Friday 6 December 2013

Movie Review: Live And Let Die (1973)

Roger Moore steps into the James Bond role, just as the blaxploitation film era hits its peak. Live And Let Die makes good use of a relatively local drug trafficking plot, but also suffers from seriously dated stereotypes and ill-advised attempts at boarish humour.

Three British agents are killed, one at the United Nations, one in New Orleans, and the third on the voodoo and snake-obsessed small (and fictional) Caribbean island of San Monique. Agent James Bond (Moore) travels to New York to investigate, and is immediately the target of an assassination attempt. With the help of the CIA's Felix Leiter (David Hedison), Bond tracks down the would-be murderers to a Harlem restaurant, where he tangles with a group of drug traffickers working for gang leader Mr. Big. Beguiling tarot card reader Solitaire (Jane Seymour) appears to be the group's resident muse.

Bond next travels to San Monique, ruled by the corrupt Prime Minister Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). The CIA's poorly trained Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) attempts to provide some assistance, but boat owner Quarrel Jr. (Roy Stewart) proves to be a more effective ally. Bond infiltrates Kananga's secluded estate and seduces Solitaire, causing her to lose her fortune-telling powers. Bond uncovers vast poppy fields and a major heroine trafficking plot linking Dr. Kananga with Mr. Big. With the help of his henchmen, including the claw-handed Tee Hee Johnson (Julius Harris) and barrel-shaped, gravel-voiced Whisper (Earl Jolly Brown), Kananga strikes back and seeks his revenge on both Bond and Solitaire.

Live And Let Die has many moments that die a slow death. A boat chase in the Louisiana bayous takes forever, and is made much longer with the ill-conceived introduction of the idiot redneck Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), inserted for comic relief but only providing relief when he finally exits the movie, having massively overstayed his welcome. Rosie Carver is one of the least interesting ladies ever to interact with Bond, while the blaxploitation elements, including criminalizing almost every black character and whites continuously referring to blacks as "boy", have aged quite poorly.

But the Tom Mankiewicz script also gets a lot right. The funeral procession in New Orleans is pure unnerving fun, and deserves the encore that it receives. The character of Solitaire and Jane Seymour's portrayal of the sexy but sad fortune teller are memorable, and the scenes in New York have that 1970's edgy but derelict vibe.

The generally small scale of the conspiracy tackled by Bond is welcome, as he gets down to sorting out vile drug barons rather than world-control maniacs. Yaphet Kotto portrays one of the less exaggerated Bond villains, which makes him both more authentically dangerous but also more forgettable in the context of the series. And finally there are the crocodiles, as Bond comes face to face with the gigantic and hungry reptiles, and finds a clever way to escape their toothy smiles.

Moore, already 46 years old as he makes his debut, is fit-enough and certainly suave, but lacks any dangerous edges. His style is smooth and effortless, quick with the quip and the raised eyebrow, and conveying a man enjoying himself rather than fighting for any cause. Guy Hamilton, directing his third Bond feature, settles into a functional rather than flashy mode. This is a Bond adventure with little glitz or glamour, but plenty of haphazard voodoo idols, masks, snakes and touches of the occult.

The title song by Paul McCartney and Wings is another strong entry into the Bond soundtrack catalogue, and the theme is effectively used throughout the film.

While it does not take the series in any new or exciting directions, Live And Let Die serves the purpose of surviving the transition to a new Bond actor. Bond lives on, with an intact license to let others die.

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