Friday, 5 August 2016

007 Roger Moore Part One: Live and Let Bond

Roger Moore was never my James Bond. His impressive run on Bond ended a half decade before I was born. Since he wasn't the original Bond so his legacy wasn't ingrained on me from pop culture and neither was he the Bond I grew up with. I never really watched any of his Bond films aside from catching a bit here or there on television occasionally.

But for a lot of people, Moore was their Bond. He was the Bond of the seventies and for a good portion of the eighties. For seven movies covering more than a decade, Roger Moore was James Bond, armed with outrageous gadgets, a dashing smile and well-prepared puntastic quips.

What a rascally tuxedoed scamp. 

I discussed in my first Bond post that James Bond is such an icon that he is more of an archetype than a real character. To elaborate further, Bond is an archetype of masculine heroism constructed by highly identifiable signs which connote a certain type of masculinity, a masculinity which is defined by physical or intellectual dominance, debonair charm with a dash of misogyny, and topped off with a calmness under pressure due to a smug sense of superiority.

Sean Connery codified these signs during his disarmingly suave and horrendously sexist original take on the character, with a voice so utterly seductive it came with its own morning after pill. As the first and possible most famous portrayal of the role, his Bond set the template for other actors to follow.

Which is what Roger Moore had to do. Following the person who originated a role is always tough, especially when the character is so iconic. Now to be fair, George Lazenby also had to follow Connery but then Connery came back for the wonderfully bad Diamonds Are Forever before calling it quits again (don't, worry, we'll get to Lazenby eventually).

The franchise was in uncertain waters at this point, if Moore's first film wasn't a success, James Bond might have ended then and there. Cue Live and Let Die.

It was an eye-opener for us all.

I had never seen Live and Let Die before, although I was familiar with the title due to the amazing theme song by Paul McCartney and Wings which is a song I have heard more times than I could possibly count. Before I get into the film itself, I want to discuss this song because it is simply perfect and it was interesting to get to hear the song within the context of the film.

Of course, it plays over the opening credits, which are great if a little racist (we'll get into the racial overtones of the movie in a bit). But what always was weird to me is that "Live and Let Die" never really sounded like a typical Bond song to me.

There's no soulful diva belting out a jazzy tune with a brass accompaniment and delicately swirling strings. Even Tom Jones' "Thunderball" fitted into this mold. Most Bond songs have a certain feel, a certain seductive quality, for lack of a better term.

"Live and Let Die" is many things but seductive, it is not. It starts with simple piano chords and a lovely pop ballad vocal from McCartney, building tension with the repeated two chords under the "live and let die' chorus. Not quite Bond but it works.

Boom it rushes ahead with a super catchy guitar riff, coming to descending strings over staccato piano doodling, before we're hit with a reggae bridge that ends with McCartney's scream, back to catchy guitar riff. Then it slows down with the original simple piano but with a plaintive violin to support McCartney's vocal. Back to catchy riff to end the song.


Despite the fact it sounds nothing like what I imagine a Bond song to sound like, it's just fantastic. It's like if McCartney sat down and threw together as many different elements he could into a two and a half minutes of pure musical bliss.

The melodic pop balladry, the clashing repeated two chord pattern, the rocking guitar riff, the uninhibited orchestral arrangement, it sounds like four or five different songs thrown into a blender to create something special. And something different for a new Bond, which is a nice touch.

What I really liked is how much the song is incorporated into the score of the film itself. The repeated two chords are used several times to indicate something dramatic or action packed is about to happen in a scene and it really ties it together instead of having the song feel detached from the rest of the film.

Talking about the film, I should probably discuss it, shouldn't I?

"I'm surprised you haven't gotten round to it yet to be honest, old chap."

Well, first things first, I liked it. It's an enjoyable movie and Moore does a fine job filling the Connery shaped hole which had been left in the franchise at that point. But holy unnecessary Afro wig, it is a product of its time. Coming out in 1973, it capitalized on the popular blaxploitation trend at the time, incorporating elements more commonly found in films like Shaft or Superfly than a standard Bond adventure.

Blaxploitation was a subgenre of film which rise to prominence in the early 1970s and superficially catered to a black audience by featuring predominantly African-American casts. They told more 'urban' stories than had been seen on Hollywood cinema previously, heightened tales of drug dealers, pimps, and life in the inner city.

This was the first time Hollywood had movies with African-American actors as the protagonists in decidedly non-white stories. However, I say these films superficially catered to a black audience since they were rife with negative stereotypes of black masculinity and the violence of urban living which often reinforced white prejudice instead of confronting it.

So James Bond, a blue-eyed white British spy, is a natural fit for a blaxploitation film, right? Surprisingly, he is in some ways. Moore plays the fish out of water role quite well, when Bond goes into Harlem, his whiteness sticks out so much he could be on another planet which adds an interesting layer to the scene.

Unfortunately, this is a James Bond film. We were never going to get a nuance exploration of racial dynamics but there are some unintentional implications from a couple of scenes which are a bit off-putting in a modern context.

"I don't think you've thought through all the implications of having a virginal white girl like myself, in a white dress no less, tied up to be sacrificed in a voodoo ceremony performed by black people..." - Solitaire probably.

This is a movie which opens with three white British MI6 agents are getting killed by black people, so you know we're off to a great start. The agents are murdered by various means, including ear dynamite? (I don't know they plug something into the audio port for his headphones and he just dies), a knife to the spleen and festive New Orleans funeral march, and a kiss from the most plastic snake that ever snaked during what I'm sure was a 100% authentic voodoo ceremony.

Although the complete lack of subtlety and sensitivity in regards to the racial dynamics in the film is problematic, to be fair, not all the black characters are simple stereotypes. For example, the main villain Kananga is a really interesting bad guy. He's imposing without being reduced to just physical dominance (or 'threatening' black masculinity), displays a calculating mind, and presents himself with cool debonair demeanor which makes his occasional outbursts more intimidating.

He's also well-dressed with a tasteful fashion sense (got to love that black suit and white ascot). Remember this was the early seventies, we could have easily got a ridiculously over the top pimp style get up which would have undercut his credibility as a threat to Bond.

Additionally, his plan isn't world domination but drug trafficking, flooding the market with free drugs to create a generation of addicts for his product, a plan which actually makes some sense. All in all he's a great Bond villain.

When a villain offers you a glass of champagne after you've foiled his plans, you know he's a class act.

And he runs a smooth operation. In what is possibly my favourite scene in the film, James Bond catches a cab to follow Kananga and his two awesome henchmen Whisper and Tee Hee as they drive from the embassy (Kananga is a diplomat from San Monique) to Harlem.

During this scene, it seems that every black person in Manhattan works from Kananga and radios in about Bond's movements. As Kylie from Fandom Following describes,
Literally, random people will stop what they’re doing on the streets and radio in to *someone* “he’s heading east,” or something of the like. Then when Bond gets out of the cab at its destination, a Fillet of Soul restaurant, the cabbie himself tells *someone* “he’s headin’ on in.” So…if the cabbie was working for the [bad guys], then why did these randos need to file a report too? Or why didn’t the cabbie just kill him?
It was so wonderfully ridiculous that I couldn't stop laughing and had to stop the movie for a second to catch my breath. I get that scene was trying to show the scope of the operation or something but it was so silly and completely unnecessary. Like Kylie said, if the cabbie works for them why did they need anyone else radioing in?



Moving past racism for the moment, let's talk about camp. Because that is what Roger Moore brought to the franchise more than anything else, a fun campy sensibility which truly fitted the often ludicrous plots and outlandish adventures Bond goes on.

Just for a framework, we'll start with a simple definition of camp from Wikipedia, "Camp is a social, cultural, and aesthetic style and sensibility based on deliberate and self-acknowledged theatricality". Something with camp value is aware of its own artifice through an exaggerated or theatrical performance an over-the-top-ness.

This over-the-top-ness can also manifest in a sense of ridiculousness or hyper-reality. For your consideration, I present this clip without comment.



The camp extends to Moore's constant sly winks, ostentatiously to himself but really to the camera, coupled with his wondrously awful puns and the increasingly farcical adventures Bond went on, where logic takes a backseat or often just left the room.

In Max Williams' review of Live and Let Die for Den of Geek, he imagines that none of the other portrayals of Bond would have been much fun at a party but Roger Moore? Well,
Roger is the life and soul! Roger instigates drinking games, performs magic tricks, starts up a conga line. Roger guffaws at all of your jokes, makes you laugh at his own slightly off-color ones and encourages you to text that girl you know you shouldn’t but really want to. Even though, deep down, you suspect he’s slightly too old to be hitting the shots, the guy is such a laugh who cares? Come the end of the evening, Roger leaves with the hottest, youngest girl on his arm and gives you a cheery wave: “absolute pleasure, old sport! Same time again?” And, clasping hands to your pounding head, you mutter, “Okay Roger. See you for brunch.”

"See you then, old chap."

Talking about girls, due to his more camp, some would even say lightweight, reputation, I assumed that Moore's Bond would be less rapey than Sean "I don't think there's anything wrong with hitting a woman" Connery's Bond but I was wrong. It's particularly bad in The Man with the Golden Gun but we'll get there.

For now, let's focus on the film where Bond uses a woman's cultural fears of the occult to sleep with her in the very same scene that she had rebuffed his advances. Maybe I should paint a word picture. Rosie is a CIA agent who meets up with Bond in San Monique. However, she is completely incompetent of course because who ever heard of a capable female spy?

While we find out she is a double agent who is working for Kananga, she is legitimately scared of the voodoo warning the bad guys leave in her room, a fear that Bond uses to have sex with her because of course he does. Later, he realises that she is a double agent and confronts her about it, but only after they've had picnic sex because he "certainly wouldn't have killed [her] before".

"You're serious with that bullshit?" - Rosie probably.

And this is our hero, ladies and gentlemen. But this isn't even the worst bit. No, that comes with Solitaire. Kananga is a believer in the occult and keeps Solitaire in servitude since she is a tarot card reader who can see future and remote events by reading the cards.

However, her mystical ability is tied to her virginity (yeeeaaah, that's not problematic in and of itself), so what does Bond do? I'll let Wikipedia break it down,
Inside Solitaire's house, Bond uses a stacked tarot deck of cards, that show only "The Lovers", to trick her into thinking that seduction is in her future, and then seduces her. Solitaire loses her ability to foretell the future when she loses her virginity to Bond, and decides to co-operate with Bond as she has feelings for him and has grown tired of being controlled by Kananga.
She tricks a woman into having sex with him by false pretenses (which is rape by the way in case you weren't sure) causing her to lose her magical ability to read the frickin' future! And she's cool with it? Like, after the deed she's depressed and even dismisses Bond revelation that he cheated to convince her to have sex with him since "The physical violation cannot be undone".

"I've lost my amazing supernatural gifts by succumbing to this man and he's asleep." - Solitaire probably.

But of course, within the same scene she's had a change of heart and is all for helping Bond defeat Kananga and find out the secret of "voodoo land" (heroin, the secret is heroin). Of course, her change of heart might have something to do with this exchange,
Solitaire: They'll kill you.
Bond: Us, darling. They will kill "us".
Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. Right after this, she asks if they have enough time for another go-around (because she's totally into sex now and has gotten over "the physical violation"), to which Bond delivers one of his best puns, "Absolutely. There's no sense in going off half-cocked."

But despite all of that, I did enjoy Moore's first outing as Bond. The film has a fun energy to it that works even if the plot is nonsensical and it isn't a particularly good movie by a number of measures.

However, any movie with James Bond running over crocodiles and alligators is one worth a watch.


And so we come to 1974's The Man with the Golden Gun. In his second outing, Moore is definitely comfortable in the role but this is yet another film with a host of issues. Where Live and Let Die jumped on the then popularity of blaxploitation, The Man with the Golden Gun borrowed from the kung fu craze of the early 1970s, although in a more halfhearted manner.

The film doesn't completely take on the kung fu movie genre the way its predecessor committed to blaxploitation but it does bring in those elements. Largely Asian locations like Macau, Thailand and Hong Kong set the mood but it's probably the extended scene featuring Bond and a couple of Chinese schoolgirls taking on martial arts students that is the most obvious example of pandering to the genre.

While there is obviously some debate about the worst James Bond movie, personally I'd have to go with Die Another Day, but some consider The Man with the Golden Gun the nadir of the Bond franchise, mostly due to the wasted potential of the film's premise and some terrible artistic choices.

James Bond in a tweed jacket? What were they thinking?!

The basic premise of the film (if one could ever simplify a Bond plot) is that Bond gets a golden bullet with his agent number, 007, embedded into it, the sign he's been put as a mark for Francisco Scaramanga, the most deadly assassin in the world. Scaramanga is the 'man with the golden gun', who charges one million dollars per kill, Bond's dark opposite killing for profit instead of for country.

This sets up the film as battle between two equally matched, and impeccably dressed, foes. The world's best secret agent against the world's best hitman. As Max Williams put it in his highly negative review of the film,
Such a waste of a brilliant premise and a brilliant performance by Christopher Lee. Bond and his dark mirror-image locked in a fatal struggle for supremacy. Scaramanga – the most Bond-villain name imaginable – a hitman who requires only one shot, obsessed with the only man he sees as his equal. The seemingly invincible 007, finally outmatched…? How. Could. You. Mess. That. Up?
It's surely not because of the villain since Christopher Lee is utterly fantastic. Kananga might have been a great Bond villain but Lee's Scaramanga is on a different level. That sort of happens when you're played by Christopher "Counts Dracula & Dooku" Lee who also played a wizard in a little known films series called The Lord of the Rings.

Lee gives Scaramanga a level of badassery second to none. Partly because he was just as badass in real life as the character he was playing. Christopher Lee was once a member of Britain's Special Operations Executive, aka the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, during the Second World War. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warefare were basically Winston Churchill's go to commando unit.

"I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let's just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like." - Actual Christopher Lee quote.

No, the problem is the execution. Instead of focusing on the relationship between Bond and Scaramanga as opposite sides of the same coin leading up to a battle between giants, the film instead devotes more attention to the MacGuffin of the story, the Solex Agitator.

By definition, a MacGuffin is supposed to have no purpose either than to be the motivating element for the plot. To be fair, the Solex Agitator is used in the climax of the film so it could be considered a plot device but it's really just a bit of advanced technology everyone wants just because.

Yet, as Williams states in his review, "Golden Gun is obsessed with the Solex. It turns up again and again, passed from one character to another, lost and recaptured". There is so much attention given to a device which converts solar radiation into electricity (the film was released during Britain's energy crisis) that it sidelines the dynamic between the protagonist and the antagonist, which is just a wasted opportunity.

The whole film should have been this.

And some of the artistic choices are odd. Like there is an amazing stunt involving a car doing a 360 degree flip to cross a broken bridge. It is a great stunt, all practical effects and done in one take. Please take 15 seconds to watch it here, I'll wait.

Great stunt, right? But did you notice what ruined it? They put a slide-whistle sound effect as the car makes the jump... Why, why would they do that? It completely undercuts the the impact of the stunt and makes it seem silly instead of cool. The stunt is perfectly done and yet the film ruins it.

There's also the fact that this is probably Bond at his most misogynistic, which is a bold statement but there it is. Bond is possibly at his most rape-y in Thunderball but I don't recall as much physical violence towards women or just straight up assdickery as in this film.

There are two scenes I want to highlight here. The first is when Bond manhandles Andrea Anders, Scaramanga's lover, and literally twists her arm to get information about Scaramanga's whereabouts from her. The issue isn't that he necessarily used his superior strength to physically dominate a woman. She is on the 'bad' side and he needed information.

However,

Look at the pain on her face. A line's been crossed here.

What is egregious and moves the scene into the realm of ugly misogyny is the sheer brute force with which he overpowers her and twists her arm, shoving her down on the bed. He also slaps her face with a heavy backhand that made me flinch a little.

During the James Bonding podcast episode on The Man with the Golden Gun, they rewatch the scene and you can hear guest Jeff Davis yell "Oh, Jesus Christ!" when Bond smacks her a second time (around the 1 hour mark in the podcast). The way the scene is shot makes it seem more like a case of domestic violence than a secret agent interrogating a suspect, making it uncomfortable to watch.

Naturally, the scene finishes with the most insensitive scene change possible following the domestic violence just a moment before:


We went from physically beating a woman to objectifying women. Nice.

To be fair, Moore is more threatening in the scene than I ever thought he could be given his Bond's reputation. He really feels like a dangerous man in the same way Daniel Craig's Bond comes across like a genuine killer. Pity that is tainted due to the sexism and all.

The other scene revolves around Mary Goodnight. Now Goodnight is supposed to be Bond's fellow agent stationed in Hong Kong to help him with his mission. I say 'supposed to be' since she is the most incompetent agent imaginable.

Britt Ekland does her best with the material she is given but when the most consequential things your character does is get captured and accidentally turns on a laser with her butt nearly killing Bond, there's not much you can do.

This is the most agency she has in the film.

Now, Goodnight has this weird attraction/disdain for Bond. She is obviously infatuated with him but also knows him well enough to realise she would just be another one of his conquests, just someone he wasted the hours with and forgotten in the morning.

She initially rejects Bond's advances when they had dinner together, which you know, good for her. She's too good for his womanizing ways. She knows it would be little more than a meaningless hookup and she wants more than that from him. Fair enough. You got to protect yourself from unnecessary harm.

But in the very next scene...

What?!

She just saunters into his hotel room and is all ready to go. Bond even asks her what changed her mind and she replies that, "I'm just weak".

Seriously? Okay then, sure whatever. However, this change of heart is completely meaningless since Andrea Anders knocks on Bond's door causing Bond to hide Goodnight under the covers. Miss Anders confesses she had sent the golden bullet so Bond could help her escape Scaramanga's grasp in exchange for the Solex and her body.

Bond naturally does the honourable thing and tell her that while he'll help for the Solex, he has another woman in the room so it wouldn't be right to sleep with her. Oh wait, sorry. I was thinking of a film where our hero actually has morals and doesn't see women as interchangeable objects.

What he does instead is hide Goodnight in the wardrobe as Miss Anders changes in the bathroom and Goodnight has to stay in there while Bond has sex with Miss Anders... let that sink in for a moment. And just so we're clear, Goodnight was making a move to exit the room but Bond directed her into the wardrobe for some reason. He wanted her to be in the wardrobe while he had sex with another woman, and he knows she likes him.

So of course, Bond and Goodnight end up together at the end of the film, this scene forgotten.

"Hello? No, I'm not busy. Don't worry, she'll forget about this in a sec." - James Bond probably.

However, I did like the film although it isn't a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. Christopher Lee steals every scene he's in and Scaramanga is one of the best Bond villains ever easy. The score is also fantastic. While Lulu's theme song is all sorts of wrong, the way the theme is incorporated into the film is great and the musical cues are wonderfully dramatic and peppy.

I also love the dumb moments in the film, like when Bond jumps through a window with no idea how high the fall is or when our dashing hero pushes a young boy off his boat after the boy helped him get the boat going. The elements for a great film are there but they're buried under all the misogyny and the lacklustre script.

So, how do I feel about Moore's James Bond having seen his first two outings as 007? I quite like him. While not as suave as Connery, as dashing Brosnan, or as brutal as Craig, Moore's Bond is definitely fun.

I like the winks, terrible puns, and sly smiles. Moore plays Bond like the caricature he is: a secret agent who is also world famous and everyone knows, who is more interested in bedding women than focusing on the mission at hand. Too bad about all the misogyny.


Stay tuned next week and see if I continue to enjoy Roger Moore's take on James Bond with The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, and For Your Eyes Only.



References:

Live and Let Die (film) Wikipedia page

James Bonding #0016: Live and Let Die with Paul F. Tompkins

Live and Let Die Recap - Fandom Following

Live and Let Die: Revisting Roger Moore's First James Bond Movie - Den of Geek

Camp (style) Wikipedia page

Blaxploitation: The Controversial 1970s - Separate Cinema

The Man with the Golden Gun (film) Wikipedia page

James Bonding #0021: The Man with the Golden Gun with Greg Proops and Jeff Davis

James Bond 007: Revisiting The Man With The Golden Gun - Den of Geek

My favourite Bond film: The Man with the Golden Gun - The Guardian

MacGuffin - TV Tropes

11 Celebrities Who Were Secretly Total Badasses - Cracked

Sir Christopher Lee interview: 'I’m softer than people think' - The Telegraph

Why Sir Roger Moore was the greatest 007 - The Independent



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