May 23, 2017

Remembering Roger Moore

The great Sir Roger Moore has passed away after a short battle with cancer, according to numerous news outlets. And this is the piece I have most dreaded writing ever since I began this blog. Roger Moore may not have been the screen’s "best" James Bond in terms of realizing Ian Fleming’s literary character, but he is certainly one of the most appealing. He is the one you most want to hang out with. He was my favorite Bond as a kid, and was always the Bond actor I most fancied having a conversation with. Even now, when I’m in the mood for a Bond movie in general but have no specific title in mind, I find myself most frequently putting on a Moore movie—usually For Your Eyes Only (1981), easily in my Top 5 Bond movies.

Roger Moore personified the witty playboy adventurer who brushes off danger without creasing his immaculately tailored suits. He perfected this persona most famously across three different characters—TV’s Simon Templar on The Saint and Lord Brett Sinclair on The Persuaders!, and of course 007—each distinct, and yet each distinctly Roger Moore. He sold a personal brand long before we spoke in such terms, and he sold it to perfection. Critics have accused him of turning all of his roles into Roger Moore rather than adapting Roger Moore to the roles, but for a movie star, I’ve never seen that as a bad thing. In fact, I’ve always found it incredibly appropriate that at the height of his Saint fandom in the 1960s, while every popular TV character (including The Saint) had his own Annual (hardcover books for children packed with stories, comics, and puzzles), Moore was the only actor to have his own—The Roger Moore Adventure Book.

It was a narrative often put forth by Moore himself that he was not a good actor. Always charmingly self-deprecating, he once famously reduced his own acting ability to, “left eyebrow raised, right eyebrow raised.” He was, of course, selling himself short, and I’m saddened to see that many obituaries today still persist with that narrative. Many James Bond purists lament that Moore played the character so comically, and they certainly have a point. But ask any actor what’s harder, comedy or drama, and nearly unanimously they all answer comedy. It’s true that Roger Moore was not one of the screen’s great dramatic actors (though he was certainly capable of fine dramatic performances, as evidenced in The Man Who Haunted Himself and several crucial scenes in For Your Eyes Only, among others), but he was an incredibly gifted comedian, and deserves recognition as such. His comic timing was impeccable, and his wry delivery of innumerable oft-quoted one-liners unequaled. For proof, one need look no further than other, subsequent James Bond actors who have been saddled with similar lines and unable to pull them off despite their undeniable dramatic gravitas. Roger Moore had a unique talent to sell even the most ridiculous double-entendres or pithy asides, and that talent more than anything else carried the Bond franchise to new Box Office heights in the Seventies and ensured its continuation after Sean Connery.

This is another part of Moore’s legacy that should never be overlooked. While all the other popular spy series of the Sixties (on the big and small screen) dried up in the Seventies (as public perception of spies themselves shifted from heroic to underhanded in the wake of Watergate, COINTELPRO, the Church Committee Hearings, and other scandals), James Bond thrived during Moore’s tenure. Moonraker may not have pleased critics, but it broke Box Office records. What Roger Moore brought to the franchise was exactly what audiences craved in the 1970s. Without him, the series may well have languished, but instead it became more popular than ever.

Despite eventually personifying the upper-class English gentleman, Roger Moore was born into a working class London family. He grew up idolizing suave leading men like George Sanders and Stewart Granger, and following his compulsory army service and a stint as a male knitwear model (which briefly earned him the nickname of “The Big Knit”), had the chance not only to follow in their footsteps, but eventually to work with both. After a string of supporting roles as an MGM contract player opposite the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Lana Turner (during which, Moore wrote in his autobiography*, he and his neighbor William Shatner “whiled away many an evening… sitting around the pool [of their Westwood apartment complex], having a drink or three”), Moore found success on television. First as the titular knight on Ivanhoe (for England’s ITV, where he would later find stardom as The Saint), then as a cowboy with an unlikely accent on The Alaskans and Maverick (both for Warner Bros.), where he had the unenviable task of filling the void left by James Garner, playing Brett (Garner) and Bart’s (Jack Kelly) English cousin Beau Maverick. In the former he found himself speaking Garner’s lines (a writers’ strike led to scripts from Maverick being recycled wholesale for The Alaskans), and in the latter wearing his clothes (from his autobiography: “They assured me that I wasn’t replacing [Garner]. Oh yeah? Then why did all of my costumes have ‘Jim Garner’ in them, semi-scratched out?”). It would prove valuable experience for later, when he once again found himself taking over from a very popular actor!

Moore’s real fame, however, came not from American television, but UK television. After trying himself, unsuccessfully, to acquire the rights to Leslie Charteris’ Saint stories several years earlier, Moore jumped at the chance to play Simon Templar for producers Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker at Lord Lew Grade’s powerhouse production company, ITC. He made 118 episodes of The Saint, the first batch in black and white, and the second (without Berman) in color. Charteris had imbued his hero with ample wit to match his wits, and Moore, naturally, excelled at conveying that wit on screen. His Simon Templar would break the fourth wall to directly address the audience, making the most of Moore’s innate charm. Simon Templar was the absolute perfect part for Moore, the idea match of character and star. In America, The Saint played on NBC, making Moore a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. It was also his first major brush with spy stardom, as, though Templar was no agent, his adventures frequently brought him into espionage territory.

Once The Saint wrapped, Moore was eager to segue from television into movies. He and Baker, now producing partners, made Crossplot, a highly entertaining Hitchcock knock-off (parts North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much) in which Moore played an advertising executive caught up in an espionage plot who has to stop an assassination. Bernard Lee, best known as M from the Bond movies, co-starred, and the advertising campaign traded heavily on Bondian imagery, prominently featuring Moore in a white dinner jacket brandishing a pistol. It wasn’t the first connection between Moore and 007. His name was linked with the Bond role as soon as the first movie was announced, but of course Sean Connery was cast instead. Still, Moore played the character in a 1964 sketch on the BBC comedy series Mainly Millicent, and in the Saint episode “Luella” (co-starring future Felix Leiter David Hedison), Templar jokingly introduced himself as James Bond. In another episode, he ordered his drink “neither shaken nor stirred.”

Moore and Baker had planned several other films together (including, according to Andrew Pixley, the spy drama The Patterson Report and an action-adventure called Vanishing Point**), but never had the chance to make them. Instead, Moore was lured back to television by Lew Grade, who had already sold The Persuaders! based on Moore’s involvement, but without his permission! He then persuaded Moore to make the series by urging him to think of all the jobs it would create, and the boon it would be to the British economy. (“Think of the Queen!”) And thank God it worked, because The Persuaders! is fantastic. It’s one of my favorite TV series, and it's actually his character from that show, Lord Brett Sinclair, that I think of first when I think of Roger Moore... much as I love his Saint and his Bond.

The Persuaders! arose from an idea Moore and Baker had had while shooting the final season of The Saint—the idea of a buddy series teaming Moore with a brash American co-star. The Saint episode “The Ex-King of Diamonds” served as an unofficial pilot, pairing Moore with The Champions star Stuart Damon. When it came to the series, however, a bigger name was required, and when Rock Hudson proved unavailable, Tony Curtis came aboard as self-made oil millionaire Danny Wilde. When Brett and Danny first encounter each other on the French Riviera, the two wealthy alpha males find themselves instantly in competition, first in a road race (Brett’s Aston Martin DBS versus Danny’s Ferrari Dino), and then in a fist fight over the proper way to make a ridiculous drink called a Creole Scream. In the course of this fight, they tear apart the whole hotel bar and find themselves facing a judge, Judge Fulton (played by Diamonds Are Forever’s Laurence Naismith), who offers them an alternative to a jail sentence. It turns out he manipulated their meeting, having selected them to be his personal vigilante crime fighters. It’s a tenuous premise, but it serves its purpose, setting Brett and Danny on numerous missions against kidnappers, counterfeiters, and, of course, spies. (Somehow this judge is also privy to information about classified British Intelligence operations when the plots require that.) The Persuaders! had a top-notch roster of talent (including Avengers writer Brian Clemens and Casino Royale director Val Guest) both behind and in front of the cameras, and their skills combined with lush location filming in exotic European locales (as opposed to The Saint’s stock footage and studio backlots) made every episode of the series look like a feature film. But more than anything, it was the fantastic chemistry between Moore and Curtis (whose off-screen relationship influenced their friendly on-screen competition) that made the series work so well. While The Persuaders! faced stiff competition in America from Mission: Impossible, it was a huge hit around the world, and a second season was in the offing… until Moore received a life-changing phone call from Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.

During his Bond tenure, Moore made numerous other action-adventure movies, including Gold (for Bond director Peter Hunt), The Wild Geese (opposite Richard Burton), Shout at the Devil (with Lee Marvin), North Sea Hijack (aka Ffolkes, with Bond alumni David Hedison and George Baker), and The Sea Wolves (with Patrick Macnee and David Niven). He even found time to, unlikely though it may seem, play Sherlock Holmes on TV, in Sherlock Holmes in New York with Macnee as Watson and John Huston as Professor Moriarty. All of these movies are well worth watching. He also displayed that considerable gift for comedy in Cannonball Run (sending up his own image as an Aston Martin-driving racer who thinks he’s Roger Moore) and Blake Edwards’ Curse of the Pink Panther (1983). While the latter is a pretty lousy movie, Moore elevates it considerably in his brief cameo as a post-plastic surgery Inspector Clouseau, ably aping Peter Sellers’ famous French accent and pulling off the requisite pratfalls with great aplomb. (You can watch his scene on YouTube, saving yourself from slogging through the entire film.) In my opinion he’s the only actor to ever successfully fill Sellers’ shoes in that role (once again demonstrating his ability to rise to the challenge following in famous footsteps), and it’s a real shame that Edwards didn’t make Moore’s Clouseau the star of the film.

Moore played James Bond in seven official entries in the series, more than any other actor (though tied with Connery if you count the unofficial Never Say Never Again), and until he was 57, making him the oldest actor to play 007. Too old, really. Moore himself was the first to admit that A View to a Kill was at least one movie too many, and stretched credibility when he switched off with stuntmen for the outlandish action. He had actually tried to leave the series, but Broccoli simply offered him too much money to pass up.

After finally hanging up the Walther PPK, Moore focused more on charity than acting, devoting much of his time to children’s health as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. (His friend Audrey Helpburn had recruited him to the cause.) He played two more spy roles (in The Enemy, based on a Desmond Bagley novel, and as a guest star on J.J. Abrams’ TV show Alias), and made an intriguing mystery for director Bill Condon, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die, but primarily focused on comedy when he did act. His comedic roles included Bullseye! (an unfortunate miss, but an opportunity to star with his good friend Michael Caine), Boat Trip (an awful movie in which Moore is nonetheless hilarious), and Spice World. The latter was the first of several cameos sending up his Bond image. More recently, he starred in a Lifetime holiday movie, A Princess for Christmas, and played an important supporting role in the unsold pilot for a new version of The Saint starring Adam Rayner. (Sadly, that remains unreleased.) He also found time to record many excellent DVD commentaries, and to pen three memoirs (co-authored with Gareth Owen), My Word is My Bond, Bond on Bond, and One Lucky Bastard. My Word is My Bond is essential reading for any 007 fan, and one of my very favorite showbiz autobiographies, full of humorous and typically self-deprecating anecdotes from Moore’s amazing life.

With Roger Moore’s passing, we have lost one of the true titans of the spy genre, and a very talented comedic actor who never got proper credit for those talents. Fortunately, that Roger Moore brand will live on in his incredible body of work, preserved for posterity on DVD and Blu-ray and no doubt all formats to come. There is truth to the criticism that his Bond movies aren’t so much Bond movies as “Roger Moore movies.” But so what? I find myself frequently craving Roger Moore movies, and I don’t expect that will ever change. It may well be that I'm a bit more of a Roger Moore fan than I am a James Bond fan. Roger Moore was truly one of my heroes, and I am genuinely crushed by his passing. But what a legacy he leaves behind!

*Moore, Roger with Gareth Owen: My Word is My Bond, 2008
**Pixley, Andrew: The Persuaders! Read and Destroy: A Complete Series Guide, 2011

Johnny English Rides Again

Chortle, a UK comedy news website (that is, a website providing news about comedy, not a parody news site like The Onion) reports (via Dark Horizons) that a third Johnny English movie is in pre-production with plans to shoot this year. Rowan Atkinson's (Never Say Never Again) third outing as the bumbling British superspy is set for release in October 2018, which would make a similar gap between the second and third movies as between the first and second. While it should just be considered a rumor for now, should this news prove true, I would certainly welcome it! I thought the first Johnny English (2003) was a far funnier spy comedy than any of the Austin Powers sequels, and found the 2011 sequel a worthy successor which adapted well with the times, sending up the Daniel Craig-era Bond rather than the Brosnan incarnation spoofed in the first film.

May 18, 2017

R.I.P. Chris Cornell



Singer Chris Cornell died yesterday at the age of 52. Numerous outlets report that his death is being treated as a possible suicide. A superstar of the Nineties grunge scene, Cornell rose to fame as the front man of the band Soundgarden. He found similar success with another group, Audioslave, and as a solo recording artist. It’s in the latter capacity that he is probably best known to James Bond fans, for co-writing and performing “You Know My Name,” the theme song to Daniel Craig’s debut 007 movie, Casino Royale, in 2006.

As much as I love Adele’s “Skyfall,” for me “You Know My Name” is easily the best Bond song in the last 30 years. It’s also the last one, to date, to be co-written by the film’s composer—in this case David Arnold. Arnold and Cornell achieved a perfect creative symbiosis with this track, which boldly introduced Craig’s new, younger, rawer Bond with aggressive first-person lyrics. According to John Burlingame’s The Music of James Bond, Arnold wanted the song to serve as an alternative theme for the less mature Bond, who wouldn’t “earn” the classic Monty Norman/John Barry version of “The James Bond Theme” until the end of the movie. Therefore, he wanted it to have “the same genetic material as the Bond theme, but in a different order and in a different shape.” Indeed it does, and it makes for a truly fantastic substitute theme as Arnold weaves the melody throughout his score. Yet it’s Cornell’s powerful vocals (at the time the first male vocals on a Bond song in nearly two decades) that really cement “You Know My Name” as one of the all-time great Bond themes.

Incredibly, given that he is one of the youngest and most recent, Cornell is the first James Bond main title vocalist to leave us. (The songs performed by Matt Monro, Louis Armstrong, and Dusty Springfield did not play during the main titles of their respective films.) Cornell had battled addiction for most of his life, but seemed to be doing better in recent years. In his final performance, with Soundgarden, earlier last night, CNN reports that he substituted the planned encore with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying.” Cornell’s death so young is a tragedy, but in addition to his lasting impact on popular music, he left an indelible mark on the Bond series with a terrific theme song for one of the franchise’s best films.

May 9, 2017

Tradecraft: NBC Renews TAKEN TV Series

Variety reports that NBC has renewed Taken, the TV series based on the hit Liam Neeson movies, for a second season. Though it wasn't a ratings smash, the show proved popular internationally, living up to its neo-Eurospy pedigree. Clive Standen stars as a younger version of Neeson's character, Bryan Mills. A prequel to the films, the first season chronicled Mills' initial recruitment into the CIA. I only saw the pilot and was less than impressed, but if it was popular enough to be renewed, I should probably give it another try. While the first season was only ten episodes (which currently fill up my DVR), the second will be sixteen. Europacorp has a pretty good track record with TV series based on their spy movies. Transporter: The Series (a truly entertaining action show) lasted two seasons, and Luc Besson's 1990 film La Femme Nikita spawned not one but two successful shows to date.

May 5, 2017

Tradecraft: Ruth Wilson to Star in Miniseries About her Own Family's Spy History

This is fascinating! Deadline reports that Ruth Wilson (The Prisoner) will star in the three-part drama The Wilsons for BBC One about her own grandparents, in which she will play her grandmother, Alison Wilson. When Alison's husband, Alec, dies suddenly, she discovers that she wasn't his only wife. It turns out that he had several wives and several families! And that he was a spy for MI6 in the years between WWI and WWII. I'm honestly quite surprised I've never heard of Alexander Wilson, because not only was he a contemporary of Sidney Reilly's as a British agent, but he was a prolific and apparently popular spy novelist! Writer Tim Crook published a biography of him in 2010, The Secret Lives Of A Secret Agent: The Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson, and that led to a rediscovery of his fiction, which has been rediscovered and reissued in recent years. Based on his own experiences, his "Wallace of the Secret Service" series spanned nine volumes between 1928 and 1940 (beginning with The Mystery of Tunnel 51) and is said by some to be a precursor to the James Bond books because of the 007/M-like relationship between the Wilson-like field agent and a spymaster who closely resembled real-life C, Sir Mansfield Cumming. (Of course all spy fiction is discussed today in relation to James Bond!) I really am shocked that I've never come across his books, because I've explored a lot of spy fiction from that era and read a lot about Cumming. I will need to make up for this post-haste! The Wilsons will be set in 1940s and 1960s London, and 1930s India.

Tradecraft: Chris Pine and Michelle Williams to Star in Olen Steinhauer Adaptation ALL THE OLD KNIVES

The film rights to Olen Steinhauer's most recent novel, All the Old Knives, were sold a year before the book even came out. When it was published, it was reported that Neil Burger (Limitless, The Asset) would direct, but that never came to pass. Today Variety reports that the project is still alive and well, now in the hands of The Theory of Everything and Shadow Dancer director James Marsh. Chris Pine (Wonder Woman, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) will star. They're a bit younger than I pictured the characters in the book, but both terrific actors who I can't wait to see in those roles!

The brilliant concept, indicated in the text itself (Steinhaur often tips his hat to his influences in his novels), is Christopher Reid's The Song of Lunch meets Len Deighton's Berlin Game. It's the search for a mole (as in the latter) played out in flashbacks over the course of a dinner between two ex-lovers (as in the former). A man and a woman meet in Carmel by the Sea to relive old times and go over an intelligence debacle in Vienna they were both party to six years prior. The novel trades off first person narration between the two of them. Each is apparently suspicious of the other, and both are potentially unreliable narrators. It's a complex spy game formulated by a writer at the top of his craft and played out in a relatable and intensely emotional scenario. It should make a great movie if Steinhauer (who wrote the screenplay himself) has found a way to make the flashbacks and framing structure cinematic. He's gotten a lot of practice lately on visual storytelling, having created and penned several episodes of Berlin Station on EPIX. (Berlin Station was recently renewed for a second season.)

Now if only we could get some movement on the long overdue adaptation of Steinhauer's masterpiece, the Milo Weaver trilogy! Last we heard, Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) was attached to direct the first novel, The Tourist, with his Covert Affairs partners Matt Corman and Chris Ord penning the script. But that was way back in September, 2012. There haven't been any developments reported on the project since then, and Liman keeps adding movie after movie to his schedule that aren't The Tourist. Hopefully All the Old Knives is a huge hit and kick-starts that franchise.