Ask Sam Mendes, director of the new James Bond film, "Skyfall," which actor set the template for the series' suave superspy, and he won't say Sean Connery. For him, it's Cary Grant.
"'North by Northwest' is the first true Bond movie, I think," Mendes says, referring to Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 classic starring Grant as an ad executive involved in a cross-country cat-and-mouse with spies, national security and a Bond-girl precursor (Eva Marie Saint). "To me, Cary Grant is the father figure, a man who never changes his suit, incredibly suave, sophisticated, sexy."
Mendes - the acclaimed theater director whose first film, "American Beauty" (1999), won best picture and best director Oscars - gives "Skyfall" that same Hitchcockian balance of gravitas and gallantry. Yet he's aware of one more thing that has helped to make the new Bond film among the best-reviewed in the series' 50 years: "You have to get back in touch with your inner 13-year-old," he says. "You have to remind yourself what it was like to watch a Bond movie when you were 13."
Indeed, says Javier Bardem, who plays "Skyfall" cyberterrorist Raoul Silva, "The first one I saw was 'Moonraker,' when I was 12, in the theater. I like that movie," he reminisces of one of the campier 1970s entries. Anything about it in particular? "I like Jaws," the steel-toothed henchman played by Richard Kiel - and exactly the kind of thing 12-year-olds of all ages would find utterly cool.
"Audiences have an emotional attachment to the character," agrees Barbara Broccoli. She and half-brother Michael G. Wilson took over producing the series from their late father, Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli. Speaking, like the others, in a Manhattan hotel room while promoting the movie last month, she believes that, "There's a family experience, and they pass it from generation to generation."
In Mendes' hands that means addressing the beloved conventions without indulging in them. "Skyfall" - the third 007 film in the rebooted series starring Daniel Craig - gives us the venerable Aston Martin DB5 with an ejector seat and front-mounted machine guns, but as a garaged albeit still-useful relic of Bond's past. Gadget-master Q (Ben Whishaw) is now an arrogant young genius who knows quite well all about exploding pens and looks down his nose on such gimmicks.
The new film also addresses new realities, including the financial costs of espionage. To that end, screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who wrote or co-wrote the last four films, and John Logan, nominated for Oscars ("Gladiator," "The Aviator" and "Hugo") give us fiscal watchdog Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) and a government inquiry into M (Judi Dench), head of Britain's spy agency, MI6.
And they also offer a twist on the Bondian supervillain and his secret headquarters, with Silva and a small cadre occupying not a high-tech enclave but a ghost-town island of decaying buildings. Located in the film off the coast of Macau, it was based on the real-life, abandoned Hashima Island, near Nagasaki, Japan.
"That's not the real island," says Mendes. "(It was both) a set and computer-generated. We built the street and the courtyard and then we created the rest."
But Bardem - either playing with you good-naturedly or perhaps because English isn't his first language - remembers the place as if it were real. "It was something very spectacular to see," the Spain-born Oscar winner says. "To be part of it, you feel so isolated and at the same time so uncomfortable, because you feel the presence of many people."
Mendes might say the same of having taken on Bond - and from Connery to Craig, those many people should all applaud.