Ladies and gentlemen, Roger Moore has entered the building and unlike the last Connery replacement, he’ll be around for a while. His first movie as 007 is his best–if you can get around the sexual assault and the flagrant racism.
This is also the first Bond movie in the post-Blofeld era. If producers were nervous about how to proceed without the man they had set up as 007’s greatest nemesis, Live and Let Die proved that they might be better off exploring fresh territory.
Released during the height of the blaxploitation genre, Live and Let Die is also the first movie to try to cash in on a trend–and it won’t be the last. In this case, the appropriation feels extremely problematic. Let’s talk about it, shall we?
This is also known as the movie where James Bond discovers that black people exist. Unfortunately, it assumes 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 (to be fair, that plot point is part of the book this is based on). It’s extremely unsettling. Yaphet Kotto was even allegedly prohibited from attending the premiere or doing press for the film because producers were afraid of public backlash if it was revealed that the villain is black.
Anyway, the plot: three British agents are killed in quick succession–all of whom were investigating Kananga, Prime Minister of the fictional Caribbean island San Monique. 007 quickly ties Kananga to Mr. Big, the leader of a drug ring in New York City and New Orleans. It turns out Mr. Big is just a terrible disguise used by Kananga to front the unsavory side of his business practices … and he isn’t very pleased to have Bond sniffing around. Can 007 outwit the devilish Kananga, shut down his heroin empire, avoid a voodoo curse, and save the girl he sexually assaulted and endangered? Well, of course he can. He’s James Bond.
Taken for what it is, Live and Let Die is Moore’s finest moment as Bond. But it isn’t without flaws. First, the aforementioned racism. Second, Bond flagrantly commits sexual assault. Bond Girl Solitaire won’t sleep with him, so he tricks her into believing it’s fated for them to be lovers with a stacked Tarot deck. Solitaire is also a psychic employed by Kananga who can only keep her powers so long as she remains a virgin (if you’re rolling your eyes at that plot device, you’re not wrong). By sexually assaulting her, Bond is literally putting her in danger because Kananga will kill her if she’s useless to him. He’s risking her life so he can get laid and he’s now officially a sex offender. These two items are extremely troubling.
Third, whoever 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 Man With the Golden Gun). I suppose the character fits with the time in a Smoky and the Bandit, Dukes of Hazzard way (by the way, it’s worth noting that producers courted Burt Reynolds for the role of James Bond but Reynolds told them 007 needs to remain British). 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. And fourth, the boat chase sequence drags on for so long that it becomes interminable. Especially since Pepper is a big part of it.
So there you have it. Like You Only Live Twice, this should be a fun Bond movie but it’s dated and has some seriously problematic attributes. If you can get by those, it’s great, but I wouldn’t blame you if you can’t.
The Man Playing Bond
With Sean Connery exiting the series a second time, producers found stability in Roger Moore, who remained in the role the next 12 years and 7 movies. 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).
The Connery years were no stranger to camp, but he refused to lose sight of the character’s cold detachment and ruthlessness. Moore embraced a much lighter interpretation. He made James playful, supplying him with a seemingly endless supply of one-liners. It’s easy to see why Moore was such a crowd pleaser, but the dulled edges 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 sex addiction, of course). As such, the series would devolve into dangerous levels of camp by the end of his tenure.
I already mentioned that producers courted Burt Reynolds as a potential Bond, but they also looked at Adam West and John Gavin before deciding to cast an actual British person. Future Bond villain Julian Glover was considered but Moore’s biggest competition was Michael Billington. For a short time after Moore was cast, Billington was essentially placed on standby should they need to recast again.
Other than Moore’s first outing as Bond, we have the first African American villain as well as the first African American Bond Girl. Meanwhile, Q fails to appear onscreen for the first time–although he is name-dropped. He’ll return in The Man With the Golden Gun. And for the first time, a Bond song scored an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song (losing to the theme from Shaft. A Bond theme wouldn’t win in this category until 2012’s Skyfall).
A magnetic watch that can also buzz-saw through rope or unzip a dress. This just so happens to be Roger Moore’s favorite Bond accessory from his tenure.
Felix Leiter was well on his way to becoming a series regular at this point, 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.
Solitaire (Jane Seymour) is a beautiful woman forced to assist a criminal mastermind who uses her psychic abilities to support his diabolical schemes. The powers that make her so useful depend upon her virginity–something that never lasts very long when 007 is around. On the one hand, I want to respect the awful person who came up with that for having no fucks to give, but on the other, it’s very problematic. For her part, Jane Seymour is great. She can act the part even with cleavage so hoisted and pressed together that it had to be painful. Some of her dialogue was dubbed by go-to Bond Girl voice Nikki van der Zyl, but that was routine back then.
Still, 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. Seymour does the best she can to elevate the character but the flaws are baked right into the script.
Interestingly, one producer considered casting Diana Ross as Solitaire to further the movie’s African American vibe but the other two wanted to keep Bond Girls lily white and pushed Seymour instead. Solitaire is described as white in the book, to be fair, but this only furthers the franchise’s race problem.
Supporting Bond Girl
They may have passed on Diana Ross for Solitaire but the movie does get some snaps for progress, I suppose, because Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) did become 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. Her quick demise is meant to establish Kananga’s menace, but she’s so paper-thin it’s difficult to care. And unfortunately for the series, there has only been one other black Bond Girl to date: Halle Berry in Die Another Day.
SPECTRE (and Blofeld) are gone, and it turns out to be a refreshing shot in the arm for the series. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) proves that a stand-alone Bond baddie works. 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, but you never doubt who’s in charge. He may not be as widely recognized as Goldfinger, Blofeld, or Scaramanga, but make no mistake: Kanaga is one of the great Bond villains.
The less said about his time in disguise as Mr. Big the better.
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 looks super fake. In the voodoo camp is Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder), who bills himself as a man who is incapable of dying. He likes skeleton makeup, laughing too loudly, and dinner theater. Weaknesses include dental hygiene, loincloths, and snakes. Tee Hee is a fairly standard henchman and Baron Samedi is an oddity. As henchmen go, he’s unique and memorable, but stealing scenes is the most diabolical thing he does. Luckily for Samedi, that scene-stealing (and his makeup skills) made him a fan favorite.
Sir Paul McCartney and Wings 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. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t belt this out every time it comes on? It was also the first Bond song to garner an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Somehow, the producer of Live and Let Die didn’t want Paul McCartney and Wings to perform it, although he did love the song McCartney had written. Paul insisted that if they couldn’t sing it, they couldn’t have the song, and the rest is history.
Three MI6 agents are assassinated in quick succession. It’s not the most exciting sequence they’ve done, but it does set up the New Orleans parade death squad that comes up again later.
This movie is chock full of ’em, but ultimately you have to give it up for the theme song.
Grades: Movie: 4/5; Bond Girl: 4.5/5; Villain: 5/5; Henchmen: 4/5; Theme Song: 5/5