Sunday, July 13, 2014

Live and Let Die (1973)

Roger Moore's debut as 007 is interesting for many reasons.  Not only debuting a new actor, but also building on the lighter tone adopted by the previous film Diamonds are ForeverLive and Let Die is a wild, funky, cheerfully over the top action movie with tons of action, some great moments and overall it stands as one of the underrated entries in the series.  Let's take a closer look.
  •  The film brings the funk right from the start with a new arrangement of the gunbarrel logo, done by Beatle George Martin.
  • The thing I really love about this film is how it is essentially your typical 70's blaxploitation film only with James Bond.  Seriously, replace Roger Moore with Jim Brown or Pam Grier and you get the best film of all time from that particular sub-genre.
  •  I like how the pre-title sequence simply sets up the movie with a series of assassinations, holding off on giving the audience a look at Moore as Bond.  Of the three, I personally like the New Orleans jazz funeral one the best.  It's well-staged and nicely over the top, though not as much the last killing which sees a guy get bitten by a snake in an apparent voodoo ritual.  The sequence also serves as a great lead-in to the awesome Paul McCartney/Wings theme song.
  • Another cool thing about the opening sequence is how it essentially tells you everywhere Bond will go over the course of the film.  Granted, some of the fun in a Bond film is wondering where the hell he's gonna go this time but a little something different never killed any movies that I know of.
  • The theme song is just plain awesome, as is the rest of the soundtrack.  The Bond Theme is a beefy, funky number and the action scenes have a really nice theme to them.
  • Great intro for Moore as we find 007 at his apartment, in bed with a lovely Italian agent, played by Hammer Horror vet Madeline Smith.  Having M (Bernard Lee) turn up along with Moneypenny to brief him on his mission is also a nice little change of pace.
  • Love the Rube Goldberg nightmare that is Bond's coffee maker.  I wonder if it was an actual product on the market or if it was specially made for the film.
  • Back to Moore, the producers took an interesting strategy with him as Bond.  They have him play the role fairly straightforward (Moore would really make the character his own in his third film), but removing the established “Connery trademarks”-martini order, joking with Q, etc.  Roger Moore does just fine in his debut as Bond.  He tries to avoid any of Connery’s mannerisms and trademarks but doesn’t quite put his own personal stamp on the character.  That wouldn’t happen till his third outing as 007.  He plays a certain amount of toughness, something he would carry into the next film and refine into a rather casual detachment by the third film, but for the most part plays it light and relaxed.  It’s a very confident, assured performance.
  • A thing I always thought was cool is how Bond basically goes without gadgets here.  All he has it a watch with a magnet and a cutting blade (the reveal of which comes at the exact moment it's needed) and whatever gun happens to be nearby.
  • Bond's entrance into New York is quite nice with shots of his plane taking off and landing while Solitaire (Jane Seymour) turns over some Tarot cards, expositing to an unknown person.  It's nicely atmospheric and helps set up the subtle supernatural element that permeates the film.
  • The best thing about the film is just how great the villain is.  Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) poses as master criminal Mr. Big in New York and has an intricate, smoothly efficient operation in Harlem with contacts all over the place (though to be fair, the cab driver is a little bit over the top).  It sets the man up as effortlessly competent and cool.  His tape recorder ruse to throw off CIA surveillance is also a nice touch.  Kotto plays the role with characteristic style and charm, giving us a casually ruthless man who is also likable in a way.
  • Bond's first meeting with Mr. Big and Solitaire is quite entertaining as Moore plays things in about as cocky a manner as humanly possible.  He takes the threats made during the scene in stride and it really sets Moore apart from Connery.
  • The lighter touch works well here, as it did for the most part in the previous film and that is due in part to the script by Tom Mankiewicz.  
  • Jane Seymour is pretty good as Solitaire, though she doesn't really have a hell of a lot to do.
  • Julius Harris is also fun as main henchman Tee-Hee.  He's got a great personality and the mechanical claw for a hand is a nice addition.  Harris was always a pretty solid character actor and he, like the other bad guys in the film for the most part, plays his role with casual menace.  Moore’s reaction to the claw is also very amusing.
  • To the filmmakers credit they don’t try to make Moore exactly like Connery, though there is a bit more edge to him here and the second outing that isn’t as pronounced in the following five. 
  • The New York segment flows nicely into the San Monique sequence.  Like the rest of the film it plays out at a nice brisk pace, much like Dr. No which it resembles in a few other ways.  Both films are a little more subdued; the tropical settings, it's a rather neat bit of cohesion and is handles quite well.
  • Not handled quite as well is the character of Rosie Carver, Gloria Hendry is certainly a gorgeous woman but the character is a bit too obviously not what she seems.  Still, Moore and Hendry play their scenes well and the bit where Bond reveals that he knows she’s with Kananga is a nice moment, Moore shows Bond’s callous side quite well here.  Telling a woman he's considering shooting that he wouldn't have done it before sleeping with her?  Damn!
  • Equally effective is Bond’s seduction of Solitaire, only Moore’s Bond could get away with the loaded deck of cards ploy.  The callousness is offset rather nicely by the following bedroom scene.  Moore shows a relatively good amount of tenderness with her and his facial expression before he reveals the ruse is quite amusing.
  • Geoffrey Holder is fantastic as Baron Samedi who may or may not be supernatural.  He's first introduced as just a stage performer but later on, it turns out he's in with Kananga and presides over a voodoo ceremony as the end.  Him turning up as the end credits roll, after apparently being tossed into a coffin full of poisonous snake to boot, laughing like The Joker makes me think that by the time the film is over, we have just gotten about as close to the horror genre as any 007 film ever will be.
  • Once the film gets to New Orleans, it does lose a little steam as Bond is met at the airport by Kananga's guys after escaping the island with Solitaire.  There is a nice stunt sequence with a plane but it is marred by the appearance of a flight school student in the plane Bond steals.  Generally, I greatly dislike civilians getting pulled into my action scenes like this, mainly because the idea is never as good in execution as it is on paper.
  • I do like Felix Leiter (David Hedison) trying to smooth things over with the flight school instructor afterwards.  All we see is Leiter while Bond does things in the background and the result is a rather nice Bob Newhart-esque routine.
  • The escape from the island is pretty damn good, though.  The bus chase is quite impressive as well.
  • At about seventy minutes in, the film hits its high point.  The span from Bond’s capture to the end of the boat chase is maybe my favorite stretch of the entire series.  Virtually everything is done exceptionally well.  Yaphet Kotto really comes into his own in this scene.  I especially love the reveal that Mr. Big and Kananga are the same person, though the makeup job is hardly convincing and Kotto has a rather distinctive voice.  It actually builds nicely with Kananga getting angrier and angrier  as he removes the disguise before finally tearing off the wig and slamming it to the floor with as much fury as one could possibly do that particular action.  It’s really a funny moment, maybe unintentional but it certainly is memorable.  Happily though, this is as over the top as Kotto goes in his performance, for the rest of the scene he exudes quiet menace, something Kotto is brilliant at.
  • The most interesting part of his performance, however, comes after Bond is taken out.  His confrontation with Solitaire is remarkably subtle for what is essentially a summer action film.  Kotto displays a mixture of anger and genuine hurt when he discovers her betrayal.  It’s not what you generally see in any action movie, Bond or otherwise.
  • Another aspect of this scene that I like (and the film in general), is the rather low key scheme the villain has.  It’s nice to have something low key and mundane like drug smuggling as opposed to Kananga having an orbiting death ray placed in the latest spy satellite.
  • The quality continues with the gator farm sequence.  I love the tour, Julius Harris makes his character nicely menacing, though given that he has a huge metal arm with a pair of pliers on it it’s not really too hard to convey menace.  Still, a good job nonetheless.  The gator jump ends the scene perfectly. Having the watch magnet fail is also a nice touch, as is the reaction Moore has to the watch failing.
  • The ensuing boat chase is equally impressive.  The stunts are superb as usual and unlike the film that would follow, having a redneck sheriff appear actually makes sense and adds to the story.  Clifton James is fairly funny as Pepper here and though his shtick is quite politically incorrect, it works for the film.  Not much, mind you but at least the character's presence can be explained logically.  In the bayous of New Orleans?  Well, chances are fairly good that there is at least one fat ass redneck sheriff with a less than enlightened view on race relations lurking about.
  • Bond’s return to the island to rescue Solitaire is nicely done with good use of Baron Samedi. The final confrontation with Kananga is also good as we get a nifty little death trap and a decent enough fight between Bond and Kananga.  The only real problem the fight has is the ending.  I have two problems with it:  First off, having a very cool villain super-inflated till he blows up is really not the best sendoff they could have used.  Second, and this ties in with my first problem, any time you have a shark in your finale and it doesn’t eat somebody, you’ve just wasted money on a shark.  Still, it doesn’t hurt the movie too much and the fight on the train with Tee Hee more than makes up for it and the final shot of Samedi on the front of the train is very cool. 
In the end, Live and Let Die is a good entry in the series and a solid summer action movie that serves as a good entry point into the franchise.  Not the best, but also not the worst by a long shot.

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About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.