VHS Revival revisits Roger Moore’s inaugural turn as the irrepressible James Bond.
At times, Live and Let Die is like an anti-blaxploitation movie.
Of course, it is very much a product of its time, and there is no serious slight intended, but watching it you are reminded of just how far society has come in regards to its representation of ethnic groups, so far that its often prejudiced content now comes across as laughable rather than offensive. Here, our superfly brothers are slick, drug-dealing criminals who occasionally dabble in voodoo, but classic Bond was always a franchise steeped in stereotypes, regardless of race of creed. Go back far enough, and there is reason for everyone to be offended.
The James Bond series is one of those rare exceptions when we are able to accept such black and white delineations. This is a grandiose world which has very little to do with reality, and is certainly no reflection on the real world. Live and Let Die seems to tread a precarious line in terms of actual plot, with a somewhat low-key story set in predominantly black areas of the United States. Feeding off the blaxploitation films of the period, Bond is tasked with bringing down international drugs baron Karanga, a crook with ties in 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 accurate and vastly inaccurate. 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 installments into the franchise, 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 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 his, 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 hero, 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.
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 will not find anywhere else. Geoffrey Holder’s snake-handling voodoo man Baron Samedi may be borderline offensive, but nobody can doubt his iconic status, from the exuding mythos that keeps drug lair intruders at bay, to the startling face paint and emblematic cackle which precedes the end credits. 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. Although 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 to safety.
There are some less charming characters on offer. Gloria Hendry’s Afro-sporting Rosie is wholly unconvincing as a fake spy sent to fool the world’s most cunning agent, while screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz fails to fully tap into Yaphet Kotto’s unlimited acting potential in a twin role as both Karanga and reputed associate Mr Big, although his brief turn as a pimp rolling daddy is certainly one to remember. Jane Seymour is bland but beautiful as oppressed tarot reader Solitaire, and her decision to jump into bed with a self-centered Bond at the potential expense of her own life is more than a little questionable. In terms of Bond girls, this one lacks sparkle.
Then we 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 purpose is to bring balance to the racial stereotyping, representing a moribund generation of ignorant white trash. Clifton James is excellent in the role bequeathed him, 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 most, but in many ways his performance would prove to be a seminal turn in the series, and although 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 to be a notable legacy.
Perhaps another stigma attached to Pepper’s contribution is the laborious boat chase to which he is a central figure. This was the first time composer John Barry took a back seat, and George Martin produces a somewhat maladroit soundtrack which leaves major segments of the scene unscored, resulting in a clumsy and largely ponderous action sequence which typifies the installment’s 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.
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 of 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, as Roger’s salacious spy beds yet another foreign delight thanks to the unbending loyalty of one Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell).
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, performed by Paul McCartney and Wings, is easily one of the most memorable. Vastly different to the powerful Bassey-esque ballads which preceded it, it was also unique and seminal in both sound and presentation, a rousting effort that sent the Bond formula surging into the seventies, paving the way for the eclectic mix of artists and songs that would follow, while 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. 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 famous for dodging stunts, but he could play hard-edged when the material demanded it, 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 a inimitable sense of humour which won the series a whole generation of new fans, and for me the most befitting Bond there ever was.