Sunday, 15 September 2013

The greatest Bond film never made?

If Jeremy Duns' Rogue Royale (JJD Productions, 2013) was a hand in a game of Baccarat, it would be a 'natural': near perfect and very difficult to better. His book charting the early attempts to bring Ian Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale, to the big screen is thorough and authoritative and, like the original novel, a page-turner.

Rogue Royale tells the story of screenwriter Ben Hecht's development of a script for Charles K Feldman's ill-fated production of Casino Royale, which would finally appear in 1967. Hecht's scripts bore little resemblance to the film that would be dogged by countless rewrites,  temperamental actors, a bloated cast-list, and a spiralling budget (David Niven predicted when joining the production in 1966 would be “the biggest f----up since the Flood”), and Duns, delving into the archives, offers a tantalising glimpse of the scripts that had the hallmarks of a classic Bond film.

Ben Hecht, the 'Shakespeare of Hollywood', was by the early 1960s a very well established and highly regarded screenwriter, and the ideal choice to write a Bond film. His credits included the razor-sharp comedy, The Front Page, the archetypal gangster film, Scarface, and Hitchcock's suspenseful spy thriller, Notorious. Hecht wrote several drafts of Casino Royale for Feldman. Plot ideas were developed or dropped with each subsequent script, and his final offering appears to have been as fast-paced, deftly-plotted and witty as Dr No or From Russia With Love.

From a memetic point of view, what I found particularly fascinating was how Hecht was influenced by Eon's earliest Bond films – his plots were faithful to Fleming, but his Bond was Sean Connery – and how in turn aspects of his ideas survived into the 1967 film. And, having written about how Bond's code number is pronounced, I also found it interesting that Hecht was evidently in the 'oh-oh-seven' camp, as one of his lines, “Her father Jonathan Lynd was an 0-0-7 man” shows.

Apart from Hecht's scripts, Jeremy Duns' story includes an intriguing prologue. An article in the New York Times about Gregory Ratoff's attempts to film Casino Royale in the late 1950s mentioned that Ian Fleming had written an adaptation. If true, this is an exciting revelation. While Fleming had written a number of film and TV treatments (indeed, his novels Dr No and, of course, Thunderball, are based on them), no treatment deriving from his first novel is known. Doubtless Jeremy Duns' reminder of this tantalising snippet of information will now draw Bond historians back to all available archives of Fleming material.

Just as interesting is another early script of Casino Royale. Its author is unknown, and curiously it dispensed with Bond altogether, replacing him instead with an American gangster called Lucky Fortunato. Clearly this idea was not developed much further, but it occurred to me that the use of the character formed part of a wider trend to look to American gangsters for inspiration. Fleming himself contributed to this. His first screen treatment in 1959 for what would become Thunderball pitted Bond against a Mafia villain called Henrico Largo, and his travel essay on Naples (published in Thrilling Cities) shows a fascination with an Italian-born American crime boss, Lucky Luciano. (When I saw the name Lucky Fortunato, I wondered whether the author of the script was inspired by Lucky Luciano. Indeed, the idea crossed my mind, and instantly dismissed as fanciful, that given his interest in American crime Fleming may even have had a hand in the script.)

Jeremy Duns' book on Ben Hecht's scripts and the film that never was - and what could have been the Bond-fans' favourite - is a meticulously-researched story and a superb read. I recommend it highly.

References:
Baxter, J, 1998 Woody Allen: A biography, Harper Collins
Sellers, R, 2007 The Battle for Bond, Tomahawk Press

2 comments:

  1. Finished reading "Rogue Royale" last week and was much impressed with it. Duns did a great job of recounting the genesis of this unknown (to me) script written by the great Ben Hecht. I have to say that some of Hecht's dialogue was truly inspired and very much suited to Connery's Bond. It would have been a fantastic Bond film.

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    1. Indeed. It was also interesting that Hecht's script prefigured the sort of scenes we'd associate with Roger Moore. Looks like the film could have been the best of both worlds.

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