Thursday, January 29, 2009

James Bond review: Live And Let Die (1973)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Bond’s first identity crisis.

BOND, JAMES BOND: When Connery returned for Diamonds Are Forever, it was on a strictly one-time basis. They had to find a new James Bond, for real this time. That they’d settle on Moore was perhaps inevitable: his name had already come up several times, due to his playing a very Bondian character on TV. This pattern would be repeated with Pierce Brosnan, of course.

Moore was a wise choice. In the end he only comes in fourth in my ranking of the best Bonds, but the reasons for that are not applicable to this film. Here, Moore’s fine. In fact, he owns the role in a way George Lazenby, for all his strengths, couldn’t: no self-deprecating nods to the other guy here. Moore is the guy, plain and simple.

He’s a different kind of Bond, in some subtle and some not so subtle ways. He’s more classically handsome than Connery; he rivals Lazenby for sheer prettiness, but without George’s approachability. Moore in his first couple of films especially has a beauty that’s diamond-hard.

It fits his take on the character, which is one of utter confidence, even brashness. You can see this in – well, in the cigar. It’s a detail they give the character in this movie and the next one, and then quietly drop, which they shouldn’t have. Moore chomping on his cigar – after shaving, for example, or when piloting a hang glider – is Bond at his best. It’s phallic, of course: what they’re doing in these first couple of Moore Bonds is taking qualities that were implicit in earlier films and making them more obvious. The innuendo is a bit more outré, the jokes are a bit jokier, the car chases a bit longer. In the ‘60s Bond was daring; in the ‘70s he was downright decadent.

All of that is well and good. It’s nice to see Bond rising to the challenge of a new decade. The problem is that in the process the producers seem to have lost their nerve a bit; Live And Let Die is not just a new Bond, it’s an imitative Bond. They decide to cross Bond with the action movie trend of the day: blaxploitation. It’s Bond as Shaft.


What Makes Bond Bond: “You wouldn’t kill me. Not after what we’ve just done.” “Well, I certainly wouldn’t have killed you before.”

What Makes Roger Moore Roger Moore: When he gets off the hang glider, he simply reverses his coat and voila, he’s in an impeccably tailored brown suit. When he surfaces in New Orleans the first thing he does is get fitted for a new suit and pick out some ties. When he arrives in Harlem he looks as white as humanly possible.

BAD GUYS: Yaphet Kotto plays Kananga, head of a fictional Caribbean island nation, and his alter ego the Harlem kingpin Mr. Big. Yes, they call him Mr. Big. They’re not even trying.

And this is the problem with the movie. Kananga’s an interesting character, an almost sharply drawn portrait of a proud leader of a small non-aligned nation, balancing a First World education with Third World traditions; the character’s a bit underwritten, but Kotto compensates well.

As Mr. Big, however, the character’s flat. Like, there’s nothing there, just a shadow of an impression of something somebody thought they saw in Super Fly. And combined, it’s a volatile mix, threatening to invoke white fears of black people, like when Bond drives into Harlem and suddenly everybody on every street corner’s connected to Mr. Big’s gang. Or when we realize that Harlem, New Orleans, and the Caribbean – i.e., every black population center in the movie – are all controlled by Kananga/Mr. Big. They’re all in it together.

Am I saying the movie is racist? No. That’s too simple a diagnosis, for one thing. I think what we have here is a combination of an early-‘70s mainstream movie level of racial sensitivity (i.e., still a little lagging), combined with a facile adoption of blaxploitation clichés (themselves verging on stereotype), all of that dropped somewhat thoughtlessly into the Bond universe, where conspiracies, not to mention cultural unsubtleties, are the natural order of things. It’s a confused movie, is what it is.

Back to Kananga, though. He is, we should note, the first post-SPECTRE villain, and the first non-SPECTRE baddie since Goldfinger. He’s okay. He has a lot of henchmen: Whisper, Tee Hee, and Baron Samedi. Only the Baron – a sort of voodoo figure come to life – is really memorable. Not because he’s particularly scary, but because he’s got the voice.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Sean Connery’s Bond is introduced at the baccarrat table. George Lazenby’s Bond is introduced in a speeding car, on his way to save the girl. Roger Moore’s Bond is introduced in the sack with a sexy Italian lady agent. So there you go.

Miss Caruso is just a prelude. The real Bond Girls this time out are Gloria Hendry as Rosie and Jane Seymour as Solitaire. Rosie is the first black Bond girl – a landmark of sorts, as Bond proves himself an equal opportunity womanizer. Physically, the winsome Rosie also ushers us into the era of the slender, “natural look” Bond girls that would prevail for the rest of the decade. More kittenish than va-va-voom.

Jane Seymour’s Solitaire fits into that trend as well. She’s also notable as the first virgin Bond has slept with in the series. It’s an interesting detail, convincingly couched in the mythology of the voodoo priestess, but still conspicuous in a series that has up to now usually provided Bond with sexual partners as cosmopolitan, or nearly so, as he is.

Which makes for a GS of 3 – not bad to start out with.

AND VIOLENCE: This film also ushers in the era of car-chase Bonds. 007 movies have always had chase scenes in them, but starting here the chases would take up a lot more space within each film. Again, it was a ‘70s thing; this was the era of the big car chase.

Here it’s not so much cars as speedboats, on the Louisiana waterways. There are about five minutes worth of good stunts and chase ideas here; unfortunately the sequence goes on much longer. It’s also here that they deposit the worst thing about the movie, the Sheriff Pepper character, a crude stereotype of a racist Southern cop taken straight out of In the Heat of the Night. Here they play it for laughs. It gets none. A colossal lapse of taste; these would become disturbingly frequent in the Moore years.

BOYS WITH TOYS: No Q this time. The official excuse was that Desmond Llewellyn was tied up with a television series at the time, but that could have been worked around. Were they debating eliminating the character? They certainly downplay the gadgets this time around. All Bond gets is a nifty watch that can do things like unzip a dress.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: New York, New Orleans, and a fictional Caribbean nation. Two out of the three locations are in the U.S., and they prove my rule about Bond going to the States. Not that individual elements aren’t good – I defy any music-lover not to swing a little bit to the jazz funeral in New Orleans. But what does this have to do with James Bond? Remember KFC in Goldfinger? The same goes for places with names like “Fillet of Soul.” Shiver.

ETC.: One of the great title sequences, fire and bones and hot chicks. And Sir Paul does the theme song. It’s one of the all-time best Bond themes, not least because it represents revenge for Goldfinger’s little dis of the Beatles. The rest of the score is by George Martin, and it’s quite nice. He only glancingly uses the “James Bond Theme,” and even there it’s more of a playful suggestion of the theme than an out-and-out quotation of it… Add a double-decker bus, a hang glider, and a private plane to the list of things Bond drives… Given the glaring problems in this film I’m probably being a little generous with the rating. After all, in imitating other genres of action film and in spending too much time in America it breaks two of my cardinal rules. But what works here really works.

RATING: 005.

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