Wednesday, 17 August 2011

BlogalongaBond #8 - Live And Let Die (1973)

(Here is a link to a revised version of my IMDb review of Live And Let Die, May 2003)
... and while we're on links, you should play this Barry Adamson track on a loop whilst reading anything to do with Live And Let Die

1973 was the greatest year in the history of cinema. No? OK, read this list of its most popular films. The quality is undeniable and extensive. Live And Let Die comes in at #7. This is clearly a reflection of the currency of the Bond franchise by this point. Yet this latest episode is certainly an above-average outing. For Roger Moore's first turn in the role, Guy Hamilton constructed a slick thriller and despite the insistence on the basic structural armature set in stone with Diamonds Are Forever before it, there are still a number of innovations and even risks taken to keep it fresh and exciting.

For example - the music is not by John Barry but by George Martin, better placed to reflect the popular soul-funk world of the recent phenomenon of blaxploitation cinema. There are also great sound designs worked into the film - the squeal of plane tyres immediately after Solitaire's portentous 'he brings violence and destruction' and not to mention the sudden extinguishing of all music altogether as Bond has his first surprise encounter with the seating at a Fillet Of Soul bar.

Moore himself slips into the role as easily as if Connery had been simply keeping his Walther PPK warm. Moore is the quintessential Bond, the man most adept at delivering the slippery amalgam of thrills and caper that distinguishes a Bond film from a-spy-thriller-featuring-a-character-called-Bond. His most valuable contribution is in the delivery of the one-liner, of which there are as many in this film as in the whole of Connery's. In all seriousness, it takes a particular techincal skill to deliver
Don't worry darling, it's just a small hat, belonging to a man of limited means, who lost a fight with a chicken
without it being weighed down with its own self-satisfaction.

Yet what fascinates me about Live And Let Die is not that it's a notable Lazarus of the canon. Its chief appeal is connected to its daring assimilation of a contemporary but ostensibly immiscible culture, black urban cinema. No, don't worry, I'm not about to sketch a comparative study of black cinema, about which I know very little. Certainly the black cast, led by Yaphet Kotto is skilled and idiosyncratic. The acting is classy, as they fill their own tropes with an √©lan only possible in those first fresh years of blaxploitation (i.e. before the rot of parody could set in).

No, what gives Live And Let Die its weight is its dealing with the occult. The supernatural, the emotional twilight of comprehension, is a sphere of intelligence that the cultured but ultimately pragmatic Bond would always find tricky. His only other experience ended badly, in the denoument to On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Fleming goes on to write an entire sequel - You Only Live Twice, obviously re-appropriated for the film - devoted to the cult of suicide, to deal with Bond's subsequent nihilism.

Live And Let Die is a more discreet study in how this affects Bond. It's certainly not as extensive on the issue of voodoo as Fleming (Fleming's books always have one chapter in which he permits himself to tangentially bore on a subject, which is voodoo in this case). But there are indicators that Hamilton is open to weaving it into the vernacular of the film. The contiguous references are there to see. Bond's London flat, with its mezzanine bedroom and arched doorways is a curious reproduction of No.6's Village flat in the 1967 existential spy-psychodrama The Prisoner (starring a famous Bond-refusenik in Patrick McGoohan), an allusion I'd dismissed until I saw Bond driving a Mini Moke in this film, the Prisoner vehicle of choice. Latterly, the American Bond, Indiana Jones builds on but distinguishes itself from Bond by explicitly embracing the issue of the supernatural, perhaps most pertinently in The Temple Of Doom.

I like the way Live And Let Die actually tackles the issue itself though. It's a very elemental film. There's water, naturally, as the setting is the fictional island of San Monique as well as the overlong but well-done boat-chase sequence. We also get pointed references to fire - the cigar-n-aerosol manoeuvre on the bathroom snake and Samedi setting alight the tarot card; earth - Samedi again, appearing from a grave; and air, with Bond arriving aerially with 'violence and destruction' not once but twice (the second time by hand-glider), and Kananga's miserable end by inflatable shark pellet. I find the subconscious pop-culture tie-in unignorable.

Alongside this there are the more obvious set pieces - the staged funeral procession in New Orleans and the actual Voodoo rite on San Monique, both appearing in the pre-title sequence. To this I'd also add the prevelance of reptiles, snakes and crocs, as undying, sinuous agents of menace and death and notably adopted as existential symbols in the recent films of Werner Herzog (the albino crocs in Cave Of Forgotten Dreams as well as the lizards of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, right).

Additionally, I found the CB radio communication with which Mr Big's Harlem network keeps track of Bond an absorbing metaphor. The cunning editing involves the protective CIA agent Strutter without revealing him as such, but this is a function of the radio network's indirect dialectic, like someone providing a diffuse narrative. It's a technique that's copied and expanded later in The Warriors, as an urban turf war in New York is incited, controlled and narrated by the mysterious night-shift radio DJ.

Naturally the most straightforward supernatural element of the film is the character of the clairvoyant, Solitaire. For me the only mishandled scene of the film is the rather circuitous pillow talk after Bond has finally seduced and deflowered her. They speak at cross purposes, Solitaire - played as a sexual ingenue by the beautiful Jane Seymour - bereft at losing her capabilities after the act of love, Bond consoling her for having conceded her virginity. Yet what's interesting is that Bond has his own magic charm, a non-figure-of-speech sexual allure, with which he in turn seems unable to get to work on the woman. It's an important moment which isn't played with great clarity.

Importantly here, Yaphet Kotto doesn't simply Guignol his way through the film but holds Solitaire in a genuine awe. His anger at Solitaire's defection isn't that she may have emasculated him but that her supernatural power may have been impaired. More than just a cctv substitute, Kananga actually believes in her medium capability, in the same way that he believes in his own taped memo designed to throw CIA off the scent after they've tailed him from the UN (watch Kotto's self-absorption in that scene again). It's also why the peculiar Samedi, played marvellously by Geoffrey Holder, is not cowed in his presence - and features in the startling, impossible final shot (which always reminds me of the final shot of Psycho). This overlap between the ritual and the purpose is at the heart of Live And Let Die, a perfect subject for the great melodramatist of the canon, Guy Hamilton, and consequently a highly effective film.

No comments: