It’s supernatural voodoo magic in 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 rather spurious in hindsight, but the movie is very much a product of its time. Watching it back all these years later, you’re 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 featured the first instance of inter-gender frolicking in the series, which was something of a landmark, even if it was a flagrantly sexist one. Trina Parks had already laid claim to the title of the first black Bond girl two years prior in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, but the movie stopped short of canoodling, the bikini-clad beauty more interested in dishing out the pain. Of all those groups with reason to be offended by Bond’s earlier antics, 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.
Thematically, cinema came of age during the 1970s, a distrusting, post-Watergate era characterised by violent exploitation, paranoid crime thrillers and gritty anthropological classics such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and on some level Live and Let Die seems to tap into that sentiment, the dilapidated backdrop of late 20th century Harlem recalling an anarchic, anti-establishment sub-genre very much mired in reality. The movie sees Bond tasked with bringing down international drugs baron Kananga, 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 wildly overblown. The film’s criminal subjects cater to the most narrow-minded of political viewpoints, but their embellishments are so caricaturistic you’d have to be a joyless 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, one who saw Bond as more of a lover than a fighter. After almost a decade of the handsomely rugged Sean Connery, with an anomalous dash of George 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 is 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 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.
Live and Let Die is such an odd card like that. To contrast an overtly supernatural element with the dirty backdrop of 70s New York was nothing short of bizarre, and absolutely unique for it. Say what you will about the discriminatory overtones, but Baron made a huge impact on me back then, from the exuding mythos which kept drug lair intruders at bay to his startling visage and the emblematic cackle that kicks off the movie’s end credits, the kind of cliffhanger you’d typically find in a horror movie, this is Bond at its most colourfully effective. The fact that we never saw the character return was something of a shame, but it also lends an added mystique and sense of lore to one of the most memorable villains in the entire series.
Tee Hee (Julius Harris) proved almost 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 and concluding with the much-maligned, yet irresistible 80s nostalgia kick A View to a Kill, 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.”
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!
The inimitable Yaphet Kotto is also a hoot in an almost illusory dual role; the very personification of Live and Let Die‘s odd blend of the gritty and the fantastical. There’s an element of the Mission Impossible about his double turn as mysterious drug overlord Kananga 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 ― at this point Bond is bang to rights, but Kananga obviously doesn’t know who he’s dealing with. His revolving door restaurant/hideout ‘Fillet of Soul’ is pure Bond goodness, a startling microcosm of the film’s batshit blend of sociopolitical themes and exotic flamboyance. Imagine an actual New York drug lord with such an elaborate hideaway! It’s such a comically misguided notion. Oddly, it is Kotto’s fake 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, Kananga 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.
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, even if nobody does it better. 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 edge.
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 could be deemed equally offensive, though watching him flounder under the film’s spectacular speedboat leap is always a joy to behold. Clifton James is excellent in the role, regardless of what many 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.
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.
Another departure in Live and Let Die comes in the form of the movie’s score. 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 an era-specific score that was then unique to the series. Despite the movie’s quintessential elements, this is a new Bond treading unfamiliar ground, and naturally that ground is often shaky. Overall, the film’s score lacks the finesse of Barry, who was so in tune with the series he was impossible to replace. Martin’s score suits the movie’s Harlem rawness but often feels like a series of tracks rather than a harmonious accompaniment. He would also orchestrate the film’s title track along with former protégé McCartney, an often gentle and contemplative composition that explodes into fits of fire and brimstone, contributing to one of the most memorable title sequences in the entire Bond canon. Not exactly a bad legacy to leave behind.
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 iconic theme song is perhaps the most important. Live and Let Die‘s titular theme was vastly different to the powerful, Bassey-esque ballads that preceded it, which is why it deserves a special mention. It was unique and seminal in both sound and presentation, a rousting effort that sent the Bond formula surging into the 70s, and arguably McCartney’s most memorable post-Beatles hit. The first Bond theme to become a pop charts smash, it would also pave the way for the left-field pop and new wave hits that would define the 1980s, helping to forge our new leading man’s distinct identity and bringing variation to the whole Bond package. For all the memorable moments in Live and Let Die, it’s the movie’s theme that first springs to mind. Tell me you’re not singing it in your head as you read.
But for me the James Bond 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 Kananga 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 our first window into the Moore so many of us would come to cherish. In today’s climate, the character smacks of sexism, but back in the early 1970s Moore was the personification of cosmopolitan. He was the face of a new era.
Live and Let Die would receive lukewarm reviews upon 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 role became much more familiar to him. It wasn’t enough to simply get to grips with the formula. Naturally, he had to find his feet and put his own stamp on the character, something he arguably wouldn’t achieve until 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, a movie many feel was the actor’s high point. Acceptance wouldn’t come easy for the actor, either. In the minds of 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.