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.