At the close of the 1960’s, as the bloated big budget studio production of the past gave way to the grittier, more hard-edged and personal films of the 1970’s, gone was the glamour and fakery of the soundstage in favour of the grime of impoverished city streets, with small-scale stories that keyed in on the struggles of everyday life. The escapist fare that was the James Bond series had to find a way to survive in this new era as well, and with the permanent departure of Sean Connery, they had, in essence, carte blanche to start over. One cinematic trend that intrigued returning screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz was the rise of the blaxploitation film, with movies like Shaft, Super Fly, Blacula and Across 110th Street proving the box office potential of this genre. Coincidentally, Ian Fleming’s second James Bond novel, Live and Let Die, had been set in Harlem and featured a black villain. Mankiewicz decided to contemporize Fleming’s somewhat dated tale by changing the bad guy’s M.O. from smuggling pirate’s treasure to distributing heroin, and, in keeping with Bond’s penchant for a wide array of exotic locations, expanded the scope of the story beyond Harlem to include a jazz funeral on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, a high-speed boat chase through the Louisiana bayou and a final showdown on a fictional Caribbean island.
After three British agents are killed within 24 hours of each other, Bond is sent in to investigate whether there is a connection linking the deaths. Following a blundering escapade in Harlem and a timely escape from the thugs of local gangster “Mr. Big,” Bond travels to the island of San Monique, where he discovers that its Prime Minister, Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto of Across 110th Street) is concealing vast fields of poppies to produce mass quantities of heroin. Looking into the final death in New Orleans, Bond discovers the key to the entire mystery: Dr. Kananga and Mr. Big are one and the same, and Kananga intends to conquer the world in a much different way than good old Blofeld – he wants to corner the American heroin market by giving away two tons of it for free, through the soul food restaurants in the United States owned by his “Mr. Big” persona.
After some questionable casting suggestions that included Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood and even Batman‘s Adam West, Albert R. Broccoli put his foot down and insisted that Bond be played by an Englishman. Roger Moore had made a name for himself on television as The Saint, and was keen to both distance himself from that image and distinguish his portrayal of Bond from that of Sean Connery (he once cracked that he had to learn how to say “My name is Bond, James Bond” instead of “My name ish Bond, Jamesh Bond.”) Screenwriter Mankiewicz was also acutely aware that even though the movie would be showcasing black actors, the majority of them would be playing villains who would ultimately meet their ends at the hands of a white guy. With that in mind he decided to craft scenes that would see Bond for the first time totally out of his element, bested frequently by his adversaries’ ingenuity and outclassed by their coolness. That approach would not have worked with Connery – his Bond was always in command wherever he went – but Moore’s ability to survive sticky situations with his wits instead of his fists lent itself perfectly to this artistic choice. Consequently, Live and Let Die becomes mainly a social conflict between the hero and the villain, with the favours of the beautiful leading lady the linchpin of their showdown.
That leading lady, a then-22-year-old Jane Seymour as Solitaire, is arguably the most unique Bond girl of the entire series, for two reasons: she’s a virgin (at first), and she possesses supernatural powers. Solitaire can see the future with her tarot deck, and her abilities help keep Kananga one step ahead of his enemies, Bond included. However, it seems that even Solitaire must submit to the will of her cards, and when they foretell that she and Bond will become lovers, her visions vanish forever between the sheets. (Interestingly her period of mourning for her lost powers is extremely brief, as Solitaire comes to enjoy sex with Bond, and Seymour characterizes this subtly by adding a degree of maturity to her delivery of her lines once the forbidden fruit has been sampled.) Seymour is utterly ravishing in this part, whether in glamour make-up in high priestess mode, or in more casual clothes with her goddess’ mane of hair flowing out around her. And it’s refreshing to see a Bond girl role that has its own complete character arc – even if that arc does lead to more familiar damsel-in-distress territory towards the end of the film. Considering the majority of the Bond girls that follow are either fellow spies or other forms of government agent (inevitably referred to by hack entertainment journalists as “Bond’s equal”) Solitaire remains memorable – just because she is so wholly different, and because such a departure from the Bond girl norm has, somewhat regrettably, never been even tried since.
Sean Connery was a bruiser, and Roger Moore is incredibly not, so the action set pieces lean more towards extrication by gadget and/or sheer inventiveness rather than bare knuckles. (It would not have been unexpected, had Connery starred in this film, to see him jump into the crocodile pool to wrestle each one in turn, rather than leap across their backs to safety as Moore’s Bond does.) Moore is the “gentleman spy,” who is more apt to disarm his enemies with a cutting remark or a handy wristwatch magnet rather than a headlock or a knee to the stomach. But it works here, mainly because Moore is still young, and the style is trying to adhere in the realism of the 1970’s while keeping one foot in the 60’s Bond largesse that had proven so popular. The major misstep is the inclusion, in the massive boat chase that occupies the latter half of the second act, of the hapless redneck Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) who finds himself flummoxed over and over again by Bond’s antics. It was an ill omen to include this kind of observer character, and he and his ilk would reappear frequently (as I will describe with great chagrin in later posts) as the series wore on.
One area where Live and Let Die knocks it out of the park, however, is in its music. There’s an interesting story, and perhaps a testament to the eclectic nature of producer Harry Saltzman’s tastes, that when he first heard Paul McCartney & Wings’ rocking theme song, he thought it was a good demo but that Thelma Houston should sing the final version. Luckily Saltzman lost that battle – and any Bond fan should put hearing McCartney do this song live on their bucket list. (B.J. Arnau provides a rendition of the theme midway through the film that is perhaps more towards Saltzman’s liking.) McCartney’s long time Beatles producer George Martin takes over for John Barry and supplies a funky accompaniment to the proceedings that incorporates jazz, Dixieland, Caribbean rhythms and of course the iconic Bond theme into a fusion that is both signature 70’s and unmistakably James Bond.
Live and Let Die is not highly regarded by critics, who are both predisposed to prefer Sean Connery over Roger Moore, and unhappy with the movie’s racial undertones. True, despite Mankiewicz’s intention to make the black villains formidable characters, they do all receive cartoonish sendoffs, the worst fate saved for Kotto’s Dr. Kananga, who explodes after being inflated into a balloon by a shark gun. And the scene of the very white Moore pointing a gun directly into the face of a black woman (Rosie Carver, played by Gloria Hendry) after just having had sex with her is uncomfortable no matter what era you’re watching the movie in. For long time Bond aficionados, it’s a bit strange watching 007 wander through burned-out urban ghettos after seeing him stroll through Ken Adam’s fantastic sets in the previous films. But there remains a style and verve here, helped along greatly by Martin’s music, Moore’s breezy introductory performance and the stunning Seymour, that leads you to forgive a great number of its sins, and just enjoy it for what it is – a tribute to the trends of its time, and a unique page in the history of James Bond.