Live and Let Die (1973)

When it’s on: Saturday, 14 July (2.45 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

For Live and Let Die, Broccoli and Saltzman tried the usual bribe to get Sean Connery back into Bond’s tuxedo. The traditional unprecedented fee was offered, but for once the Scot turned them down and ensured a new face as 007. American actors were strongly considered. Robert Redford and Paul Newman both figured. Burt Reynolds was a rather unlikely frontrunner, before the producers resolved to go British and returned to a previously shelved option. Roger Moore had been in the frame on the two occasions that Connery and George Lazenby won the role. A veteran of television thrillers and with nearly thirty years of screen acting behind him, Moore got a haircut, lost some weight and strolled into the part.

Considering the direction taken by the franchise with Diamonds are Forever, Moore was an eminently suitable choice. Arch, knowing and with his tongue permanently wedged in his cheek, 007 and he were perfect bedfellows. Even the name ‘Roger Moore’ is an innuendo worthy of Tom Mankiewicz’s pithy pen. Over the years, Moore would come to spend far too long in the part and was present for some of the series’ weakest entries, but he was the Bond I grew up with. He was my Bond, in the same way that Tom Baker was, and always will be, my Doctor Who.

Back in the day when televised film premieres counted for something, Live and Let Die’s UK network debut in 1980 was a big deal. 23.5m watched it and the new Bond. Moore brought a light touch to the role. He explained that he deliberately tried to distance himself from Connery’s interpretation, and this wasn’t just down to his choice of alcoholic beverage or a preference for neckties. There was his more comedic, mock-deferential attitude to M, the friendly flirtiness with Miss Moneypenny (which seems mutual, whereas I got the impression she would have jumped Connery in a heartbeat). Whereas the old Bond brought a sadistic touch to the way he dealt with his foes, Moore looked as though he found the whole killing business slightly distasteful. He’d do it, for Queen and country of course, but he didn’t have to like it.

Live and Let Die is a better film than Diamonds are Forever, and that’s because Moore fits more easily within the overall tone. The serious spycraft of older entries was ancient history. All the film offers is a thrill ride – jump on and have fun! There are stunts, crocodiles, sharks, a speedboat chase, girls, Voodoo… What’s not to like? Moore is good at this sort of chicanery. The raised eyebrow from his Saint days might be kept in check here, but it twitches fiercely as the agent floats through the action, placed in perilous situations with the caveat that he’ll never suffer any serious harm.

Scraps remain from Fleming’s source novel, and the character of San Monique dictator, Dr Kananga, is an invention of Mankiewicz’s screenplay. As it turned out, Kananga was ‘born’ as the production team scouted for locations. Coming across a crocodile farm in Jamaica, they learned it was owned by a certain Ross Kananga, who not only lent his name to the film’s main baddie but also performed the famous crocodile jump stunt. The gate to his crocodile farm carried an ominous warning – ‘All Trespassers will be Eaten’ – which makes an appearance in the film.

Live and Let Die was made at the height of Blaxploitation. At one point, Bond enters Harlem and, while the very appearance of a well dressed English gentleman in Manhattan’s ‘black’ district would be sensational enough, is subjected to a slew of jive talk, some of which is jaw droppingly awful and horribly dated. Amidst all the honky catcalls, he comes across the picture’s main love interest, Solitaire, who’s played by Jane Seymour. Dr Quinn and endless appearances in TV movies and mini series were still some way off, and Seymour is virginal loveliness, indeed her ability to read the Tarot is linked to her maidenhood. This is before Bond enters her life, of course, and ends all that nonsense via a ridiculously obvious card trick. Julius Harris plays Tee Hee, the henchman with a robotic pincer where his arm used to be, and then there’s Mr Big (Yaphet Kotto), the underworld kingpin who has minions on every corner. A fantastic sense of danger follows Bond as soon as he sets foot in the States. His every move is relayed to Mr Big by walkie talkie carrying drones on each street corner. The driver taking him to Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is shot while the car is still moving. He sits in a bar alcove, only to find it’s a trap! It’s a shame the threat of Mr Big turns out to be so limited, no match for 007’s skills, yet the implication is quite thrilling.

Less so is the film’s set piece special, a speedboat pursuit on the Louisiana bayou. Bond pulls every trick in the book to elude his pursuers, leading to a stunt-packed ride for viewers, yet it’s actually a little dull and lasts far too long. The whole thing is soured further when a local sheriff gets involved. J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) is the stereotypical Deep Souther, hauling a pot belly in his fruitless efforts to catch up with Bond. Poor old J.W. Clearly inserted into the plot for nothing more than comic relief, his casual bigotry and evident stupidity are held up as reasons to dislike Live and Let Die (he also features in the ill-starred follow-up). That said, in a film where the bad guys are all black, there’s some credit in making a white man the butt of the joke.

The worst thing about the boat chase is that it seems the film has a Louisiana sequence just to showcase the scenery. Far better is Live and Let Die’s other pursuit, as Bond and Solitaire escape in a rundown double-decker bus, which becomes a single-decker after colliding with a low bridge. Better again is the voodoo business, just for its sheer daftness and fun with snakes. Rosie Carver (Blaxploitation veteran, Gloria Hendry) turns up as a treacherous CIA agent. Bond is on to her from the start, yet she meets her maker via a bullet shot from one of Kananga’s scarecrows, superb and scary devices that can be used either for spying or assassination.

Live and Let Die enjoyed massive box office success and sealed Moore’s future as Bond. It also guaranteed the steer of the franchise, locked in spiralling levels of silliness as the aim was to provide fun and thrills, moving 007 along to the next action scene as briskly as the exposition would allow. It works here, just about, though later entries would demonstrate that the balance between entertainment and plain daftness was fine indeed. As Moore makes quips about ‘A genuine Felix Leiter’ to his CIA liaison’s voice emanating from a car lighter, and agents are offed during ingeniously double-edged jazz funerals, it’s enough of a ride to forget the absence of John Barry. Perhaps it helps that Live and Let Die features one of the series’ best theme songs, performed by Paul McCartney and Wings, which is referenced frequently in the funked up score.

Live and Let Die: ***

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

When it’s on: Sunday, 3 June (3.25 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Welcome to matinée film making from a more innocent time, when stop-motion animated creatures ruled the world and stories were thinly disguised linkage points  between the appearance of fantasy creatures. Unfortunately, by the time Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger was released – encouraged by the success of 1973’s Golden Voyage of SinbadStar Wars had done enough to alter audiences’ perceptions and expectations, leaving it to appear antiquated and out of touch.

I remember one of my favourite TV shows as a child was The Incredible Hulk. That was until my dad informed me that the producers could afford to transform Bill Bixby into Lou Ferrigno only twice per episode, no more and no less, which broke the spell because it was then apparent that the plot had little point other than to build up to these moments, making it seem contrived and utterly artificial. Eye of the Tiger is a bit like that. There was always an element of films involving Ray Harryhausen that the narrative served to shoehorn his creations into the frame at regular points, but by this film it’s more obvious than ever. There’s a scene that takes place in the Arctic? Bring on the giant walrus! Melanthius wants to test the evil witch’s magic potion? Roll out the enlarged wasp!

Worse still is the fact these animated creatures started to look really dated by 1977. Given the choice between watching almost photo-realistic spaceships and stop-motion baboons, what would you choose to see? It doesn’t help that for this film, Harryhausen applied his arts to animating real animals – wasps, apes and walruses – and they look as artificial as they obviously are. His work is at its best when fantasy creatures are on the screen, such as the imposing Minaton (a bronze automaton in the shape of a minotaur), which evokes memories of Talos from Jason and the Argonauts, but such creations are few and far between.

The Eye of the Tiger was directed by Sam Wanamaker, best known as an actor but with numerous directing credits, mainly for television productions. His effort here was bloated one, rather poorly edited by Roy Watts who simply let the camera linger on a scene long after it had finished. These moments really matter. The viewer expects something to happen, only it doesn’t, and thanks to movie watching convention you’re drawn right out of the picture.

Then there’s the acting, the really awful acting. It isn’t often this writer misses Kerwin Matthews, yet the bland star of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad – more or less the go-to man for matinée leads where the focus was elsewhere – is a cut above Patrick Wayne (John’s son!), who brings a curiously wooden quality to the lead role. Wayne looks the part, but that’s about it, and indeed develops into the least effectual Sinbad as the sailor turns out to have little to do. Taryn Power and Jane Seymour are on hand to provide eye candy and a willingness to wear tiny outfits, including a brief, family friendly nude scene. Margaret Whiting plays the villainous Zenobia. I was never at all clear on her motives beyond serving up classic villainy and Whiting duly hams it up, channelling Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch in her cackling performance. It’s left to Patrick Troughton as the alchemist Melanthius to provide a touch of class, and even he has an especially poorly scripted scene in which he’s left to question Zenobia, only to reveal all his plans and nearly get killed in the process.

These films were never great but they were nearly always fun, easy viewing for PG audiences. Yet here the drawbacks finally outweigh the benefits; Harryhausen’s genius had been caught up by time and the end is a bit of a shambles.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger: *