Moonraker: the forgotten 1956 James Bond film

Posted: 5 July 2011 in film
Dirk Bogarde as James Bond 007 in Moonraker (1956) directed by Orson Welles

1956 Moonraker lobby card

The 1956 Moonraker was a product of the imagination of Simon Bermuda, full details can be found at this end of this article.

Moonraker? But wasn’t that Roger Moore punning his way through an overblown travesty of one of Fleming’s finest thrillers? That was the ’79 Moonraker. Personally, I prefer the ’56 Moonraker.

The forgotten Bond film.

Like most people who know a little about these things, I always thought Dr No was the first (not counting the 1954 TV Casino Royale). Well I was wrong. And I was also under the impression that the only Bond film Orson Welles had anything to do with was that other Casino Royale, the 1967 spoof, in which he guested as the villainous Le Chiffre. Wrong again…

Look in any movie guide and I’ll guarantee you won’t find an entry for a 1956 film adaptation of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel Moonraker, aka Hell Is Here, directed by none other than Orson Welles.

The full story of the Forgotten Bond Film begins with a flashback to June of 1955 when, as is recorded in John Pearson’s The Life of Ian Fleming, actor Ian Hunter expressed an interest in optioning the Moonraker film rights. (Fleming’s own initial verdict on 007’s third literary adventure had been: “In my opinion it isn’t much of a book, but it should make a good film.” And Hollywood actor John Payne had already toyed with the notion of producing and starring in a Moonraker adaptation.) Hunter’s payment of £1000 secured the option, and a further £9000 bought the rights after flamboyant London-based American producer Dayton Mace stepped in as Hunter’s partner. The ageing Hunter was shrewd enough to see Bond’s cinematic potential, sensible enough to leave the role to younger blood, and sufficiently cautious to insist that Mace defer his directorial ambitions and hire a helmsman with more of a track record.

Two attempts to set up the film fell through before Mace happened to bump into an old acquaintance at the Cannes Film Festival. An idle skim through the Moonraker script outline (penned by Fleming himself) was enough to instill Orson Welles with a boyish enthusiasm for this “ripe old slice of blood-and-thunder”, and the role of the monstrous Hugo Drax was immediately earmarked as another addition to the Wellesian gallery of grotesques, an enjoyably baroque version of the Nazi villain he had played in his 1946 thriller The Stranger.

In fact, Welles had already rubbed shoulders with James Bond. A couple of years earlier, his old pal Gregory Ratoff had purchased the rights to Casino Royale and there had been whispers of a Welles adaptation. Ever on the lookout to put paid to a profligate image, and still two years away from his pulp masterpiece Touch of Evil, Welles now insisted that he was the right man for Moonraker and, what was more, it would require only a modest budget. Mace – who once said of Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai: “What goes on in that picture I don’t know from f**k. But I love it” – had no objection to Orson taking the megaphone. Yet all this movie talk would almost certainly have remained among the ninety-five percent that comes to nothing had Mace not been in partnership with Ian Hunter, who had a production deal with Rank. Nevertheless, it took all of Mace’s legendary gift of the gab to get Welles okayed as director.

But who would play the secret agent?

Mace favoured either Richard Burton, James Mason or Stewart Granger. (It has often been reported that Ian Fleming suggested Hollywood actor James Stewart as a possible Bond. Granger’s original name was James Stewart, and it’s surely more plausible that Fleming had Granger in mind?)

But Rank had its own roster of stars, and prime among them was Dirk Bogarde. While Bogarde certainly had the class to be Bond, Mace didn’t think he looked tough enough, and felt that Stanley Baker was more suitable. (Baker could to some extent be described as a proto-Connery, and his Bond might well have resembled Connery’s in many respects.) Co-producer Hunter disagreed, and so did the studio. Bogarde might not have been beefcake, but he was big where it mattered – at the box-office. Either they went with Bogarde, or the deal was off. Baker was assigned the lesser role of Bond’s police contact, assistant Commissioner Vallance of Scotland Yard.

Ian Fleming, meanwhile, was keeping his distance. Exhausted from the task of writing From Russia, With Love – not to mention somewhat dishearted by the relatively lukewarm critical reception accorded the recently published Diamonds Are Forever – he found himself with “little inclination” to visit the Moonraker set. Though reportedly “excited” that a film-maker of Welles’ calibre was involved in bringing Bond to the screen, and “not averse” to seeing Bogarde in the role, the “dreadful hash” that American TV had made of Casino Royale had sown the seeds of a “recurring sense of disillusionment with this whole business of adaptations” that would plague Fleming, on and off, for the remainder of his life.

As for Bogarde himself – at that time perhaps best-known as innocuous medic Simon Sparrow in the popular Doctor series – he leapt at this chance to demonstrate that steely ruthlessness was well within his range. After all, had he not earned his bad-boy credentials as the punk who gunned down avuncular copper George Dixon in The Blue Lamp? And, like Fleming, he had worked in Intelligence during the war. He thought the Bond character “absurd, but fun to play.”

And so the spring of 1956 saw Moonraker being lensed on location on the Kent coast; staying remarkably true both to the novel and Fleming’s script outline, the Welles/Mace screenplay lacked the travelogue element one associates with the Eon Bonds. Interiors were taken care of at Pinewood. The schedule was insanely short, the budget meagre, the problems unrelenting. Female lead Peggy Cummins (Gun Crazy, Night of the Demon, Hell Drivers) fell ill after two days and a desperate Welles accepted producer Mace’s girlfriend, Brenda Bright, as a last-minute replacement. Bright, a former stripper with just one previous screen credit – Mace’s own ultra-low-budget pioneering nudie pic Bare With Me – was certainly physically right for the role. But could she act?

Turned out she could. Bright surprised everyone, bringing what Welles called “a carnality rarely encountered in Anglo-Saxon players” to Fleming’s policewoman heroine Gala Brand.

The role of “M”, meanwhile, was filled more than adequately by stage and screen veteran A.E. Matthews, adept at conveying crusty benevolence.

And as for Bogarde’s Bond?

“Pretty convincing,” recalls cinematographer Conrad Dwight, now a still-sharp, sprightly 87. “Smooth. Classy, glamorous, charismatic. Maybe not the physical hard man Connery showed us – and Dirk wasn’t a big, beefy guy, so some skilful shooting was necessary – but anyway, the script didn’t call for him to use his fists or physically push guys around – apart from one scene where he kicks that guy – what’s his name? Krebs? – in the ass after catching him snooping around in his room. It was more a case of taking physical punishment, and Dirk was very good at showing that side of Bond, that kind of toughness. He was pretty much the character Fleming wrote, in fact. A lot of the Bogarde persona fitted pretty well. The charm. The quiet, sardonic humour. No smart-ass one-liners or fancy gadgets. Dare I say it – romantic? You gotta remember, at this time the only comparison was Barry Nelson in that Hollywood TV thing. This was way before the big ’60s Bond craze, and all that stuff coming out about Dirk’s sexual preferences. Nobody thought, Hey, this is James Bond, there are certain traditions that must be adhered to.

There were no Bond movie traditions in 1956 … Sure, there was the gourmet food, cigarettes, fast cars, gambling, women – Welles understood what Fleming was doing, and found a visual equivalent for his prose. Mace saw the rushes and thought it was slowing up the picture, all this dwelling on small details – but then Orson would respond with that rich fruity laugh of his and intone in that sherry-ad voice, ‘Dayton, Dayton, the magic’s in the details…’ And Dirk fought to keep the scar – you know, the scar on Bond’s face – I don’t remember which side – but the Rank suits said no way, absolutely not.”

For a while, shooting proceeded at a brisk pace. The initial rushes looked good, all gunmetal monochrome, crazy angles and noiresque shadows, with effects man Les Bowie and his team working miracles for peanuts. To producer Mace’s undoubted relief, Welles set aside his fondness for long, complex, time-consuming takes, opting instead for a quick-cutting, elegant dynamism, forging a narrative that cruised smoothly along like Bond’s Bentley, with ample power in reserve for the big moments. (The muscular style Welles adopted brings to mind the Robert Aldrich of Kiss Me Deadly, or even the early black-and-white work of Russ Meyer during his Faster Pussycat period.)

Mace was even more pleased when Peter Lorre signed on as Drax’s oily sidekick Willy Krebs. (Lorre had already played Bond baddie Le Chiffre on TV, and Welles would later have his own stab at the character, albeit in a chaotic spoof opposite Peter Sellers.)

Welles loved, whenever possible, to bury his own performances under truckloads of theatrical makeup, and so he was somewhat displeased when Mace insisted on departing from both the novel and the original script by having Drax’s facial disfigurement remain “hidden” behind a lifelike mask until, at the film’s climax, Gala Brand tears the mask from his face to reveal the fiend beneath. (Mace still had memories of childhood terrors caused by Lon Chaney’s Phantom Of The Opera, and was also evidently influenced the recent success of the Vincent Price horror movie House Of Wax.) Markedly reluctant, Welles played Drax with little more than a moustache and lightened hair – although Mace did permit him to sport a false nose. And so again, for a time, things skipped along smoothly.

At least, until Mace said he wanted more skin…

A scene lifted straight from the book saw a sunbathing Bond and Gala narrowly survive a murder attempt when Drax’s henchmen detonate the chalk cliff above them. Dazed, bruised, shocked, covered in chalk dust, their clothes reduced to rags, the couple stagger into the sea to cleanse themselves, and re-emerge naked. The scene was duly shot, the nudity merely implied, particularly in the case of Bogarde, who had no illusions about his slightness of build. The rushes were screened to Mace. “Fine,” he approved puffing at his Havana. “Okay. In fact, good. But … You know what I really wanted to see? What every guy with balls wants to see in that kind of scene? Come on Orson, you’re a guy with balls. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t just love to see some tit in that scene? Well, Orson, where’s the tit, you goddam lapsed iconoclast?” There was laughter, but it soon became evident that Mace was serious. Warned that he was heading for an X-certificate, he merely shrugged. “So let’s make history. A British movie with tit. It’s the future. just ask that goddam Swede, that Bergman guy. Skin sells.” Cuttingly, Welles inquired whether the producer really wanted Moonraker to “wind up as grindhouse material”? If so, then maybe Mace ought to consider directing it himself. (At one point, Welles even made a rather unfair allusion to Susan Alexander, the untalented would-be opera singer girlfriend of Charles Foster Kane.)

Bogarde was, reportedly, none too happy with all of this, and co-producer Ian Hunter voiced fierce objections. As for Miss Bright herself, her attitude was one of wry, detached amusement. “When Dayt gets an idea in his head, there’s no saying no.” Clearly in love with the maverick producer, she was willing to do anything that, in his opinion, would “help the picture”. Finally, Mace and Welles settled on shooting “clean” and “dirty” versions, with Mace directing the racier takes. These consisted largely of voyeuristic cheesecake inserts, with a double standing in for Bogarde. When the camera operator refused point-blank to soil his lenses with such sordid stuff, Mace operated the camera himself. When the suits at Rank demanded a viewing of the work-in-progress, they were, to a man, “absolutely appalled”. The strait-laced J. Arthur Rank personally ordered that the production be halted immediately. Mace threatened to take the picture elsewhere, and even offered to buy out co-producer Ian Hunter’s stake. Hunter, who regarded the whole affair as “a perfect embarrassment”, was only too happy to sell up. Mace then started shopping around for another distributor, and was reduced to talking to smalltime outfits like Britannia and Renown when … he dropped dead from a heart attack.

And so circumstances led Orson Welles to abandon an unfinished film. It was not the first time, and it would not be the last.

Roma Kemrie Mace, the late producer’s estranged wife, found part of her widow’s inheritance to be a bunch of cans of what she was told was “unreleasable rubbish”. Leaving aside the fact that it was unfinished, would she have wanted it shown anyway, when one of the leading players was her late husband’s busty young paramour? (The subsequent career of Brenda Bright is shrouded in mystery. Save for a fleeting appearance in the 1959 teen torment melodrama Beat Girl – which, incidentally, featured John Barry’s first film score – she seems to have vanished without trace. A great pity since, by all accounts, she was an actress of considerable talent.)

When, a few years later, Broccoli and Saltzman came knocking at her door, Mrs Mace was perfectly willing to part with the Moonraker rights. The Eon partners screened the footage and ruled out a rescue attempt. They wanted to shoot their Bond series in colour, for a family audience. Their eventual 1979 production was to dump the novel’s “dated” storyline in favour of a more topical, Star Wars-era concoction from the pen of Christopher Wood, aka Timothy Lea of Confessions of a Window Cleaner fame. By this time, the original Welles version had long since faded into an obscurity so deep that not one of his biographers considers it worthy of more than the briefest passing mention, if that. Perhaps Welles himself felt that it wasn’t really his project, what with all the meddling from producer Mace.

And Bogarde seemed, for whatever reason, to have erased the whole thing from his memory. Possibly, viewing the later success of the Eon Bonds, he had no wish to see his interpretation of 007 subjected to comparisons with Connery, and quietly hoped that none of the footage would ever re-emerge. Whatever the case, he never spoke or wrote of it.

End of story?

Not quite.

“I mean it really is beyond bizarre,” says Jhodi Mace Chambers, award-winning video artist, granddaughter of Dayton Mace, and the person primarily responsible for exhuming The Forgotten Bond Film. “I mean I had heard things, over the years, but … it was only after Grandma died and they were clearing out the garage, and lo and behold, all these old film cans … Imagine my excitement when I found out what they were. I’d always assumed she’d had them destroyed.”

For the past three years Jhodi has been waging a war on two fronts: to restore the footage, much of it badly deteriorated, for public showing; and to persuade the Bond franchise holders to allow it at least a limited arthouse release, probably integrated into a documentary about its making, and possibly even incorporating the iconic Bond Theme into a suitably retro-007 music score. “In all, we have maybe forty minutes of usable scenes,” Jhodi explains. “Mr Welles” – charmingly, she refers to the director thus throughout – “had several script pages, around half the total, still to shoot. These we’re hoping to re-create, or at least approximate, with the help of some digital wizardry. Right now, we’re negotiating for permission to take suitable footage of Mr Bogarde, Mr Welles and other principal players from various films they made in the mid-’50s in order to synthesize, as it were, some semblance of the unshot Moonraker scenes. Maybe we’ll even shoot some new stuff – who knows? Maybe the best we can do would be a series of stills, filling in the gaps, and possibly with sound, employing voice artists. It’s going to take time and money, but in my belief it’s a worthwhile venture. This is a Bond film like no other. Cinema history.”

Jodhi has even managed to track down what appears to be the sole surviving copy of the shooting script. Actress Susan Teale, who played the small role of Bond’s secretary Loelia Ponsonby (a character from the books who more or less stands in for Moneypenny here) produced the handsomely bound screenplay when Jodhi went out to interview her in Florida, where she now resides. Apparently she would often keep scripts as mementos, and has built up quite a collection. (“In the film they made Loelia – or Lil, as Bond calls her, a blonde,” Miss Teale told Jodhi. “To avoid my looking too similar to Brenda. In the book, though, both women are dark-haired, the same type. Ian Fleming had this thing about dark-haired, blue-eyed women. And working with Dirk was sheer delight. A lovely man, so handsome and charming.”)

Credited to Welles and Mace, from an outline by Fleming, the script stays scrupulously faithful to the novel – the most significant departure being the “lifelike mask” that Hides Drax’s wartime scarring.

Interestingly, Bond is presented here not as the never-a-dull-moment action man of the Eon films, but a civil servant who endures periods of desk-bound boredom between assignments. The film opens with a series of establishing shots of London on a dull workaday morning. Packed buses, rain, yawning commuters. Slowly, we close in on the tall, grey building near Regent’s Park and – in a scene shot by Welles with an almost fetishistic attention to firearm aesthetics worthy of Sergio Leone – we find the shadowy figure of Bond killing time, as in the novel, with some target practice. (Welles cheekily borrows from his own famous entrance from The Third Man, allowing us the first proper glimpse of Bond’s face as he flips out his gunmetal Ronson and lights a cigarette.) Next, in sharp contrast, we see 007 ploughing through a pile of routine reports in his office before, mercifully, receiving the longed-for summons from “M”. After the briefing, and a short scene showing Bond at home, brushing up on his card tricks, we cut to the Blades club, where Bond enjoys a gourmet dinner with “M”, then teaches the cheating Drax a lesson at the gaming table. (This dramatic encounter, with fencing substituted for bridge, along with disappointingly reworked versions of the Drax and Gala Brand characters, eventually found its way into the recent Die Another Day.)

Cinematographer Conrad Dwight is the proud owner of a 1956 Moonraker lobby card, quite possibly the only one left in existence. “Pretty cheap-looking, huh?” chuckles Dwight. “But bear in mind, this kind of layout was considered pretty cutting-edge back in ’56. And incidentally, did you notice how Orson’s moustache seems bigger in that little photo of him in the corner? That’s because he originally wanted to wear one of those big bushy British things, what they used to call, I think, a ‘handlebar’, but Dayton didn’t like it, and made him scale it down. But Orson would sometimes stick on a different-sized or coloured moustache and shoot an extra take, just to get Mace mad when he saw the rushes. We had a great time with that, the whole crew, and it accounts for any discrepancies you might spot in, shall we say, the generosity of Orson’s facial hair when you view the footage. And the funny thing is, on the lobby card, Dayton used a shot of Orson with one of those joke ‘taches. Just don’t ask me why.” Personally designed by Dayton Mace (who, despite his continual interference and “backseat directing”, settled for a modest credit, wisely highlighting the better-known names), the lobby card anticipated that the finished film would receive an adults-only X-certificate from the British censors. The producer’s intention was to send out these cards to all Rank cinemas together with a teaser trailer. “Some chance!” Dwight grins. Rank, of course, would have none of it, and no copies of either lobby card or trailer were ever distributed. “You see,” Dwight goes on to explain, “Mace was always talking about making a movie with ‘real balls’, keeping faithful to Fleming’s vision – the sex, the snobbery, the sadism. Orson certainly wasn’t against that, as such, nor Dirk, but they knew where to draw the line. Mace did too, but we’re talking about one stubborn bastard. Stubborn and in love. I’m sure, if not for Mace’s obsession with getting his girlfriend’s tits on the screen, we would have been able to finish the picture and get it released. But that’s what Mace thought Bond was really all about – the sex. If he’d produced Dr No, we’d have seen Andress come out of the sea naked, like in the book. But anyway, as for what the cinemagoing public would’ve made of James Bond in 1956 – a tough, serious, adult Bond – was the world ready? Well, your guess is as good as mine.”

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that the Welles/Mace Moonraker would have suffered more or less the same fate as Charles Laughton’s Night Of The Hunter, i.e. critical disdain, public indifference, gradual cult status, and then, decades later, rediscovery and universal acclaim. Both films were low-budget efforts shot in academy-ratio monochrome at a time when Cinemascope and Technicolor were all the rage. Stylistically, both harked back to German Expressionism, considered passe by the mid-’50s.

And Dirk Bogarde may have been the “idol of the Odeons”, the pin-up boy of ’50s British cinema, but would his legions of fans have accepted him as this ruthless, shadowy Secret Serviceman who drinks and smokes to excess, “carries on” with married women – more than one at a time, it’s clearly implied – worships his crusty old boss, and, most importantly of all, doesn’t get the girl at the end of the picture. (According to cameraman Dwight, they never got round to shooting the last scene, but the actor pencilled in to play Gala Brand’s fiance was, ironically enough, the young Patrick McGoohan, who was to find fame as clean-living spy John Drake.)

It’s difficult to imagine the ’56 Moonraker as anything more than a one-off. For one thing, an X-rating would have done the film few favours at the box-office. For another, it seems unlikely that Bogarde would have been either willing or able to embark on a Bond series in parallel with his Doctor comedies; he was a restless actor, and boredom would soon have set in. And while Welles might not have been above signing up to direct at least one sequel – he always needed the money – he too would probably have found the world of 007 starting to lose its lustre after a time, and his lack of interest would, no doubt, have become increasingly apparent onscreen.

For devotees of the Eon franchise, with its groan-inducing puns, wall-to-wall stunts, globe-trotting scenarios and outlandish gadgetry, Welles’ “ripe old slice of blood-and-thunder” might seem like tame stuff indeed. No invisible Astons, not even so much as an ejector seat. Just the one nocturnal car chase culminating in Bond’s Bentley being wrecked by rolls of newsprint. Precious little spectacular action, but as much authentic Fleming as those early Eon instalments, when Connery was a sleek, dangerous shark, not the flabby middle-aged businessman his Bond eventually came to resemble.

The secret, Mace and Welles and Bogarde all plainly understood, is STYLE STYLE STYLE, not just stunts stunts stunts. And style we get, all the black-and-white style and atmosphere you could wish for. Cool and chic as 007’s cigarette case. For Fleming purists, connoisseurs of the literary Bond – or at at least anyone who thinks the Eon films started going downhill even before Bond stopped sporting a trilby – this forgotten, unfinished Bond-that-might-have-been is a revelation. Never has the weird hermetic dreamworld of Ian Fleming been evoked, in its original ’50s designscape, with such astonishing precision and panache.

The 1956 Moonraker was a product of the imagination of Simon Bermuda and in April 2004 he explained the background to the project

It began, simply, as a fun way of developing my web skills. My background is in fiction writing, and one thing I learned from my early reading of Ian Fleming is the technique of embroidering a rather far-fetched storyline with the right amount of authentic detail. The article certainly does have a strong basis in fact – the Rank Organization did hold the rights to Moonraker at this time – but also employs what you might call ‘creative extension of fact’. It’s also a kind of oblique form of film criticism. When I finally got tired of tinkering around with the Moonraker article and seeking out suitable photo material, I put it on the web. Not in any serious attempt to pull the wool over people’s eyes, but to try and gauge how much interest there might be in this whole topic of alternate cinema history. (Maybe the spirit of Orson Welles led me to leave the reader to make of it what he or she would…) I must admit that, although it’s been fascinating – and often flattering – to follow the various arguments on the web about the article’s veracity, I’m somewhat disappointed that people have tended to concentrate on the is-it-real issue, rather than its content. Ever since I first heard about the Rank Organization optioning the Moonraker rights back in the ’50s, I’ve tried to imagine the film that might have resulted. I do think Welles would have been a great choice as director – and an excellent Drax. And Dirk Bogarde, while perhaps not perfect casting for Bond, would have been a likely candidate, as he was Rank’s biggest star at the time, and 007′s screen image was not yet established. So anyway, thanks for your interest in the article, and I hope I’ve made things a bit clearer. I really do wish I could send everyone DVDs of the rediscovered Welles Moonraker footage…Regards, Simon 

  1. […] Moonraker: the forgotten 1956 James Bond film (Fictional) […]

  2. […] give it new direction and new life. And if you are wondering the poster at the top is from a 2004 Internet hoax that claiming to have found 40 minutes of footage from an unfinished 1956 version of Moonraker […]

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