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Non-Review Review: Live and Let Die

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

Who’s the black private dick honky secret agent who’s a sex machine to all the chicks? Bond, James Bond.

It’s blaxploitation, but with a British accent.

Strange bedfellows…

Time has not been kind to Live and Let Die. Although considerably less camp than Diamonds Are Forever (as if that was particularly difficult), Roger Moore’s first outing just screams “seventies!” in a way that the other films of the era don’t. It sees the suave British secret agent moving away from foiling international terrorist organisations with plans for world domination, instead focusing on heroin-smuggling operations out of the Caribbean. And it’s just as politically incorrect as the concept might lead you to believe.

“Get me a make on a white pimpmobile!” Felix declares at one point early in the film, setting the tone for what is to come. “You got a honky on your tail,” one African American reports down a radio to his comrades in arms. “Names is for tombstones, baby,” a crimelord advises Bond at one point, before instructing his lackeys, “Y’all take this honky out and waste him, now.” Is it wrong that I spent the entire movie waiting for Pam Grier to show up? In fairness, it’s almost comical to witness how out of his element this new James Bond is. “‘Waste him’?” he asks the criminal’s fortune-teller, “Is that a good thing?” I’m surprised that he doesn’t ask what the word ‘honky’ means.

Moore, Moore, Moore…

However, the movie displays all manner of troubling racial attitudes. The most obvious worrying aspect of the production is that it seems that every black person in Harlem, the Caribbean or New Orleans is involved somehow in the big bad’s evil plans. In fact, during a boat chase near the climax of the film, we’re shown that there are literally dozens of goons just sitting around on the rivers of Louisiana, waiting to be instructed to hunt down and kill errant British agents. If Bond randomly gets into a taxi, the black driver is a double agent. If Bond finds a CIA colleague with knowledge of local traditions, she’s a double agent.

Sure, there are literally two good black guys in the entire film – CIA agent Strutter and Quarrell, the son of the character from Dr. No – but that just draws attention to the fact that every other black person in the cast is trying to kill Bond. Nobody involved in Mr. Big’s drugs cartel appears to be white, save his pretty virgin fortune-teller, which brings in some unfortunate implications of its own.

The voodoo that he do…

There’s something decidedly politically incorrect about Bond having to save a pretty young virgin from a bunch of aggressive black men. It’s particularly troubling when Doctor Kananga, who treats her as a kept woman, makes it clear that he plans to rape her once he no longer needs her to divine the future. “If and when the time comes I decide you are to lose it,” he remarks of her gift, which depends on her virginity, “I myself will take it away.” There’s something more than slightly troubling about that.

On the other hand, Bond’s treatment of Solitaire is hardly that much better. I honestly believe there’s a very strong case to be made that Bond tricked the woman’s consent. “You do believe… I mean, really believe in the cards?” he asks, as he plays with her deck of tarot cards. She admits that she does, and he asks her to divine their future. She draws “The Lovers” and decides to go to bed with him. Of course, every card in the deck Bond offered her was The Lovers. “The deck was slightly stacked in my favour,” he concedes. However, when she starts to show regret the morning after, Bond justifies what happened by stating, “there has to be a first time for everyone.” I think it’s safe to say that this ranks, along with blackmailing the nurse in Thunderball, as undoubtedly one of the character’s sleazier conquests. Indeed, during the finale fight scene between Bond and a renegade henchman, she’s locked in the wall with the bed and Bond actually seems to forget about her for a moment (before she starts screaming and banging again).

Bond’s really flying in that boat…

And then there’s the movie’s portrayal of voodoo. I am not an expert in the religion, but I know enough to be able to say that Baron Samedi is not a deity as he is presented in the film (though Geoffrey Holder was a wonderfully creepy laugh). I’m also a little taken aback by the way that every African American in the cast (including a presumably well-educated CIA agent) is freaked out by the voodoo lore – it reminds me of the way that Dr. No present the residents of the Caribbean as being unable to distinguish a tank from a dragon. And I’m not sure that referring to the region as “voodoo land” is the most politically correct description.

That said, there’s actually a fair amount to enjoy here. Despite the presence of the voodoo aspects of the plot – and the accuracy of the fortune-telling – this is actually a fairly grounded film, perhaps acknowledging that the last Sean Connery film came off the rails a bit. It’s fascinating to see Bond tackle organised crime (even if it’s somewhat awkwardly handled) and the villain’s plot is actually fairly reasonable. Of course, “fairly reasonable” by the standards of this film series means that the bad guy doesn’t build an orbital superweapon made of diamonds or some such – but the plan here (to distribute heroin free of charge to drive rival gangs out of business and create countless more addicts) is refreshingly straightforward.

Will he escape those Bonds?

On the other hand, we can see the excesses of the Roger Moore era slowly and deliberately slipping into view. Here we see Bond hang-gliding with a cigar, and changing into only slightly different casual wear when landing. Let’s ignore the horribly unfunny “flight school” sequence. At one point, Bond escapes death by leaping across the backs of crocodiles, as if he’s playing Donkey Kong Country. This says nothing of the awkward introduction of Sheriff Pepper. By no means as irritating as he’d become in The Man With The Golden Gun, he’s still maddeningly offensive – who thought it was a good idea for the character to refer to an African American as “boy” repeatedly, regardless of how often he uses the term on other characters? Here some great stunt sequences (including a speed boat chase) are ruined by awkward and inappropriate and unfunny humour.

On the other hand, Yaphet Kotto is great as the villain of the piece. He’s clearly having a bit of a laugh. As an actor who never got enough credit (which seems to be a recurring trend when it comes to actors playing Bond baddies), it’s nice to see him given the opportunity to have a bit of fun. Particularly in the final sequences, where he seems delighted that he was allowed to have a top-secret underground lair – which reminds me a lot of Blofeld’s quarters in You Only Live Twice. It even has a monorail.

He must think he’s a big shot…

Still, the energy and enthusiasm only barely mask the fact that this is a ridiculous cliché. Of course in earlier films there are tonnes of examples of villains not killing Bond when offered the chance, or constructed ridiculous secret lairs, or put Bond in elaborate deathtraps (“there must be a simpler way of drowning someone,” Bond remarks). However, this is the first time that it felt like these things were being done strictly to adhere to a formula. There’s no reason for Mr. Big to have a top-secret underground cave-system headquarters, but other Bond villains do, so why not? There’s no obligation on him to keep a shark tank in that headquarters, but there has to be a deathtrap, right? In fact, if I’m not mistaken, it was this movie which inspired the “unnecessarily slow dipping mechanism” from Austin Powers.

However, the movie’s special effects haven’t dated well. The chase sequences are impressive, relying on practical effects – and there’s a wonderful shot of Baron Samedi after Bond shoots his head off which still looks great – but some of the other effects look quite corny. For example, Tee Hee can frequently be seen bending his wrist in his sleeve, even though his entire arm is mechanical (and his mechanical arm is noticeably longer). In another shot, as Bond throws a henchman through the window, you can clearly see the director reflected in the glass.

He never phones it in…

And then there’s the sequence where Bond disposes of a bad guy by inflating him and blowing him up. If you were to inflate a human body like a balloon to the point that it burst, I imagine that it would make quite a mess. Here, it simply explodes like a balloon. I know that the necessary gore would push the age rating up, but it just proves how bad an idea it was to have Bond defeat the bad guy in that manner – especially since he’s in a shark tank. I’m sure the writer or director could have come up with some other form of death.

Interestingly enough, this is the only Bond movie between From Russia With Love and The World Is Not Enough that doesn’t feature Q. Q as a character is often subject to the unfair criticism that he makes the movies too ridiculous. I think that this movie refutes that allegation quite well. Despite the fact that Bond’s only gadget is a low-key magnetic watch, the film does an excellent job making a mockery of itself, straying into the realm of whimsy. Although it isn’t as over-the-top as the movies either side of it, it does demonstrate that it isn’t Q’s presence that grounds the movies or makes them ridiculous – they do that on their own.

Time for Bond to make a cutting remark…

You’ll notice that I’ve made it through the bulk of the review without discussing Roger Moore too much. This is the actor’s first big screen appearance of Bond (although he did play him on the BBC in a series of inserts, for those trivia hounds out there), however the film doesn’t make a big deal of it. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Living Daylights and GoldenEye all made a big deal of a pre-credits reveal of the new actor in the role, but here the actor doesn’t appear until after the titles have gone by.

There’s a sense of anti-climax about the reveal. He’s just in bed with a beautiful woman. M pops by to tell us he recently did something spectacular, but we aren’t shown it, so I don’t care. Instead, this is a version of James Bond who can’t work a bloody coffee machine – never mind doing anything awesome. In a moment later on, which pretty much defines Roger Moore’s iteration of the character, Bond draws a card from the tarot deck. “You have found yourself,” Solitaire remarks as Bond flips over a card labelled “The Fool”. That pretty much says it all, I think.

What’s on the cards?

Live And Let Die isn’t a bad Bond film. It’s a lot better than most of the ones that surround it. It’s decently made, and not too silly (although still quite silly). Sadly, it is also filled with all manner of unfortunate connotations. Yaphet Kotto and Jane Seymour make for one of the better supporting casts of the series, and the stunt work is impressive (as, to be honest, is Moore – the humour hasn’t yet run rampant), but it’s just undermined by so many aspects of production.

We have complete reviews of all of the Roger Moore films available, if you are interested:

The following bloggers have written reviews of this film as part of James Bond January:

4 Responses

  1. I love how you just completely avoided the whole Rodger Moore argument!

    Really enjoyed the action scenes here. Although often childish and ridiculous I thought they were handled well, and Moore have it his all (The fights with Tee Hee and Kananga etc) Love it or hate it, I think this film sticks out more than most.

    • I’ll probably come back to Moore. I like Moore, but I don’t buy his Bond. He’s the most inconsistent portrayal, but also perhaps the shallowest as well.

  2. He can’t work his coffee machine ?

    Here I refer you to the opening credits of the Bond series one initial rival – The Ipcress File

  3. Arguably has the best boat chase sequence in cinema history.

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