Sunday, August 14, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: Live and Let Die (1973)

(Directed by Guy Hamilton)

Following numerous titanic entanglements with SPECTRE and its chief operator, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a long hidden enemy slowly emerged from the shadows: illegal drug exports. MI6 agents and contacts in New Orleans, at the United Nations in New York and on the small, staunchly independent Caribbean island of San Monique were killed in rapid succession, and company intelligence indicated that the acts were connected. 007 (Roger Moore) began his investigation in New York with CIA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison) by attempting to find out more about Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), Prime Minister of San Monique and his Harlem based associate, Mr. Big.

During Bond’s first close encounter with Big in Harlem, he made the acquaintance of the Kananga’s personal tarot card reader, the magnificent if somewhat cold Solitaire (Jayne Seymour).  Bond thankfully escaped capture, but it a trip to San Monique was required in order to better comprehend what kept the Kananga-Big connection strong and why MI6 agents who had gotten too close for comfort had been liquidated. It was there, while trying to break Solitaire free from Kananga’s clutches, that he discovered what really drove the larger than life man’s interesting in U.S. gangster: heroine, and a plan to completely take over the market all over the United States.

Different times call for a different Bond. Television’s  The Saint star Roger Moore steps into the shoes of the by now world famous super spy James Bond 007. Anytime a new actor takes on the role, intense speculation and anticipation always surrounds the next film. While each and every Bond actor certainly brought their own special touch to the character (no two Bonds are exactly alike, as I like to say), I think there is a legitimate case to be made about how Moore was, all things considered, a very different type of Bond. He is such a charmer, a gentleman, a witty and smooth personality, that one just might find it too difficult to believe him as James Bond. The best counter argument to that sentiment I ever heard was that, if a spy agency is going to send in someone that nobody would suspect as a ruthless killer, you send someone as nice and as charming as Roger Moore. I thought that was a pretty clever argument and it has stayed with me ever since.

There is something else about Moore attitude and his portrayal of secret agent 007 which always hit me. Now before anybody gets any ideas, I should warn that this is just me reading into Moore’s performance and not, I believe, something concrete the actor was aiming for. On the whole, whereas the other Bonds look as though they are performing their tasks with great intensity and for the ‘greater good’ of Great Britain and the free world, Moore is such a pleasant chap that it makes me think that him, on the other hand, is always stopping the villains because what they do is ‘not very nice.’ Moore, as Bond, behaves like a fun loving guy, so that engaging the antagonists in battle comes across more as teaching them a lesson in manners than someone trying to save the world. Importing heroine? Hmm, that doesn’t sound very healthy. I say, not if I can help it.

The filmmakers still do try to mould him into a Bond-like persona so as to not have the audience forget entirely that we are watching the same character as we were with the previous instalments. Bond is still as clever, quick witted when in danger (burns a snake in a bathroom, which was wicked), and equipped with some awesome guns and whatnot (did you see that huge bad ass cannon he uses near the end? What the heck was that?). Unlike with Lazenby, whom the filmmakers definitely wanted to see behave like Connery, here they recognize that with Roger Moore, they are not in a million years going to get the sort of 007 Connery gave them, and therefore let the Moore persona settle in comfortably while still preserving at some of the vintage aspects to the character. Roger Moore is not one of the Bonds I mention very often when discussing the franchise (which is ironic seeing as how he starred in more films than any of the other actors), but I must say that on many counts, although not all, Moore is more than serviceable, and in Live and Let Die in particular, he is quite good. And those one liners. My god, is he ever good with those. Effortless even.Truly, honest to god effortless.

Someone who, sadly, is only serviceable in the picture happens to be the leading lady, Jane Seymour. I highly doubt that has to do with the person, because we know that she would go on to become an accomplished actor. Rather, it is the script, once again worked on primarily by Tom Mankiewicz who also gave us DAF, which is too tame in how it develops Solitaire as a personality (read: she doesn’t have one). Granted, a lot of what is seen on screen from Seymour is lifted from the original novel, so Fleming is partly to blame for this I assume, but there is not a whole lot to the character of Solitaire. Her role as Kananga’s master security system mechanism, what with her tarot card reading and all, is genuinely cool, and the back-story about how her mother lost her own abilities to read the cards at the same time as her virginity, thus the importance of keeping Solitaire ‘unused,’ is also neat, but in terms of personality, there is not much there. Granted, unlike with Tiffany Case in DAF, here the writers are consistent with how they treat Solitaire, but the problem is that they are consistent in how they solely make her a prize to be obtained by Bond and nothing more. I guess if you have been a tarot card reader slave for literally all of your existence, you might not have much knowledge of the world and be hampered by some personality issues, but this is a Bond movie, so a little spunk would have been appreciated.

Those who rate Live and Let Die low frequently refer to the villain and, in particular, his plot, which involves flooding the United States market with free heroine samples to eventually drive the price up once he essentially owns the market. ‘Too small’ is often how they criticize it. Too small? So what? In From Russia With Love Bond is tasked with stealing an decoding instrument, period. In Casino Royale, Bond has to prevent Le Chiffre from winning his money back at a poker table, period. Licence to Kill involves a similar drug related plot. Live and Let Die was not the first 007 adventure to feature a villain’s plot that was on a smaller than usual scale and it would not be the last. In fact, two of the other films mentioned just above, FRWL and CR, are revered by die-hard and casual fans alike. A Bond film, while traditionally featuring huge plots of world domination or destruction, does not necessarily require one. Provided that there are stakes and the filmmakers can create some interesting set pieces, than you have the skeleton of a Bond film. In fact, I like the fact that these stakes in Live and Let Die are more down to earth than in the previous few films. It serves as something of a reminder that Bond operates in the real world and not solely in some live-action equivalent of a Saturday morning cartoon. There are also a lot of callbacks to the very first film, Dr. No. The film opens with the murder of MI6 agents, the villains live on a small Caribbean island, his lair feature underground passageways reminiscent of those created by Dr. No, the baddies try to assassinate 007 with a poisonous animal in his hotel room, and Bond does not work with many gadgets. Odd how that turned: in order to renew Bond with a new actor, they were inspired by the very first adventure. 

The villains themselves are great too. Yaphet Kotto, as Kananga, is clearly having a ball playing 007’s opposite. I thought of something while seeing the character for the first time years ago and finally hearing Koto confirm that theory while listening to the audio commentary on the Blu-ray was great. He is the bad version of 007. He dresses well, is highly educated, is charming, speaks eloquently, has a hot girl around him, etc.  I like Kotto as an actor and he is really good here. As are the people playing all the supporting henchmen, the standout being. Geoffrey Holder as Baron Samedi, Voodoo master. Wow, now that is an interesting villain. Here is one area where I actually think Mankiewicz excelled for once. He does not overuse Baron Samedi, but we see him just often enough for the character to feel like a creepy, menacing presence. In the original novel, it is Mr. Big who literally takes on the mantle as a Voodoo master (while ultimately not really being one). Here, Baron Samedi gets to become its own character, and the results are fantastic. Holder is amazingly lively in the role and ends up being not only one of the more memorable villains in the film, but of the entire franchise. The whole Voodoo aspect really adds a flavour to this Bond adventure. 007 clearly has no inclination to believe any of that hogwash, but the Baron continuously does these really weird tricks that would just about make anybody start doubting what they really believed in or not. 

There are plenty of other things that rock in Live and Let Die, among them the action set pieces and the music. The extended boat chase in Louisiana is a wonder to behold. Here again my sentiments are counter to that of many others, who often deride the sequence for taking too long. I’m always so impressed with what those boats are doing that the time simply flies by during that 10 minute span. The chase in which Bond drives a double-decker bus is something else too, especially when one consider what the stunt driver is doing with a vehicle that size. Impressive stuff, to be sure. A lot of credit should go to Guy Hamilton (whose name I haven’t mentioned a lot in this review) and his second unit crew. They really pulled out all the stops for this film. George Martin temporarily takes over, temporarily, from John Barry as score composer and the results are phenomenal. It feels like Bond, but it also feel blacksploitation.  I do not know what sort of effort was required to make those two seemingly incompatible sounds come together to make a brilliant score. The score, in a sense, summarizes the strange brilliance of the film. It’s a blacksploitation Bond picture. Read as such, that makes no sense whatsoever, I swear it works great.



thevoid99 said...

Great as usual Ed.

I know Bond purists will be upset but I'm a Roger Moore fan. I always liked his witty charm. He was more of the kind of guy that was relaxed but also could be a bad-ass. Plus, this movie has one of the most kick-ass theme songs ever from Sir Paul McCartney & Wings.

John Gilpatrick said...

I'm not a huge Roger Moore fan, but Live and Let Die is a very solid Bond movie. Think the boat chase is too long and J.W. Pepper is awful, though.

edgarchaput said...

@John: J.W. is indeed a sore spot on the film. As for the length of the boat chase, I don't know, I simply love it. I'm a big fan of boat chases and it doesn't seem to matter how long one can be provided it's done well.

@thevoid: I aim to please, void, I aim to please.

I don't agree that Moore was a bad-ass. His moments of 'bad-assness' were too far and few between for me to conquer (although they do exist if you look for them), but overall I still think he brought some interesting things to the character.

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