James Bond Declassified: File #8 - 'Live And Let Die' introduces Roger Moore
The Macca theme, the gator farm, Sheriff Pepper and more
- Critic's Rating C
- Readers' Rating n/a
JAMES BOND 007 DECLASSIFIED
FILE #8: "Live And Let Die"
This series will trace the cinema history of James Bond, while also examining Ian Fleming's original novels as source material and examining how faithful (or not) the films have been to his work.
Directed by Guy Hamilton
Screenplay by Tom Mankiewicz
Produced by Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli
CHARACTERS / CAST
James Bond / Roger Moore
Dr. Kananga aka Mr. Big / Yaphet Kotto
Solitaire / Jane Seymour
Tee Hee Johnson / Julius Harris
Felix Leiter / David Hedison
Rosie Carver / Gloria Hendry
Baron Samedi / Geoffrey Holder
Quarrel Jr. / Roy Stewart
Whisper / Earl Jolly Brown
Adam / Tommy Lane
Miss Caruso / Madeline Smith
Sheriff J.W. Pepper / Clifton James
M / Bernard Lee
Moneypenny / Lois Maxwell
It's not insignificant that this is also the first James Bond film that Michael G. Wilson, step-son to Cubby Broccoli, worked on as part of the production office. This is a clean break in eras. There is everything before "Live And Let Die," and there is everything after.
That said, it has been a while since I've last seen "Live and Let Die."
The main thing that's happened since the last time I saw the movie and now is that I've really gone back and read Fleming's book. It was a book I never read during my first round of Bond titles. My dad's library was incomplete, but there were enough that I felt like I got the point. Re-reading some of the books starting from about the age of 20 to now, I've grown to have a very different understanding of Fleming's strengths and weaknesses. I've also become a much more ardent fan of blaxploitation cinema and the era in which this film was made.
I also am not the biggest fan of Roger Moore's Bond, but seeing the film for the first time in well over a decade and possibly even two decades, with the book still fresh in my head, and with the whole Bond series chronologically before this fresh as well thanks to this series, I hit "Live and Let Die" with a fair amount of hesitation, afraid of what I was going to think.
Then about forty-five seconds into the film, it hits me.
Roger Moore was a TV star in the '60 and the '70s. He was a big name. He had some big hit shows. Hiring him was a step in a very definite direction, and that direction was "James Bond is the world's biggest TV show." This is not a continuation of the movie series so much as it is the first episode of "James Bond," a new regular series, one that is just as reactionary to trends and imitative of success as any TV show of the times.
Taken as such, it is a rousing success.
Up till this point, the James Bond films have all been part of a series, and there's been some degree of development for the character as Connery played it, handed it off to Lazenby, then played it one more time. It's not complicated or particularly deep, but James Bond is a certain kind of movie hero, and his films are a certain kind of action films. The sets are big, the villains are always monologuing and slinking away as things go down, hideouts are amazing, and James Bond will bang anything that movies.
Well, that's the show, but even moreso. Everything they'd learned about the series so far, they were going to apply to "James Bond: The TV Series: The Movie," and that meant that they were going to have to establish a tone we'd want to see more than once, make Moore credible as the lead, and set the ground rules that every episode that follows needs to follow. You've got your supporting cast like Moneypenny and M, and you realize you need to redefine the Q relationship so that you have a Q scene in every film that will establish exactly what we're going to see happen with Bond in the rest of the movie. And to be clear, I'm not saying that's a bad decision by Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli, just observing that it feels to me like this is the moment where that switch was flipped.
There's the gun barrel opening, but this time, the circle comes in from the left, becomes the barrel, Bond fires, and as the blood pours down the screen, everything fading to red, the circle drifts, drifts, finally finds…
… the New York City skyline, and not a moment too soon, because according to the score by George Martin (yes, that George Martin), this is about to become James Bond's biggest and VERY BEST caper of all time.
More of the skyline, and one building in the foreground in particular, a caption explaining: "United Nations, New York City". And the first familiar "dah-nah NAH-naaaaaaah" gets bigger and bigger… and it's note for note the same exact degree of ridiculous and pompous as the "Police Squad!" themes. It's definitely a big version, a sort of attention-getter.
Inside the UN, we see a speech underway and the various bored delegates listening to the translations streaming on their headphones. In the control booth, someone switches a few wires, and the UK delegate gets his brain fried by a sudden high-pitched tone that kills him.
In New Orleans, there's a funeral parade in the street outside Fillet Of Soul. As a man in a suit watches, he asks another bystander, "Whose funeral is it?"
A switchblade pops open and slides between his ribs. "Yours." The procession barely even hesitates as they pick him up in the casket they're carrying and then walk away, the funeral dirge turning into a more rousing celebratory tune, everyone dancing instead of marching now.
And then we find ourselves at a voodoo ceremony in San Marque in the Caribbean, a white man tied to a stake in the center of things. A voodoo priest threatens the man with a snake, and when it strikes, the white man sags against the pole, and the familiar strains of Paul McCartney's big bombastic theme song fade up, animated flames filling the screen.
It's a quick three-part introductory scene, and obviously these three events have something to do with one another, but we have no way of knowing what the connection is. The opening title sequence itself is one of the most elaborate of the series so far, which makes sense because the song is eleven hours long. This feels like the moment when the producers decided to push things, and that meant taking the basic idea of these title sequences and making each of them into a set piece in its own right. Maurice Binder is a big part of that classic Bond formula, and this one's sort of spooky and crazy and comes pretty close to being overt about its nudity instead of all silhouette.
When they were introducing George Lazenby in the role in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," there was a sense that his intro was very coy, drawn out for maximum tension. Here, the moment the opening titles are over, we see James Bond laying in bed, a content woman laying on his chest.
Bond is roused from bed by M, who comes to his house at 5:30 in the morning to tell Bond that he's got to get ready and leave. All three of the men we saw die in the opening scene were agents of British Intelligence, all part of the same ongoing investigation. The idea that we're seeing James Bond at home is weird enough, but it does a nice job of setting him up as a very fastidious version of Bond.
I do like the image of Moneypenny catching Miss Caruso running around Bond's house semi-naked. I also really like the way she teases him about it. This has got to be the way she pictures his daily life anyway. And the punchline to the scene, with Bond using the magnetic watch to unzip Caruso's dress? Definitely sets the tone that this Bond will always go for the joke.
Bond flies to New York, and within minutes, the guy who is sent by Felix Leiter to pick him up at the airport is killed, and Bond just barely manages to keep control of the car. Right away, Moore is presented as the posh Bond, the Bond who will never get mussed, no matter what happens, always ready with an arched eyebrow and the right punchline, and much more stiff-uppper-lip British than even Lazenby was in his film. Tom Mankiewicz appears to have figured Moore out right away, and the film is written to really give him a chance to define Bond his own way.
It is genuinely weird to see Bond dropped into a '70s blaxploitation film, but that's definitely the point here. When Bond's tailing one of the bad guys in a cab, he's being watched the entire time, and it's hard not to laugh when one guy radios in, "You got a honky on your tail." When Bond ends up face-to-face with Mr. Big's henchmen and Solitaire, he once again introduces himself with his real name, continuing the tradition of James Bond as the worst covert agent in film history.
Tee Hee's claw hand would be more impressive if it wasn't so obviously a thing he's wearing on his hand under his shirt. It's a terrible effect. Then again, the film's got any number of weird choices in it. Solitaire is played by the just-as-white-as-Roger-Moore Jane Seymour, but they've tinted her skin, and it looks completely natural as long as you've never seen anyone with actual skin before. And that first appearance by the disguised Mr. Big is just bizarre. It's obvious right away that there's something up with his face, but it's not obvious what it is.
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As soon as Bond arrives in New York, he's out again and on his way to San Marque. By now, there's something of a greatest hits feeling to the film. When they release a snake into Bond's hotel room, it's hard not to think of earlier attempts at homicide by wildlife. Having the fisherman who takes Bond out to find Mr. Big's house be Quarrel Jr., a callback to "Dr. No," is a choice that doesn't really add much to the film other than "Oh, yeah, there was another character called Quarrel in an earlier film."
There is some new ground covered here. Having Bond seduce a black woman onscreen was a big moment for a 1973 film, and Gloria Hendry is a striking example of womanhood. I wish her character Rosie Carver wasn't a double-agent working against Bond, because she's sort of charming in her first few scenes.
It's a big choice to have Solitaire gifted with the ability to see the future by reading cards, especially because it's tied to her virginity. It is a sign of just how much these were products of a different age when you realize that it is a major plot point here that James Bond literally f**ks the magic powers out of Solitaire. Jane Seymour is preposterously cute in the role, and it's interesting to see how non-stop busy James Bond is in the bedroom in this film. Everything feels amplified here. One tumble with Bond, and Solitaire is changed in every way, ready to abandon Mr. Big completely, her powers gone. It sets up a whole stretch of the movie where they have to protect the secret that she's been deflowered. It's a pretty wild plot thread, no matter how discretely they try to handle the discussion of it.
Quick note on the score of the film, by George Martin, and the idea of bringing in a guest composer for the score and a recording artist with some connection to that composer to collaborate on the sound of the film. Martin's score makes strong use of the traditional Bond theme, and it also weaves the McCartney tune into the film in several places, and to strong effect. Even though I think John Barry is the undisputed master of the Bond score, there's something compelling about the way Martin approached the gig.
It's sort of disappointing when you realize that Mr. Big's whole plan revolves around heroin smuggling. It seems like a very mundane motivation for a James Bond bad guy. Sure, his idea of producing two tons of heroin that he's going to give away for free through his chain of Fillet of Soul restaurants is a big criminal endeavor, but it still just boils down to drug dealing. That's one of the ways where this feels like a genuine '70s blaxploitation film that somehow got mashed together with a Bond movie. The motivations of the bad guys are very much drawn from the real world, and even if you've got voodoo and tarot cards in the mix, it's a fairly banal plot.
Guy Hamilton made strong use of the locations where he shot the film, and while I don't think the sets and the locations all match up, when the film is based in a real location, it's often fairly striking. Even a low-key action scene like the one where Bond uses a double-decker bus to get away from Mr. Big's henchmen works because of the setting.
When Bond and Solitaire arrive in New Orleans, some of Mr. Big's henchmen pick him up and take him to an airport, where we are treated to our first view of Roger Moore running. If there is any one thing that ruins Roger Moore for me, it is the way he runs. I'm awful at running. I'm just not built for it. Even so, I look like Jesse Owens compared to Moore. It's like he's wearing half of a suit of armor.
The second time we see an agent watching the Fillet Of Sole restaurant and a jazz funeral starts, we know exactly what it means, and it might be my favorite touch in the film, something that Guy Hamilton (a jazz fan) suggested working in, and it's a very clever bit of staging. On the other hand, the jazz version of "Live And Let Die" performed in the Fillet of Sole club is flat-out terrible, even if it's a great moment when Bond's table sinks into the floor.
I don't really get the whole Mr. Big/Kananga thing in the film, because neither Kananga or Mr. Big are given enough screen time for it to have any impact when they're revealed to be the same person. It's really weird make-up on Yaphet Kotto, too, so you know right away that something's up. And once he reveals his dual identity and lays out his plan for Bond, it just becomes a matter of time until Bond can get to the right authorities and tell them what's going on, making the rest of the movie a long series of chase scenes and action beats.
The scene where Tee Hee tries to feed Bond to the gators is well-built, and it's a nice bit with Bond trying to use his magnetic watch to get the boat to come to him, only to realize it's tied to a tree. In general, the whole sequence at the gator farm is a good one, and it's a nice demonstration of Bond thinking his way out of a situation rather than relying on someone else to rescue him, which seems to happen an awful lot in this film.
I have never seen a film where they go so far out of their way not to say "motherf**ker" when you can tell they DESPERATELY want to say "motherf**ker" repeatedly.
The boat chase is a great action scene, and here's where the Moore Bond films do distinguish themselves. I think they had to crank up the stunts because other films had already started to borrow so much from the Bond series that they had no choice. Mankiewicz seemed to understand that this new version of Bond needed to be fun, and that's evident in the way the stunt sequences were designed and executed, and also in the way he writes all the side characters. J.W. Pepper would have no place in the world of "Goldfinger" or "From Russia With Love," but the slow slide into the cartoonish continues here with glee. It's hard to even pinpoint the silliest moment in the chase. Is it when Bond leads a boat up onto the land so that the bad guys end up trapped in a swimming pool? Or is it the moment where they drive their boats right through a wedding? Or is it maybe the uncomfortable racial joke when JW Pepper thinks his brother in law is driving a boat and two troopers see a black guy at the wheel and exchange disapproving looks? You've got to give it up for Clifton James, who played Pepper. He chews the scenery with abandon all the up to his very last line, "A secret agent? On whose side?"
As authentic as some of the film feels, I have a strong suspicion the voodoo ceremonies are Hollywood hogwash of the highest order. Even the set looks fake compared to the real locations we've seen throughout the film. Here's where the film comes closest to echoing the somewhat icky racial politics of the novel. I like Fleming, but that book makes my skin crawl, and the moments where the film deals with voodoo culture are, at the very least, insensitive and ridiculous. At their worst, they feel borderline offensive. Baron Samedi makes a striking entrance to that voodoo scene, but it's preposterous nonetheless. Then when the underground lair of Mr. Big is revealed, and suddenly we're looking at something on the same scale as Blofeld's volcano lair, things just get weird.
Best Yaphet Kotto moment in the film? When he tests out the shark gun by firing it into the couch where Whisper is sitting, causing the couch to swell with compressed air and explode. I've seen that bit probably a dozen times, and it always makes me laugh just because of the way Whisper looks like he has no idea what's coming.
Sharks seem to be an omnipresent threat in the world of James Bond, and if Mr. Big only moved a little quicker, he might have actually succeeded in feeding Bond to them. The way Bond dispatches Mr. Big is one of the weirdest deaths to a villain in any of the films, and it looks like they weren't quite sure how to show it. It also seems fairly anticlimactic.
In a way, this film's structure at the very end mirrors the way "Diamonds Are Forever" was built, with the main bad guy dispatched, the threat neutralized, and James Bond ready to get his f**k on. In "Diamonds," it was Kidd and Wint who showed up to try one last time to kill Bond, and in this one, it's Tee Hee, and the final fight between them may bring to mind the close-quarters combat in "From Russia With Love," but it's nowhere near as effective, and in the end, Tee Hee's mechanical arm isn't much of a threat at all.
And that last shot of Samedi sitting on the front of the train laughing would have seemed cheesy in 1973, but on the far side of the Seven-Up campaign featuring Geoffrey Holder, it's positively hilarious. And it makes little sense in terms of what it does to the narrative. It makes perfect sense if this is the pilot episode of the James Bond TV show.
It's funny… I hadn't seen this in enough time that when I wrote the start of the piece, I assumed there was a Q appearance in the film, and there's not. While this movie does further refine the formula, not everything is in place yet. I can see both "The Spy Who Loved Me" and "Moonraker" in this film. The things they do right in this film are the things they do right in "Spy," and the things that are fairly terrible or ridiculous here will get turned up tenfold in "Moonraker." Tee Hee seems like an obvious direct precursor to Jaws, just as Tee Hee seems to be a direct descendent of Kidd and Wint. We're starting to see them work variations on an idea, film after film. And the notion of bringing Sheriff Pepper back in another setting in the next film… that's sort of ridiculous and coincidental, and it's the sort of thing that happens when you're listening to what your audience likes and trying to give them more of the same.
Here's one major difference between this Bond film and the earlier one. When "Goldfinger" or "Thunderball" came out, those movies were heavily imitated. Lots of films in all genres took aesthetic cues from the Bond movies. They helped to define what was cool. With this film, they are definitely chasing what is already cool, so by the time they do it, it feels more like a theme park version. In the case of this film, they're obviously reacting to the notion that there was an under-served ethnic audience out there and they're hoping that black audiences will respond to this because there are a number of black characters in the film. Real blaxploitation cinema happened as a reaction to feeling like they weren't seeing themselves onscreen and they weren't seeing stories about people living like them. They would often cast a while character actor as the bad guy, a representative of "The Man," but the heroes were always black. Always. So this Bond may have the nerve to steal directly from blaxploitation films, but in inverting the races, they've made it far more uncomfortable.
When you watch the Bond movies in order like this, there's never this giant "What just happened?" moment where they shift from one style to the next. It's a matter of degrees from film to film, and sometimes they get the balance right and sometimes they don't. But what is clear is that Saltzman and Broccoli were franchise-minded in an age where that wasn't the normal way of doing business. They absolutely invented the giant blockbuster franchise, and when you see "Star Wars" and "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" get into the business in the '70s and '80s, it's in the giant shadow of Bond, taking cues from the ways these guys managed to survive shifts in cast, shifts in filmmaking eras, and shifts in attitudes in the culture about spies and international politics.
When you look at a Bond movie, you have to look at it as a snapshot of what it was to be awesome at that particular moment in time. In 1973, it was awesome to hire George Martin and Paul McCartney to do the score and the theme song. In 1973, it was awesome to hire "The Saint" to play James Bond. In 1973, it was awesome to do a blaxploitation movie, but with bigger stunt sequences and more globe-trotting. The way Moore bangs his way through the cast, that's cutting edge swinging dick machismo, via a refined upper-crust English position of privilege. James Bond in the early '70s is the Playboy man, dressed well, cultured, educated, hard-drinking, hard-screwing, emotionally guarded, dangerous. But it's not the darker harder edge that made sense in the '60s. Instead, pop culture is struggling to become silly as a reaction to the real-world darknesses of Vietnam and Watergate. Mankiewicz had his finger up to the changing wind in pop culture and he could feel the silly on the wind. I would argue that the three films he wrote in the series, starting with "Diamonds Are Forever," set a tone that was part of the films until Timothy Dalton took over, and that informed the Pierce Brosnan years as well.
Besides, it had to be hard to adapt this one. For more on that, let's wrap this up and hop over to a conversation of what may well be my least favorite of the Ian Fleming books.
LIVE AND LET DIE
James Bond will return in
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN
Boy, this book troubles me.
The second novel in the series, "Live and Let Die" was written by Fleming as he was still trying to define his super-spy and the world in which he operated, and there are a number of things about the book that I like. In adapting it this far out of continuity, the producers knew they couldn't just do a straight adaptation, but they held over odd things like having Quarrel's son be the boat driver for Bond, when in the novel, this is the introduction of Quarrel as well as Strangways, both important characters in "Dr. No" later on.
When Fleming wrote about Jamaica or London or the British Secret Service, he wore with a confidence that came from knowing that world inside out. He wrote with authority. When Ian Fleming writes about Harlem and the heroin trade, he is writing more from imagination, and it's train-crash ugly in places. I would not call Ian Fleming a racist, but I would observe that he is very much a product of where he was brought up, how he was brought up, and stereotypes of the day. Much like Herge in the early days of the Tintin comics, Fleming was reacting to the pervasive racial cliches, and when he writes dialogue for the black characters in "Live and Let Die" and does it to phonetically duplicate their patois, it is horrifying. I cringe when I read certain sections of this one. I think anyone would. The thing is, the version that exists now
But having said that, I like a lot of the book. Mr. Big is an interesting villain, the second big SMERSH agent introduced in the series after Le Chiffre in the first book. At this point, the series was about things that might happen, characters that might occur. Goldfinger was just the right sort of invention, a guy with a plan to rip off Fort Knox. In this novel, Mr. Big is using gold coins he's gathering in Jamaica to pay for spy operations in the US, and when Bond starts to dig into his operation, it draws him into a fairly dangerous world. One of the best scenes in the novel was eventually used in "For Your Eyes Only," when Mr. Big ties both Solitaire and Bond together and drags them through coral reefs in shark infested water. It's an outstanding action sequence, personal and tough and real. Even better, there's a shock halfway through the book when Felix Leiter, Bond's CIA contact, is dropped into a shark tank in St. Petersburg. He ends up losing an arm and a leg to the attack, and that ends up playing out in every other appearance Leiter makes in the book series.
It's a very small scale operation, but there's an urgency to the way Fleming lays it out that makes it a compelling read. It's possible to read the book as a reaction to the way race relations were playing out around the world. Still, this was before the civil rights movement became a mainstream unavoidable fact, when it was a sort of building discontent, and Fleming was very much of the world that was going to have to change. It makes me uncomfortable when I read as a result, and I think you see this anxiety of his mellow over time and over the course of the books. Still, I can imagine that for many people, this book would be hard to stomach because of those attitudes.
Our Series So Far:
File #1 - "Dr. No" kicks off our look back at the classic series
File #2 - "From Russia With Love" is still one of the best
File #3 - "Goldfinger" takes the series into the realm of pop cartoon
File #4 - "Thunderball" is the first series stumble
File #5 - "You Only Live Twice" rewrites Fleming completely
Father's Day Dossier
File #6 - "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" changes everything
File #7 - "Diamonds Are Forever" is Connery's last shot
James Bond will return...
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