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Sep 17 2012

Review of Live and Let Die and reflections on the Bond genre

This year is the 50th anniversary of the launching of the James Bond film franchise with 1962′s Dr. No, so it is timely to take another look at the world’s most famous fictional spy. Besides which, I was in bed with the flu at the end of last week (hence the lighter blogging during that period) and I needed some low-effort entertainment and what could be more mindless fun than a Bond film? I went all the way back to Roger Moore’s debut in the role in 1973′s Live and Let Die, which I had not seen before.

The film was a real hoot. I am not sure when the people behind the Bond franchise decided to go for campiness but this was well in that genre. The plot was preposterous and riddled with holes from the get-go. In these films one has to concede an unbelievable central premise on which to hang the plot (such as the villain having a nuclear weapon or a plan to destroy the world or stockpile gold) but it is the unnecessary outlandish touches, the superfluous glosses, that distinguish the truly campy from the mundane. For example, in this film, in order to kill a person standing on the sidewalk, the villains organize a massive New Orleans funeral with jazz band, mourners, dancers and the works, when it would have been just as easy to shoot him in a drive-by. And they do this twice in exactly the same way.

Also the villains were cartoonish down to the evil laughs, there were the extended chases (by plane, cars, boats, buses, and combinations of them) and the villains make the usual fatal mistake, when Bond is completely at their mercy, of creating elaborate means of killing him (in this case involving crocodiles and sharks), thus allowing him time to escape.

Moore himself makes a passable Bond, thought quite different from Connery in that he seems more at home with tongue-in-cheek humor than with a sardonic and cruel edge, and hence seems more suited to this campy phase of the genre. He was 46 when he took on the role but looks about a decade younger. It is ironic that although he is three years older than Sean Connery, he was passed over for Connery when they were casting the first Bond film because he was thought to be too old at 35.

For a master spy, Bond seems quite careless. British intelligence goes to all the trouble of giving him and everyone else (except, for some reason, Miss Moneypenny) cool code names, and yet he goes around introducing himself to everyone by saying, “My name is Bond. James Bond”, and even reserving hotel rooms under it. It seems like only the people in MI6 are unaware of his real name. He also makes the rookie mistake of taking the first cab that comes along, when even I could have warned him that it is usually being driven by one of the bad guys. And he does this twice in the same film, with the same bad guy driver. I hope MI6 spy training has improved its quality control since then.

The theme song was written by Paul and Linda McCartney and sung by McCartney and Wings. Of all the four Beatles, McCartney was the only one who seemed to have suddenly lost all his prodigious talent once the Beatles broke up and this effort was unsurprisingly dreadful. Of course, he did not have much to work with since the meaningless phrase ‘live and let die’ is hard to work a lyric around, though the great composer John Barry managed to create memorable theme songs around the even more meaningless Bond title Thunderball in addition to Goldfinger, as well as orchestrating, but not composing, the iconic James Bond theme.

The film is quite dated in how it portrays black Americans and in showing the people of a fictitious Caribbean island as mindless followers of voodoo mumbo-jumbo who seem to spend most of their time dancing to pulsating rhythms before their high priest sacrifices victims using poisonous snakes.

One of the nice things about seeing old films is to see actors when they were not so well known. This film introduces Jane Seymour, long before she became TV’s Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, playing a Tarot card reader with truly clairvoyant powers whom the chief villain depends upon to tell him what is happening. Her skills as a psychic may have been great but her acting is, frankly, lousy. Her role as the designated damsel in distress requires her to look terrified much of the time and she simply cannot pull off even that one expression.

Another thing about watching older films is to see what films looked like before they started giving a lot of them a cool blue tint in post-production. The older films have much more vivid color. I have written about the strange case of disappearing color before.

Eddie Izzard puts his unique stamp on something that everyone has noticed, how Q always seems to know exactly what gadgets Bond will need on his next mission, suggesting that he might have psychic powers as well. Maybe he uses Tarot cards too.

But despite their absurdity, or maybe because of it, Bond films are perfect when you have the flu.

26 comments

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  1. 1
    Kevin, 友好火猫 (Friendly Fire Cat)

    I think James Bond is his code name.

    Think about it. There have been six different actors playing Bond, all of whom act in a different way, all of whom have different personalities and different styles of spying – such as the dashing and debonair nature of the Connery Bond compared to the action-packed, take-no-prisoners of the Craig Bond.

    In fact, it even makes sense with their characteristics, their looks and the fact that as 50 years have gone by, Bond still is young, but is still acting with current technology. If Bond was the same person, he’d still be using 1960s technology, wouldn’t he?

    I actually think that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Lazenby’s Bond) is the best evidence for the “different Bonds” theory. After getting married and having his wife murdered, the Lazenby Bond retired early, and MI:6 had to call in Connery’s Bond while they looked for a replacement (Moore’s Bond.)

    My thoughts, anyway.

  2. 2
    Reginald Selkirk

    My favourite James Bond film is the one with the babes, the gadgets, and the international intrigue.

  3. 3
    Andrew Ryan

    Live and Let Die a dreadful song? Come on, it’s a classic! It fits perfectly with the film, withstands cover versions, and still sounds great when Macca plays it today. As for Paul being the one who lost it most quickly after The Beatles – what, more than Ringo? isn’t Band on the Run seen as a classic album?

    The film terrified me when I watched it as a boy – death by stabbing and snake, crocodiles, skulls, voodoo… and yes the theme song scared me too. it still gives me the shivers to think of it now.

  4. 4
    machintelligence

    Trivia time: I have on my bookshelf a book by the real James Bond.

    Fleming took the name for his character from that of the American ornithologist James Bond, a Caribbean bird expert and author of the definitive field guide Birds of the West Indies;

  5. 5
    daved

    My favourite James Bond film is the one with the babes, the gadgets, and the international intrigue.

    Oh, no question! That one was way better than all the other ones, where he plays a purchasing supervisor in York.

  6. 6
    Chiroptera

    Heh. I remember when they played a few of the James Bond movies on TV when I was a kid; I was allowed to watch a couple of them.

    I distinctly remember the way so many characters were killed off during the course of the movie, often in a very casual, cold blooded manner.

    I found this rather disturbing, and I didn’t grow to appreciate that type of movie until I was quite a bit older.

  7. 7
    savagemutt

    Live and Let Die is a fun one to watch. Some of it is hilariously bad. I love the scene where a snake is dropped into Bond’s hotel room and he kills it with a cigar and hairspray.

    It’s interesting to watch the transition in the Moore movies as he becomes a bit more vicious as he ages. Octopussy, Moonraker and the dreaded View to a Kill are aberrations though.

  8. 8
    Mano Singham

    That’s a pretty good theory, actually.

  9. 9
    Dunc

    Bond’s a thug. No, the true gentleman spy is Patrick Macnee’s John Steed, from The Avengers. (Not the superhero team.)

    Interestingly, there’s a bit of back story (I don’t know if it’s canonical for either franchise) about how John Steed got expelled from Eton for fighting with the school bully – one James Bond.

    What I find really interesting is the dramatically different portrayal of women in the two franchises. Both of Steed’s female associates are extremely strong characters in their own right, of the sort you simply never see in a Bond film.

  10. 10
    Kevin, 友好火猫 (Friendly Fire Cat)

    There are a few flaws to the theory, to be exact.

    Some of the Bonds have some meta-knowledge that they wouldn’t necessarily know (Lazenby’s Bond, for example, being aware of Connery Bond’s gadgets. Moore’s Bond visiting Tracy’s grave.)

    There are characters that reference having known Bond from their past when Bond wouldn’t necessarily have the code name (someone referencing knowing Bond from Cambridge.)

    Also the issue with the Goldeneye Intro – which happened nine years prior to the rest of the movie, when it would’ve been Moore / Dalton’s Bond rather than Brosnan’s.

    And last, Dalton’s Bond retained the Bond name even when he had retired.

    A few of these are easy to work out (Lazenby’s Bond knew about the gadgets enough to be familiar with them, Moore’s Bond visited Tracy’s grave to honor his predecessor.) Some are a bit more difficult (maybe someone only recognized “Bond” from Cambridge but not his real name, limitations of casting for the Goldeneye intro, maybe Dalton’s Bond didn’t give up the code name) but the flaws don’t really affect it too badly to say it couldn’t be the case.

  11. 11
    Lukas

    Say what you want about the Wings, but Live And Let Die is a pretty awesome song. And I say that as a 30-years-old who never saw the movie or consciously heard the song as a kid, so it’s not nostalgia speaking.

  12. 12
    mnb0

    Nice! So much to disagree with.
    First of all I am very curious which talent Ringo Starr ever displayed in his solo non-career. John Lennon and George Harrison became very preachy, which way too often resulted in noodle-noodle-noodley notes – music is too big a word.
    2) While I am absolutely no fan of The Wings I think Live and let Die one of the better songs. It has an excellent riff.
    3) All Bond movies before 1990 I have seen – most of them – are quite outdated as the stunts and the gadgets usually fail to impress these days. Whether they are enjoyable largely depends on the English wits. Connery (who would became a much better actor after he quit Bond) and Dalton hardly deliver and Moore’s acting is too stiff to my taste.
    4) So my favourite Bond is Pierce Brosnan. Imo he is the archtypal cool British gentleman, which is ironical given his Irish descent. But yeah, Sorry, forgot to knock is a classic. The stunts and gadgets are great and all the plotholes and villains behaving like idiots are nicely left intact.

  13. 13
    Lukas

    But why would they use the same code name all the time? Isn’t that just as bad as using your real name?

  14. 14
    Mr Ed

    The Dread Pirate Roberts theory.

    Wikipedia says that Bond scholars, I guess there is such a thing, have figured his birthday as either 11/11/1920 or 11/11/1921. Maybe even at the eleventh hour.

  15. 15
    mnb0

    Halle Berry.
    But generally speaking you are right; I think John Steed much more likable than Roger Moore’s Bond.

  16. 16
    Glenn

    I find it interesting how people who were in their early teens when the first Bond movies came out were able to accept that someone could issue and someone could receive a license to kill.

    Government issue of license to kill is so readily accepted today that there is barely any sense of outrage in response to state murders.

    Perhaps American culture could become similarly desensitized to other forms of violence by the issue, in movies, of other licenses such as the license to rape.

  17. 17
    savagemutt

    4) So my favourite Bond is Pierce Brosnan. Imo he is the archtypal cool British gentleman, which is ironical given his Irish descent.

    IIRC, the literary Bond is part Irish.

  18. 18
    Mano Singham

    The actor Christopher Lee, who was a cousin of Ian Fleming, said, “In my opinion — and I think I know as much, if not more about Bond than anyone particularly about the characters on whom Ian Fleming told me Bond was based — Pierce Brosnan was by far the best and closest to the character.”

    Ian Fleming was initially apparently appalled by the choice of Sean Connery but warmed to him later.

  19. 19
    Chiroptera

    Heh. In the same vein I find recent (relatively) shows like NCIS to be disturbing: how the state security forces have the technology and skills to relentlessly, ruthlessly, and efficiently close in on and catch the perps not matter how clever the criminal is and where he or she is hiding.

    And the blatant abuses of Constitutional authority and violations of suspects’ civil rights that occur right there in those shows don’t exactly lull me into a suspension of disbelief that they will always use their powers for good.

  20. 20
    Kevin, 友好火猫 (Friendly Fire Cat)

    No family. No background. Nothing besides a name and a dead end. The only time Bond ever tried to get a family, she got killed. I imagine MI:6 would update Bond’s history as needed – a fake name with a fake past – so that literally anyone could be Bond.

    Now of course you’d run into a few problems with people meeting Bond, running into a new Bond (say Brosnan’s Bond versus Craig’s Bond) and recognizing they’re not the same person or vice versa – but the chances of that are really minor.

  21. 21
    feralboy12

    My favorite Bond film is Never Say Tomorrow Or Die. What? I made that up?
    Yeah, I did. Actually, I despise Bond films. None of his gadgets would ever actually work, and villains who can hollow out volcanoes and build giant spaceports without detection or becoming known to the public seem…less than plausible.
    On the other hand, there is a new show premiering tonight on NBC (IIRC) where not only does all electrical power apparently shut down, but judging by the bows and arrows and horses, chemical energy sources don’t seem to work, either. Not sure how life continues without chemical reactions.
    There’s a limit on how many impossible premises I can accept at one time.

  22. 22
    ttch

    Awesome except for the awkward phrase, “…this ever-changing world in which we live in…”

  23. 23
    hyphenman

    I’ll take Harry Palmer any day…

  24. 24
    machintelligence

    That sounds a lot like the premise in the novels by S. M. Stirling {Dies the Fire, et seq.). It isn’t so much that chemical reactions don’t work (gunpowder will still burn) but that pressure buildup is severely limited. Steam engines, internal combustion engines, and firearms no longer work. The series also contains a magical/witchcraft element I found annoying.

  25. 25
    left0ver1under

    Call me Mr. Picky, but when it comes to espionage movies, I can’t stomach them if they’re unrealistic. That’s not to say the “realistic” ones don’t contain exaggerations (e.g. the Austin Mini in the first Bourne movie), but rather that one could see the characters and events as plausible.

    If I want to see unrealistic and funny, I’ll go watch the Lupin III films. Can anyone honestly say this car chase from “Castle of Cagliostro” is less believable than the average James Bond chase scene?

    http://youtu.be/aGTxs2QeWJg

    Of all the Bond movies, I can only watch two: “Dr. No” and the “Casino Royale” remake with Daniel Craig. In both films, Bond actually seems in danger, as if he might not survive. It’s tedious to watch movies where it’s a foregone conclusion that the “good guy” will win. (For comparison, John McClane in the first Die Hard movie to the second, third and fourth.)

    The best spy films are those where the characters are smart and plausible. I always found Michael Caine’s “Harry Palmer” films (based on Len Deighton’s books) to be far more entertaining. And though I didn’t like the book, I’d rate Richard Burton’s “Spy Who Came In From The Cold” as the most realistic spy film I’ve seem.

  26. 26
    Didaktylos

    Actually – I think the true lyrics are “ever changing world in which we’re living

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