James Bond 007: Live and Let Die (1973)

Live and Let Die is the suave introduction to Roger Moore as James Bond. Considering that the film is directed by Guy Hamilton and written by Tom Mankiewicz, the same men who made Diamonds Are Forever the worst of the Connery films, Live and Let Die shouldn’t be such a success, but it is. It corrects so much of what made its predecessor a glib miscalculation. It clarifies Bond’s place in the 1970s, addresses black-white racial tensions for the first time in the series, and firmly distinguishes its new Bond from his predecessor. Most of all, it’s a fantastic showcase for Roger Moore. He sets himself up as a very different man than Connery, more interested in bedding than brawling, quick with a joke, and unflappable to a fault. He’s the furthest from Fleming’s Bond as the character gets, but he inhabits the role with such confidence in Live and Let Die, it doesn’t matter.

After the presence of Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever returned the franchise to box office gold, United Artists offered him the chance to star in a sequel, but Connery declined the offer. Again, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had to find a new Bond. They found their man in a TV star who had been considered for the part in the past, both for the initial outing Dr. No and the first post-Connery vehicle On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Roger Moore. A suave Englishman known for his role on the popular spy mystery series, The Saint, Moore represented a chance to chart a new course for the James Bond franchise. The production team grasped onto that chance and reworked many aspects of the franchise to fit their new leading man.

Broccoli, Saltzman, and writer Tom Mankiewicz had already determined Live and Let Die to be the next adaptation before Moore was cast, and the material proved to be a good fit for the actor. Based off Fleming’s second Bond novel, Live and Let Die sends Bond to Harlem, New Orleans, and the Caribbean in his quest to take down a drug lord planning to flood the American streets with free heroin. The choice of adaptation allowed United Artists to redirect the series from what came before, distinguishing the new Moore-headed franchise from the Connery entries. Gone is SPECTRE, the nefarious terrorist organization headed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a result of Kevin McClory winning his lawsuit against the Fleming estate. Instead, the villain is Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), the black president of a fictional Caribbean nation, who operates in the American underworld as the gangster, Mr. Big. Kananga doesn’t seek world domination. He merely wants to outwit his competitors by flooding the American heroin market and creating new addicts. It’s a curiously domestic problem for Bond to tackle, one that links Live and Let Die to a more real world than is usual for a Bond film.

Also different from the Connery entries is the film’s light tone. While the Connery entries could never be described as serious dramas, there’s a cold-hearted brutality to them, a violence, that is absent in Moore’s films. Moore is much less likely to end up in a brawl with villains. He’d rather make quips at their expense. Even when Connery makes jokes, they usually carry a deadly double meaning and involve violence. Moore is quicker to make a joke for a joke’s sake, lightening the atmosphere of almost any tense situation, such as when he’s captive in Mr. Big’s Fillet of Soul club in Harlem and about to be taken out and shot by thugs. Connery never succeeded at glibness, but Moore revels in it. And Live and Let Die gives Moore every possible opportunity to exercise his considerably dry wit.

However, Live and Let Die is not entirely a different beast than the Connery films. It still operates as a “Bond film,” that template invented by Goldfinger, and it bears striking structural similarities to the first entry in the series, Dr. No. Considering that much of Live and Let Die’s purpose is to introduce Roger Moore’s James Bond to the filmgoing audience just as Dr. No’s was to introduce Sean Connery’s Bond, the similarities are justified. What worked for Dr. No works again for Live and Let Die.

Again we meet Bond in the midst of pursuing pleasure: this time, women, not gambling. Soon enough, he’s sent off to investigate a problem that’s plaguing the Americans. He again ends up with a Bond girl who double-crosses him. He again infiltrates the enemy’s base on a Caribbean island that is protected by superstitions—this time Voodoo scarecrows instead of a “dragon.” He even has a new Quarrel to accompany him on his mission. These many similarities are amplified by the fact that the novel of Dr. No is meant as a return to aspects of the Live and Let Die novel, as Live and Let Die takes place before Dr. No in the literary chronology. So the Dr. No connections are inherent to being a faithful adaptation of the novel as the two novels are intimately connected.

A notable dissimilarity is Moore’s introduction as James Bond. Instead of building up to Bond’s introduction, obscuring the actor’s face until he’s allowed an iconic entrance like the filmmakers did with Connery in Dr. No and Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live and Let Die cuts straight to Bond in bed with a new conquest. It epitomizes the actor’s portrayal of the character, for no Bond loves women more than Moore’s does. It also demonstrates that Moore didn’t play up Bond’s mysteriousness. The film doesn’t bandy about what kind of man Moore’s Bond is. It straight up acknowledges that Moore’s Bond can handily dispatch villains, but that he gets more pleasure from bedding foreign agents. In Live and Let Die, Bond ingeniously uses his magnetized wristwatch to attract the shark pellet that kills Kananga, but he gets greater relish from using it to unzip Miss Caruso’s (Madeline Smith) dress. Moore’s Bond is not charming because he’s cold and unknowable. He’s charming because he is smooth and witty and dangerous and looks like Roger Moore. At this point, audiences were familiar with the character of James Bond, even if they weren’t familiar with Roger Moore’s iteration of the character. Thus, director Guy Hamilton and writer Tom Mankiewicz are wise to focus on introducing audiences to Moore’s brand of stardom instead of reiterating already-iconic facts about the character.

I used to give Roger Moore a lot of flak for his interpretation of the James Bond character. I thought he was too campy, too eager to pounce on the punchlines and too dainty to throw a punch. While Moore’s mileage in the Bond films varies greatly, just as his films vary greatly in consistency, in Live and Let Die Moore is indisputably magnificent. Admittedly, he’s nothing like the Fleming character, but he makes the role his own. Live and Let Die announces Roger Moore as a movie star. While Sean Connery looks old and a little silly in Diamonds Are Forever, overwhelmed by his anachronistic presence in the 1970s, Roger Moore is undaunted by the time period. He wears a flashy bathrobe embroidered with his own initials. Even when he’s walking down a street in Harlem in a wool overcoat and wearing black leather gloves, he walks like he owns the street. He’s unfazed by the fact that he’s in a hostile environment and looks like he walked out of a British ambassador’s club. In fact, Live and Let Die takes great advantage of how often Bond sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s often the only white man in a room, but instead of being intimidated by his isolation he embraces it, as if the fact that he’s one-of-a-kind only adds to his charm. Unlike Connery, Moore embraces the ethos of the 1970s, its free-spiritedness, even if he never fully belongs to it. He’s never overwhelmed by the time period. He acknowledges that he’s a product of the Old British Empire, but that doesn’t stop him from enjoying what the 1970s have to offer him.

In Live and Let Die, Moore is cool and unflappable. Nothing ever fazes him. This unflappable quality helps in the film’s blaxploitation genre-play. Instead of being the stereotypical oppressive white man keeping the black man down or the refined white man terrified of black power, Moore’s Bond never focuses on the racial implications of his assignment. Kananga is an enemy to be dealt with, and the fact that he’s a black villain doesn’t gall him at all. Case in point, Bond never makes a big deal of sleeping with Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry), even though it’s the first time Bond hooks up with a black woman in the franchise. It might have scandalized some of the American audiences watching the film, but Moore’s Bond doesn’t think twice about it. He doesn’t trust Carver because he correctly suspects she’s a double-agent working for Kananga, but that distrust is not built out of her blackness. Her blackness is incidental to Bond. At one point she’s an alluring sexual conquest and at another she’s an adversary with useful information. Nothing more. It’s easy to direct accusations of chauvinism at Bond in Live and Let Die, but charges of racism don’t stick as easily—especially when you compare the film to the novel, which is blatantly racist. In a sense, Fleming constructs the entire narrative as a means to warn white people about trusting black people, as they might be in the throes of Mr. Big’s voodoo black magic. It’s distasteful and ruins the novel.

The fact that Moore’s Bond avoids the white man stereotypes of blaxploitation films makes him the perfect foil to Yaphet Kotto’s Kananga, who also avoids the stereotypes of the black villain of the time period. This most recent viewing of Live and Let Die clarified that Kananga is one of the best Bond villains. He’s extremely complex as far as Bond villains go. Not only is he significant for being the series’ first black villain, he’s also more pragmatic than most Bond villains. As I already discussed, he doesn’t seek to extort world powers or threaten global destruction. He merely seeks to retain control of his island nation of San Monique and amass a fortune by dominating the American heroin market.

Live and Let Die constantly plays with 1970s notions of black America. At every turn, Kananga manipulates white prejudice in order to allow him control of the heroin market and distance from his criminal operations. He creates the persona of Mr. Big, an American drug lord straight out of a ludicrous blaxploitation fantasy that plays to white stereotypes of African American criminals, knowing that the persona will simultaneously distract his enemies and frighten them by playing to their assumptions. He sets up his heroin distribution centres in Fillet of Soul clubs in Harlem and New Orleans, hotbeds of African American activity where white people are scared to go. He uses Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) and his voodoo magic as a means to scare away his enemies, understanding that white people are terrified of any forms of black magic. He even uses white people’s patronizing attitudes towards African American traditions to commit murder in broad daylight. In the fantastic pre-credits teaser, an MI6 agent watches an African American funeral procession down a New Orleans street, the grieving widow adorned in a black dress, wiping away tears, comforted by her two sons. The agent asks the man next to him whose funeral it is, and the man chillingly responses, “Yours,” before stabbing him in the stomach. The funeral procession makes its way over to where the agent lies dead on the ground, lowers the coffin on top of him, collects the body, and bursts into a high-energy jazz number that turns the funeral into a celebration. Kananga’s safe from suspicion because he correctly assumes that his white adversaries would view the funeral as a negro eccentricity and condescendingly dismiss it.

Aside from Kananga’s wiley subversion of American stereotypes about black people, the film includes the comic relief, Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), who condescendingly berates Kananga’s henchman as “boy” and proves himself a fool time and again. Pepper is a stand-in for the American South’s racist, paternalistic attitudes towards African Americans. Hamilton relishes the opportunity to showcase what a pathetic fool Pepper is, and seeing as Pepper is a stand-in for the entire American South, Hamilton is essentially showing how foolish white American attitudes towards African Americans are. Pepper may have outstayed his welcome in the series by showing up in The Man with the Golden Gun, but in Live and Let Die, his presence is justified. He even gets a good line in when he commandeers the vehicle of a condescending state trooper—“And that means you, smartass!”

The only major part of Live and Let Die that uncomfortably skirts into racial stereotype is Kananga’s relationship to his tarot medium Solitaire (Jane Seymour), which leaves the implication that Kananga’s threat of sexual violence is even worse for the fact that he’d be a black man raping a virginal white woman. Still, Kananga’s complexity wins out in the end, as this one aspect of his character doesn’t define him. Considering that Kananga is allowed multiple facets of his personality is evidence of his complexity.

Aside from boasting a great performance from Moore and a fascinating villain, Live and Let Die is rousing as a straightforward action film. The final boat chase through the Louisiana Bayou is a thrilling piece of stunt work, as Bond races a speedboat through the swamps and streams, even sliding it across patches of ground as a shortcut to water on the other side. I especially love how Hamilton holds the camera on a wedding party that Bond rudely interrupts by sliding his boat through their ceremony, panning as Bond escapes and the enemy boat slams into a shed, and then holding just long enough to show the shocked bride burst into exasperated tears. The boat chase goes on a little long, but it remains one of the best pieces of stunt work in the whole series.

Live and Let Die is a satisfying action film and a great introduction to Roger Moore’s strengths in the role. It allows Moore to redefine the Bond character as an unflappable womanizer. It also explores race in a way that the Bond films never had before—and, frankly, haven’t since. The 1970s were not always a kind decade to James Bond, but Live and Let Die makes you believe the cinema’s greatest spy is as comfortable in that chaotic climate as he is bedding a beautiful woman or downing a vodka martini.

8 out of 10

Live and Let Die (1973, UK)

Directed by Guy Hamilton; written by Tom Mankiewicz based on the novel by Ian Fleming; starring Roger Moore, Yaphet Kotto, Jane Seymour, Clifton James, Julius Harris, Geoffrey Holder, David Hedison, Gloria Hendry, Roy Stewart, Earl Jolly Brown, Tommy Lane, Madeline Smith, Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee.