Nobody Does Bond Better, 003: Moore, Roger Moore

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August of 2010.

Roger Moore once described his approach to the part of James Bond by remarking that 007 was a fellow who didn’t like killing, but was glad he did it well. Moore’s outings as the debonair superspy, for the most part, are more concerned with pure entertainment and humorous escapism than any of the series’ entries before or since. That may be a source of disappointment to some Bond purists who revere the character’s literary heritage, but it’s no accident that the oft-quoted tagline “nobody does it better” originated smack in the middle of the Moore era.

He was the James Bond that I grew up watching. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t the “first” to play Bond that somehow, I never developed an allegiance to calling him the “best” Bond. It might also have had something to do with being constantly exposed to harrumphing from elders insisting Moore’s version of Bond is, was, and always would be deeply inferior to Sean Connery’s. It must be said, the more one digs into the Fleming novels, the more one can’t really escape that Moore’s interpretation certainly bears the least resemblance to the character as realized in the original 007 books.

Moore—and other Bonds who followed—had a distinct advantage over Connery, though. All of the actors who have played Bond since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (see part two of this series for the praise I heaped upon it and its star) have had the benefit of working with a much more complex back story for their character. While sixth 007 Daniel Craig’s reboot of the franchise officially restarted the continuity of the Bond saga, Craig was fortunate enough at the outset to be tackling an equally important tragedy in the formation of the secret agent’s character.

Connery did “avenge” Tracy’s death—in a way—during the course of Diamonds Are Forever, but the viewer is never really given the sense that Connery’s Bond is carrying any sort of emotional baggage throughout the course of the story. It was as if the producers realized they “had” to deal with the events of OHMSS in the next film, but wanted to dispose of it as quickly as possible and get back to what was becoming the increasingly lighthearted business of the series. When Connery left the franchise for the second time, vowing once more “never” to return to the role (Never Say Never Again, anyone?), Eon brought aboard an actor they had tested before who had been unavailable…and Roger Moore’s cool, unflappable, light approach was tailor-made for where the series was headed to guarantee its enduring success.

Moore, Roger Moore

Live and Let Die; The Man with the Golden Gun; The Spy Who Loved Me; Moonraker;

For Your Eyes Only; Octopussy; A View to a Kill

The real gift Moore gave to Bond fans with his smooth, sometimes tongue-in-cheek approach was that, during those few moments in his films when Bond’s tragic past is addressed, or, in director John Glen’s Bond pictures (beginning with For Your Eyes Only), when Moore is coaxed into delivering a tougher performance, he really rises to the occasion. The scenes that allow for 007’s vulnerability, or aptitude for cruelty, truly stand out in the Moore films and are unforgettably potent. When Moore gets sullen or nasty, it seems to mean something.

Who can ever forget the way Moore flinches and drops his suave calm in Spy when Agent XXX (Barbara Bach) makes a reference to Tracy’s death? The sight of Bond mourning at Tracy’s graveside at the start of FYEO marked a moment that thrilled Bond fans who appreciated the sense of continuity being given to the series, and was only the beginning of what would prove to be a startling and relatively serious installment whose reputation continues to grow with the passing of time.

Moore received a lot of flak for his performances as 007, but shepherded the series through some titanic box-office recepits in an era when no other action blockbuster could even hope to compete with the lavish thrills offered in the latest James Bond blockbuster. Adding his distinctive brand of class, charm, and vigor to the role, Moore can also be uniquely credited with evolving in the part, truly deepening his creative interpretation over time. He may have resisted the “toughening” of his version of Bond, but it’s to his credit that he did it anyway, and did it marvelously. Like Bond himself, Moore was (and is) a true professional.

Let’s move on to some bests of the Moore Bonds:

Longest Held License to Thrill

Moore stayed on for oh-oh-seven films, more than any other actor in the series thus far. So, he obviously was doing something right. Some say it was at least one film too much. I have a hard time defending A View To a Kill, but it does have Christopher Walken in it. Speaking of the bad guys…

Best Bad Guy

Christopher Lee, The Man with the Golden Gun

Who better to menace Bond than the man who once was Dracula? Lee was initially considered for the role of Dr. No, and adds (an admittedly meaningless) behind-the-scenes authenticity to the series as he was in fact cousin to Bond creator Fleming. Perhaps Lee’s best moment in the film is when he demonstrates the power of his solar-powered laser cannon—right before blowing up Bond’s plane, he turns to 007 with eyes bulging, a vicious smile, and the coldly confident line, “This is the part I really like.”

The film also gives Bond’s three-nippled nemesis his own version of Oddjob in the (tiny) person of Nick Nack, played by the one and only Hervé Villechaize. His caretaking of Scaramanga’s island base of operations neatly prefigures his role alongside Ricardo Montalban in TV’s Fantasy Island.

Best Theme Song

Live and Let Die

We can lionize John Barry for all eternity (and I plan to), grateful for his ingenious contributions to the series, but there simply is no song with more Bondian bite and sass than “Live and Let Die,” by Paul and Linda McCartney and Wings. Beatles producer George Martin’s instrumental score is no slouch either, heavy with brassy renditions of the Monty Norman James Bond Theme.

Best Stunt

No contest. Rick Sylvester, skiing madly off the top of the precipice of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan Auyittuq National Park’s Mount Asgard at Baffin Island, Nanavut, Canada (thanks to W-alter for pointing out a careless error no self-respecting Bond fan should ever make!), for the pre-credits sequence of Spy, gave fans a breathtaking, they’d-never-do-that-in-a-million-years-today gag.

Best Pre-Credits Sequence

See directly above.

The Biggest and the Best Special Effects

The Bond thrillers increasingly became recognized as the films where “stuff blowed up real good” (even though Bond was exploding hideouts from the very first installment of the franchise)—and as ludicrous as many of its moments are, nothing in the series has surpassed the magnificent special effects work of Moonraker. Obtaining what they felt to be an absurdly unreasonable quote from Industrial Light & Magic (whose work in Star Wars persuaded the 007 team that Bond had to conquer space), Broccoli essentially told the company to take a hike, and tasked his crew with delivering a mind-boggling array of effects on a much smaller budget. Because they completed all of the space effects in camera (winding the film back and forth over and over for multiple exposures, once nearly 100 times for a shot lasting mere seconds), the scenes have a solid, physical integrity that hasn’t dated nearly as much as the early Lucas space operas. The Bond team figured if it worked for Stanley Kubrick and 2001: A Space Odyssey, it would work for them, too. (Kubrick, by the by, also once stopped by the set of the Stromberg super-tanker set of Spy to talk about the lighting scheme.)

Those are the biggest. What about the best? Pay special attention to Bond during the pyramids scene in Spy. As he stalks Jaws, there’s a quick cutaway of Bond hiding behind a rock. For this shot, the unavailable Moore was doubled by a cardboard cutout of himself. Yes, yes. For some of you, this joke writes itself – but this is an example of just how brilliant and resourceful the Bond production team has always been.

In the more lighthearted vein, we have:

Wet, She’s a Star

Let’s not kid ourselves—one of the pleasures of the James Bond films is ogling beautiful women in skimpy attire. The Spy Who Loved Me boasts one of the most alluring of all the Bond ladies in one of the most entertainingly naughty outfits of the series.

Best Bond ‘Brows

It became something of a joke during Moore’s reign as Bond—he would coyly arch a single eyebrow after a particularly amusing double entendre or a sly triumph over his enemy. Occasionally, Moore took things to the next level and raised both eyebrows at once. Less charitable critics were quick to pounce on this choice and claim it embodied Moore’s entire acting range—a cheap shot to be sure, and a critique that says more about the critic’s lack of appreciation of the screen acting craft than it does about Moore’s considerable skills. Always a good sport and self-deprecating, Moore joked that he “only had three expressions as Bond: right eyebrow raised, left eyebrow raised and eyebrows crossed when grabbed by Jaws.” My favorite performance by the Moore brow(s) by far can be found in Octopussy, which reaches epic heights during the funny and suspenseful backgammon game he plays against Kamal Khan—played by Louis Jourdan, who was himself no slouch with eyebrow gymnastics.

And the remaining two categories…

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Some viewers felt Moore’s Bond had reached not an “All Time High” but an ultimate low when, in Octopussy, 007 masquerades as a circus clown to pass unnoticed in the attempt to infiltrate a performance of Octopussy’s circus, where, inside the big tent, Kamal Khan has planted an atomic device set to go off and trigger World War III. Bond has to fight against the police and the crowds to locate the warhead and disarm it, dressed all the while in his rainbow-colored disguise. I’m in a true minority here, I believe, but for me, this was one of Moore’s most challenging and brilliantly realized scenes. Aided by a superb, edge-of-your-seat musical cue by John Barry, John Glen’s taut direction, and the crackerjack editing of Peter Davies and Henry Richardson, Moore takes what is absurd on the surface and gets the job done with a straight face and zero winks at the audience. The black teardrop cascading down his cheek is a great melancholy touch, lingered upon by director Glen as Bond’s umpteenth world-saving triumph affords him only the most fleeting satisfaction.

Most Hard-Working Bond Director

John Glen, who at five films has so far helmed the most of 007’s adventures. He first got the job on For Your Eyes Only, rising up from within the ranks as an editor and second unit director, continuing to helm the remaining Moore Bond outings Octopussy and A View to a Kill, as well as The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill. Glen also gets the prize for wrestling a truly hard-nosed performance from Moore in FYEO, rightly regarded as a welcome throwback to the “more serious” Bonds of the Connery/Lazenby type.

We wouldn’t see this surprising, rugged, and vivid a James Bond performance again until Daniel Craig came on the scene, but the end of Moore’s tenure marked a time when audiences hungered for the series to take a new direction. Moore was simply growing too old for the part, and there was increasingly little of Ian Fleming’s material remaining to be used for the series. Despite that daunting obstacle, Moore’s successor was an actor determined to do justice to Fleming as none had before him, and coming from a Shakespearean background, he had the acting chops to back up such a bold claim.

Next: The Dangerous Timothy Dalton