Obituary: Alberto De Martino, film writer and director

Alberto De Martino: Film director who cast Sean Connery's brother, Neil, in one of his many movies copying successful formulas
Alberto De Martino: Film director who cast Sean Connery's brother, Neil, in one of his many movies copying successful formulas
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Born: 12 June, 1929, in Rome. Died: 2 June, 2015, in Rome, aged 85.

WHEN the James Bond films proved a huge hit in the early 1960s Italian film director Alberto De Martino decided to tap into their success. There was a sudden spate of secret agent movies, but what made De Martino’s film different was that he not only copied the formula but recruited many of the Bond actors to appear in it.

His cast included Lois Maxwell, who played Miss Moneypenny in the Bond films, Adolfo Celli, who was the villain Emilio Largo in Thunderball and was again the baddie in De Martino’s film too, Daniela Bianchi, the sexy, young Soviet agent in From Russia with Love, and Bernard Lee, reprising his role as head of the British secret service.

But the really big-name signing was that of Connery himself – not Sean Connery, but his younger brother Neil Connery. He had been working as a plasterer before being handed a starring role in Operation Kid Brother.

In the new film Britain’s top secret agent is unavailable, so his civilian sibling is recruited to thwart the latest villainous plot for world domination.

Cashing in on the name, Neil Connery played a character called Neil Connery, a plastic surgeon and hypnotist, skills that come in handy in the course of the action. He was rather slighter of build than Sean and appeared in the film with a beard, although there was a certain family resemblance.

The similarities between De Martino’s film and the Bond films were even more striking, with a combination of action, gadgetry, glamour and exotic locations. The film was also known as OK Connery and Operation Double 007. De Martino made a career out of writing and directing films modelled on Hollywood hits. Dirty Heroes’s title referenced The Dirty Dozen and its tagline tapped into Where Eagles Dare – “They go where eagles don’t dare.”

And when The Exorcist proved a hit De Martino responded with The Antichrist.

The son of a film make-up artist, De Martino was born in Rome in 1929. He was a frequent visitor to his father’s sets and appeared in small roles in several Italian films as a boy.

He studied law at university, but decided to pursue a career in the film industry, working first as an assistant editor and assistant director in the early 1950s and writing for an Italian television series of The Three Musketeers.

So-called “sword and sandal” movies began to take off in the late 1950s, with Italian film-makers drawing on ancient Greek history and myth, starting with Hercules.

The success of the Hollywood epic Ben-Hur fuelled the boom and De Martino made his debut as a feature film writer and director with The Invincible Gladiator in 1961.

He returned to the genre with Perseus Against the Monster and The Triumph of Hercules. When spaghetti westerns took off, he made spaghetti westerns, including Django Shoots First and $100,000 for Ringo, a favourite of Quentin Tarantino, who chose it in a personal retrospective of spaghetti westerns at the Venice Film Festival in 2007.

De Martino’s films were made on tight budgets, either in English or dubbed into English, with the emphasis on spectacle, action and adventure. They found an international audience. He was more successful at getting a UK release for his films than many more celebrated European directors were.

Operation Kid Brother was not his first secret agent movie. He had already made The Spy with Ten Faces and Special Mission Lady Chaplin, with Daniela Bianchi as star. But Operation Kid Brother was his most ambitious venture.

As well as recruiting as many Bond actors as possible, he also got Italy’s top film composer Ennio Morricone to produce a score that would have fitted comfortably onto a Bond film.

Sean Connery and the Bond producers were unhappy and the press whipped up stories of a family feud.

Sean maintained that he thought both he and his brother were being exploited, though actors reported that they were paid more for Operation Kid Brother than they had been on the Bond movies.

Neil Connery received £5,000, a handsome fee for a newcomer in those days. He found De Martino quick and efficient and enjoyed making the film. He made only a few more film and television appearances, and returned to work as a plasterer.

The New York Times dubbed the film “Operation Turkey” and Britain’s Monthly Film Bulletin called it “a grotesque parody of a parody”, but it seems to have made money over the years.

De Martino, who sometimes used the name Martin Herbert on credits, offered his own spin on Dirty Harry with Blazing Magnum, with Stuart Whitman and Martin Landau.

And Holocaust 2000 was a variation on The Omen, with Kirk Douglas discovering the boy he thought was his son is actually the seed of Satan. Douglas has just built a nuclear power station on an ancient holy site in the Middle East, and, all in all, it does not augur well. De Martino’s career stalled in the early 1980s when cinema itself looked like it might not survive. He did not talk about his private life in interviews, but he had family.

He revealed in one interview that he eventually stopped making films because his son feared he would have a heart attack on set.