“There’s no sense going out half-cocked.” – James Bond
Welcome back to 00 Saturdays here at Film Seizure. This is our weekly walk through the Bond films. We continue in this fifteenth week with 1973’s Live and Let Die.
James Bond, agent 007 for her Majesty’s secret service, my have entered the 70s with Sean Connery’s final appearance as the licensed to kill MI6 agent, but it is 1973 when the new decade and era truly begins for the character. Roger Moore enters into the role that he would play for the next 12 years which would define him for the rest of his life. Just when the world thought Bond was a thing of the past, Live and Let Die would prove just about everyone wrong.
Truth be told, Live and Let Die was, for a very, very long time, my favorite Bond film of the whole series. I think there’s a lot that plays into it. First, I was born in 1977, so I was part of the generation that would say that Roger Moore was my James Bond. The new movies coming out at the time were his. Many of the films from the series playing on TV at the time were his. He was the only face of Bond my young brain knew until, well, he wasn’t anymore. Live and Let Die had a lot of other things going for it too. Everyone knew Paul McCartney and Wings’ theme song, which I will dig much deeper into next week. The movie was relatively fast paced. The action was a little more over the top and bigger.
And… The film just felt cool. The reason for that is not something that is easy to be very gentle with, but the film is loaded with recognizable black actors. As a small kid, I felt I was learning about black culture. Okay, as an adult, I do realize now that maybe I wasn’t exactly learning all the best lessons about black culture from Live and Let Die, but I guess I had to start somewhere. This allowed me to gain a real curiosity, and eventual deep appreciation, for blaxploitation.
As mentioned, Roger Moore is now Bond. I think most felt he would be a good Bond, but I doubt many expected him to carry on the role for so long, and outlasting even Sean Connery. He had some success in America on the TV show Maverick. He had greater success as Simon Templar on The Saint. So while people did have positive feelings that he could carry the Walther PPK 7.65mm handgun, the shadow of Sean Connery looms long and large.
Moore handles this exceptionally well. He decides to approach the role differently. Connery played Bond with edge. He could shoot someone just as quickly as he could romance a woman. Moore decided, after reading some of Fleming’s novels, that his Bond would follow the mold of being someone whose license to kill kind of weighs heavily on him. So Moore’s 007 would be someone who does what he does for Queen and Country, but he doesn’t exactly like it. In Live and Let Die, Moore plays it debonair and is appropriately being the stuffy British guy in Harlem. He feels softer in this movie than the other films of the series. It’s not a bad thing, though. Each actor needs to approach Bond differently. Moore’s more polished edges fit well for the new era of the series.
Likely to expedite the next film in the series, director Guy Hamilton remained, as did screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz. It was Mankiewicz who came up with the idea of adapting the novel Live and Let Die. He understood it was the most controversial of the bunch, and that at the time of the film’s release, it was a pretty risky move to cast an all black crew of villains against a white man whose character in previous films represented the old guard. However, Mankiewicz thought he figured out a way to be fairly respectful while the production itself would expose several black actors to audiences who wouldn’t normally see their work.
Some of the black actors didn’t quite agree with Makiewicz’s belief that the script was fully as respectful as it could have been.
The primary plot of the movie is that Bond is called in after the death of a British member of the United Nations, and two British agents to investigate what the dictator of the small island nation of San Monique is up to with his various operations. The dictator, Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), is in cahoots with a mysterious gangster from Harlem named Mr. Big. Big has a whole gang of henchmen including a man named Tee Hee who has a pincer for a hand, Whisper who cannot speak above a whisper, and even has a double agent in the CIA working for him.
Bond is doing his best to find out what he can, but at every turn he seems to be running into a deeply connected network of people who are either not too trusting of Bond due to the color of his skin, or due to being terrified of Mr. Big and Kananga. As it turns out, Big and Kananga are one in the same, and the scheme centers around a massive heroin operation.
At the center of it all is a mysterious woman named Solitaire, played by Jane Seymour (in her very first film role), who seemingly has clairvoyance and can read the Tarot. In a perfect explanation of how her power works, Solitaire’s ability to see into the future is based on her virginity. Naturally, Bond takes that from her so her power to assist Kananga is ruined. I suppose you could read into her virginity as a way of saying she is maybe young. Certainly too young for Bond, but it does help differentiate Moore from Connery by how he admits he cheated by stacking an entire deck of Tarot cards to all be The Lovers card which convinces her to sleep with him and how he really treats Solitaire with tenderness throughout the movie.
Seymour is absolutely a stand out in this film. The story goes she got the role by meeting with the producers one cold day. She was wearing a big fur coat and a fuzzy Cossack hat. They barked at her to remove her coat and saw that, yeah, she seemed to have the body of a Bond girl, but when they then barked for her to remove her hat, her extraordinarily long brown hair flowed out and they hired her on the spot. As it turned out, Jane Seymour is not just a pretty girl, but also a spectacular actress.
She’s not the only stand out in the cast. Yaphet Kotto’s Kananga is a very good villain. Honestly, I’m not too sure that the Kananga character would be all that different if written today. Obviously, some of the more blaxploitation lines of him calling Bond a “honky” or how he control’s Solitaire’s ability to see into the future would likely be softened, but I feel that for the time, it still got eyes on actors like Yaphet Kotto and Julius Harris as Tee Hee. Harris, too, is one of those wonderful henchmen with a deformity and he looks to have a great deal of fun in the role and is particularly proud of his work, as he should be. Maybe the largest change would be an increase of African American good guys as basically all but one black person in this film is a villain.
Speaking of Kananga and Tee Hee and a particularly well made scene that is really pretty intense, Bond is captured and Kananga is quite concerned that he took Solitaire’s vision. So he has Tee Hee put Bond’s fingers in his pincer. As he asks questions to Solitaire, he tells Tee Hee to snip the fingers off for every wrong answer. It’s pretty tense and, if you buy into the voodoo themes in the movie, Bond totally took Solitaire’s virginity and her sight, and he is very likely going to lose some fingers. In a wonderful twist, Kananga made everyone believe she was correct, but wasn’t even close. It was all to ask her why she did what she did with Bond and deal with her personally. It’s just a wonderful scene.
That’s not the only exciting scene. This movie has several chase scenes with automobiles, a plane, and boats, a thrilling stunt with Bond running across the snouts of crocodiles, and a great fight scene on a train against Tee Hee that hearkens back to Bond and Red Grant fighting in From Russia with Love.
While the film does return to Bond using gadgets with him heavily relaying on a magnetic watch throughout the film, but there is a simplicity to the film. It spends a lot of time in outdoor locations. Even things that are done on a set, like when Solitaire is offered up as sacrifice to Baron Samedi (played by a giddy Geoffrey Holder whose guffaw is such a joy to hear), the entire scene is shot at Pinewood Studios in England, but it feels like a location shoot.
Live and Let Die is full of memorable moments and memorable characters. One of which is Clifton James playing a racist Louisiana highway patrolman who serves as proof that the Moore era was going to play up more lighthearted fun. Seeing how this was the eighth film in the series, Bond films had already set themselves apart from most any other action movie. If it didn’t want to take itself deathly serious, it didn’t have to, and, very likely, wouldn’t.
All in all, the film doesn’t exactly age well, but it still feels fresh when watching the films in order. You can tell this would not have been a movie Sean Connery’s Bond would not have felt comfortable in. This is Roger Moore’s time, and he starts off with a spectacular bang. Sadly, the next film will put some of the possibility for longevity in doubt, but, as they say, sometimes it has to hit bottom before it gets much, much better.
Join me next week for a look at the music of Live and Let Die. In two weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the ninth Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun.