Requiem for a Saint

I have a little more time on my hands now that Mission is off to galleys. Time enough to think, and it’s only occurring to me now after all these years how badly I wanted to be the Saint. The Saint, as in Simon Templar (initials ST, Saint, get it?), square-shouldered, impeccably dressed playboy adventurer who drove around England righting wrongs. He had no past to speak of, no hometown or parents or ex-wife. His ex-girlfriends only showed up when the plot dictated, and they were usually ne’er-do-wells who had stolen money or diamonds and fled some country or other leaving Simon behind, and now they were in trouble and needed his help.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The Saint’s calling card struck fear in the hearts of the bad guys.

Since I write for more of a movie audience than a pop culture audience, I mention the Saint and you think George Sanders and that’s fine. George Sanders made a terrific everything, including an entertaining feature-picture Saint, but George was hampered by the constraints of RKO production in the 1940s, and so his Saint was what he was, a formula programmer guy operating under the Production Code.

I always wanted to be the Swinging ’60s Roger Moore Saint from the British-produced ITC series. I’ll grant you that Roger Moore made a mediocre James Bond. He was little more than a placeholder as Bond, and many would say he was no George Lazenby let alone a Sean Connery. I guess I could sit here and count the reasons why he didn’t work as Bond, and they’re the same reasons he did work as the Saint.

Despite the bon mots tossed off by Connery’s Bond (“She’s just dead” … “I guess he got the point” … “Shocking”), there was gravity behind every movement, gesture, punch, and gunshot. Connery was a thinking-man’s Bond with the fate of the free world in his hands. Moore was the playful Bond, a big kid in a global candy store, reflecting Roger Moore’s off-screen mischievous self, a force that could never be contained. I remember Bond producer Cubby Broccoli at one point decades ago commenting on “those damned eyebrows” of Roger Moore, eyebrows that would shoot up out of nowhere and puncture otherwise dramatic moments in the Bond pictures. The basic question is, how can someone who’s “licensed to kill” have all that mirth inside him? Roger Moore as James Bond just came off as M’s bad hiring decision.

But as Simon Templar, Roger Moore was unbound. In an early Saint book, author Leslie Charteris described ST this way: “The Saint always looked so respectable that he could at any time have walked into an ecclesiastical conference without even being asked for his ticket. His shirtfront was of a pure and beautiful white that should have argued a beautiful soul. His tuxedo, even under the poor illumination of a street lamp, was cut with such a dazzling perfection, and worn moreover with such a staggering elegance, that no tailor with a pride in his profession could have gazed unmoved upon such stupendous apotheosis of his art.”

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

When Simon gives the halo a glance, it’s time for the opening credits.

Thirty-plus years after Charteris wrote that description, Roger Moore brought the Saint to life on TV in just such sartorial fashion, a smirking, self-satisfied force of nature, light hearted but deadly when he needed to be. He would drive up in his little white sports car to serve as a dashing instrument of justice that in mere moments from the beginning of each episode would come between evildoers and those they had oppressed. He brought his looks, wits, brains, style, and athleticism to bear on any situation and without the need for licenses, possessing an ambiguous morality that made him capable of straying outside the law as needed. The prologue would always culminate with someone growling something to the effect that “the infamous Simon Templar” had just arrived, and he would look up at the halo that suddenly appeared over his head, which would cue the theme music. In fact, and particularly in the early years (the show ran 1962–69), Moore wouldn’t just bump into the fourth wall but he’d rip it down, addressing camera about where he was and what was going on around him with such easy charm that you just bought it. If you want to see me truly happy, just put on an episode of The Saint and leave the room. I’ll be babysat for the next 55 minutes.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Years before Moore’s Bond had secretarial byplay with Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny, they worked together on The Saint. (As a 10-year-old boy I was gonzo for Moneypenny. I’d sit in the theater screaming in my own brain, “OH MY GOD, HOW CAN YOU RESIST HER??”)

Moore was 35 years old when he began his run as the Saint; Roger was ex-military and an ex-clothes model who had been signed to a contract by MGM toward the end of the studio era. He never made any claim to being Olivier; he didn’t have a lot of range, but as Simon Templar he didn’t need it. He was charming and unafraid to take chances in front of the camera. He was also the perfect age to play the Saint from the beginning of the run to the end, finishing at age 42. By the time he shot his first Bond in 1973 he was already 46, and seven pictures later when he ended his run as 007, he was 58 and looked older than that and not very interested in what was going on. And by then, thanks to the aforementioned Broccoli, the human James Bond facing human crises had long ago been replaced by special effects James Bond with gadgets and explosions and existence in a world where gravity didn’t apply. All the while Moore kept aging and the Bond girls kept being 20 or 25 and it got kind of weird—that Gary Cooper-Audrey Hepburn kind of weird. Or Humphrey Bogart-Audrey Hepburn weird. At some point, for Roger Moore, it all stopped working.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Another Bond girl to come the Saint’s way–Goldfinger victim Shirley Eaton.

After another successful book or two, you know where you’ll find me, in a tux driving around London in my white sports car righting wrongs, or on the Riviera playing baccarat with a brunette on each arm and a halo over my head, talking to the camera, knocking out bad guys, stealing from the evil rich, keeping what I need, and giving what’s left to the oppressed poor, just the way Leslie Charteris wrote it all those years ago.

Or, at the very least, they’ll drape a shawl around my shoulders and plunk me in front of the TV to watch Roger do it, taking comfort in the knowledge that I won’t be likely to wander away from the facility and into the woods to be found face-down in some ditch. At least not for the next 55 minutes.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The one, the only Roger Moore as a smirking Saint, dressed to the nines (I could never keep the bow tie on a tux straight) and out to destroy that irritating fourth wall.

8 comments

  1. Sean Connery told an interviewer several years ago that his 007 began his Bond films in a more serious tone, and ending with the audience laughing; and that his friend Roger Moore began his Bond portrayals in a more upbeat, humorous way and they would finish with a more serious tone.

  2. Ah, your column about The Saint, Robert, now has me waxing nostalgically about two of my favourite light hearted British crime TV dramas as a kid. Every week I looked forward to seeing, not only The Saint, with the incredibly debonair, white tuxedo attired Roger Moore checking above his head at the beginning of the show for his halo, but The Avengers.

    But the period of The Avengers that I loved were those special two seasons with Diana Rigg, feline and deadly with her martial arts moves, but hopefully also doing them in clinging black leather!

    How I used to wish that there was only some way for Simon Templar and Mrs. Emma Peel to collaborate their considerable sexy personas as potent crime fighting forces to tackle some arch fiend bent on destroying London, or, perhaps, the world.

    The Avengers, of course, gradually got into plots that were increasingly more fantastical and tongue-in-cheek than those in the somewhat more staid Saint series, if memory serves me correctly. But I always loved The Saint’s musical accompaniment (with that never-to-be forgotten Saint Theme), the London sights, and the polished aplomb of Roger Moore, a gentleman knight to the ladies while also ready to wrack havoc upon a villain’s jaw with his fist.

    Moore’s okay as a light hearted James Bond, in my opinion, though, obviously, darker, meaner Sean Connery was the king. However, as you stated, Robert, Moore’s light hearted TV screen persona was perfect for the role of Templar. I’ll always have nostalgic feelings of affection for him because of that series. (Though, truth be known, my carnal feelings for Mrs. Peel left an even bigger impression upon my testosterone seething body and adolescent mind).

    1. Oh Tom, how Mrs. Peel shaped the sexuality of a generation of young TV-watching males. She was the very definition of cougar, 30s, sultry, stylish, self-confident, and obviously sexually active. There are moments between Steed and Mrs. Peel that stack up nicely against Nick and Nora in the early Thin Man pictures–endearing and wacky little vignettes that are just two people with great chemistry having fun on camera. And Mrs. Peel’s feline athleticism just has me sitting here in a daze at the memories, smiling.

      Now that I think about it since you mention the music for The Saint, it sounds an awful lot like that in the Hammer horror pictures. Was it the same orchestra, does anybody know?

  3. Oh, those rainy Sunday afternoons when my sister and I would watch reruns of The Saint and The Avengers on syndicated TV! I aspired to Emma Peel’s wardrobe, but at barely 5’2″ I could never carry it off. As far as Roger Moore, i would worship his very cufflinks. I actually liked Moore as Bond; somehow his humor and charm softened the misogyny of the character.

    1. It’s good to hear you say this, Rosemarie. My wife and my friend Marina both say Moore never did anything for them, so it’s good to hear a counter opinion. And I like your point about his take on Bond–playing him as anti to what Tom describes above as Connery’s “smugness and superiority.”

      As for Mrs. Peel, I don’t know of a single young person male or female who didn’t have some degree of a crush on her. She was right up there with the Beatles as white-hot in the mid-’60s. I imagine a little part of each of us died when she took a bullet in the head at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

  4. I’ve never doubted for a second that Roger Moore is a super nice guy in real life. His charity work as a good will ambassador for UNICEF, working for homeless children around the world, speaks volumes about the man. I believe he took over the role after his friend Audrey Hepburn died.

    I’ve read mixed, and not always complimentary, reports about Sean Connery. Maybe that’s what makes him the greatest of the Bonds in the eyes of so many, that fact that there’s a bit of a hard nosed swine in both him and 007.

    1. He’s got to be a saint if he took over for Audrey–I didn’t know about his work with UNICEF until I read an interview while prepping for this column. As for Connery, I think I’d be disappointed if he wasn’t a little bit difficult. As you say, Tom, it’s right there in plain sight in the Bond pictures–the smugness and superiority that, if you saw it in a relative or co-worker, you’d be really annoyed by.

  5. Well, Robert, because of this column, I rented a DVD with three episodes of The Saint from my local library. The first time I’ve seen the show in a goodly number of years, and I got hooked! I forgot that his character does a lot of world travel, one episode set in Rome, the other in the West Indies (though the rear screen projection gave me the huge impression that few, if any, of the cast, left the home studio). Nevertheless, it definitely brought some spice to these later colour episodes of the series.

    In particular, I loved the smooth aplomb of Roger Moore all over again as Simon Templar and, man, when he smacks someone, do they stay smacked! There were a lot of one punch knockouts in fist fights in the show. But did anyone ever look more sophisticated in immaculate attire than Moore, even in the midst of a fist fight? Templar really was the perfect role for this actor.

    In any event, now I’ve done it. I just ordered The Saint The Complete Series (120 episodes, both black and white and colour) for a small fortune off Amazon. Yes, I am about to be Sainted to death!

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