Live And Let Die (1973)

Directed by Guy Hamilton
Roger Moore, Jane Seymour, David Hedison, Gloria Hendry, Yaphet Kotto, Clifton James, Julius W. Harris, Geoffrey Holder, Earl Jolly Brown, Madeline Smith, Bernard Lee as M, and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny
Music by George Martin
Title song by Paul McCartney and Wings
Based loosely on the novel by Ian Fleming

After the failure of George Lazenby to win over the public in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the producers went running back to Sean Connery to put bums on seats. The ploy worked and Diamonds Are Forever was a success. But Connery agreed to one film only. So that left the producers with the dilemma of finding a new James Bond. Enter Roger Moore.

Moore already had a strong fan base from the television shows The Saint and The Persuaders. But like all actors who take on the role of 007, he had to overcome the long shadow of Connery. And even for Moore this wasn’t as easy as he had hoped.

While making Live And Let Die, Roger Moore wrote a diary which was published as Roger Moore as James Bond (Pan Books 1973). Here he talks about his son’s response to his casting as James Bond.

The children arrive tomorrow and I wonder if Geoffrey will realize I am Bond when he sees me in action. Just before we left England he asked:

“Can you beat anybody, including a robber?”
“Oh yes,’ I replied confidently.
“Supposing James Bond came in,’ he persisted.
“Daddy is going to play James Bond,’ I explained.
“I know that,’ he sighed impatiently. ‘I mean the real James Bond, Sean Connery.”

I suppose if your son has trouble accepting you in the role, you’re in for a rough old time. But in all fairness, Roger Moore acquits himself rather well. His popularity in the 70’s and 80’s is testament to that.

That’s enough background information. Let’s move onto the story. The pre-tile sequence: The film opens at the United Nations building in New York. An M.I.6 agent is watching the assembly and in particular Doctor Kananga, the President of the Caribbean island of San Monique. The agent’s translation headset is cranked up to full volume. He falls to the floor dead.

Next we cut to New Orleans. Another M.I.6 agent, on loan to the Americans is staking out the ‘Fillet Of Soul’ restaurant as a funeral procession ambles past. As the coffin passes the agent’s location, he is stabbed and picked up off the road through a false bottom in the coffin.

And lastly the film cuts to San Monique, where a voodoo ritual is being carried out. A man (naturally enough, an M.I.6 agent) is tied between two poles. As he struggles helplessly an orgy of black dancers writhe and sway in front of him, while primitive drums are pounded, getting quicker as the tension rises. The lead dancer produces a venomous snake and presses it against the jugular vein of the agent. The snake bites, and the agent slumps forward, dead.

Maurice Binder’s stylised title graphics roll accompanied by Paul McCartney and Wings belting out the theme song. It may not be in the classic Bond style, but the theme song is a good one. In fact the music by George Martin is of a high standard, generally. It has a hint of seventies funk to it, but since the film is clearly influenced by the blaxploitation films the were popular at the time (Shaft, Foxy Brown, etc…), the musical cues seem appropriate. And I am pleased to say it hasn’t dated too badly, like some of the other Bond soundtracks.

After the musical interlude we meet James Bond (Roger Moore) at his apartment. Even though it is early morning, Bond is not asleep. Ever the professional, he is, er…debriefing an attractive Italian agent, Miss Caruso (Madeline Smith). Bond’s work is interrupted by the arrival of M (Bernard Lee) and Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) who brief Bond on his next assignment. This is an unusual scene, in that it is one of the few times we get to see Bond’s apartment, and secondly, because Bond is briefed away from the office. This ‘in the field briefing’ is an element that would become more prevalent in the Bond series. I’d guess this is to do with the pacing of the movies. Setting up Bond’s mission in ‘M’s office and then sending him off takes time. But briefing Bond in the field propels the story on more quickly. Anyway, Bond is sent to New York City, where the first agent was killed and also where Dr. Kananga (Yaphett Kotto), the President of San Monique (where the third agent was killed) is currently speaking at the UN.

As Bond arrives in New York an attempt is made on his life. With a bit of help from his old pal, CIA agent, Felix Leiter (this time played by David Heddison), Bond tracks down the the man who tried to kill him. The man’s name is Whisper (Earl Jolly Brown), and he is a minion of a Mr. Big, a big time gangster who runs a chain of ‘Fillet Of Soul’ restaurants. Ah, you may recall that the second agent in the pre-title sequence was killed watching a ‘Fillet Of Soul’ restaurant. All the pieces are slowly fitting into place.

As it is an Bond film, of course it features a bevy of beauties to tease and torment our hero. I have already mentioned Miss Caruso, played by Madeline Smith. The Caruso character is almost a throwaway at the start. I guess she is there simply to say that we may have a ‘new’ Bond, but he is still a womaniser.

The main female lead is Jane Seymour, who plays Solitaire. Solitaire is a voodoo priestess who can divine the future from a deck of tarot cards. The only problem for Solitaire is that for her ‘powers’ to work, she has to remain a virgin, and with Bond on the scene, well…she isn’t going to stay that way for long. I think that Seymour is one of the better Bond girls. Even though the way Bond and Solitaire fall in love is incredibly unbelievable, she ‘sells’ the character’s innocence. You can actually believe that she has fallen for Bond. It’s not surprising that she is one of the few Bond girls who’s career has actually grown from Bond, rather than gradually diminish.

The next Bond girl is Rosie Carver, played by Playboy Bunny Gloria Hendry. Carver is a CIA agent who helps Bond once he arrives on the Island of San Monique. Hendry is quite okay in the lighter more humorous scenes with Moore, but in the dramatic scenes he lack of acting experience shows.

There is an element of the fish out of water story in Live And Let Die. In most Bond films there is; as Bond is a rather stiff, refined English gentleman. The series has often delighted at dropping Bond into different cultures to explore the glaring differences. But in Live And Let Die, this idea is pushed to the limit. Bond is dropped into Harlem – seventies style. The clothes are candy coloured; the flares are wide; and the hats are extremely wide brimmed. This has gone past sixties counter culture. These clothes are not urban hippy wear. These clothes are ‘style’. And Bond is about style too. But while each partly is well dressed and immaculately groomed, sartorially they are a million miles away.

One of the elements in Live And Let Die that always seemed slightly awkward to me is the ending, starting with the descent into Kananga’s underground lair. Syd Cain’s set is impressive, although not quite as imaginative as some of Ken Adams sets, but as far as underground lairs go, this is pretty good. But it is deserted. Kananga appears to have about four guys working for him. There is all this space, and a mini railway of sorts, but there’s no sense of power or control which comes from a mass of humanity being lead by one unmistakeable leader. There’s no army of minions or underlings for Bond to deal with on his way to the final confrontation with Kananga. Sure there’s Whisper, but he’s hardly threatening. Compared to the ending of previous Bond films, there’s a mood of casual insignificance, rather than imminent catastrophe.

Similarly, another element that seems strangely missing is the ‘branding’ of Kananga. This is not intended as a comment on consumerism or global marketing (although I am sure that a few valid points could be made about that), but Kananga does not have a ‘logo’. An evil organsation must have a logo. It says that you are a structured entity with an identity. It is the device that links the lower echelon minions with Kanaga and Mr. Big. No racism intended, but in Live And Let Die, the colour of the villains skin is used to represent those who work on the side of evil. Bond does not battle an evil organisation; he battles an entire race. I believe that this failure to define the villain’s empire, and particularly the people who work for him, is sloppy. Labouring the point; do the dancers on San Monique work for Kanaga – or do they follow Baron Samedi as their Voodoo Priest? Do the stool pigeons who report on Bond’s movement through Harlem work for Mr. Big – or are they street punks who know they can earn a quick buck by dropping a dime. How powerful is Kananga?

Of course, I can say this thirty-five years later as a distant observer. Maybe in 1973, having a black villain was a big statement. Large enough to unsettle the population, without kitting out an entire army of black soldiers in a distinctive and unified fashion. The idea of an organised, highly efficient black corporation may have been very shocking indeed to certain sections of the community. You just have to look at the impact that The Black Panthers had to see my point. Stretching it to Bondian proportions may have been a bit too unsettling for 1973.

Live And Let Die is a flawed film. It will never be considered high art by any stretch of the imagination. But it is extremely entertaining and was a solid enough vehicle for Roger Moore as James Bond to keep the series moving. The film also features some great Bondian set pieces which I haven’t talked about here – just quickly, there is a very impressive boat chase, and a fun sequence at an alligator farm. While this film isn’t high amongst my favourite Bond films, it’s one that I always enjoy when I do take the time to watch it.

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