Friday, August 24, 2012

Live and Let Die - Blaxploitation Bond

Live and Let Die - 1973

Bond:  Roger Moore
Directed by: Guy Hamilton
Produced by: Harry Saltzman & 
Albert R. Broccoli
Theme: "Live and Let Die" performed by Paul McCartney and Wings

This is probably the first Bond movie I ever saw. I don't remember when I saw it, but I remember being pretty young. Too young, probably. All the voodoo freaked my shit out. I still love this movie, possibly because part of me always watches it through the frightened eyes of that young boy in the early Eighties when all the terribly non-P.C. elements were still mainstream. And yet, it still holds up well to a viewing today as long as you don't mind a good Seventies car chase or two.

Sean Connery declined to return after Diamonds Are Forever. Another chaotic search for a successor ensued that saw Clint Eastwood offered the part (he declined) because United Artists wanted an American to play the part. Countless Brits were screen tested as Saltzman and Broccoli, after hiring American actor John Gavin to replace Lazenby, suddenly were determined to fill the role with someone from the U.K. In the end Roger Moore finally landed the part. He was an extremely popular choice at the time, given that he'd almost gotten the part at least once if not twice before.

While Connery was the Man's-Man Bond, Moore was the Gentleman's Bond, always cool and composed, and quick with a witty retort. Roger Moore also manages to look a great deal younger than he is. Connery already looked too old for the part in Diamonds Are Forever, but in spite of being a few years his senior, Moore looks young and spry. Which is good considering for most of his tenure as Bond, he's paired with love interests a good quarter of a century his junior. 

This movie would fit right in at a blaxploitation film festival. The only problem is that it transcends the genre by being too mainstream and big budget (Shaft had a budget of $500,000; Live and Let Die's budget was $7 million), which in a way allows it to hold up better than many similar films of the era. It's saved by being a Bond film. Even though it's rife with racial stereotypes, they're not played for laughs, except for the unfortunate hick racist sheriff J.W. Pepper. Somehow humiliating a racist white guy doesn't feel that offensive to a modern audience.

Bond spends the entire film immersed in "black culture", in Harlem (where the crew had to pay protection money to a local gang -- this was Harlem in the Seventies after all), in New Orleans (the screenwriter was a jazz fan), and in the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique. He even beds his first black Bond-Girl in the duplicitous and smoking hot Rosie Carver played by blaxsploitation regular Gloria Hendry.

The villain is one of the best, if for no other reason than Yaphet Kotto is one of the best actors to ever be cast as a Bond villain. If I were ranking Bond villains he'd be right up there with Auric Goldfinger. Unfortunately his death is one of the more ludicrous villain deaths in the franchise, and yet one that my early Eighties self enjoyed tremendously.

Then there's Baron Semedi, played by the incomparable Geoffrey Holder. If you watched TV in the Seventies or Eighties you'd recognize him as the 7-Up spokesman, but he was also the first African-American to win Tony awards for best director and costumes (for The Wiz in 1975). Who was Baron Semedi? He's not really a henchman. He's not really a villain. He's a creepy-ass voodoo god who can never die, and the movie ends ambiguously enough to leave you wondering if he really was a voodoo god who could never die. That's another reason I love this movie. It's the only Bond film to dabble in the supernatural. Not only through the voodoo, but also through tarot. The stunning Solitaire, played by 22 year-old Jane Seymour in her first film role, actually can read the future. Until she looses her virginity to Bond that is.

The music in this movie is also very different. The title song is one of the most popular Bond-themes of all time, and the first true rock song to cover the main title. It was written by Paul and Linda McCartney and performed by Paul and Wings. Not only that, but former Beatles producer George Martin did the soundtrack. Traditional Bond scorer John Barry was unavailable (and perhaps unwilling after Saltzman openly hated the theme song for Diamonds Are Forever). The trademark Bond theme only appears once, complete with waka waka Seventies guitar. Otherwise it's all arrangements of Live and Let Die which works amazingly well.

The only throwback to a previous film is boat captain Quarrel Jr., the son of the boat captain Quarrel from Dr. No. The San Monique parts were filmed in Jamaica (as was the crocodile farm, even though in the film the farm is supposed to be outside of New Orleans. In fact the villain's name, Kananga, came from the name of the man who owned the farm and who performed the walking-on-alligators stunt in the film). This is the only pre-Daniel Craig Bond film in which Q does not make an appearance (Desmond Llewellyn was in a TV show at the time and a scheduling misunderstanding kept him out of the film). We also get a rare glimpse of Bond at home just after the main title. He's moved since we saw his abode in Dr. No, and has a fancy coffee maker now.

Personal Rankings:

  1. Goldfinger
  2. From Russia With Love
  3. Live and Let Die
  4. You Only Live Twice
  5. Dr. No
  6. Diamonds Are Forever
  7. Thunderball
  • On Her Majesty's Secret Service - In a place all to itself 

1973 Context
President: Richard Nixon
Queen: Elizabeth II

The Watergate Scandal becomes public and Senate hearings begin

Secretariat wins the Triple Crown

Best Picture Nominees:
The Sting
American Graffiti
Cries and Whispers
The Exorcist
A Touch of Class

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