Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1973)

8. Live and Let Die

“Diamonds are Forever” was a big hit but James Bond was beginning to feel a little out of date in the 1970s. Though Saltzman and Brocoli attempted to lure Sean Connery back, it was time for a new actor to take over the role. Many names were bandied about but Roger Moore, who was considered for the part as far back as “Dr. No,” won out in the end. “Live and Let Die,” an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s second Bond novel, attempted to reinvent the spy for the new decade. The film pointed the Bond series in a groovier, funnier direction while fully establishing Moore as the next man with the license to kill. 

MI6 agents all throughout American are being mysteriously murdered. James Bond, who had just finished up a mission in Rome, is sent to investigate. He discovers a drug lord called Mr. Big is behind the crimes. Big has some sort of connection to Dr. Kananga, the president of Caribbean island San Monique. Along the way, Bond seduces Kananga’s personal fortune teller, Solitaire, which really pisses the guy off. Mr. Big and Kananga are one and the same, the villain planning to flood the drug market with free heroin, destroying the American mob’s control over the drug flow and sky-rocketing the number of addicted costumers. Bond, now targeted by the drug lord, decides to rescue his lover interest and stop the villain.

“Live and Let Die” is very different from previous Bond films and it announces this change right from the opening credits. Previous entries in the series opened with pop or light jazz numbers. “Live and Let Die” starts with rock n’ roll. One of the best Bond themes of all time (not to mention probably the best Wings song), Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die's” driving rock beat provides energy and excitement. The jazzy breakdown in the middle recalls the film’s Caribbean setting while the blaring trumpets of the chorus firmly establish the song as a Bond theme. Maurice Binder’s opening is similarly dynamic. A fortune teller’s face explodes into a flaming skull. Outlines of nude women vamp around related voodoo imagery. The song and the images are paired fantastically, giving “Live and Let Die” one of my favorite Bond openings.

“Live and Let Die” introduces James Bond in his natural environment: In bed with a beautiful woman. This is our first look at Roger Moore as the iconic secret agent. Moore is less physically imposing then Sean Connery and lacks the hyper-macho good looks of George Lazenby. Instead, Moore’s appeal as Bond lies in his effortless charm. From the beginning, Moore is dropping cheesy lines and goofy double entendres. Moore’s Bond actually has a better way with the one-liners then Connery did. He’s immediately funny and likable, being a pleasant, amusing screen presence. Whether or not you’re a fan of the films he would make, it’s easy to see why Moore was such a natural choice for the part of Bond. He has the right balance of roguish charm and romantic confidence.

Moore’s lighter approach allowed for a change in tone too. “Live and Let Die” is far breezier then even Connery’s campiest episode. The silly one-liners fly faster then ever before. Connery’s romantic conquests always seemed like exactly that: Conquest, a beautiful woman being overwhelmed by Connery’s unstoppable masculinity. Moore, on the other hand, is more playful and sweet, coming off more like a likable cad then an irresistible he-man. Most obviously, “Live and Let Die” features more blatant comic relief then any previous Bond movie. Take, for example, the redneck sheriff that unsuccessfully intercepts the film’s central boat chase. The character, given the unlikely moniker of Sheriff Pepper, is relatively irritating. The “Dukes of Hazard” schtick clashes badly with the usual Bond theatrics. Luckily, he’s only isolated to one scene. Over all, the more light-hearted and comical approach actually works for “Live and Let Die.” Bond films are usually breezy fun. Getting a little breezier is no major crime.

At the star of the seventies, the Bond series was no longer the innovator, having been established for a decade. Now, the MI6’s best agent was following popular trends. Thus, “Live and Let Die” is the Bond version of a blaxpolitation movie, coming in the middle of the genre’s most popular run. Black characters play major roles in the story. Most all of the bad guys Bond fights in the film are black. In order to diffuse potential cries of racism, there are several black CIA agents on Bond’s side, including Quarrel Jr. The film features the first black Bond girl, which would be progressive if it wasn’t for another issue I’ll mention in a minute. Most importantly, the film has Bond roaming Harlem, riding near pimp-mobiles, and being called a honky. The plot does not revolve around a mad man with plans of world domination but a drug lord smuggling heroin. It’s a matter of opinion whether or not this forced Bond into an avenue he was never meant to explore or kept the character fresh with the times. I believe that it’s a fun way to shake up the formula.

Which brings me to Mr. Big and Dr. Kananga, the film’s villain. The idea of a public figure with a double identity, his virtuous behavior hiding a secret criminal agenda, is a fascinating one. “Live and Let Die” doesn’t focus much on what good Dr. Kananga may do though, focusing almost totally on his criminal activity. (His position as a dictator of a small island nation isn’t exactly positive to begin with.) Yaphet Kotto does well as an outwardly respectful gentleman. When he gets to show off his villainous side, he’s even better, going nicely over-the-top. The film barely recognizes Kananga’s disguise, as the one sequence featuring Mr. Big reveals the truth quickly, in an especially neat way. Kotto even gets to indulge in some expected Bond villain verboseness, when he gives Bond a drink before throwing him into a death trap. Backing up Mr. Big is an amusing collection of henchmen. Tee Hee, with his reflective sunglasses and pinching robot hand, is a memorable visual. Kananga uses voodoo beliefs to protect his poppy fields. So Baron Samedi, the most immediately recognizable of voodoo spirits, puts in an appearance. It’s a memorable one too, Geoffrey Holder filling out the character’s frame well and nailing the flamboyant behavior.

“Live and Let Die” features three Bond girls. The first of which only appears in the opening sequence, a cute moment of humor that has the girl hiding from the sudden appearance of M and Moneypenny. The second Bond girl is Rosy, a black CIA agent sent to track Bond’s behavior. Having a women of color in the film is swell but the character is cowardly and incompetent, actress Gloria Hendry constantly shrieking. She’s also, we find out, a double agent, planning to betray Bond. (That Bond sleeps with her and then calls her bluff is not exactly politically correct but it is in character for him.) The primary Bond girl is Solitaire, played by a young, gorgeous Jane Seymour. Solitaire is a fortune teller employed by Kananga, whose powers are tied in with her virginity. That doesn’t last long as soon as Bond comes around, as you’d expect. However, Solitaire remains in the story, helping Bond out more then once while also providing him with a damsel in distress to rescue. Seymour is an appealing actress and lovely to look out in a series of colorful outfits. The tarot card angle also gives her a unique gimmick, making Solitaire a fine Bond girl.

Q doesn’t appear in “Live and Let Die,” surprisingly, but the film still features plenty of gadgets. The coolest of which is a wrist watch with a powerful built-in magnet. Bond makes a lot of use of it. Aside from unzipping a girl’s dress, he also gets out of two death traps with the watch. The first has him in a lake of alligator, the second has him lowered into a pool of sharks. It’s a neat gadget, one just on the borderline between believable and cool-for-cool’s-sake. Bond also makes use of a tricked out shaving kit, containing multiple sensors and detectors. (Amusingly, when attacked by a snake in the same scene, Bond uses a far more low-tech weapon to dispose of the critter.) There’s a nifty hang-glider he utilizes. The best gadget is actually wielded by the bad guy. It’s a gun that fires an air pallet, expanding anything it hits. Naturally, Bond turns this on Mr. Big at the end, giving the villain a ridiculous but unforgettable death scene.

Since Roger Moore doesn’t have the same physicality as previous Bonds, he spends less time in action scenes. There’s a swinging kick to a goon’s face and some judo chops. Mostly, though, “Live and Let Die” is preoccupied with extended vehicle chases. There’s a car chase across the island, Bond in a double-decker bus followed by the bad guys. The bus bit has an especially amusing pay-off. Soon afterwards, Bond tries to escape via airplane. However, the plane doesn’t take off, driving across the landing strip. This scene too features some vehicular dismemberment. The key chase scene is a motor boat chase through the Louisiana River. The scene is excessively long, stretching on for ten minutes. The boats jump banks, high into the air. Repeatedly, the boats skid across short bits of land before clamoring into another body of water. They interrupt a wedding and crash through a cop car, amusing moments. The boat race’s excessive quality is topped off with a big explosion. Yeah, it’s too long but it is, nevertheless, a memorable action beat.

It’s long been established that James Bond movies most conclude with a big raid on the villain’s lair. In accordance with its crime-related plot, “Live and Let Die” doesn’t feature two huge armies firing at each other. Instead, Bond and Quarrel Jr. sneak up on Mr. Big’s hideout. Some bombs go out but most of the action focuses on Bond’s solo efforts. Dressed in a black body suit and carrying a revolver in a shoulder holster, looking more like Dirty Harry then James Bond, he heads in and blasts away at the bad guys. It’s actually a refreshing change of pace. Bond and his girl being put in a death trap is a classic moment, especially since it involves a slow descent into a pool of sharks.

Lastly, “Live and Let Die” features some fantastic production design. When reading the cards, Solitaire sits on a huge throne adorn with peacock feathers while wearing an opulent crown and a flowing cape. The back of Mr. Big’s club features a rotating wall and some interesting decoration, like huge candles and objets d’art adorning the walls. The hideout at the end is more utilitarian, with cold stone walls and harsh, slanting angles. Also, this is the first time since “Dr. No” that we’ve seen Bond’s personal home. Isn’t it weird that the flashiest spy in the world lives in an ordinary house? He even makes coffee for his boss!

”Live and Let Die” isn’t well-liked by everyone. Most seem to agree that Roger Moore’s Bond didn’t get his footing until his third adventure. However, probably due to my built-in fondness for blaxploitation flicks, I’ve always been a fan. It’s not perfect but I’ve always been impressed with how self-assured Moore was in the part right from the beginning. The action is solid, the supporting cast is great, and the story draws me in. [Grade: B]


[] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[X] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[] Wears a Tux

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