Light Bondage: “Live and Let Die”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypal that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

Live and Let Die (1973)

I’ve included my jab at Roger Moore into each and everyone one of these intros without paying much thought to it. I remember watching a good number of the Moore films back in the day and I always remember him as the lamest, most terrible Bond. It maybe isn’t all his fault, as he got the really crappy movies (Bond in space? Go straight to hell) but it still left me with the impression that we were dealing with someone who simply wasn’t worthy of being Bond, despite being the longest-running Bond to date.

For the most part, however, Live and Let Die works as this new-styled Bond. What’s most clear from the outset, and will become more and more true as time goes on, is that by the 70s Bond had clearly lost his way. The same recycled espionage stories apparently weren’t cutting it, so instead they began to mix in genres that were popular at the time. This was kind of a terrible idea, as the rest of the Moore movies I think will illustrate, but they started with the one genre that’s perfect for Bond: blaxploitation.

It might sound like a weird choice, but the blaxploitation genre kind of dovetails naturally into the things they wanted to do with this New Bond. First off, it was wildly popular at this time in cinemas. So, you know, that’d be reason enough. However, it’s also a genre epitomized by small-scale but entertaining action, cool womanizing fast-talking heroes, and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor about the whole serious affair of killing people. Sound like anyone we know?

Look at this stuffy bastard! This is the coolest he EVER looks. fistshake.gif

This is how we end up with Roger Moore strutting around Harlem trying to uncover a crime syndicate. It’s played for laughs and justifiably so, as Bond both sticks out like a sore thumb and seems to be the butt of most of the jokes. Sure, most of the bad guys in this movie are black, but they’re way cooler than Bond, and it has none of the weird racial undertones Dr. No had. What a difference a decade makes. It’s amazing that it all mostly works, and is fun, with great chase scenes and interesting use of America (unlike the long stretches of boring we’ve seen before Harlem and New Orleans are cool places to set a film).

Unfortunately the movie doesn’t really seem to know quite how to let the story play out fully in its genre and ends up deviating into weird voodoo mythology and an incredibly long boat chase that fills 20 minutes with low rent Smokey and the Bandit style (not really a ripoff, as that didn’t exist yet) hijinks between Bond, the bad guys, and an awful redneck sheriff stereotype who stinks up the end of the movie. He is the worst character, added I guess to be funny, but mostly serving as a reminder that stereotypes land everywhere and they are always awful. If I had to watch him spit tobacco and trip over something and call everybody “boy” one more time I was going to lose it.

That said, the action scenes are all pretty good. There’s some great car chase stuff and while the boat scene goes on way too long it manages to have a ton of great beats of boats doing things I’m not even sure boats can actually do. But it’s all filmed well, with a great eye for practical effects. And even when things take a turn for the goofy, as when Bond is left on a small island in alligator-infested waters, the cartoonish death trap has a real sense of menace. I mean, sure, nothing bad is actually going to happen, but you put enough real alligators into a scene and they’re going to be intimidating.

Baron Samedi is a weirdly silly villain. Are voodoo priests supposedly credible supervillains? Seems more like a Scooby Doo bad guy.

You’ll notice through all of this I haven’t said much about Bond himself. Well, that’s because Roger Moore is kind of boring. That’s probably the kindest thing I’ll say about him, but his clean cut Bond just doesn’t have a lot going on for him. He hangs around in scenes looking stuffy and disinterested, all of his reactions mostly reduced down to a single surprised eyebrow raise he breaks out anytime something happens. He just doesn’t have presence, making his Bond a guy who seemingly is nothing more than his actions. Even Connery, who I feel tended towards the ridiculous, managed to make his Bond feel intensely emotional and wryly good-humored. Moore Bond just feels like a collection of attributes made to resemble a character. It’s unfortunate, but … there we go. I will never be a Roger Moore fan, despite how solid I think the movie around him is. And we have so many Moore movies to go.

The Theme Song/Opening Title:
The actual title scene isn’t particularly interesting, I have to admit. Same stuff as usual, abstract design (this time lots of fire) over naked ladies. That said, for some bizarre reason Paul McCartney decided to step up to the plate and offer Wings’ services to craft a bafflingly schizophrenic opening title, that alternates between a cool chorus line, some crazy percussive bridges, and this absolutely out of place ballad that comes in and out like he had a half-written song he tossed into the blender for kicks. It’s not bad–in fact I quite like it–but it doesn’t have a lot of coherent vision. Just like the film, I guess.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:
What is it with Bond and watches? I suppose they were the most obvious piece of technology on a person through most of the late 20th century, so secreting devices on them made sense. In this case there’s an amazing electromagnet that can force-grab objects from yards away and even deflect bullets. And when it’s not doing that, he can flip some other switch and the watch face becomes a circular saw blade that he uses to cut through a rope binding him. That doesn’t seem safe at all, and I’m not sure how you fit both things into a standard sized watch, but … well, I’m not Q.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
Jane Seymour plays prophetic tarot reader Solitaire, who wins this award almost by default. Unfortunately, this is also the most problematic part of the movie. I mean, obviously framing Bond in these subgenres are going to create racial overtones, and obviously there’s some jarring things (Bond gets called ‘honkey’ a whoooole lot), but for the most part they seem true to the time period (and let’s face it, Roger Moore is totally a honkey.)

Solitaire's crazy headdress throne thing is the most interesting thing about her, sadly.

This doesn’t extend to the Bond girl, however, because while Jane Seymour is a fine actress she is the obvious white woman meant to bed the white hero in a film that is otherwise totally populated by black actors and actresses. It’s not particularly commented on, which makes it all the worse, as it’s the obvious elephant in the room. Add to the fact that the final act ends up being white-woman-accosted-by-savage-black-mob and you get all sorts of coded messaging that makes it … well, I don’t know. Racially charged, probably mostly through a lack of thought than anything.

But that doesn’t excuse the other big problem with Solitaire, which brings us to this movie’s

Best Bondickery:
which is all about Solitaire. When Bond spots her as the lone female he immediately sets his sights on her. At this point it isn’t even really a courtship. Of course he’ll bed her, it’s just what he does. But she is unusually dismissive of his attempts because she is the archetypal virgin oracle. Her power of prophesy, passed down from her family, leaves when she sleeps with a man. Certainly Bond, master of empathy, will understand how her religious beliefs keep her from throwing herself at him like literally every other woman in this whole series.

Bond manages to unnerve her when he pulls the Lovers tarot card during an early encounter, so when he meets her again he makes her pull a random card before he leaves her alone. She pulls the Lovers card, and deciding fate has decreed she is to pass on her legacy as her mother and grandmother did, submits to Bond’s advances. Which is when Bond tosses the deck aside and reveals that he brought a deck filled with nothing but Lovers cards. That’s right, Bond used her beliefs to trick her into not only sleeping with him, but giving up her whole life and subjecting her to danger as she is kept around mostly as the Big Bad’s source of prophecy. Bond: sex by coercion, culturally manipulative, giant asshole.

JAMES BOND will return in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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