For the love of entertainment
Ladies and gentlemen, Roger Moore has entered the building. With Sean Connery exiting the series for the second time, producers found a sense of stability in Moore, who would remain in the role of James Bond for the next 12 years. He would also keep the franchise financially viable, for the most part. Of all the men to play 007, Roger Moore is the one who has played him the most (if we exclude the unofficial Never Say Never Again). Unlike the first time they recast 007 for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, producers made an active decision to make him seem different from Connery’s interpretation–no hats, cigars over cigarettes, bourbon instead of martinis, etc.
The Connery years were no stranger to camp, but his portrayal of the debonair agent refused to lose sight of the character’s cold detachment and ruthlessness. Moore embraced a much lighter interpretation of 007. He made James playful. He kept James supplied with a seemingly endless supply of quips and one liners. It’s easy to see why Roger Moore was such a crowd pleaser in the role, but the dulled edges do tend to make 007 more of a cartoon. In fact, in subsequent Bond movies Moore would resist anything that makes the character less friendly (aside from the sex addiction, of course). As such, the Bond series would devolve into dangerous levels of camp by the end of his tenure. But that is for the future. You’re in luck today, because Roger Moore’s first outing as the one and only James Bond is far and away his best. And not just of Moore’s time as 007, but one of the best in the series as a whole.
Or, the movie where James Bond discovers that there are actually black people in the world. And like a stereotypically privileged square, this entry in the 007 canon seems to assume that all black people are either voodoo enthusiasts or jazz fiends, not to mention that they all know each other and are part of the same criminal syndicate. But let’s accept this as progress–even if Yaphet Kotto was allegedly prohibited from attending the premiere or even doing press for the film because producers were afraid of public backlash if it was revealed that the villain is black.
Three British agents are killed in quick succession–all of whom were investigating either Kananga, the Prime Minister of fictional Caribbean island San Monique, or Mr. Big, leader of a drug ring in New York City and New Orleans. James is sent to investigate and quickly gets caught up in a deadly web. You see, it turns out Mr. Big is just a disguise used by Kananga to front the unsavory side of his business practices … and he isn’t very pleased to have James Bond sniffing around his turf. Can 007 outwit the devilish Kananga, shut down his heroin empire, avoid a voodoo curse, and save the girl? Well of course he can. He’s James Bond.
The Spy Who Loved Me has its fans, but if you ask me Live and Let Die is Moore’s finest moment as Bond. In fact, it easily makes any top ten list if you’re into such things. But it isn’t without its flaws. Whoever decided to cast Clifton James as the buffoonish Sheriff Pepper should die in a fire (but not as much as whoever decided the character was worth resurrecting in the next Bond movie, The Man With the Golden Gun). I suppose the character fits with the time in a Smoky and the Bandit, Dukes of Hazzard kind of way. But that just goes to show why it can be dangerous to bow to current trends when crafting a Bond film: it may seem popular at the time, but within a few years the idea becomes dated and irksome. Just look at the mess Bond producers made when they tried to cash in on the success of Star Wars by sending 007 into space for the truly awful Moonraker.
Notable Event: Other than Moore’s first outing as Bond, we have the first African American villain as well as the first African American supporting Bond Girl. We also catch a glimpse of 007’s London home for the second and, so far, final time in a Bond movie. Meanwhile, Q fails to appear onscreen–although he is name dropped. Fans would demand that he return in The Man With the Golden Gun. And for the first time, a Bond song scored an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song (more on that below).
Gadget: A magnetic watch that can also rather conveniently buzz-saw its way through rope. This just so happens to be Roger Moore’s favorite Bond accessory from his tenure, and it’s difficult to disagree. The watch is subtle and only requires a minimal suspension of disbelief. No muss, no fuss.
Ally: Felix Leiter was well on his way to becoming a series regular at this point (even though they couldn’t get the same actor to play him twice), but after this film he won’t reappear until Timothy Dalton takes over as 007. Incidentally, when Leiter reappears in Licence to Kill he will be played once again by Live and Let Die‘s David Hedison–making him the first actor to play the part more than once.
Bond Girl: I’m of two minds when it comes to Solitaire (played by Jane Seymour). On the one hand, Solitaire is the epitome of the classic Bond Girl: a gorgeous, off-limits woman with precious few skills to speak of other than to find herself in need of rescue from 007–a man she just can’t help but give in to, and usually quite quickly at that. I mean, let’s look at the character description of Solitaire: a beautiful woman forced to assist a criminal mastermind who uses her astounding psychic abilities to support his diabolical schemes; but trouble lurks because these powers that make her so useful depend upon her virginity–something that never lasts very long when 007 is around. You just don’t get more Bond girl than that. Seriously: this woman has a mystical power that relies upon whether or not her virginity is intact. That’s so perfect you almost can’t even get mad at how incredibly sexist it is.
For her part, Jane Seymour is perfect for the role. She can act the part (as much as acting is called for). She’s incredibly gorgeous, with cleavage so mesmerizingly hoisted and pressed together that you could forget your own name–until it dawns on you that such hoisting and pressing could only have been painful. Some of her dialogue was dubbed by go-to Bond Girl voice Nikki van der Zyl, but that was a routine practice in Bond films back then. Really, Solitaire is no different from original Bond Girl, Honey Ryder. Honey is widely regarded to be the best Bond Girl of the lot for her ability to define the role–so why would we penalize Solitaire for failing to be forward-thinking? The only real difference is that Honey Ryder was first–is that really enough to make the difference?
Because on the other hand, Solitaire isn’t much more than an object in this movie. She has a skill that men exploit, then she’s basically useless once she’s given up her virginity–just waiting to be saved by 007. And let’s face it, the way James tricks her into thinking that a tryst with him is inevitable is more than a little rapey.
From a modern perspective, Solitaire is divisive. But you have to give her major props for being such an exemplar of the archetype.
Lesser Bond Girl: Well, snaps for progress, I suppose, but for the second Bond film in a row we have a very disappointing supporting Bond Girl. Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) is the first African American Bond Girl, and that is worth celebrating. If only she weren’t such a useless character–not a capable CIA agent, not an effective double agent, not a good enough actress to be a comic foil or even a dramatic pawn to raise the stakes. I guess her quick demise is meant to establish Kananga’s menace, but that was already done when he killed three British agents in quick succession. That doesn’t really leave much for poor Rosie.
Villain: SPECTRE (and Blofeld) are gone, and it turns out to be a refreshing shot in the arm for the series. Even Goldfinger was part of the SPECTRE plotline, so Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) is our first real stand-alone Bond baddie. And he’s pretty darned good. Kotto gives a brainy, menacing performance that leaves no doubt he’s a worthy foe for 007. The guy has an incredible surplus of henchmen for crying out loud, but you never once doubt who’s in charge of the evil scheme. He may not be as widely recognized as Goldfinger, Blofeld, or Scaramanga, but make no mistake: Kanaga is one of the great Bond villains.
Henchmen: Kananga has two primary henchmen in his army of drug lords and voodoo men. In the role of the former (drug lords), we have Tee Hee (Julius Harris). Tee Hee likes long walks on the beach, robotic arms, and feeding things to crocodiles. Weaknesses include his inability to make sure his crocodiles actually eat the hero, those pesky exposed wires that control his robotic arm, and the fact that said robotic arm is incredibly unconvincing. In the voodoo camp is Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder), who bills himself as a man who is incapable of dying. He likes laughing, skeletal makeup, poisoning victims with snakes, and (inexplicably) dinner theater. Weaknesses include dental hygiene, loincloths, and snakes. Tee Hee is a standard henchmen, but as they go he’s on the higher end of the spectrum. Baron Samedi is something of an oddity. As henchmen go, he’s definitely unique and memorable, but stealing scenes is the most diabolical thing he does, in the end.
Theme Song: Dame Shirley Bassey did the legwork to put Bond themes back in the air, now Sir Paul McCartney and Wings let it soar with the iconic “Live and Let Die.” It’s probably the most famous Bond theme of all aside from “Goldfinger,” and not just because Guns ‘n Roses did a cover of it. Anyone making a Bond song should use this as a template: start with a great, memorable hook so the music will be instantly recognizable (make sure it can be adapted for action scenes in the movie—even if it’s a slow song), layer in some great vocals from a singer who can sell ‘em for all they’re worth, and make sure the chorus is something people can sing along to. Let’s be honest, people, who hasn’t found themselves in a car belting out “you used to saaaaaaaaaay live and let live … ya know ya did, ya know ya did, ya know ya did … but in this ever-changin’ wooooooooorld in which we live in …” every time this song comes on? It happens subconsciously. I mean, that’s not just me, right? Right? Anyway, if Ursula Andress is the ultimate Bond girl, this just might be the ultimate Bond anthem. It was also the first Bond song to garner an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.
Incidentally, the producer of Live and Let Die didn’t want Paul McCartney and Wings to perform it, although he did love the song. Paul insisted that if they couldn’t sing it, he couldn’t have the song, and the rest is history.
Iconic Moment: This movie is chock full of ’em, but ultimately you have to give it up for the theme song.
Grades: Movie: 5/5; Bond Girl: 5/5; Villain: 5/5; Henchmen: 4/5; Theme Song: 5/5