The Seventies were not a kind decade to Bond. The Sixties might have been the height of the Cold War setting and provided a colorful aesthetic, but the Seventies was largely a hangover decade culturally. Bond was no exception. This is Roger Moore’s first as Bond, and with this series, we’re going to see what started the decline of Bond and what qualities of the character endured beyond stagnation.
When I was young and my heart was an open book, I used to say, “live and let live!” But, when this ever-changing world made me give in and cry, I said:
Live and Let Die (1973)
Time to make a disclaimer: I’m going to be honest in these retrospectives. If Moore is your favorite Bond and you love these movies, that’s okay. I love them too. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be nice to them. You are welcome to disagree with me in the comments. In fact, I want you to; I’m very lonely.
So I went ahead and watched some of the Moore films in succession. This was mainly done for perspective. These films are some of the ones I’ve seen the least, so when I see them I should know the franchise’s near future.
If there was a way to describe these Moore era films, I think the best way to say it is “gimmicks”. Gimmicks used to be a thing you put on a movie poster, it was the thing Bond had to do in between the good stuff. Once Sean Connery left, gimmicks became all Bond had for a long time. Connery left a vacuum where only an image of what Bond should be remained.
In the Americas, three MI6 agents are murdered, and Bond is summoned in the middle of the night to figure out what the hell is going on. The link between the three is named Dr. Kananga. In New York, Bond is almost murdered, and he traces the clues to a gangster named Mr. Big. He also meets Big’s assistant, Solitaire, who can read tarot cards and see the future.
Bond almost dies and then meets up with a CIA operative named Rosie Carver. They go to Kananga’s island nation of San Monique, and Carver is murdered because she secretly works for Kananga and was gonna spill the beans. I’m trying to make these shorter.
Bond seduces Solitaire, who is also working for Kananga. Solitaire is a virgin and credits that for her amazing ability. She falls in love with Bond, and they escape by boat to New Orleans. Mr. Big captures them and reveals he is secretly Kananga. The big plan is to produce heroin from the poppy fields in San Monique and distribute the insanely large amount for free. Creating a market crash only Kananga could survive and also creating dependent future buyers after he becomes the only source.
Kananga is also pissed because Solitaire has lost her power. He wants Solitaire to be sacrificed by his voodoo henchman Baron Samedi in San Monique, and he wants Bond to be fed to alligators in the New Orleans swamps. Bond escapes the alligators, goes back to San Monique and saves Solitaire, and stops Kananga’s operation by literally making him explode like a balloon. They relax on a train when they’re attacked by a one-armed henchman; at the end Bond and Solitaire embrace.
A Closer Look
First, this isn’t a normal Bond movie. This film actively pursues a blaxploitation aesthetic and plot. The evil dictator is trying to make drug money, not diamond satellite money. This makes the film age in ways that the Connery films didn’t. This film has racism, but it’s done with a blurrier line than something like You Only Live Twice (1967). I think a lot of the racism in this film isn’t because of ill intentions or overt prejudice, I think it’s because it’s a bunch of white people making a movie in this cultural genre. It’s just not thought out. This doesn’t excuse them, but I didn’t watch this film and feel negativity that wasn’t already a product of these genres.
The worst of the negativity was Carver’s death and the removal of her romance scenes in certain theaters. That’s inexcusable and in a more standard Bond film Solitaire would’ve been the lady to die two scenes after Bond seduced her and Carver would have been written smarter. That being said, everything else you’ll see here is standard for the time and genre. Message me when Bond paints his face. Oh wait, he did that like three movies ago.
Which brings me to Moore. To talk specifically about how Moore functions in this film at the moment, Moore’s Bond is meant to be a stark juxtaposition from his setting. A posh, handsome gentleman having to deal with the blunt roughness of the streets is meant to be funny. Same for the gross and visceral swamps of New Orleans or the colorful voodoo of San Monique. They utilize Bond’s character as a tool for contrast, and I think that’s the smartest way to do this. However, I think there are moments where the fish out of water works, but those moments are few and far between. When he’s not an oaf he has an air of smugness that doesn’t wear well with the rest of the cast or film. When he’s giving one-liners and using the standard 007 gadgets, it feels like he’s in a different movie. Moore’s smile and presence appeal to children, so it’s weird when he’s talking about heroin. It’s also weird when he makes the main villain explode.
I think Moore works. I don’t know if he starts to phone it in like Connery in the later films, but here he seems to be giving it his all, and he actually has a lot going for him. He has charisma, physicality, and warmth. That warmth is really something that isn’t conveyed by other Bonds. I can see this guy sleeping with women because he’s not beating them. That being said, Moore doesn’t have any roughness. Bond is now seen entirely as a heroic character, which is not a good thing. Especially in this film, but in general Bond does too many questionable things for it to work.
He’s still sleazy. His introduction scene in the film is worth watching alone, even if you aren’t going to see the entire picture. It’s fun, creates a sense of urgency, and you learn to treasure every moment you can with Bond and his coworkers.
Other actors in the film turn in good performances. There’s a degree of looseness that doesn’t feel professional, but I also get that feeling from blaxploitation films of this time. Basically, Yaphet Kotto’s performance as Kananga works almost the entire time, but he feels like he’s in a different movie than Moore. Kananga is also probably the most colorful and loud major villain we’ve got so far, so hearing him laugh and seeing him mug for the camera might scream amateurish, but most Bond villains have been absent from such theatrics. Even Gray’s Blofeld in Diamonds worked with deadpan. That’s a hard role to do, and I actually dig it. I think the breakout visually is Geoffrey Holder as Baron Samedi. Samedi doesn’t die in the film, and he’s the last thing we see! Super spooky! He’s great.
And to put a bow on everything here, this is probably a movie worth seeing. One of the better Moore films, I just tend to nitpick and complain about things they probably didn’t think about fifty years ago.
Functionally, I think the worst thing about the film is the music.
This is probably a matter of argument, but I don’t like Paul McCartney’s theme. Love me some Beatles, hell, I even love me some Wings. But to put something in perspective, this is a quote from Goldfinger.
“My dear girl, there are some things that just aren’t done, such as drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”
JAMES BOND IN GOLDFINGER
What does this quote tell us? First, it teaches everyone to keep their mouth shut or else they’d look stupid fifty years later, but it also is a lesson in franchise direction. The Beatles were pop garbage at the time of Goldfinger (1964 is the year, so we’re talking “I Want to Hold Your Hand”), and Bond culturally wanted to knock it down a peg. Girls listened to the Beatles. Boys might listen to the Beatles. Men don’t. Bond had an elitist attitude about the culture that helped forge its own popularity.
Fast forward almost ten years from that, and everybody’s singing a different tune. First, the Beatles are now artistically respected and way more popular than Bond. Second, this film franchise now has none of the class it once claimed to have. Boys watch Bond, girls don’t, and now men might? These films are transforming fast, and they chose a warmer actor with less roughness and chose McCartney to make the theme because awesome jazz orchestral introductions with a sassy singer aren’t as good as pop music? Yeah, in case you can’t tell, this is the start of pop music supplanting the traditional themes. Even when Barry comes back, Barry will try for pop sounds for theme and the score. When he changes the score it turns really bad.
I’m not going to specifically talk about the song, but it sucked up so much of the music budget they just hired former Beatles producer George Martin to make the score. This was a bad move. Martin tries to do what Barry did and weave the theme with the suspenseful moments, but it never blends well for me. The moments the music wants to emphasize feel undone.
So I’m done talking about music, I’m gonna say Solitaire was a mediocre Bond girl and holy crap that Smokey and the Bandit (1977) chase with Sheriff J.W. Pepper was awful. They tried to add some comic relief with Pepper, but it feels like a third movie conflicting with the spy and Superfly (1971). Like a Wacky Races movie or something.
And the final thought here is I think this film didn’t have good pacing. It starts well, but then it meanders and at the very end it realizes it has to be a Bond movie again and have an evil lair and a climactic action sequence. None of it works, and it doesn’t feel earned. I’m engaged the entire time, however, and the pacing is more of a structural issue than it is an issue of me being bored.
We’ve got a lot of Moore films to go. I gotta say what’s nice about these gimmicks is that they create variety. Next up we actually have another unique film called The Man With the Golden Gun (1974). It actually stars Christopher Lee as the principal antagonist Francisco Scaramanga. Definitely going to be a treat to investigate. Will it be a treat to watch?
What I Drank
A Sazerac! I can actually make this at my place because I amazingly always carry absinthe, but you at home might need to go out and get some.
Combine 2.5 ounces of rye whiskey, 2 dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters and 1 dash of Angostura, and like a single drop or two of absinthe and no more. Stir. Pour all of that in a glass with a watered-down sugar cube and top with a lemon garnish. It’s basically going to taste like a whiskey with a lot going on, which is what I assume all whiskey cocktails taste like.