should be pointed out that her performance is no better or worse than the average acting by a “Bond girl.”
Ultimately, watching Never Say Never Again is an entirely different experience than with the “official” Bond films. Rather than Eon Productions’ seemingly Red Bull-induced primal adrenalin rush of non-stop thrills, Never Say Never Again is more like kicking back and enjoying an affectionate reunion sharing drinks (vodka martinis, of course, shaken not stirred) with an old and treasured friend.
 Technically, Peter Lorre was the very first Bond villain, having played the role of La Chiffre in a 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale which was the pilot episode of an American live television anthology called Climax!, the first dramatization of a Fleming novel. Today, the broadcast is regarded as a rather campy historical curio, especially since Bond (played by Barry Nelson) was rewritten as an American intelligence agent known to his colleagues as “Card Sense Jimmy Bond.”
 Of course, the most talented actress to play a “Bond girl” was Diana Rigg, formerly Mrs. Emma Peel on The Avengers, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Unfortunately, cast opposite George Lazenby, the least talented actor ever cast as Bond, the now Dame Rigg was virtually acting in a vacuum.