[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
Watching the last three James Bond films in close succession, one constantly sees contrasts. Not so with the first two films of the series, Dr. No and From Russia with Love, which frequently play together as a double feature. They invite comparison rather than contrast, their parallels in plot and style having established a “James Bond formula” with which viewers quickly became familiar, expecting its recurrence in subsequent films. Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice fulfilled the expectation.
But the juxtaposition of the next two films, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever, which also have circulated as a double bill, impresses the viewer more with differences than similarities, provoking one to redefine his notion of exactly what a James Bond film is, or is supposed to be. And the most recent offering, Live and Let Die, compared with its two immediate predecessors, comes off decidedly third-best.
The first film, Dr. No, was merely an above-average fantasy-thriller; probably nothing more would have come of it had it not been for the film’s overwhelming success (its box-office draw due partly to the middlebrow rage for Ian Fleming touched off by JFK). After the success of From Russia with Love, a series was inevitable. The second film reunited the stylish strength of Sean Connery’s Bond with scriptwriter Richard Maibaum and director Terence Young. From Russia with Love also had the advantage of inspired casting: Robert Shaw played Red Grant, the brutish psychopath assigned to kill Bond; Lotte Lenya was the perverse Rosa Klebb; and Pedro Armendáriz excelled as Our Man in Istanbul.
For the third film, Goldfinger, Guy Hamilton took over as the Bond director. A former assistant to Carol Reed, Hamilton had made his name as director of British action and war films during the Fifties and early Sixties. Though his style was not as controlled in handling intrigue as that of Young, who had done his apprenticeship writing and directing a string of respectable suspense thrillers, Hamilton proved a stronger action director, better equipped to handle the expansive, audacious fantasy of a Bond film without striving for credibility or empathy. In Goldfinger, he capably maintained the delicate balance between suspense-conflict and outrageous action.
The change of directors had no effect on the “James Bond formula,” apparently the brainchild of Maibaum, who scripted all but two of the Bond films. The formula, by now second nature to Bond fans, runs as follows:
Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme” blasts out as the subjective camera watches—through the “eye” of a gun barrel—Bond’s profile coming into view from screen right. In the manner of a Western shootout, Bond turns, crouches to audience eye-level and fires his pistol at the subjective camera, which begins to weave (we have been shot) and fall, as a red filter suggesting blood oozes downward over the picture. An action sequence follows (often having little to do with the plot of the film proper), at the climax of which Bond utters a catchy line, providing a transition into the main title sequence. The title song is heard as the credits appear, imposed over a montage of dancing nudes and semi-nudes, in kaleidoscopic color effects. The film proper begins with Bond’s being called to the London office, conferring briefly with the familiar characters of the Secret Service office: the boss, ‘M’ (Bernard Lee); the secretary, Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell); and the logistics man, ‘Q’ (Desmond Llewelyn), who provides Bond with gadget weapons that will prove crucial in the assignment ‘M’ gives Bond. The plot then becomes an episodic series of chases, captures, escapes, sexual encounters and killings, featuring two climaxes. In the first, Bond destroys one of the archvillain’s bases of operations; in the second he has to destroy the villain’s headquarters and the villain himself, as well as rescue the woman who is the film’s principal sex-interest. Falling action then lulls the viewer into a false sense of security, preparing for the “final heat,” in which one of the villain’s henchmen, forgotten or assumed dead, reappears to threaten Bond’s happiness with the woman. A fast fight dispatches this last threat and the film ends with Bond bedding the woman, cast titles, and a teaser for the next film.
The fourth film, Thunderball, directed again by Terence Young, followed this formula faithfully, just as the first three had. Its one major weakness was the intrusion of an overabundance of gadgetry with which Bond battled the villainy of Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi). The tone of the film was set in the pre-title action sequence, in which Bond escapes a band of thugs by jetting into the air in a “rocket jacket.”
It was too much. Critics and viewers condemned the gadgetry. The forces for Good must maintain a balance between personal prowess and technological gimmickry, in order to sustain the viewer’s interest and loyalty. James Bond should be equipped with only enough gadgetry to provide a technological “equalizer” to the sophisticated weapons of his adversary, not so much that his personal wit and agility are eclipsed, lessening the film’s ability to evoke fear and suspense in the viewer.
All this would change with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But in the meantime, in the wake of Thunderball‘s success (it is one of the ten top-grossing films of all time), came You Only Live Twice, the first Bond film not scripted by Maibaum. In the manner of Thunderball it was based only loosely on Fleming’s novel, striving more to fit the formula of the previous films than to follow the plot of the book. Roald Dahl’s screenplay was more confined than any of Maibaum’s, limiting all of its action to Japan, but proved just as audacious when widescreen excitement was called for: its climax was a helicopter raid on the base, inside a volcano, from which the maniacal Blofeld (Donald Pleasence here) was launching capsules to destroy U.S. rockets. A new director appeared, too: Lewis Gilbert. After a series of indifferent battle movies (Sink the Bismark!, Damn the Defiant!), Gilbert had made his name with the sensitive Greengage Summer and the popular Alfie. Always an eclectic, Gilbert directed You Only Live Twice in borrowed Bond-formula style, just as he has borrowed elsewhere—badly—for his two more recent films, The Adventurers and Friends.
The only continuity You Only Live Twice shared with the previous Bond films was the presence of Scan Connery, who was tiring of the typecast role. But Connery’s performance was enough to give the film the life Bond fans had come to expect. His obviously cavalier attitude toward the role matched the character’s attitude toward the world in a way that irretrievably merged Connery and Bond. Indeed, if the Bond films have an auteur, one can make a good case for its being Connery. Those who wondered what a James Bond film would be like without him were soon to find out.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in many ways the best Bond film, was released in December 1969. The most ambitious Bond film and the biggest failure, it had one strike against it before it was even released: an obscure Australian actor named George Lazenby had been cast as 007. The public couldn’t accept anyone but Connery in the role, as the box office showed. The other two strikes soon followed: first, the James Bond portrayed by Lazenby; and second, the film’s devastating downbeat ending.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the only Bond film in which the action sequences of the episodic formula are firmly tied together by the thread of character development rather than plot. In a campaign against archenemy Blofeld’s plot for world domination, Bond enlists the aid of Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), a likeable criminal willing to help destroy Blofeld’s attempt to corner the market. Bond falls in love with Draco’s daughter Terese, known as Tracy. For the first time a Bond film has love interest, not mere sexuality, eliciting from the audience empathy rather than mere envy. This narrows the distance between screen and audience—making fantasy more difficult to achieve. After the villain’s Alpine aerie has been destroyed and Blofeld’s threat to the world has been nipped in the bud, Bond and Tracy are married. But as they leave for their honeymoon, the “final heat” occurs, and this is the only time Bond loses it. Blofeld (Telly Savalas in this one) and his adjutant, Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat), presumed dead, overtake the honeymooners’ car and release a burst of machinegun fire. Bond is unhurt but Tracy is dead in his arms, and 007 is left staring vacantly at the camera, half-mad, muttering snatches of his last carefree conversation with his bride.
All art is entertainment, but not all entertainment is art. The Bond films are, on the whole, quite artless, but eminently entertaining. For this reason, we do not expect their characters to be human or their plots to do anything more than amuse. If they do attempt to exceed these bounds, they must be very well executed to get away with it. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is weakened because Maibaum’s script, in deciding to make Bond vulnerably human, doesn’t stick to its serious purpose, making the role of Bond, now comic now tragic, too much for Lazenby—or any actor following Connery—to handle.
Lazenby’s Bond, much closer to the 007 of the novels than any other screen Bond, met with public disapproval. How could such an agile, quick-witted hero be alternately so doltish and sensitive, they demanded. This, of course, is exactly the way the sexual athlete Bond would behave if ever bitten by the love bug. But they did not want a vulnerable James Bond, and so condemned Lazenby for the wrong reasons: not for any weakness of his portrayal but for the role itself, which, as written by Maibaum, overturned the accustomed view of Bond.
Lazenby, to be sure, is more than adequate as Bond. He usually maintains the right balance between self-awareness and detachment to bring a human dimension to 007. But scenes and lines Connery might have made sparkle with wit, Lazenby walks through. He can’t get away with identifying the source of a caviar or a perfume because he lacks the personal style and cocky self-assurance that are Connery’s greatest asset as Bond.
Diana Rigg’s performance as Tracy is the film’s brightest spot, and one wishes, too, for her sake, that Connery had played Bond. The stylish interplay one imagines between those two could have approached the magic of Bacall and Bogart. At Tracy’s death the audience is sympathetic for her sake, not for Bond’s. One could sympathize with Bond both because he is a bereaved lover and because he has been suddenly, brutally deprived of his only chance to ever have a happy, private life apart from the Secret Service. Both elements are present in the reaction of the Fleming Bond. But egocentricity is too much a part of the screen Bond for the bereaved lover to come across well; as Lazenby plays the sudden deprivation, we are impressed mainly with the absurd death of a beautiful young woman, less with its impact upon a revisionist Bond we never quite believed in anyway.
The film is noteworthy, however, for the directorial debut of Peter Hunt, who brought a new concept of action directing to the Bond film. Technically and stylistically, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service reaches peaks unattained by Young, Hamilton or Gilbert. The fight scenes, for example, are all done in close-two, closeup or extreme closeup, with rapid-motion shots cut into extremely short segments and mounted to achieve a pace of blinding speed and furious activity, in the manner of Hitchcock’s shower murder in Psycho. The technique makes the viewer a participant in the battle of flying fists and grunting bellies. Yet this technical achievement, though a stylistic strength, creates a thematic weakness. As with the entire film, it relies upon audience identification with Bond, and that doesn’t work with fantasy. Young and Hamilton know what an audience feels for 007 is fascination, not identification.
The cinematography of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is unequivocally the finest of any Bond film, particularly the aerial work on the ski chases and the high-speed immediacy of the stock car race and the bobsled run. Unfortunately, the impact created by the camerawork is all too frequently defeated by the editing. Hunt’s concept of fast-paced, quick-cut montage to intensify action is an excellent one, but its validity is lost if the montage itself lasts too long—which it often does. Both ski chases are exciting to a point because of the dramatic photography and the quick cutting; but the viewer can be bombarded with this only so long before stunning impact becomes simply dull repetition. If things are to happen quickly enough to excite an audience, they should also be over quickly. Like Hitchcock’s shower murder, such episodes should titillate, not fulfill, much less satiate.
Maibaum’s screenplay, too, emerges weak despite the strength of its conception. It represents a significant departure from the first five Bonds in creating a hero who is more prone to sympathy and emotional involvement and who relies on the personal attributes of fast thinking and physical prowess rather than the more clinical, superhuman observation, deduction, and gadgetry of Connery’s Bonds. The minimization of gadgets was welcome after the excesses of Thunderball; but On Her Majesty’s Secret Service goes too far, coercing the audience to take its fantasy seriously. The Connery Bond is an electronic-age Sherlock Holmes; the Lazenby Bond is a two-fisted matinee hero misplaced in the electronic world of SPECTRE. His survival against Blofeld’s weaponry exceeds the bounds of fantasy—it is absurd.
The screenplay is simultaneously conscious of both its similarities and its differences with the first five Bonds. The characteristic Bond dialogue loses most of its subtlety and is often gratuitously blunt, running to groping, sick puns (Bond, after seeing one of his adversaries shredded by a snow plough: “He had a lot of guts!”) and self-conscious cutenesses (in the pre-title action sequence, Lazenby introduces himself as the new Bond by waging a furious fistfight on the beach, then mugging at the camera: “This never happened to the other fellow!”).
The film tries desperately to establish a continuity with the first five Bonds, using the formula opening, the familiar theme music and the expected episodic structure. References to the first five adventures occur in the title sequence and again in flashbacks when Bond is brooding after resigning from the Service. Yet the audience cannot forget that this isn’t the Sean Connery Bond; and even if they could, the wretched excess of “This never happened to the other fellow” wouldn’t let them. Of course, considered in retrospect, that line refers not so much to the beautiful woman and the fight on the beach as to the film that is about to unfold, whose character, plot, and style work insistently against the Connery Bond. That was both the strength and the undoing of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Diamonds Are Forever establishes a strong continuity with the first five films without even trying, because Connery again plays Bond. Maibaum’s new screenplay even manages to assimilate the experience of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, using Tracy’s death to provide the raison-d’être for Bond’s personal vendetta against Blofeld, while at the same time forcing Hunt’s film into parentheses.
Guy Hamilton directs again, and the fight scenes are weaker because of it, all done in middle-shot, without the intensification of Hunt’s fast-cutting intimacy; but they are short and crisp, and the real action is once more on an expansive scale. Where On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was uncharacteristically confined to the Riviera and the Alps, with a couple of London sequences, Diamonds Are Forever leaps from South Africa to London to Amsterdam to Las Vegas to Baja.
The pre-title action sequence in Diamonds Are Forever is used to good advantage. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that sequence provided a plot lead-in with Bond’s first meeting with Tracy, his defense of her in the beach battle, and “This never happened to the other fellow.” In Diamonds Are Forever the initial sequence provides a transition from the previous film, depicting Bond in various parts of the world, vengefully pursuing Blofeld, and finally pushing the villain into boiling clay, murmuring, “Welcome to Hell, Blofeld.” (As it turns out, 007 has dispatched only his enemy’s double; the real Blofeld turns up later to menace him again.)
Gadgetry is once again held to a minimum. Here the gadgets are virtually all on Blofeld’s side, as they should be—but Bond manages to turn them against the villain, instead of challenging weapons with fists like the Hunt–Lazenby Bond. Underscoring this, ‘Q’ becomes a full character in Diamonds Are Forever. No longer the tight-lipped dispenser of gadgets, he is instead a pleasant, whimsical fellow who delights in outwitting Vegas slot machines. The script seems tailored for the suave detachment of Connery once again, rather than the awkward self-consciousness of Lazenby. Connery also gets away with the atrocious puns (explaining to Felix how stolen diamonds have been hidden inside a corpse, “Alimentary, Mr. Leiter”), and the Epicureanism (in the final heat, as in the climax of From Russia with Love, an inadequate knowledge of wines gives the villain away) that seem jarring in Lazenby’s characterization.
A good contrast is provided by analogous scenes in the two films. Lazenby’s Bond, riding atop a suspension cable car and in danger of being crushed against the terminus machinery, leaps off desperately, miraculously catching hold of a convenient ledge. Connery’s Bond just waits with stylish simplicity as the elevator car approaches the top of the shaft, allowing it to stop in the nick of time, coyly, confidently conscious of his own indispensability.
Jill St. John’s Tiffany Case is solidly within the sexpot tradition of the earlier Bond films; and, as with all of Bond’s sexual partners except Tracy, her allegiance is always in question. Female adversaries abound in Bond films, of course. We are reminded of rugged Rosa Klebb with her poison-toed boot in From Russia with Love, sinister Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) in You Only Live Twice, and murderous Irma Bunt in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. We are also reminded of the lesbian pilots of Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus in Goldfinger and of Blofeld’s unwitting Angels of Death, bearing disease germs to the world in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In Diamonds Are Forever the female opponent motif is cleverly capsulized in a self-parodying fight scene between Bond and two cheerful, gymnastic karate kittens named Bambi and Thumper (Trina Parks and Lola Larson).
In like manner the homosexuality of the henchmen of previous Bond villains (Robert Shaw’s Red Grant in From Russia with Love, Adolfo Celi’s Largo in Thunderball, and Gert Fröbe’s Goldfinger) also becomes parody in the blatant homophilia of the exquisitely comic hitmen-queens Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (Bruce Glover and Putter Smith), who commit brutal assassinations and skip off holding hands.
Perhaps the finest asset of Diamonds Are Forever is Charles Gray’s superb Blofeld. Curiously aping the physical appearance of Ian Fleming, cigarette holder and all, Gray is the finest villain yet to menace a screen Bond, and the first archenemy to provide an adequate cinematic match for Bond.
Joseph Wiseman brought some fine film credentials to his portrayal of Dr. No (he had been in Detective Story, Viva Zapata!, The Garment Jungle, and The Unforgiven, among others), but his villain was too distant, too cold to be taken as more than caricature. Robert Shaw’s rock-headed psychopath in From Russia with Love was too much a dolt to challenge 007 (red wine with fish, indeed!). From Russia with Love is the only Bond film without a true archvillain: Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb is, like Grant, only a pawn of a much larger machination, the buying-out of whole sections of SMERSH by the unseen SPECTRE organization. Ernst Stavro Blofeld remains an imposing offscreen wheeze feeding Siamese fighting fish to a white cat.
Gert Fröbe’s Goldfinger, for all his wealth, wiles and power, is at core a petty cheat, far too vulgar to be a foil to Bond. Adolfo Celi’s Largo hasn’t the wit to match Bond, and from the very beginning employs only brutish physicality against the hero. Donald Pleasence brings his native aptitude for overacting to the first onscreen Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, playing him as a mad doctor, a psychotic so far gone into evil that he loses even fictional credibility. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service saw arguable the weakest Bond villain thus far. Telly Savalas’s Blofeld is a total philistine and an inept buffoon. No matter what role Savalas chooses, he plays an Army sergeant (his best roles—Battle of the Bulge, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes—have been as Army sergeants). Ironically, though, this megalomaniacal hardhead is the only villain to date who has emerged victorious over Bond.
But Charles Gray, whose only notable previous film was The Entertainer (though he had played supports in many over-average films, including Night of the Generals and The Private War of Harry Figg, and had his Bond-apprenticeship in You Only Live Twice), is the perfect Blofeld: refined, subtle, devious, eminently human, a truly challenging adversary. Gray plays Blofeld as he should be played: a man whose relation to Bond is like that of Moriarty to Sherlock Holmes. He never attempts to kill Bond outright, despite a number of opportunities; and one senses in him an unstated respect for the hero that makes him want to keep Bond alive, if only to impress him with the successes of his own superior power and genius. Bond, on the other hand, behaves unaccountably towards Blofeld. All too eager to kill his nemesis outright in their first two encounters, 007 seems to lose his obsession for vengeance as the film draws to its climax, and replace it with an almost perverse admiration for the man. By the end of his climactic battle with Blofeld, he seems content to send the villain for an uncomfortable ride in a “bathosub” suspended from a crane, apparently confident that the coming helicopter attack will finish his adversary off. He betrays no desire to watch and be sure that the elusive Blofeld is dead, providing future Bond screenwriters with a handy bridge to a Blofeld reappearance in a later film; one can only hope that Gray plays the role again.)
While Diamonds Are Forever seems to have learned solid lessons from both the dramatic success and the financial failure of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the newest film, Live and Let Die, has gained nothing from the films that went before it. Where On Her Majesty’s Secret Service took itself and its Bond seriously, despite some gratuitous gags, and Diamonds Are Forever committed itself insistently to self-parody, Live and Let Die can’t make up its mind.
The main reason seems to be a hollow effort, on the part of screenwriter and director, to merely imitate—indiscriminately—what seemed to work best in the first seven films. The screenplay, by Tom Mankiewicz, who was “broken in” by assisting Maibaum on Diamonds Are Forever, runs from slick puns, trite racial gags, and outrageous slapstick to the more serious issues of heroin dealing and race relations. There is a faltering attempt to take the heroine, Solitaire (Jane Seymour), seriously and sympathetically, and even a pretentious charge at the metaphysical in the final shot of Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder), the voodoo “Man Who Cannot Die,” riding the train on which Bond and Solitaire have bedded down. No “final heat” this time: Holder’s mocking laughter demands that we accept immortality in a two-bit painted magician, and it doesn’t work.
Guy Hamilton directs again, and his style shows an increasing tendency to borrow. He borrows from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest via Terence Young’s From Russia with Love (the helicopter pursuing Bond and Solitaire through the opium fields; the train compartment repartee between them at the end of the film). And when, after a harrowing mile-a-minute speedboat chase, Bond tools into port, passing a sign that says “Safe Boating—3 M.P.H.,” the obvious irony recalls Kubrick’s shot of the Strategic Air Command “PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION” sign across a field of infantry with rattling machine guns in Dr. Strangelove. Hamilton’s model shots of Blofeld’s diamond-studded satellite in Diamonds Are Forever were also clearly patterned after Kubrick’s 2001.
Roger Moore is the new James Bond—and quite the poorest of the three. He is bad with the toss-off line, and a zero when it comes to displaying the classy refinement associated with the Bond character. Mankiewicz’s script, apparently recognizing Moore’s inadequacies, has kept the dialogue free of any reference to 007’s trademark Epicureanism: the Moore Bond is a character whose taste in clothing, cars, food, drink and women has deteriorated to mediocrity. Moreover, Bond’s trademark mental and physical quickness has given way to near total dependence on gadgetry.
Significantly, Bond in Live and Let Die becomes sex-object rather than sexual subject. In the first films, Bond’s sexual conquests were legion in number, but rarely promiscuous in quality. He chose his women. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service the character was sufficiently mature and confident in his masculinity to wear a kilt onscreen and impersonate a homosexual scholar (a daring idea for Maibaum, in a script full of daring revisions of Bond). Here he not only chose his woman; he loved and married her (though not without taking one last fling with Blofeld’s Angels of Death, a troubling script inconsistency). In Diamonds Are Forever he was back to selective sleeping-around. But in Live and Let Die he does not conquer; he merely gets laid, repeatedly, by women who seek him out. Moore plays him as a sexual adolescent—morally unlike Connery’s neo-Don Juan—and with a curious sense of sexual shame alien to everything we have come to associate with the Bond character.
In the first scene of the film proper, ‘M’ and Moneypenny come to Bond’s home to assign him to a new mission. This in itself is a tradition-shattering reversal, and quite unlikely given the relationship of ‘M’ to 007 in previous films. Bond has a woman in his bed and goes through a trite series of childish machinations to conceal her from ‘M’. It is Moneypenny who discovers the woman and successfully hides her in the closet so that ‘M’ never knows she is there. The Connery Bond was never so ashamed of his women or his sexuality. But the most startling aspect of this sequence is the change in Moneypenny’s traditional relationship to Bond. No longer the plain-Jane secretary who must satisfy her fantasies through empty flirtations with the hero of her dreams, Moneypenny suddenly finds herself thrust into the awkward position of playing Mama to the naughty adolescent, hiding his illicit activities from the gruff father-figure. It is an unlikely and uncomfortable situation for Moneypenny, and Lois Maxwell’s frozen expression of confused embarrassment reflects less the comic situation than a realization of the pathetic depths to which the Bond character has descended.
The Moore–Mankiewicz Bond also harbors a coy, locker-room attitude about sexual activity. Just before the film’s final heat, Bond and Solitaire are boarding a train. Felix Leiter (David Hedison), seeing them off, says he can’t imagine what they’ll do all the time on the train. Moore/Bond, eyes a-twinkle, puts an arm around Solitaire and tells her, “Say goodbye to Felix.” The use of this line pays mere lip-service to the more traditional 007 sexual style. It occurs originally in Goldfinger, and its context serves to draw a sharp contrast between the Maibaum–Connery and Mankiewicz–Moore characterizations of Bond. At poolside in Miami, Bond has just been getting a rubdown from “Dink,” a casual bed-partner. Felix Leiter appears. Bond greets him, and the dialogue goes as follows:
Bond: “Felix, this is Dink. Dink, say hello to Felix.”
Bond: “Felix, say hello to Dink.”
Bond: “Dink, say goodbye to Felix.”
And as Dink turns away with only a touch of indignation, Bond gives her a playful slap on the backside. Not a realistic attitude toward women, of course; but then Bond’s women are not real women, any more than Bond is a real man. He is, rather, a fantastic style; and if he is to retain his following, he must continue to reflect the style and the fantasy the viewers expect.
Whatever it may be about a James Bond film that satisfies, it is missing in Live and Let Die. Everything poor about the previous Bond films has been retained; everything good has been discarded. The gadgets are back: Bond has an electromagnetic watch, an idea that limps so badly that ‘Q’ doesn’t even show his face.
John Barry has been abandoned as composer of the soundtrack score. Snatches of Monty Norman’s original theme music are kept, with small credit. The Live and Let Die score itself is a messy pastiche of Paul McCartney’s post-“Abbey Road” title tune, George Martin’s repetitious interpolations of Norman, Barry and McCartney, and jazz arrangements by Milton Batiste. It is too pedestrian to touch even the standard, let alone the best, Bond music: Barry’s mournful mysterioso score to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the oppressive, threatening brass of his massive Goldfinger music, and the ominous innuendo of From Russia with Love.
When McCartney opens up the credit sequence singing his title theme, we know we are witnessing the decline of the tried-and-true Bond formula. Whatever his talents as a composer may be, McCartney is no Shirley Bassey, and the atmosphere of a Bond film demands a torrid, brassy, belted-out title song, not the playful rhythmic and stylistic changes and near-nonsensical lyrics of Paul McCartney and Wings.
Like everything else in the film, Yaphet Kotto’s portrayal of the villain is totally inadequate, all the more so for following Charles Gray’s Blofeld. Kotto is playing to a much weaker Bond, who should be a pushover for real villainy. But Kotto’s Kananga is hopelessly inept, with the manner but not the strength of a black Stanley Kowalski. 007 is able to make fools of all his black opponents only because they are portrayed as fools from the start. No matter that Bond, too, is weakly drawn in the script; relatively, the scales are in his favor. They have to be or he couldn’t win. This James Bond, an idea whose time has come and gone, cannot even lay claim to self-parody like the Connery Bond of Diamonds Are Forever. This Bond is a thin imitation of a once-great movie hero.
Yet Live and Let Die is succeeding at the box office, and Roger Moore is succeeding with audiences that rejected Lazenby. The film’s success may be a testament to the deserved popularity of the earlier films of the series; but more likely it is a sad comment on declining particularity and demand from film audiences. If Diamonds Are Forever had been the last film of the series, the reputation of the James Bond movies would have been high and secure. But Live and Let Die, with its emasculated Bond, its tired gimmicks, and its plot and dialogue warmed over from ideas that once would have been Bond rejects, seems to be taking the field.
More’s the pity, because undoubtedly now the series will continue, with Moore as Bond, Connery’s achievements in the role becoming obscured by the New Mediocrity. I feel special sorrow for the new generation of moviegoers. A 14-year-old recently told me she had enjoyed Live and Let Die, and when I asked her how it compared with previous James Bond films, she told me she hadn’t seen any, and had never heard of Sean Connery.
In comparing and contrasting series films, questions emerge. Just how many variables can be changed in a formula style before the style is lost? Live and Let Die answers that question.
Copyright © 1974 Robert C. Cumbow