In the 70s and 80s, late-night television often aired a cinematic gem before the latest public information film about a badly driven Vauxhall. There might be Nicky Henson and his hoard of immensely unthreatening zombie-bikers in Psychomania, or Carry On Girls, in which Bernard Bresslaw’s toupee was an object of sheer wonder. And there might even be a thriller featuring a Lamborghini, an utterly sublime score from Michael J Lewis, and an Oscar-worthy performance from Roger Moore.
When The Man Who Haunted Himself went on general release in the summer of 1970, it was to a largely apathetic critical reception. Michael McNay of The Guardian was offhand; the director ‘handles the story professionally enough’, while Moore was ‘not entirely UnSaintly in spite of a City moustache cultivated for the occasion’. The rarely easy to please Monthly Film Bulletin compared the narrative to ‘all the tired conventions of the British Fifties psychological thriller, and the result is deadly dull’. Meanwhile, The Observer was downright rude – ‘A real slice of ‘forties-type B stuff as Roger Moore finds himself split in two after a nasty car crash. Is he ruthless or refined; a Romeo or a fuddy-duddy. Hard to care’.
It is easy to gain the impression that such critics would only approve of Moore, had he starred in a kitchen sink drama jointly directed by Lindsay Anderson and Ingmar Bergman – with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. At least The Daily Mirror was fairly positive, although the words of their reviewer are a stark reminder of how remote 1970 now appears. The scribe, Dick Richards, considered Moore ‘does a creditable job as the sober City gent but his fans will probably miss his debonair charm and his gay way with the birds’.
“I’ve made dramas before. Trouble is they came out like comedies.”
Moore’s final Simon Templar adventure, The World Beater, aired on the 9th February 1969, by which time the actor was keen to forge a new image – ‘The Saint, although I’m very grateful to him, is rather a predictable chap. He always reacts in just one way to a given set of circumstances, and it’s impossible to develop his character’. On the set of The Man Who Haunted Himself, the ever-self-deprecating actor informed a reporter from The Reading Evening Post ‘I’ve made dramas before. Trouble is they came out like comedies’. His co-star Anton Rodgers responded with ‘whatever he says, Roger is a very good actor’, while the producer Michael Relph stated Moore was ‘much under-rated’.
The Saint frequently showcased Moore’s considerable talents as a delightful light comedian in the Leslie Phillips class, especially when teamed with Sylvia Syms or Dawn Addams. The Man Who Haunted Himself was to showcase his dramatic range and establish him as a star of British cinema. Moore’s previous high profile film roles were in Hollywood and Italy, while his big-screen appearances for UK productions were restricted to bit-parts and walk-ons during the late 40s. Of course, there was also the two cinematic features made from re-edited stories from The Saint – the charmingly off-beat The Fiction-Makers and Vendetta for the Saint. The latter featured Finlay Currie as the world’s most unlikely Mafia Don and an “Italy” with a striking resemblance to Malta, down to the right-hand-drive buses.
“I think my people may have expected a Saint movie.”
The “Swinging London” thriller Crossplot was to be Moore’s first post-Saint starring role. He reflected in his wonderful memoirs My Word Is My Bond: The Autobiography, ‘I think my people may have expected a Saint movie’. The Man Who Haunted Himself was his next project, directed by Basil Dearden, and with a cast including Hildegarde Neil, the great Freddie Jones, and John Carson. The story was taken from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr. Pelham, and a previous screen adaption was a 1955 edition of Alfred Hitchcock Presents starring Tom Ewell.
Shooting commenced in late 1969 amidst much press interest, as the picture was commissioned by Bryan Forbes (who also assisted with Relph and Dearden’s script) as part of his new role as Elstree’s Head of Production. The Man Who Haunted Himself was to be one of the first of a programme of 14 small-scale but ambitious works that represented, in Forbes’s words, ‘the most serious attempt to revitalise the film industry in twenty years’. Moore later complained of inept marketing – ‘the publicity machine was cranked up in rather an amateurish way, sending out the message “we’ve made a film for £200,000; aren’t we clever? It was akin to EMI saying, “we’re making cheap films”’.
However, over the years, the story of Mr. Pelham and his suave doppelgänger continued to attract new audiences via its airings on TV. The protagonist bore no resemblance to Simon Templar, and the actor created his extremely sinister double through nuances of vocal inflexion and body language. The moment when an anguished “Pel” faces his nightmare, is one of the finest in his career. It is a performance that deserves to be considered alongside the best of David Niven; indeed, the thought of Moore as “Major” Pollock in Separate Tables is far from implausible.
It is a rare achievement for a film/tv star to become an essential part of so many childhoods, and when Sir Roger Moore died on the 23rd May 2017, countless Britons mourned the passing of their youth. Your day at school may have been one of unmitigated tedium and Lionel Jeffries-style PE teachers, but Simon Templar’s latest escapades offered an escape. As the writer Martin Pengelly once noted; Moore was the ‘best Bond, charity crusader, good knight’ – and, as eloquently demonstrated by The Man Who Haunted Himself, a great actor.
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA