The Paris Cinema Project

“He needed to be patient, waiting for success,” Le Monde wrote in an obituary for the Scottish actor Sean Connery, who died in October. But when that success finally did come, it would be “dazzling” (fulgarant). As the obituary pointed out, Connery made films throughout the mid-to-late-1950s, but his 1962 role as James Bond, in James Bond 007 contre Dr. No (Dr. No), resulted in one of the great star turns in film history, making him an international celebrity.

The evidence from France of Connery’s impact is both limited and conclusive. Primary materials from the period of the first Bond films are surprisingly hard to come by. For the American researcher, really, there is only the newspaper France-Soir, and only starting in the mid-sixties and running through the early-seventies, available at retronews.fr, a site affiliated with the Bibliothèque nationale. But that small sample nevertheless attests to Connery’s astonishing stardom in Paris and the rest of France, perhaps greater than that of any foreign actor since the end of World War Two.

Connery featured in ads for a reprise of Les ‘Criminels de Londres,’ even though he had only a very small part (‘France-Soir,’ December 5,1965)

After Dr. No, Bond films would always be playing in Paris, and their presence, on television and in cinemas, only intensified when a new 007 movie was about to appear. To mark the imminent opening of Opération Tonnerre (Thunderball [1965]) in Paris, Dr. No showed at midnight on December 5th, 1965 on the première chaine, one of France’s two television channels at the time. That same week, two cinemas, the Rio Opéra in the ninth arrondissement and the Telstar in the thirteenth, booked a reprise of Les Criminels de Londres (No Road Back [1957]), with Connery in a minor supporting role but nevertheless the only actor featured, and the only one named, in the advertisement that the cinemas ran.

Two weeks later, Opération Tonnerre opened at four cinemas in the city. At the Normandie on the Champs-Élysées, one of the most important cinémas d’exclusivité in Paris, fans could see and hear Connery in a subtitled version originale print of the film. At the Rex, the Rotonde, and the Danton, they could watch and listen to the dubbed version française.  As just one further indication of the incredibly rich and diverse film culture of the city, the new Bond replaced the great Costa-Gavras film, Compartiment Tueurs (The Sleeping Car Murders [1965]), at all four of those cinemas. In fact, this practice of opening movies simultaneously in several cinemas across the city seemed to be common during the sixties, unlike the 1930s, for instance, when a major film typically first appeared at just a single important cinema. In one example among many at the time, Cat Ballou (1965) opened the same day as Opération Tonnerre, at four cinemas, three in version originale and one in version française.

Capitalizing on the interest in a new Bond film, the Napoléon cinema in the seventeenth arrondissement scheduled an entire James Bond Session, featuring Bons baisers de Russie (From Russia With Love [1963]), Goldfinger (1964), and Dr. No. Even before that, in October, 1965, France-Soir began running a James Bond comic strip, with the stories credited to the author of the novels, Ian Fleming.

Just before the opening of ‘Opération Tonnerre’ in Paris, ‘France-Soir’ began running a James Bond comic strip and and also a comic adaptation of ‘Viva Maria,’ in anticipation of the Brigitte Bardot film (December 19, 1965)

At the end of February, 1966, Opération Tonnerre remained at those four cinemas, with the publicity campaign now stressing the overwhelming popularity of the film. According to one advertisement in France-Soir, “725,000 spectators have already seen the most explosive of all the Bond movies.” A few weeks later, the film left its exclusive engagement and began fanning out to other cinemas in the city, replaced at the Normandie, Rex, and Rotonde by the great spaghetti western, Pour une poignée de dollars (A Fistful of Dollars [1964]), and at the Danton by another sensational hit from the mid-sixties, La Mélodie du Bonheur (The Sound of Music [1964]).

“725,000 viewers have already seen the most
explosive James Bond,” ‘France-Soir,’ February 26, 1966

During the extended run of the film, both Bond and Connery remained in the news. In January, 1966, the front page of France-Soir teased a story about the actor who dubbed Connery’s voice in all the French versions of the Bond films, telling readers that the 34-year-old Jean-Pierre Duclos hated Bond, “because he hardly talks.” On an inside-page, the whole story revealed that Duclos was paid by the line, and Bond was mostly a man of action rather than words. The money-conscious actor admitted that he preferred dubbing for “talkative Italians” (les Italiens volubiles). A few months before, France-Soir ran a puff piece about the Lanvin fashion house. “You might think it’s crazy to spend 200-300 francs for a shirt,” the article began. “No, you just have to be rich,” and also “love rare fabrics and perfect cuts.” If you were one of the lucky few, then you might be able to afford a custom design by Lanvin, just like a cross-section of celebrities, including French author and culture minister André Malraux, the former finance minister Wilfrid Baumgartner, the actor Yul Brynner…and Sean Connery.

“The Man Who dubs James Bond…Prefers
Talkative Italians,”
‘France-Soir,’ January 2, 1966

Advertising campaigns for other films took full advantage of any possible connection to Bond, regardless of how remote. In April, 1966, Notre Homme Flint (Our Man Flint [1966]), with James Coburn as an 007-type spy, opened in Paris, and the ads quoted a Paris-Match review that claimed “Coburn leaves Sean Connery far behind.” Two months earlier, when Mickey Spillane’s hardboiled Solo pour une blonde (The Girl Hunters [1963]), showed in Paris (probably in a reprise rather than in a first-run), the France-Soir advertisement listed only Spillane and one other actor, the latter not even by name. Readers were informed that the film included La Blonde en Or de ‘Goldfinger,’ the blonde in gold, Shirley Eaton, the woman who had made a brief but memorable appearance in the Bond film, suffocated by head-to-toe gold body paint.

For at least the rest of the decade, Bond and Connery remained constant in Paris. There would be frequent retrospectives of the 007 films, at the Ranelagh cinema in the sixteenth arrondissement in July, 1966, for instance, or four years later, in July, 1970, when the Festival Viva James Bond ran at five cinemas. New “Bond Girls” would be announced and celebrated, and one Bond film at least briefly entered the everyday vocabulary of those interested in matters of high finance. In May, 1965, France-Soir informed readers that, “Americans are no longer afraid of Goldfinger,” in an article about increased gold reserves in the US, and then, in August, 1966, ran the headline “Washington Resurrects Goldfinger,” in a story about President Johnson’s monetary policies. 

On the front page of ‘France-Soir,’ August 13, 1966, Brigitte Bardot, posing here with a leopard, discusses a recent trip

There were some limits to Connery’s celebrity, and that of the man he played in the movies. For the true measure of stardom in Paris and the rest of France, at least in the 1960s, we need only look to the example of Brigitte Bardot. France-Soir seems to have run a story about her, always accompanied by a large photo and often on the front page, two or three times a week. There was “Bardot Talks About Her Trip,” which ran, for some reason, with a picture of “BB” and a leopard; or “Brigitte et Gunter Sachs,” with a photo of the actress, in a bikini, with her then-husband; or Bardot attending a movie premiere without Sachs, perhaps a sign of trouble in paradise; or Bardot dancing at a disco “at five in the morning”; and also Bardot leaving for the United States, for the opening there of Viva Maria, telling reporters that she was both “moved and anxious”; In addition, in a publicity campaign similar to the one for Opération Tonnerre, France-Soir began running a Viva Maria comic strip in 1965, “in anticipation of the great Louis Malle film starring Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau.”  

Really, though, no other star at the time could compare to Bardot in France. That Connery might even have been a close second is a testament to his popularity, and to the public’s fascination with him, and with 007. Indeed, in France, Connery may have become confined by those films, and by the character, that made him so famous. As the obituary in Le Monde pointed out, his 1972 film, The Offence, had been banned in France until 2007. No official reason had ever been given, but Le Monde speculated that Connery’s “icy” (flaçante) and “radical” performance, of a police inspector who kills a suspected child molester while interrogating him, may just have been too much for French audiences, and could have “damaged the glittering career of his most famous avatar, secret agent James Bond.” Instead, French audiences preferred thinking of Connery as the spy they loved, once again in the words of Le Monde, as “always and forever elegant.”