James Bond movies, part 3: Roger Moore

[Read part 1 and part 2 first]

Left: youngish Roger, 1973 (Live and Let Die). Right: older Roger, 1985, somewhat tarted up (A View to a Kill)

It’s not by accident that I left the Roger Moore films till last in my rather eccentric viewing order. I never found him very convincing when I saw his films in the past, even though he is the Bond I grew up with — his tenure took me from age five to 17. It seems appropriate to me that he is Alan Partridge’s favourite Bond. But would I find more to enjoy on returning to these films thirty years later?

Although he made his first Bond film in 1973, eleven years after Connery’s debut in Dr. No, Moore is actually three years older than Connery — so starting in the role aged 46, he was fully fifteen years older than his predecessor had been. Famously, he was 58 by the time he left the role of Bond, and at times in A View to a Kill he looks every day of it — but through all his films, he seems to carry himself like an older man, with a hesitancy and caution that undermine his credibility as a secret agent. That and the constant frivolity make his films the least engaging of all the Bonds.

Still. Let’s look at each of his seven films …

Live and Let Die (1973)

A film that in many places is an embarrassment — it seems to think that having black people on the screen is itself exotic enough to constitute a spectacle, and the constant grotesquely patronising racism of the “comic” sherriff J. W. Pepper is enough to make you cringe. At times it feels more like it was made in 1933 than 1973.

Moore’s Bond convinces in the sleazebag part of the role, but not at all in the tough-guy part. In fact, he doesn’t get involved in any rough stuff until half an hour in — and when he does it’s only to pull a fire-escape ladder down on an assailant’s head. He moves in a way that reminds me of nothing more than Jon Pertwee’s elderly and dainty 3rd Doctor.

Despite these drawbacks the film does more or less work. That’s largely because of the voodoo-themed setting, which lends it a darkness that sets it apart from other Bond movies. This is a conveyed most effectively by the minor character Baron Samedi: his role in the plot is small, but he makes for very effective imagery — indeed the single most memorable image in the film is its very last: the laughing Samedi sitting on the front of the train that Bond and Solitaire are inside. Very un-Bondlike, but very effective.

LALD has one other thing going for it: the theme song, by Paul McCartney and Wings. But even though it’s probably the most distinctive song in the canon, and one of the best, I can’t be happy about it, because it signalled a change not for the better. Up till Diamonds Are Forever, the theme songs were in a flamboyant popular jazz style, sung by people like Shirley Bassey, Matt Monro, Tom Jones, Nancy Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. They had a distinctive feel. But post LALD, the songs were given to more contemporary singers and groups, such as Sheena Easton, Duran Duran and even Garbage. And predictably enough, what’s contemporary today sounds far more dated tomorrow than the timeless styles that were used earlier in the series.

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

And then we have this, which is sort of like Live and Let Die (right down to the reappearance of the racist Sheriff that no-one wanted to see again). Only it’s worse, for three reasons. First, because it doesn’t have the atmosphere. Second, because the Bond girl, Mary Goodnight, is just awful: easy on the eye, yes, but written as a bumbling, incompetent fool whose only role is to mess things up, get kidnapped, and nearly kill Bond by accident. And third, the henchman, Niknak, is if anything even worse — a completely menace-free dwarf who Bond eventually deals with by shutting him into a suitcase. There is no reason at all for Niknak to attack Bond at the end, but he does it anyway so that the film can finish with some cheap laughs.

I have no desire to evaluate 1960s/70s Bond films on the basis of their political correctness — really, they’re pretty much all off the top of any contemporary scale. But if you were looking for one to check all the boxes of sexism, racism and even prejudice towards different body shapes, you would not need to look further than TMWTGG.

More pervasively, the film lacks integrity. In the middle of what is supposed to be an exciting  car-chase, Bond performs an impressive jump across a river with the car rolling 360 degrees in the air. This is accompanied by: the sound of a swanee whistle.

What saves the film from complete ignominy is the presence of Christopher Lee as the eponymous villain. Best known in recent times for his portrayals of Saruman in the Lord of the Rings films and Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones, his Scaramanga is much of a piece with these other two roles. In all of them, you wouldn’t necessarily say that  he actually acts particularly well, but he has a fantastic magnetic presence that dominates every scene he’s in. All by himself, he gives the film a weight that it doesn’t really deserve — and at the same time, shows Moore up for the lightweight that he is in comparison.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

So this film comes as a very welcome surprise. Unquestionably the highlight of Moore’s movies, it hits the high spots in four important areas:

First, the henchman is outstanding. With the sole competition of Goldfinger‘s Oddjob, Jaws stands alone. Those two are in a category of their own, apart from all the other Bond henchmen. Jaws’s huge size, appalling teeth, silence and even clumsiness conspire to make him seem like a true freak, an almost inhuman creature.

Second, the Bond girl is excellent. Not only is Barbara Bach a feast for the eyes, but she can act. And her character is foreceful and interesting, a worthy counterpart to Bond himself, and she seems to draw the best out of Moore.

Third, the car is a beauty — it’s the white Lotus Esprit that converts into a submarine, shoots down the helicopter chasing it with rockets, then drives up onto the beach. The car alone puts this film among the top Bond films for gadgetry.

Finally, the theme song is a cracker — Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better. A cheeky and rather risky choice, being essentially a hymn to the Bond series itself, it works because it’s done absolutely straight.

In fact the only area where TSWLM falls down (apart from Moore’s own well-documented failings) is that the Big Bad is rather forgettable. To be quite honest, I don’t even remember his name, and I am deliberately going to not look it up just to make the point. But that’s OK: he has a You Only Live Twice-like plan to start World War III, and that’s enough to be getting on with, because Jaws.

Moonraker (1979)

I have memories of going to see this one in the cinema when it came out, as a very innocent eleven-year-old. I had a great time, but I suspect that even then I saw how flawed it is. With the benefit of hindsight it’s a real mess, from the opening space-shuttle hijack (why would it be fueled?) through to the thoroughly derivative and unconvincing outer-space battle. None of the myriad transitions make a lot of sense: time and again Bond just pitches up randomly at the place where the plot needs him to be next, in a bewildering variety of locations.

Oh, and it defangs Jaws, who is still a good character to have around on his repeat outing, but who loses much of his menace.

For all that, it is sort of fun. The most memorable sequence for me is the gleefully destructive fight in the Venice Glass Museum — daft but excruciatingly enjoyable.

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

At this stage, I was three films from the end of my marathon (remember I finished with the Moore films) and saw FYEO as a bit of a chore to get through. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s by some distance the toughest and grittiest of Moore’s films: in fact, it feels very much like a Connery film that Moore has wandered into (much as Diamonds Are Forever feels like Connery in a Moore film).

Part of what makes it work  is that, as with The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond is paired with a tough girl who has her own character rather than merely being his foil. (I guess that was the idea with Moonraker‘s Holly Goodhead, too, but it doesn’t really work because Lois Chiles isn’t believable in the role: she comes across like Cybill Shepherd In Space.)

The best part of FYEO is the assault on Kristatos’s base in the Meteora monastery. (Yes, this place is real.) As Bond hangs from the rope having been kicked off the cliff, as he starts climbing back up, and as Apostis starts knocking out his crampons pitons one by one, I felt for perhaps the only time in any Bond film that our hero was in real danger. That’s partly because of the courageous production decision to use no backing music: you can hear every breath, every strike of metal on rock. It feels authentic. The stakes feel high.

So not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but at least a good one — my second favourite of the Moore offerings.

Octopussy (1983)

And then from there we go straight to the worst of them all. Aside from the rather good pre-credit sequence with the mini-jet, there is pretty much nothing here to like. The film holds itself, and its audience, in contempt.

The Tarzan swing is just one example of this. Bond is alone and unarmed in a jungle, being hunted by maybe a hundred men on foot and several more mounted on elephants. Concealment and stealth are his only hopes of survival. In one scene, we see him at ground level, an elephant approaching, the hunters riding it not yet having seen him. So what does he do? Teleports up a tree (we don’t see him climb and there is no time for him to do so), announces his presence with a loud Tarzan yodel, and swings from one tree to the next, the next and the next — and the next. I literally cannot think of any way he could more effectively have given away his own presence and ensured his death. Oh, and they didn’t even bother to dye the blond stuntman’s hair the same colour as Moore’s.

Even the theme tune is flat and uninteresting. Two film ago, when Carly Simon told us that Nobody Does It Better, the gambit paid off because it was done with conviction: she sold the idea that nobody was a better Bond than Roger Moore, if only for three minutes and 31 seconds. But when Rita Coolidge tells us that this film is an All Time High, it’s perfectly clear that she know it isn’t, and that she knows that we know.

A View to a Kill (1985)

Moore’s final film is much as you would expect — a disjointed, incoherent mess. The hero is now 58 years old: the idea that that’s him in the action sequences is laughable; the idea that he’s seducing the usual complement of young women is frankly disturbing. When he and the similarly-aged Moneypenny flirt, using the same kind of lines that Connery and the same actress had used 23 years earlier, it’s pleasant enough — but in a grandma-and-grandad way. It’s the sort of gentle joshing you might expect from a couple sitting on a bench at the seaside, wrapped up warm, before they go and find a nice cosy cafe for a cup of cocoa.

So by all rights I should hate A View to a Kill. But somehow, I can’t make myself do it. It would be like kicking a puppy. The thing is, it’s making an honest effort. Duran Duran’s theme song is a bad song, but it’s trying to be a good song. Where Octopussy sneered at us, AVtoK wants us to love it. As a film, it’s a failure, sure. But at least it’s an honest failure.

It does have one good thing going for it — or rather, two: the Big Bad and henchman, or in this case henchwoman, are both excellent. Christopher Walken convinces as the psychotic genius Max Zorin, and the sight of him gleefully machine-gunning his own workers is genuinely chilling. Grace Jones is superbly distinctive as his sidekick May Day. Other Bond girls may blend into one, but you would never confuse Jones with any of them. She has an innately hostile quality that serves the film well.

So for all these reasons, A View to a Kill is worth watching. But not worth going out of your way to see.

By the end of Roger Moore’s run, the Bond series had degenerated into a parody of itself, and was badly due for an overhaul. The darkness of Fleming’s novels had been entirely discarded, to the point where Roger Ebert’s review of the first post-Moore film criticised Timothy Dalton on the grounds that “he never quite seems to understand that it’s all a joke”. Ebert is my favourite film critic, but on this he’s dead wrong. A Bond film can contain jokes, but the moment it becomes a joke, there’s no reason why we should care.

The irony is that Moore’s Bond has done more to define the series in the public imagination than anyone else’s. When we think “James Bond film”, we think incomprehensible plot, constant seemingly random changes of location, and an over-aged Bond smarming and winking his way through a series of entendres with women half his age.

Surely the next Bond would have to be a step up?

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16 responses to “James Bond movies, part 3: Roger Moore

  1. As a teenager, I was slightly startled to read Alan Moore write (as a passing line in a foreword for The Dark Knight Returns), “the overriding factor in James Bond’s psychological makeup is his utter hatred and contempt for women.” It hadn’t really struck me that way…

    Then many years later I saw just the beginning of The Man with the Golden Gun (I still haven’t seen the rest of it) and… gee… there’s something to that. Moore is just abusive to his female sidekick in the most pointless, unpleasant way.

  2. On a related note, I enjoyed seeing Roger Moore and Anthony Perkins in “Ffolkes” [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0081809/] as a young teen during a family outing at the theaters. Years later I still enjoy watching when it’s on the television. Simplistic but fun.

  3. I mainly remember Moore as The Saint on television. Sean Connery was James Bond.

  4. @Richard Mason: it sticks in the throat a bit to read Alan Moore of all people to criticise anyone for hatred of women. I’ll be the first in line to acknowledge Moore’s genius, but he does seem to be congenitally incapable of writing a comic that doesn’t have a rape in it. I’ve actually stopped reading his stuff. (Of course that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily wrong about Bond.)

    @bwsd: Sorry, never seen Ffolkes.

    @Kaleberg: I don’t remember ever having seen The Saint, either, except for a vague sense of catching a couple of black-and-white fragments when I was very young. Was it good?

  5. Great reviews. Can’t wait for the rest..

  6. Pingback: James Bond movies, part 4: Sean Connery returns again | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  7. Pingback: James Bond movies, part 5: Timothy Dalton | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  8. I’ve been meaning to say, thank you for doing this. Indeed all has become clear; for whatever ways I found LaLDM surprising, seeing all of the Moore movies listed out liked that is convincing that as a set they are quite weak.

    I do agree that Christopher Walken was one of the best Bond villains (in an otherwise poor movie). That was one of the few times when I wasn’t frustrated by the fact that the villain’s scheme was so ridiculously fragile, falling apart as soon as Bond started blowing things up — in that case the fragility seemed like an extension of Walken’s insanity.

  9. The impressive thing about Walken’s performance is that you can believe in Zorin both as a billionaire industrialist and as a deranged psychopath. Both aspects of the character always seem to be there. That’s the value of getting an actual actor.

  10. Ah, you don’t have to love Sir Roger’s films, but Brosnan’s were worse!
    And “Quantum of Solace” is also worse than Moore’s outings (in fact, also Diamonds Are Forever!).

    By the way: you have to take some lessons in maths.
    When Connery was 32 years old in 1962 and Moore is 3 years older and took over 11 years after Dr. No, means that Moore was 14 years older than Connery in his debut, so 46 not 48 years old.
    But Connery made Dr. No at the beginning of 1962, so he was 31.
    Live And Let Die was directed from September 1972 to January 1973, so Moore was 44!
    That’s a difference of 4 years from fact to your article.

    My list:
    1: The Spy Who Loved Me (one of Bond’s best. I think it has everything.)
    2. Live And Let Die (great atmosphere and Moore who was far better than Connery in You Only Live Twice or Diamonds Are Forever, beautiful Jane Seymour, Crocs and Alligators plus McCartney)
    3. For Your Eyes Only (Another good performance of Moore, great actionstunts plus Sheena Easton)
    4. Moonraker (fun)
    5. A View To A Kill (The title song is superb! Catchy…I don’t care about a boring jazzy style. Eh, and of course: CHRISTOPHER WALKEN!)
    6. Octopussy
    7. The Man With The Golden Gun (Christopher Lee is great, but the story lacks).

  11. Thanks, Bruce, for making me look again at the maths for ages in the article. I see that I had Moore down as 47 when Live and Let Die came out, when I should have had 46. So we were both wrong :-) If Moore was born in 1927, as Wikipedia says, I don’t see how he can have been 44 during any part of filming Live and Let Die.

    I do agree with you that The Spy Who Loved Me is excellent — definitely the best of the Moores, and really the one that they seemed to keep aspiring to reproduce in subsequent efforts.

    As for how I compare him with Brosnan … I really ought to write the next article!

  12. On looking at this post again, I now notice for the first time what a horrible job they did of compositing the photos for the Golden Gun image. The sea between Moore and Lee is not only a different colour from what we see on either side of them, it’s also dramatically lower!

  13. Hi Mike!
    I think you didn’t read my whole post ;-)
    Moore was born 14th October 1927, Live And Let Die was filmed from September 1972 to January 1973. So, Moore was 44/45.
    Cinema premiere was in June/July 1973. Even at this time Moore wasn’t 46.

  14. Those are pitons not crampons :-) The other device used for the same purpose in that scene is a cam. Crampons are spikes worn on feet for ice climbing, Moore is wearing standard rock climbing shoes.

    Thanks for inspiring me to have a rewatch of this scene. I was pleasantly surprised by the accuracy of the rock climbing (combined with some of the nonsense).

  15. Thanks for the correction — now fixed!

  16. Pingback: James Bond movies, part 6: Pierce Brosnan | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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