The Saint – ‘The Saint plays with Fire’ (1963): introducing Roger Moore’s greatest non-Bond role

8 JANUARY 2024

JBC rating: ****

James Bond Connections (5):

  • Starring Roger Moore (James Bond 1973 – 1985) as Simon Templar, a.k.a The Saint.
  • Featuring Joseph Furst (Professor Doctor Metz in Diamonds Are Forever) as chief villain Kane Luker.
  • Featuring Robert Brown (M, 1983 – 1989) as Howard Jackman.
  • Featuring Joe Robinson (Peter Franks in Diamonds Are Forever) as henchman Austin.
  • Featuring John Hollis (uncredited as ‘Blofeld’ in For Your Eyes Only) as henchman West.

Veteran English producers Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman achieved international success with their classic action-adventure television series The Saint (1962-69), an adaptation of author Leslie Charteris’ long-running series of novels and short stories following the adventures of smooth crime fighting playboy Simon Templar. Baker and Berman were essentially a small screen version of James Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, making similar successful creative choices. Just as Sean Connery would be the vital element differentiating Dr No (1962) from the 1954 U.S TV play, ‘Casino Royale’, Baker and Berman’s series eclipsed several lacklustre 1940s American-made Saint B-movies by casting the skilled and charismatic Roger Moore as the dynamic lead character. Though Templar was a freelance crime fighter / adventurer in contrast to the state employed Bond, the characters share obvious parallels, and few can have been surprised by Moore’s eventual casting as Connery’s successor in 1973.

Given a sizeable pre-existing audience (the popular Saint books, dating back to the 1920s, had also been adapted into a successful radio show featuring the familiar Charteris-penned theme tune), Baker and Berman wisely kept faithful to their source material. The 1963 episode ‘The Saint Plays with Fire’, adapted by the prolific television writer John Kruse from Charteris’ fine novel Prelude to War (1938), is an excellent example. As writer Richard Maibaum and others managed with many of Ian Fleming’s best stories, scriptwriter John Kruse maintains the greatest elements of the original whilst tightening the plotting. As with the novel, the episode opens with Templar heroically entering a burning country house in a failed attempt to save the life of trapped journalist John Kennett (played by the dependable English character actor Tony Beckley). Afterwards, Templar learns Kennett was about to publish an article exposing members of the great and the good supporting the British Nazi Party, one of whom owned the house which burnt down. Kruse wisely keeps one of the best passages from the novel, where Templar becomes convinced Kennett was murdered by a cabal of neo-Nazi’s following a farcical coroner’s inquest which erroneously rules death by misadventure.

A key factor in the high quality of The Saint was the frequently stellar cast of actors and a highly experienced production crew. Robert S. Baker himself directs ‘The Saint Plays with Fire’, heightening the tension in several scenes through shadowy lighting and dramatic camera angles. He has a solid cast to work with, including future Diamonds Are Forever (1971) actor Joseph Furst (above, left), who plays the ruthless German industrialist (and leader of the Fascist villains) Kane Luker. The Austrian performer is vastly more sinister here than as the comically exasperated Professor Doctor Metz. Another Diamonds Are Forever cast member, wrestler Joe Roberts, plays henchman Austin (though his climactic scrap with Roger Moore is nowhere near as memorable as his famous elevator fight with Sean Connery). John Hollis, ‘Blofeld’ in For Your Eyes Only (1981), features as another henchman. With plenty of exposition to relay to Roger Moore in his role as newspaper publisher Howard Jackman, actor Robert Brown (top image, right) essentially gets a dry run for his later role as M in Octopussy (1983) and A View to a Kill (1985).

The episode takes off with the introduction of glamorous high society girl Lady Valerie Woodchester, nicely played by series regular Justine Lord (above). Having previously been involved with the deceased journalist, the acquisitive Valerie unwittingly complicates the plot when she embarks on a foolish scheme to sell her secret copy of Kennett’s newspaper article to the villains. Instead, they use her to capture Templar whom they believe knows its location. As in his later Bond movies, Roger Moore varied his performances in The Saint according to the tone of each script. Whilst never losing his familiar sparkle, Moore plays it straight in this episode, especially during the agonising (and surprisingly violent) climax involving Templar injuring himself while trying to burn through ropes binding his wrists.

The high quality of ‘The Saint Plays with Fire’ puts into sharp relief the relative artistic and commercial failure of adaptations of Leslie Charteris’ hero in the 1990s and 2010s. In fact, the quality of the whole 1960s series proves any future producers would be wise to remain faithful to Leslie Charteris’ original stories. Indeed, Prelude to War, suitably updated, would make an excellent basis for a modern film. The 118 episodes of The Saint provided Roger Moore with arguably the best preparation for taking on the role of James Bond compared with any of the other 007 actors. ‘The Saint Plays with Fire’ is one of the very best of the early black and white episodes of The Saint and comes highly recommended to thriller aficionados in general and James Bond fans in particular.

How well do you think The Saint compares to James Bond. Please leave a comment or an alternative review below.

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