Live and Let Die (1973)
One of the reasons George Lazenby gave for leaving the Bond franchise after On Her Majesty's Secret Service was a concern that James Bond had already become a dinosaur - a relic of the early 1960s that would not translate well into the 1970s. While that movie was nowhere near the box office failure it is meant to be, there was still enough backlash that Diamonds Are Forever overcorrected.
Remember Goldfinger? This one is diamonds! And Shirley Bassey! Guy Hamilton's directing it again! It was a heavy-handed apology that still couldn't ignore that the '60s were over despite featuring yet another plot by Blofeld to take over the world. Most importantly, it brought back Sean Connery one last time.
Connery was offered five and a half million dollars to appear in Live and Let Die, but he was done with the series and the drama that was working Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli, the series producers who by this time were almost constantly at odds. Although they still had Guy Hamilton on board to direct, there was no use in pretending anymore that times had changed, especially since there was little coming out of Hollywood at the time that was capturing the nation's attention. The large studios had been in a creative lull since about 1967, making it an historical time for independent and exploitation filmmaking, with everything from Shaft to Deep Throat bringing out the audiences that bigger films could not.
Despite many of Bond's antics, Roger Moore's first outing (after being courted for the last couple of films due to his popular portrayal of the spy Simon Templar in The Saint) was definitely not going to be influenced by the adult film industry, but blaxploitation was fair game. Where Dr. No and the movies that followed it helped change the way movies were filmed and established its own spy genre, 1973 found the series hopping on bandwagons.
After three agents are murdered - one in the UN, another in New Orleans and one in the Caribbean nation of San Monique - M (Bernard Lee) sends James Bond (Moore) to New York to liaison with Felix Leiter (David Hedison) and work out what is going on. Both British Intelligence and the CIA are concerned that Dr. Ross Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), San Monique's dictatorial prime minister, may be behind the killings. Soon it is discovered that he has associations with a Harlem gangster named Mr. Big. Kananga himself relies on a tarot card reader named Solitaire (Jane Seymour) to see the future and protect him from his enemies.
Bond soon finds himself travelling to San Monique, where he romances both rogue CIA agent Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) and Solitaire, finds out that Kananga is running a major heroin operation and pursues him to Louisiana, where he runs afoul of Kananga's henchmen and, as a speedboat chase wreaks havoc throughout the state's canals, Sheriff J. W. Pepper (Clifton James). Eventually everything is resolved in typical Bond style.
San Monique is a fiction nation, and the real island nation that stands in for it is Jamaica. Jamaica, of course, is where the first Bond caper, Dr. No, takes place. There is more than a few references, including the introduction of Quarrel Jr. (Roy Stewart), the son of the boat owner from Dr. No who gets killed helping Bond infiltrate the villain's lair. San Monique itself is a not-so-vague representation of Haiti, which at the time was still under the dictatorship of "Papa Doc" Duvalier, who used his supposed Voodoo connections to scare his opposition. The portrayal of Voodoo rituals in Live and Let Die are straight out of old Hollywood and Hammer Horror, with "savage" natives doing strange dances and rituals that seem more meant to scare an audience than to have any actual meaning. It's tempting to have a knee-jerk reaction to this stereotype, but in reality they were choreographed by Geoffrey Holder, who plays Baron Samedi, one of Kananga's most memorable henchmen. Still, it is something quite out of place for a modern viewer.
One would think that trying to integrate blaxploitation into what is essentially still a British spy film would be clumsy, but somehow a good portion of it works. Sure, it is jumping on a bandwagon and hoping to make some extra money copying the work of younger, more vital film makers, but that didn't stop portions of the film from being filmed in Harlem. New York at the time was a crumbling dystopia, and, deserved or not, Harlem had one of the worst reputations of the city's neighborhoods. Supposedly the crew had to pay local gangs for protection during the time they filmed in the area.
The unfortunate thing is that Yaphet Kotto was right in his disappointment with Tom Mankiewicz's script. It was one thing for the blaxploitation genre itself, which (with a few exceptions) was largely a product of African-American directors and actors, to play on certain stereotypes, in many ways to also demonstrate how wrong they are or to present cautionary tales for falling into them. Live and Let Die presents the same stereotypes as if they were reality, and, just like the Voodoo scenes, is rife with ancient Hollywood tropes. Happily no one ever drags out the n-word, but it all feels like an outsider's view of the Black community, where true blaxploitation films were something generated from within it.
The stereotyping doesn't stop with African-Americans this time around. While many Bond films (especially in the Roger Moore era) end up having unintentionally hilarious moments, they always seem to struggle with injecting humor. Bond's one-liners are often horrible, even though they are a bit better this time around. The main bit of comic relief, though, appears in the middle of what is otherwise one of the best chase scenes out of any Bond film. Sure, there are some car chases in here, in some ways trying to jump on another bandwagon that The French Connection had instigated, but the speedboat chase is an amazing thing to behold, with one of the jumps setting a (then) world record purely by accident. In the middle of all this excitement we are introduced to Sheriff J. W. Pepper, a foul-mouthed, tobacco-chawin' redneck enforcer of the law in these here parts. It's every Southern stereotyped wrapped up in one package. A few years later Jackie Gleason was able to make Buford T. Justice, a similar character, work, but Pepper is the Bond series' Jar-Jar Binks. He does nothing but drain the life out of the scenes he is in and provide an unnecessary interruption to one of the truly good parts of this movie.
As for Roger Moore as Bond, he's actually not bad in his first go-round. After his time on The Saint this should be no surprise. He wisely doesn't try to be either of his predecessors, giving Bond a completely new personality, best scene when he nonchalantly gets out of a cab in Harlem, walks into a bar and doesn't show the slightest bit of awkwardness while he not only looks like the most British guy on the planet. Where Connery and Lazenby both portrayed Bond as a man walking a tightrope between human and animalistic predator, Moore always played Bond as almost disinterested in his surroundings (except for how they could be used as weapons) and a cool confidence. Unfortunately this also leads to the character slipping into almost superhuman status, something that some of the later Connery Bond films barely skirted. When a character like Bond becomes superhuman he quickly becomes a self-parody.
Yaphet Kotto is good as the villain, even though he suffers one of the silliest deaths. There just isn't enough of him, but when he is on screen he plays an insane dictator well - something that undoubtedly led him to playing a real one, Idi Amin, a few years later. Better yet are his henchmen - Tee Hee (Julius Harris), Baron Samedi and even Whisper (Earl Jolly Brown) are helped out by being given their own gimmick each, but they are also worthwhile foes of Bond, even if the fight aboard the train seems like a retread of From Russia with Love. Solitaire herself is also originally one of Kananga's minions, with a gift of prophecy and clairvoyance. I would like to say that an actress of her caliber (she has had quite a long career in film and television) was one of the most memorable Bond girls, but she's not. She's pretty, but she's just kind of there, and we're back to dubbing the actresses' voices, so little of her own acting skill comes forth.
There is quite a bit of Live and Let Die to like, but so much silliness, as well as too much content that just hasn't aged that well. I had seen it a couple times before, and never really cared for it too much. As with many things my getting older has made me appreciate many things I didn't in both music and film, and this time around I felt it was a decent debut for Moore even though the film is all over the place and spends too much time stealing scenes and ideas from the earlier Bond films. There is an overwhelming sense of having already seen much of the movie and that this was assembled from leftover ideas with a blaxploitation sheen and a modern (at the time) rock theme song to try to maintain relevance.
Live and Let Die (1973)
Time: 121 minutes
Starring: Roger Moore, Yaphet Kotto, Jane Seymour, Gloria Hendry, Julius Harris, Geoffrey Holder, David Hedison
Director: Guy Hamilton