Created by British writer Leslie Charteris in 1928, Simon Templar is one of the longest lived characters in detective fiction. Since his debut in Meet the Tiger, he has appeared in hundreds of short stories, novels, novellas, and comic books. While the Simon Templar of the early stories was a rather malicious outlaw, he eventually became a sophisticated English gentleman and principled vigilante.
Perhaps this was a wise move. The new Saint gained in popularity and his adventures were translated into other media, including a radio show voiced by the inimitable Vincent Price, a couple of RKO movies, a big budget Hollywood action film starring Val Kilmer, a TV show with a pre-Bond Roger Moore, and another TV series with a post-Bond Ian Ogilvy. The Roger Moore TV series is probably the best remembered incarnation of The Saint. Its allure is usually explained as a combination of Moore’s magnetism, gorgeous women, and exotic locales. But equally relevant are the series’ straight-forward moral fables.
Originally airing between 1962 and 1969, The Saint launched Moore’s career. He was considered for the role of James Bond as early as 1962 because of his performance as Simon Templar, but unable to accept due to his contract with ITC, The Saint‘s production company. To the delight of The Saint‘s fans, when Moore finally starred in his first Bond film, Live and Let Die (1973), he would portray the famous British spy with exactly the same mannerisms and sensuality that characterized his interpretation of Simon Templar.
While the last two seasons of The Saint have been available on DVD for some time, A&E has finally released the first 12 black and white episodes of the series on a bare-bones DVD set. Even though this collection does not include the character’s most exciting adventures, the episodes are representative of the character and the series. Faithful adaptations of the original Charteris stories, they typically follow a rudimentary outline: at an exotic location, Simon Templar encounters someone (usually a beautiful woman) who has been wronged and cannot be helped by the legal establishment. Quite predictably, Templar gets the girl and enacts righteous vengeance on the wrongdoers. Even though he works outside the legal system and enjoys a bad reputation with the police departments all over the world, he never breaks any laws.
Still, in The Saint, there is never any doubt about who is “evil” and who is “innocent.” Criminals encompass a variety of backgrounds: a seemingly devoted husband who wants to kill his wife in “The Talented Husband,” a corrupt union leader in “The Careful Terrorist,” a WWII traitor in “The Covetous Headsman,” and a corrupt attorney in “The Element of Doubt.” Still, despite their differences, these criminals are similar in the sense that they are driven by pure greed. All are looking to become rich, even if they have to endanger bystanders, coworkers, friends, or relatives.
Because of its simple good versus bad structure, not to mention Simon’s moniker, it is hardly surprising that The Saint features religious allusions. As all of these early episodes begin with Simon speaking to the camera, introducing characters and providing context for the upcoming story, Simon has almost a supernatural quality, as if he is a vigilant and know-it-all archangel sent by God to protect the innocent. (This device is abandoned in later episodes). As well, he explains quite eloquently to the chief of the police in “The Talented Husband” that he identifies with Saint George, the legendary dragon-slaying knight.
This virtuous attitude reaches a climax in the episodes in which Simon does not fight criminals, but instead gives lessons in good manners to greedy and selfish friends. In “The Pearls of Peace,” he crosses paths with an old buddy who claims to have found an underwater deposit of valuable pearls that they both sought years before. However, as his friend has since become blind from an accident, he cannot see that the “pearls” are actually worthless. When his friend’s egotistical ex-girlfriend Joss (Erica Rogers) hurts his feelings by laughing at his blindness and poverty, Templar decides to punish her. Simon exchanges the pearls from Joss’ expensive necklace with the cheap ones, and tells his friend that he indeed found the precious pearls.
Similarly, in “The Golden Journey,” Simon steals all the valuables of the rich, spoiled Belinda (also played by Erica Rogers), and forces her to hitchhike with him across Spain. During their short adventure, Simon teaches her basic domestic skills, such as how to cook and how to wash dishes. Of course, he returns all Belinda’s belongings once their trip is completed and she realizes how shallow her life has been. Such righteousness could have easily overwhelmed another TV series, but Moore’s charisma saves the day. In his hands, Simon Templar comes across as a delightful Englishman with good taste in food, drink, clothes, cars, and women, and with lots of spare time to help those in need.