Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Undertaker's Wind: Live and Let Die

"'De Undertaker blow de bad air out of the island night-times from six till six.  Den every morning de Doctor's Wind come and blow de sweet air in from de sea... Guess you and de Undertaker's Wind got much de same job."

1954.  The Cold War continues as the US blows up a deployable hydrogen bomb, while Russia opens a civilian nuclear power plant.

Still, the top movies in the US are largely lighthearted - White Christmas, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, Rear Window, Carmen Jones, A Star Is Born, The Country Girl, Sabrina, and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers are all amongst the most popular films.  Even the darker stories - Rear Window, The Caine Mutiny, On the Waterfront, Dial M For Murder, and The Egyptian - are slick entertainment films in addition to any loftier ambitions.  Major novels include Bridge On the River Kwai, I Am Legend, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, The Horse and His Boy, and the first two volumes of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.  In music, Rock 'n' Roll is on fire - "Rock and Roll" is abbreviated to "Rock 'n' Roll", Elvis has his first recording session and first radio appearance, and "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" becomes the first internationally successful Rock song.

In January, Oprah Winfrey, future Ruler of the World, is born; the last confirmed Caspian Tiger is killed.  Later, the United States Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hold their infamous Comic Book Hearings, resulting in massive comic book censorship across the board.  

And the James Bond series begins to come into its own.

It's remarkable reading Live and Let Die and seeing how perfectly it nails a Bond story as we've come to think of it, particularly considering how un-Bondish Casino Royale felt.  All the elements we expect - the fantastic villains, the romantic affairs, the exotic locations, the violent action - are not only present, but superbly presented.  With the exception of a single element, it's the perfect second novel in the series, and still a terrific one.

And largely, it's the villain that makes it so great.  Mr. Big - real name, Buonaparte Ignace Galia - is, on the surface, an agent of Bond's sworn enemy, SMERSH, the Soviet anti-espionage agency.  But he's far more than just a spy.  He makes himself mythic, taking full advantage of Vodoo superstitions, he fosters rumors that "he was the Zombie or the living corpse of Baron Samedi, the dreaded Prince of Darkness... As a result, he commanded real fear, strongly substantiated by the immediate and often mysterious deaths of anyone who crossed him or disobeyed his orders."  Most of his followers obey him because they believe or at least fear that he may be much more than a mere mortal.  And he wields this fear and power so effectively that, for all intents and purposes, he is every bit the myth he makes himself to be.
'Why doesn't someone kill him,' asked Bond.
'You can't kill him,' she said. 'He's already dead.  He's a zombie.'
He's uniquely physically imposing - "... the photographs had conveyed nothing of this man, nothing of the power and intellect that seemed to radiate from him...  The skin was grey-black, taut and shining like the face of a week-old corpse in the river... There were no eyebrows and no eyelashes and the eyes were extraordinarily far apart, so that one could not focus on them both, but only one at a time.  Their gaze was very stead and penetrating.  When they rested on something, they seemed to devour it, to encompass the whole of it... They were animal eyes, not human, and they seemed to blaze."  Six-and-a-half feet tall, extremely well-built, and richly clothed.

He wields such power that when Bond and Felix first wander the streets of New York looking for one of his clubs, his vast web of subordinates, communicating through a switchboard run by "The Whisper", not only follow the pair for hours, but carefully set a subtle, brilliant trap, dropping clues that seem earned and not dropped, leading them into a club where they watch an intense voodoo-inspired dance -- at then end of which, their table lowers out of the club and into one of Mr. Big's lairs.  And Bond is led in to meet Mr. Big personally.

And it's spectacular.  Mr. Big shows tremendous elegance in his villainy.  He views himself as the great artist of crime.  We already saw a hint of this theatrical in his alarm clock bomb sent to Bond, which came with a poem:

The heart of this clock has stopped ticking
The beats of your own heart are numbered
I know that number and I have started to count

And now, face to face with Mr. Big, he explains his beliefs about crime.

"Mr. Bond, I take pleasure now only in artistry, in the polish and finesse I bring to my operations.  It has become almost a mania to me to impart an absolute rightness, a high elegance, to the execution of my affairs.  Each day, Mister Bond, I try and set myself still higher standards of subtlety and technical polish so that each of my proceedings may be a work of art, bearing my signature as clearly as the creations of, let us say, Benvenuto Cellini."

The mythic elements of Mr. Big go beyond using superstition to make himself more than human; it's his belief that he is more than a criminal.  He is The Criminal, so to speak.  And he shows the power and intelligence to earn that title.
"Those who deserve to die die the death they deserve."
 After his magnificent monologuing, Mr. Big breaks the small finger of Bond's left hand, his least-used finger, as a warning, and then lets him go.

His first appearance is so brilliantly built to and pays off so beautifully that Mr. Big doesn't even have to show up again until the finale, and his presence remains ever-constant.  We see his arm stretch across the entire
Eastern United States and feel his shadow over every page.
"No one looked up from his work.  No one would slacken when Mr. Big was out of sight.  No one would put a jewel or coin in his mouth.
"Baron Samedi was left in charge.  Only his Zombie had gone from the cave."
And it's here that Fleming makes Bond a great hero.  By creating such a fantastic, uniquely threatening villain, and then forcing Bond to face him down, he makes Bond himself epic -- a modern Perseus, striking an unfathomable enemy.  Bond's determination, cleverness, and toughness are just barely enough to defeat this unstoppable creature.
After the confrontation, Bond strikes back, killing Tee-Hee in a terrific scene on a staircase, then kills two more, taking one of Mr. Big's cars. (and, in a nice touch, he accidentally drives down the left side of the road for a while before realizing his error)  Casino Royale showed hints of Fleming's genius with set-pieces, but this is the first time a major action sequence centers around Bond's heroism.  And right away, Bond goes from a fascinating anti-hero to our great hero.  And yet the anti-hero remains within him, as we see much later.  His ability to tip-toe this line as both hero and anti-hero makes him more than just a mythic hero; he's something unique and special in fiction.  It's the ultimate escapism -- Bond's awesomeness in Live and Let Die, only hinted at in Casino Royale, brings the character to a special part of the imagination.  This is a man who travels the world and defeats the villains, unfettered by law or conscience.

And it's only his second time out.

Fleming expands on his world beautifully.  Where the exotic location in Royale was just a fancy casino, here we visit the atmosphere of Harlem, travel by train across the Eastern Seaboard to the Florida Keys, before arriving in Jamaica for our final act.  All these are given a vivid, dense atmosphere.  (He also constantly describes Bond's meals in meticulous detail, which would be infuriating if he wasn't so good at it.  Fleming's the kind of guy who can make a burger and fries sound endlessly exotic, which he actually does in Chapter 1.)

The supporting villains are all given intriguing personalities and fanciful names -  The Whisper, who only has part of one lung; the threatening Tee-Hee Johnson with the Striped Tie; Sam Miami; Blabbermouth; McThing; The Robber.

Bond's American ally from Royale, Felix Leiter, returns to become a terrific hero in his own right.  He's endlessly cheerful and good-natured.  Where Bond viciously fights his way out of Mr. Big's lair, Felix finds a different solution.  Felix loves jazz, and strikes up a conversation with Blabbermouth about the finer points of the art, making an instant friend.  And so, when Blabbermouth is given the order to beat Felix, he gives him only a single hit, then personally drives him to the hospital, apologizing profusely.

Like Bond, we love having him around - he just makes everything more fun.  Which makes Mr. Big's assault on him in the Keys so much more horrific.  Finding the duo to be a continuing nuisance, he has the Robber set a trap for Felix, and then feeds him to a shark.

And then leaves him just barely alive but horribly mutilated, and brings him back to Bond with a note attached: "He disagreed with something that ate him."

And Bond's dark side returns with a fury as he stakes out the Robber's warehouse.  Another terrific set-piece follows.  Fleming writes action sequences with style, economy, and imagination, creating some of the most tense and satisfying action in any thrillers.  And at the end of this showdown, he lets Bond's violent, cold side out for a chilling finale to a riveting middle segment of the book.

And then there's Solitaire, the girl.

Solitaire is a damsel in distress - she's here so that Bond has someone to rescue at the finale and his reward at the end.  And she's absolutely brilliant.  Fleming goes out of his way to give her life and personality, and she shines from her first appearance during Mr. Big's meeting with Bond, where she bodly sends Bond a subtle signal while Mr. Big is looking right at her.

Later, as she and Bond take a suspenseful train ride south to Florida, her conversation reveals her as an impassioned, intelligent woman, beaten down through her life but not beaten.  She does ultimately need Bond to rescue her, but she's a real, complete woman in need of rescue.  And in the context of a mythic novel, a classic damsel in distress is exactly what the story requires.  By breathing life and personality into her, Fleming makes her as good a damsel as she could be in that role.

When she and Bond kiss, it's an electric sequence that flies off the page.  Ultimately, like Mr. Big, after her big scene on the train, she doesn't show up again until the climax, but again, she makes such an impact she isn't needed for the majority of the novel's second half.

But let's return to Bond himself.  At the end of the second act, Solitaire is recaptured, Felix horribly mutilated, and Mr. Big only a week from completing his current work for the Russians.  So Bond travels to Jamaica to prepare for his final assault on Mr. Big's base.

He spends the entire week training for the attack.  Finally, as Mr. Big returns to his island for the final time, Bond begins his harrowing scuba-dive to reach the island undetected and destroy the operation.  To reach the end, the hero must travel through the Underworld, and Bond's journey through the hellish waters more than qualifies.  Alone in the nighttime waters, he is attacked by an octopus, barracuda, and sharks.  And after surviving that horrific ordeal deeply wounded, he reaches the island to rescue Solitaire... only to find Mr. Big was waiting for him to do precisely that.  And he's dreamed up a horrific death for the two.
"There was nightmare at every turn of his thoughts, sickening horror in every grisly aspect of the monstrous torture and death this man had invented for them.  But Bond knew he must remain cold and absolutely resolved to fight for their lives to the end...

"He shared all his hopes with Solitaire.  None of his fears."
The climax is a tremendous work of suspense as Bond and Solitaire try desperately to survive just long enough for Bond's plan to go into action.  It's an unforgettable, chilling finale, culminating in a perfect death for Mr. Big - gritty yet mythic.

That element of the fanciful, the voodoo and magic undertones, give Live and Let Die its own unique place in the Bond series.  It's exactly what the series needs in its second book: to make James Bond an epic hero.  To make him special.  And by setting him in such a fantastic world and watching how he deals with it, it succeeds superbly.  His place in fiction - and in us - is the Undertaker's Wind.  Dark and eerie in many ways, but he blows de bad air out of de island.

Fleming does end up topping Live and Let Die for such wildly inventive, magnificently theatrical villains, exotic atmosphere, and pulp intensity at times, but rarely do he or any of his successors mix it so perfectly.  And ultimately, his style is also the guide for the series - that lurid serial of sex and violence, those seedy elements that appeal to our darker natures, but classy, compelling, and at times, even poetic.   It's a fantastic thriller, regardless of its place in Bond canon.
Bond took out his gun and cleaned it, waiting for the night.
 ... except for that one element.

See, Mr. Big and Solitaire are half black.  And all of Mr. Big's employees are black.  Every villain in the piece is either African-American or Jamaican.  This is one of the major points of the novel: Mr. Big takes advantage of the culture of a race that was still in the 1950s largely treated as second-class citizens.

And the overtones of racism aren't a minor background detail - things get uncomfortable from the opening page - "... he felt like a Negro whose shadow had been stolen by the witch-doctor."

'I don't think I've ever heard of a great Negro criminal before,' said Bond.  'Chinamen, of course, the men behind the opium trade.  There've been some big-time Japs, mostly in pearls and drugs.  Plenty of Negros mixed up in diamonds and gold in Africa, but always in a small way.  They don't seem to take to big business.  Pretty law-abiding chaps on the whole, I should have thought.'"
 Which is not to say Fleming shows any hated or enmity towards blacks.  In fact, he doesn't even seem to show a sense of inferiority, per se.   But there is a constant sense that we are dealing with something other, something alien.  The Voodoo is said to be buried deep in the "Negro subconscious."  Fleming exploits White fears by making the terrifyingly intelligent, charismatic villain (half) black.  And all the black people except Mr. Big speak in an Aristocratic Englishman's approximation of Jive.  It sullies an otherwise terrific book.

Fleming clearly admires what he's experienced of black culture.  He never gives the sense that he thinks they're in any way less than whites.  And he introduces the character of Quarrel as one of Bond's allies, a guy you, like Bond, like instantly.  He's the best swimmer and fisherman in the Caribbean, and has a distinctive charm about him.  It's Quarrel who so aptly compares Bond to the Undertaker's Wind.

It may simply be that I like the book and want to give Fleming the benefit of the doubt.  But I don't get the impression that Fleming was particularly racist by the standards of an aging aristocratic Englishman in the 1950s.  I guess, overall, you get the impression that some of Fleming's best fiends are black.

Which is to say, Live and Let Die is a little racist, and that can't be dismissed, but neither is it a work of horror like "The White Man's Burden" or those Looney Toons Warner Bros ignores and so desperately wishes never existed.  It's from a different time, a different world.  It doesn't make that any less wrong.

But neither is it hateful or cruel, nor does it entirely deny the beautiful craftsmanship on display here.

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