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

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”