Behind the Scenes: “Operation Kid Brother / O.K. Connery” (1967)

A new episode in the James Bond legend began on February 23, 1966, when a plasterer from Scotland made an audacious bid for movie stardom. His name was Neil Connery, currently earning $10 a week, shooting for a $5,000 payday as he took part in a screen test in Rome for producer Dario Sabatello (Seven Guns for the MacGregors, 1966) for a film entitled Operation Casbah that would later be tagged Operation Kid Brother (O.K. Connery in Italy).

Sabatello was an experienced producer beginning with The Thief of Venice (1950) starring Hollywood legend Maria Montez. Connery was a skilled laborer living in the four-year shadow of elder brother Sean and with little intention of moving out of that shadow. However, as a result of a work-related incident, he became the subject of a newspaper article and then a radio interview. Nobody was much interested in the reason for the interview – stolen tools – but everyone was impressed by the sound of Neil’s voice. “Sean’s brother spoke exactly like him.”

Archers Assemble! Connery on the bowstring.

The newspaper interview caught the eye of Sabatello, who noted the actor’s likeness to his brother and who flew over to Edinburgh to interview Neil and in so doing becoming aware of his athletic attributes, height and good looks. A month later came an invite for the screen test. Neil’s agent, who had no right to make such a claim, promised that if Neil got the part big brother Sean would play a cameo. For the test, Connery had to “embrace a girl, sing, dance and finally end up in  a hand-to-hand fight with a guy with a knife.” However, the test was so successful that the presence of Sean was not required. Sabatello signed the neophyte actor to a six-picture deal that would generate a six-figure salary if the film turned the Scot into a star.

Italian production giant Titanus sold the world rights (except for Italy) to United Artists, ironically the distributor of the James Bond pictures, thus securing the funding for the $1.2 million three-month shoot that kicked off in Cinecitta in Rome on December 14, 1966. Locations were scheduled to include Monte Carlo, San Remo, Turin, Barcelona, Malaga and Tetuan.

The supporting cast was dominated by actors with a Bond connection including Adolfo Celi, Daniela Bianchi, Anthony Dawson, who had all worked with director Alberto De Martino on Dirty Heroes (1967) and Lois Maxwell and Bernard Lee. Ennio Morricone, another De Martino aficionado, was brought in to do the score.

Affiliates Assemble! Connery with Bond regulars Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell.

Connery’s boxing training in the British Army came in handy when he had to become an archer. Pulling a bow takes considerable physical exertion. Target practice was held at Adolfo Celi’s house outside Rome. “I had remembered everything about putting the bow down, bringing it up, pull and push, as there was quite a pull on it,” he said. Celi’s arrow managed just a few yards but Connery hit the target. His luck did not hold when filming the real thing in Monte Carlo. Celi’s shot did not go far again but this time Connery’s arrow missed the target.

Although Connery had read the script he was only given his lines in the morning as he went into make-up. He acquitted himself well in the fight scenes, except for one scene which ended with him being taken to hospital.   

The film opened in Britain at the Pavilion in London’s West End on April 25, 1667, with a general release slated for May 5. But it didn’t get a circuit release. That is, it didn’t go out on either of the two main cinema chains, ABC or Odeon, or the lesser Gaumont circuit, so its bookings would have been restricted. It didn’t appear in the United States until November, 1967, having been reviewed without much enthusiasm in Variety which posited “at best the film deserves bottom half bookings”, i.e. the bottom half of a double bill, which means it would play for a fixed rental rather than a percentage.

It did open in first run in a number of city center picture houses in November and December, to occasionally decent but hardly lush box office. Its $20,000 week in Chicago was deemed “good”, as was the $4,000 in Providence, while $13,000 in Philadelphia was considered “brisk” but $5,000 in St Louis considered only “fair.”  There was a first run showing in New York but only at a 600-seater arthouse.

But when it went wider in “Showcase” releases the box office collapsed. In New York it managed only $67,000 from 25 theatres compared to, in the same week, British film The Family Way on $223,000 from 26, and the second week of Point Blank with $145,000 from 25. Business was worse in Los Angeles, just $49,000 from 26 compared to $125,000 from 29 for Barefoot in the Park, and it was dire in Kansas City, only $9,000 from eight houses.

Given the relatively low budget, the film globally may well have broken even but it certainly did not send Neil Connery’s box office status into the stratosphere. He had small parts in two more low-budget movies, The Body Stealers (1969) and Mad Mission 3: Our Man from Bond St (1984) plus some television.

SOURCES: Brian Smith, “Bond of Brothers,” Cinema Retro, Vol 4 Issue 12 2008, p13-19; Allen Eyles, Odeon Cinemas  2, (CTA 2005), p212; Allen Eyles, ABC (CTA, 1993), 123-124; Allen Eyles, The Granada Theatres (CTA 1998)’ p247; Allen Eyles, Gaumont British Cinemas, (CTA 2005), p197; William Hall, “Big Brother Is Watching Him,” Photoplay, June 1967; “International Soundtrack,” Variety, February 23, 1966, p33; “Titanus Sets Pre-Prod Deals for Two UA Pix,” Variety, December 14, 1966, p24; “International Soundtrack,” Variety, December 21, 1966, p24; “Hollywood and British Production Pulse,” Variety, December 28, 1966, p17; Advertisement, Variety, January 4, 1967, p65; “Connery Pix a Family Affair with UA,” Variety, March 8, 1967, p24;  Review, Variety, October 11, 1967, p22; “Picture Grosses,” Variety November 1, November 8, November 15, November 29, December 13, 1967.  

Operation Kid Brother / O.K Connery (1967) ***

Half a century ago it would have blasphemy to do anything but mock this oh-so-obvious James Bond rip-off. That was the year, if you remember, when another bigger-budgeted spoof, Casino Royale, took an almighty chunk out of the box office of You Only Live Twice.  Where the former had a multitude of Bonds, Operation Kid Brother settled for the premise that its main character was the brother of the famed secret agent.

Far from being a disaster, it is, to use the alternative title, “O.K.”, and in parts more than acceptable, especially in its anticipation of ideas that would later become Hollywood tropes: packages concealed in the brain (Total Recall, 1990 and Johnny Mnenomic, 1997), driverless cars (from The Love Bug, 1968, to Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997, and beyond), electronic global blackout and its current equivalent the gravity wave (Moonfall, 2022), and even a poison ploy that popped up in The Princess Bride (1987). Perhaps you could also reference The Bourne Identity (2002), the newspaper weaponized there could be traced back to the harmless belt here. And if you want to get really contemporary – the hero has a superpower: hypnotism. Bear in mind too that sly references to “the other guy” were made in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), the first in the series not to feature Sean Connery.

Dr Neil Connery (Neil Connery) belongs to the sub-genre of innocents caught up in espionage (Hot Enough for June, 1964). As with the main character, this is more of an affectionate pastiche of the Bond films than any attempt to make fun of the series. This Connery is a plastic surgeon from Edinburgh (birthplace of his real-life brother Sir Sean) who has invented a method that permits secrets to be carried inside the brain – in essence viewed as an “impregnable safe.”

Bond alumni include Adolfo Celi (Largo in Thunderball, 1965), Daniela Bianchi (From Russia with Love, 1963), Anthony Dawson (Blofeld in From Russia With Love), Bernard Lee (M in the original series) and Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny). Apart from a villainous female gang masquerading as the Wild Pussy Club, a reference to Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (1964) and a few sly references to the brother, the film is played straight.

Megalomaniacs Alpha (Anthony Dawson) and Beta (Adolfo Celi) belong to secret organization Thanatos intent on global domination by stealing atomic nuclei that will send magnetic waves across the world. Using intellect more than brawn, and with a sideline in lip-reading, Connery becomes involved because he can unlock the secrets hidden in the mind of Yachuko (Yee-Wah Yang), who is then kidnapped by Maya (Daniela Bianchi).

In Britain it was inexplicably released with a film that had an “adults only” certificate.

The costumes are slightly outre, Beta out of his depth in red leather, Maya in a hazard suit, Connery susceptible to kilts while Beta’s female yacht crew are decked out (pardon the pun) in tartan mini-skirts and pompoms. There is clever reversion to old-fashioned weaponry as archers assemble to assault the lair.

But all in all it is enjoyable. Yes, some of the pleasure derives from the twists on the Bond clichés, but Connery, complete with his brother’s pursing of the lips, is a decent enough stand-in. Daniela Bianchi (Special Mission Lady Chaplin, 1966), Adolfo Celi (In Search of Gregory, 1969) and the no-longer-deskbound Lois Maxwell (The Haunting,1963) join in the fun without making fun of the concept.

The direction by Alberto De Martino (Dirty Heroes, 1967) is competent but in the absence of a bigger budget perhaps exhilaration is too big an ask. The typical Italian production technique of lip-synching once the movie is completed does distance the picture.  Three writers stitched the enterprise together – Frank Walker, in his only screenplay, Stanley Wright (Marenco, 1964) and Paulo Levi (Seven Guns for the MacGregors,1967).

Ebay is your best bet for a DVD of this one.

Dr No (1962) *****

Minus the gadgets and the more outlandish plots, the James Bond formula in embryo. With two of the greatest entrances in movie history – and a third if you count the creepy presence of Dr No himself at the beds of his captives – all the main supporting characters in place except Q, plenty of sex and action, plus the Maurice Binder credit sequence and the theme tune, this is the spy genre reinvented.

Most previous espionage pictures usually involved a character quickly out of their depth or an innocent caught up in nefarious shenanigans, not a man close to a semi-thug, totally in command, automatically suspicious, and happy to knock off anyone who gets in his way, in fact given government clearance to commit murder should the occasion arise. That this killer comes complete with charm and charisma and oozes sexuality changes all the rules and ups the stakes in the spy thriller.

 Three men disguised as beggars break into the house of British secret service agent Strangways (Tim Moxon) and kill him and his secretary and steal the file on Dr No (Joseph Wiseman). A glamorous woman in a red dress Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) catches the eye of our handsome devil “Bond, James Bond” (Sean Connery) at a casino before he is interrupted by an urgent message, potential assignation thwarted.

We are briefly introduced to Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) before Bond is briefed by M (Bernard Lee) and posted out immediately – or “almost immediately” as it transpires – to Jamaica, but not before his beloved Beretta is changed to his signature Walther PPK and mention made that he is recovering from a previous mission. But in what would also become a series signature, liberated women indulging in sexual freedom, and often making the first move, Ms Trench is lying in wait at his flat.

In another change to the espionage trope, this man does not walk into the unknown. Suspicion is his watchword. In other words, he is the consummate professional. On arrival at Jamaica airport he checks out the waiting chauffeur and later the journalist who takes his picture. The first action sequence also sets a new tone. Bond is not easily duped. Three times he outwits the chauffeur. Finally, at the stand-off, Bond fells him with karate before the man takes cyanide, undercutting the danger with the mordant quip, on delivering the corpse to Government house, “see that he doesn’t get away.” 

Initially, it’s more a detective story as Bond follows up on various clues that leads him to Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), initially appearing as an adversary, and C.I.A. agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) before the finger of suspicion points to the mysterious Dr No and the question of why rocks from his island should be radioactive. Certainly, Dr No pulls out all the stops, sending hoods, a tarantula, sexy secretary Miss Taro (Zena Marshall) and the traitororous Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) to waylay or kill Bond.

But it’s only when our hero lands on the island and the bikini-clad Honey Rider (Ursula Andress) emerges from the sea as the epitome of the stunning “Bond Girl” that the series formula truly kicks in: formidable sadistic opponent, shady organization Spectre, amazing  sets, space age plot, a race against time. 

It’s hard not to overstate how novel this entire picture was. For a start, it toyed with the universal perception of the British as the ultimate arbiters of fair play. Here was an anointed killer. Equally, the previous incarnation of the British spy had been the bumbling Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana (1959). That the British should endorse wanton killing and blatant immorality – remember this was some years before the Swinging Sixties got underway – went against the grain.

Although critics have maligned the sexism of the series, they have generally overlooked the reaction of the female audience to a male hunk, or the freedom with which women appeared to enjoy sexual trysts with no fear of moral complication. Bond is not just macho, he is playful with the opposite sex, flirting with Miss Moneypenny, and with a fine line in throwaway quips.

Director Terence Young is rarely more than a few minutes away from a spot of action or sex, exposition kept to a minimum, so the story zings along, although there is time to flesh out the characters, Bond’s vulnerability after his previous mission mentioned, his attention to detail, and Honey Rider’s backstory, her father disappearing on the island and her own ruthlessness. The insistently repetitive theme tunes- from Monty Norman and John Barry – were innovative. The special effects mostly worked, testament to the genius of production designer Ken Adam rather than the miserable budget.

Most impressive of all was the director’s command of mood and pace. For all the fast action, he certainly knew how to frame a scene, Bond initially shown from the back, Dr No introduced from the waist downwards, Honey Rider in contrast revealed in all her glory from the outset. The brutal brief interrogation of photographer Annabel Chung (Marguerite LeWars), the unexpected seduction of the enemy Miss Taro and the opulence of the interior of Dr No’s stronghold would have come as surprises.

Young was responsible for creating the prototype Bond picture, the lightness of touch in constant contrast to flurries of violence, amorality while blatant delivered with cinematic elan, not least the treatment of willing not to say predatory females, the shot through the bare legs of Ms Trench as Bond returns to his apartment soon to become par for the course.

Future episodes of course would lavish greater funds on the project, but with what was a B-film budget at best  by Hollywood standards, the producers worked wonders. Sean Connery (The Frightened City, 1961) strides into a role that was almost made-to-measure, another unknown Ursula Andress speeded up every male pulse on the planet, Joseph Wiseman (The Happy Thieves, 1961) provided an ideal template for a future string of maniacs and Bernard Lee (The Secret Partner, 1961) grounded the entire operation with a distinctly British headmaster of a boss.

The Secret Partner (1961) ****

Curious about what happened to Haya Harareet, Charlton Heston’s leading lady in Ben Hur (1959), filmed in 70mm glorious color, I happened across this neat twisty British thriller filmed in standard ratio and black-and-white. Turned out to be put together by the Basil Dearden/ Michael Relph combo and starring Stewart Granger, one-time star of MGM extravaganzas like King Solomon’s Mines (1951) and clearly now atoning for failing to hit the box office mark often enough for Hollywood’s liking.

Driven by a brilliant plot, whose resolution I defy you to guess, it climaxes with three stunning twists, the first story-driven but the others landing a no less effective emotional and human punch. I should warn you right away that Harareet is not in the picture as much as you would expect given that she took second billing. That’s no surprise, really, since on her first entrance, as wife Nicole, she walks out on husband John Brent (Granger) citing his illicit romantic liaisons.  

Though driving a swanky car and living in a big London house, Brent , a top-level shipping executive, is one harassed individual. He is being blackmailed by alcoholic dentist Ralph Beldon (Norman Bird).  When the shipping company’s safe is robbed of £130,000 (equivalent to £3 million today), suspicion falls on Brent, one of only two employees with both keys and the combination. Enter about-to-retire chain-smoking Detective Superintendent Hanbury (Bernard Lee, shortly to achieve global fame as “M” in the Bond series).

Constantly wreathed in a cloud of smoke, Hanbury’s investigation leads to various suspects – the other keyholder Charles Standish (Hugh Burden) whose job is at risk, interior designer Clive Lang (John Lee) who is too familiar with Nicole and friend Alan Richford (Conrad Philips) who is secretly in love with her. All have good reason to be responsible for the theft, not least Nicole because of Brent’s habit of talking in his sleep and in trying to memorize ever-changing safe combinations constantly running them through his head, conscious or unconscious.

To add to the complications, Brent has a mysterious past. In addition, a masked gunman pops up from time to time. So, although Brent remains the prime suspect, Hanbury, with an investigator’s vigilance and attention to detail that Hercule Poirot would be proud of, uncovers clues that point elsewhere. Pretty soon, Brent is on the run, first to France, where he is arrested, and then, after escaping custody, through the murky streets of Soho trying to locate a girl to whom he might have given the combination while asleep. He, too, discovers some unpleasant truths far closer to home.

Dearden does a brilliant job of setting up the mystery, a dab hand, too, at serving up multiple red herrings, as well as a spot of sleight of hand, not least when the music intrudes too loudly in old-fashioned manner as if to point the finger, and the audience’s attention, in a misleading direction. Sure, it’s a low-budget affair by Hollywood standards and indeed by Dearden/Relph standards (big-budget roadshow Khartoum, for example), and the black-and-white photography is for financial rather than artistic reasons, but it is superbly done and keeps you guessing to the end. Granger is at his suave best. Harareet, all fur coat and steely resolve, gives a good performance. Bernard Lee is an excellent British copper, hoping to end his career on a high note, patiently probing suspects, and there is a good turn from Norman Bird as the dodgy dentist and a fleeting appearance by Willoughby Goddard as an equally dodgy hotel manager.

Except there’s no extraneous violence, it could be a latter-day film noir.

Catch-Up: Other Dearden/Relph films reviewed in the Blog are: Masquerade (1965), Khartoum (1966), Only When I Larf (1968) and The Assassination Bureau (1969). Stewart Granger was also reviewed in The Secret Invasion (1964).

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