- Year: 1973
- Director: Guy Hamilton
- Series Rank: #18
- Year Rank: #79
- Oscar Nominations: Song
- Nighthawk Nominations: none
- Bond Girl: Jane Seymour (Solitaire), Gloria Hendry (Rosie Carver), Madeline Smith (Miss Caruso)
- Bond Villain: Yaphet Kotto (Kananga), Julius Harris (Tee Hee), Geoffrey Holder (Baron Samedi)
- Bond Support: Bernard Lee (M), Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny), David Hedison (Felix Leiter), Roy Stewart (Quarrel Jr)
When a star leaves a series and you have to replace him (but keep the same character), unless your series is called Dr. Who, your new star really needs to be younger. I understand that Roger Moore had been considered for James Bond in the first place, that he had played the Saint and was considered well-suited for this role. But he was three years older than Sean Connery, which meant he was already 46 when his first Bond film came out. Worse yet, he would keep the role for 12 years. For my generation, he was the man we first saw as James Bond and is it any wonder that we weren’t flocking to the theaters? This is where he began and, to be frank, it wasn’t that great a beginning.
Perhaps I should be kind and start with the things that are done right. The filmmakers are a bit bolder this time. They bring in Paul McCartney to do the song, which is a big improvement over the previous few films (and, due to financial considerations, the score is a reprise of the music from the song, which works rather well a lot of the time). The film plays on many blaxploitation themes going on at the time. It has a black villain (not just a rather effective Yaphet Kotto but also Geoffrey Holder, with his magnificent laugh, and if it sounds familiar, then perhaps you, like me, remember his 7-Up commercials from the 80’s). It has the first black Bond girl (Gloria Hendry), although the film then undercuts that by having her be, first, kind of a coward, second, rather ineffective, and third, a traitor. It has Jane Seymour, definitely one of the sexiest of the Bond girls. It has a very effective opening murder scene in New Orleans. It has David Hedison, by far the best Felix Leiter prior to 2006, and one good enough that he was invited to reprise the role in the key Leiter film, Licence to Kill. It has a rather exciting speedboat chase.
Ah, but the speedboat chase is also where this film goes so terribly wrong. But, how, you might ask, could a speedboat chase go wrong? Well, first, it has a stupid start – Bond follows the villain Tee Hee at an alligator farm (which also has crocodiles, with no explanation) out onto an island. There’s no reason for Bond to step off the deck and onto the island, but he does, and so Tee Hee strands him there, to be eaten by alligators. It’s a bit of a silly villain trope, made worse when Bond escapes – at first you think he will use his magnet watch to attract a boat, which doesn’t work because the boat is tied, never mind the ridiculousness of it in the first place – but then, I turned to Veronica and she said to me “Please tell me he doesn’t just run across the backs of the gators” right before he runs across the backs of the gators. Then he hops on a boat and takes off. Second, the chase lasts way, way, way too long. He goes over land I think at least three times. At one point he actually switches boats. Third, is Sheriff J.W. Pepper. This character is played by Clifton James, who, given his performances in this, The Reivers, Silver Streak and Superman II, was clearly born to play a sheriff. But the kind of broad comic relief he’s supposed to bring in here is unwanted and annoying and goes on far too long. Part of the point of Q is to bring in a little bit of comic relief when he shows us all the gadgets, yet they decided to drop Q entirely for this film which just shows how wrong-headed they were right from the start.
There have been a lot of complaints about the plot in this film – Bond is assigned to follow Kananga, the ruler of a small Caribbean island who is implicated in the deaths of three of Bond’s fellow agents. Kananga is also Mr. Big, a heroin dealer, and he is growing poppies on his island and distributing them in New York with the intention of flooding the market with free heroin, driving out all other drug dealers, then jacking up the prices after the world is hooked. The criticism is that Bond shouldn’t be dealing with this smaller stuff rather than a world domination plot. But secret agents aren’t just supposed to be stopping SPECTRE. I think the plot is just fine, even if does make it into a faux blaxploitation film. Perhaps part of the problem is that this was the second novel, before Bond was really fully established as the man who stopped global domination, and part of it is that in the novel, Kananga has ties to SMERSH, the Soviet agency that had basically been dropped by the films after From Russia With Love.
One other aspect that could have been handled well was the interracial aspect. As I mentioned, this is the first film with a black Bond girl, and they totally screw it up by having her be both ineffective and then a traitor (she essentially dies because of cowardice). But there is Solitaire, the lovely fortune-teller who works for Kananga. At one point Kananga threatens to take her powers away by force. That line becomes much more disturbing after she does lose her powers by sleeping with Bond. Kananga is a drug-dealing megalomaniac; did he also need to be a potential rapist? Solitaire herself is beautiful and she is played fairly effectively by Jane Seymour (certainly a much better performance than Jill St. John in the film before), but the movie doesn’t really make it credible, even in the Bond universe, of her falling for Bond and giving up her virginity so quickly.
The film even blows it at the end. The final fight between Bond and Kananga involves a terrible ending and one of Bond’s worst puns. Then, to top it off, Tee Hee is still out there, so we have a reprise of the end of Diamonds are Forever, when the minor villain tries to kill Bond and his girl on transportation at the end. And, as dumb as this is, clearly the producers think it’s brilliant, because we’ll get it yet again in the next film. So, let’s leave this behind and head on to the very dregs of the Bond film world.