Skip to main content

Secret AGENT? On WHOSE side?


Live and Let Die
(1973)

In theory, Live and Let Die put the Bond producers right back where they had been at the start of the previous two films; struggling to stabilise the series with a regular 007. Connery nixed any further wooing, and consequently numerous actors were mooted, both British and American. The role finally came back to Roger Moore, who had been considered both at the time of Dr. No and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Indeed, Moore was 45 when he made LALD; four years older than Connery was in Diamonds are Forever (to be fair, Moore was looking contrastingly young and fresh-faced; he’d only stretch credulity towards end of his run, particularly as a 57 year-old secret agent). It was only the cancellation of TV series The Persuaders that enabled Moore to play Bond, however.


LALD is a curious Bond film. In some respects it displays an entirely predictable template of chases, beddings and globetrotting. In others, it shows a brazen willingness to leave the usual furrowed territory. In part, the sensibility of Moore is responsible for this shift but it can’t be forgotten that Diamonds are Forever had already seen a break with tradition through indulging a surrealist streak and a hankering for campy humour. Moore has spoken at length how he chose a different take to Connery; Moore’s Bond tended not to revel in violence even if his quips following the dispatch of a villain were ever present, even accentuated. There was an absence of the sadistic impulse that informed Connery’s characterisation. Moore was more refined, and lacked Connery’s brutish undercurrent. Some traits were more window-dressing (cigars instead of cigarettes) but the defining aspect, even in his first appearance, was a degree of self-awareness that would gather momentum as his run progressed. It’s an aspect that divides the purists. Those who want their Bond played “straight” see this ‘70s as a dark period for 007. Equally, many grew up on Moore’s “wink-wink” approach. There was more room for comedy, less for verisimilitude and scarcely any at all for the notion that our hero could ever be in any real danger.


Aside from Moore, LALD sees the series’ first clear embrace of populist trappings. The film is based on Flemings second novel (in which characters such as Quarrel, who would die in Dr, No appear). As with the film, the plot involved voodoo, but Mr. Big was smuggling coins, not producing heroin, and the setting was Jamaica, not the fictional San Marino. It included scenes in Harlem (and Florida) but not New Orleans. The canny move of the producers was to fuse the novel’s scenario with the stereotypes and clichés contemporaneously found in Blaxploitation movies (but notably, without a black hero at the centre). Embracing an ephemeral genre was something that surely could have backfired, but with Moore in the central role the choice seems to be of a piece, translating as a heightened, playful approach rather than one that descends into the offensive (not that it hasn’t been argued that the film is guilty of racism, and that this more tangibly present in the book). Moore’s Bond, the stereotypically mannered Englishman, coolly walking about Harlem, couldn’t be more “honky”; LALD clearly wants to have fun with that clash. Moore’s Bond would again dive head first into a genre mash-up as the decade ended; Moonraker was rushed into production ahead of For Your Eyes Only to take advantage of the post-Star Wars science fiction boom.


Tom Mankiewicz has commented that it was a conscious choice to adapt LALD, because he felt using black villains would be daring (if ultimately no different in terms of plot mechanics to any other villain). Without wanting to focus too heavily on this aspect of a film that was surely very cynically appropriating another genre, the question needs to be asked; is the attitude of Bond, or the plotting, any different as a result to the way it is in any other Bond film? For the most part, arguably not. The aspect here that stands out is that the villains are shown to be superstitious (read, non-rational). This is partly for the purposes of appearance (Kananga’s poppy fields are concealed from prying eyes), but he clearly believes in the fortune-telling skills of Solitaire and that her virginity is key to this ability.


Except that it does not follow through that Kananga is shown up to be ignorant by this; at every instant the film confirms to the audience that Solitaire’s skills are real, including her loss of them when Bond deflowers her. Kananga is as cultured and cunning as every Bond villain we have seen so far (additionally, he has no physical scarring or disability, a break with the series’ tendency to equate evil with physical imperfection), and his henchmen are just as idiosyncratically characterised and monickered (Tee-Hee and Whisper proving to be self-explanatory nicknames). Conversely, the argument that the film was groundbreaking takes a bit of swallowing; it features Bond’s first liaison with an African American woman (these scenes were removed from its South African release) but it only seems like a natural development from the sexism-without-cultural-distinction that we saw from 007 in You Only Live Twice.


Mankiewicz said that one of the consequences of the script concentrating on black characters was the decision to introduce comic relief in the form of Sheriff J W Pepper (played by New Yorker Clifton James). It’s unclear if the writer meant that, in part to counter any possible accusations of racism, he would introduce the most obviously caricatured white trash character he could think of; as the ignorant Southern lawman Pepper represents a figure of the broadest stereotype. His stupidity is intended to be very funny, and clearly the producers thought he garnered sufficient audience approval to bring him back for The Man with the Golden Gun. Pepper, in particular, elicits much adverse reaction from fans of the series; even those in generally approving of the Moore era. He’s a character you could only have seen during the 1970s, the decade of Smoky and the Bandit and Every Which Way But Loose; I don’t find him particularly funny, but neither does he blemish the film especially for me. He’s there to draw attention to how “wow-worthy” the centre-piece boat chase is, and on that level he serves his function. I would definitely have decided that once was enough, though.


The other element that overtly flirts with the zeitgeist is the theme song. Paul McCartney (and Wings) composed Live and Let Die, the first time the series went out to a pop/rock star rather than brought one in to sing a (John Barry) ditty. The reward was a chart hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and an Oscar nomination to boot (only the non-canon Casino Royale had previously seen a Bond film get a nod). And the enmity of Rolling Stone, which accused him of selling out. Additionally, with Barry occupied, McCartney producer George Martin was called upon to compose the score. The result compounded the sense that this was a Bond whose particular Englishness made him “hip”; he could walk into any scenario or “scene” and show mild amusement at it. It did not matter that he wasn’t part of the generation who “got it”.


While Mankiewicz rids himself of the gold of the novel, its worth considering that this material was the subject of the series’ previous least-super villain plotline (to the extent that Goldfinger’s object was the accumulation of wealth, rather than any designs on global dominion). Instead, we move one step closer to real-world concerns when we learn that Kananga plans to flood the US black market with free heroin, undermining and bankrupting Mafia supply chains and creating an enormous demand from dependent users. Whether or not such a plan is remotely plausible, it’s a significant enough departure for the series that believability is even considered.


Elsewhere, however, the bad guys lead Bond by the nose in the most obvious of ways. Kananga only succeeded in drawing attention to himself with his opening assassinations (one of the rare examples of the pre-titles sequence omitting Bond himself) and the attempts to kill Bond in New York lead him straight to Mr. Big. To be fair to Kananga, he manages to keep his dual identity a secret (the make-up job on Yaphet Kotto as Mr. Big is bizarre, but it does successfully conceal his features), and even when his poppy fields are torched he retains a certain nonchalance (it’s only the loss of Solitaire’s skills that really enrage him), but you have to wonder about his criminal mastermind status when everyone seems to be on to him and the actions of his organisation are so easily traceable.


Bond himself is closer to the typical mode of the series’ chess piece that is moved around the board depending on the needs of a new location or action sequence. It may just be that this feels more overt in LALD because of the yo-yoing of his visit to America (New York), then San Marino, then America (New Orleans), then San Marino again. What does he achieve in Harlem, apart from meeting Solitaire? And what does he achieve during his first trip to San Marino, apart from bedding Solitaire (and Rosie Carver)? It is, to some extent, churlish to highlight such issues (particularly when an entry such as You Only Live Twice devotes an entire interlude to unconvincingly turning Bond Japanese) when they have come to define the series. Nevertheless, some entries conceal the joins better than others.


In terms of plotting, LALD uses not one, but three identity fake-outs. The main one is with the aforementioned Kananga/Mr. Big. Then there is Quarrel, who is suggested to be a bad guy before the reveal that he is a pal of 007. Finally, Rosie is revealed as a double agent working for Kananga (it has to be said that her uselessness, even if it was a ploy to get close to Bond, persists even after the reveal of her allegiances). To some extent, this kind of device compensates for the unvarnished causality of the plotting generally (it could be argued that the modern blockbuster has borrowed tbe Bond approach wholesale).


We do see quirks that create wrinkles in the general linearity. The main source of this is the film’s treatment of the occult. As mentioned, there is no doubt that Solitaire’s divinatory skills are real. The viewer is privy to the choices of the director and editor that set this out. As Solitaire turns the cards, each one reveals the approach of Bond, the visual information confirming the voiceover.

Solitaire: A man comes. He travels quickly. He has purpose. He comes over water. He travels with others. He will oppose. He brings violence and destruction.

It should noted that the film takes an alternately very literal attitude to interpretation of the cards (Death means death, rather than change, while The Lovers means lovers rather than choice) and one that appears to be more nuanced (Bond’s credulous interpretation of the inverted Queen of Cups, cited as evidence of Rosie’s duplicity; it’s possible that 007 had actual evidence pointing to her guilt, but his choice of proof is a reading by Solitaire). At other times, as would become more commonplace with Moore, logic flies out the window for the sake of a clever gag. Bond apparently landed on the island with a deck full of Lovers cards working on the theory that he could employ it to seduce Solitaire? Very precise of him; he clearly doesn’t need a tarot deck to predict the future (nor do we when it comes to who is next in line for a good shagging).


Later, whether by belief or prophecy fulfilled, Solitaire can no longer read the cards accurately when Bond has taken her virginity. It’s the kind of plot point that would be more expected in a Hammer Horror, but here it neatly dovetails the beliefs of Kananga and the expected seducing skills of Britain’s foremost secret agent.


The other character used to suggest that reality is not quite as straightforward as the Bond series usually portrays it is Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder). During the climax, 007 apparently shoots the Baron in the head (a chunk of his skull is missing); Samedi’s eyes roll up to acknowledge this but seconds later his body collapses, a dummy. Later in the same scene Samedi falls backwards into a coffin, atop deadly snakes. But in the final shot we see him once more, riding the train that carries Bond and Solitaire into the credits (imdb spreads a rumour that he was considered for appearance in a subsequent Bond film, but this seems unlikely).


With regard to the villain of the piece and his henchmen, they follow the path of Mankiewicz’s Bond scripts in each being distinctive, often humourous, characters in their own right. Yaphet Kotto needs little introduction and got the part following his turn in Across 110th Street; he went on to make an indelible impression in the likes of Alien, Midnight Run (“Alonso Moseley, FBI”) and Homicide: Life on the Street. Julius Harris, who played Tee Hee, recounted how Guy Hamilton had asked him what he’d like as a distinguishing characteristic and he came up with the hook (giving rise to Moore’s famous “Butter hook” improv when Harris fumbled his chair restraints). Earl Jolly Brown, meanwhile, played Whisper with exactly that, along with an arresting girth.


If the villains of LLAD follow much the usual lines, the Bond girls are arguably a step down. This might seem an irrelevant observation in the face of the general view that Bond girls are generally there to be protected by 007 and as a receptacle for his man juice. In reality, few have traditionally fallen just into those categories (albeit, there are unusually one or two conquests who are inessential to the main plot); the parts to tend to be at least as well (or badly) written as the male ones. Bond’s initial conquest is Miss Caruso (Madeline Smith, better known for her Hammer work, and Up Pompeii), introduced to enable some light bedroom farce when M shows up at Bond’s door. Rose Carver has been noted, which leaves the delectable Jane Seymour. Seymour, like Ursula Andress before her, suffered the indignity of being mostly dubbed. Solitaire the character, meanwhile, suffers the indignity of being cured of her virginity and becoming an instant sex (as long as it’s Bond) addict (when Bond asks where she’d like to go she replies “Anywhere we can find one of these” referring to her bed). It unfortunately translates as the ultimate Bond-ing; he leaves her bereft of any skills to make her way in the world, so now all she’s good for is making babies and cooking.

Solitaire: Is there time before we leave, for Lesson Number Three?
James Bond: Of course. There’s no sense in going out half-cocked.


If the main plotline is has a foot in reality, so too do the set pieces. Thunderball and You Only Live Twice would remain the high water mark for extravagant set pieces for a film or two. The action and locations are, for the most part, more mundane. A car chase in New York, a bus chase in San Marino (to be fair, the bridge decapitation is spectacular) and, following an interlude that has been the cause of the most anecdotes for this film (the crocodile walk), the one that really does up the ante; the motor boat chase in New Orleans. They are all well-staged, some of the stunts being among the best the series has seen to that point (the boat leaps are especially impressive) but it can’t be denied that with Moore’s Bond (even given that he was partly present for many of the sequences) there’s a detachment from the action; he is calm, unruffled, barely breaks a sweat. Because he’s hardly there. It’s Bond’s interaction with his co-stars that sees his version of the character at his best simply because he’s the least physical of all the Bonds. The flying instructor scene with Mrs Bell is the clear exception to this, as it relies on comic interplay combined with the amusing stunt work for its success.


If the presence of M, Moneypenney, Q et al had been crucial to the acceptance of Lazenby in OHMSS, it is all but incidental to Moore. Q is merely name-checked (he indirectly provides the sole, but frequently used gadget; Bond’s watch) while M and Moneypenney are relegated to the opening scene with 007. It’s difficult to imagine either of them turning up at Connery’s pad, let alone him allowing them in. Moore behaves as if his parents have just caught him on the job, because that’s the kind of Bond he is.


Maybe it’s just a consequence of Moore’s delivery or maybe it’s correct but it certainly feels as if the humour was indeed upped consciously upon his arrival. Certainly, in his first Bond the innuendos appear louder and more incessant than they had done previously. Part of this is doubtless Moore’s own spontaneity, although it can be difficult to tell whether something was carefully scripted or happened by chance. Part of it also is that, no matter how lascivious a line might sound if someone else uttered it, coming from Moore it is never less than ironic.

Rosie: I’m going to be completely useless to you.
James Bond: I’m sure we can lick you into shape.

It’s not quite Carry On… but it’s in the same ballpark. Innuendo may be his most common mode, but Moore’s Bond is always at his best for me when engaging in a slightly offhand surreality, be it referring to the absence of mongooses in a house under attack by a snake or a piece of rather distressing head apparel.

James BondWhy, it’s just a hat darling. Belonging to a small man of limited means who lost a fight with a chicken.


The demise of Kananga follows the path of abstraction (in terms of villains this would be most pronounced with Jaws); Bond shoves a gas pellet in his mouth and Kananga expands like a balloon before exploding in a shower of (non-bloody) bits. It can’t have been any more convincing in 1973.

James Bond: He always did have an inflated opinion of himself.


Live and Let Die moves Bond into a new era just by dint of Roger Moore’s casting; it’s difficult to imagine the Blaxploitation trappings of the film translating in quite the breezy, carefree way that they do under Connery’s stewardship, and its possible that this element wouldn’t seem as innocent with the Scotsman. While Guy Hamilton brings the same sure touch to the staging as in his previous two efforts, there is a stronger sense of a formula being followed here  (even given the areas of innovation noted). Maybe it’s just that, compared to its two predecessors – pinnacles of the series – it’s a strong effort but it can’t compete. LALD successfully sets the scene for the rest of the ‘70s, however. It would be ever-broader and less serious in intent, but for the series at the time this would seem entirely appropriate.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

The past is a statement. The future is a question.

Justified Season Six
(SPOILERS) There have been more than enough damp squib or so-so show finales of late to have greeted the demise of Justified with some trepidation. Thankfully it avoids almost every pitfall it might have succumbed to and gives us a satisfying send-off that feels fitting for its characters. This is a series that, even at its weakest (the previous season) is leagues ahead of most fare in an increasingly saturated sphere, so it’s a relief – even if there was never much doubt on past form – that it doesn’t drop the ball.

And of those character fates? In a show that often pulls back from giving Raylan Givens the great hero moments (despite his maintaining a veneer of ultra-cool, and getting “supporting hero” moments as he does in the finale, 6.13 The Promise), it feels appropriate that his entire (stated) motivation for the season should be undermined. He doesn’t get to take down Boyd Crowder, except in an incarcerating sense, but as always he is sanguine about it. After…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

It’s not every day you see a guy get his ass kicked on two continents – by himself.

Gemini Man (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ang Lee seems hellbent on sloughing down a technological cul-de-sac to the point of creative obscurity, in much the same way Robert Zemeckis enmired himself in the mirage of motion capture for a decade. Lee previously experimented with higher frame rates on Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, to the general aversion of those who saw it in its intended form – 48, 60 or 120 fps have generally gone down like a bag of cold sick, just ask Peter Jackson – and the complete indifference of most of the remaining audience, for whom the material held little lustre. Now he pretty much repeats that trick with Gemini Man. At best, it’s merely an “okay” film – not quite the bomb its Rotten Tomatoes score suggests – which, (as I saw it) stripped of its distracting frame rate and 3D, reveals itself as just about serviceable but afflicted by several insurmountable drawbacks.

You’re only seeing what’s in front of you. You’re not seeing what’s above you.

Mr. Robot Season 2
(SPOILERS) I suspect my problem with Mr. Robot may be that I want it to be something it isn’t, which would entail it being a much better show than it is. And that’s its own fault, really, or rather creator and writer-director of umpteen episodes Sam Esmail’s, who has intentionally and provocatively lured his audience into thinking this really is an up-to-the-minute, pertinent, relevant, zeitgeisty show, one that not only has a huge amount to say about the illusory nature of our socio-economic system, and consequently the bedrock of our collective paradigm, but also the thorny subject of reality itself, both of which have been variably enticing dramatic fodder since the Wachowski siblings and David Fincher released a one-two punch at the end of the previous millennium.

In that sense, Mr. Robot’s thematic conceit is very much of a piece with its narrative form; it’s a conjuring act, a series of sleights of hand designed to dazzle the viewer into going with the flow, rath…

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You’ll just have to face it, Steed. You’re completely compromised.

The Avengers Season 6 Ranked – Worst to Best
The final run, and an oft-maligned one. It’s doubtful anyone could have filled Emma Peel’s kinky boots, but it didn’t help Linda Thorson that Tara King was frequently earmarked to moon over Steed while very evidentlynot being the equal Emma and Cathy were; the generation gap was never less than unflatteringly evident. Nevertheless, despite this imbalance, and the early hiccups of the John Bryce-produced episodes, Season Six arguably offers a superior selection of episodes to its predecessor, in which everyone became perhaps a little too relaxed.