ewis Gilbert, a British filmmaker who directed World War II epics, three popular entries in the James Bond franchise, and understated dramas centered on working-class characters, including the Oscar-nominated Michael Caine hit “Alfie,” died Feb. 23 in Monaco. He was 97.
Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, producers of the Bond movie company Eon Productions, confirmed the death in a statement. Gilbert’s son John Gilbert told the BBC his father had dementia.
The son of vaudevillians, Gilbert performed in silent films as a child and appeared with Laurence Olivier in the romantic comedy “The Divorce of Lady X” (1938) before stepping behind the camera. He became an assistant to director Alfred Hitchcock and leading British film producer Alexander Korda, and went on to direct more than 40 movies.
Gilbert drew on his experience as a Royal Air Force documentarian for the combat films “Reach for the Sky” (1956), about World War II flying ace Douglas Bader; “Carve Her Name With Pride” (1958), based on the story of Violette Szabo, an undercover agent for British intelligence during World War II; and “Sink the Bismarck!” (1960), based on C.S. Forester’s book about efforts to scuttle the seemingly impregnable German battleship.
He was preparing to shoot what he thought was the movie of a lifetime, an African historical drama with Olivier and Burt Lancaster, when a revolution in Sudan spoiled the production. “Paramount asked if I had anything else,” he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 2000. “I offered a small play I’d optioned.”
The play was “Alfie,” by Bill Naughton, which Gilbert’s wife had recommended he see on London’s West End. Its wry tone and story, about a swaggering, coldhearted cockney Lothario who works as a chauffeur for the rich, appealed to Gilbert. His son suggested a relatively unknown actor for the title role.
Released in 1966, “Alfie” turned Caine into an international star, surprising producers who cringed at the commercial prospects of a film that featured a back-alley abortion and a leading man with a thick cockney accent. One producer recommended Gilbert dub Caine’s voice with that of Tony Curtis.
The film received five Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best actor for Caine, and ended with a credits song – “Alfie,” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David – that became a pop standard. Gilbert seemed to have a golden touch, leading Paramount to offer him the movie adaptation of “The Godfather,” Mario Puzo’s best-selling 1969 crime novel about an Italian-American family.
“In the end, of course, they got [Francis Ford] Coppola to come in and do it,” Gilbert later told Variety magazine, “which was very sensible to get an Italian and not some half-arsed Britisher.”
Gilbert wrote and financed many of his own movies, once raising $4 million from a banker he sat next to at a dinner party. But he traded artistic independence for the opportunity to work on a big-budget blockbuster when he agreed to direct “You Only Live Twice” (1967), the fifth installment in Eon’s Bond series and the only one boasting a screenplay by children’s writer Roald Dahl.
The movie starred Sean Connery as the womanizing secret agent 007 and featured Donald Pleasence as the scar-faced villain Blofeld, who plotted world domination while tending to his cat inside an island base in Japan.
Gilbert later directed “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977) and “Moonraker” (1979). Both starred Roger Moore as a gadget-wielding Bond, who supplemented his Walther PPK pistol with a laser gun that worked in space and a Lotus Esprit sports car that worked underwater.
The director returned to smaller, character-driven dramas with movies such as “Educating Rita” (1983), about a youngEnglishhairdresser (Julie Walters) and the professor (Caine) who teaches her literature, and “Shirley Valentine” (1989), which starred Pauline Collins as a bored housewife who wins a trip to Greece. Like “Rita,” the film was based on a play by Willy Russell.
In both those movies, said Heather Stewart, creative director of the British Film Institute, in a statement after the director’s death, Gilbert “gave us funny and real character studies of women we normally never get a chance to see on the big screen.”
Gilbert was born in London on March 6, 1920. His father died when he was a young man, forcing Lewis to support the family with his acting work before he joined Britain’s air force as a filmmaker at the outset of World War II.
Gilbert displayed his versatility early on, veering from a children’s drama, “The Little Ballerina” (1947), to “The Cosh Boy,” a 1953 film about a juvenile delinquent that was banned from some cinemas and became one of the first British movies to receive an X rating for violence. “Today, you’d show it to 10-year-olds,” Gilbert told the Guardian.
He married Hylda Tafler in 1951, and she died in 2005. He had two sons; one, John, was an associate producer for “Alfie” and an assistant on several of his films. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Gilbert was named a commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1997 and five years later released his final film, “Before You Go,” a comedy with Walters. The movie’s lighthearted material, like that of his earlier work, was in part a result of his upbringing in London music halls and clubs.
“At 4 years old, I was looking through a curtain at people laughing,” he told Variety in 2002. “My films have never been intellectual, although I am, because they reflect my childhood touring around and watching audiences enjoy themselves.”