Ernest Lehman biographer discusses the writer’s spy films

Cover to Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success

Ernest Lehman (1915-2005) was one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood history. His work covers various genres and includes massive box office successes.

A new biography of the writer is coming out this month — Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success.

The blog interviewed the author, Jon Krampner, by email. The interview concentrated on three espionage-themed productions that Lehman scripted: North by Northwest (evoked on the book’s cover image), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The Prize, and Black Sunday, Lehman’s final movie project. But Lehman also scripted various dramas such as Executive Suite (1954) and musicals, including West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).

North by Northwest, in particular, had a major impact. Released in 1959, its balance of humor and drama coupled with certain set pieces (especially when a crop duster plane chases after Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill) helped set the stage for the 1960s spy film craze.

1963’s From Russia With Love, in a sequence not part of Ian Fleming’s novel, had a helicopter going after Sean Connery’s James Bond.

Here is the interview.

THE SPY COMMAND: How did Ernest Lehman first get connected to Alfred Hitchcock? How did the idea of a spy thriller evolve?

JON KRAMPNER: They were connected by the composer Bernard Herrmann who, appropriately enough, wound up scoring “North By Northwest.” Herrmann told Lehman he thought he and Hitchcock would get along well, so he set up a lunch meeting for them in Hitchcock’s office at Paramount in late August of 1956.

Herrmann was right — the two did hit it off, so they started to work on adapting “The Wreck of the Mary Deare,” a maritime drama based on the Hammond Innes novel about an abandoned ship found adrift at sea. But Lehman, as he often did during his career, quit the project, feeling there was no way he could turn it into a good film.

Lehman assumed that would be the end of their working relationship, but Hitchcock, enjoying his company, said they should work together on something else. But what? “The Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films,” Lehman said, and “North By Northwest” was born.

(NOTE FROM THE BLOG: The Wreck of the Mary Deare was made into a film with Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston)

TSC: Was the Lehman-Hitchcock collaboration a smooth one? Or were there rough patches?

KRAMPNER: Surprisingly, given that they were both control freaks, Lehman and Hitchcock got along pretty well on “North By Northwest,” one exception being when they were working through the crop duster scene in the living room of Hitchcock’s Bel Air home. Hitchcock, who never raised his voice, yelled at Lehman “Why do you insist on telling me how to direct the film?” Lehman would later say he should have told Hitchcock “Why do you insist on telling me how to write it?”

Seventeen years after “North By Northwest,” Lehman and Hitchcock worked together on “Family Plot,” Hitchcock’s last film. That was a different story: Hitchcock was in poor health, but Lehman kept showing up for working and wanting to get on with it. And being an established Hollywood figure himself now, he was less inclined to defer to Hitchcock. That was not a happy collaboration.

TSC: I have written before that North by Northwest had a balance of drama and humor that other films (the Bond series in particular) emulated. What thoughts did Lehman have on this subject?

KRAMPNER: Your observation is apt, but while your question is a good one, I don’t have a good answer. I worked on this book for seven years, but never ran across any musings Lehman had about the James Bond films.

TSC: How did Lehman rank North by Northwest among the movies he scripted?

KRAMPNER: It was not only his signature film, but the only original of his 15 screenplays, so he regarded it highly and with great fondness. Interestingly, the screenplay of his that he identified several times as his favorite was “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” the Rocky Graziano biopic that made Paul Newman a star.

TSC: The Prize came along a few years later. Leo G. Carroll was in the cast. And Paul Newman’s character ends up proposing to the female lead (Elke Sommer). Did Lehman consciously throw in NxNW elements? Or was that in the source material all along?

KRAMPNER: Any plot similarities between “North By Northwest” and “The Prize” were purely intentional on Lehman’s part. As with “The Wreck of the Mary Deare,” Lehman didn’t feel he could make a decent script out of “The Prize” and was preparing to abandon it. But then he decided to play up the Cold-War plot aspects that were less prominent in Irving Wallace’s novel and, in Lehman’s own words, turn it into a “road-company, not first-rate North By Northwest-type film.”

Anyone familiar with “North By Northwest” can find echoes of it throughout “The Prize”:  there’s a riff on the scene where Cary Grant takes the police back to the Townsend mansion in a futile effort to show them that’s where he was set upon by Van Damm and his gang. In “The Prize,” there’s a scene at a nudist colony that evokes NxNW’s auction sequence. And it features not one, but two — is auto-homage a word? — of the conclusion of the crop duster scene, where Cary Grant is almost run over by an oil tanker. In reviewing “The Prize,” Variety derisively referred to Lehman’s “Hitchcockeyed screenplay.”

TSC: How did Lehman feel about The Prize? Was he pleased with it? Or were there issues for him?

KRAMPNER: As suggested by the previous answer, Lehman didn’t think much of “The Prize,” although he was still stung by some of the bad reviews it got

TSC: Black Sunday was Lehman’s last movie. Big cast, based on a best-selling novel. But Lehman shared the writing credit with two others. Was Lehman satisfied or dissatisfied with it?

KRAMPNER: Lehman shared the screenwriting credit with, in that order, Kenneth Ross and Ivan Moffat, with Lehman’s name coming first. He had to share the credit because it was the only one of his films he was fired from, by producer Robert Evans and director John Frankenheimer. They may have wanted “thriller insurance” (Ross had worked on a number of such films), but they also got a film that’s more confusing, has lapses in plot logic and is utterly devoid of Lehman’s trademark humor. In a 1976 seminar Lehman gave at the American Film Institute before “Black Sunday” was released, Lehman said sardonically “I hear it’s very exciting.”.

TSC: Black Sunday is more overtly political (Israeli-Palestinian) compared with NxNW and The Prize. How did Lehman feel about that? Was Black Sunday a happy experience? Or did he know it was time to call it day?

KRAMPNER: Congratulations for spotting a hole in my research: the answer is “I don’t know.” One of the things I ordinarily would have done was to read Lehman’s last draft of the screenplay, among his papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. But around the time I would have done so, the plague was upon the land, everyone retreated into their burrows, and I never doubled back to cover that part of the waterfront.

“Black Sunday” was praised for the extent to which it humanized the Palestinian terrorists and their grievances, highly unusual for a big-budget American studio film (that praise was not universal: supposedly the Los Angeles-based B’nai Brith Messenger ran a headline “Robert Evans, Hitlerite.”)

In general, Lehman was pretty apolitical, so if I had to guess, I’d say that one (or both) of the screenwriters who came after him was responsible for that aspect of the script.

TSC: How does Ernest Lehman rank among Hollywood screenwriters? While this interview was concentrated on the spy genre, Lehman handled a variety of subjects. To a layman, such as myself, he seems incredibly versatile.

KRAMPNER: As you might, expect Ernest Lehman’s biographer to say, if he’s not at the top, he’s darn close. William Goldman, another candidate for king of the hill, said, “The three greatest screenwriters are Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder, and Ernest Lehman.” The British newspaper The Guardian said “He may have been the most successful screenwriter ever.”

Many are crowded near the top of screenwriting’s pantheon: Nunnally Johnson, Jules Furthman, Nora Ephron, the list goes on. I won’t say Lehman was the best, but he certainly ranked among them.

Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success is being published on Sept. 27 by the University Press of Kentucky. For more information, CLICK HERE. It can be ordered at AMAZON and BOOKSHOP.ORG. The latter is a website for independent bookstores and you may want to order there instead of behemoth Amazon.

Importance of score & editing (Bond edition)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said this week several Oscars will be awarded before the Oscars telecast, including best score and editing.

Ben Mankiewicz, a TCM host, did a tongue-in-cheek tweet asking followers to name movies where score and editing made a difference. You can view it below.

For the purposes of this post, we’ll keep examples of James Bond movies only.

From Russia With Love: According to the documentary Inside From Russia With Love (available on some home video editions of the movie), editor Peter Hunt changed the order of early sequences. This, in effect, created the Bond tradition of the pre-title sequence.

The movie was also the first Bond film (out of 11 total) scored by John Barry. That helped establish the “Bond sound” of 007 movie film music. Barry’s contributions have lasted beyond his death. No Time to Die’s score incorporated Barry’s instrumental theme for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Thunderball: Director Terence Young departed the project early before post-production was completed. That left editor Hunt by himself, with deadlines for a Christmas release coming down upon him.

What’s more, things were hectic for Barry as well. The title song was changed late from Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang to Thunderball. “Barry worked overtime to incorporate the new theme into the score so it wouldn’t look like the kind of pasted-on song he loathed,” according to The Music of James Bond by Jon Burlingame.

You Only Live Twice: Originally, Peter Hunt was going to be the second unit director and not edit (see James Bond in the Cinema by John Brosnan). But early cuts of the movie were running long and Hunt ended up applying his editing talents as well. The film’s running time ended up just under two hours.

The Man With the Golden Gun: John Barry, generally, scored Bond films on a tight schedule. According to Burlingame’s book, even Barry felt the pressure. Barry only had three weeks to complete the entire score.

There are other examples, of course. In general, movies can be saved in post-production (1975’s Jaws being a notable example).

Biography about writer Ernest Lehman to be published

Cover art for a North by Northwest Blu Ray release

A biography of Ernest Lehman, the screenwriter of North by Northwest and many other films, is coming out in September.

The book is titled Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success. Author Jon Krampner has updated potential readers at his Ernest Lehman Bio page on Twitter concerning his research about Lehman and his work.

Lehman (1915-2005) worked in a variety of genres, including musicals such as The Sound of Music and the 1961 version of West Side Story. But Lehman’s scripts for espionage films such as The Prize, Black Sunday, and, especially, 1959’s North by Northwest, is a big source of interest for the blog.

The Alfred Hitchcock-directed movie blended drama and humor as advertising man Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) becomes involved with spies.

In some ways, North by Northwest became a template for 1960s spy movies, including James Bond films.

One of North by Northwest’s major set pieces, where a crop duster plane attacks Thornhill, was the inspiration for a sequence in From Russia With Love where a helicopter menaces Bond (Sean Connery).

In the 1960s, some members of North by Northwest’s cast would have prominent parts on spy shows on American television: Leo G. Carroll (The Man and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.), Martin Landau (Mission: Impossible), and Edward Platt (as the Chief in Get Smart).

Krampner’s book has a website. It includes an excerpt describing the filming of North by Northwest’s crop-duster sequence. The book is scheduled to debut Sept. 27 and its price is $34.95 in hardback.

RE-POST: Robert Towne channels 007 for U.N.C.L.E.

Richardo Montalban and Robert Vaughn in The Dove Affair

Richardo Montalban and Robert Vaughn in The Dove Affair

Screenwriter Robert Towne celebrated his 87th birthday on Nov. 23. The Oscar winner also participated in the 1960s spy craze. This is adapted from a 2013 post.

1963 saw From Russia With Love, the second James Bond movie. About a year after it came out, a future Oscar winning screenwriter would channel the film for an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Robert Towne would go on to win an Oscar for his script for 1974’s Chinatown. A decade earlier, he was among the writers to pen first-season scripts for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a show that had been pitched as “James Bond for television.”

Towne perhaps took that idea a bit literally. His sole U.N.C.L.E. credit, The Dove Affair, featured an extended sequence on a train going through the Balkans, a very similar setting to From Russia With Love.

U.N.C.L.E. agent Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) faces a complicated situation. His mission is to smuggle out a medal in the shape of a dove that has tiny engraved names of agents of Thrush, the villainous organization that opposes U.N.C.L.E. Satine (Richardo Montalban) is the top intelligence agent of a Balkan nation where Thrush is trying to seize control. Satine is a genuine patriot but he’s willing to kill Solo if it furthers his country’s interests.

Much of the episode’s second half evokes the mood of From Russia With Love. The TV show, though, isn’t as compelling when it comes to a short fight scene with Solo and Satine compared to a fight between James Bond (Sean Connery) and SPECTRE killer Red Grant (Robert Shaw). Part of it stems from the limitations of 1960s television in depicting violence. Some of it probably stems from tight TV production schedules.

Overall, though, the similarities are telling. With The Dove Affair, there is the additional complication of “the innocent” character, in this case, a school teacher (June Lockhart), who’s escorting a group of U.S. high school students around Europe.

Satine, as written by Towne, has one quirk — he’s afraid of children. Solo uses the presence of the high school students to his advantage. There is also some good dialogue.

SATINE (agitated, referring to the students): They find me interesting!

SOLO: And so you are. I wouldn’t deny that for a minute.

To read a more detailed review of The Dove Affair, CLICK HERE and scroll down to episode 12.

About the ties between British and American Bond fans

John F. Kennedy statue in Fort Worth, Texas. Kennedy helped boost the popularity of James Bond.

I stirred a hornet’s nest this week by suggesting there are some British fans of James Bond who, shall we say, aren’t fond of American fans.

I posted a typical Twitter survey on the subject. I actually was encouraged by the bulk of responses, which indicated many British fans like their American counterparts just fine.

Still, there were some reminders that the feeling isn’t universal. For example:

What makes all of this amusing is the role Americans have had with the Bond film franchise.

Albert R. Broccoli, the co-founder of Eon Productions was American. Harry Saltzman, the other co-founder, was Canadian.

Also, Broccoli’s daughter, Barbara Broccoli, and stepson, Michael G. Wilson, were Americans The United Artists executives who gave the OK (Eon has never financed Bond films) were Americans. Screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz were Americans.

What’s more, two of the people who helped increase the appeal of Bond were also American: Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine, and U.S. President John F. Kennedy. I know it’s a cliche, but Kennedy listing From Russia With Love as one of his 10 favorite books helped make Bond a thing in the U.S. in the early 1960s. Hefner’s Playboy serialized Ian Fleming short stories and novels.

From Russia With Love was one of the last movies Kennedy saw at the White House before he was assassinated in 1963.

The U.S. declared independence from Britain in 1776. The two countries had a major conflict in 1812. But, for most of the time since then, the U.S. and U.K. have had what is often described as the “special relationship.”

The “special relationship” may apply to Bond fandom. But, at least in the U.K., there are dissenters. So it goes.

About that ‘James Bond knockoff’ thing

A James Bond Jr. character with a pencil communicator that looks a lot like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. pen communicator

A James Bond friend of mine misses much spy entertainment as examples of “James Bond knockoffs.”

OK. But the James Bond film franchise has, more than once, borrowed from others. A few examples:

From Russia With Love: Ian Fleming’s fifth novel didn’t include a sequence where Bond dodges a helicopter. This was something the filmmakers added to the movie to add visual excitement. Clearly, it’s an “homage” to North by Northwest where a crop-duster plane goes after Cary Grant.

More broadly, the Bond series owes a lot to North by Northwest. NxNW has a delicate balance of drama and humor. Director Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman practically provide a blueprint for the Bond series that Eon Productions would go on to make.

Live And Let Die: The eighth Eon Bond film is based on Fleming’s second novel. But its popularity also owes much to the early 1970s “blaxplotation” craze. Essentially director Guy Hamilton and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz drop Bond into the middle of a blaxplotation movie. Mankiewicz wanted to cast Diana Ross as Solitaire but Eon wouldn’t go that far.

The Man With The Golden Gun: The ninth Eon Bond film sought to take advantage of the popularity of 1970s kung fu movies. You’d see stories (ahead of the film’s release) about how Roger Moore was training furiously to credibly do martial arts.

Moonraker: In 1966, there was an Italian-based spy movie called Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die. It shares Brazilian locations with 1979’s Moonraker. Heck, you could easily argue the 1966 movie makes better use of Brazil, including Rio’s massive Jesus statue. Also, there are sequences of the 1966 movie that would practically be repeated in Moonraker.

In addition to all that, in Moonraker, we hear a key tune from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Licence to Kill: Bond has a gun with attachments (site, extended barrel, extended magazine, rifle stock) that looks an awfully lot like the U.N.C.L.E. special. In Licence to Kill, the base gun looks like a camera but all the attachments look like the attachments of the U.N.C.L.E. Special.

James Bond Jr.: Many fans disavow this early 1990s cartoon series. But it was officially sanctioned by Eon and Michael G. Wilson shares a “developed by” credit. In episode 9, “The Eiffel Missile,” a character has a pencil communicator that appears copied from U.N.C.L.E.’s pen communicator that debuted in the second season of that series.

Bond as strategic thinker

Image for the official James Bond feed on Twitter

I’ve been re-reading Ian Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, for research. Something leapt out at me. James Bond is not the best strategic thinker.

Bond, thanks to Felix Leither providing much-needed funds from the U.S., bests a Communist operative, LeChiffe at the gaming tables. After winning, Bond drinks a lot of champagne while LeChiffre prepares a counter-attack. Bond eventually is captured.

Too late, it occurs to Bond he should have been more prepared.

He squirmed at the thought of himself washing down champagne at the Roi Gallant while the enemy was busy preparing the counterstroke. He cursed himself and cursed the hubris which had made him so sure that the battle was won and the enemy was in flight.

Chapter 16, The Crawling of the Skin

The thing is, Bond never really learns that lesson. In the novel From Russia With Love, Bond knows the situation is a trap but decides to ride the train to the end. In Dr. No (both novel and film), Bond travels to Crab Key with basically no plan, just bringing a gun with him.

Both the literary and cinema Bond doesn’t do much in the way of planning. In Quantum of Solace, Bond bounces from one situation to another. In the film Skyfall, Bond sort of, kind of, has a plan but M still gets killed.

Bond, of course, is a blunt instrument. On some occasions, he’s the dull instrument who nevertheless comes out on top. In Casino Royale (both novel and 2006 film), he’s been taken in by Vesper. In the film, he even loses all the money.

Bond 26 and beyond

Image for the official James Bond feed on Twitter

Bond fans are waiting for another delay for the release of No Time to Die/Bond 25. If/when (probably when) that happens, the bigger question is for Bond 26 and beyond.

No Time to Die was a pre-COVID-19 movie with pre-COVID-19 finances. The 25th James Bond film ran up costs approaching $290 million as of mid-2020, according to a U.K, regulatory filing.

But, hey, it was a contender for a theatrical box office of $1 billion or more (split with theaters). Certainly Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Bond’s home studio) and Danjaq LLC (parent company of Eon Productions) were working on that assumption.

Then, of course, COVID-19 changed everything. Theaters were shut down in many regions. And the virus — despite the emergence of vaccines — has not been brought to heel. At least not yet and maybe not soon.

Perhaps you can just kick the can. Delay the release date one, two, who knows how many times? Eventually, everything will be back to normal.

Won’t it?

No Time to Die is on the shelf. It will get shown. Sometime.

The big question is what happens with Bond 26, whenever that gets made, and in whatever form.

Studios such as Walt Disney Co. and AT&T’s Warner Bros. have embraced the streaming model model. MGM reportedly shopped No Time to Die around for a streaming deal but couldn’t get the price it wanted.

What’s more, MGM reportedly has put itself up for sale. The studio’s association with Bond will reach its 40th anniversary this year. The Bond-MGM association has been a rocky one, dysfunctional even.

Danjaq/Eon controls the rights to Bond. But Danjaq/Eon needs MGM (whether by itself or in alliance with other studios) to get 007 movies made.

Put another way, there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed before you can even talk about future Bond adventures.

Example: Is the traditional model of a big theatrical release followed by home video revenues even practical now? Or do studios need to reduce the costs of big “tentpole” films?

Of major tentpoles, Bond seemingly is in a good position to ramp down and do more cost-effective productions. The early 007 films such as Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, were pretty lean films.

Still, that was almost 60 years ago. Things change.

No Time to Die may be a rousing James Bond film. But Bond’s future still is being determined — and things are more uncertain than James Bond emerging triumphant at the end of a movie.

Sean Connery, an appreciation

Sean Connery in Thundereball (1965), the apex of the 1960s spy craze

For those of us who were in on the ground floor of the 1960s spy craze, the last decade has been pretty rough.

Actors who were leads in multiple TV shows and movies have passed away during that time.

But the passing this weekend of Sean Connery (1930-2020) was the big one. Connery’s early film performances as James Bond provided the foundation for the spy craze.

You had to be there to appreciate it.

At the dawn of the 1960s, the U.S. had a new president. One of his 10 favorite books was Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love. Suddenly, it was a new world.

Bond made his film debut in 1962 (in the U.K., at least). Not long before he was assassinated in November 1963, John F. Kennedy viewed From Russia With Love in the White House, according to a tweet by prominent historian Michael Beschloss.

From Russia With Love was early days for Connery’s Bond career. Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice were even bigger film adventures.

Connery, as Bond, was a worldwide phenomenon. Still, for him, it was the early stages of a career that extended decades.

Connery was one of the biggest film stars of the 20th century. Yet, the actor wasn’t afraid to make quirky choices such as Robin and Marian (a re-telling of the Robin Hood story), The Offence, Zardoz, and Time Bandits.

Eventually, Connery came out with his own take on Bond with Never Say Never Again, the 007 film not made by Eon Productions. Personally, I find it uneven. But Connery made the movie on his own terms.

This weekend, millions of people around the globe are in mourning. That’s understandable. The worldwide audience has lost one of its most memorable and durable performers.

Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering a remarkable actor and the work he has left behind.

New normal? ‘U.S. Last’ releasing model isn’t that new

Christopher Reeve near the end of Superman II

There has been a lot of buzz this month that the “new normal” for major theatrical releases will be a “U.S. Last” model (the blog’s name for it, nothing official) where the United States will get the movie much later than other regions.

The reason for this is how the U.S. is one of the countries hardest hit by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). While much of Asia and Europe have managed to contain the virus, there are major outbreaks in highly populated U.S. states such as Florida, Texas and California.

A July 22 story in The Hollywood Reporter describes what may be happening.

In recent weeks, a campaign to begin releasing new Hollywood movies even if it means only launching a title in markets that are able to open safely — whether overseas or in the U.S. — has gained momentum as a global day-and-date launch becomes impossible in the era of coronavirus.

The thing is such a model, if it emerges, is more like the old normal than a new normal.

Back in the day, it took a long time for a movie to reach all global markets. With Dr. No, for example, its U.K, premiere was in October but it didn’t reach the U.S. until the spring of 1963. From Russia With Love came out in the fall of 1963, but didn’t reach U.S. shores until the following year. And Goldfinger didn’t reach the U.S. until Christmas 1964, months after its U.K. debut.

Nor was Bond alone. With Superman II, a highly awaited sequel to Christopher Reeve’s debut as Superman in 1978, the movie was in major markets in late 1980 and didn’t get to the U.S. until the summer of 1981. Some U.S. publications referenced what was in the movie ahead of its American premiere.

In recent decades, studios have grabbed for theatrical release money fast. Movies came out in a relatively short time globally. That enabled quicker home video releases.

All of this may affect No Time to Die. Is it possible a “U.S. Last” releasing model may be used for the 25th James Bond film? We’ll see.