“But if this ever-changin’ world in which we’re living makes you give in and cry…say live and let die.”
This isn’t my favorite Bond movie. In fact, the first time I tried to rewatch it, I bounced right off after the first hour and couldn’t get back in frame to continue my rewatching for over a year. But when I did, once I got past the part where I’d been blocked before, I found it wasn’t at all as bad as I’d remembered. Which is good, because it came with three commentary tracks so I had to sit through it four times.
This is the movie in which Roger Moore makes his debut as James Bond, prompting an advocacy flame war that may never (live and let) die. He is a vastly different Bond than Connery, or even Lazenby. Is different necessarily better? Or worse? That remains to be seen.
I actually had a Viewmaster reel set for this movie when I was a kid. No idea where it is now.
Live and Let Die (1973)
Three British agents have just died in suspicious circumstances, while investigating a man named Dr. Kananga, the prime minister of small Carribbean country San Martinique. While investigating, Bond discovers a connection between Kananga and “Mr. Big,” a criminal operator in Harlem who runs a chain of restaurants by the unlikely name of “Fillet of Soul.”
The investigation takes Bond to San Martinique itself, where a double-agent tries to lead him astray—but ends up dying herself before she can tell him anything. Next, Bond seduces Solitaire, the enigmatic woman whose virginity had given her the power of second sight through her deck of tarot cards. (But Bond took care of that, at least.) After that, Bond discovers Kananga is growing thousands of acres of opium poppies beneath camouflage netting, using voodoo iconography to drive the curious away.
After a quick bus chase, Bond and Solitaire escape to New Orleans, where Solitaire is quickly recaptured but Bond manages to get away. However, he is recaptured at another Fillet of Soul restaurant, where Kananga reveals his plan to corner the American drug market by giving away a billion dollars’ worth of heroin. After that, one of Kananga’s henchmen attemps to feed Bond to the reptiles at a crocodile and alligator farm. Bond gets away again, via a merry jetboat chase through the canals and bayous of New Orleans, and finally returns to San Martinique to rescue Solitaire from a voodoo ceremony and confront Kananga in his lair.
Live and Let Die may be the first Bond movie that consciously attempts to tap into a specific element of its era’s zeitgeist, other than being a spy movie. The last few years had seen the civil rights movement score a number of victories, and elements of black culture fully enter the popular culture in the form of “blaxploitation” movies. Now the James Bond movies wanted a piece of that action—and they thought they had the perfect opportunity, in the form of a book Fleming had written in the ’50s, involving black gangsters and a voodoo cult.
The “blaxploitation” elements of the movie—the afros, sideburns, and gratuitous overuse of the word “honky”—haven’t really aged well. It was particularly hard to watch the sequence in which James Bond ventured into Harlem. This sort of fish-out-of-water stuff can work if it’s not taken seriously, such as the bit from Rush Hour where Jackie Chan accidentally starts a fight in a pool hall. But Bond playing it straight just makes me cringe.
There are also a number of unfortunate subtexts, such as the way the black girl turns out to be the treacherous double agent, or the way Bond has to rescue the poor frightened white girl from all the scary black people. (And let’s not forget the way Bond cheats Solitaire out of her virginity—and, hence, her psychic power—with a rigged deck of cards.) But at the same time, Kananga gets to be as cultured and debonair as Bond in his way, and his henchmen are also potent threats. These are no black flunkie stereotypes but strong characters regardless of race, so that’s at least a step forward. Still, it would be 25 more years before the filmmakers judged their audiences were ready to accept a black female lead Bond girl.
Speaking of stereotypes, redneck sheriff J.W. Pepper was another embarrassing moment. I suppose the filmmakers must have felt the need to counterbalance having so many black villains with an unflattering white stereotype. I do have to say that Clifton James did about as good a job as an actor possibly could of portraying such a character—especially given that James wasn’t a southerner himself. And he did have his amusing moments. Nonetheless, I felt like the joke went on a little too long—and as if that wasn’t bad enough, he also made a completely gratuitous guest appearance in the next Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun.
Something else that took me out of the movie was the way Solitaire’s tarot cards had a 007 logo motif on the card backs. It made absolutely no sense within the context of the movie that the archvillain’s henchwoman should happen to have a deck of cards with some British secret agent’s code number on the back. Yes, I know there have been plenty of little in-jokes bandied about, such as Lazenby’s “the other fella” line, or the 007 hats in the Junkanoo parade in Thunderball. But those were more on the order of one-offs that you could easily miss noticing. A 007 card back seems particularly blatant—especially given that it was, in all probability, intentional product placement for a tie-in tarot deck they sold when the movie came out. (For that matter, voodoo and tarot come from completely different occult schools, and there’s no real reason why they should have been shoehorned together in this film—even writer Tom Mankiewicz admits this in his commentary track.)
But as many things as there were about the movie that annoyed me, I had to admit there were a number of enjoyable elements as well. The actors all turned in excellent performances—even those with relatively small roles, such as Gloria Hendry as the double-agent. Yaphet Kotto’s Dr. Kananga was every bit as suave and debonair a Bond villain as any other. Julius Harris and Earl Jolly Brown were appropriately menacing as henchmen Tee Hee and Whisper. Geoffrey Holder was sadly underused as voodoo master Baron Samedi—I wish he could have returned for future films, as they’d implied he might with that last shot at the end.
And unlike Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die had good direction and writing overall. The pacing was tight, and the progression of events was believable. There were some rather witty parts, such as the way nearly everyone Bond encountered on his way to Harlem was spying on him—even his own taxi driver. The supernatural plot elements, which could have been terribly silly, were kept understated enough that they could be readily ignored. All in all, it’s not a terrible movie—it’s just that the parts of it that haven’t aged well really haven’t aged well.
It’s interesting to contrast Moore’s first appearance in the Bond role with Lazenby’s. In On her Majesty’s Secret Service, the filmmakers tried pretty much everything they could to convince moviegoers that Lazenby was playing the very same character as Connery—but in Live and Let Die, they’re doing as much as they can to convince audiences that Moore’s Bond is different from Connery’s Bond. He orders bourbon and water rather than a vodka martini. He smokes big cigars rather than cigarettes. He doesn’t wear a tuxedo (making this the only Bond movie other than You Only Live Twice in which that is the case). It’s enough to make you think that he really is a Time Lord, and his tastes simply changed dramatically with his recent regeneration.
In the commentary tracks, writer Tom Mankiewicz acknowledged that the difference was effectively down to Connery and Moore having such different personalities, and writing a Bond movie for Moore was a matter of playing to his strengths, personality-wise. I think that degree of difference may be responsible for the various advocacy flamewars as to who was the “better” Bond. They’re just so different that there really isn’t any way to compare them.
This movie has quite a number of interesting extras. There are two documentary featurettes—one made as a publicity piece when the movie was coming out, and another made in retrospect for the DVD release. There are a couple of featurettes of on-set film clips, and a comedy sketch from a variety show Moore had taken part in years earlier in which he portrayed James Bond 007. And there were three separate audio commentary tracks. The documentaries were very interesting, and so were the featurettes—but by the time I’d finished watching all three commentaries, I was more than ready to move on to the next film.
Sadly, the next film is one I remember as being even worse than Live and Let Die. But maybe The Man with the Golden Gun will pleasantly surprise me.