This big-screen version of small-screen hero is as pleasant a diversion as you can get. Nostalgia pretty much gives it a free pass and in any case the action, which punctuates the drama at regular intervals, was always going to be budget-restricted. Despite being in almost constant danger the insouciance of gentleman thief Simon Templar dictates that the pace is no more than languid.
As the title suggests, we’re in Mafia country, Templar (Roger Moore) drawn into a Cosa Nostra succession scenario as the result of a casual encounter with former bank clerk Houston (Fulton Mackay) later found dead. Houston has cast doubts on the real identity of Mafia Don Destiamo (Ian Hendry) one of several contenders to become the next Mafia overlord. Templar sneaks into Destiamo’s world by pursuing his niece Gina (Rosemary Dexter). Although outwardly respectable, Destiamo a bit too fond of using his cigar as a weapon of disfigurement, threatening his blonde English moll Lily (Aimi McDonald) in this fashion.
Part of Templar’s attraction is that although he has a nefarious side he is happy to walk those mean streets and has a strict moral code. And he moves in such elevated circles that he has a nodding acquaintance with dying Mafia chieftain Don Pasquale (Finlay Currie) who has yet to pick his successor.
The other part of his attraction is that he’s played with such suaveness by Roger Moore. For a good chunk of the time someone is trying to knife him, shoot him, blow him up, capture him, jab him with a truth serum, and generally trying to stop him. In fending off such attacks, or out-smarting the villains, there’s rarely a hair out of place. It’s not so much devil-may-care as devil-is-wasting-his-time with such an imperturbable fellow.
Although the action is pretty straightforward, Templar is not above a clever ruse – jamming a bus in a gateway preventing his pursuers continuing the chase – nor an old one such as tying sheets together to climb out of a window. While Malta stands in for Italy, the locations still look authentic enough, ancient stone buildings, the occasional horse pulling a cart. When the action/drama eases up, there’s always pleasant scenery.
Following MGM’s success in stitching together into a movie two episodes of The Man From U.N.C/L.E. television series (an idea of course the studio had pinched from Walt Disney’s cinematic re-presentation of Davy Crockett episodes) it was no surprise that ATV, then under the control of future movie mogul Sir Lew Grade (Raise the Titanic, 1980), decided to adopt the same idea. Although The Saint had been showing on British television since 1962, by the end of its run in 1969 it had stepped up to bigger budgets, 35mm and color. Given each episode lasted around 50 minutes, it was relatively simple to devise a two-part program shown over consecutive weeks on ITV in Britain and then release it throughout the rest of the world as a feature film. The first such project was The Fiction Makers (1968) followed by Vendetta for the Saint.
Roger Moore’s movie career had been in limbo since Romulus and the Sabines (1961) and there’s no doubt that his performance as Simon Templar and later in another glossier British television series The Persuaders (1971-1972) made him a candidate for James Bond. While his interpretation of Templar, especially the wry delivery, does bear some similarities to his incarnation as 007, that only holds true as long as you set aside the year’s supply of Brylcreem dumped on his hair, the shoulder-padded shoulders and the fact that he had not yet perfected his trademark move, the raising of the single eyebrow.
While no match for the quips prevalent in James Bond, Canadian screenwriter Harry W. Junkin – best known for his television work, his only other movies being a similar melding of television episodes of The Persuaders – and John Kruse (Hell Drivers, 1957) – had some neat one-liners. Despite the obvious limitations, director Jim O’Connelly (Berserk, 1967) does a decent enough job.
But Moore carries the show. Ian Hendry (The Hill, 1965) makes a passable villain but not a passable Italian. In general, not surprisingly since most characters were played by British actors, the accents are all over the place though Moore, courtesy of squiring Luisa Mattioli (later his wife) managed to deliver his Italian lines in an acceptable accent. Otherwise the only one who comes close is Rosemary Dexter (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) and that’s because she was Italian. Worth checking out in the supporting cast are Finlay Currie (Ben Hur, 1959) and Fulton Mackay (BBC series Porridge, 1974-1977).
You can find a lot wrong with this without looking very hard but if you switch off your over-critical faculties you will be pleasantly surprised.