Revisiting Roger Moore’s inaugural turn as the irrepressible James Bond
At times Live and Let Die feels like an anti-Blaxploitation movie. It looks like Black Caesar, sounds like Superfly, but there’s no put-upon brother squirming under the strong arm of ‘the man’. In Harlem, black is bad, and not just narcotics bad. Naturally, there’s a trail of black magic leading all the way back to the jungle, and Bond is the white knight sent to foil the kind of ungodly activities that have no place in a civilised society. This is all very spurious, but the movie is very much a product of its time, and there is no serious slight intended. Still, watching it back all these years later, you are reminded of just how far society has come in its representation of ethnic groups, so far that the film’s often prejudiced content comes across as kitsch rather than offensive. Our jive-talking cast are slick, drug-dealing criminals who occasionally dabble in voodoo, but classic Bond was always a franchise steeped in stereotypes, regardless of race or creed. Go back far enough and there is reason for everyone to be offended.
Ironically, Live and Let Die features the first instance of inter-gender frolicking, which one could cite as something of a landmark, even if it was a flagrantly sexist one. Of all those groups with reason to be offended, the female gender was undoubtedly head and shoulders above the rest, and it would be decades before that particular issue was amended. In an increasingly PC society — some of it valid, some of it preposterously pedantic and wholly self-serving — classic Bond must seem like some kind of underground devil cult sent to degrade humankind, but the James Bond series is one of those rare exceptions where we are able to accept such black and white delineations as playful, if often misguided fantasy. This is a larger-than-life environment which has very little to do with reality, and is certainly no reflection of the real world. Feeding off the blaxploitation films of the era, Bond is tasked with bringing down international drugs baron Karanga, a crook with ties to the Caribbean who plans to flood the streets with heroin and create a nation of addicts. In typical Bond fashion, the movie taps into real-life social issues in a manner that is both acutely accurate and vastly overblown. Their criminal subjects cater to the most narrow-minded of political viewpoints, but their embellishments are so caricaturistic you would have to be a cynic to take them seriously.
The fact is, eight instalments into the franchise and you should be prepared for such an exaggerated formula, particularly since Live and Let Die is the first to feature a brand new leading man. After almost a decade of the handsomely rugged Sean Connery, with an anomalous dash of Lazenby in-between, this is Roger Moore’s first outing as the irrepressible super spy, and despite the odd hiccup as the actor gets to grips with a role that he would make his own for more than a decade, it doesn’t take long for him to slip into his sleek and silken facade. Say what you will about Moore and the character’s eyebrow-raising descent into innuendo, but he is just as iconic for one generation as Connery was for another, and purists tend to forget that the series had been heading in an increasingly cartoonish direction since 1964’s Goldfinger. Moore may have lacked the brutality of Ian Fleming’s literary creation, but an attempt at employing a Connery clone would almost certainly have ended in disaster, and his eventual successor’s casual suave is just as befitting for his time and place.
Miss Caruso: Such a delicate touch.
James Bond: Sheer magnetism, darling.
Moore’s immediate impact not withstanding, this is very much classic Bond, a movie with exotic locations, fantastical characters and the kind of elaborate set-pieces you could not find anywhere else. Geoffrey Holder’s snake-handling voodoo man, Baron Samedi, may be borderline offensive, but nobody can doubt his iconic status. As a kid, Live and Let Die was my favourite Bond instalment — partly due to its ferocious, McCartney-penned theme song and partly because of the giant enigma that is Baron Samedi. Back then, racism was something I had absolutely no grasp of; I just wasn’t raised in that kind of environment. When I looked at the heavily painted Baron I didn’t think sweeping stereotypes and crude characterisation. All I saw was a colossal menace with a devilish smile and an exploding head set-piece that played Ouija with my juvenile imagination. Say what you will about the discriminatory overtones, but Baron made a huge impact on me back then, from the exuding mythos that keeps drug lair intruders at bay to the startling visage and emblematic cackle that precedes the movie’s end credits, this is Bond at its most colourfully effective.
Tee Hee (Julius Harris) is perhaps just as memorable, his pistol-bending claw and unhealthy fascination with alligators making him the perfect foil for Moore’s acerbic-tongued Lothario. Though not the movie’s main antagonist, Tee Hee is directly involved in two of its most enduring moments: a train-bound scuffle following a rather refreshing false ending and one of the most memorable set-pieces in the entire series, as Bond hops across a row of snapping crocodiles for yet another unlikely escape. That scene, more than any other, introduced me to the grandiose wonders of the series, and Moore would quickly become my favourite of all Bonds. He just seemed to suit that extravagance so fittingly, shrugging off the overblown madness with a suave casuality that was simply irresistible. In hindsight, I much prefer John Glen’s handling of Moore, beginning with the unusually taut For Your Eyes Only, but he fits the classic Bond formula just as well, subtly highlighting the sheer absurdity of it all. Reflecting on his tenure, Moore was once quoted as saying, “To me, the Bond situations are so ridiculous, so outrageous. I mean, this man is supposed to be a spy and yet, everybody knows he’s a spy. Every bartender in the world offers him martinis that are shaken, not stirred. What kind of serious spy is recognized everywhere he goes? It’s outrageous. So you have to treat the humour outrageously as well. My personality is entirely different than previous Bonds. I’m not that cold-blooded killer type. Which is why I play it mostly for laughs.”
The inimitable Yaphet Kotto is a hoot in an almost illusory double role. There’s an element of the Mission Impossible about his duel turn as mysterious drug overlord Karanga and reputed associate Mr Big, the latter concealing himself under some rather convincing (for the time) prosthetics before stupidly revealing his true identity to Bond when goaded and labelled a lackey. Of course, at this point Bond is bang to rights, but Karanga obviously doesn’t know who he’s dealing with. Karanga’s revolving door restaurant/hideout ‘Fillet of Soul’ is pure Bond goodness, though absolutely ridiculous against the scene’s dilapidated Harlem backdrop, which is indicative of a movie with one toe in reality and the rest in the realms of exotic flamboyance. Oddly, it is Kotto’s latter incarnation who impresses most, his brief turn as a pimp-rolling daddy, all jive talk and ego-driven ruthlessness, a peculiar creation that still fascinates today. For me, Karanga is less memorable, though his relatively muted turn was arguably essential in delineating one character from the next, and in that sense it works a treat.
Mr. Big : [to his men] Is *this* the stupid mutha that tailed you uptown?
James Bond : There seems to be some mistake. My name is…
Mr. Big : Names is for tombstones, baby! Y’all take this honky out and waste him! Now!
There are some less charming characters in Live and Let Die, most notably those of the female variety. Gloria Hendry’s Afro-sporting Rosie is wholly unconvincing as a fake spy sent to fool the world’s most cunning agent, even if she does represent a move forward racially. She’s just so vacuous and weak and needy. She wouldn’t last two minutes in the surreptitious world of international espionage, and those in charge of employing her only have themselves to blame for their inevitable downfall. Jane Seymour is bland but beautiful as oppressed tarot reader Solitaire, and her decision to jump into bed with a self-centred Bond at the potential expense of her own life is more than a little questionable. As a character, a fortune teller bound to the whims of a paranoid megalomaniac is the perfect character for Bond’s particular brand of kitsch, but it’s all a little tepid. In terms of Bond girls, this one has beauty in abundance but lacks that certain sparkle.
We also have the introduction of notorious comedy character Sheriff Pepper, a tobacco-chewing yokel with a penchant for calling black fellers ‘boy’ and generally making a fool of himself. Pepper’s ostensible purpose is to bring balance to the racial stereotyping, representing a moribund generation of ignorant white trash in a manner that is equally offensive. Clifton James is excellent in the role, regardless of what any of us may think of the character, deftly capturing the kind of farcical action that would become a running theme in later Moore efforts. Annoying and inessential he may be in the minds of some, but in many ways his performance would prove a seminal turn in the series, and though his reintroduction as a xenophobic tourist in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun would be greatly unappreciated, you have to give the actor credit for what would prove a notable legacy.
Perhaps another stigma attached to Pepper’s contribution is the borderline laborious boat chase to which he is a central figure. This was the first time composer John Barry took a back seat, and ‘fifth Beatle’ George Martin, a revolutionary musical mind who helped forge modern pop music, produces a somewhat maladroit soundtrack that leaves major segments of the scene unscored, resulting in a clumsy and largely ponderous action sequence which typifies the instalment’s often stumbling nature. This results in too much screen time for James’ bumbling Sheriff, and his increasing annoyance is conducive to the sum of the scene’s parts. In spite of the movie’s quintessential elements, this is a new Bond treading unfamiliar ground, and naturally that ground is often shaky.
Solitaire: [Kananga has just exploded after having a gas pellet shoved into his mouth] Where’s Kananga?
James Bond: He always did have an inflated opinion of himself.
But for me, the series is all about memorable moments, and Live and Let Die provides more than its fair share, with revolving wall booby traps, oddball set-pieces and a nifty gadget which proves essential in defining Moore’s brazen variation on a long-established character. Bond’s magnetic watch was meant to be utilized in many ways: drawing escape vessels, attracting compressed-air bullets for one of the most elaborate deaths in the series, but as thrillingly bizarre as the exploding Karanga was, the device’s true value comes in the form of a dress unzipper, Roger’s salacious spy bedding yet another foreign delight thanks to the unbending loyalty of one Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell). This is perhaps our first window into the Moore so many of us would come to cherish, while others simply refused to accept anyone but Connery. In today’s climate, the character smacks of sexism, but back in the early 1970s Moore was the personification of cosmopolitan.
Moore may have had his work cut out as Bond went through his first major transition, but not all details depend on the turn of our leading man. Audiences demand certain winning elements from a 007 production, and of all the components that comprise the Bond marketing machine, the movie’s theme song is perhaps the most important. Live and Let Die‘s titular theme is easily one of the most memorable. Vastly different to the powerful Bassey-esque ballads that preceded it, it was unique and seminal in both sound and presentation, a rousting effort that sent the Bond formula surging into the seventies. It would also pave the way for the left-field new wave hits that would define the first half of the 1980s, helping to forge our new leading man’s distinct identity.
Live and Let Die would receive lukewarm reviews upon its release, but with the mourning of Connery’s loss still very much a factor, this was perhaps only inevitable. The movie isn’t perfect, and Moore would reach greater heights in subsequent instalments as the Bond formula became much more familiar to him. Still, in the minds of those critics who had fawned over the original Bond’s macho turn, Moore was a bad fit, a man cut from the wrong cloth who was destined to drown in the smugness of his slight frame. But Roger was so much more than the naysayers gave him credit for. He may have been infamous for dodging stunts, but he could play hard-edged when the material demanded, as proven in 1981‘s espionage-heavy For Your Eyes Only, and his portrayal would prove the most enduring, seeing him star in a record seven features between 1973 and 1985. Moore was an actor with an ageless cool, effortlessly debonair with an inimitable sense of humour that won the series a whole new generation of fans, and for me the most befitting Bond there ever was.