Here at BOF, we note with respect the passing of screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz—who died July 31 at the age of 68 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer—as much for his legendary pedigree as for his not terribly voluminous body of work. He was the son of writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who netted Oscars in both capacities for the backstage drama All About Eve (1950), and the nephew of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who could well have rested on his laurels after collaborating with Orson Welles on the script of Citizen Kane (1941), but went on to do other memorable films such as The Pride of the Yankees (1942). Many another filmmaking Mankiewicz, whom I shall not enumerate, populated the family, and Tom was also a cousin of TCM host Ben Mankeiwicz.
Tom Mankiewicz was best known for his work on two successful cinematic franchises, one of which is near and dear to my heart. He joined the James Bond series with Diamonds Are Forever (1971), which marked Sean Connery’s return to the role after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and stayed with it through the transition to Roger Moore in Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). I’ve read that he also worked, uncredited, on The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979), and he had a hand in Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980), although billed only as a “creative consultant.”
I actually have mixed feelings about his work, because as much as I liked Live and Let Die, which was the only entry on which Mankeiwicz had sole screenwriting credit, I felt that the comic thrust he introduced started to pull the series downhill. Richard Maibaum, a Bond mainstay from Dr. No (1962) to License to Kill (1989), teamed up on Diamonds and Golden Gun with Mankiewicz, and on Spy with Christopher Wood, with whose Moonraker things really started to bottom out. Quite coincidentally, I recently watched Diamonds for the umpteenth time, and felt more strongly than ever that it was less than the sum of its parts, more like a series of set pieces than an organic whole, with the humor much too pronounced after the splendid OHMSS.
Not surprisingly, my biggest beef with the Superman films is their jokiness, with Christopher Reeve solid as Superman but overly nerdy as Clark Kent, and the villains—especially Ned Beatty—way too buffoonish to pose a serious threat. Discussing the initial box-office failure of Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time (1980), Reeve even wrote in his memoir Still Me, “In retrospect, I think that because I had worked on Superman for so long, my characterization of Clark Kent may have crept into Richard Collier.” Conversely, one of Mankiewicz’s few films as a director was Dragnet (1987), and whether you think turning Jack Webb’s oh-so-serious TV show into a comedy movie was a good idea or not, I appreciated that it was at least supposed to be a comedy.
The rest of the Mankiewicz oeuvre was a mixed bag, ranging from extensive involvement with the TV series Hart to Hart and another comedic directorial outing, Delirious (1991), to an odd triple of screenwriting efforts in 1976. Mother, Jugs & Speed was a comedy that didn’t live up to its cast, with Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch, and Harvey Keitel in the respective title roles, while The Cassandra Crossing featured an all-star cast in the tale of a deadly disease running rampant aboard a train. Best of the bunch was The Eagle Has Landed, directed by the great John Sturges and adapted from the Jack Higgins bestseller about a group of German paratroopers (led by Michael Caine) on a secret mission to kidnap Churchill, which proved that when he wanted to, Mankiewicz could deliver the thrills straight up.
May he rest in peace.