Irvin Kershner, director of perhaps the best of the STAR WARS films, passed away last Friday, November 27th, 2010. He was 87.
Kershner began as a documentary filmmaker, first for the U.S. government, then for the TV series CONFIDENTIAL FILE. In 1958, he made his feature film debut with STAKEOUT ON DOPE STREET, a crime thriller he co-wrote with Andrew J. Fenady, backed by Roger Corman. Produced on a low budget, it was sold for a nice profit to Warner Brothers for distribution.
With Fenaday as producer, Irvin Kershner would shoot multiple episodes of the Nick Adams starring Western THE REBEL.
Equally adept at drama and comedy, Kershner would direct films such as 1966’s A FINE MADNESS (starring Sean Connery), THE FLIM-FLAM MAN, and the Barbara Striesand starring UP THE SANDBOX (1972), which featured surreal fantasy sequences.
In 1978, Irvin Kershner directed the ESP/Horror thriller THE EYES OF LAURA MARS, based on a screenplay by John Carpenter (HALLOWEEN).
George Lucas, who was a student of Kershner’s when he taught at the University of Southern California, chose him to direct the second STAR WARS film, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Irvin Kershner was able to give the film both a sense of continuity with the previous installment and a darker, more sophisticated visual touch.
Kershner was reunited with star Sean Connery again on the non-series James Bond film NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983, an updated remake of THUNDERBALL.
In 1990 he directed ROBOCOP 2, an action-packed sequel to the original, quite competent but not as satisfying as the first in the series.
After directing an episode of SEAQUEST DSV (aka SEAQUEST 2032) in 1993, he retired from the film business.
Picking up the nickname “Kersh” during EMPIRE, Irvin Kershner was apparently a well-liked man among his fellow filmmakers, and certainly a memorable director for genre fans.
Much was made in 1983 of the return of Sean Connery to the role of James Bond, in spite of the fact that Roger Moore’s most recent outings had been spectacular financial successes. But the outer space extravagance of Moonraker in 1979 had set many Bond fans pining for the simpler days of the Connery era, and television showings of the older films proved increasingly popular. Eon (the official Bond production company) responded, and the next film, 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, was a noticeably scaled-back effort; even so, the nostalgia for Connery’s films continued to grow. The demand was there – but not just anyone can make a James Bond film, right?
In the late ’50s (before the Bond films were even a gleam in Eon’s eyes), producer Kevin McClory and writer Jack Whittingham worked with Ian Fleming on a series of story treatments for a proposed film series based on the Bond charcter but not on the Bond books. The films never materialzed, but Fleming later published as Thunderball. The problem was that the author apparently used numerous story elements (including Blofeld and Spectre) from the treatments developed with McClory-Whittingham, who were understandably peeved. Years of legal battles followed with the end result not only that the aggrieved parties received their due credit on future editions of the book (“based on a screen treatment by K. McClory, J. Whittingham and the author”), but also that McClory held onto theatrical rights to the story – which is why McClory is credited as producer of 1964’s THUNDERBALL, which is “presented by” the usual Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry J. Saltzman. Almost two decades later, American producer Jack Schwartzman acquired those rights and made Connery – in the midst of a pre-Untouchables career slump – a handsome offer, and a new title was taken from a remark made by Connery’s wife after he pledged never to play Bond again.
The biggest problem with NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN proved to be a tough hurdle – the fact that it had already been made. Even though Thunderball is lauded as part of the ‘classic Connery package’, it’s always been one of the more problematic Bond films. NEVER SAY NEVER AGAINdoesn’t so much fix them as swap them out – the ridiculous plastic surgery gambit is replaced by the equally silly ‘implant a duplicate of the President’s cornea’ routine, and underwater action is just as dull as it had been 20 years ago. Fortunately, the remake manages to come through with an absolutely first rate supporting cast, including Klaus Maria Brandauer as Largo, Max von Sydow as Blofeld, Bernie Casey as Felix Leiter, and the Jackal himself, Edward Fox as ‘M’. On the feminine side, a fabulously young Kim Basinger makes an early appearance alongside one of our favorite ’80s vixens, Barbara Carrera (still looking great in the accompanying featurette).
This cast would be a treat in any film, but they brighten up the Bond universe considerably. Austrian-born Brandauer was fresh from his art house triumph in Mephisto and contributes what is likely the most deeply layered performance in the entire Bond series and presents more than a match for Connery, then in his early 50s and in enviable physical shape. NEVER SAY NEVER AGAINis solidly directed by Irvin Kershner – a hot ticket after The Empire Strikes Back, though best remembered by this reviewer for his superb 1977 television docudrama Raid on Entebbe. He allows the cast room to breathe and inhabit their roles (something that many “official” Bond films have forgotten) but also has a tendency towards flat lighting and stiff staging that can occasionally feel like an expensive TV film (the SPECTRE board meeting is a particularly haphazard affair, almost as if the set hadn’t been finished in time and they were forced to make do at the last minute). Kershner also manages to unobtrusively cater the film to Connery’s advanced age, keeping the actor’s action sequences grounded in the realm of the physically conceivable. Other aspects, however, like the grating disco-jazz Michel Legrand score and some regrettable fashion choices have dated the film badly. We remember the way films in the Eon series used Ken Adam’s sets and Derek Meddings’ miniatures to create a sense of the spectacular, while NSNA is content to be Remo Williams in a tuxedo.
The vagaries of corporate library acquisition have brought the home video rights for NEVER SAY NEVER AGAINback to MGM (the longtime home of Eon Productions) who are releasing the title on Blu-Ray in a cross promotion with Quantum of Solace , and the 3rd volume of “official series” HD releases. The image itself is quite nice after a shaky opening credit sequence (likely because of the opticals used to add the titles to the screen). The picture looks good, with Douglas Slocombe’s unaffected lighting turning out rather crisply and without any obvious filtering.
We were also surprised by the number of extras present, including “The Big Gamble,” a refreshingly honest documentary on the film’s difficult production history. In this regard, it’s a pleasant respite from the docus on the “official” Bond films that only feature stories that utilize keywords like “honored”, “thrilled”, and “professional”. The late producer Jack Schwartzman (father of Jason and husband of Talia Shire) was really just an attorney who spotted the legal loophole that allowed for a remake of Thunderball outside of Eon’s auspices, and was unprepared for the complexities of shooting a film on this scale. We especially enjoyed listening to the un-credited writers bemoan the addition of the execrable theme song to the otherwise well done opening gag.
There is also a commentary track featuring Kershner and Bond expert (and former Cinefantastique contributor) Steven Jay Rubin who has his hands full keeping the director from lapsing into describe-what’s-onscreen mode. Other featurettes include “Bond is Back,” focusing on Connery’s return to the role and “The Girls of Never Say Never Again, “which is self-explanatory. But our favorite extra has got to be the theatrical trailer – it’s a howler, reeking of Cannon Films ballyhoo at best and high-rent early ’80s porn at worst.