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Live and Let Die
When Sean Connery opted out of the James Bond role, the 007 series took a tumble. George Lazenby's On Her Majesty's Secret Service did respectable business, but fear for the franchise brought Connery back for Diamonds Are Forever while Danjaq decided how to reinvent Bond for the 1970s. The result was 1973's Live and Let Die, which confirmed 007's turn toward comedy. New Bond Roger Moore already had a strong association with secret agent work on Television, and was considered a master at straight-faced quips.
Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz had apparently been chosen to pen Diamonds are Forever because of his script for The Sweet Ride, a 1968 movie set in Las Vegas. Diamonds veered in a more comedic direction, making heavy use of "funny" homosexuals as perverted villains. Bond fights gay assassins on a pleasure cruise and grapples with lesbian killer-girls in a desert hideaway. Blofeld appears in drag. Live and Let Die continues the trend of self-spoofery. Moore's unflappable Bond beds all the girls as if he possessed a license to ****, and confronts most threats with an arched eyebrow and a really lousy joke: "Butterhook!" ... "I'm just being disarming, dear."
The original Bond diet of intrigue and danger has been jettisoned in favor of a series of cartoon adventures and chases. Bond gets caught in revolving café tables and booths that drop like elevators through the floor. Because Roger Moore isn't very physically adept or graceful in motion, the major set pieces have him piloting vehicles that perform all the action. 007 jumps behind the wheel of an English-style double-decker bus and wrecks an airport in a runaway Piper Cub airplane. By the time we get to the main set piece, a speedboat chase in a Louisiana bayou, Live and Let Die has lowered 007 to the level of a Roadrunner cartoon. The action is often spectacular, especially those awesome boat jumps. Mankiewicz comes up with some good Buster Keaton-style sight gags, such as the wedding party demolished by the grass-hopping speedboats. The new direction is funny and exciting, but it abandons most of what made James Bond 007 unique. Roger Moore's Bond is essentially a clown.
Live and Let Die has extensive location shooting in New York and Louisiana, and although many voices seem to be post-dubbed by UK talent, the movie employs quit a few American actors. The bad guys are all black, from the fat henchman Whisper (Earl Jolly Brown) to the amusingly lethal Tee Hee (Julius Harris) with his mechanical claw. Tom Mankiewicz enlivens the movie with touchy content that the English producers could never navigate on their own. Instead of downplaying the film's black villains, Mankiewicz lampoons America's race divide with a wholesale parody of the Blaxploitation craze. In print, the movie reads like a provocation. Strutting around as the epitome of class-conscious England, Bond sleeps with Gloria Hendry's Rosie Carver as casually as he beds the first scene's Miss Caruso (Madeline Smith). Black thugs threaten 007 with knives and guns and gloat over him with toothy smiles. Bond outwits them only half the time.
At the top of the heap is Kananga, a "respectable" diplomat with a secret identity as Mr. Big (the great Yaphet Kotto), a brutal drug baron. The racist politics favor the prejudices of right-wing Brits: Even though Kananga / Big rules a Caribbean island, the inference is that black politics are a sham and that the UK's newly independent colonies need her paternal governance. On the side of the blacks is magic, in the form of Solitaire (Jane Seymour) a beautiful fortuneteller in the employ of Mr. Big. As in a classic myth, Solitaire's super-power will vanish if she loses her virginity. This gives the movie a good reason to claim that Mr. Big has never slept with Solitaire, thus maintaining racist standards. Of course, it's perfectly acceptable for the black Rosie to be bedded by Bond. It would seem that Solitaire would be an ideal planning assistant for "M" back in London, but Bond has no trouble "curing" her of her prognostic talents. When the show ends, Solitaire is just another ordinary conquest, ready for the 007 Home for Cast-Off Girl Friends.
The fun comes when Bond interacts with Mr. Big's hoodlum minions. Some of the Harlem wisecracks are pretty funny, and the black cast's pimp-mobiles and other accoutrements contrast well with Moore's snooty etiquette. Bond may get the best of them, but as he's just a clown, the joke's really on him. Yaphet Kotto was very proud of his opportunity to play a bigger-than-life Bond villain; a starring role in a James Bond film is a big step up from the usual grindhouse opportunities. Black moviegoers loved Live and Let Die. I remember the audience uproar of approval for one particular exchange drowning out the soundtrack for at least half a minute:
Mr. Big: "Names is for tombstones, baby! Y'all take this honkey out and waste him!"
Urban blacks even loved the film's Sheriff J. W. Pepper character, an exaggerated Southern cracker who talks like a moron and provides an escape valve for resentment. When his prowl car is ripped in two by an airborne speedboat, Pepper becomes hysterical, claiming that "Black Russians" are invading his Parish. Pepper is played by New York actor Clifton James, who was noted for sensitive roles as social workers and counselors in movies like Lilith and David and Lisa. James even had a prominent part in the racially progressive Black Like Me. Sheriff Pepper proved so popular that he returned in The Man with the Golden Gun and even made an appearance in Mankiewicz's Superman II.
The Blaxploitation humor may be liberating, but the Voodoo segments prove that Live and Let Die is still racist at heart. The rituals are as 'primitive' and 'savage' as the rites in xenophobic Hammer films like The Stranglers of Bombay. Solitare is tied to an altar like Ann Darrow in King Kong, playing out the old rape fantasy. Bond wades into the cowering Voodoo cult, shooting down blacks with his chrome pistol ... it's Sax Rohmer and H. Rider Haggard all over again.
Live and Let Die is said to be the Bond series' only flirtation with supernatural content. The Voodoo tricks and magical appearances of Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) are far too elaborate to be stage fakery. The first thing we hear about Baron Samedi is that he can't be killed. Black audiences were clearly pleased when the film gives Samedi the literal last laugh. Had Roger Moore's debut been a "serious" thriller, it might have incited riots.
MGM's Blu-ray of Live and Let Die is a crisp copy of 007's eighth outing. If the film makes less of a visual impact than the earlier entries, it might be a matter of color design. Tones are muted throughout, as if Syd Cain and Ted Moore were trying to blend the Bond look with the urban grit of contemporary American films. Some of the exteriors in Harlem (which looks like a rubble-strewn war zone) exhibit prominent grain. After four Panavision releases, Live and Let Die shrinks Bond back down to matted widescreen, diminishing our expectations of lavish spectacle.
The great score by George Martin, with its fantastic title theme by Paul McCartney and Wings, makes us wish that Martin wrote more movie music than he did. John Barry may be the king but Martin's underscore is perfectly placed, bracketing key action moments rather than smothering them. The music is an exception to the tendency for rock scores to date badly; the title tune is a ode to transcendent violence and anarchy. The 5.1 remix adds dynamics to the track, sometimes making the many overdubbed dialogue lines stand out a bit too much.
All of the extras from the DVD Ultimate Editions have been retained but nothing is new. A 1973 interview piece is present in a pretty ragged form; it was heavily raided for bites to put in the main Making-Of Docu. Also included is a half-hour UK variety show from 1964 in which Roger Moore appears as James Bond, with Millicent Martin. The humor is obvious and dreadful, and Moore's skit interpretation of the role is pretty embarrassing. His suave comedy underplaying in Live and Let Die is a distinct improvement.
That main Docu has been upgraded and re-edited to HD standard, with all the film clips and graphics replaced. Patrick Macnee's narration is as smooth as ever. The clips in the remarkable Crocodile Outtake section have been retransferred in HD as well, giving us a better view of the (insane) stunt in which a man hops, skips and jumps across the backs of several very irate reptiles.
Savant watched Live and Let Die by driving to the house of an understanding friend and playing it on his newer Blu-ray machine; it wouldn't even load up on my Sony BDP S300. Ten days after street date, Sony is offering a firmware upgrade. When it gets here in 7-10 days I'll find out if my Bond playback problems are solved. Stuart Galbraith IV discusses the phenomenon in a Savant editorial called Bond Blu-ray Trouble, to which I've amended a number of interesting replies, complaints and explanations for the discouraging fact that every official Blu-ray disc may not play in every official Blu-ray disc player. The editorial has some good points to make and some of the responses are very educational. I certainly learned a few things about what I thought was a simple disc player.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Live and Let Die Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Compiled by Gerald R. Woodring: MI6 Commentaries: with Tom Mankiewicz, Guy Hamilton, Roger Moore. Declassified: Mi6 Vault: The Lost Documentary, Roger Moore as James Bond 1964. 007 Mission Control: OO7, Women, Allies, Villains, Combat Manual, Q Branch, Exotic Locations. Mission Dossier: Inside Live and Let Die, On Set with Roger Moore.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 3, 2008
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