Ahead of the release of SPECTRE this autumn, the Bond Reloaded series takes a weekly look back at each film in the iconic James Bond franchise. This week, a new Bond arrives with voodoo-inflected thriller Live and Let Die.
In the era of blaxploitation cinema, Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz decided that the notion of a black villain in the series would be an interesting one. With that in mind and director Guy Hamilton back on board, Fleming’s second novel – Live and Let Die – was chosen to mark the debut of a new man in the leading suit, in the shape of Roger Moore.
Live and Let Die is a wildly entertaining film, which thrills despite its slightly dodgy racial politics and even dodgier gender politics. In the world of 1970s Bond, in which everything is delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, it pays not to take stuff too seriously.
Aided by terrific villains and some of Bond’s most memorable stunts, Live and Let Die is a great introduction to arguably the most purely entertaining of the James Bond actors.
In Live and Let Die, Bond investigates island dictator Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) in New York. A separate trail leads Bond to the lair of drug lord Mr Big and his attractive virginal tarot reader Solitaire (Jane Seymour). Eventually, the two strands converge as Kananga and Big are revealed to be the same man, in charge of an ambitious plot to control the heroin trade.
With a fairly unremarkable plot by Bond standards and a potentially controversial racial dynamic (all of the villains are black), the success or failure of Live and Let Die hinged on who producers Saltzman and Broccoli managed to convince to play Bond.
There were discussions of picking a very left-field Bond, with names such as Burt Reynolds and even Clint Eastwood tossed into the mix. Broccoli, however, nixed United Artists’ idea for a Hollywood Bond, stating that the character should always be English. Roger Moore, who had been considered for the role way back in the Dr. No days, was ultimately chosen and the script was fitted out with a more light-hearted tone to play to their new star’s strengths.
“It’s just a small hat, belonging to a man of limited means, who lost a fight with a chicken.”
Moore’s Bond sets out his stall in Live and Let Die, with suave quips aplenty. His Bond, who may as well be winking at the audience, was the perfect Bond for a new era and ushered in the kind of campy Bond that launched a million parodies, most notably in the Austin Powers trilogy. His portrayal is great fun, masking much of the quite shocking 70s sexism with a cracking knack for delivering a brutally punny one liner.
It helps that the supporting cast are genuinely terrific. Kotto is a great villain as Kananga, having particularly great fun in the overblown Mr Big guise, right up until his rather awful demise. The henchmen, too, are hugely memorable – from the maniacal voodoo priest Baron Samedi to the claw-handed Tee Hee. Samedi, in particular, is a terrifying figure and leaves a lasting impression with his shock appearance in the film’s final shot.
In terms of the obligatory Bond girls, Solitaire would be a frontrunner in any list of the franchise’s females. She’s not got much in the way of independence, but she’s a beguiling presence and has a more fleshed-out character than many of her predecessors. Solitaire is certainly more interesting than Rosie Carver, notable as the first black Bond girl, who is an utterly ineffectual creation and, given her CIA role, is damning of US intelligence’s recruitment process more than anything.
Spying in the swamps
The other side of Live and Let Die is its action sequences, once again ably directed by Guy Hamilton, in his third Bond outing. There are some hugely impressive set pieces in this film, including a heart-stopping crocodile attack that marks one of the few times Moore’s Bond seemed legitimately scared.
There’s no doubt that there are too many chase scenes, and the final boat pursuit goes on absolutely forever. However, these sequences are peppered with moments that deserve a spot on any highlight reel of Bond’s best, including the decapitation of a bus under a low bridge – a stunt that was performed for reel, with actress Jane Seymour actually in the bus.
“Names is for tombstones, baby.”
The final chase, through the Louisiana swamps, is artificially elongated by the presence of the incredibly grating hick cop JW Pepper. Clifton James’ performance is all forced accent and depressing stereotype in what feels like a desperate attempt to counter allegations of racism. His reappearance in The Man With The Golden Gun is one of the most questionable creative decisions in the history of the James Bond franchise.
In fact, Live and Let Die loses its way almost entirely in the third act, indulging in an overlong boat chase and killing off the main villain in a fashion that’s just a little too bizarre, even for Moore’s Bond. It isn’t until Bond and Solitaire board a train that the momentum returns, with henchman Tee Hee dispatched in memorable fashion, with a brilliantly “disarming” quip.
Bayou meets box office
Reflecting its Stateside setting, Live and Let Die was released in the USA around a week before its “world premiere” in Leicester Square in the first week of July 1973. The film grossed more than $160m from a budget of only $7m, making it an incredibly profitable release.
Critics were split on the film, criticising its depiction of race and decrying the franchise’s continued move towards comedy. Moore’s performance was widely derided as a step down from Connery and even Lazenby, who were more masculine, thuggish portrayals of Bond. In Guide for the Film Fanatic, Danny Peary called Moore’s performance an “unimpressive debut” and noted that the film “stumbles”.
Despite this, the film sits at 66% on Rotten Tomatoes and has been praised by modern reviewers. In 2006, Entertainment Weekly listed Live and Let Die as the third best Bond film, behind only You Only Live Twice and near-undisputed champion Goldfinger.
“You got a set of wheels that just won’t quit, boy! If they’s yours that is.”
For all of its strange politics and overly lengthy action set pieces, Live and Let Die stands as a completely unique entry in the Bond canon. It marked out a new star in Roger Moore trying to bring about a new phase in the series and a completely new take on the character. I find it difficult to criticise a film in which a man in a suit skips along a row of angry crocodiles.
Next week, the late Christopher Lee creates an iconic villain in the divisive The Man With The Golden Gun.
What do you think of Live and Let Die? How did Roger Moore do in his debut as Bond? Let me know in the comments section and keep your eyes peeled for more Bond Reloaded next Monday.