Live And Let Die (Guy Hamilton 1973) – BlogalongaBond #8
Third different 007 in as many months. Oh, this ever changing world in which we live in, makes you give in and cry.
Live And Let Die
(Guy Hamilton, US, 1972)
Don’t forget, there’s a third option between life and death – voodoo naptime. And the new 007 hasn’t properly woken up from his fever dream.
You’d think, after the joyfest that is Diamonds Are Forever had nailed a frivolous new approach to Bondage, that Live And Let Die would pick up the baton with cocksure swagger. But much of Roger Moore’s first outing as 007 is defined by its uncertain first steps into a new era.
On the one hand, there’s a commendable refusal to stick to the formula. There’s no big opening set-piece – just a surreal set of seemingly random murders that doesn’t even feature 007. Ken Adam and John Barry, the architects of Bond’s look and feel during the 1960s, are absent. The aspect ratio loses its Widescreen ambition. Blofeld has scarpered. Q’s on his hols and, in lieu of the usual briefing, M and Moneypenny catch 007 half-cocked in his dressing gown at home.
It ought to be a refreshign new start, yet what replaces the trademarks is…unusual. For a film about a spy, James Bond is being redefined by how little spying he can actually do. Kananga is already in MI6’s targets, but an embarrassed M is so desperate to get out of Bond’s bachelor pad, that we never learn exactly what Kananga has done to warrant suspicion in the first place. We have to take it on trust that he’s a bad’un, so it’s fortunate that Bond doesn’t need to go looking for proof because, within minutes of arriving in the States, somebody has tried to kill him. And the rest of the film more or less follows the same pattern. “Trouble” – as one henchman brilliantly calls it – is rife.
And with it the film establishes its own voodoo rhythm, dazed into sonambulance but jittery with weirdness. This is a fever dream of a movie, which ignores cause and effect, or logic, or sense. It’s probably no coincidence that Roger Moore’s Bond is lying in bed when we first meet him, because he strolls around with the dispassionate curiosity of a sleepwalker, faintly amused by the things he sees but perturbed by nothing. It’s a huge change in emphasis from Sean Connery (even the lounge-lizard variant debuted in Diamonds Are Forever) because Moore is playing the role for its romp value. Consider the difference in the various Bonds’ seduction technique – where Connery was a predator and Lazenby a romantic, Moore’s tactic is to play Bond as a sleaze, patronising Rosie Carver into bed and then tricking Solitaire by stacking the deck.
He can get away with it, of course, because this is a dream. No wonder the final shot is Baron Samedi laughing his head off, because frankly we’ve all been duped. Nothing is real. It can’t be. Tarot reading works. Two bad guys become one via a ridiculous rubber mask. Another can seemingly have his head blown, and then pretend he was a dummy all the time. A character in the film sings the bloody theme song. A Harlem cab driver can show up in New Orleans. The stream of consciousness hurls so many random elements – snakes, a decapitated bus, crocodiles *and* alligators sharing the same swamp, and a completely amazing boat chase – that this feels like dispatches from the subconscious of a particularly over-excitable schoolboy.
Oh, and the other reason why this can’t possibly be real: a good 75% of the principal cast is black. It needs to be said. At a time when tokenism was still rife and decent roles for African-Americans were thin indeed, here’s a mainstream movie in which a black cast comes close to making the hero look stupid. “Take this honky outside and waste him,” they say, and the best reply he can come up with is “Is that a good thing?” Is it racist? Sure: not least in Rosie Carver, the single most inept Bond girl to date (and that’s saying something). But it’s no less racist than, say, the treatment of the Japanese in You Only Live Twice and, thanks to Guy Hamilton’s ever-wry approach to the story, it also comes close to being massively subversive.
Think about it. The villains in Live and Let Die are playing up every racist cliché they can think of (eye-rolling voodoo, carnivalesque street processions, pimp fashion, jive bars), knowing that by acting dumb nobody’s going to think to look amongst them for a heroin-smuggling mastermind. Kananga has an amazing sense of humour, the best of any Bond villain to date – Fillet of Soul is a playground of hidden exits, and look at the glee with which Yaphet Kotto (as brilliant as always) executes his game with the shark pellet and the couch. And then there’s the implication of Mr Big’s mighty catchphrase, “Names is for tombstones, baby.” Everybody here has a made-up name – Tee Hee, Whisper, Baron Samedi and Mr Big. In the context of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, these aren’t villains but counter-cultural anti-heroes who have shaken off their slave names, given u on social norms and are sticking it to the Man.
So is it their dream, then? No, it’s still Bond’s. After a decade of beating Communists, Bond has got bored, gone to see Shaft at the cinema, fallen asleep and then seen a future in which he doesn’t even need to do James Bond stuff any more. As long as he’s wearing his tuxedo, makes a few smart-alec quips and gets chased occasionally, he can rock up in anybody’s genre and claim it as his own. Ever the colonial oppressor, eh? Today it’s blaxploitation, next time… Well, how about a kung fu movie? With a three-nippled villain. And a midget henchman. And hell, why we’re at it, let’s bring back that idiot Sheriff J.W. Pepper? Clearly, the only way we’re going to make Live And Let Die look sane is by going completely bonkers next time.