Saturday, 13 June 2015

Peter R. Hunt: The secret auteur of the James Bond series

The editor of every Bond film between 1962 and 1967, Hunt's stamp on the series is as indelible as Ken Adam's production design and John Barry's music. 

Hunt is credited with developing a new style of editing for action pictures. Before Hunt, the accepted wisdom was that you do not cut on action. Recognising the Bond films' potential for a new kind of visceral experience, Hunt became the first editor to cut on action during action scenes, adding a sense of pace and punch to Bond's adventures that set the films apart from other genre films of the period. In this way, Hunt is at least partially responsible for laying the foundation for the increasingly frenetic style of today's blockbusters.

Hunt had a reputation for saving movies, and the Bond series was inarguably rescued on more than one occasion by his leaps of brilliance. In 1963, with the release date nearing, From Russia With Love required major reshoots to clean up story problems. However the main unit had run seriously over budget on location which left the production team with few options to fix the film.  Hunt came up with a series of simple solutions which saved the film (including filling coverage gaps by simply flipping footage to make it look like alternative angles). The best example from this production is how Hunt figured out how to fix the film's pivotal exposition sequence. Rather than reconstructing the villain's lair set, Hunt took already shot footage of actress Lotte Lenya (Rosa Klebb) then used it as a back-projection plate. The director then filmed the actress in front of her back-projected image so that she could complete her side of the sequence with the 'set' behind her. From Russia With Love is now regarded by many Bond fans as the best Bond film. 

Hunt went on to perform similar duties on Goldfinger (reportedly re-constructing Guy Hamilton's coverage of the iconic car chase after his footage was judged unworkable), Thunderball (he had to cut down a three hour director's cut) and You Only Live Twice (for which he performed double duty as second unit director). His skills were so valued that when Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman was in production on The Ipcress File, he brought Hunt in to advise him on director Sidney J. Furie's rushes. According to the excellent commentary track, Saltzman was unimpressed with Furie's idiosyncratic approach, and felt it would be impossible to cut together into a commercial film. Hunt thought otherwise. With his masterful work editing the film, Furie contends that Hunt saved his career.

For his services on the previous entries, Hunt was rewarded with directing the next Bond epic: On Her Majesty's Secret Service. His direction of OHMSS sees the Hunt 'style' reach its peak. For expert testimony, here's an excerpt from Steven Soderbergh's recent blog post on OHMSS:

"it’s like Peter Hunt [...] took all the ideas of the French new wave and blended them with Eisenstein in a Cuisinart to create a grammar that still tops today’s how fast can you cut aesthetic, because the difference here is that each of the shots—no matter how short—are real shots, not just additional coverage from the hosing-it-down school of action, so there is a unification of the aesthetic of the first unit and the second unit that doesn’t exist in any other Bond film. "- See more at:

Check out the fight on the beach (at 4:11), which is a great example of Hunt's style. If you look closely, you'll note that Hunt cuts from one major piece of action to another without showing the in-between moments. Characters go from fighting by a boat to the middle of the surf with no shot to show the distance covered. It's a jarring effect, but because Hunt, as Soderbergh notes, makes sure that each shot is perfectly framed to capture the action, the viewer gets a sense of visceral movement without a confusion about the geography or the position of the characters in relation to each other. It's a high-impact, impressionistic style that Hunt carries through the rest of the film.

As a new director with a novice leading man, Hunt did not have the massive budgets of the previous entries. What he did have was a book with a solid dramatic core, a more emotionally involving story that would require the character of Bond to actually change. With less leeway to go for the gadgets, and without Connery, Hunt and his team had to work hard to make a film that could stand up without the Scotsman. Even critics who hate Lazenby will admit that the film, in terms of its cast, script, photography, stunts and music, is far better than most of the films which followed it. With his talents for rescuing faltering productions, Hunt was up to the herculean task in front of him, and his experience with the established production team ensured that OHMSS wound up as one of the best films in the series. It is a testament to Hunt's skills that, despite Lazenby, the film still packs an emotional resonance lacking in the series. 

Hunt's association with the Bond franchise ended with OHMSS. When the film (and Lazenby) failed to break out, the producers made the decision to clean the slate and did not ask Hunt to return. Hunt would go onto become a jobbing director in the 70s and 80s, but never regained the kind of success he had achieved as an editor. Hunt lived long enough to experience OHMSS's critical re-evaluation in the 90s, before dying at the age of 77 in 2002.

While his association with the Bond films was relatively short, Hunt's influence endures. During the making of OHMSS, he brought on editor John Glen, who would go on to edit Roger Moore's late 70s entries and was in charge of the second-unit for one or two iconic scenes. He would go on to direct all of the 80s films, continuing Hunt's frenetic style and returning to the gritty realism of OHMSS with his two entries starring Timothy Dalton. In this way, Hunt, via Glen, is a major influence on the style and substance of the Daniel Craig era. 

POSTSCRIPT: Beyond Bond, Hunt's work, especially on OHMSS, has inspired several now-famous directors. I have already mentioned Soderbergh, but the biggest fan of Hunt's work is Christopher Nolan. A big Bond fan, most famously Nolan used OHMSS as inspiration for the ice fortress dream sequence at the end of Inception. While he may not have the name recognition of Sean Connery or Roger Moore, Peter R. Hunt's contribution to the series cannot be ignored.

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