LIVE AND LET DIE

by Rob Dittmar (October 04, 2002)

When I first sketched out my ranking of Bond movies, I had originally put this one at the very bottom. It was only after watching this back to back with the extremely tedious The Man With The Golden Gun that I had to grudgingly admit that it was somewhat better than I had remembered it to be. Still, saying that Roger Moore's first outing as Bond is less tedious than his second is like saying that a watching grass grow is more exciting than watching paint dry. We're talking about subtle gradations of tedium indeed. Once again we have a movie that is completely unmemorable in every respect. In fact, I bet if you're honest with yourself, the only thing you can remember about it before reading this rehash is Paul McCartney's theme song. I'm not even a Beatles/McCartney fan but I have to admit that tracking down a Wings' greatest hits CD will let you relive a high point of the film in a mere 3 to 4 minutes.

Fleming's Live And Let Die is actually one of his best books, and not at all a bad way to introduce oneself to the Bond of Fleming's work. Fleming's villain Mr. Big is one of his more memorable ones. As his name implies he is physically imposing, he is physically grotesque, and highly intelligent. So naturally when it came time to script Live And Let Die, the screenwriters utterly discarded Fleming's villain! While a Mr. Big appears in the movie, the only apparent motivation for his inclusion is a truly unsurprising plot twist. I'll be discreet on this point just to force you to watch this and suffer as I have in order to learn it. Fleming's book is also one of the most brutal in the series. In a memorable passage, Mr. Big's henchman breaks Bond’s finger. In another memorable part, sharks mutilate Bond's friend Felix Leiter. Needless to say this is more good material that never made it into the screenplay. About the only thing in the book to make it to screen is the character of Mr. Big's fortuneteller, Solitaire. Solitaire is of central importance in the book, but ends up woefully underserved by her part in the film.

The defining aspect of Live And Let Die is how horrendously dated it is. Fleming's novel, of course, featured an all black criminal organization. Now, in this day and age it seems to some to be necessary to comb through material written many years ago merely to lambaste it for not living up to current standards of political correctness. I just recently reread Live And Let Die and personally I think you'd need to be pretty thin-skinned to conclude Fleming was a racist on the basis of this book. Fleming's ear for American speech tended to be a bit tinny, so some of the dialogue by black characters doesn't come across very well, but for the most part Fleming plays it completely straight in the novel. The fact that Bond's adversaries are black merely serves to add an exotic dimension to a plot in which the villains could be of any race or nationality. Trendy 70's screenwriters however couldn't merely try to follow Fleming's lead and just present major characters as a bunch of intimidating villains, steadfast allies, and beautiful women who happen to be black. This flick has to be authentic! Hip! Happenin'! Right on! Consequently the film is stuffed with disastrously out-of-style fashions, gaudy "pimp-mobiles", and hairstyles we pray will never make a comeback. We could easily forgive this if we're watching Shaft or Superfly or another blaxsploitation classic, but a James Bond movie? Once more a movie dictum holds true - nothing dates a movie like an attempt to be cutting-edge and progressive, and Live And Let Die is the most dated Bond flick of all. Furthermore, given the fact that the screenwriters have discarded the plot of the book a lot of this self-dating isn't even necessary. Nose-picker collars, afros and mutton-chop sideburns all make their appearance in the movie's American locales, but the movie's villain is one Mr. Kananga, prime-minister (?) of the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique. It isn't even truly necessary to the film's plot to touch down much in the U.S. at all.

At least Live And Let Die's plot avoids the self-defeating complexity of that of The Man With The Golden Gun. Three British agents are killed at the movie's outset and Bond is set after the suspected killer. Mr. Kananga is tagged as guilty almost immediately and Bond flies to America to shadow him. An attempt on Bond's life in America leads him to a run-in with Kananga's ally, Mr. Big, and an introduction to Solitaire, Kananga's fortuneteller. Bond escapes death only to find that Kananga has fled back to San Monique. Bond follows Kananga both to find that he is growing poppies to make heroin, and to seduce Solitaire into escaping from him. After fleeing the island to New Orleans he and Solitaire are recaptured by Kananga (dooh!), and he has to escape death once again and return to the island to save Solitaire (again!) and finally punch Kananga's ticket.

As this literally thumbnail sketch shows, the plot is more of an excuse for stunts than anything else. This is, in and of itself, not critically damaging to the movie. What critically damages the movie is the fact that the stunts the plot's an excuse for are not all that exciting. Even if the stunts were more exciting, however, there still are some big problems with the whole set-up. First of all Kananga's villainy doesn't really make sense. Are we really supposed to believe that Kananga is some high-ranking government politico on San Monique? If so, then why is he bothering with drugs at all? He can probably skim more off the monthly U.S. aid or World Bank loan check than he can earn selling drugs in a year. And even if he were taking time-off from torturing political opponents and selling drugs as a hobby say, why would he even give a damn if anybody knew it? Here he is spending the entire film trying to kill foreign agents that learn of his scheme, but when he appears at the film's start, he is a delegate to the U.N. He could probably be shipping heroin in by the carload in a diplomatic pouch and selling it from the trunk of his double-parked limo in New York without being in any sort of legal jeopardy. There may have been a germ of an interesting idea, here. After all despots like that madman, "Pappa Doc" Duvalier, that ran Haiti have a monstrous reputation, but they certainly wouldn't be interested in drugs. As portrayed by Yaphet Kotto, however, there is none of this thuggish menace. Kananga is simply a well-spoken black man in a suit, no more frightening than Kofi Annan.

A further problem that I'd let pass if the movie were better is the fact that Kananga's plan doesn't even make economic sense. The screenwriters evidently thought selling drugs was too mundane, so they tried to give an air of master-criminal craftiness to Kananga's business. He claims to want to literally give away heroin in an effort to drive other drug dealers out of business, and then jack up prices as a monopoly supplier. This simply wouldn't be economically feasible. If it were, why doesn't Coke start giving away free drinks to drive Pepsi bankrupt? You may argue about the addictive nature of the product, but we're told cigarettes are highly addictive and Philip-Morris isn't giving them away for free. This whole "plan" actually smells like another bit of 70's paranoia to go with The Man With The Golden Gun's "energy crisis". This was when the Japanese automakers were out competing American companies by offering a far better product. Rather than working to improve their auto designs, American companies spun tales about how the Japanese were unfairly selling cars too cheaply in an effort to drive them out of business and monopolize the car market.

I will say in this film's defense that Jane Seymour's performance as Solitaire is actually quite good. Solitaire's big story is that she can tell the future for Kananga only so long as she remains a virgin. Some of the most stylish scenes in the film feature Solitaire's reading of Tarot cards for Kananga superimposed over scenes of Bond questing after Kananga. Different cards begin to symbolize players in the film, with Bond's being the Fool, and Solitaire's the High Priestess. The Death card makes inevitable appearances following Bond wherever he goes. As Solitaire becomes more and more involved with charting Bond's movements, the Lovers card begins turning up to obviously forecast Solitaire's future as much as it does Bond's. It's surprising how much Ms. Seymour does with these scenes though she has little actual dialogue during them (or during the film as a whole for that matter). A slave to Kananga because of her powers, Solitaire reacts with growing dismay as those same powers begin to predict what she can only regard as her own doom and Ms. Seymour is highly successful at conveying Solitaire's fears. Later, when the die is cast so to speak, and Kananga's knowledge of it become all to clear, Ms. Seymour manages to project some surprising strength as she explains rather stoically how this turn of events was inevitable. If there were ever a chance for this movie to avoid the depths of this countdown, it would have of necessity involved greatly expanding the role of Solitaire not only to work more with this subplot but also to give Ms. Seymour more screen time.

Given the quality of Ms. Seymour's acting, it is amazing to realize how little time she actually has on-screen. It's possible that no other Bond "final girl" has been accorded less actual dialogue than Jane Seymour gets here. While she is physically present in many scenes, most of those scenes feature her being led by Bond on one of their many attempts to escape Kananga and contain no dialogue. It's even possible to argue that as written, she ends up not even being necessary to the plot. In Fleming's book, Solitaire physically sought Bond out in an attempt to escape Mr. Big. In the film, she rather cryptically warns him of a betrayal by sending him a Tarot card. It is Bond, who somewhat illogically and at great personal risk, seeks her out at the home Kananga has provided for her. Bond after all is on the island to spy on Kananga. He is only guessing as to who sent him the warning and, even if his guess as to it being Solitaire is correct, he can't possibly have a reason to think that she will actually run away with him. At this point in the film, he has spoken possibly three lines of dialogue with her. The rational thing to do is get the goods on Kananga and report back to higher authorities, as he attempts to do after escaping with Solitaire anyway. Even if we root for Bond to escape with Solitaire (and we do!), the screenwriters have made a disastrous calculation in portraying Bond's seduction. He enters her home with a deck of Tarot cards containing only the Lovers card, and asks her to draw from it. Seeing the card she expects, she gives in to his advances. Frankly, this makes Bond look like a deceitful s*$t instead of a hero. This seems like some later Moore traits popping up inappropriately early. In Moore's later outings with everything being played for laughs, Moore's luck with the ladies was in an of itself a bit of a running gag. Live And Let Die, however, is far to serious in tone, and Solitaire too complex a character for this whole scene to do anything other than make Bond look like a cad.

Reviewing this film also serves as an introduction to a problem that has consistently plagued the series. The problem stems from some sleazy formulaic reasoning on the part of the filmmakers. Typically the filmmakers would reason that a good Bond movie entails Bond making it with X number of girls before the credits role, with X being strictly greater than 1. Thus time after time it was necessary to shoehorn in extraneous female leads even if they had absolutely no plot function whatsoever. The lady unfortunate enough to star as a requisite bedpost notch here is Rosie Carver, played by actress Gloria Hendry. Actually the filmmakers deserve a dollop of credit here, but only for casting. Ms. Hendry is black, and not Halle Berry weak cafe-au-lait black, but double espresso no cream black. It was ballsy romantic casting indeed to link Moore, a man of fish-belly whiteness, with blaxsplotation veteran Hendry in this film. It does credit to the Bond series that they could get away with things that even today most moviemakers would shy away from. Unfortunately a memorable moment in the Bond series ends up totally subverted by the fact that the character of Rosie Carver as written seems to be a dry run for the awful Mary Goodnight. Carver is supposed to be some rookie CIA agent (?) assigned to help Bond in San Monique. In this universe, rookie equals incompetent equal yet more un-comic relief. Carver's only role in the movie besides the above discussed one is to goof up again and again in a desperate bid for laughs. I can't complain about Ms. Hendry as an actress, and she's sure easy on the peepers, but her character very quickly wears out its welcome - biting the dust just in time to avoid becoming a major annoyance. And hey there you we're-not-racist-like-Fleming screenwriters, isn't it pretty demeaning to suggest that an actual agent of the CIA would be absurdly frightened of voodoo trappings merely because she's black?

At least Kananga's henchmen are a big step up from the unfortunate Nick Knack. Big, bald, charismatic Julius Harris plays Tee-Hee. Mr. Harris actually steals every scene he's in, and led me to wonder if he might have done a far better job as lead villain Kananga than the terminally bland Kotto. Harris tends to radiate joviality rather than actual menace, however, so that may not have worker that well either. Tee-Hee is supposedly missing an arm and sporting a mechanical claw on the end of an artificial one. This is realized by the less than convincing expedient of Harris pulling his shirt cuff over his hand while he holds the claw. Bond and Tee-Hee trade blows on a train at the end of the film in one of the better action scenes in the film but actually, if you think about, Bond should be able to handle an amputee (!) with a lot more ease than he shows here. The only other henchman of note is Geoffrey Holder's Baron Samedi. Readers of a certain age might remember Holder chortling over cola nuts in an old 7-up commercial. In truth Bond makes pretty short work of Samedi at the end (or does he??), but his bizarre appearance and booming laugh make for a bit part more memorable than most.

Live And Let Die truly disappoints on locales. I believe Jamaica stands in for the island of San Monique and, while some lovely scenery is on display, its not used to any great effect. The whole movie actually has a very set bound look and feel so even if a lot of footage was filmed in Jamaica, a lot of said footage could have just as easily been done on a soundstage. A lot of the locales appearing during Bond and Solitaire's escape from the island are in addition of the same depressing third world type that featured in The Man With The Golden Gun's seedy Bangkok locales, complete with the awful overseas model police cars. I of course realize that many, many people the world over live in conditions that Americans would find unpleasant, but I go to Bond films for escapism not for accurate depictions of third world poverty. New Orleans and surrounding areas are featured in the latter half of the movie and are quite pretty, but woefully unexotic. I went to Charleston, S.C. on my honeymoon and loved the place, but even so it would seem pretty unlikely that James Bond would show up there. Similarly New Orleans is a place I've always wanted to visit, but don't particularly expect to feature prominently in a Bond film. Where next? Phoenix? San Diego? Providence? Chicago? Beautiful cities all, but not really known for global intrigue. Worst served in the film is New York, whose most prominently featured locale is Harlem. It's possible to quibble about what we are to make of Bond's trip there, but the film clearly implies one of two things. Either we are supposed to admire Bond's fearlessness in visiting Harlem even though he's white, or we're supposed to laugh at his naiveté for not realizing that, as a white man, he shouldn't be visiting Harlem at all. In Fleming's novel, Bond and Felix Leiter did indeed visit Harlem. But when the novel was written in the early 50's, Harlem was a place that people of all races visited regularly for dining, drinking, and music. For Fleming, Harlem was thrilling and exotic. In the 70's, Harlem had apparently already descended into crime and chaos. That fact actually just makes Bond's visit in the movie pretty sad and dispiriting and totally at odds with the sense of enjoyment that Fleming was able to invest in Bond's visit in the book.

In a great article over at Her Majesty's Secret Servant, Michael Reed compares the films of Roger Moore and Sean Connery and draws a host of surprising parallels. Most relevant here is his comparison of Dr. No, Connery's first film, and Live And Let Die, Moore's first film. It seems undeniable that the screenwriters wanted to introduce Moore in a story very similar to the one that introduced Connery. Thus the teaser in Live And Let Die concerns the assassination of three British agents in three different locales. Bond is not seen at all. While Dr. No has no teaser, it begins exactly the same way with the assassination of British agents. Following this, Bond is sent off to investigate the killings in both films. I'll also point out an extremely similar scene in both films in which Bond is menaced by a tarantula in Dr. No and Bond is menace by a snake in Live And Let Die. The difference between the two scenes mainly consists in the fact that the tarantula scene is played strictly for suspense, while the snake scene segues into an excuse for Rosie Carver's "comic" relief. The teaser for Live And Let Die is not exactly disappointing per se. The phony funeral staged to assassinate the agent in New Orleans is memorable, if implausible. After all, does Kananga really need to involve hundreds of people in the killing of a man in broad daylight, when they could have just plugged him and dropped him in the ocean? Once again, however, even though there is no rule that says Bond films have to begin with an outrageous stunt, when the movie is lacking in other respects the lack of a memorable thrill to start the film tells against it.

One of the best set pieces in the film actually comes immediately following the credits when Bond touches down in New York on his mission. One of Kananga's henchmen kills Bond's driver from a passing car while they're on the freeway, and his car begins careening out of control. Bond is forced to bring the car under control from the back seat resulting in the expected mayhem to other cars on the road, be they moving or parked. The bit is quite good, but unfortunately quickly over. A lead on the car that killed his driver precipitates his above-mentioned trip to Harlem and his first run in with Mr. Big. Mr. Big, displaying a rare degree of judgment for a Bond villain, summarily orders his goons to simply take the honky out to be wasted. Needless to say, said goons fail to do so - ending up on the losing end of a somewhat perfunctory tussle - but Mr. Big's directness might have ended Bond's career a lot more quickly if other series villains had shown it.

After the Harlem run-in, Bond is quickly off to San Monique on the trail of Kananga. It isn't until his dubious decision to seduce Solitaire into fleeing the island with him that action recommences, in the form of (uh, oh!) another car chase. To be completely accurate, I should probably say bus chase. After Kananga realizes that Solitaire has left her home and is on the run, he alerts the local police to capture her and Bond. Seeing the police are after him, Bond steals a double-decker bus (?) in order to make his escape. You might think that this would be a poor choice of getaway vehicle, but given the lousy cars the police are provided with in "San Monique", Bond is actually able to remain ahead of his pursuers. The whole bus theft is actually an excuse for a pair of stunts that are sadly once again interesting rather than exciting. At one point during the chase, Bond spins the bus around 180 degrees and takes off in the opposite direction. To effectively end the chase, Bond rides under a bridge too low for the bus and shears the top clean off, providing something for the pursuers to duly run into. If I'm making it sound very dry and academic, it's because it is. The problem with so many of the stunts in Live And Let Die doesn't stem from their being technically unimpressive, but from the fact that they're all essentially isolated and static. Nothing that occurs before is particularly exciting and nothing that follows is particularly exciting, so all they serve to do is briefly relieve the overall tedium of the proceedings.

And if the bus chase has a whiff of silliness about it, what follows is sillier still. Bond and Solitaire believe that they have successfully escaped, but after arriving in New Orleans they are waylaid by Mr. Big's man and taken to a small private airport. In what follows it truly looks as if Bond simply abandons Solitaire and jumps into a nearby private plane! Bad show, 007! I guess all that baloney about lovers trusting each other from the night before was just pillow talk. When you're cornered it's every lover for him/herself. In the private plane is an elderly lady waiting for her flying instructor, and Bond takes control of the plane in an attempt to stay one step ahead of Mr. Big's men. Now frankly I don't know a whole lot about private planes, but would a small private prop plane be able to outrun a car if it wasn't opened full throttle as for takeoff? I somehow doubt it. My doubt's aside, Bond does manage to outrun all the cars chasing after him and get the wings knocked off the plane to boot just so we can all enjoy a good hearty laugh. And since there's nothing funnier than elderly women swearing, the old lady in Bond's plane does so in an exaggerated fashion just to add to the hilarity.

To hurry along, Solitaire has been recaptured but Bond has escaped. He goes to a local restaurant that he knows is associated with Mr. Big and is promptly recaptured himself. Although Mr. Big was ready to waste the guy in an instant earlier in the movie now that Bond has caused no end of destruction and cost Solitaire her powers, he decides to prepare an overly elaborate death for Bond so that he can escape once again. This involves Bond's trip to the farm. The farm in this case in an alligator farm, and Bond is stranded on an island in the center of a pond full of the killer reptiles. In an amazing bit, Bond walks across the backs of several alligators to reach the shore. Kudos to the real life owner of the alligator farm, Ross Kananga, for being nuts enough to do this stunt. The Inside Live And Let Die short feature on the DVD of this film shows the footage of all his failed attempts, and the guy nearly got his foot bit off for his troubles! I'm sad to say, however, that as wacky as this bit is, it falls prey to feeling just as isolated as the bus stunts discussed above. The lead in is not very exciting and what follows is most definitely not exciting, so over all it just makes you sit up and take notice for a minute before returning to the comatose state that is natural induced in a viewer by the film.

Now comes the part that fills me with dread to have to relive. After his escape from the 'gators, Bond hops into a nearby speedboat to make his escape. Mr. Big's goons see the escape and take off in hot pursuit. What follows has to be the single most tedious action sequence ever filmed. I've already discussed my lack of interest in most car chases, and I seldom find other modes-of-transport chases to be all that much better. The boat chase in this movie however arouses new depths of apathy in the viewer. Imagine the most lackluster third-rate car chase that you've ever seen on screen. Now imagine that chase lasting four hours. Now imagine that chase well larded with the most odious comic relief possible in the form of an obnoxious, loud-mouthed caricature of a redneck Southern sheriff called J.W. Pepper. Only after all this would you have some small idea of just how uninvolving the whole thing is. Surely the folks over at the on-line Merriam-Webster's have snagged a video clip of this sequence to link to under the word interminable. I could easily go on and on describing the various hijinx that take place during this chase. Boats leap over roads, plow through wedding ceremonies, fly into police cars, cause police car pileups, and eventually one explodes. The astonishing fact is however that absolutely none of these things is the least bit exciting. It is in fact the central tragedy of this whole misbegotten enterprise that what was clearly meant to be the edge-of-the-seat moment in the film is in fact the most unwelcome aspect of the thing. For the first, if not the last, time in this countdown I have to wish that there were actually fewer stunts in a Bond movie.

After the end of this sequence (Yes, praise the Lord, the sequence does end!), Bond is off to San Monique once again to destroy Kananga's poppy fields. He still seems rather coldly casual about having abandoned Solitaire to her fate, and it's not clear that saving her is on the agenda for his trip back to Kananga's island. After setting charges in Kananga's poppy fields, however, Bond sees that Solitaire is about to meet her doom via the same sort of voodoo ceremony that claimed the life of one of the agent's killed in the movie's teaser. Bond rescues her, but the large crowd forces them to flee down a nearby trap-door (?) and into Kananga's underground lair. Yes, it's the typical lair with the usual swooshing metal door, catwalks, the whole bit. Again, I must ask however, why does Kananga need a lair? If he's the prime minister on San Monique he's probably already built more palaces than Saddam Hussein. Why can't he use devote one not used for torturing political prisoners to the whole heroin thing? At least this time around the lair is much better manned with henchmen.

Yet, even though those henchmen capture Bond and Solitaire again and take them to a room (cave, actually) equipped with a pool of sharks, they all leave once Kananga has his prisoners tied up. Kananga hoists Bond and Solitaire over the pool of sharks with intent to lower them to their doom. In a truly ridiculous gadget moment, Bond's watch turns into a mini-buzz saw that he uses to sever his bonds. No where in the film are we told the thing could do that, so it's truly a deus ex machina twist. Bond quickly swings free, puts the big, fat, harmless guy who's the only other villain in the room out of commission, and turns to face Kananga - now armed with a knife. Kotto is no more threatening armed that he was unarmed, and Bond makes pretty short work of him. In a truly silly bit, Bond forces Kananga to swallow a compressed air pellet and he literally floats to the ceiling and explodes! You just know that's gotta hurt!

We're seeing the end in sight now, but a Bond movies not over until the last henchman bites the dust. Bond and Solitaire board a train for a bit of R & R but unbeknownst to them, the jovial Tee-Hee has stowed away on board. The ensuing fight between Tee-Hee and Bond in Bond's train compartment is actually fairly decent. It's just far too little, and at this point far too late to jazz this movie up all that much. The larger question is why these henchmen are so darn loyal. Those super-villains will drop you in a piranha tank at the first sign of a screw-up, yet even after they're dead and gone, their henchmen are still out trying to kill Bond. I don't understand it. If the villain's dead, the evil plans become a cropper, and you're still standing, I'd think it is just be best to update the resume and move on. Those henchmen would sure live longer if they did.

It's kind of a pity at this point that we have to pick on Moore as much as we have. After his first two disasters, he did go on to make much, much better movies. To further talk the poor goof up, I'll argue that this movie ended up such a failure because the filmmakers were not willing to trust Moore with the franchise. It's painfully obvious that the script was initially written around stunts and locations, with the actual interstitial Bond material linking them to be filled in at a later date. You can almost imagine the producers thinking that they could film 90% of the movie with stuntmen and extras before actually having to find someone to play Bond. Once the Bond was found, they conspired to not let him say enough to screw anything up. Live And Let Die was oddly conceived as a Bond movie without a role for Bond, and this complete lack of attention to characterization was devastating to it's success.


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