Yesterday we heard the sad news that Roger Moore had passed away. If you’re like me it hit you pretty hard, because if you’re like me Roger Moore’s James Bond is something you love. A lot of people are not like me. Most don’t outright hate Moore’s Bond, but he’s often relegated to the position of hanger on when it comes to discussing Bond actors despite the fact that he was the most tenured. Almost no one ranks him as their favorite Bond, and most like to pile on his films even if they don’t outright dislike them.
However, Moore’s Bond is actually pretty great. He couldn’t have been all that bad to make seven successful Bond films over the course of 12 years. But more than that he’s actually a really good Bond. Maybe in this day and age of “super serious action peoples” his tongue-in-cheek turn seems disrespectful, but in fact Moore’s Bond was anything but. Roger Moore was a great Bond, and it’s pretty easy to see why.
First, Roger Moore could deliver a one-liner like no other. Part of this was the fact that he didn’t really look like he could deliver a one-liner. Moore never had the rough suaveness of Connery, the playfulness of Lazenby, the sneering edge of Dalton, the boyish charm of Brosnan or the harsh facade of Craig. He was straight-laced, upright, and square-jawed so when he delivered a line like, “Just keeping the British end up,” while raising his iconic eyebrow it was just mischievous enough to actually work. Only Connery could nail a one-liner like Moore did.
Often Moore is criticized for taking Bond in a comedic direction and eventually into camp territory. However, this trend towards a more ridiculous Bond was well in place by the time Moore took over, and, in fact, was clearly what audiences wanted at the time.
After Connery left following You Only Live Twice, a film full of what would come to be known as Moore-style Bond action, Eon Productions actually did ground Bond. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the most prolifically grounded Bond films there is, and could fit right in with Craig’s current slate of films minus a few sight gags. It did not do as well as previous Bonds at the box office (though still was one of the top films of the year), so what happened? Full tilt the other way with Connery returning one last time for Diamonds Are Forever and the true birth of a less serious Bond. This is what audiences wanted from their Bond at the time, and Moore was way better than anyone else at playing it up with a wink to the camera.
Combining the newer direction of the franchise with Moore’s uncanny ability to play it straight while still finding the fun of a scene worked really well for Bond. But he’s still remembered for the excess and ridiculousness instead of subtle nods. And that is a fair complaint. He went to space and shot lasers (more on this later) for Pete’s sake. However, lost in the mire of space stations (Moonraker), underwater sea labs (The Spy Who Loved Me) and hot air balloon raids with an all female circus (Octopussy), is that fact that a lot of Moore’s bond films weren’t that big at all.
In fact he kicked off his tenure with the relatively subdued Live and Let Die, which featured an incredibly complex story that played Moore’s stiff Britishness against a Harlem gang to surprising effect. The Man with the Golden Gun may start to show signs of the preponderance of overblown Bond that was too come (slide whistle car flips and Sheriff Pepper), but it also ends with a one-on-one showdown between two foes. Yes, it’s in a ridiculous setting, but Moore actually pulls the tension out of it alongside the fantastic Christopher Lee. Then there is For Your Eyes Only, a film in which Moore’s Bond is a complete and total badass. If it weren’t for the Bibi scenes the film would be one of the straightest played Bond films around.
But Bond wasn’t (and isn’t really) about being subdued. In fact Roger Moore’s best Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me, is easily one of the best Bond films around specifically because it is everything that makes Bond great. Moore delivers a fantastic performance from the pitch perfect parachute-stunt opening to the inevitable victory in an evil villains base. The film is everything a Bond movie should be, cliche and all. If Goldfinger began defining what a Bond film is then The Spy Who Loved Me finalized that definition.
Even in its overblown Bond glory the film finds time to hit some emotional notes, especially when Bond’s late wife is brought up and Moore tersely shuts the conversation down. Moore’s Bond is at its comic finest, but also some of his cruelest. At one point a henchman is grabbing Bond’s tie to keep from falling off a roof. Once he gets the information he needs Moore simply knocks the tie away letting him fall with a stone cold, “What a helpful chap.”
Let’s also give fashion credit where its due. While Connery’s grey 3-piece suit in Goldfinger may be the gold standard of Bond fashion, sometimes he went a bit too high fashion to stay classically trendy. Moore will always look sharp for the most part. His long neck meant that the large collars of the 70s don’t look out of style and his Savile Row suits couldn’t get more British. In one of the the ugliest eras in men’s fashion Moore’s Bond stayed classic for the most part. Maybe it could seem stuffy at the time, but thanks to Moore Bond looks timelessly stylish in a suit.
Finally, Moore saved the franchise. After OHMSS people thought that Bond wouldn’t be able to survive without Connery. Recasting seemed like a mistake, especially since Diamonds performed so much better. Then Moore came along and his take on Bond worked with audiences. People enjoyed watching his Bond, and the franchise stayed relevant. Moonraker might be ridiculous, but it bought full into the Star Wars craze of the time and remained the highest grossing Bond film for decades. No other Bond could have made Moonraker even remotely work. Thanks to Moore’s performance its easy to see how he’s metaphorically winking at the camera throughout the ridiculousness. At that time it is what Bond needed to succeed and only Moore’s Bond could handle that.
Moore took a fun approach to Bond that these days is often looked down upon, but while all his films weren’t fantastic, and he easily should have stopped before A View to A Kill thanks to his age, what Moore did was truly define James Bond. His own delight in having fun with the movies shines through his performances. Maybe that fun has moved on from action cinema, and maybe that isn’t entirely a good thing. Looking at modern Bond films its when the franchise finds that balance between drama and humor that it really works as Skyfall showed, especially when compared to the dour Quantum of Solace and the overly punchy Spectre. Moore might not be your favorite Bond, but he deserves to be remembered as a man who defined what we truly think of Bond overall. There would be no James Bond without Roger Moore.