Roundtable: James Bond 007: Roger Moore

Anders: So, we have come to the end of the Roger Moore era in our James Bond 007 retrospective. Roger Moore starred in more films in the series than any other actor to date, from 1973’s Live and Let Die to 1985’s A View to a Kill; thus, he had the most time to put his particular stamp on the character. Moore’s influence on the series is second only to Sean Connery’s. I still know many people, particularly those who grew up in the 1970s and early 80s, who have a big soft spot for Roger Moore’s portrayal of Bond, or even declare a preference for him over the others that have come before or after.

Rewatching the films in order of their release puts Moore’s portrayal of Bond into clearer contrast to both Connery and Lazenby, by putting the differences in performance into context of the series’ evolution and the changing styles and social mores of the respective eras.

What does Moore bring to the role that is special? What did he contribute to the development of the character on screen?

Moore’s characterization of Bond.

Aren: Roger Moore contributed plenty to the role of James Bond. This retrospective has clarified my attitudes towards him. I used to think he was far and away the worst Bond. I now appreciate those special characteristics he brings to the character, even if he stayed with the role for too many films. I probably prefer him over Pierce Brosnan, and definitely over George Lazenby, although it’s kind of an unfair comparison there. He has his peculiarities, as all Bond actors do, but even when he’s giving a half-assed performance or is clearly uncomfortable with the scene being filmed, as in most of A View to a Kill, he’s entertaining. I kind of love him.

Moore was the suavest Bond. As I explained in my review of Live and Let Die, which I think is easily the best of the Moore era, he is completely unflappable. His calm in every scenario of extreme danger makes him immensely appealing. And in his early films, he’s also physically agile. He may not get into a brawl as readily as Connery, or look as good leading commandos as Lazenby, but he can still throw a punch and look good doing it. I love the finale of Live and Let Die, with Moore wearing the black turtleneck and shoulder holster, gunning down multiple Baron Samedis and generally owning the villains. Moore throws himself into the role with sufficient gusto. You get that he enjoys playing James Bond.

Anton:Live and Let Die has such energy. I used to dislike its aesthetics. Now I favour it among Moore’s films.

Moore’s unflappability has also been a source of criticism though, Aren.

Aren: It’s certainly not a realistic attitude for a spy to have. It also does little to make the character more relatable. But for a characteristic of a larger-than-life hero, it’s very attractive.

Anton: I used to dislike Roger Moore’s portrayal of Bond, but I’ve really come around to appreciating his version of the character. I think you point out much of his appeal—and as I watched his films in chronological order, I liked him more and more. There’s something about the sparkle in his eyes and his dry smirk that made me smile by The Spy Who Loved Me. He has so much charm, even if it is very mannered, and he’s also clearly having so much fun. It’s infectious. His love for the role comes across so strongly, and even if one dislikes the more fantastical and absurd moments in his films, his relish for them helps to sell them. His version may not be my preferred incarnation of Bond, nor have the serious touch that I ultimately want in 007 films, but it is incredibly enjoyable. It’s not my favourite, but I finally understand why he has his fans.

Anders: Make me a third brother who reevaluated his position on Moore in the process of rewatching the films, even if the films themselves were occasionally dispiriting. I agree that Moore is very good in Live and Let Die and that it’s the best of his films both for his performance and many other reasons. Even in A View to a Kill, which I rate even lower than both of you, part of my reason for such a low rating is how dispiriting it is to see Roger Moore, an actor who gave seven films and a decade and a half to the character, be treated so shabbily by a film that embarasses him. I think that my reevaluation actually contributed to me enjoying the film less than I used to.

Moore’s suave and unflappable Bond made his mark solidly on an entire generation of filmgoers, and like Connery before him, each Bond that followed would be defined in part in how he differs from Moore’s performance. The “grittier” takes on Bond, both Dalton and Craig, are so in comparison mostly to Moore’s gentleman spy. It’s that term, “gentleman,” that I think defines Moore’s characterization to a certain extent. Moore was also very English, and until Daniel Craig, was the only English actor to play the role. So, for many Roger Moore embodied what they expected from a British spy, Connery or Fleming’s character in the books aside.

Aren: You’re right that Roger Moore plays the gentleman spy—a specifically English icon. I greatly respect that he made the character his own. Unlike Lazenby, Moore’s Bond is not defined by his relation to Connery. Of course we want to discuss how he compares to Connery. It’s always useful to examine the differences in each actor’s approach to the Bond role. But it’s possible to discuss Roger Moore as James Bond without mentioning Connery at all. He exists as his own reference point. He’s that confident as Bond.

Anton: I think that’s it—more than any other actor—except the original, Connery—Roger Moore makes the character his own, and his characterization stands on its own, and not just in relation to the other actors. I’ll have to see when I rewatch Timothy Dalton’s films, but how much of his energy comes from being different from Moore? Daniel Craig is a superb version, but Moore makes Bond a character in the sense that I can imagine how Moore’s Bond would behave in any given situation. Craig’s is more of a strong performance that creates a more lifelike character. Some may criticize Moore as caricature, but it’s also very much acting in the older style, in which outward form shapes the character.

Moore is also the Bond with the best comic delivery. Connery’s jokes are always at someone else’s expense. Moore’s are sometimes just for his own pleasure, or the audience’s, and are less biting.

Anders: That jokiness keeps Moore from being among my very favourite Bonds, but it’s much more a failing of the scripts he was given than anything inherent in his characterization. When he was good, he was very good. He may fall in the bottom half of my ranking of the Bond actors, but I can comfortably admit that he has his charms and that my preferences are my preferences but I can see why he is so endearing to so many.

The comic moments—do they seriously undermine his films?

Aren: It’s undeniable that the Roger Moore films have a strange relationship to comedy. They feature amazing stunts full of overwhelming tension, and then they diffuse them with bizarre jokes or stupid sound effects. The best example of this is the corkscrew jump in The Man with the Golden Gun. It’s amazing that the filmmakers made a car twist 360 degrees while jumping a river—yes, in real life!—but the slide whistle they play over it is laughably atrocious. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it completely ruins the stunt, but it definitely would’ve played better if they’d left the sound effect out.

Every Moore film has moments like this one. Moonraker has Jaws flapping his arms like a bird, scored to circus music, in the midst of the amazing freefall sequence, as well as the double-taking pigeon in St. Mark’s Square. Octopussy has the horrible clown outfit climax after the great train chase. The only moment of comedy breaking the tension of the stunt that I genuinely applaud is in Live and Let Die when the speedboats race across the sandbanks in the bayou and the one villain’s boat races into the middle of a wedding party, smashing into the cake and ruining the bride’s big day. The woman looks traumatized.

What do you guys thinks about the comic moments in the Moore films?

Anton: I can’t stand how in the pre-credits sequence of A View to a Kill, Moore’s Bond hops on a makeshift snowboard and then the music cuts to a cover of The Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” Up to this point, the sequence has been pretty cool, and the whole is energized by a re-use of the OHMSS skiing theme. Why choose to kill the cool, thrilling mood with the lame surfer joke?

My problem with these kinds of humorous moments is that they seem to always undercut something thrilling—they always detract from the scene instead of add. I don’t mind humor being thrown into an action film, but sometimes I can’t understand the creative choices in the Moore films. So perhaps I just don’t understand Lewis Gilbert’s and John Glen’s senses of humour. Honestly, who was looking at the amazing 360 degree car jump and decided, “You know what this needs, a slide whistle sound”? It always seems like they’re so eager to make a joke at the expense of a lot of hard work, difficult stunts, and viewer tension. It’s bizarre.

Anders: I dislike many of the comic moments in Moore’s films, particularly for the reasons you each mention. They defuse the tension and distract from some otherwise very good film work. There’s something bordering on parody or winking self-referentiality in many of the jokes in these films. I’d rather the Bond films be Bond films and the parodies left to things like Austin Powers.

Anton: I think the most notable moment of self-referentiality is when, in Octopussy, Bond’s Indian contact gets his attention by playing the James Bond theme on his snake charmer instrument.

Aren: That’s a truly bizarre moment. It’s skirting too close to self-parody.

Anders: But let me say that I don’t think that the failure of much of the comedy in the Moore Bond films is a damning fault of Moore himself. I think that Moore has a knack for the absurd and comical that most of the other actors in the series lack. If someone wrote some jokes for him that didn’t completely distract from the rest of the film and feel so out of place, he could be genuinely funny. Connery’s jokes were hard edged one-liners, as much about establishing Bond as an alpha male as getting a laugh out of the audience. Moore played to his fans and while it occasionally was winking and grating, he did it well and it came naturally.

Anton: Coming back to the difference between Moore and Connery we were discussing earlier, I think you are making an important distinguishing point between Connery’s quips and Moore’s. Connery seems to be making jokes diegetically—often a sort of mocking quip in the moment, for his own pleasure. Moore’s humour often breaks the fourth wall—is sort of a joke between him and audience that other characters either don’t notice or don’t get.

New kinds of villains.

Anton: In spite of the strong comedic streak in Moore’s films, they aren’t devoid of thematic substance. In particular, when viewed in order, their collection of villains portray some interesting features.

The Connery films are dominated by either career villains (mostly members of SPECTRE) or the Soviet Russians. Do The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker begin to create a new kind of Bond villain? Both villains are wealthy techno-capitalists who have wild utopian visions they wish to impose on the planet and humanity. The villain’s aims have moved beyond large-scale extortion and the Cold War.

Aren: I really appreciate that the villains are often perverted believers in utopia, playing with social and cultural attitudes of the 1970s. It’s a nice change from the focus on extortion and Soviet influences. Of course, I like SPECTRE and the Russian villains of the Connery films, but if they had stuck with SPECTRE throughout all the films (and even if they could have done so legally despite Kevin McClory’s lawsuit) I think the schtick would have gotten tired.

I also think it’s interesting that many of the villains in the Moore films do not aim to threaten the entire world or force a global conflict. Many of them have more modest goals. Kristatos wants to destabilize the British nuclear arsenal in For Your Eyes Only and General Orlov has a similar goal in Octopussy, wanting to force American warheads out of Europe. Max Zorin wants to corner the microchip market by destroying Silicon Valley and Dr. Kananga wants to similarly dominate the American heroin market. As for what Francisco Scaramanga wants, it’s not entirely clear, but he certainly enjoys having a good time killing people.

Anton: He wants Bond. It’s about rivalry and a kind of attraction.

Aren: Only Hugo Drax and Karl Stromberg threaten the entire world with destruction, and both of them seek to rebuild a new utopian world after the death of the old one, one in space and the other underwater. They’re 1970s utopian futurists turned into fiends. I enjoy them quite a bit, although Kananga takes the cake for best villain. He’s about as interesting a villain as the franchise ever gets.

Anders: I mentioned in my The Spy Who Loved Me review that these kinds of techno-capitalists become the kind of new prototype for what we think of when we think of a Bond villain, Blofeld aside. Think of Hank Scorpio on The Simpsons or Jordan Belfort’s joke in The Wolf of Wall Street about having a boat built for a Bond villain. After The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, and A View to a Kill, a Bond villain was as likely to be a successful capitalist as a communist provocateur. Later films would introduce other types—the rogue agent of GoldenEye or Skyfall for instance. But even Kananga—and I’m inclined to agree with Aren that he’s among the best villains for his complexity and Yaphet Kotto’s performance—is primarily motivated by profit.

Anton: It’s interesting to see the ideological oppositions of the Cold War diminish in emphasis in the films of the Moore era, to the point that they’re often used for humour. In the 1970s, when things were cooling down, new capitalist villains emerge in the films. The Russians are always there, but no longer as evil villains. The political opposition between NATO and the Soviet Bloc is a given, but there are greater threats. And in the 1980s, when you might expect more hostile attitudes to Soviets (given the heating up of Cold War antagonism in Ronald Reagan’s USA), the Bond films are developing General Gogol, who is a Russian opponent but not a hothead. Gogol does not see Soviet interests as being automatically in direction opposition to British. In other words, the films don’t take a hardline anti-Russian stance. They poke fun at Russians, and never trust them, but they’re not characterized as the “Evil Empire.”

Anders: The ideological switch in Cold War tension and the rise of the techno-capitalists is ironically a result of what was probably seen as an inevitable Western victory over the Soviet bloc. It makes little sense to keep going to the Russian well for your villains when they have become less menacing in real life. The posing of successful capitalists as your villains is ironically a commentary on their very success and a kind of strange vindication, as if only capitalism is strong enough to pose a threat to itself.

Anton: I agree, but there’s also this contrast between the approach to the USSR in 1980s American films like Red Dawn and Rambo III. Also, perhaps this changes somewhat with Timothy Dalton’s The Living Daylights.

Aren: Does this have anything to do with British attitudes towards the reds in the 70s and 80s? Even though Margaret Thatcher was in power in England, the Bond producers don’t seem to align with the Tory line. I think the atrocious Thatcher joke at the end of For Your Eyes Only fits with this view.

Moore’s attitude towards women.

Aren: Bond is such an unabashed womanizer in the Moore films. Moore relishes every love scene. He never misses an opportunity to speak a double entendre or bed a conquest. He’s less misogynistic than Connery’s take on the character, but that doesn’t mean he necessarily has a healthy view towards women. They’re a part of his decadent lifestyle.

It’s too bad then, that Moore’s run of Bond films contains some of the worst Bond girls. Some of this can be chalked up to the actresses who play them. Anya Amasova and Octopussy are meant to be strong female characters who work as foils to Bond, exercising their agency whenever they feel like it, but Barbara Bach and Maud Adams are not good actors. Bach seems coked out of her mind in The Spy Who Loved Me (whether or not she was), and Adams fails to make up for how ludicrous her character’s name is. Melina Havelock is similar in For Your Eyes Only. She’s meant to be dangerous, but the way John Glen shoots her and Carole Bouquet’s performance make her seem vacant.

I think Holly Goodhead fairs the best of any of the Bond girls in the Moore films. She’s strong and she’s smart, and although she ends up in bed with Bond, it’s not until the bad guys are dealt with. She actually reads as smart and capable, instead of incompetent like so many Bond girls (ahem, Mary Goodnight). And although May Day is not the main Bond girl of A View to a Kill, she’s memorable. Grace Jones has such a strange charisma, she makes up for the defects in the characterization.

Anders: Oh, I agree. Many of the Bond girls in these films are just not very memorable or good in their performance, despite the attempt to provide stronger and more varied characterizations for women in the films. Some of them are out of their league, but in the case of someone like Grace Jones, who I agree is the most interesting part of A View to a Kill—I notice no one has even raised the name of Tanya Roberts’ forgettable Stacy Sutton—Jones has it in her to be truly menacing and for much of the film she projects an alluring danger, but the film forces her to make the switch to ally late in the film and it detracts from the character. It’s another example of the scripts in this period letting down good actors in the roles.

Anton: Mary Goodnight is certainly restricted to incompetence by the screenwriters. Most of the others are a combination of weak performances and poor character development. For me, Octopussy is incredibly disappointing. She’s the title character and the film keeps her offscreen, building up to her entrance, and then she doesn’t do a whole lot. She’s not the villain, and she’s not a regular Bond girl in the sense of being either a sidekick or an avenue for the mission. She gets sidelined in her own film.

The most interesting thing about May Day is that we should really be talking about her in relation to the other henchmen—the baddies who are fighters and agents for the mastermind—such as Oddjob and Jaws. And that’s certainly saying something for the character. In the middle of the 1980s, a woman was being portrayed as a serious physical and lethal threat to a male secret agent.

I think the biggest charge against the Moore films in terms of their portrayals of women is that Moore almost always gets the upperhand for the jokes.

But then again, May Day gets on top of him, and Moore rolls his eyes. What are we to make of that? Is the joke on him?

Aren: That has to be the weirdest moment in A View to a Kill. I honestly can’t make heads or tails of what’s going on in that scene, aside from the image of Moore waiting in the bed for May Day being hilarious.

Anders: I wasn’t being entirely facetious when I used a screengrab of that scene for my A View to a Kill piece and said it summed up the Moore era…

The Moore films as adaptations of the Fleming novels.

Aren: The Moore films mark the true detachment point with Fleming’s source material. They kept using the names of novels and stories throughout all the Moore films, but the plots have little or nothing to do with Fleming’s fiction.

Anders: True, they drift away from the source material definitively after the loose adaptations of Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun.

Aren: I think the adaptations are exceptionally loose in these cases. Live and Let Die shares some plot points, but all The Man with the Golden Gun shares is the character of Francisco Scaramanga, who is very different than the version in the novel.

Anders: I think there are still interesting elements of the novel Moonraker that could be used to good effect, though I’m not sure how it would work in a post-Cold War situation. Part of the changes to the plots are as much about trying to adapt Bond to the shifting geopolitical climate of the 70s and 80s, but at its worst, as in A View to a Kill, the film’s script becomes a bit too generic.

Anton: Aren was making a pretty convincing argument to me the other day that A View to a Kill, especially for the first half, is almost a remake of Moonraker.

Aren: Think about how similar they are. They both follow Bond investigating a great western capitalist, finding out that he has sinister designs on the human race, and then working to stop him. They both start with Bond heading undercover to the villain’s French(-styled) estate, poking around in their secret files during the nighttime. During both of these sequences, Bond also meets with the main Bond girl and believes her to be part of the villain’s game. The villain finds out Bond’s identity and tries to dispatch him in a sporting event: the pheasant hunt in Moonraker and the equestrian event in A View to a Kill. After that Bond skirts the globe investigating the villain’s plan, finding out that the Bond girl is actually an ally against the villain. They infiltrate the villain’s organization and go about blowing it up in a final fight. As well, the hulking villainous henchman in both films ends up switching sides. Building on Anton’s comment, May Day is essentially the franchise’s female version of Jaws. The films are radically similar.

The same goes for Live and Let Die and its connections to Dr. No. It’s almost a remake fashioned for Roger Moore. At this point in the franchise, the Bond films are as much adaptations of elements from the previous films as they are adaptations of the Fleming novels in their own right.

Anders: For sure. You’re right about the first half of A View to a Kill’s redundancy, but because of it, that’s the better half of the film. The more generic aspects are in the San Francisco scenes toward the end.

Anton: Does all this make the self-referential humor more acceptable? That’s something to think about.

It is really too bad that A View to a Kill was Moore’s last film. But then again, Connery had Diamonds Are Forever.

Moore’s legacy in the role.

Aren: Roger Moore served as James Bond for the better part of two decades. That exceptionally long tenure means that he’ll inevitably define the role for a larger number of people than any other actor, that is, at least until all of the 1970s and 1980s viewers die off. That being the case, he’ll always come across as fairly definitive in the role. There’s a reason people draw the line for best Bond between Connery and Moore. They both did the most to define the role in the minds of viewers.

Anders: If there’s one thing that I’ll take away from revisiting these films, it’s at least a respect for what Roger Moore did to keep the Bond character not just surviving into its third decade on screen, but thriving as a key part of the pop culture landscape. That’s no mean feat for any one.

Anton: Roger Moore’s portrayal of James Bond is for me now a great example of an approach I can fundamentally disagree with, yet have great admiration and respect for. With his zest for the role and gentlemanly characterization, Roger Moore more than left his mark, and I’m happy to give him that credit without saying that his version aligns with my ideal Bond.