Thursday, January 12, 2017

Better In Your Head?--LIVE AND LET DIE

Ian Fleming

SPOILER ALERT--novels from the pre-Civil Rights era, written by middle-aged, well-off white British war veterans might lack a certain sensitivity.

"The evening awaited him, to be opened and read, page by page, word by word." 

Live and Let Die established the Bond formula: 007 travels to an exotic locale to suss out and snuff out the nefarious plot of an odd-looking baddie whose lusts will play into their downfall. As a bonus, Bond will cross paths with a hottie who is so dependent on the secret agent that the reader may find it difficult to imagine she can lift finger one with his rugged, musky assistance.

SMERSH is back to bedevil Bond, this go round in the form of agent Buonaparte "Mr. Big" Gallia, suspected of selling 17th-century gold coins to finance Soviet spies in the States. The currency has turned up in New York and Florida, so that means...Bond in the USA! Already better than Casino Royale.

Felix Leiter returns* to assist Bond in locating Big (which includes taking in a primal, prurient stage show at one of his nightclubs) but the criminal mastermind found them long before, with the aid of a sort of neighborhood watch known colloquially as "The Eyes." They're lowered into his office via a "trap table," and separated. Only Bond gets to absorb Big and his surroundings, which include talismans of voodoo and a psychic beauty nicknamed "Solitaire." Big pooh-poohs torture as "messy and inconclusive," which must have sent Bond's testicles into a consecution of grateful twitches. That's why Big got a spendidly-monikered cadre of goons (Tee Hee (in lavender trousers!), McThing, The Flannel and Sam Miami) who pick that day of all days to suck at being goons, which is how Bond finds himself in a train from NYC to Florida with Solitaire at his side.

My heart rate accelerated 1.5 beats per minute with each page flip, waiting to discover how Bond would thwart Big's plan. (It's fairly pedestrian, but utterly satisfactory.) The pair meet up with Leiter at a thoroughly-described safe house. Before you can squeeze three oranges dry, though, Solitaire's been snatched up, Leiter's caught snooping 'round the bad guy's warehouse and it's official personal now.

Bond, being Bond, succeeds where Felix failed, discovering that the coins are being smuggled in via tanks of poisonous fish. Off to Jamaica! Quarrel and Strangways (!) are set up near Surprise Island, the site of Sir Henry Morgan's buried pirate treasure, which Mr. Big and his folk have almost finished draining dry. With help from the letter Q, Bond dons scuba gear and familiarizes himself with the unfriendly local waters.

The mission in motion proves even more harrowing than Our Man feared, but he manages to attach a limpet mine to the hull of Big's yacht, set to explode as the vessel sets off with the last of the booty-laden fish tanks. It is inevitable that his plan will work to near-perfection, just as it is inevitable that he will be captured, lectured, reunited with Solitaire, and given a first-row seat to enjoy the villain's ironic comeuppance.

Live and Let Die may not seem an epic spy tale, and that's because it really is not an epic spy tale. But! Ian Fleming in his generosity gave us: buried treasure, Communism, personal vendettas, sharks and a man pledging love to a woman to procure aggressive cuddling.

Compared to its predecessor, Live and Let Die is a shot of vodka in hot chocolate. Lurid by the standards of the day, engrossing across all generations, and humorous as a whoopie cushion on a time delay. The very first line--"There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent"--is quite funny if and when one decides to re-read the novel. Bond has to deal with a bum left hand for much of the story, and the prospect of traversing waters full of sharks and barracudas unnerves him so profoundly, he's wracked by nightmares.

Which just helped Fleming realize his stated goal for the second Bond entry: to make the spy a bit warmer, a bit more likeable, while still being a total bad-ass. The sentences are still clipped, but Fleming's knack for scene-setting improved, and he even trusted himself to show a bit of clever (along with the unfortunate attempts of recreating local flavor). Live and Let Die isn't only more readable than Casino Royale, it's actually re-readable. Hell, Eon Productions took elements of the novel for us in a total of three films*, beginning with

Director-Guy Hamilton
Writer-Tom Mankiewicz

"Names is for tombstones, baby! Take this honky out and waste him!"

Sean Connery stepped away from the role that made him an international superstar for the second time in 1971. Producer Albert Broccoli, wanting to avoid a repeat of the George Lazenby fiasco, sought an actor with experience, loyalty and a non-idiot agent. Englishman Roger Moore, well-known on the small-screen for The Saint, won the role at age 45--or, eleven years older than Connery when he debuted in Dr. No.

The summer crowd got their first glimpse of the new 007 in a film that amplified the source's supernatural themes while also clutching at the tail feathers of the era's blaxploitation craze.
The stern tone of the prior films begins to fade here, replaced with a smooth, quippy Bond who seems to regard his duty to Queen and country as an amusing hobby. The first we see of the "new" 007, he's at home, post-boff. M has come to see him, perhaps partially to satisfy a curiosity as to what exactly someone like James Bond does when at home, certainly mostly to fill him in on this Mr. Big business.

Forget all that jabber about coins and pirates and SMERSH (especially that last one, which has always sounded to me like something Popeye would exclaim during orgasm)--this Mr. Big is a Harlem-based drug lord with plans to distribute two tons of free heroin and put his rivals out of business. Also, he's a tad a fraud, the disguised alter ego of Dr. Kananga, dictator of the (fictional) Caribbean island San Monique. And he's linked to those three murdered MI6er's. Also, Solitiare is now a Tarot card reader and Tee Hee has a pincer for a hand and no lavender trousers.

With much less help from Felix Leiter, Bond makes his way to one of Big's restaurants and (as in the novel) gets lowered into the Big fella's offices. Book Big speaks lengthily (and only semi-pretentiously). Movie Big legitimately has zero seconds to waste on pesky honkies. The henchmen though? Still wildly incompetent.

Bond joins forces with CIA agent Rosie Carver and Quarrel Jr. in San Monique. (Nice for Moore to get the son in his first Bond go, since Connery got Dad in his.) The trio boat it to Big's poppy fields, protected by truly deadly voodoo scarecrows. Bond locates Solitaire and convinces her (with a stacked card deck in tow) to give up the goods and escape with him to New Orleans.

It's this act of treacherous disloyalty that pushes Big over the edge. Solitaire, see, was a virgin. Preserving her psychic abilities meant preserving her hymen, and vice versa. Big planned to one day introduce her to "Little Mr. Big," after which she would presumably devote her time to churning out future criminals of great solemnity. As Bond watches in mild disbelief, he tears the latex from his face and reveals his true identity--Kananga! (The makeup, while dreadful, does succeed as a nod to the original Mr. Big's grey-ish skin tone.)
Kananga delegates to his detriment. He sends Solitaire to meet a ritualistic death at the hands of the ineradicable Baron Samedi (who's apparently real for the purposes of this film!) and entrusts Tee Hee with dispatching Bond. The perpetually cheerful chrome dome does a commendable job showing Bond around a farm/drug lab in the Louisiana backwoods, but a less than stellar job when it comes to hanging around and making sure the guy who is supposed to die actually dies. A boat chase ensues, and it rules. (So does J.W. Pepper, I don't give damn one what ya say.)

One more stop, and it's a biggie--the villain's lair. Nice to see that as much has changed with this new era of secret agent, the bad guy still doesn't consider "instant death" as an option. Tying Bond up, painting some blood on his arm, then "slowering" him into a shark tank is, however, the very best option. This gives plenty of time for 007 so save the day with his watch. Recall the Rolex at the start, equipped with the magnet capable of deflecting a bullet? Turns out, the rim of the thing rotates, creating a mini-saw. He cuts himself (and Solitaire) free, dispatches of Kananga and hops aboard a train (finally!) with Solitaire. She looks real good without all that extra crap, heh heh, whoa! Tee Hee outta nowhere! Imagine the classic fisticuffs from From Russia With Love with a black guy and a really fake-looking prosthetic arm. (This does not make up for cutting out their train ride to Florida, which included a stopover at a scuzzy diner. Read that preceding sentence and tell me you don't want to see Roger Moore in that precise scenario. Either in a film or in real life.)

And that ending. Whenever Geoffrey Holder laughs, the whole world smiles. 

Besides being Moore's debut, Live and Let Die marks several other firsts for the franchise: black villain, black Bond girl (albeit second-tier and disloyal), visit to the Bigs (Apple and Easy), a Bond-free pre-credits sequence. The film is bigger, broader and--following the lead of its new, um, lead--jokier. If Live and Let Die were a woman (and with James Bond, it would have to be), she'd have an ass fit to rest a bottle of Skyy on.

Ridiculous, crude, and irresistible. Welcome to the Roger Moore era.

While scouting shooting spots in Jamaica, the crew came across a crocodile farm owned by Ross Kananga, a man so charismatic that his family name was given to the main villain. He also performed
the sense-defying "croc-jump" stunt, a scene emblematic of why I so love Live and Let Die the film yet can't quite give it the nod.

Movie Bond is brimming with confidence, ever-ready with a remark of detectable wit. Book Bond is wracked with self-doubt. His successes are due to great effort. Roger Moore probably never made "great effort" at any point during the filming of Live and Let Die. Fun as hell to watch; wouldn't keep me reading.

(Worth remembering: Live and Let Die was the second book and the eighth film. Thus, Ian Fleming's flaws are far more forgivable than those of Eon Productions.)

The inevitable increase in action is fine (boat chases tend to agitate the senses more pleasingly than boat dockings, for instance) but there's certain elements that need to be nailed. Evil lairs matter. When it comes to evil lairs, the book wins, ten down. Pirate booty. Arcing lights. A pool. Surrounded by water, dude has a pool. Kananga has sharks, but so did Mr. Big! Alongside pirate booty!

All right, on to the characters. Solitaire is far more tolerable on the big-screen. Fleming's uses for her: highlight 007's virility, craftiness and resourcefulness, and carry out a merciless verbal assault on the state of Florida decades before that became a meme. The film version of Solitaire is not only refusing to throw herself at the feet of this dashing spy-savior, she doesn't seem initially all that impressed with him! Can you imagine Diana Ross in the role? That's who the screenwriter suggested. Luckily a young Jane Seymour was cast, even if they did insist on slathering her in all that garish make up.

Big/Kananga is portrayed by Yaphet Kotto, and he wastes no time in stealing scenes. Fleming has a thing for telegraphing the nemesis: in this case, a rounded head twice the size of the average man's, dotted by naked eyes that glow an unnatural yellow. Big fancies himself a "wolf" at loggerheads with sheep. He surrounds himself with fierce creatures. Yaphet Kotto will break a shark across his leg. He will bite a barracuda's head off. He will crack open a shotgun, let the slugs fall to the floor, and then beat a black bear to death with the barrel.

The movie could not afford so many disposable despicables, so not only does Tee Hee (a treasure, as I've informed you) get a new life-lease, we're treated to the apparent physical manifestation of the Ioa Baron Samedi and...Whisper. Who must have been a childhood friend of Kananga's. Yes, I think they made a pact that whichever made good first would then help out the other. And it was a given that Kananga would be the good-doer (not the do-gooder) since no one can understand a word that other ham-shaped meffer says. Recall how Stan "The Hammer" Burrell bankrupted himself by being a stand-up friend? Paying dudes a teacher's salary to stand onstage and exude a reasonably intimidating aura? Kananga hired his barely audible, clearly obese buddy to do his dirty work.

I receive more enjoyment from watching the movie than reading the book (Kananga sending a couch-bound Whisper ass over cauldron never fails), but the book is better. The film producers were not concerned with dichotomies beyond good/bad or us/them. Thus, no ramblings about the inferiority of the American automobile or Felix honky-splaining Harlem. Fret not, the sartorial chaos of the decade alone ensures you will not regret sitting through at least one-half of the movie. Suede trench coats, flared trousers, bright trilby hats, animal print vests! People in those days didn't just put clothes on, they wore them, y'dig?

Ian Fleming was a clever chap. Not a sensitive one, but a clever one. He composed a sentence containing "worsted in gun battles" and for that, I forgive him a great deal. Bond's smartly-edged inner monologue during a turbulent plane ride covers the remainder.

Both book and film feature the trope of "white hero saves white girl from non-white villain" but only the book infantilizes an entire culture of people.

Ian Fleming wrote with authority and affection about London and Jamaica, places he knew intimately. Harlem and Florida were another matter. It is a poor idea for any writer to scribble about only what they know, but a poorer idea still to scribble at considerable length about something you know only somewhat. The phonetic dialogue is on one level admirable (in that Fleming made the attempt and took the risk) and on another level, mad cringe. I can only squirm thinking of how titillated the high sadity readers felt, taking in "the jabber of negroes." My earliest scribbles borrowed heavily from my own upbringing and thus featured a lot of phonetic dialogue, but since I wasn't on the outside looking in, I had no shame in doing so. Luckily, Fleming's little experiment didn't last long enough to repulse me. (I cannot speak to equal patience in other readers.)

No matter how poorly any of the black characters are written in the film (the stunning uselessness of peanut-brained Rosie Carver is the most irritating example), I could argue none of them plumb to the depths of Bond rigging a Tarot deck to convince a virgin his is the chosen wang. Hell, Kananga on the main is cooler than the alleged super spy. Even his death is spectacular: Bond shoves a pellet from the shark gun down his gullet, and for reasons probably not even fathomed by screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, Kananga inflates, floats toward the ceiling, and then bursts, bloodless and boneless. Senseless, too, but it's just so wonderful.

But then Bond can't even stick the landing!

"Where's Kananga?"

"He always did have an inflated opinion of himself."

Eh?! MI6 needs to drug test their field agents more frequently, tell ya what. 

Trapper Jenn MD will return in..Moonraker.

*Leiter was portrayed by David Heddison, who'd later reprise the role in 1989's Licence To Kill, making him the first actor to portray Bond's truest ally in multiple films. Hilariously, the shark attack (and cheesy note) from the Live and Let Die novel followed him. 

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