More noise than signal

Live and Let Die

Live and Let Die proved quite the surprise for me. By which I don’t mean that it’s a far better film than I recall, or that, actually, the newly installed Roger Moore was a better Bond than Sean Connery. The surprise for me is that it doesn’t start with that ludicrous sequence of Moore picking up a wheelchair-bound ‘Blofeld’ in a helicopter and dropping him down a chimney like some evil, dead Santa.

That happens about eight years later in For Your Eyes Only. My addled memory had put that scene as Moore’s first actions as Bond for the obvious reason that it makes a hell of a lot more sense, providing at once a continuity with the prior films in the series as well as break, and a new beginning with a new actor and, inevitably, a new actor’s take on Bond.

Choosing Moore as Bond seems, retrospectively, almost inexplicable. I can’t have been the only one to think that by the time Diamonds Are Forever rolled round, Connery was looking a little too long in the tooth for this spy caper. Casting someone older than Connery to replace him must have, fittingly enough, raised a few eyebrows.

I’m not the biggest fan of Moore’s interpretation of Bond. While the character as a whole has deviated considerably from the colder, more calculating persona of Fleming’s novels, regardless of how daffy the scripting of the films became Connery often managed to present the idea that his charm and swagger was a front for not really caring about anyone other than himself. This is a sensible self-preservation mechanism given the turnover of Bond girls in his life.

Starting here, that side completely vanishes. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s been particularly prevalent over the end of the Connery era either, but losing all hint of it makes the character measurably less interesting. By making Bond easier to like, and by playing up comedic elements in the scripts to degrees that are often laughable in entirely the wrong way, it becomes far less compelling.

That said, perhaps there’s the least of the playing for laughs in Live and Let Die, which is odd, because it’s probably the most ridiculous of the scenarios that Moore finds himself in. Not so much in the sense of the overarching plot, concerning a Caribbean tinpot dictator cum crime boss Dr. Kanaga (Yaphet Kotto) attempting to flood the United States with cheap heroin, driving his competitors out of business, increasing the number of junkies then creaming money from the monopoly he’s created.

This is quaintly small scale, in comparison to SMERSH’s hi-jinks. Why, this doesn’t even require a rocket launch pad! It’s surprising Bond even bothers to get out of bed for it. No, the plot is believable enough. It’s the ancillary nonsense that surrounds the central story that’s bizarre, almost to the point of outright racism.

Appearing at the height of the Blaxplotiation era, this makes no bones about hitching on to that bandwagon. Almost from the outset, Bond’s being chased by what’s described as a pimpmobile, and from there on in there seems to be approximately one black person around who isn’t in some way connected to Kanaga and by extension, evil. Which is, I imagine, to be expected in the investigation of a crime syndicate run entirely by black folks, and shouldn’t feel any more racist than a plot centred on the Mafia being full of Italians or Italian-Americans. Except somehow it does.

In isolation, I doubt I’d have a problem with the portrayal of Big Mister Doctor Kanaga’s restaurant fronted heroin distribution scheme, if it wasn’t for the assorted nonsense that Kananga ties himself up with. Despite seeming sane and rational, he places an inordinate amount of trust and faith in the guidance of his personal fortune teller, Solitaire (Jane Seymour). He’s involved with a bunch of loincloth-attired lunatics who are tying people to stakes and waving rubber snakes at them, although come to think of it they were perhaps supposed to be real snakes. One of his henchmen, if the ending of the film is to be believed, is actually an immortal voodoo spirit, or at the very least a chap who is surprisingly resilient to snake venom.

Frankly, Live and Let Die seems to be about one step away from shouting “ooga-booga” at you and starting tirades with, “I’m not racist, but…”. Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be an undercurrent suggesting that we should all fear black people that I found off-putting, if not outright offensive. Perhaps it’s just a child of its time, although that’s something of a lame excuse even if it is.

I shall perhaps hold major judgement on Moore’s Bond for a few more films. It only seems fair to give the man a little time to get his feet under the metaphorical desk, but I’m certainly not alone in finding his initial outing lacklustre. He displays such a casual, off-hand attitude to everything up to the prospect of being eaten by an alligator that it removes almost any of the impact the events shown should have.

Mechanically, it’s competently made film, and I suppose the march of time has made the effects work far more effective. There’s no real comparison between, say, the car chases of Goldfinger and the car and boat chases of Live and Let Die. It’s no longer a film than the other Bond movies, but there does seem to be a little more deadweight to be carried here that perhaps ought to have been excised.

I’m thinking mainly of a seemingly interminable sequence of Solitaire and Bond tooling around on San Monique before finding Kananga’s heroin poppy crop, and the closing chase sequence’s continual interuptions to introduce us to hick Lousiana Sherrif J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), who I’m guessing was supposed to provide comic relief rather than the massive, massive irritation that he actually induces.

While Paul McCartney’s post Beatles work (and to be honest, a lot of his during-Beatles work) aren’t exactly my cup of tea, for reasons I would struggle to adequately explain (unfortunate, given the nature of this increasingly unweildily parenthesised paragraph) the Live and Let Die theme is one of my favourites. I think it’s because it sounds like three seperate songs crudely glued together with some sort of rudimentary musical adhesive.

I realise now, as I draw this monologue to a thankful close, that I’m almost giving the wrong impression of this film. There’s not really any single element, music aside, that I could say that I particularly enjoyed. It certainly wouldn’t be the Bond film that I recommend to anyone looking to get into the series, and I have issues with most of the subject matter. Yet still, there’s enough polish and structure to the movie that I, if not exactly enjoyed it, didn’t mind passing the time with it too much,

“Inoffensive” might not exactly be glowing praise for the movie, but given some of the horrors we’ll be subjected to over the coming weeks as we delve into Moore’s stint as Bond, I’ll take what I can get.