Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Live and Let Die - Dir. Guy Hamilton (The Bond Project #8)

Live and Let Die (1973)
Dir: Guy Hamilton

Blaxploitation Bond
Jay Maronde
As 1973’s Live and Let Die opens we see British agents being murdered all over the world: one in New York right in the middle of the UN, one in New Orleans while watching a funeral parade, and one in the middle of a crazy voodoo ceremony on the Caribbean island of San Monique (really Jamaica, but renamed to avoid repetition of Dr. NO). After that we cut to a fantastic set of titles accompanied by the first real rock song in the James Bond franchise. “Live and Let Die” (the song) was written by Paul and Linda McCartney and performed by Wings. It is a great song, it’s featured prominently throughout the film, and it was the first Bond song to win major success on the Billboard charts, reaching #2 for several weeks. I would like to note that I hate Sir Paul, and extra-hate Wings, so for me to note the quality of this song--it’s definitely very good. It’s also worth noting that the producers spent so much money on McCartney that the only person who would take the gig to score the film was Sir George Martin, so this whole film certainly has a Beatles kinda feel to it, which is amusing considering that only a few films ago, during Goldfinger (also directed by Guy Hamilton), James Bond made a joke about how he can’t listen to The Beatles without earmuffs. Anyways, about three quarters of the way through this great song, one starts to realize that we have watched almost 20 minutes of film and we haven’t seen the main character yet. There’s a very very good reason for that
Live and Let Die is the first film to star Roger Moore as James Bond. It was big deal to have Roger Moore, as he was an incredibly successful film star, and a skilled, well-practiced actor. In fact Moore was the oldest Bond, being 45 when he first debuted. Now, let me also get this out of the way right now: Roger Moore is definitely not my favorite Bond. He’s too old. His only qualification as Bond is his SauvĂ©. Watching this and the other Moore films, the viewer clearly gets the gist that Bond’s best asset is his mojo, which is always impressive, and clearly critical to the role. But Moore at no point seems like the type of guy who would fist fight it out (at the very least you wouldn’t want him on your side in a fist fight, even though you would love to have him as your wingman at the bar).
The producers were very conscience of this new Bond issue. They again tried to get Sean Connery. I personally find it shocking that Connery refused, considering they offered him over 5.5 million dollars* (which would be over $100 million in today’s money), but he did refuse and again the producers were in the pickle of having to not only find a new Bond, but again transition the franchise. Many actors were considered, and among them again were Adam West and Burt Reynolds, but also Paul Newman and Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood. Eventually the decision to have a British Bond was made and Moore was cast. Sean Connery was quoted in the press as having approved the new casting and Moore announced that he would be playing his own type of Bond. Both of these things greatly helped to assuage the raucous British Press. Moore’s new Bond would drink bourbon and smoke cigars, and he would be introduced after the title sequence by perennial favorites Moneypenny and M. Q is noticeably absent in this film for the only time before the death of Desmond Llewelyn, which resulted in a calamitous uproar by fans. This led to a constant reprisal of the role by Llewelyn, which gave him the record for appearing in more films in the franchise than any other actor.
 Instead of Q giving Bond his new toys, M and Moneypenny make the delivery in an early morning visit to Bond’s home. This is the second and final time we ever see inside of Bond’s home, and as M arrives, Bond is in bed with easily one of the most beautiful Bond girls ever: the lovely Italian  Agent Caruso, radiantly played by the darling, young, shapely, doe-eyed Madeline Smith.  Miss Smith is famous for those gorgeous eyes and curves--and a longtime favorite from her appearances in horror movies around the world--but she steals the film as well as anyone could with a three-minute role.  After Moneypenny helps conceal the scantily-clad Italian agent (which made Smith uncomfortable--she noted that Moore’s overly jealous wife was always on set and “making comments”), Bond is dispatched to NYC and the Blaxploitation begins.
While New York doesn’t feature all that prominently in this film, it is definitely “James Bond does NYC.” It’s here we meet the Prime Minister of San Monique, Dr Kanaga (played famously by none other than Yophet Kotto fresh off his success from Across 110th Street) and his lovely virgin fortune-telling personal secretary Solitaire (acted--plus dubbed) by a very young and nubile Jane Seymour. This was Seymour’s first big role and the opening credits give her an “introducing” line. Again personally I think Madeline Smith is a way better Bond girl, even though Seymour was voted #10 on several lists of “10 Best Bond Girls.” In any case Bond meets up with his old pal Felix Leiter (played jovially by David Hedison, who is actually the only actor ever before Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace’s Jeffrey Wright to appear twice playing the role of Felix Leiter), but not before having a pretty sweet car scene on the FDR expressway, and then having an extensive old-time grimy Harlem adventure where he meets the films other villain, a highly pimped out crime boss named Mr. Big. All these scenes were really filmed in NYC and the mood of 1970’s NYC really shines through. Apparently while the crew was shooting in Harlem, they had to pay “protection” to a local street gang, and when the cash ran out they were “encouraged” to leave. It’s here in NYC that the Blaxploitation is most prominent, many social commentators have complained that this is in bad taste. But from a historical perspective I feel that it enriches the entire Bond franchise because it shows how adaptable the stories really are. Shortly after the Harlem scene Bond jets off to San Monique.
It’s in San Monique where we meet the franchise’s first African-American Bond Girl that Bond fornicates with, the lithe Rosie Carver (delightfully cast with Gloria Hendry, another classic Blaxploitation star) and the film’s first major allusion to the other films in the franchise with Quarrel Jr. (Quarrel Sr was Bond’s boat operator in Dr. No) After Carver turns out to be a double agent and has to die,  Bond seduces and couples with the beautiful Solitaire (causing her to lose her fortune-telling powers) by using a stacked deck of tarot cards where every card is “The Lovers” (there was also a “Bond Brand Tarot Deck” and instruction book released as part of the film’s merchandising). The two escape, and explore Kanaga’s personal “voodoo land” where he discovers what this film is all about: dope (like most almost all Blaxploitation films). There’s a helicopter chase and Bond escapes to New Orleans. In New Orleans we discover that Mr. Big and Dr. Kanaga are the same person, and that the plan is to give away two tons of heroin, grown in San Monique, for the dual purpose of driving the Mafia out of business and doubling the number of American junkies. Bond escapes a crazy alligator farm where the dope is being processed, and leads the villains on a high speed boat chase throughout the outskirts of New Orleans which happens to include a Guinness World Record setting boat jump over and into a sheriff’s car (the boat chase was made possible by a corporate sponsorship/ product placement deal between EON productions and Glastron Boats, who supplied 26 boats for the film, 17 of which were completely destroyed).
The movie speeds to an incredible conclusion as Bond travels back to San Monique, shuts down the whole operation, kills the villain (which happens to be “Film Bond’s” first political assassination), and saves Solitaire. As the movie closes Bond and Solitaire are traveling via train and in a final allusion to From Russia with Love, Bond is forced to vanquish another henchman by throwing him from a moving train window.
This movie is classic and even smooth old Roger Moore can’t bring down the fantastic sets, locations, effects, music, castings, and direction supplied by Guy Hamilton’s team. The fact that this was Hamilton’s 3rd Bond film really seems to show, as while the film is certainly no cinematic masterwork like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it certainly is a very fun to watch--an entry which has its ups-and-downs and sticks to the Bond “formula” well, all the while dealing with integrating yet another actor into the role.
*I am not sure whether this figure is meant to be pounds or dollars -JK

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