A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.
LIVE AND LET DIE
Directed by Guy Hamilton
Written by Tom Mankiewicz
Premiered 27 June, 1973
In the very first opening sequence in the whole franchise where James Bond doesn't appear, even in the form of a doppelganger (viz. From Russia with Love), we are tossed into the first stirrings of quite a wicked scheme indeed: in the span of barely any time, three MI6 agents are assassinated in New York, New Orleans, and the small Caribbean island of San Monique. The progression of these deaths is quite useful: the first one is killed at the UN when his translation channel is swapped with some kind of eardrum-piercing noise generator, and while we know nothing in particular about why he died, it certainly has something to do with the shady Afro-Caribbeans speaking at that same moment. The next man is killed during a traditional New Orleans funeral - the marching band that alternates between mournful and exultant music, that kind - letting us know that, in this story, traditional and I do daresay awfully wonderful black cultural ceremonies are going to be used as the cover for all sorts of criminal activities. And just to prove it, the last man is killed as part of a voodoo ceremony, of the most vigorously "booga booga!" sort.
So, to recap: the first four minutes of Live and Let Die are basically a descent through layers of racism, and such a nice warm-up for the movie to follow it is in that regard; it completely lacks Bond himself; and pretty much nothing exciting or fun happens. Promisingly confusing, sure, but right about the time the gyrating voodoo priest starts with the snake-handling, I'm compelled to knock the word "promising" out of that equation. It is, however, the ideal kick-off to the first outright terrible Bond picture.
Rating: 1 Union Jack Parachute
The next few weeks, as we cover the Roger Moore movies, I'm going to have to make a whole lot of humiliating admissions, so I might as well get started now:
I like the song "Live and Let Die".
Like, not love, okay? It's still middle-of-the-road solo Paul McCartney, and he wasn't exactly the most musically durable of the ex-Beatles. But I enjoy the childish theatricality of a lot of his tunes in the first half of the '70s, and the song's just damn weird structure, moving from ballad to noisy explosion to some kind of weird ska breakdown to the noise to the ballad to the noise again, is certainly theatrical. Fuck me, but I'm even charmed by the completely asinine lyrics - you all know the one I'm talking about. "If this ever-changing world in which we live in" (and it's clearly not "in which we're livin'", as I've sometimes tried to convince myself). That's a shitload of "in", but there's something about the larkish, "I'm a Beatle, whee!" carelessnes that I like; and it's arguably not even the stupidest part of the song, with the silly, over-articulated "You've got to give the other fellow hell" always being the line that I find most inexplicable. Anyway, it was Paul's first reunion with producer George Martin, which has to count for something. Oh, let's just call it personal taste, and leave me here in my shame, alone.
Rating: 3.5 Shirley Basseys
I am, however, not at all that high on the visual sequence accompanying the song. The movie revolves around black people and a voodoo cult, right? So it makes perfect sense to have the primary visual motif of the credits sequence be a particularly lovely black woman watching us pensively, curled up naked, whose face is intercut with a flaming skull. That is some real damn taste that Maurice Binder brought to bear this time, is what that is. And kudos as well to setting the longest protracted shot of a naked woman writing and dancing in silhouette against one of those kitschy fiber-optic lamp things that look kind of like a fluorescent amoeba. I don't know if such things were cool in 1973, but they're just hokey as hell now, and we get a nice long look at one of 'em, because, I don't know, graphic design.
That said, I do really, really like what Binder does with text in this sequence, so I have to give it some credit on that front.
Rating: 1.5 Silhouetted Women
A visibly-weary M (Bernard Lee, who was sick at the time) visits Agent 007 (Roger Moore) at home, assigning him to figure out, basically, what the hell is going on that three of his agents all died within a 24 hour window, and all of them investigating the San Monique dictator Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). Starting in New York, Bond has barely connected with his ever-ready CIA counterpart Felix Leiter (David Hedison, the fifth actor to play the character in five movies; this is, to me, the first time that the CIA man has been obliged to do much besides show up since Dr. No) before the local gang has tried to kill him; he's able to track his would-be assassins back to Mr. Big, who uses a music-themed restaurant chain, Fillet of Soul, as a front for his drug empire. The barely-seen Mr. Big proves to be connected to Kananga (later in the film, in a startling unstartling turn of events, he proves to be Kananga), and Bond is able to escape Harlem for San Monique, where he steals Kananga's virgin tarot card reader Solitaire (Jane Seymour), and flee to Louisiana; a few chases later, we and Bond learn that the actual secret behind all this double-dealing and gang-banging across the Caribbean is that Kananga, as Mr. Big, wants to flood the U.S. heroin market, drive all other distributors out of business with his free product, and having thus addicted huge new portions of the population, jack the price up and become a very wealthy druglord and petty dictator indeed. A voodoo cult figures into this, mostly because that gives the film more atmosphere than it would have otherwise.
That is, any way you cut it, a pretty damn little plot for a Bond villain to be hatching. We've had the world held hostage by nukes on two separate occasions, by space lasers once, and so on, and while in the continuity of the series, we can't go back to those days; SPECTRE, nefarious international terrorism organization, is no longer going to show up in the films, its head having been cut off (though there is a SPECTRE connection in the novel Live and Let Die, which is a little bit recognisable in the finished movie if you squint and look from different angles).
What's probably going on is that producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, noticing the meteoric rise of blaxploitation films in America, wanted to get in on some of that action themselves, and thus married the James Bond globetrotting adventure formula with the basic notion of a whole shitload of blaxploitation movies (an ambitious new drug kingpin wants to take over the market and build a whole army of desperate addicts in the process), despite there being no actual reason for the two genres to co-exist that isn't completely mercenary. Plus, since blaxploitation movies are usually tight little buggers that scream by at 75, 80 minutes, while James Bond movies even by now were big bloated epics, Live and Let Die ends up trying to spin a lot of screentime out of just a little plot, and instead of adding wrinkles and complications, following as the spy uncovers a villainous scheme in all its dimensions, the movie has a great big middle of "let's run back and forth between Louisiana and a tiny craphole Caribbean island", and it is the dullest kind of padding.
Rating: 1.5 Stolen Nukes
To be honest, I'm not sure how one would even quantify the thing I'm about to say, but here goes: I think the gulf between the quality of the villain, on paper, and the performance given in bringing that villain to life is greater in the case of Kananga than for any other James Bond villain. As written, he's a stupefyingly weak attempt to connect the idea of a power-mad dictator with a stock blaxploitation heavy as bland as the story that contains him. He's just a collection of vague threats and angry storming-about; just as his nefarious plot is too big to be even slightly realistic, but too sedate to feel sufficiently grand for Bond, so too is Kananga himself a messy combination of ridiculous melodrama with urban shtick that the filmmakers themselves clearly didn't quite understand. He's also dispatched with one of the absolute dumbest deaths in all the annals of Bond villainy. I'd prefer not even to discuss it.
But Yaphet Kotto is among the very best actors to ever take on the part of Bond villain, and he wrests something out of that thin, reedy characterisation that is genuinely fascinating if never exactly threatening. There's a certain aimable sharkishness, as though he is genuinely happy most of the time, and remains in such a good mood that eh, if he has to kill people violently by the basketful, no worries. It's a charismatic bastard turn that's quite unlike the standard-issue towering megalomaniac of the Bond franchise, and while I wish it was in service of a role even half-deserving of Kotto's effort, I can't fault the reality of that effort.
Rating: 3 Evil Cats
Outside of maybe Diana Rigg, whose chief claim to fame anyway predates her stint as a Bond Girl, Jane Seymour was for a long time probably the most conspicuous exception to the supposed curse that no actress could play one of Bond's paramours without her career tanking, or never taking off in the first place. It was this film that put her on the map and led over the course of the years to a fairly prominent, fairly steady career. I salute her for succeeding where so many failed.
But it's not, I can't imagine, because of her actual performance in this film. With select re-dubbing by Bond franchise favorite Nikki van der Zyl, Seymour's Solitaire really just sucks as a character, despite having what looks on the face of it like a really strong arc: attracted enough to Bond to break the cardinal rule of her profession and give up her virginity; angry enough at him thereafter to rat him out; then, sufficiently unsettled by what she learned with Bond to know that she can never be one of the bad guys again. It's a rare triple-cross for the series, and should make Solitaire one hell of a strong part.
Should or not, Seymour's perpetually alarmed expression, as perfect an evocation of the saying "deer in the headlights" as you could hope to find, sucks every last molecule of that strength out of the movie and throws it into a black hole. Other than a varying degree of haughty resistance to Bond, she never expresses any personality or feelings to speak of: she's as much a plot contrivance and a prop as any Bond Girl before her, except that in her case, it doesn't feel like it was on purpose, but a terrible failure of actor and character to match up. There are a lot of things wrong with this movie, but Seymour's stony inability to exude anything is possibly the one that bothers me the most.
Rating: 1.5 White Bikinis
Voodoo for atmosphere, did I say? Yes, but also voodoo for Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder), Kananga's man on San Monique, a ridiculously tall sort who dresses up as the Lord of the Dead and laughs menacingly every now and then, and, when it comes right down to it, doesn't do anything. I always forget that, somehow, in light of how visually distinctive he is, and also that he was, randomly, a playable character in the epochal N64 video game GoldenEye. And by the way, I'm really proud that I made it to Week 10 in my Bond marathon before I name-dropped GoldenEye.
Anyway, Samedi: cool but pointless. He's still just one of three featured henchmen, and the other two certainly get more action, though neither of them has such a fun gimmick. Though gimmicks they do have, particularly Tee-Hee (Julius W. Harris), a perpetually-grinning thug with a metal claw for a right arm, the kind that can crush anything like that. Making him the first of the really outlandish sci-fi bad guys in the franchise, really (Goldfinger's Oddjob being the first appreciably gimmicky one, but in a different register altogether), who'd be repurposed as a white guy in a couple of movies. Though, that being what it is, let us not diminish Tee-Hee's own brand of jolly, violent menace.
Third up is Whisper (Early Jolly Brown), who whispers, and is fat. He's surprisngly present and threatening for a character who's otherwise kind of impersonal.
All three of these characters, incidentally, make me hate being white for three different reasons, but if we're going to start slagging on Live and Let Die for being racist, well, we'd have to throw out the whole darn movie! And I'm okay with that, but the racism part of the review is coming later.
Rating: 3.5 Metal-Plated Teeth
THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
CIA agent and Kananga plant Rosie Carver, whatever her other flaws, may make this claim to importance: she is the first black woman to sleep with Bond in his storied career (not the first non-white woman; that would be the pair of ill-used Japanese girls in You Only Live Twice). If I were to give out points for that kind of importance (as I am not), I would have to counteract them with negative points for being such a whiny, shallow idiot; and yes, we do learn eventually that her particularly exaggerated reactions are a bit of play-acting, but that doesn't explain all of it. So, in short, her importance is undermined by having the easily-ruffled, superstitious nature that has been part of the biased, cartoon treatment of African-Americans since before there were movies for those cartoons to appear in.
And, let's be honest, she's not that dynamic or interesting a character: pretty lady shows up, gives Bond one piece of information, is found to be a double agent, and dies in a perfunctory way about 15 minutes after getting introduced? We've seen that before, and it's wearing a touch thin; that, coupled with Rosie's generally annoying "I will scream and squeak at everything" demeanor, make it hard for me to do much but tolerate her, though she does at least have more of a distinct personality than Jane Seymour.
Rating: 2 Golden Corpses
It gets to be pretty obvious pretty early into the Roger Moore years that the actor, nearly three years older than Sean Connery, was too damn old to indulge in any sort of real action, which makes it odd that there's so much of it in Live and Let Die: a fairly hectic car chase on the streets of New York, a fistfight on a train that will make nobody forget From Russia with Love, a car chase with a plane on the ground, a long and highly involved boat chase, and a scene where 007 escapes a crocodile farm by jumping across the backs of several crocs just sitting in the water, like they'd been tied there or something.
The last of these points us to the future: the Moore films would, to compensate for the actor's physical shortcomings, involve much more stuntwork than any other Bond, usually very big, technically impressive but wacky stunts. I mean, jumping across crocs, Frogger-style, takes balls. It's really cool that somebody actually did that. It's also really sort of dumb.
It's still, sadly, the action highlight of the movie, outside of maybe the NY car chase, which is edited to look faster than it is. The boat scene is a nightmare, assembled crudely with momentum-killing cutaways to the dipshit Southern cops trying to stop both sides of the chase with equal feebleness. It doesn't seem possible, given some of the individual shots, and the choreography, that it should end up as lethargic as it does. But there you have it. The plane scene, meanwhile, showcases another Moore era speciality: the "comic" action scene (in this case, Bond hijacking an old lady's flying lesson and getting chased all up and down a runway without ever taking off), with the stakes reduced to nil, so we can laugh all the deeper, though whoever would laugh at this one in particular, I don't want to know.
They were still figuring this out: while the Moore films are clearly the action nadir for the franchise, most of them (not, I fear, all of them) would be a bit less daft in their attempts to build what little action they could than this film is, when there was still some desperate attempt to make Moore's Bond tough in the same way Connery's was. It's not THE low point in the whole series, but it's certainly A low point.
Rating: 1 Walther PPK
From his first appearance in From Russia with Love until his death, this was the single Bond film not to feature the marvelous, prickly charms of Desmond Llewelyn as Q, gadget-master to MI6. For this I am sad, as Llewelyn's Q is a reliable treat even in the worst Bond pictures; and confused, given that the Roger Moore films are perhaps the most vigorously gadget-dependent of the franchise, and to start that era off without Q, in hindsight, is just odd.
Without Q, aye, but not without gadgetry: so, so much gadgetry. A radio device inside a hairbrush that allows Bond to communicate via morse code; an anti-shark gun that shoots gas pellets that cause the target to inflate and explode; a dashboard communicator disguised as a cigarette lighter in a CIA car - Bond delightedly refers to it as as "Felix lighter", in reference to his American counterpart - and the first of Bond's Magic Watches; this one with an idiotically strong electromagnet that gets the spy out of so many nasty traps, and also allows him to suavely unzip a woman's dress without pawing at her. It is, naturally, this last function that is the first "practical" application of the toy that we see, and the most iconic.
The lack of a tricked-out car, or ol' Q himself, are both handicaps, but I shall concede that all in all, this gets the fantastic, even goofy Moore-era gadgets off to a strong start. Especially that watch; that watch is a pure matinee-fantasy delight.
Rating: 4 Easily-Riled Welshmen
THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Some Bond movies just don't allow for big sets. Just part of how the world works. Live and Let Die doesn't even have a a credited production designer, though supervising art director Syd Cain filled exactly that role in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Basically, though, we have to spot the movie: it was, for whatever reason, deliberately trying to scale back, using as many real locations as possible (the blaxploitation-inflected New York shoot, the croc farm owned by a man named Kananga, who hopefully regarded the use of his name for the movie's villain as a compliment), and designing far sparer, more credible locations, although there were quite a few trapdoors for "credible" locations. Kananga's underground lair where his plans are finally thwarted is the only place that tries for much of anything, and also the only place where the design - or rather, the execution - falls considerably short: it's meant to be a natural cave system, but it looks as authentic as a Star Trek set. There's not very much of it, and it doesn't take the movie out of the "bland, but good enough" level of proficiency it displays throughout, but as small-scale as Live and Let Die is, that kind of proficiency is nothing to write home about.
Rating: 2 Volcano Fortresses
ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
If there was one thing Roger Moore was unstoppably brilliant at in his Bond movies, it was being the classiest, English-est of them all (and since he was the only Bond who was actually English until the 21st Century, this does make sense). Invariably, his Bond is a smart, sophisticated, gentlemanly sort - the polar opposite of Connery's well-groomed bastard - and part of the reason I go to bat for him is that, by and large, he's the one I envy the most.
But not in Live and Let Die. Between the Harlem locations, and the schlepping back and forth, Moore doesn't get to have much upscale fun at all, though the brief snatches we see of his home, and the "oh, am I seducing you? I hadn't noticed" tenor of his scene with the girls he beds are at least somewhat appealling. But this is the grubbiest of all Moore films, and it's not a good fit.
Rating: 1.5 Vodka Martinis
APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
The spy rather carelessly, even gregariously introduces himself to Solitaire in Mr. Big's New York headquarters.
Forced or Badass? All things considered, I'm going to have to go with badass, simply because of the "don't give a fuck" breeziness with which he says it. "Oh, I'm in the villain's den? And I just gave up my identity? Well, how about that. By the way, I am going to give you so much sex, it's crazy."
ROSIE: "Felix told me there'd be moments like this."
BOND: "What did good old Felix suggest?"
ROSIE: "If all else fails, cyanide pills."
Change comes - great change. The change is obvious from quite literally the first frame of the movie, if you know what you're looking for: not a new Bond (though he appears just a few frames after that, in the famous opening gunbarrel shot), but the only film in the series after 1963 that was shot in the boxier 1.85:1 aspect ratio, long after the Bond films had exploded into being full-on spectacles in grand, sprawling CinemaScope. I think I have a good explanation for why this is the case, but let's wait for it just a little bit - Live and Let Die offers us a great deal to talk about, and it does to pace oneself.
Even after Sean Connery's massive payout for Diamonds Are Forever, Broccoli and Saltzman wanted him back; only after he refused a second record-setting fee did they start the hunt for a new James Bond. We will not bother recapping the details of their hunt, which included some very odd stopovers (for example, Clint Eastwood was approached) before ending with Roger Moore, late of the television program The Saint. I do not know how radical this decision was seen in 1973, but viewed from today, it's tremendously shocking: George Lazenby, though very much unlike Connery in many ways, was at least able to play a Bond broadly similar to Connery's, while Moore, even in this, his most serious and stripped-down vehicle, could never do that in a thousand years. There's simply too much of the polite charmer in Moore's bearing and physical appearance - Connery's "blank" face, completely relaxed, has a certain bored, detached look, that feeds his cold-blooded Bond, but Moore is much more bright-eyed and appears to have something mischievous going on in his head. They're simply not physically compatible.
In later films, this change would be embraced - many would say, embraced too much (I think Moore is more or less the consensus pick for worst Bond ever; it used to be Timothy Dalton, but Daniel Craig's ascendancy has raised Dalton's reputation) - and the result is the run of Silly Bonds, Bonds with the goofiest gadgets, most gimmicky bad guys, gaudiest sets, most frivolous plots, and by and large the most devil-may-care, oh-isn't-spying-fun attitude. For myself, I very much enjoy this attitude; they say your favorite Bond is the first one you see, and that doesn't hold in my case: Connery is my favorite, but Moore was my first, and even after not one but two attempts at a gritty, back-to-basics James Bond, it's still the fizzy, globe-trotting comic book adventures of the Moore films and the best parts of the Brosnan films that feel the most like what Bond "really" is, and not the attempts to return to Ian Fleming's gripping but often very superficial, tawdry books.
There will be more to say about this later; for now I mostly want to point out that this is largely absent from Live and Let Die, which is quite eager to be a gritty, back-to-basics Bond film all on its own, after the flighty idiocy of Diamonds Are Forever. I think that's why the aspect ratio, for example; CinemaScope is a way of signifying, this is grand, epic spectacle, and the Bond films had been quite excited to be just that; but the smaller frame of this movie showcases a desire to knock some of the excess and decadence back out of the franchise, make it serious and "real" again. Make it the blaxploitation Bond film; the real urban streets Bond film.
The Bond film, on other words, precisely tailored to Moore's weaknesses and almost totally directed away from his strengths. I am not so dumb as to pretend that Moore was consistently great; as he got older, his Bond became more pathetic, and his last two performances are sometimes quite hard to watch. Still, I think the only out-and-out bad performance he gave as Bond is in this very film: he looks so serious and gruff all the time, and it simply doesn't convince. Maybe that's hindsight talking. But Moore never manages to make me believe, at least, that he's actually part of the smaller, rougher movie around him; he is just too darn suave and prim for that.
It's this, more than its myriad incidental failings in things like Seymour's limp Solitaire, or the bland plot, or the clumsy action, that make me so deeply dislike Live and Let Die, which is in fact one of my two least-favorite Bond films, though it is absolutely by no means the worst - but the very worst have a sassy idiocy to them (space rockets! earthquake machines! invisible cars! - that make them giddy fun to watch as pure escapist fantasy. Live and Let Die is not escapist at all, and its fantasy is inaptly applied. I find it to be the rarest and most damnable of things, a sedate, dull Bond movie, and a terrible start to what would have already been a difficult era for the franchise: a new actor, and still no clear vision for how to incorporate the spy into a changing world where the Cold War had shifted in its emphasis (and dropping him crudely into exploitation films was self-evidently not the way to do it).
It's bad enough that I could almost forget to mention the other notorious failure of the movie: its racial politics. Fleming, we oughtn't ever forget, was not the most race-progressive man of his generation, and his Bond novels are thick with tossed-off or heavily-stressed racist proclamations. This is largely kept out of the films, for obvious reasons, but that didn't happen here; here, they went full-bore and made the most unpleasantly biased movie of the entire series. Simple statistic: out of a cast of African-American actors with speaking roles or featured extras that numbers high enough that I lost count, though certainly more than 20, all but two of them are revealed to be members of Kananga's gang. And sure, we can note that the plot is the investigation of this gang, so that's how it must happen; but even the most vague incidental characters, shopkeepers or passers-by on the street, get roped into the plot. The implication, surely by accident, is that there's some kind of criminal network unifying all black people in the world. It's offensive enough in a movie this desperately weak, I can only imagine how vexing it would be in an otherwise good movie.
Worry not that this is an anti-black movie; it also finds space for the broadest, most obnoxious white stereotype imaginable: good ol' boy Sheriff J.W. Pepper, played with unbridled "What duh hay-ell is you doin', boy?" crackerness by Clifton James. He is feverishly bad comic relief, but at least he sort of fits the race-aware tone of the movie, and the Louisiana setting; though I hate him and desperately wish he was not here, at least he serves a specific, needed plot function. I will have more to say about Mr. Pepper later, for like James Bond, he will return, and then there will be nothing for me to say more articulate than a howl of frustration and pain.