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Review: Oral history of Bond films is for fans’ eyes only

This book cover image released by Forge Books shows "Nobody Does It Better: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of James Bond" by Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross.

“Nobody Does it Better: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of James Bond," Forge Books, by Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross

Three words — “Bond ... James Bond”— changed film history when 1962's “Dr. No” introduced the British super-spy 007 to the silver screen. Originating in Ian Fleming’s Cold War espionage novels, the globe-trotting, gadget-equipped chick-magnet, who liberally applied his license to kill, set the archetype for Hollywood action heroes.

But you already know that, and more, if you are in any way drawn to “Nobody Does It Better." Authors Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross supply the international legions of fans a dossier worthy of Her Majesty's Secret Service detailing the creative and business alchemy that built cinema's most enduring franchise. The oral history format serves up hundreds of backstage stories told by those who were there and clarified by Bond scholars and enthusiasts.

Altman and Gross’ chatty narrative virtually situates committed readers in a hollowed-out volcano lair, stroking a white feline and witnessing a debate of such vital topics as which Bond film is best? Which villain? Who is the hottest Bond Girl? And the eternal Bond question: Who did it better — Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan or Daniel Craig? If you don't already have an opinion, this book may not be your cup of shaken-not-stirred tea.

Altman and Gross depict how a recipe of imagination, talent and serendipity resulted in Bond’s peaks (“Goldfinger,” “The Spy Who Loved Me,“ “Skyfall”) and valleys (“A View to a Kill,” “Die Another Day,” “Quantum of Solace”). The authors employed the same approach to entertaining effect in curating the logs of the “Star Trek” franchise in their 2016 oral history “The Fifty-Year Mission." Interestingly, both properties, born in the '60s, were greatly influenced by changing mores and tastes as they ebbed and flowed to the present.

The double-0 hole in “Nobody Does it Better” is the dearth of commentary from Connery, the man whose performance propelled both himself and Bond to worldwide fame. He is more MIA than MI6, given only a few attributions in the book. Amazingly, comedic auteur Woody Allen has more to say about playing Bond in the 1967 spoof version of “Casino Royale."

Otherwise, even for those who collect the films and scrutinize every making-of featurette, Altman and Gross provide plenty of Bond trivia and production details. One example: Many of the early Bond actresses, foreign beauties with accented English who were new to American cinema, were dubbed in postproduction to sound either sexier or more intelligible. In the case of bikini-clad siren Ursula Andress, a studio executive said her voice sounded too much like "a Dutch comic" for her ingénue character.

The Bond producers habitually sought fresh ideas. Director John Landis (“The Blues Brothers,” “Trading Places”) unsuccessfully pitched a deliciously ludicrous opening sequence involving a chase, a church and a crown of thorns in a script that was laughed off as “Animal House Bond.” Director Nicholas Meyer, who re-energized the Enterprise with “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” was shown the door after suggesting that Bond go to the dark side by joining the villain’s Earth-saving depopulation scheme.

Such vignettes exemplify the book's through line of how the Bond producers — mostly Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and his heirs running EON Productions — managed the films' long-term popularity. They walked a tightrope while balancing adherence to a successful formula of gadgets and babes and against sufficient changes to make the movies relevant to modern audiences. Over the course of two dozen feature films with no end in sight, their stewardship has rightly earned the fans’ renewal of their license to thrill.

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Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Anne Bancroft: A Life” (University Press of Kentucky) and other books.

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