Supernatural voodoo magic meets blaxploitation New York 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. The streets are inhabited by afro-wielding thugs of comic book proportions, a trail of black magic, political assassination and human sacrifice leading all the way back to the jungle. Naturally, Bond is the white knight tasked with uncovering the kind of ungodly activities that have no place in a civilised world, or, one might suggest, in the pages of a blockbuster screenplay in a newly enlightened, post-Civil Rights society.
The very thought of exploiting a sub-genre designed to empower a minority struggling for basic freedoms must have rankled back in the day, but Live and Let Die is very much a product of its time, a wholly superficial caper which has very little to do with reality. Experiencing it all these years later, you’re reminded of just how far society has come with its representation of ethnic minorities, 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. Go back far enough and there’s reason for everyone to be offended.
Ironically, Live and Let Die features the first instance of inter-gender frolicking in the series, which was something of a landmark. Trina Parks had already laid claim to the title of first black Bond girl two years prior in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, but the movie stopped short of canoodling at a time when many southern state American theatres refused to screen films featuring interracial romance, 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. In an increasingly PC society — much 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 series is one of those rare exceptions where we are able to accept such black and white delineations as playful, if often misguided fantasy.
Aesthetically, Live and Let Die is also fairly gritty and authentic at times, an attempt at updating, at least in part, a formula that had mostly steered clear of realism. 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. On some level Live and Let Die seems to tap into those sentiments, the dilapidated backdrop of late 20th century Harlem recalling an anarchic, anti-establishment sub-genre that was 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 film taps into real-life social issues in a manner that is both acutely accurate and wildly overblown.
Sheer magnetism, darling.James Bond
Live and Let Die also features a brand new leading man, one who saw the Bond character as a lover not 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 007, and despite the odd hiccup as the actor gets to grips with a role that he’d make his own for more than a decade, it doesn’t take long for him to slip into his silken façade. Say what you will about Moore and the character’s eyebrow-raising descent into innuendo, but he’s just as iconic to one generation as Connery is to 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, his eventual successor’s casual suave just as befitting for his time and place. Moore took the Bond character into superhero territory, embracing an era of mind-blowing stunts and high-tech gadgets that usurped those of his predecessors.
Incidentally, Connery was approached to reprise the role for a seventh time having already come out of retirement for Diamonds Are Forever, ultimately passing on the chance due to his advancing years, which speaks to the actor’s enduring status and the preciousness of Bond portrayers to their respective generations. Ironically, Connery would return for 1983’s non-Eon instalment Never Say Never Again a decade later, a film initially meant for Lazenby. Lazenby, who was originally offered a seven-film contract, would decline the opportunity to cement himself as a more universally renown Bond, pulling the plug almost immediately. A model and TV commercial regular who had never starred in a feature-length movie prior to becoming Bond, few mourned his departure, though his solitary instalment On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is now widely regarded as one of the finest entries in the series. His eventual successor was spotted during a seven-year stint as Simon Templar in TV spy series The Saint, but with John Gavin, Julian Glover, former Batman Adam West and a young Burt Reynolds among those considered for Live and Let Die, it’s amazing that we got Moore at all.
In hindsight, I much prefer John Glen’s handling of Moore, beginning with the unusually taut For Your Eyes Only and concluding with the harshly maligned, irresistible 80s nostalgia kick A View to a Kill, but Moore fits Guy Hamilton’s classic Bond formula just as well, subtly highlighting the sheer absurdity of it all. As Moore would later admit, this was very much a conscious effort on his part. “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.”
Moore’s immediate impact not withstanding, Live and Let Die is very much classic Bond, a movie laced with exotic locations, fantastical characters, and the kind of elaborate set-pieces that were very much a rarity back in 1973. 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 absolute favourite Bond instalment — partly due to its ferocious, McCartney-penned theme song and partly because of the giant enigma that is Samedi. When I laid eyes 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, a joker in the tarot pack if you will. To contrast an overtly supernatural element with the dirty backdrop of 70s New York was nothing short of bizarre, the film proving absolutely unique for it. For all his discriminatory overtones, the kind that barely made a dent on mainstream sensibilities in ’73, Baron made a huge impact, particularly on younger audiences, harbouring a sinister, horror-laced edge that was unprecedented. From the exuding mythos that keeps drug lair intruders at bay to the emblematic cackle that kicks off the movie’s end credits, this is Bond at its most colourfully effective. The fact that we never saw the character return is something of a shame, though it does lend an added mystique and sense of lore to one of the most memorable villains in the series.
Tee Hee (Julius Harris) proves almost as memorable, his pistol-bending claw and unhealthy fascination with crocodiles making him the perfect foil for Moore’s acerbic-tongued Lothario. Another indomitable presence with horror movie embellishments, his almost amiable façade, garnished with an ironic grin and instances of gallows humour, certainly strikes a nerve. Though not the movie’s main antagonist, Tee Hee is directly involved in two of Live and Let Die‘s 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, Bond hopping across a row of snapping crocs for yet another unlikely escape.
When it comes to the movie’s black magic elements, it’s easy to roll your eyes and disregard Live and Let Die as culturally insensitive — and make no mistake about it, it can be, particularly through a modern lens — but Hamilton, who was determined to understand such ancient practices, certainly did his research. In fact, he and producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman travelled to Haiti with the intention of experiencing voodoo practice in person and potentially filming there. Due to the kind of ongoing political unrest that had stretched back for centuries, the trio instead decided on Jamaica, which certainly did the job aesthetically, and the unforeseen benefits didn’t end there.
It was while in Jamaica that Hamilton, Broccoli and Saltzman happened upon a real-life crocodile farm in Montego Bay. The owner of that farm, Ross Katanga (sound familiar?), his father supposedly eaten by one of the estimated 1300 deadly reptiles that resided there, had erected a blunt warning sign of almost cartoon supervillainy that read ‘Trespassers Will Be Eaten’, one that startled and amused the travelling trio to such an extent that they immediately wrote it into the script. Like Tee Hee, he Katanga had an unhealthy fascination with his livestock, was able to identify each by name. It immediately lent the character a perverse aura that felt more personable in the most inhumane sense of the word.
The resulting stunt, performed by Katanga himself, saw a dozen animals tied to weights at the bottom of the pond, preventing them from moving as he prepared to use them as stepping stones. In a pre-CGI era in which many stunts were often a matter of life and death, Katanga misjudged his jumps a total of four times. Not only that, but the crocodiles in question, known for their startling powers of adaptability, quickly began to anticipate his leaps, leading to a nasty close call that saw his foot bitten and his shoe torn to shreds. Katanga nailed it on the fifth take, but go back and watch just how close those crocs were to snapping him. You just don’t get that sense of danger in modern action films. That scene, more than any other, introduced me to the grandiose wonders of the Bond series, Moore quickly becoming my favourite of all portrayers. He may not have been responsible for such death-defying heroics, but he represented that extravagance so fittingly, shrugging off the overblown madness with a suave composure that proved irresistible.
Despite its often startling cartoon qualities, Live and Let Die was the first Bond film post-Goldfinger to eschew the megalomaniac traditions of yore for themes that were much more grounded. Writer Tom Mankiewicz, taking his cue from a tension-fraught sociopolitical environment of racial conflict and radical movements such as the Black Panthers, thought it would be daring, and good for the evolution of the series, to feature black villains at a time of post Civil Rights upheaval. The film wastes no time in laying bare its intentions, Live and Let Die‘s pre-titles sequence, one of the most subdued and haunting up to that point, delivering a trio of quickfire assassinations, the second and most memorable of which occurring, quite ingeniously, on the colourfully sombre streets of New Orleans.
Names is for tombstones, baby!Mr. Big
Hamilton, a huge jazz enthusiast, shunned the idea of setting the film’s iconic casket assassination during Mardi Gras, since 1965’s Thunderball had already used a similar festivity in the form of Caribbean street parade Junkanoo, instead setting his sights on the culturally anomalous (at least for white Americans in the 1970s) jazz funerals synonymous with New Orleans, which rather than mourn loss in the more traditional sense, explode into colourful, celebratory life. The scene in question sees a loitering FBI agent, consuming the subdued beginnings of those festivities, stabbed in the back and casually collected by a parade carrying a modified casket made specifically for him. The irony of that parade bursting into animation having completed its surreptitious objective is absolutely inspired, a modernist jolt for those weaned on the elaborate kitsch of past Bonds. Even today it’s a disquieting spectacle to say the least.
The inimitable Yaphet Kotto, in an almost illusory dual role, is the very personification of Live and Let Die‘s odd blend of gritty realism and fantastical kitsch. There’s an element of the Mission Impossible to 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 (will they ever learn?). 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. For me, Kananga is less memorable, though his relatively muted turn was essential in delineating one character from the next, and in that sense it works a treat.
Kotto, a proud African-American who did his utmost to instil the few realist qualities that exist in Live and Let Die, was not so enamoured with Mankiewicz’s vast array of stereotypical flourishes, which he claimed negated any and all attempts to update the formula for 70s audiences. “There were so many problems with that script,” he would explain. “… I was too afraid of coming off like Mantan Moreland … I had to dig deep in my soul and brain and come up with a level of reality that would offset the sea of stereotype crap that Tom Mankiewicz wrote that had nothing to do with the Black experience or culture.” In order to achieve this, Kotto would draw on real-life experiences dealing with racial oppression, the kind occasionally glimpsed in Kananga’s dual incarnation, a character motivated by distrust and simmering with resentment. Despite his best efforts, the actor felt his attempts at adding realism were ultimately futile. “The way Kananga dies was a joke. The entire experience was not as rewarding as I wanted it to be.”
There are some less charming characters in Live and Let Die, most notably those of the female variety. Gloria Hendry’s sexy, Afro-sporting Rosie is wholly unconvincing as a duplicitous spy sent to fool the world’s most cunning agent, even if she does represent a move forward racially. She’s so vacuous, weak and needy, and clearly wouldn’t last two minutes in the surreptitious world of international espionage. Jane Seymour is bland but hypnotically prepossessing as oppressed tarot reader Solitaire, her decision to jump into bed with a self-centred Bond at the potential expense of both her powers and her own life 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 salacious escapism, 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 jump is always a joy to behold. The jump in question, arguably the most eye-watering moment in the movie (though a stunt which sees the top of a double-decker bus removed proved equally thrilling back in 1973), was filmed with the assistance of a specially constructed ramp and led to the destruction of 17 speedboats built specifically for the film. Amazingly, the stunt would unintentionally set a Guinness World Record with a leap of 110 feet (34 m), a testament to how far ahead the Bond franchise was in terms of lavish, stunt-laden production.
Clifton James is excellent in the role of Pepper, despite 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 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 deliriously camp, kung-fu laden caper The Man with the Golden Gun would be greatly unappreciated, you have to give the late actor credit for what would prove a notable legacy.
Another departure for Live and Let Die comes in the form of the movie’s score. This was the first time that series stalwart John Barry took a back seat, ‘fifth Beatle’ George Martin, a revolutionary musical mind who helped forge modern pop music, producing an era-specific score that was unique to the series. Overall, his contributions lack the finesse of Barry, who was so in tune with the Bond formula he had become 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. Despite Live and Let Die‘s quintessential elements, this is a new Bond treading unfamiliar ground, and naturally that ground can be shaky. Of course, Martin would also orchestrate the film’s title track along with former protégé McCartney, an often gentle, often 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.
[following Kananga’s bodily explosion] He always did have an inflated opinion of himself.James Bond
Moore may have had his work cut out as Bond went through his first major transition, but not all the 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, theme songs are one of the most essential. 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, while also being arguably McCartney’s most memorable post-Beatles hit. The first Bond theme to become a singles chart smash, it would 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 titular theme that first springs to mind. Tell me you’re not singing it in your head as you read this.
Ultimately, 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 unyielding loyalty of one Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell). This is our first window into the Moore that so many of us would come to cherish. In today’s climate, the character smacks of sexism, but back in the early ’70s Moore was the personification of cosmopolitan, relinquishing the dated ideals of Connery’s tenure.
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, Moore reaching 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 that many consider to be 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 by 1981’s espionage-heavy For Your Eyes Only, and his portrayal would prove the most enduring, seeing him star in a record seven Eon-produced 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.
Good article. Think this was my favourite Bond, but probably a difficult watch nowadays in more enlightened times.
Always felt Rosie was hard done by in this too.
Also, isn’t it Kananga, not Karanga?