What a strange, strange film. If I hadn’t listened to some of the audio commentary on the DVD, I’d have thought everyone involved in the production had set out to make a serious Bond film and instead ended up with a farce. For better or for worse, however, every choice appears to have been intentional, and to deliberately make this Bond entry a lampoon. I can’t say I agree with the choice, but let’s judge the film on its own merits.
My Name is Bond. James Bond.
We begin as we always do, with James Bond himself. The film’s teaser, in which three British agents are killed, completely eschews any appearance of Bond. Instead, Roger Moore began his 7-film stint as the iconic British agent by appearing in bed with an Italian agent.
It’s hardly a star entrance. The camera merely pans over to the bed and there he is. The tone is set. Bond is a playboy, and the subsequent early morning surprise visit by M and Moneypenny plays more as a comedy of manners than an action-adventure.
The script by Tom Mankiewicz and Mr. Moore’s portrayal present a Bond that is almost 180-degrees from Sean Connery’s work, although allegedly closer to Ian Fleming’s characterizations. I found it rather frustrating to endure Bond’s laziness towards his own protection or the mission at hand. The idea that Bond is fooled not once, but twice, at a Filet of Soul bar felt unfathomable. Mr. Mankiewicz even said that he enjoyed making Bond appear like “a twit” appearing in a Harlem bar with his English accent. Such a scene, he says in the commentary, could never have been pulled off with Mr. Connery. Had he entered that bar, violence would have ensued. Indeed, Mr. Mankiewicz points out that when writing for Sean Connery, Bond could sit at a table across from a woman and either lean in and kiss her or stab her under the table. With Mr. Moore, only the former was possible. The latter made him appear nasty.
Mr. Moore’s Bond is much more the British sophisticate and playboy, rather than the brawler. The fistfights in the film are rather lackluster even judged on their own merits. That Bond must be repeatedly bailed out of a bad situation with the law by David Hedison’s Felix Leiter knocks the famous MI6 agent down to the level of buffoon. Mr. Moore’s delivery of the throw-away joke lines is to actually play the line, rather than throw it away as Mr. Connery did. All that does is add to the self-reflexive nature of the work, dragging audiences further out of the story.
As a teenager, I really enjoyed Mr. Moore even more than Mr. Connery in the role, yet in the fullness of time, this interpretation feels juvenile to this viewer. It is a matter of taste, of course. I like my spy films serious. However, we cannot fault the creative team for their choices. In many ways, the choices are actually rather bold ones. The producers essentially executed a “re-boot” a franchise, some thirty years before this term came into play (thanks to J.J. Abrams). The last thing anyone could say about Live and Let Die is that it was what was expected. There is merit in confounding expectations.
Viewing Through the Right Prism
In certain ways, the selection of tone for the film was actually somewhat daring. The film is a collision of the British espionage, drawing-room comedy, and blaxploitation genres. Whereas Bond films up to this point had made some use of exotic locales, with You Only Live Twice immersing the audience the most in a foreign culture, this is the first Bond film to have been firmly grounded in the gritty setting of 1970’s New York. Having grown up there at that time, New York was not a safe place, and a white person traveling to Harlem was considered suicidal. It’s actually startling to see Bond travel the streets of this grim city, all prim and proper. There are also very few interior sets this time around, as compared to the bravura interiors we are accustomed to from designer Ken Adam. With a cast full of Black actors, the period wardrobe and music, and a focus on the drug trade, this truly is the “Blaxploitation Bond”. Viewing this through a contemporary prism, the film feels silly. However, when viewed in the context of cinema and society at the time, it’s actually a risky move for the producers to have made with such a successful series.
That being said, the story is difficult to defend. There are so many plot holes that I lost count, and had to just sit back and try to have fun with it. There are several times Bond easily could have been killed. Why drop a snake into his room? For Heaven’s sake, Kananga’s obese sidekick, Whisper, delivers room service. Why doesn’t he just shoot Bond? And what idiot hires an obese dolt who can only speak in a whisper? Of what possible utility is a sidekick like that? And if you’re doing to kill Bond, why take him all the way to a crocodile farm, show him your drug operation there, then drop him on a tiny island in a pond…and then leave? Don’t the villains want to witness the carnage? Personally, it’s hard to enjoy a movie when it feels like nobody cares if the story holds together or not.
Accentuate the Positive
The great thing about cinema is that while a film itself remains a static entity, everything around it changes — time, context, societal mores, the history of cinema itself. True film criticism asks that we seek a method of reading the film that may grant audiences a different way to appreciate it. In this regard, it may be helpful to view the very alteration of Bondian expectations as a reflection of the film itself. That is to say, we as the audience probably felt a sense of dislocation upon viewing this new interpretation of Bond. I know I did!
Indeed, in examining the film closely, one finds that the theme of the film itself is dislocation. Bond’s own expectations and expertise are repeatedly confounded along with the audiences. The opening teaser lacks an appearance by 007. We are introduced to his home for the first time ever, and Bond is surprised to be invaded by M. Bond is utterly out of his element in his visit to Harlem. His every move is tracked, and his table first rotates into the unexpected lion’s den of Mr. Big, and later drops right through the floor! We see him led into the back alley of a Harlem tenement — a location we’ve never seen before in a Bond film, and the image of a proper Brit in the middle of Harlem is disorienting and unexpected. As if this weren’t enough, Bond is plunged into the world of the supernatural for the first and only time in the entire series. He is astonished to discover that Solitaire actually does have the power to see the future, and that seducing her — which usually results in the collection of information — backfires on him!
In this world of dislocation, there are tricksters and shape-shifters. Mr. Big is actually just Kananga in disguise. The prancing and playful Baron Samedi is not just a tourist attraction, but a villain working for Kananga. Samedi’s imposing figure appears to rise from the grave during the film’s climactic set-piece, only to be revealed as a statue. A smiling citizen on the streets of New Orleans turns into an assassin. A coffin carried on the shoulders of pallbearers is empty…awaiting receipt of a dead British agent.
Strange imagery pervades the film. In the opening credits, an attractive Black woman explodes into flame, revealing a skull instead of the sexy, writhing women we are used to seeing. Scarecrows hide cameras and poison darts. A plane never takes off, but drives around and around an airport, its wings severed as it goes. Bond walks on the backs of crocodiles. Speedboats don’t just reside on water — they go sailing through the air, roar across land, and end up plunged into the side of a police car.
When viewed with the theme of dislocation in mind, almost every scene takes on a different quality. In fact, given that this was 1973, it’s almost like Sean Connery took some LSD, and this was his fever dream of what he would become.
Other Good Things
There is one relationship I find very intriguing — that of Kananga and Solitaire. It’s rare that we actually get a glimpse into the lives of the villains in Bond films. In this case, we learn a good deal of backstory about Kananga and Solitaire, and the connection between Solitaire’s gift and her virginity. A great deal goes unspoken regarding Kananga’s relationship with Solitaire’s mother. He is disappointed, jealous, and angry that Bond deflowers her, and says, “I would have given you love in time.” I want to call attention to Yaphet Kotto. He’s a really fascinating actor who we get a taste of in this film. Fans should watch him in the great TV series Homicide: Life on the Street.
The supporting characters are worth noting. This was Jane Seymour’s big break, and because of her youth (21 at the time), she may be the only Bond girl who became even more beautiful with age. Julian Harris’ Tee Hee Johnson, he of the hook hand, is a great nemesis. He’s all spiffed out in fabulous suits, big toothy smile, and crushing right hand. He is, in some ways, a forerunner of Jaws. And of course, we have the magnificent Geoffrey Holder. It’s a shame that most Americans only know him as the 7-Up pitchman with the fabulous laugh. He is an extraordinary talent in numerous disciplines, and a major star in the Caribbean. One of my greatest college memories was his appearance at Cornell for an evening of “instant theatre” in 1987, where he not only showcased his many talents, but delivered life lessons to a delighted audience of clueless youths. Mr. Holder not only choreographed the dancing in the film, he cuts a menacing yet charismatically mysterious figure as Baron Samedi. His appearance on the front of the train at the film’s climax is not only consonant with the film’s strange tone, but he was placed there because the producers loved him so much they hoped to recast him.
I want to call attention to a wonderful moment from Lois Maxwell, where she realizes Bond has a young beautiful woman with him in his home, and she is absolutely crestfallen. Her face shows such disappointment, as if she never actually believed Bond had been sleeping with dozens of women over seven films and only then does the truth hit her. Ever protective, however, she makes good the Italian’s escape before M discovers her. Loyal to the end.
Let us not go quietly without paying tribute to the speedboat stunts, including an unintentional setting of a world record for a speedboat jump. And of course, the theme song itself remains a staple of classic rock radio, Paul McCartney’s concerts, and is used to great effect in the film’s most exciting moments.
James Bond will return in “The Man With The Golden Gun.”