Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bond-arama: No. 008 Live And Let Die (1973)

This was one of the hardest to rank. There is much to love here. The film has a really cool blaxsploitation feel to it and it’s pure fun, suckas. The funeral scene is iconic. Jane Seymour is gorgeous. The theme song and title are two of the best. But then there are the problems. The problems are what keep this one at No. 008 of 0023.

Plot Quality: Our story opens with the assassination of three British agents. One is at the UN, one is in New Orleans and one gets killed in a voodoo ceremony in the Caribbean island of San Monique. Bond is called in to investigate. He lands in New York only to have his driver killed in an attempt to kill Bond and make it look like an automobile accident. Bond pursues a lead on the killer into Harlem, where he stands out: “You can’t miss him! It’s like following a cue ball.”
Bond finds himself captured by Mr. Big, the most powerful black gangster in the country. Bond escapes and in the process learns that there is a connection between Mr. Big and Dr. Kananga, Prime Minster of San Monique. Bond travels to San Monique to investigate. There he meets CIA agent Rosie Carver, who is basically incompetent. She’s also working for Kananga and she leads Bond into a trap, but he escapes. Bond then stumbles upon Solitaire (Jane Seymour). She’s Kananga’s psychic and Bond tricks her into sleeping with him. They then escape from Kananga to New Orleans, where Bond wants to check out a restaurant owned by Mr. Big, the Fillet of Soul, from which Mr. Big is distributing heroin.
Bond is met immediately by Mr. Big’s thugs, but he escapes. Then he’s recaptured at the restaurant, learns that Kananga is Mr. Big, and is sent to be fed to crocodiles. Once again, he escapes and a classic boat chase through the Louisiana bayous takes place. Eventually, Bond escapes and then pursues Kananga back to San Monique, where he blows up the heroin fields, kills Kananga and his henchmen, and rescues Solitaire.

As plots go, there’s not a lot here. Instead, action gets substituted for plot as the film involves numerous chase scenes. The bus chase is decent and the plane chase is stupid, but the boat chase... the boat chase is spectacular. The plot is entirely believable however, and Kananga’s scheme is one of the better ones. The characters are all interesting and memorable too - this isn’t License to Kill where you can’t remember anybody except the main actors. Here you remember everyone, from incompetent Rosie to fat Whisper to the Voodoo Baron to the man with the hook for a hand to the little guy who kills at funerals. The dialog is fun too with lots of over-the-top slang. The images are iconic, like the powerboat flying through the air, the deck of cards that are all lovers, Bond jumping onto the backs of crocodiles, and the Olympia Brass Band doing the funerals. This film has a travelogue film too, even if it takes place in gritty areas.
Against this, however, you have a couple problems. Bond very much feels like a passenger in this film and he survives because of the nonsensical decisions of the bad guys, not because he’s a great spy. The ending comes a little to easily to Bond as well. Sheriff J.W. Pepper is an abomination as the fat, racist Southern-cop stereotype. I’ve seen him called the Jar Jar Binks of the series, and I can’t disagree with that.

But in the end, the positives far outweigh the negatives and have kept this as one of the more popular films. Indeed, it is the rare Bond-a-thon where this one doesn’t feature prominently. The film also made $851 million (in 2013 dollars) at the box office, which blows away all the later films up to Skyfall and puts it at No. 4 in the series (behind Thunderball, Goldfinger and Skyfall). So they did something right.
Bond Quality: This is Roger Moore’s first outing as Bond and boy is he stiff. As we’ve discussed before, Bond needs to project a suaveness, a cold-bloodedness, and a sense of humor. Moore doesn’t really achieve any of that in this film. For one thing, in keeping with the blaxsploitation theme, Bond is repeatedly presented as hopelessly square and out of his element... dumbass honkey. It’s hard to be suave when you pretend you don’t even understand obvious slang which the audience will know. He also comes across as a clothes horse, and a prissy one at that. Connery spoke about his tailor in passing, but you never watched him shop for suits. Sadly, we get to watch Roger pick out his favorite suits; it feels wrong. And there’s really only one moment where he’s cold-blooded (with Rosie) and he doesn’t even go through with that.

What he does have going for him is competence and that his confidence builds throughout the film. He looks the part too. And all told, there is a sense of potential. At this point at least, he seems like he will be an adequate replacement for Connery. Unfortunately, this may have been his peak as Bond.
The Bond Girl: Jane Seymour plays Solitaire, Kananga’s Tarot Card reading psychic, and she’s great. She’s not the most active of Bond girls, but she brings a strong sense of emotion to the film and solid chemistry with Moore. In particular, she helps make Kananga feel like someone to fear, rather than the clown he would appear to be without her cringing when he speaks, and she helps sell Moore as a lover, something that gets harder and harder to believe in Moore’s later films. She also helps sell the whole voodoo aspect of the film, and she becomes a much better prize for Bond than just stopping a drug dealer. In many ways, she is essential to the film, which is rare for Bond girls.

Villain Quality: The villain is Yaphet Kotto, who plays duel roles here. As the film opens, he’s Mr. Big, the biggest, baddest black criminal in the US. As the CIA explains, “You name the racket and they say he has a black concession.” We soon learn, however, that Mr. Big is really Prime Minster Kananga of San Monique in disguise.

Kananga’s plan is to give away two tons of heroin for free on the streets of America. His goal is to drive the Mafia out of business and to double the number of addicts in the US. Then he will monopolize the market and start charging. This is actually a brilliant plan as it’s very realistic as it would cost him nothing to do this and it would be effective, as evidenced by other companies who “dump” products to take over markets. It’s also quite threatening, given the mess this could make of the country and the power he would have over this army of addicts who were totally reliant on him. It was also topical, being little more than a year after Nixon gave his “War on Drugs” speech. All told, this is a scheme worthy of Bond’s attention; it’s not just Bond fighting a drug dealer.
Kotto does an excellent job too in the role of Kananga. He portrays an interesting mix of sane and crazy. On the one hand, his plan is very rational, but on the other hand, he seems to genuinely believe his own lies. He cynically uses voodoo to keep the San Monique locals from snooping around his poppy fields, but then believes it himself when it comes to Solitaire. He’s maniacal too, but thinks he’s just a businessman. Even his language changes significantly when he’s Mr. Big, all slang and jive, compared to when he’s the very erudite and educated Kananga. It’s like he has a split personality. And that give him a neat edge that many of the other villains lack. Compare his tightly-wound personae against the tired villains Moore would face in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker or flakes like Zorin in A View To A Kill. He feels much more maniacal and much more dangerous than those lame honkies.
There are problems with Kananga, but they aren’t with the character or his plan. The problems really come up with his henchmen. For example, he has either corrupted Rosie Carver or planted her in the CIA, but that reeks of being too coincidental and she seems too incompetent to be hired as an agent. His henchmen Whisper is enormously fat and can only whisper, but he isn’t someone you would hire to do the things he does. His main henchman Tee Hee has a hook for an arm, but the physics behind it are distractingly wrong, e.g. he can’t bend the barrel of a gun. Baron Samedi is cool and menacing and an excellent character, but ultimately proves to be pretty pathetic as he gets killed with just a single shove. Even more questionable, each of the characters in the organization, from the cabbie to the fat waiter, somehow appear wherever Bond goes. This feels phony. And with Samedi, Tee Hee, Rosie, Whisper and the cabbie all having ample opportunities to kill Bond in cold blood, but none even trying, the film has a high “Why didn’t he just ___?” quality to it.
This affects Kananga too as he is the first James Bond villain to truly engage in a Rube Goldberg approach to killing Bond. Each of the prior guys had reasons they did what they did, even if simply shooting him would have proved more effective. This time, Kananga does what he does because the script calls for it, and that ads an air of silliness to the films. In some ways, his insanity helps us swallow his Rube Goldberg attempts to kill Bond... but not quite enough.

All in all, this was a good film. The villain is lively, well-written, and has a great plan. The Bond girl is special. The film has a cool vibe. It is an iconic film with iconic images that even casual fans know, and it’s pure fun. It has also proven its staying power. So the film deserves a high ranking. But there are significant problems that make the film feel less than it is. Those keep the film from going any higher. So here it sits at No. 008 of 0023... can you dig it?


tryanmax said...

I agree, having recently slogged through the Moore films, that this was his best outing. I think there's an element of genius to making a new Bond's first outing also a fish-out-of-water story, as it somewhat obscures the stiffness of being new to the role. Of course, given what we now know of Moore, it's rather a wasted bit of genius.

The more I consider it, Jane Seymour is probably my favorite Bond girl, and you've captured exactly why here. (That said, I still give Plenty O'Toole undeservedly high marks.)

Backthrow said...

I'll have to watch LIVE AND LET DIE again, since it's been a few years, and Netflix is streaming it. From my recollections, though, there are a lot of minuses, and it's considerably further down on my own list of the Bond films, though the pre-credits funeral sequence is good, as is the theme song and titles, and a young Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman is cute, but I don't remember much about her, other than she read Tarot fortunes accurately while still a virgin (that mysticism angle was one thing I thought was pretty dopey in both the book and the movie... 007 and seemingly actual supernatural phenomena aren't a good mix, imho).

While I like the somewhat more realistic adventures, the whole thing seemed too downsized for a Bond film. The henchmen are more like colorful window dressing than actual threats or characters. Moore's 007 seems more like a stuffy tourist in his own film than the hero --he was far more suave and witty (and even a little dangerous) as The Saint, what happened here? There's a lot of "me too"-ism going on in the film, as well, like the blaxploitation angle, and even the boat chase, which they clearly borrowed (and exaggerated) after seeing the chase from PUPPET ON A CHAIN just a year or two before.

I mean, the LALD chase is fun, and everybody remembers it because it was bigger than the one above and in a Bond movie, but the best Bond films back then set the trends, rather than followed them. Kananga's scheme is better than Sanchez's, but I still think Bond is basically going after a rather penny-ante drug kingpin, who's wearing rather bad/unconvincing 'disguise' makeup in the first half of the film, and dies in the most ridiculously-executed death scene in the entire series, and perhaps in the history of film. He seems like a better character than he is, only because a good actor, Yaphet Kotto, is playing him with some energy (shades of Christopher Lee in the next film!). Sheriff Pepper is a stain on the series, a little less horrible than in TMWTGG, but not by much, and only because he's halfway indigenous to the location, though a dumb stereotype. Rosie Carver? I don't remember much about her, but what little I do, isn't very good. An incompetent character, woodenly played.

All in all, this is like a kiddie cartoon version of a James Bond movie to me, though with some bits that aren't exactly kid-friendly. Maybe a fresh viewing will change my opinion on a few of these points, but I doubt it, mostly because I always think that before I see it again.

shawn said...

Good job Andrew.

Anthony said...

Rosie Carver is the most hilariously incompetent Bond character ever, but I like Live and Let Die despite the lame way the big villian died because I have a soft spot for cartoonish villians like Odd Job, Jaws, Tee Hee and Baron Samedi.

Its worth noting that Baron Samedi doesn't die in the film, at the end he is shown sitting on the front of the train and laughing (after Bond has killed the entire drug organization).

I'm probably overthinking it, but I saw it as the god of death masquerading as a goon playing the god of death for a drug dealer who was planning on spreading a lot of death. When the drug organization ran across a very proficient killer, Samedi just kind of faked his own death and watched from the sidelines while eating popcorn.

Dave Olson said...

Well, here it is. The one I've been bitching about for at least the last 7 reviews. Going through this list, one can easily say that most of the Bond films aren't very good, so it can be tricky to separate wheat from chaff. This is a very chaff-y film that seems to have snuck into the wheatpile.

Bond: I'll actually cut Moore a tiny bit of slack here, since this is his first outing and the pressure was on to not get Lazenby'd. He was at a fork in the road where he could have become a tough, worthy heir to Sean Connery, but instead he became "Roger Moore as James Bond", with all that implies. And we could see it starting already.

Bond Girl: OK, this is also unfair, as I'm madly in love with Jane Seymour. It's such a shame that she isn't given more to do here except be deflowered by Bond and lose her Voodoo. Whatever else I'll say about this film, the way he cheat at cards is frickin' brilliant. Well played, sir! I would have done the same thing.

Plot We aren't talking about nuclear blackmail or germ warfare, we're talking about...drugs. Hmmph. Drug smuggling was the MacGuffin in both of the Dalton films, and you weren't impressed with his outings. Similarly, I can't get too worked up about people using heroin. It's interesting to note (to me, anyway) that just a year before, The Godfather showed the Mafia setting up their heroin monopoly with the directive to "keep it among the dark people, the coloreds. They're animals anyway!" I'd like to think that I'm a bit more open minded than that, as I hope that EVERYONE who uses heroin OD's on it, black or white. So I don't really care about Bond's mission, since the three MI6 operatives are largely forgotten about soon after they've been killed.

Villain: Not too bad as Bond villains go, and certainly a step up in personal menace after the last Blofeld. But again, I don't really care about Mr. Big's fiendish plot. I don't use heroin, I don't know anyone who does, so it wouldn't affect me the way Goldfinger, Blofeld, or even Stromberg would have. And his death is just silly, getting turned into a Macy's parade balloon like that. Yeesh. A sign of things to come for the Moore era, with one notable and as yet unreviewed exception.

Other Stuff: I don't like the way America is portrayed; according to this film we're either a decaying slum or a backwoods hicktown. I don't like that idiot sheriff, I'm not intimidated by the henchmen, and I don't care for the way the film pretends to be a harmless instance of "blaxploitation" but is just full-blown racist in too many places.

That said, the boat jump was pretty cool.

Anonymous said...

I actually enjoyed this film much more than I thought I would the first time I saw it. Cheesy and dated? Sure. And I'm not sure I'd rank it this high but it's certainly better than at least two of Moore's other movies.

And I think Baron Samedi lives: he shows up in the last shot of the film, which is IMHO one of the best final shots ever in a movie.

PikeBishop said...

#8? Not that high on my list although not far off. Would have Quantam of Solace and Spy Who Loved Me above it, maybe even Goldeneye.

Probably the first one I remember seeing when I was allowed to watch PG movies, edited for television, on the ABC Friday Night Movie.

I have a personal soft spot for this film. Hokey as this sounds, it's true. As I was maturing and my tastes in girls were becoming developed, I had some preferences that, shall we say, flew in the face of my conservative, blue collar ethnic background. Seeing Bond rolling in the grass with the delicious Gloria Hendry, allowed me to think that those issues weren't that big of a deal.

PDBronco said...

Great writeup! This is one I'd like to put higher... but just can't thanks to the flaws you bring up. With just a tweak here, a little rewrite there, this could be a far better entry. Then again, without Yaphet Kotto this would fall a number of spots. Kotto, Geoffrey Holder, and Seymour (my #2 Bond girl being Rigg) are the stand-outs here. Moore is just going along for the ride.

BTW, love the Jar Jar comparison.

Tennessee Jed said...

My problems with this film are, like my problems with most of the films, based on having read the books before seeing the films. I have commented on the problems that creates many times over the years. If Hogey Carmichael was Ian Fleming's mind's eye Bond (or Ian himself) then certainly Connery was mine, as he was for most people my age. Nothing much to do about that. Second, the book took place in the 50's so the whole Soul Train thing seems way out of place. Third, Solitaire was much darker of hair and complexion than the lovely Ms. Seymour. Fourth, you know what happened to Felix Leiter in "Licence To Kill." Well, that scene, which was chilling in the book, was taken directly from the novel "Live and Let Die." Instead, we get tip-toe through the alligator farm.

But, as Vito Corleone might say: "If something should happen to move this up in the rankings .... that I would not forget ..... and I would blame some of the people at this blog. But, aside from that, I will not be the first to break the peace we have made here today with this ranking." ;)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Thanks! I think that Seymour is rather unique in that regard, because without her, the characters really don't work. She's the reason we believe that Kananga is scary and Bond is sexy.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, The mysticism angle didn't work for me either. It seems like a needless cover for him and then for him to treat it so cynically, yet at the same time believe it, didn't work.

In terms of the henchmen, they were pretty standard for the majority of the Bond franchise, people like Jaws and Oddjob.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Shawn! :)

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, You are correct that the Baron does survive, as he's riding on the front of the train at the end. I always took that as just a nod to the whole voodoo theme as he's supposed to be the man who cannot die.

Rosie is really the only one I struggle with in this film. I can't imagine the CIA ever putting her into the field.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, any reaction to my fish-out-of-water observation?

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, I don't care for how America is portrayed either, and that seems to be a three picture thing at this point.

On Moore, I think he has real potential at this point but unfortunately, he takes the wrong path and never realizes his potential.

On heroin, what elevates the plot is that he's planning to hand it out free to cause an addiction epidemic. None of that was the case in the Dalton films. The one villain was just smuggling it and the other was using it to buy guns for people we were already giving guns. This story isn't really about the drugs in any event.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Yes. I think you are right that is a brilliant idea because it covers up all the jitters and difficulties the new guy will face. It becomes a great excuse for why the guy isn't as perfect in the role yet as the last guy, and gives him a chance to grow into the role.

That said, I do think they pushed it a bit too far in this film and made him seem a bit stupid.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, The Baron does live, because he shows up. But he is effectively removed from the plot when he's knocked into a casket of snakes and doesn't appear again until the credits role. I actually suspect his re-appearance is just meant as a nod to voodoo.

I enjoy this one too, probably more than it deserves as a film.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That is definitely an interesting moment in the series. It's a very memorable moment given the time when this was filmed.

AndrewPrice said...

PDBronco, You're welcome! :) I feel the same way. With a few tweaks, this could have gone a good deal higher. But even now, it owes its success to the solid acting of these supporting actors who bring this one alive -- Kotto and Seymour in particular bring this film us several notches!

The Jar Jar Binks comparison is just too fitting... in a bad way. :(

AndrewPrice said...

LOL! Thank you Don Jed! :)

Comparing books to films is always difficult, especially when the people doing the films have such little regard for the written material that they often end up stealing nothing more than the titles.

Glenn said...

As I mentioned on my comment for On Her Majesties Secret Service, OHMSS was my favorite Bond novel, and Live and Let Die was my second favorite. On that basis, I would probably reverse the order of the films as well.

Any complains about the setting should be taken up with Ian Fleming, as he wrote the book, of course. I liked the change in setting and plot from the previous books.

One thing I remember from re-watching all the films a couple of years ago was that on second viewing, Roger Moore wasn't as bad as I remembered him on first viewing. He's certainly no Connery or Craig and gets worse with each film since they get more cartoonish with each outing, but in this one he was not too bad.

As TJed mentioned, reading the book and then seeing the film has its difficulties, however, there was enough of a gap for me between reading and viewing that it wasn't as big a problem. However, as far as I can remember, the books were superior to the movies with the exception of Goldfinger, but a faithful recreation of the novel is never anything I expect in any film.

And of course, that silly sheriff and the incredibly bad death scene effect really brought the movie down. I'm amazed they left that exploding doll in the final cut, but what the heck, it certainly does date the film along with the whole style throughout.

Now that you're into the top ten, I guess it deserves to be there, but I would reverse order with OHMSS. I wonder how Live and Let Die would look today if it was redone with Daniel Craig?

AndrewPrice said...

Glenn, I think that it is always difficult once you have an image/story in your head from a book and then you see a film and it's nothing like the book..

I agree about Moore. I think he did a good job in this one and he showed real potential. He never really lived up to it, but it's obvious that he has it here.

I despise the sheriff and I can't believe they brought him back for the next film. Seriously, what where they thinking? I also agree about the death scene. You would think they would have seen the finished edits and said, "Uh, no. Let's reshoot this."

Interesting question about Craig. I'll have to think about that. :)

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