Monday, June 04, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Live and Let Die

With Connery’s return for ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ a strict one-off (at least until he made the non-canon ‘Never Say Never Again’ in 1983), the producers found themselves back where they were after ‘You Only Live Twice’: they needed a new Bond. This time, they avoided the pitfall of casting a male model who’d never acted before. This time they went for someone who not only had twenty-five years experience before the camera, but came complete with a significant fan base courtesy of his hugely popular turn as Simon Templar in the TV series ‘The Saint’.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Roger Moore. Not, however, that he was the first choice. The producers initially approached Clint Eastwood, hot off ‘Dirty Harry’ (its sequel ‘Magnum Force’ was released the same year as ‘Live and Let Die’), who politely declined on the grounds that Bond should be played by a British actor. Clint Eastwood – respect! Julian Glover and Jeremy Brett were considered – and the mind boggles at the idea of the guy who would later essay the definitive Sherlock Holmes (despite what it cost him) playing Bond – before they settled on Roger Moore.

When ‘Live and Let Die’ was shot in 1973, Moore was already in his mid-forties. He’d play the character for another twelve years, ending his tenure as a paunchy and vaguely ridiculous Bond, pushing sixty, in ‘A View to a Kill’. During those dozen years, the franchise would become increasingly bloated, parodic and self-indulgent, with ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (excepting its cringingly embarrassing final scene) representing a back-to-basics for the 007 aesthetic.

Still, ‘Live and Let Die’ – directed by Guy Hamilton; the third of his four Bonds – is a solid first outing for Moore, and a decent action movie to boot. It has its flaws, particularly in its tapestry of ethnically stereotyped villains, but it’s a more cohesive work than ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and, with one exception, doesn’t go haring off into the realms of the stupid as gleefully as the next few productions would.

‘Live and Let Die’ opens with a pre-credits sequence notable for (a) actually having something to do with the rest of the movie and (b) not featuring Bond. Apart from ‘From Russia with Love’ – which kind of features Bond and kind of doesn’t – I think it’s the only pre-credits sequence in the whole saga in which the agent doesn’t appear. What does happen is that several British agents are killed, one at a United Nations conference which is being attended by Kanaga (Yaphet Kotto), the ruler of a Caribbean island called San Monique; one during a stakeout in New Orleans; and one on San Monique itself during a voodoo ceremony.

M turns up at Bond’s apartment (predictably he has female company), gives him a terse brief – Bernard Lee was ill during filming, which perhaps accounts for how succinct the scene is – and it’s off to Harlem for 007 to probe the dealings of a local Mr Big (named, uh, Mr Big) and try to determine the connection with San Monique and Kanaga. Let me mention again that the film was made in 1973. Albert Broccoli was nothing if not a canny popularist and it hadn’t escaped his attention that blaxploitation movies were cleaning up with mainstream audiences. Hence the first third, where Bond gets into it with pimps and pushers against a backdrop of urban decay. ‘Live and Let Die’ gives us some of the least glamorous moments in 007’s entire career. In fact, you’d probably have to fast-forward to Bond’s capture and incarceration at the start of ‘Die Another Day’ to get any grungier. Ladies and gentlemen: Bondsploitation.

When, however, the scene shifts to the Caribbean and then to Louisiana, a more typically Bondian sense of scale comes to the fore, with gliders, light aircraft, speedboats and a wonderfully out-of-place London Routemaster bus being pressganged into the service of high speed chases and wanton destruction. “What are you, boy,” hick sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) demands after Bond has wreaked havoc the length and breadth of his parish, “some kinda one-man doomsday machine?” There’s a contingent of Bond fans who don’t like Sheriff Pepper (and utterly despair of his reappearance in the next movie), seeing the character as more at home in something like ‘The Cannonball Run’ than a Bond movie. Personally, I like the way his red-faced sweaty bluster, drawling accent and tendency to spit tobacco juice like a gunslinger in a western movie provide a nicely vulgar foil to Bond’s implacable Britishness. It also gives us a stereotypical dumbass white character, which – while not exactly expiating the incipient racism elsewhere – at least begins to redress the balance.

So: we have Roger Moore acquitting himself well, Yaphet Kotto giving us one of the great Bond villains (he manages to be suave, infectiously enthusiastic in his villainy, and completely ruthless – often all at the same time), and some very well staged action scenes. We also have a sympathetic and likeable Bond girl in the enigmatic but vulnerable Solitaire (Jane Seymour), not to mention top-notch supporting villains in Tee Hee (Julius Harris) and the batshit crazy Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder). The voodoo aspects of the plot, although revealed as (at least partially) a knowing exploitation by Kanaga and co. of local superstitions, add something different to the formula.

On the minus side, we’re deprived of Q (although the resultant low gadget count paradoxically works in the film’s favour); Paul McCartney’s theme song – with its excruciatingly ungrammatical reference to “this ever-changing world in which we live in” – is fucking horrible; and – as divisive as Sheriff Pepper – Bond’s escape from a crocodile farm. If by some chance you’ve never seen ‘Live and Let Die’ (and I do know several people who’ve never seen a Bond movie outside of the Connery entries) I won’t spoil the silliness for you: just think “jumping the shark” but with crocodiles.

While it’s by no means as egregious a moment as some of the later instalments would trade in, it nevertheless points to what the Moore Bonds would become. And it wouldn’t take them long to dig towards that nadir. The rot started setting in on the very next film.


Samuel Wilson said...

About the song: Somehow my young mind auto-corrected it so I always heard: "this ever-changing world in which we're livin'" Not great, either, but I liked the song better than the film, though the film had its moments -- pretty much the ones you mention.

Neil Fulwood said...

Guns 'N Roses in their version have the good grace to strangulate the delivery of the line so you can actually parse it "in which we're livin'." Although saying that a Guns 'N Roses cover is better on a point of grammar leads me into a really depressing area of semantics.