The beginning of the Roger Moore era begins here. Roger Moore doesn’t have the greatest reputation as a Bond but he seems to have his fans. They sure did make a bunch of these movies with him, I would hope for good reason. Almost anything would be a welcome change after the last Connery.
The film starts with a series of assassinations. During a session of the United Nations, a white guy is killed by killer audio feedback. In the Caribbean, a white guy has been tied to a post and killed by a snake bite. And in New Orleans, a white spy is not-at-all-subtly staking out a club called Fillet of Soul when a funeral procession passes, “Who’s funeral is it?” he asks a bystander.
“Yours.” Stab, shove in casket. Continue procession. Cue credit sequence.
The theme music this time is by Paul McCartney and Wings. The song is exotic and brassy and perfect for a Bond film. It’s a great song worthy of a former Beatle. Of course, one cannot help but remember that Bond in Goldfinger made a point of taking a pot shot at the Beatles, quipping that they should only be listened to while wearing earmuffs.
The title sequence itself is delightfully sinister. It includes the perquisite naked ladies but has a fire and skulls motif that gives the whole affair a black magic tone. It is a little unusual for James Bond but it is cool.
Our first glimpse of Moore comes as M and Moneypenny visit Bond at home. He is in bed with a young woman when they arrive. He is wearing a digital watch. Bond should never be seen wearing a digital watch. Bond should always be stylish never fashionable. It is a bad start.
The tone of this sequence is one of light comedy, nicely masking the exposition. James hides the girl in a coat closet from M. Moneypenny finds the girl and helps Bond hide her. It’ s a dumb farce scene but goddamn if Lois Maxwell doesn’t give it some gravity. This is the first time she’s actually been face-to-face with Bond’s womanizing and you can see it kill her inside, even as she helps Bond with a smile and a wink.
M exposits that the three men killed in the pre-credits were all agents of British Intelligence: Dawes, Hamilton, and Baines. Bond rather liked Baines. They shared the same bootmaker. Bond is being sent to investigate their deaths.
Stupid digital wristwatch aside, Moore as Bond looks a lot more respectable and gentlemanly than Bond has in the past few films. That is not to say that he actually is respectable or a gentleman. As soon as M finishes briefing him and departs, Bond uses his new magnetic wristwatch to unzip the closet girl’s dress. It is sexy in a fun, playful way as opposed to the normal Bond sex creepiness.
Bond’s assignment is to investigate Kananga, a dictator ruling San Monique, a small fictional Caribbean nation. Kananga is played by Yaphet Koto with playful menace. He is currently visiting the United Nations in New York, so that is Bond’s first stop.
In New York Bond liases with yet another new Felix Leiter. This one, played by David Hedison, is a minor revelation. There’s a chemistry between him and Bond that has always been absent before. He comes across as Bond’s American best friend, which I think is supposed to be the point of the character, but has never quite landed up until now.
Before Bond can begin his investigation, someone driving what is described by Leiter as a “white pimpmobile” tries to assasinate Bond. This man shoots Bond’s driver in the head, leaving the car to crash. Bond manages to avoid serious injury and with the help of Felix, traces the car’s owner to a store dealing in voodoo paraphernalia.
Bond finds the pimpmobile parked near the voodoo store, and so he tails it by taxi. However, it turns out that Bond’s taxi driver is part of a chain of seemingly ordinary black people throughout the city that are all tracking Bond’s movements. It seems as if every black person in New York is part of a monolithic criminal conspiracy and all their attention is now focused on James Bond.
Bond arrives in Harlem, and enters a Fillet of Soul, the chain restaurant being staked out at the start of the film. He gets seated at a booth that is placed along a wall. This booth swivels, fireplace-secret-door-style, into a hidden lair. Once in the lair he is informed by Tee Hee Johnson, a tall, imposing man with a mechanical vise for a hand, that he is to be introduced to Mr. Big.
While waiting for Mr. Big, Bond meets Solitaire, a beautiful young tarot reader, played by Jane Seymore, who is utterly confident in her ability to divine the fortune from her tarot cards. Bond flirts with her briefly before Mr. Big sweeps in and tells his men to waste the honky. Bond smugly asks whether “waste” is a good thing.
Bond is taken out back to be wasted, but he is saved by a black CIA agent, thus establishing that, in fact, not all black people are evil.
Bond now heads to San Monique. As he arrives, he passes Baron Samedi, a voodoo performer in facepaint and top hat, touted as “The man who cannot die”. Samedi puts on an exuberant and slightly sinister show.
This film has moved at a breakneck clip for a Bond film up until this point, but now things slow down enough to make room for some spy shit as Bond sweeps his room for bugs. A deadly snake is slipped into his room and his champagne is left for him by a large man who only speaks in a whisper. This is the assassin driver of the white pimpmobile.
After finding and dispatching the snake, Bond meets in his hotel room Rosie Carver, another black CIA agent who as part of her cover is posing as “Mrs. Bond.” She is a rookie field agent standing in sharp contrast to Bond’s years of experience. This subtly sells the idea that Moore-As-Bond is a veteran like the character, not a rookie like the actor.
Bond just sort of assumes that Carver will sleep with him. She rebufs his advances and then immediately gets frightened by a hat. It is then implied that she sleeps with Bond.
They meet up with Quarrel Junior. Remember Quarrel? James Bond’s other black friend? The guy in Dr. No who couldn’t tell the difference between a tank and a dragon who got killed with a flamethrower? Apparently he had a son who serves the exact same narrative purpose as his father.
Bond and Rosie hire Quarrel Jr. to take them to Katanga’s Island base. As they approach, Katanga asks Solitaire to give a reading about how this encounter will play out. The card she reads is “The Lovers” but she tells Katanga that what she sees is “Death.”
Katanga believes that Solitaire has the power but it is implied that deflowering her would depower her. This film is treating her divination as being a real power, which is odd. All of a sudden there exists magic within the world of James Bond. This wholly alters the tone of the proceedings. Even more than You Only Live Twice, this film abandons being an espionage thriller, transcending that limited genre, and creating something weirder and more interesting.
It turns out that Rosie is an agent of Katanga, attempting to set up Bond. Bond sees through her act which naturally does not stop him from sleeping with her in the jungle before confronting her regarding her duplicity. However, she is killed by one of Katanga’s traps before she can tell Bond what she knows.
To perform reconnaissance on Katanga, Bond hang glides while smoking a cigar, pulled along by Quarrel’s boat. When he is ready to make his move, he lands, tearing off his pants to reveal a second pair of pants, while reversing his jacket so that he can be properly dressed for the occasion. It is sublimely ridiculous.
Bond makes his way into Katanga’s compound, where he finds Solitaire. He coerces her into sleeping with him. He tells her that the cards say that they must. What he does not tell her is that he has replaced her deck of cards with a deck that contains nothing but copies of “The Lovers”.
After they make love, Solitaire is stunned and appalled at what she has done. She no longer has the power now that she is devirginated. Her whole life has been destroyed. Bond uses this vulnerability to press her for information about Katanga.
Having had her life destroyed, Solitaire seems to have no real choice but to stick with Bond as he escapes the compound. Two pretty fun chase scenes later, Bond escapes San Monique but cannot quite hold onto Solitare, who get’s captured. This is a setback for Bond who had, in obtaining the boss’s girl, gained a useful bargaining chip.
Some time afterward, Bond and Felix end up at the New Orleans Filet of Soul. Bond asks to be seated closer to the stage to avoid a secret door booth. He is obliged and they are front and center to watch a woman singing “Live and Let Die”, the film’s theme song.
Despite avoiding the booth, this table is also part of a secret passage, dropping Bond into a lower level when Felix leaves to make a phone call.
Bond is clamped to a chair and interrogated by Mr. Big. The gangster wants to know if Bond has slept with Solitaire. He learns the truth and in the course of the scene, reveals a secret of his own: Mr. Big is Katanga in disguise! I feel foolish admitting it, but I genuinely didn’t see that coming!
Katanga’s villainous plot is elegant in its simplicity: Give a bunch of people in America free heroin.
After Katanga learns the truth about Solitaire, Bond is taken by Tee Hee Johnson to a crocodile farm where heroin in processed. Johnson tells Bond that he loves the crocs despite having lost an arm to one.
Bond is then left alone in the farm on a tiny island surrounded by crocodile-filled swamp. He spies a metal canoe and uses his magno-watch to pull it to him. However, the canoe is firmly tied up! The gimmick has failed.
Moving to plan “B”, Bond instead jumps on the body of one crocodile after another, Pitfall Harry-style, hopping his way to freedom. Then he burns the heroin shack to the ground before taking off on a speedboat and I kind of love this movie.
Bond doesn’t make a clean escape. What follows is a truly spectacular car/boat chase that reels in J. W. Pepper, a racist redneck sheriff, blatantly inserted into the film to make the movie itself seem less racist.
The chase involves boats on rivers, cars on roads, swimming pools, boats jumping over cars, a boats moving on land, a weeding, boat-switching and car-switching, all culminating in a glorious fireball. It is one of the greatest chase scenes I have been fortunate enough to bear witness to.
Bond and Felix jet back to San Monique, I think to burn their poppy fields? Or assassinate Katanga? I’m still not sure why British Intelligence gives a shit about the American drug trade. Fun as this all is, it seems a little small-potatoes for Bond.
At any rate, Bond arrives just as Solitaire is about to be murdered in the voodoo ritual seen at the start of the film, officiated by Baron Samedi. Bond starts shooting people. He seemingly shoots Samedi but what gets shot is apparently a lifelike Samedi mannequin. Bond frees Solitaire, and when Samedi resurfaces he kicks the voodoo man into a coffin full of venomous snakes.
While Bond distracts the bad guys, Leiter and Quarrel blow up some poppy fields. Bond and Solitaire run away from the angry voodoo horde, but end up running straight into Katanga. Having caputured Bond at home, Katanga takes pleasure in showing off his wonderful underground lair, complete with monorail and shark tank.
The two prisoners are tied above the shark tank but it isn’t long before Bond uses his watch’s buzzsaw to escape. He quickly turns the tables on Katanga, forcing him to eat a pellet of compressed air, which causes him to gruesomely and cartoonishly explode. It is a bit much.
Having assassinated the leader of a sovereign nation, Bond and Solitaire board a train. Presumably they have left San Monique but it isn’t clear. Aboard the train, Bond teaches Solitaire to play gin rummy.
Tee Hee Johnson boards the train looking to kill Bond. Bond shoves Solitaire into a foldout bed so that the men can trainfight. This is reminiscent of the amazing fight in From Russian With Love, but instead of beating the bad guy with savagery, he defeats him by disabling his robot arm. He then throws Johnson out of the train.
The danger has passed, but the film cuts away to Baron Samedi, perched on the edge of the train, alive and cackling. The end.
I really enjoyed this film. I feel bad about liking it because whatever other charms it may possess, it is a movie wherein James Bond rapes a woman. It’s a heinous act in an otherwise light film, but eight films into the franchise, I am going into this flick assuming that Bond is a monster and a rapist. Even though the filmmakers do not understand that Bond is a bad guy, I certainly do, and I can enjoy the film as I can enjoy other stories about bad people. That doesn’t excuse the movie and other viewers might have a different experience. Also it is not entirely un-racist.
With that guilty disclaimer out of the way, this is a hell of a movie. It isn’t just enjoyable compared to the previous films in this oftentimes unpleasant franchise, it is is enjoyable in its own right. It creates a goofy, over-the-top, world that James Bond can almost make sense existing within, playful and absurd in largely the right ways.
It only took them eight tries to get the tone right on a James Bond film. This is a good movie following seven ones that were not good. Maybe this first Roger Moore film is the start of something new and exciting.