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A Brief History of Galleries and Museums in Film: Part 1

All mentioned films in article
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'That belongs in a museum,' barks Henry Jones, Jr. in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). He has just had the Cross of Coronado removed from his pocket by Panama Hat, who retorts, 'So do you!' This exchange between Harrison Ford and Paul Maxwell raises a lot of questions about what actually does belong in a museum and how it was acquired. Film-makers may not provide any definitive answers, but they know an atmospheric location when they see one and Cinema Paradiso invites you to embark upon a two-part tour of cinema's most iconic museums and galleries.

Hushed and imposing, museums are filled with display cases housing the wisdom and accomplishments of the ages, while the walls of art galleries are covered with canvases proclaiming the limitlessness of the human imagination. What better settings could their be for scenes showcasing people at their best and worst - creative and destructive, curious and avaricious, cultured and philistinic?

In his 2009 essay, 'Strange Exhibitions: Museums and Art Galleries in Film', academic Steven Jacobs noted that alongside the obvious artists and connoisseurs, cinema museums and galleries were populated by 'tourists, snobs, dandies, iconoclasts, thieves, secret lovers, spies and haunted or cursed characters'. While this list conjures up all manner of scenarios, Jacobs omitted to mention the odd animated duck, as Donald takes a tour of the Museum of Modern Marvels and encounters a robot butler and an automatic barber's chair that gives his tail feathers a trim in Jack King's Modern Inventions (1937), which Cinema Paradiso users can enjoy on The Chronological Donald (2004).

A still from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) With Harrison Ford And Alison Doody
A still from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) With Harrison Ford And Alison Doody

There's no shortage of connoisseur opinion in the innovative documentaries made by Phil Grabsky and David Bickerstaff for the ever-expanding Exhibition on Screen series. The pair share the directing and producing duties on films that not only capture the atmosphere of hot ticket gallery shows, but also provide insights into the life and style of some of the biggest names in Western Art. Among the decent smattering of these exemplary titles available to rent from Cinema Paradiso are Manet: Portraying Life (2013), Matisse From MOMA to Tate Modern (2014), Vincent Van Gogh: New Ways of Seeing, The Impressionists and the Man Who Made Them (both 2015), and Cezanne: Portraits of a Life (2018).

Nooks and Crooks

Museums and art galleries may not be the leisure destination of choice for all multiplex moviegoers, but they still know what to expect when film-makers set a scene within these hallowed halls. Such is the unique atmosphere inside the world's major museums and galleries that an air of apprehension often descends at the outset of a scene, in case someone transgresses against the code of conduct expected inside treasure stores whose golden rule is always, 'look, but do not touch'.

As repositories of priceless artefacts, museums will always be targeted by crooks, who disregard gallery decorum with fiendish finesse in order to avoid triggering the sophisticated alarm system. Two years after he had introduced Melina Mercouri to stepson Anthony Perkins in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum in Phaedra (1962), director Jules Dassin sought out a more exotic locale for his heist classic, Topkapi (1964). Having already given a robbery masterclass in Rififi (1955), Dassin turned to Eric Ambler's thriller, The Light of Day, to show how Mercouri hires Swiss cracksman Walter Harper (Maximilien Schell) to steal the dagger of Sultan Mahmud I from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Having to break in via the roof provides plentiful problems, but Harper's task is made no easier by the eccentricity of cohorts Cedric Page (Robert Morley), Giulio (Gilles Ségal) and Arthur Simpson (Peter Ustinov).

The latter won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his splendidly shambolic performance as a small-time hustler. By contrast, Peter O'Toole oozes savoir faire in William Wyler's How to Steal a Million (1966), as he's hired by Audrey Hepburn to purloin a fake Cellini Venus from the Kléber-Lafayette Museum to prevent father Hugh Griffith from being exposed as a forger. The setting is entirely fictional and its interiors were constructed on a soundstage. But the façade belongs to the charming Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris.

The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago provides the setting for Peter Hyams's The Relic (1997), as anthropologist Dr John Whitney (Lewis Van Bergen) turns into the forest monster Kothoga after going missing on an expedition in South America. The crates he sent back are examined by evolutionary biologist Dr Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller), who believes that nothing is amiss. But Lieutentant Vincent D'Agosta (Tom Sizemore) is convinced the museum is linked to a recent killing.

While Hyams makes evocative use of his setting, he has to doff his cap at the inspired manner in which Aleksandr Sokurov employs the galleries at the Hermitage in St Petersburg in the greatest museum film ever made, Russian Ark (2002). As home to the Romanov dynasty between 1732-1917, the former Winter Palace is the perfect place to recreate 800 years of Russian history and Sokurov and his 2000 actors glide through 33 rooms under the unyielding gaze of Tilman Büttner's camera in a single Steadicam shot that lasts for the film's entire 96-minute running time.

A still from Russian Ark (2002)
A still from Russian Ark (2002)

Documentarist Margy Kinmonth's Hermitage Revealed (2014) offers an engaging tour of the museum, although it can't compete in terms of completiveness with Luca De Mata's The Vatican Museums (2007), which runs for an epic seven hours. That said, the films in the trilogy spun off by director Shawn Levy from a beloved comic book by Milan Trenc are heading in total towards the five-hour mark.

In Night At the Museum (2006), deadbeat dad Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) hopes to turn his life around by landing a night shift job at New York's American Museum of Natural History. However, his hopes of a quiet life are dashed when an ancient Egyptian tablet brings the exhibits to life, including a playful dinosaur, a stuffed monkey, a bullish waxwork of President Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams) and miniature figures of a Roman centurion (Steve Coogan) and a cowboy (Owen Wilson).

Three years later, Daley finds himself in the middle of another nocturnal muddle after the exhibits are temporarily transferred to Washington, DC in Night At the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009). Luckily, aviatrix Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) is on hand to help prevent reanimated pharaoh, Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), from taking over the world using the tablet belonging to his younger brother, Ahkmenrah (Remy Malik). But Daley becomes concerned when the tablet's power begins to wane and he has to travel to a fantasy version of the British Museum in London to restore its lustre by lifting a curse in Night At the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014).

A still from Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014)
A still from Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014)

Three more security guards allow their affection for the exhibits they protect to get the better of them in Peter Hewitt's The Heist (2009), as Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman and William H. Macy learn that their favourite items are going to be shipped to Copenhagen and arrange for forgeries to be made so that they can keep the originals. This genial caper was filmed at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, while Vienna's world-renowned Kunsthistorisches Museum provides the setting for Jem Cohen's Museum Hours (2012), which chronicles the relationship that develops between invigilator Johann (Bobby Sommer) and Canadian Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara) after she pops into the galleries to pass time while visiting a sick friend. Anyone hooked by this marvellously measured meditation should also check out Johannes Holzhausen's compelling documentary, The Great Museum (2014).

The Boston Museum of Art becomes a second home to John Travolta in Philip Martin's The Forger (2014), as he has to copy and swap Claude Monet's 1875 painting of his wife and son in order to pay back the crooked dealer who has arranged for him to be released from prison early in order to spend time with his ailing child. There's nothing so subtle about the setting or the premise of Steven Judd's The Factory (aka The Butchers, 2014), however, as the passengers on a broken-down bus seek shelter in a museum dedicated to such serial killers as Jack the Ripper, Albert Fish, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein and the Zodiac.

Much more refined, although not without its manic moments is Ruben Östlund's The Square (2017), which centres on Christian Nielsen (Claes Bang), the curator of the X-Royal art museum at the former royal palace in Stockholm who is having one of those days, as the loss of his phone and an affair with journalist Anne (Elizabeth Moss) distract him from the launch of a controversial new installation by Lola Arias. As Christian's grip on reality begins to loosen, however, the accompanying statement becomes increasingly ironic: 'The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.'

A still from The Great Museum (2014)
A still from The Great Museum (2014)

Raising a Smirke in Bloomsbury

Designed by Sir Robert Smirke in the Greek Revival style, the British Museum has been the jewel of Bloomsbury since 1852. However, the institution itself is 93 years older, as the collections housed in Montagu House opened to the public in January 1759. Karl Marx and Bram Stoker had written seminal works in the famous Reading Room while the moving image was still at the flickering novelty stage. But the fabled 'cabinet of curiosities' finally made a splash on the big screen in George Irving's The Wakefield Case (1920), a Hollywood drama about a playwright investigating his father's ruby-related murder that was produced by Lois Weber, whose 1921 drama, The Blot, can be found on the BFI's remarkable collection, Early Women Film-makers, 1911-1940.

Always one to find room for a famous landmark in his pictures, Alfred Hitchcock set the climactic chase of Blackmail (1929) on the domed roof of the Reading Room. In reality, however, it was too dark to film the sequence in the museum itself, so Hitchcock had to shoot the action in a studio with transparencies as his backdrop.

Better lighting enabled Jacques Tourneur to show American psychologist Dana Andrews researching a Satanic cult in the Reading Room in the enduringly terrifying Night of the Demon (1957). The same setting doubles for the library at the Royal School of Mines in Sidney J. Furie's The Ipcress File (1965), while Edward Fox's assassin is seen studying Charles De Gaulle in the same circular chamber in Fred Zinnemann's The Day of the Jackal (1973).

The fictional station of Bloomsbury was created to link the Egyptian Room and the Underground during the rousing finale to Walter Forde's comic adventure, Bulldog Jack (1935). But the mood is much more sombre in Mike Newell's The Awakening (1980), as archaeologist Matthew Cornbeck (Charlton Heston) comes to the British Museum to perform a rite over Kara's mummy in a bid to prevent his daughter, Margaret (Stephanie Zimbalist), from being possessed by Egyptian queen Kara.

A still from The Day of the Jackal (1973)
A still from The Day of the Jackal (1973)

Illicit romance is in the air in James Ivory's Maurice (1987), as Maurice Hall (James Wilby) and Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves) meet at the British Museum and become lovers after a misunderstanding that the former had been blackmailed by the under-gamekeeper from the Pendersleigh estate. By contrast, love comes by a more circuitous route in Neil LaBute's Possession (2002), after academic Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) finds drafts of a billet doux from 19th-century poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) to fellow writer Christabel LaMotte Jennifer Ehle), who is a distant relation of gender studies scholar, Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow).

More recently, Wonder Woman foils a robbery at the British Museum and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) gives an interview to the media waiting outside the Great Russell Street façade in Zack Snyder's Justice League (2017), while the opening scene of Francis Lee's Ammonite (2019) makes a sly gender-political point by showing some cleaning women scrubbing the floor while several men clatter over the tiles to see the latest 'sea lizard' submitted from Lyme Regis by fossil collector Mary Anning (Kate Winslet).

Meanwhile, Across London

Part of the British Museum until 1963, the Natural History Museum has been housed in the South Kensington premises designed by Alfred Waterhouse since 1881. Its first major screen role saw it standing in for the Wallingford Research Centre in John Boulting's Seven Days to Noon (1950), which sees the military rumble past the façade after Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones) steals a nuclear bomb and threatens to destroy the capital.

A very different kind of theft informs Robert Stevenson's One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing (1975), as Lord Edward Southmere (Derek Nimmo) flees China after stealing a microfilm containing a secret formula. He hides it in a hollow dinosaur skeleton at the Natural History Museum. But, when Chinese villain Hnup Wan (Peter Ustinov, regrettably in yellow face) pinches the exhibit, he is chased down by a rattle of nannies led by Southmere's former governess, Hettie (Helen Hayes).

A still from One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)
A still from One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)

A moment of aching poignancy occurs during a visit to the museum in Hugh Hudson's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), as John Clayton (Christopher Lambert) is so dismayed by the displays of stuffed and live animals in Hintze Hall that he releases the caged creatures and suffers the anguish of seeing Silverbeard, the ape who had raised him in the jungle, being gunned down in a nearby park.

While Hatfield House in Hertfordshire provided the exterior of Croft Manor in Simon West's Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), the interiors were filmed at the Natural History Museum, which was also supplied the office of Denise Glass (Indira Varma) in Michael Caton-Jones's Basic Instinct 2 (2006).

On the factual front, former volunteer Jimmy Doherty returns to South Kensington to examine the day-to-day operation of the facility in Sophie Harris's BBC documentary, Museum of Life (2010). But we're back in the fictional realm for Paul King's Paddington (2013). in time to see taxidermist Millicent Clyne (Nicole Kidman) seek to add Peru's most famous émigré to her collection of stuffed animals at the so-called 'cathedral of nature'.

It's three settings for the price of one after Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) realises she's a space princess in Lily Wachowski's Jupiter Ascending (2015), with the Zoology basement corridor and General Herbarium featuring alongside Hintze Hall, as it's transformed into a fabulous interstellar palace. The hall can be seen again, as the Prodigium secret cabal bases itself in an upper office in Alex Kurtzmann's The Mummy (2017), although the Tank Room also puts in a guest appearance.

A few hundred yards away stands the Victoria & Albert Museum, which was officially opened by Queen Victoria in June 1857. Down the years, it has decorated such diverse pictures as Brock Williams's I'm a Stranger (1952), Shekhar Kapur's The Four Feathers (2002), Gerald McMorrow's Franklyn (2008), Danny Boyle's Trance (2013) and James Griffiths's Cuban Fury (2014). Lulu and her classmates were so chuffed when teacher Sidney Poitier agreed to take them on a field trip to the V&A that they dressed up to the nines and were on their best behaviour in James Clavell's classroom classic, To Sir, With Love (1967).

However, the museum has often served as a stand-in for other places. In Martin Scorsese's Hugo (2011), for example, the Cast Courts gallery was chosen as the site of the museum workplace of 12 year-old Hugo Cabret's clockmaker father (Jude Law), while the National Art Library stood in for the Bodleian Library during the scenes involving Elijah Wood and John Hurt in Álex de la Iglesia's The Oxford Murders (2008). The same room also sees Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) and Inspector Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor) make an important discovery while tracking down a stolen Goya painting in David Koepp's Mortdecai (2015).

A still from Hugo (2011)
A still from Hugo (2011)

Speaking of important artworks, the National Gallery has still to get over the decision to ask security guard Rowan Atkinson to deliver 'Whistler's Mother' to the Grierson Art Gallery in Los Angeles in Mel Smith's Bean (1997). The trustees must also have come to regret hosting the TV quiz show, School Challenge, in Oliver Parker's St Trinian's (2007), as not even Stephen Fry can keep control, while Gemma Arterton and her pals sneak off to steal Vermeer's ' The Girl With the Pearl Earring ' (even though it's actually housed in the Mauritshuis in The Hague).

As featured in Mike Leigh's Mr Turner (2014), J.M.W. Turner's 'The Fighting Temeraire' provides the backdrop for the first meeting between James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Q (Benjamin Whishaw) in Sam Mendes's Skyfall (2012), with the latter hinting that he sees 007 as a 'grand old war ship being ignominiously hauled away to scrap'.

Any observations along similar lines failed to make the final cut in Frederick Wiseman's imperious documentary, National Gallery (2004), which eavesdrops with trademark discretion on the discussions of key employees, while also pausing to admire such masterpieces as Leonardo Da Vinci's 'Virgin of the Rocks', Hans Holbein's 'The Ambassadors' and Diego Velásquez's 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary'.

While Tate Modern was still the empty Bankside power station, it featured as the Tower of London in Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen's darkly witty take on Shakespeare's Richard III (1995). The same year also saw Danny Cannon use the interior for the Aspen prison sequences in Judge Dredd, while the location was refurbished to form the Kenilworth estate laboratory in Kevin Allen's Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London (2004).

It was also used for the conference scene in Fernando Meirelles's John Le Carré adaptation, The Constant Gardener (2005), while Bridget (Renée Zellwegger) dines with her friends in the Level 9 restaurant in Sharon Maguire's Bridget Jones's Diary (2001). The top-floor bar is also where Rhys Ifans starts stalking Daniel Craig in Roger Michell's adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel, Enduring Love (2004), while Rose Byrne arranges to meet cult rocker Ethan Hawke in the Tate café in Jesse Peretz's Juliet, Naked (2018), only for him to fail to turn up.

A still from Enduring Love (2004)
A still from Enduring Love (2004)

In Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men (2006), the Turbine Hall is the setting for the Ark of the Arts run by Danny Huston, whose treasures include the broken-legged remnants of Michelangelo's 'David', Pablo Picasso's 'Guernica' and Banksy's 'British Cops Kissing'. And we end this section on London museums where we started, high above the city, as Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) chases August Walker (Henry Cavill) across the Tate Modern roof in Christopher McQuarrie's Mission: Impossible: Fallout (2018), only for the hissable ex-CIA agent to have a helicopter waiting to make his escape.

Nine Minutes and 43 Seconds

Between 1546-1682, the Louvre was the principle residence of the kings of France. When Louis XIV decamped to Versailles, however, the palace was requisitioned to house the royal collection and it became a public museum at the height of the French Revolution in 1793.

It's now the biggest art museum in the world, although it's had a rather chequered screen career, despite being in the vicinity of the Boulevard des Capucines, where Louis and August Lumière gave the first projected cinema show to a paying audience on 28 December 1895. It will come as no surprise for regular readers of Cinema Paradiso articles to learn that Georges Méliès was one of the first to film the Louvre in the hectic chase silent, Robert Macaire and Bertrand (1906).

On 21 August 1911, former Louvre worker Vincenzo Peruggia stole the world's most famous painting, Leonardo Da Vinci's 'The Mona Lisa'. Showing how quickly film-makers had already become to reacting to news events, Albert Capellani released Gribouille a volé la Joconde in November. Subsequently, Géza Bolváry's Der Raub der Mona Lisa (1931) and Michel Dreville's On a volé la Joconde (1966) have reconstructed the crime of the century and Jodie Foster is reportedly set to follow in their footsteps in the none too distant future.

Prior to this notorious episode, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (José Ferrer) took muse Myriamme (Suzanne Flon) to the Louvre to see the Venus de Milo in John Huston's Moulin Rouge (1952), while contemporary Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) visits an exhibition of Impressionist painting in Vincente Minnelli's Lust For Life (1956), which earned Anthony Quinn the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Paul Gauguin.

A still from Moulin Rouge (2001) With Nicole Kidman
A still from Moulin Rouge (2001) With Nicole Kidman

The following year, the Danu Steps came into their own in Stanley Donen's Funny Face (1957), as Audrey Hepburn runs away from both Fred Astaire and the 'Winged Victory of Samothrace' with a chiffon scarf billowing behind her. Jean-Luc Godard spoofed this iconic moment in a fabled sequence in Bande à part (1964), as Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur dash through the Louvre's galleries as the narrator informs us that they took two seconds off the nine minutes and 45 seconds record set by Jimmy Johnson of San Francisco.

Ever the iconoclast, Godard didn't bother seeking permission to shoot the gleeful sprint and the improvised set-piece had such an impact on world cinema that Bernardo Bertolucci had Eva Green, Louis Garrel and Michael Pitt recreate it in his adaptation of Gilbert Adair's novel, The Dreamers (2003). They claim to have shattered the record by 17 seconds, although the actual best time of nine minutes and 14 seconds was set by Swiss artist Beat Lippert as part of a 2010 performance piece. As for Agnès Varda, she is simply content to get round in one piece while being pushed in a wheelchair by co-director Jr in the charming documentary, Faces Places (2017).

Sticking with actualities, Nicolas Philibert went behind the scenes to shoot La Ville Louvre (1990) around the time that I.M. Pei's totemic pyramid was being planned and erected. Six years later, Philibert was invited to chronicle the daily routine at the Museum of Natural History in Un Animal, des animaux (1996). But his fly on the wall approach wouldn't have suited Léos Carax, who reportedly waited until a security guard had gone to the bathroom before lighting a candle so that Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant could view Rembrandt's 'Self-Portrait At the Easel' in the requisite chiaroscuro gloom in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991).

A still from Faces Places (2017)
A still from Faces Places (2017)

There's also plenty of nocturnal shadow cast over Jean-Paul Salommé's Belphegor, Phantom of the Louvre (2001), which sees Sophie Marceau being possessed by the spirit of a mummy that has been accidentally unleashed by Egyptologist Julie Christie. Sadly, this kitsch gem isn't currently available on DVD in this country. But Cinema Paradiso users can revel in the ingenuity shown in Joe Dante's Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), as the chase sequence involving Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd is depicted in the style of such encountered canvases as Salvador Dalí's 'The Persistence of Memory', Edvard Munch's 'The Scream', one of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's Moulin Rouge posters and Georges Seurat's 'A Sunday on La Grande Jatte'.

Bugs is spot on in averring that people going to the movies should learn something and there's a lot to digest (and a fair amount to be taken with a pinch of salt) in Ron Howard's interpretation of Dan Brown's bestseller, The Da Vinci Code (2006), in which the murder of Louvre curator Jacques Saunière (Jean-Pierre Marielle) results in American symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) being teamed to investigate with police cryptographer, Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou).

Prior to 2008, the Louvre authorities had been reluctant to admit film crews, but the number of projects has been increasing steadily. Luc Besson's The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010), for example, includes a scene in which mummies gather outside the museum and Ramesses jokes that they should build a pyramid in the courtyard. There was also a police chase outside the venue in the same director's crime thriller, Lucy (2014).

A still from Lucy (2014) With Scarlett Johansson
A still from Lucy (2014) With Scarlett Johansson

More dramatically, Aleksandr Sokourov recreated the atmosphere of the Louvre following the Nazi Occupation of 1940 in Francofonia (2015), which features scenes involving Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) and the embodiment of the Gallic spirit, Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes), before it reflects on the purpose of museums and the ownership of artefacts, as director Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do De Lencquesaing) seeks to protect the catalogue with which he's been entrusted through his dealings with the cultured Geman controller, Count Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath).

Across Paris, the Musée d'Orsay was still operating as a railway station when Orson Welles starred Anthony Perkins in his adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial (1962) and Bernardo Bertolucci momentarily referenced the station hotel in The Conformist (1970). Since the opening of the museum in 1988, film crews have made the occasional visit, with both Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) and Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours (2008) among those to set scenes there.

The Pompidou Centre has also cropped up in the likes of Lewis Gilbert's Moonraker (1979), James Ivory's Le Divorce (2003) and Julie Delpy's Lolo (2015). Karim Ainouz also directed the segment dedicated to Europe's largest modern art museum in the documentary, Cathedrals of Culture (2014), which also includes contributions by Margreth Olin, Robert Redford, Wim Wenders, Michael Madsen and Michael Glawogger.

A still from James Bond: Moonraker (1979) With Roger Moore
A still from James Bond: Moonraker (1979) With Roger Moore
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