Now, I've always been a firm believer that you have to judge art and culture on something of a "curve," and that you solely can't judge everything by solely 21st century American standards. You have to take the context of the times in which it was created into account.
But even by those standards, LALD is cringe-inducing.
The Fleming novel is by no means a perfect treatise on racial relations. But it was written in 1954. And even though it too has cringe-worthy moments, it doesn't provide such a disturbingly (forgive me) black and white picture of race the 1973 film gives us.
In the movie, every single villain, henchman and stooge is black. Every one. The only African-American characters in the movie who are not gangsters or enthralled by a voodoo cult are Quarrel Jr. and Strutter, the CIA agent who is killed in New Orleans. Minor characters with little dialogue. Otherwise, literally EVERY SINGLE minority character Bond encounters is a bad guy, and every white a good guy.
How pervasive is this? In the teaser, we see three white men, all murdered by black culprits. In the two fake funeral killings, all 40-50 people in the procession had to be in on it. In the two Fillet of Soul restaurants, ever single patron sees Bond taken each time, but none react, and all help cover the snatching.
When Felix yells out that he needs a make on a "white pimp mobile," when Strutter informs Bond that a white person shouldn't go into Harlem, when our comedy relief is a redneck sheriff & crew who repeatedly refer to every African-American as "boy,"what the hell are we supposed to think? How are we supposed to react? With the white woman being held in virtual slavery by the black villain, until he decides to deflower her? Seriously, how are we supposed to deal with this in 2008?
I'm not accusing everybody involved with LALD with being racist. Here, for example, is a great anecdote about Cubby Broccoli standing up to some racism in Louisiana while LALD was being filmed. (Hat tip to Deborah's great blog!) I am saying, however, that someone involved with the production should have been able to take a step back and look at what they were presenting, and how it came across. It's all well and good to want to hop on the blaxploitation bandwagon, but somehow they forgot that in those movie, there were black heroes and protagonists, not just black villains and antagonists. The entire film is, intentionally or not, presented as "us" versus "them," with race being the dividing line.
But even if you cut them some slack as just being clueless, it's an undeniable fact that this movie hasn't aged terribly well (assuming that it was even acceptable at it's time of release). So be aware that in all of my assessments, there's an "ewww" factor in the back of my mind that can't help but influence my opinion on various aspects of this film.
Now, back to the movie.
We open with what has to be the worst teaser in Bond history. It's bad enough that Roger Moore doesn't even appear in it, although there was precedent for that, as Connery-as-Bond didn't appear in a teaser until Goldfinger (remember, he was just someone posing as Bond in From Russia With Love). Given that this was the 3rd Bond in as many movies, you would think that they would want to introduce and identify Moore as Bond as soon as possible. But this is the only teaser that is completely non-Bond related...neither Bond nor a double appears.
But even beyond that, the classic teaser form is a mini-movie, with a beginning, middle and end. Even if the teaser ties into the later movie, and so the teaser's plot isn't 100% resolved, at least the vignette itself comes to a conclusion. But not here. No attempt at a story or narrative. We just get three isolated murders. We have no idea who the victims are, or why we should care about them. We have no idea of how their stories relate. We have no idea of what we're being shown, and no explanation or narrative is given. There's no action, no stunts, no gadgets, no MI-6 (at least, not identified at this point). If you were take this teaser and show it to someone who had never seen LALD, they would have no idea that this was the intro to a James Bond movie. And that, you would think, would be the most basic minimum requirement of a Bond teaser.
Then comes the theme song. I know I'm opening myself up here, but I've never been too fond of this song, especially as a Bond tune. Sorry. It's too schizophrenic for my tastes, less than the sum of its discordant parts...it can't decide whether it wants to be slow, medium or fast tempo, a crooner or a rocker; it feels like somebody jammed "Man With the Golden Gun" and "Nobody Does It Better" together, but didn't bother to thoroughly blend them. Individually the parts work...together, not so much. Plus, it also works fairly poorly in the score, providing ridiculously punchy upbeat keyboards during what are supposed to be quiet, tense scenes (although that's just as likely George Martin's fault for how he used it in the score...John Barry, where are you??).
We next see Bond in bed with an Italian agent. This is the first time since Dr. No that we've seen Bond's living quarters, and it is the last time, so far. We proceed to get something of a bedroom farce, as for some reason Bond is desperate to hide from M the fact that he's been sleeping with her. What, like M doesn't know?? He would care?!? Why are we getting this Three's Company episode in our Bond movie? M as Mr. Roper?!?
I'll post later this weekend some of my thoughts on Moore vs. Connery, but I will say this now: it was stunning how young Moore looked here. Yeah, part of it is the advanced DVD technology, and part of it is the memories of "old" Moore from the later movies burned into my head. But even though he was 45 during the filming of LALD, he looks far younger than I remembered, more virile virile and agile in a way that makes him (at least for now) every bit as good a Bond physically as Connery. We'll see how long that lasts.
So Bond heads off to New York City, to find out who's killing British agents. And this is where the weakness in Tom Mankiewicz's screenplay start to pile-up. This was his one and only solo Bond screenplay, and as you can no doubt tell, I'm not a big fan of the man's work. Let's look at how he adapted Fleming's novel--what he took, and what he left on the table.
In the novel, Mr. Big (which is actually an acronym for Buonapart Ignace Gallia--seriously!!) was half-French, born in Haiti. His syndicate was really a front for Soviet spy operations in the United States. MI-6 becomes involved because Big has discovered a huge cache of pirate treasure in Jamaica (seriously) and is smuggling the gold into the U.S. to fund SMERSH operations. There is no Kananga, no San Monique, no drugs.
Now, there are two great set pieces in the novel that Mankiewicz completely bypasses, for unknown reasons. The first is when Felix Leiter has his leg and part of an arm devoured by a shark at an aquarium, and the bad guys leave a note "He disagreed with something that ate him." You'll recognize that from Licence To Kill, where they did use the bit (And, since David Hedison also played Leiter in that one, he didn't miss out on the biggest part ever for Felix!).
The second is where Bond and Solitaire are bound together and dragged by a boat over coral as bait for sharks (and barracuda!). Again, we all know this sequence from For Your Eyes Only.
Frankly, I'm at a loss as to why Mankiewicz bypassed those bits, because they're pretty exciting in the book, and they worked pretty well in the movies they were later used in. And frankly, they work a lot better than much of what Mankiewicz creates out of whole cloth.
So what does he give us? A tepid plot, which is never fleshed out beyond it's one sentence premise: Kananga wants to flood the U.S. with free drugs, driving the mob out of business, and then raise the price when the number of addicts doubles and the competition is gone.
That's it. The entire premise of the movie is based on 3 AM dorm room conversations ("Man, what if they gave drugs away for free?"), and with about as much depth. There's absolutely no motivation given as to why Kananga would want to do this. Is he after money? Does he hate the U.S.? Is he striking out at white governments? Is he just a deluded megalomaniac? Could he be working for the Soviets to destabilize America (that actually would have been a great idea)? We have no idea. And there's just as little thought to the ramifications: would organized crime really just fold up and die, without a lengthy and bloody fight? I think not. And once the drugs were traced to San Monique, how long would it be before the U.S. military moved in?
The movie's plot throws in one more loop: Kananga secretly is Mr. Big, so he can play both supplier and distributor. This results in, unfortunately, the worst make-up job in the history of cinema (OK, I'm exaggerating...that's what I do). They don't show Mr. Big very much on screen, because it looks so ridiculously awful. I mean look at it!! The worst part it is, it seems so unnecessary. Why the Kananga go through such extensive make-up, which had to take hours to apply? Why not just go with your own face, pretending to be Mr. Big without the mask? It's not like any of the hoodlums you deal with are going to recognize the Prime Minister of San Monique, is it? Or if you really can't risk being recognized, why not have one of your flunkies pose as Doctor Detroit--oops I man Mr. Big?
None of this is meant to reflect badly on Yaphet Kotto, as he does the best that anyone could do with this muddled mess. Aside from the "honkies" he's forced to bark out as Mr. Big, he plays Kananga as the default Bond bad guy: charming and erudite exterior masking the vicious megalomaniac beneath. He's not given any memorable lines, and after the revelation that he and Mr. Big are one and the same, he disappears from the movie for over half an hour, returning only for the finale. He is, however, given one of the more memorable (albeit undignified and ridiculous) deaths in the series' history.
The henchmen fair somewhat better. Whisper is memorable, if only because of his gimmick--he doesn't seem to be that efficient of a henchman. Tee Hee is properly menacing, almost always flashing that evil smile. His artificial arm could have been used more effectively, but you can't have everything. Tee Hee also continues a new Bond tradition--henchmen outliving their master, and trying for one last gasp of revenge at the film's end. We'll be seeing this one much more in the future.
Plotwise, instead of Felix getting eaten by a shark or Bond and Solitaire getting dragged as bait, what do we get to replace it? An alligator farm, a double decker bus chase, an airplane chase, and a loooooooooooooong motorboat chase. Now, the alligator farm bit is pretty nice. It's unique, it's scary, it's done with style. And it's done for REAL--those are actual alligators the stunt man is jumping on, not dummies. Check out these takes, where alligator handler Ross Kananga (yes, Kananga--that's where Mankiewicz got the character name from) almost loses a foot or leg while doing the stunt:
Scary stuff, eh?
But as for the chase scenes, well, one thing we've learned about Guy Hamilton is: he could not make chase scenes interesting or exciting to save his life. At all. Ever. The gadgets in Goldfinger distracted us from this fact, but I challenge you to watch the chase scenes in Diamonds Are Forever or LALD and try not to be lulled into dreamland.
The first problem is, they're ALL terribly choreographed. If you watch with attention, you will see that Bond almost never does anything spectacular in terms of driving, but all of the cars chasing him crash and wipe out for no reason whatsoever. Watch the moon buggy chase in DAF, where, where Bond pretty much drives in a straight line, and all of these hulking 1970 cars just flip and spin out and drive off of perfectly visible ledges. And the Mustang chase up and down Fremont, how many cop cars crash simply because they cannot navigate a parking lot??
The same thing happens in this film. Bond hijacks the training airplane, and Big's men chase in cars. 6 times cars wipe out or crash, and NONE of them because Bond did any particularly clever evasive maneuver...they just crashed because Hamilton wanted to show a lot of cars crashing, and couldn't be bothered to go much further than that. (Question: if Bond wanted to escape, why didn't he, you know, just TAKE OFF and fly away, instead of taxiing all over the airport? Answer: It's 70's Bond, son. Don't ask intelligent questions about set pieces, because there are no answers) . This is post-Bullitt and post-French Connection, but Hamilton's car chases are as devoid of tension as any pre-1970 programmer, which is a shame given the money and stunt people available to Eon.
The motorboat chase fairs a bit better, if for no other reason than it's more unique. But it's filled with the same flaw (bad guys crashing...well, just because they're bad guys, apparently), and it takes roughly FOREVER. Seriously, it does take over 15 minutes. 15 MINUTES!! And with much of the action being captured in aerial long shots, which robs the chase of much of its sense of speed, well, the 15 minutes seems like 25.
Of course, the worst thing about about the chase scene is Sheriff J. W. Pepper (Clifton James). If I had godlike time travel powers and could remove 1 element from any James Bond movie, Pepper would be gone. An embarrassingly cartoonish performance of a racist, redneck, good ol' boy southern lawman, every single line uttered by Pepper is like a million nails on a blackboard to me. He's unfunny, demeaning, and disruptive to the flow of the action. Fortunately, no one else found him amusing, and we'd never see his like again in a Bond movie...what? Next movie? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The real problem with all these poorly filmed chase scenes was that, without all the chases, there really wasn't much movie. When Strutter is killed in New Orleans, it's an exact re-enactment of the scene from the teaser. Were they out of ideas?? When Solitaire is held in San Monique, she's menaced by the snake man, again in exactly the same way as the teaser...right down to the same rubber snake. Bond is kidnapped TWICE in Fillet of Soul restaurants, in exactly the same way. The dearth of imagination is amazing. This is a movie that has lapped itself, that is circling the track again and again, vamping to reach the 2 hour mark.
Solitaire. Ah, Solitaire. Young Dr. Quinn in her first film role. Aside from being as gorgeous as hell, Jane Seymour brings a grace and regal presence that one would expect from a woman who's been told she's essentially a goddess her entire life. No, she's not a fighter or street savvy, but we don't need that from every single Bond Girl. Yet after she "loses her powers," you see her willing to bluff her way out of situations, and willing to stand up to Kananga. There's a steely determination there. And after Bond (ahem) stacks her deck, we see and believe her transiton from priestess to woman (who wants more lessons!!). She has a good character arc, and Seymour has good chemistry with Moore. She's a keeper.
So begins the Moore Dynasty. Moore makes a fine Bond, albeit not one of Sean Connery caliber. But whether because they're writing to his strengths, or because that's just the direction of the movies, he's jokier, less serious, possibly less deadly. And the movies follow suit, becoming less real and more fantastic.
But this movie is a poor start. We have perhaps the most thinly plotted Bond ever, padded out with (mostly) unenthusiastic chases and repetitious set pieces. And given the unfortunate racial tone of the film, by 2008 standards it becomes uncomfortable as well as tedious. The notion to turn James Bond into blaxploitation is neither a good idea nor well executed, and has made the film age particularly poorly. And I still don't like the song.
SNELL'S RANDOM NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:
**At their second meeting, Kananga tells Bond, "First you go up to Harlem and killed one of the brothers..." Which is odd, because Bond didn't kill anyone in Harlem. He knocked out two thugs who were taking him to be executed, but he didn't kill them (unless Felix or one of his lads had them killed later...hmmm).
In fact, Bond doesn't kill very much at all. Assuming that no one dies in the many car crashes we see, he doesn't kill anybody until the very end of the motorboat chase, an hour and forty minutes into the film. Does this mean Moore will be much more discriminating in using his licence to kill than Connery?
**Where the hell is Q? One would think they'd bring him in when trying to establish a new Bond (at least back in those days). In OHMSS they trotted him out even though he had no gadgets for Bond. Here, even though Bond's life completely depends on his watch, we don't see Q at all (although he is name dropped).
**This is the only instance where the movie's theme song is performed as an actual song within the movie. I pity the poor lounge singer who tried to make it work...
**Even though Solitaire is supposedly always right until she loses her virginity, in her first meeting with Bond she is unquestionably wrong. The first thing she tells him is, "You will not succeed." So much for infallibility.
**Speaking of which, it's perhaps not too surprising that the Tarot shop on San Monique would stock the exact same style of Tarot card that Solitaire uses, as she is revered there. But did Bond really buy 78 separate decks of cards, pulling the "Lovers" out of each one, to make his stacked deck? Or did the shop sell individual cards (which would be weird, but possible), and Bond bought 78 single cards, all the Lovers?
**San Monique is the first fictional nation in the James Bond films. Since this was the first time an actual head of state was the villain, I guess they thought they had best not use a real country. We'll revisit this in Licence To Kill.
**Another first--profanity. It's usually cut or bleeped on broadcast, but Mrs. Bell says "Oh shit!" when Bond is trying to fit the plane through the hanger doors. Hey, that was ridiculously edgy in those days!!
**A big difference between Connery and Moore--the big-ass cigar. Bond wouldn't even put it down while hang-gliding. Sigh...
**Size matters: good gosh, check out the size of Bond's holster and cannon--no Walther PPK with silencer here...
I guess Dirty Harry was extremely influential.
**Poor, poor Rosie Carver. Incompetent, and an idiot. Score a couple of more Cletus' for the Americans. But at least she gave us an opportunity to show that Moore could be a hard-nosed bastard when needed, as his interrogation of her after their picnic lovemaking was as cold as Connery.
**More confused Kananga. He's already ordered Bond dead at least twice. So when Bond is getting close to finding the poppy fields, he orders, "If he finds it, kill him." Why the conditional? Didn't you already order him dead?!? If he didn't find it, you'd change your mind and let him live??
**So Quarrel Jr. just wanders around unseen, unmolested while planting all of the explosive charges in the poppy fields. They're not even guarded? Even though you know Bond knows about them, and that he escaped alive? Not a single guard? There megalomaniacal, and then there's incompetent.
**Geoffrey Holder is great, but largely wasted as Baron Samedi. You expect their fight to be one of the movie's climaxes, but it's basically one swing of the machete and then he's thrown into the casket of snakes. He had such charisma on the screen, he should have been used more (and more effectively).
**This is one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie. After the speedboats drive by, smashing the wedding, the bride starts sobbing. But watch the groom...in the very last frame before the cutaway, he starts to give this unmistakable little smile. No doubt he's thinking, "This is the COOLEST wedding EVER!!"
**Talk about wusses. In Kananga's heroine processing plant, cleverly concealed inside an alligator farm, the lab is inside a sealed room. But look how panicky all of those lab techs get when one alligator shows up in lobby. Dudes, do you think he can open sealed doors? Calm down...
**Bond Score: 3. Miss Caruso, Rosie Carver, and Solitaire. Cumulative Bond Score: 24.
And, as always:
Be here next week, as Lulu shrieks, Bond gets a Tattoo, and extra nipples for everybody!!!