After such unspeakable tragedy roiling the world this week, perhaps it is somewhat tone deaf to note the passing of a single celebrity. Then again, maybe celebrating a life and youthful memories is a perfect distraction. Mourning young lives lost in Manchester almost seems overwhelming, and it’s too exhausting anymore to lash out in fury at the likes of terrorists who seem hell-bent on making each repugnant, cowardly act more horrific than the last.
British actor Sir Roger Moore died last night. He was 89.
He had a long list of acting credits, but was easily best known for his role as James Bond.
It will be easy even for casual fans of the Bond films, based on the books by Ian Fleming, to say that the first James Bond, Sean Connery, was also the best. That may be. [Okay fine. It is. Daniel Craig, the most recent Bond, is a strong contender for best Bond. But I find him to be just a little too morbid, a little to emo for my taste. Pierce Brosnan was good — very good — but unfortunately, the movies within his series are more or less forgettable. If you’re suggesting Timothy Dalton was a good Bond, well, you’re on a bit of an island, I’m afraid. Finally, there’s George Lazenby. I mean, come on. The guy’s Australian…]
Yes, Sean Connery is still the best Bond. But Roger Moore was my Bond. Most of the Connery movies were released before my time. The first, Dr. No, [an excellent movie independent of the Bond franchise, and, in many ways, still the gold standard for Bond movies today] came out in 1962, nine years before I was born.
Moore’s first Bond outing was Live and Let Die, released in 1973 (two years after I was born, if you had trouble with the math in the paragraph above). The movie featured a stellar performances from Yaphet Koto as Mr. Big, and Jane Seymour as Solitaire. It also featured the Paul McCartney-led Wings title hit of the same name [click that link at your own risk; it’s a hot-rockin’ 70’s earworm of Herculean proportions].
And of course, there was the slapstick comedic performance from Clifton James as Sheriff Pepper. Sheriff Pepper would make another appearance in the next Bond movie starring Moore, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). [One could argue that, in that movie, he was upstaged by Hervé Villechaize‘s Nick Nack, but that’s a rabbit hole for another time.]
Each Bond movie opens with a stunt, or some sort of excitement (and if you’ve read this far, you likely already know that).
My favorite opening scene will always be from the third Moore installment, The Spy Who Loved Me:
This single opening clip, just a shade over three minutes, could almost be a movie in and of itself.
First, we are reminded that these movies are old without being ancient. Technology has come so far that much of what we see in them has been rendered ridiculously outmoded. The scene fades in to Bond making out with a beautiful woman. Then, a tell-tale clickety-clack as he gets a ticker-tape message coming from his digital watch. Fantastic.
I have a device that fits in my hand and can communicate messages to one person of my choosing or thousands of people in many different ways, and I can do it all instantly. I don’t have an Apple Watch (yet), but it can do the same thing.
The message on the tape summons Bond back home, and, demonstrating a discipline I’ll certainly never know, he leaves the warm fireplace and the warm embrace of the woman for the cold outdoors.
“James, I need you!” she says in some exotic accent.
“So does England!” and with that patriotic flourish, he leaves the cabin.
The woman, of course, betrays him, and before you know it, rifle-toting* killers are after him (you know they’re bad because they’re wearing black and red). A dramatic ski chase ensues, complete with a cheesy 1970’s disco soundtrack thumping away in the background. Bond has to out-ski and fight his way down what looks like the Swiss Alps.
As a young kid intrigued by spies, guns, and kissing pretty girls, I’d have been happy enough with all of this. But at about two minutes and fourteen seconds in, something dramatic , something extraordinary happens.
The violins shriek a warning, and the camera pans out to a giant cliff… and Bond is headed straight for it!
I can still conjure the original nervous feeling in my gut at this scene. Bond has killed one of the bad guys with a neat ski-pole gun he happens to have (this dead bad guy would, it turns out, be an important part of the story later on), and has simply knocked another down. But he’s got three guys still after him. And no one is slowing down. There’s nowhere left to go. The cliff is fast approaching.
And then that’s it. At two minutes and twenty-two seconds in, Bond has literally skied off the cliff. I can hear ten year-old (or so) me gasping in amazement. How is he going to get out of this! How can he POSSIBLY live this time! James Bond is dead for sure!
What happens next is, I think, an underrated cinematic achievement, a tour de force, or at least a creative trick you could probably only pull off in a Bond movie: everything goes silent. There’s no music. No voices, no sound effects. Nothing. Nothing at all.
For more than twenty seconds, all we see is James Bond in free fall.
Think about that for just a moment. Twenty seconds. Forget the clip — take a little time, go somewhere quiet, put away the phone and your ticker-tape watch. Just sit there and count to twenty. See how long that really is.
As a kid, it may as well have been a lifetime. I can still feel the air in my lungs, holding my breath. I can feel my eyes wide. I can feel myself literally on the edge of my seat.
And then. Well, at two minutes and forty-three seconds, the tension finally explodes in the form of a Union Jack parachute, and that high-pitched brass signature sound, which then dissolves into the opening credits, complete with Carly Simon’s great theme song (itself a classic among James Bond theme songs).
I remember seeing that sequence for the first time. I remember the way it made me feel, the excitement, and yeah, even the silliness of it.
I still get that feeling, just a little bit, even when I watch it today.
Part of why I remember that scene — and most of the old Bond movies (pre-Timothy Dalton), which I have watched more times than I can count — is that I remember first watching them with my father. Dad introduced me to James Bond, a genuine gift (like so many, it’s another I’ll never be able to repay). Now that I’m a father and am sharing old childhood movies with my own kids (they’re not ready for Bond just yet, but we’re getting there), I know that he took particular joy in seeing my amazement, in watching my imagination run wild.
But I also know he just liked James Bond, too.
My mother introduced me to the books, and though I’ve read all the Ian Fleming books, I am embarrassed to say I have yet to read the ones written by other authors (from Kingsley Amis to Jeffrey Deaver, with many remarkable writers in between).
On this blog, and elsewhere, I write a lot of different things, a lot of different genres. But I am most comfortable in the world of crime fiction.** I credit James Bond with that, which is just another way of saying I credit my parents.
I get the criticisms; Roger Moore brought too much camp to the series. He was a little too suave, a little too easy with a loaded Walther PPK of a role. Connery was and maybe always will be the best Bond.
But what takes the edge off, what sort of forces you to forgive Moore, is that he acknowledged all of this:
“Sean was Bond. He created Bond.” Connery fashioned Bond, Moore writes, into “an instantly recognizable character the world over—he was rough, tough, mean, and witty.” Moore says if he had seen “Skyfall” before finishing the book, he would have amended that statement. “Now they’ve found the Bond—Daniel Craig…. I always said Sean played Bond as a killer and I played Bond as a lover. I think that Daniel Craig is even more of a killer. He has this superb intensity; he’s a glorious actor.”
Pretty classy for a guy who could have been really bitter about the actor who preceded him (and who jumped in the middle of Moore’s series with Never Say Never Again).
One of the signature achievements of the Bond series is that there is no one Bond, despite Connery’s defining role. There will be a new Bond after Daniel Craig, and, hopefully, a new one after that.
I suspect Sir Roger knew that. He dedicated much of his life to charity work, and said that being a UNICEF Ambassador was his greatest achievement. Despite his memorable work as James Bond, and the impact it had on me as a kid, it’s hard to argue with him on this admirable point.
We’re living in a time of despicable terrorist attacks. It’s times like this the world feels out of order, confused, immersed in chaos. Too many of us are sad and scared. I look around the world with uneasy eyes.
The answers, of course, are complex, untidy. Sometimes I just wish we had James Bond to clean up the mess.
Rest in peace, Sir Roger.
[finishes a dry martini, shaken, not stirred]
[walks out the door]
[skis down a snowy slope]
[jumps off a cliff; deploys Union Jack parachute]
# # # #
*One question that only just now occurred to me watching that clip for the trillionth time: why did the bad guys have silencers on their rifles? Was it to avoid a noise-induced avalanche? And if avoiding the noise of rifle fire was so important to the bad guys, why did they also use pistols with no silencers attached? We hear the shots ring out and the snow kick up around Bond as he flees. So, uh, what’s up with all that?
**I am not saying where I am best, I am saying the creative world where I come up with stories. I like crime stories, I like a thrilling plot. I just like that. I have tried sci-fi, I have tried horror, I have tried young adult, and contemporary literary stuff. I have written non-fiction and covered politics and culture. It all has a place, it is all a part of my world, I have found joy in all of it. But the biggest universe in my imagination is a place where James Bond would feel quite at home.