Saturday, 28 January 2012

Live And Let Die

Whilst DAF set off in a new direction, it packed a lot of the old baggage. This much becomes clear on watching Live And Let Die, which shakes things up further still. There's an iconoclastic mood about the way it explores new areas (blaxploitation movies and urban environments) and seems to enjoy cutting ties to previous films (no Q, no briefing in M's office, no dinner jacket, no martini). Even so, it works surprisingly hard to hark back to DRNO, throwing in casual references to the original Bond film with seemingly no anxiety that, eleven years later, they might not be understood. But in the main, yes, the sense is of a new broom.

At a time when spy films were old hat it must have seemed a challenge to keep Bond relevant. They certainly are trying hard here although it all seems a little desperate, and never more so than when Bond sneaks into the Harlem underworld. Moore, in suit and tie, is hopelessly out of place in a room full of pimps and gangsters. 

I've thrown together a quick visualisation of how 007 comes across in this scene (NB normally Bond should sit rather closer to half-way along on this continuum):

Bond is not only white but utterly not 'with it': an instrument of the British establishment, a public school boy policeman, working hand-in-hand with Nixon's CIA. Not cool at all. It's an unfortunate juxtaposition and one that hardly serves to make Bond anything other than a reactionary throwback.

Of course this wasn't the intention but, having decided to adapt Fleming's novel, no other outcome was really ever likely. But if we consider the book as a starting point (written in the early-Fifties and not the most politically correct thing ever-written) then the film becomes rather more acceptable. 

Fleming, I think, is straining to be even-handed but he is a product of his own times and of the Empire. This extract, from the 1957 edition, is typically privileged high-handedness.

'I don't think I've ever heard of a great negro criminal before,' said Bond, 'Chinamen, of course, the men behind the opium trade. There've been some big-time Japs, mostly in pearls and drugs. Plenty of negroes mixed up in diamonds and gold in Africa, but always in a small way. They don't seem to take to big business. Pretty law-abiding chaps I should have thought except when they've drunk too much.'

'Our man's a bit of an exception,' said M. 'He's not pure negro. Born in Haiti. Good does of French blood. Trained in Moscow, too, as you'll see from the file. And the negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions - scientists, doctors, writers. It's about time they turned out a great criminal. After all, there are 250,000,000 of them in the world. Nearly a third of the white population. They've got plenty of brains and ability and guts. And now Moscow's taught them one of them the technique.'

Murky waters indeed. Then there's this little gem. Having been shown around Harlem by Felix Leiter, Bond finds an occult shop selling Voodoo trinkets. 

Bond reflected it was no wonder that [Mr Big] found Voodooism such a powerful weapon on minds that still recoiled at a white chicken's feather or crossed sticks in the road - right in the middle of the shining capital city of the Western World. 

'I'm glad we came up here,' said Bond. 'I'm beginning to get the hang of Mr. Big. One just doesn't catch the smell of all this in a country like England. We're a superstitious lot there of course - particularly the Celts - but here one can almost hear the drums.'

It's all horribly patronising and offensive, but note how Fleming includes a swipe at the Welsh here and how Mr Big's gift for evil is due to his (gasp!) French ancestry. The intent surely is to deflect accusations of racism against blacks by making it clear that the Englishman's problem is with all foreigners and is nothing to do with skin colour. In any case it makes for grim reading today and I'm sure it did in 1972 as well. 

Faced with having to adapt this subject matter, the popularity of blaxploitation movies like Shaft (1971) must have seemed to offer the producers an opportunity. If nothing else they proved that there was an existing film language with which black criminals could be depicted. All they would need to do was insert Bond into a version of this world. Even better, it was modish, urban and cool - all things Bond desperately needed to be.
The major saving grace is that the movie Bond doesn't have the internal monologue of his literary counterpart. When he enters a room, we never see it through his eyes and we never hear his observations or judgements like we do in the books. We can only imprint our own opinions into his mind and therefore if the movie Bond is racist it's probably only because an audience member has decided he is. 

Despite all this there is still something a little unsettling about Bond and Solitaire (and Leiter) being the only white characters in the story - it's a bit like Abduction from the Seraglio, with Bond marching into Kananga's palace to rescue the white woman kept in thrall by the black man. And there's the added problem that all the black characters are either evil inner-city gangsters or savage superstitious islanders. Well, not all, no. But of the remainder, they are either in on the conspiracy (like the waiters) or they're Rosie and Cutter, and there we're into a whole other problem. 

Rosie and Cutter are both agents working for Leiter. We're originally led to suspect Cutter as being 'one of them' until he dramatically reveals himself to be a goodie. He's a no-nonsense, hard-talking bad-ass operative, albeit conservatively dressed - a sort of Shaft-lite - and he even gets to rescue Bond in Harlem. Rosie is sent by Felix to help Bond in the Caribbean and within two minutes she's shown to be insecure and hapless, superstitious and hysterical. She can't work the safety catch on her gun, mistakes Bond's ally, Quarrell Jr, for an assassin and then turns out to be a traitor herself. In short, she is rubbish. For once in LALD, race has nothing to do with it - Rosie's problem is that she's a woman. 

We've seen glimpses of this before (Tiffany replacing the already-swapped cassette in DAF), but with Rosie, here, and especially with Mary Goodnight in TMWTGG, this notion goes into overdrive. No matter how much race-relations have improved since Fleming wrote his novels, things aren't getting any easier for women and this depiction of the uselessness of female agents is seemingly inherited from the first book, Casino Royale, (1953).

Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them.

Actually, there's no hint there that the woman might be incapable of her doing her job, just that she would be an insufferable hindrance to Bond doing his. So really, the portrayal of Rosie and Goodnight, twenty years later, is a step backwards...

Anyway, that's enough liberal hand-wringing for now. If you can put such thoughts from your mind (as one is invited to do) then this is a decent middle-ranking Bond film. It suffers from a more limited budget compared with some earlier films, and, as I've mentioned, Moore is a little too uptight throughout - but there's just enough excitement and humour around to make this watchable. 

The excitement is nearly all delivered in one long sequence - a speed boat chase through the Louisiana bayous that starts with an incredible stunt (see Best Bond Moments below) - but the humour is trickled throughout, starting with an early scene where M visits Bond's flat. Instead of the traditional briefing we get a full-on farce, complete with a woman in her underwear hiding in a wardrobe and a disapproving elderly relative (M). Bond later deadpans his way through Harlem and San Monique before accidentally giving an elderly lady a crash-course flying lesson, smashing up an airfield as he slowly taxies about. When Sheriff J. W. Pepper (o' thuh Looweezeeahnnah State Pohlice) calls him a doomsday machine it makes Bond sound like an international Frank Spencer. No surprise that the tarot card that alerts Solitaire to Bond's imminent arrival is The Fool

Moore doesn't shine on his d├ębut. He's wound too tight here, not yet relaxed enough to find the twinkle Connery was able to conjure up in DAF. He'll get there, but for now he cuts an unfamiliar and slightly distant Bond with his very short hair, foot-long cigars and three-quarter length overcoat.

An incredibly young Jane Seymour (just 20, fact-fans) does well with what could have been an awful part, saving Solitaire from being another of those dull, demure damsels from the early Connery films. There's a tangible edge to her anxiety, having been deceitfully deflowered by Bond, that she has lost her supernatural powers her character is a lot more interesting as a result. Yaphet Kotto provides the villainous Kananga with a decent mix of sophisication, egotism and (unknown in Bond baddies to date) real anger. Unfortunately he's undermined by his rather dull scheme - no matter how grand the scale of his operations, he's still just a drug pusher.

If this all leaves the audience a little distanced from the drama then George Martin's score more than closes the gap. We haven't had to cope without John Barry before but Martin delivers a thumping, blaring, funked-up soundtrack that forces real excitement into some potentially underwhelming moments (Rosie gibbering at a scarecrow, for example.) 

But perhaps the real star here is Geoffrey Holder playing Baron Samedi, a mysterious voodoo figure who lurks around in the background throughout the film, usually laughing at the main characters. It's never explained who he is or how he fits into Kananga's operation (although it's hinted that he is pretending to be the real Samedi in order to scare locals away from the poppy fields, Scooby-Doo style) but he is killed by Bond, pushed into a coffin full of snakes. And then, in the last shot of the movie, he reappears sat on the front of a passenger train laughing his head off straight through the fourth wall at us. Apparently this supernatural ending was added so Baron Samedi could be brought back if desired - well, why not? I'd rather watch Bond fight a lascivious undead voodoo spirit than sit through Die Another Day.

* * *

Pre-Credits Sequence: Here's a strange thing - a PCS that doesn't involve Bond at all and only serves to kick-start the plot with the tropical murders of British agents. In other words, it's DRNO again. 

Theme: Paul McCartney's theme is probably the most famous after Goldfinger. It's a great song and, at this point, it's a radical departure: a fast rock track with a hint of reggae and some powerful orchestration courtesy of George Martin. The visuals are.. getting boring now. As a concession to the particular setting/subject of the film we have black women and flaming skulls, but there's nothing clever or cheeky about it and the best bit is when a lowly fibre optic lamp appears. Poor Maurice seems to have rather fallen into a rut.   

Deaths: 13 and this is the lowest since DRNO. I'm going to skate over the thorny question of whether Baron Samedi's 'death' counts.   

Memorable Deaths: Kananga swallows a compressed gas bullet and explodes but surely the most memorable death is the one that doesn't happen (see above).    

Licence to Kill: First time out Moore dispatches 7. Seeing as there are only 13 deaths in the movie that's not an inconsiderable tally. 

Exploding Helicopters: Nope, not one.

Shags: 3. Still 007's PB. 

Crimes Against Women: Moore's Bond doesn't have an auspicious start, tricking Solitaire into bed with his stacked deck. Poor Solitaire hasn't much of a life so far, stuck in a abusive relationship with Kananga. 

Casual Racism: I think it's probably fair to say that the tobacco chewin', dagnabbitin', J. W. Peppah is as much of a stereotype as any of the black characters. He's also the most racist, but just you wait until next time.

Out of Time: The blaxploitation, the voodoo, the clothes, the hair, Bond's ghastly kitchen - it could only be more 1973 if there were Giant Maggots in it.

Fashion Disasters: Bond has become rather foppish, sporting three different dressing gowns/house coats throughout the film (the first of which is monogramed) and picking ties from a tailor's proffered selection. That he obviously cares so much about his appearance makes it all the more odd when he turns up in a denim shirt and white vest. 

Eh?: Bond gets sent a tarot card, the Queen of something or other, to tip him off that Rosie is a wrong'un. Having googled it, Bond learns that, when upside down, the card means a deceitful woman. But how does he know it's supposed to be upside down if it was posted to him? And who sent it anyway? Solitaire? >> Why, when Bond hang-glides into Kananga's estate does he turn his jacket inside out to make it white? Why can't he just wear a dark suit? >> Why do the tarot cards have '007' printed all over the backs of them? (I know why really, but how can it be justified within the logic of the film?) >> Lover's Lesson #4 is, apparently, 'Follow the scarecrows.'

Worst Line: Oh, there's nothing absolutely terrible. Moneypenny gets a 'ciao' (told you this was full of DRNO references) but it's an ironic one so fair enough. 

Best Line: "What ARE you? Some sort a DOOMSDAY MACHINE, boy?" Sheriff J. W. Pepper's hysteria is all the more enjoyable when served along side Moore's imperturbable sang-froid. And there's a nice snarky exchange between Bond and just-shagged turncoat Rosie when 007 threatens her with his gun:
ROSIE:  You wouldn't. Not after what we've just done.
BOND:  I certainly wouldn't have killed you before. 

Worst Bond Moment: Bond evokes nothing but Gareth Hunt with his coffee-making efforts. And the cigar does nothing for him.

Best Bond Moment: No contest here. It's an incredible stunt and one of the best ever Bond moments. Trapped on an island in the middle of a lake full of crocodiles, Bond runs to safety across the backs of the beasts. It's set up beautifully by suggesting that 007 need only use his much-hyped magnetic wristwatch to escape. But when this gadget fails, Bond has to come up with something spontaneous and amazing instead. And it's all the more brilliant because of how the stunt came about. It wasn't even in the script. During filming in Jamaica the crew found the crocodile farm and wanted to use it as a location. The owner suggested the stunt and offered to do it himself. It took him five attempts as this jaw-dropping (and jaw-snapping) clip shows, look: 

Overall: After all those SPECTRE stories, the grand threat-escalation of the Sixties and all the Lazenby/Connery hoo-ha, LALD is Bond back to normal, business as usual. No surprise then that it's not particularly mind-blowing. But it's a solid, middling Bond film, the sort that keeps the franchise ticking along until someone can work out how to do something spectacular with it again. Job done.

James Bond Will Return: pretty much straight away! In The Man With The Golden Gun.

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