We’ve been having a bit of a Michael Caine season recently. We’ve seen the masterpiece Sleuth, the original of course, with old Sir Laurence pitted against young Mr. Caine (a simply dreadful remake was thrust upon us recently). Then there was the even younger Caine in Zulu, in which acted the father of Mr Blair’s terrible wife, name of Anthony Booth, whom I remember as a bit of a drunk, but then who wasn’t in the Sixties? In Zulu Michael Caine produced an false Etonian accent that jarred a bit, but does the stiff-upper-lip well. And then we watched the movies produced by Harry Saltzman that struck a certain note; a certain frisson. What was it about The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain that strikes you and won’t let you go?
It was my family that found the secret. I should have known about the Saltzman connection. He and Broccoli produced the first James Bond movie in 1962 (Dr. No). Others followed. The formula was the same: shaky relations between ‘M’, the MI6 boss and Bond; a villain who wants to rule the world; beautiful women; startling and sometimes very funny one-liners; a raucus alarm system – Bware! Bware! Bware! Untrustworthy colleagues; riotous car chases etc. But The Ipcress File was made in 1965, three years after the first Bond. Funeral in Berlin came out in 1966. Billion Dollar Brain was released in 1967. These were Bond-type films but with Caine instead of Connery. The director of the first was Sidney Furie; the second Guy Hamilton, who also made Bonds. The third was directed by the television eminence Ken Russell, who never made a Bond. These three ersatz-Bonds were adapted from books by Len Deighton. Most of the real Bonds were taken from the works of Ian Fleming. But the formula is the same. Was Saltzman trying the hedge his bets? What did Cubby think about it? We will never know. In the Deighton movies there is an ‘M’ like figure played suavely and well by Guy Doleman. You never really know whose side he’s on.
Michael Caine underplays Harry Palmer. There have been a lot of Bond ‘M’s – Bernard Lee (the best), Robert Brown, James Villiers, Judi Dench (the only female ‘M’). In Billion Dollar Brain Ed Begley gives a truly terrifying performance as the man who must rule the world. He would have made a valuable villain in any of the Bonds.
There is even a close resemblance between sympathetic Soviet Russian senior Army officers who appear in both the Palmers and the Bonds, played by different actors. Two of the actors who played Bond never even tried; Moore and Brosnan played either for laughs, or indifferently. How could they have been paid so much? Dalton and Craig play him for real. Bond is, after all is said and done, a very nasty creation.
I return to my question: if the Bond series was obviously a high success about to turn into a billion-dollar-success, why did Saltzman hedge his bets with Michael Caine, much more of an actor than Connery? And the interesting fact is that Sean Connery and Michael Caine have always been great friends. Curiouser and curiouser.