Friday, May 29, 2015

Live and Let Die (1973) | Villains

In the novel, Mr. Big is a brilliant, ruthless villain. He may work for SMERSH, but he's created his own criminal empire that's arguably more powerful in its hemisphere as SMERSH is in Europe. The movie version has similar dreams, but he's much less smart. Dr Kananga is prime minister of his island nation and has used his influence to build the foundations for a criminal empire, but he's not quite there yet. And the US and British governments are both on to him before the movie even starts.

I keep going back to Fiona's advice to Largo in Thunderball about how killing Bond will only let the authorities know they're on the right track. That's so smart, but we've seen Blofeld fail at it in You Only Live Twice and Kananga does the same thing in Live and Let Die. The whole way that Bond gets put on the case is that Kananga simultaneously kills three British agents who have been investigating him. Dumb. He's failed before Bond even shows up.

That's all in the writing though. Like with Solitaire, Live and Let Die casts an excellent, charismatic actor over this flimsy role. Yaphet Kotto can be as charming as he is menacing and we see both sides in Kananga. He seems much smarter than he's written and I love every second he's on screen. As foolish as he is, he's one of my favorite Bond villains.

The movie makes pretty good use of Big's array of henchmen from the novel, but with some changes. Fleming's giggling Tee Hee becomes a merely grinning character with a claw for a hand (perhaps an homage to the hook that Felix Leiter gets after what happens to him in the book). Julius Harris (Super Fly, Shaft's Big Score) is great in the part, but I wish the claw effect worked better. Later in the movie we see that the prosthesis replaces most of his arm, but the prop only covered Harris hand and he keeps bending his wrist when he uses it.

I mentioned in an earlier post that Live and Let Die is almost like a reboot of the series. I'm not sure what I meant by that, but I do see a lot of reminders of the first couple of Connery films. The Caribbean setting and Quarrel Jr call back to Dr. No and Bond's final fight with Tee Hee in the train is clearly supposed to evoke From Russia with Love (though it's a severely watered down version).

Whisper is another character from the book, but he's been promoted from communications officer to assassin and generally handy dude to have around. He kills Bond's chauffeur, checks in on Bond at the San Monique hotel, and he's hanging out with Kananga in the villain's HQ at the end. He's not great in a fight, but his size and his quietness make him an interesting, memorable henchman.

The best villain in the movie is Baron Samedi, played by dancer/7-Up spokesman Geoffrey Holder. In the novel, Mr Big keeps his organization in line through fear of voodoo and the belief that Big himself is Samedi, the loa of the Dead. In the film, Big's dual identity is that he's actually just a disguise for Kananga, but the movie still keeps the voodoo influence and the character of Baron Samedi. Freed from Mr Big, though, Samedi is free to be as supernatural as he wants and the movie uses that really well.

Like everything else about the script, Samedi's not really fleshed out, but it works to his advantage this time. It keeps him mysterious. We get a sense of his role in Kananga's organization, but not for how Kananga keeps control over him or if, in fact, Samedi is actually pulling Kananga's strings somehow. Some of Samedi's abilities are revealed to be tricks, but not all of them can be explained, including his final appearance in the movie. I've always wanted to see Samedi come back for another Bond film, but as the full-blown villain. He has the potential to be a better nemesis even than Blofeld.

Top Ten Villains

1. Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger)
2. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (From Russia With Love and Thunderball)
3. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
4. Dr. Kananga (Live and Let Die)
5. Doctor No (Dr. No)
6. Emilio Largo (Thunderball)
7. Rosa Klebb (From Russia With Love)
8. Kronsteen (From Russia With Love)
9. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (You Only Live Twice)
10. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Diamonds Are Forever)

Top Ten Henchmen

1. Baron Samedi (Live and Let Die)
2. Fiona Volpe (Thunderball)
3. Grant (From Russia With Love)
4. Oddjob (Goldfinger)
5. Irma Bunt (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
6. Miss Taro (Dr. No)
7. Tee Hee (Live and Let Die)
8. Professor Dent (Dr. No)
9. Whisper (Live and Let Die)
10. Morzeny (From Russia With Love)

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