Live and Let Die (1973) Director: Guy Hamilton
Live and Let Die is the eighth Eon James Bond film, and the first to feature Roger Moore in the lead role (after Sean Connery refused to reprise the role, though Connery later returned in the non-canonical Bond film entitled Never Say Never Again –the title was a playful reference to the fact that Connery vowed “never” to play James Bond again). Both Adam West and Burt Reynolds were approached for the role of James Bond in Live and Let Die, but the producers were not eager to approach another cinematic outsider after controversies surrounding George Lazenby’s tenure so Roger Moore was a nice compromising fit in their eyes. At the time, Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were barely on speaking terms so they divided producer credit for separate Bond films -Broccoli was given lead credit for Diamonds Are Forever while Saltzman was listed as producer for Live and Let Die.
The plot for Live and Let Die is based on Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name, though the book and the film have key distinctions. Live and Let Die is something of an oddity in the James Bond saga as it contains numerous “blaxploitation” references by showcasing black drug lords, pimpmobiles, strange voodoo cults, and so on. Also unlike other Bond films which have tended to focus on megalomaniacal super villains, Live and Let Die is about Caribbean drug traffickers smuggling heroin into the United States. After three agents are found dead, Bond finds himself trailing an infamous drug lord known as “Mr. Big” (Yaphet Kotto) who turns out to be Dr. Kananga (so-named because of the crew’s experience scouting for locations in Jamaica and stumbling upon a Crocodile Farm owned by a man named Ross Kananga). In the film, Dr. Kananga is a corrupt Caribbean political leader, whereas in Ian Fleming’s book, “Mr. Big” is a crime lord with connections to SMERSH who is smuggling Henry Morgan’s “pirate gold” into the United States. Both premises are pretty amusing. In the film there is a fairly remarkable boat chase scene, and it is intriguing to see England’s top gentleman spy cruising the seedier night clubs of Harlem. Between talk of “honkeys” and “bad mothers” as well as trash-piled, smoke-filled New York skies, this is a unique outing for Mr. Bond to say the least. This time, Bond’s romantic counterpart is Solitaire (Jane Seymour), a tarot-reading virgin tightly controlled by Mr. Big. Can she be trusted? Bond pays a visit to her vast seaside palatial home and seduces her which (she believes) causes her to lose her supposed psychic tarot abilities. In the end, Bond disrupts the planned heroin drug trade. He kills one of the primary henchmen, a tall cackling man Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) by tossing him into a coffin filled with snakes, he battles another henchman man with a metallic claw for a hand named “Tee Hee” (Julius Harris). Bond rescues Solitaire just before she is put on display to be ritually sacrificed but they are soon captured. Next, Mr. Big slowly lowers Bond and Solitaire into a shark-infested pond but Bond escapes using a magnetic watch (for some reason no one is watching Bond while he escapes?) and then Bond kills Mr. Big using a small inflatable gadget which causes Mr. Big to expand and explode in what is perhaps the most comically ridiculous demise of any Bond villain. While they escape via a train (perhaps a nod to From Russia With Love) Bond is again attacked by the occultist henchman Tee Hee. He kills the clawed man by throwing him out a window leaving only his attached hook while Solitaire remains enclosed in a fold-up bed, unaware of the whole situation unfolding. The film ends with the “undead” Baron Samedi –one of the voodoo occultists who Bond previously had thrown into a coffin filled with poisonous snakes– laughing maniacally on the edge of the train as it speeds off into the night.
Live and Let Die is a clear departure for the James Bond franchise, though it is shockingly not the worst of the Roger Moore era. It is an uncomfortable film at times, with its many racially-motivated cliches, and in all I would say this is a mostly silly film, but there are actually worse Bond films in the series and to be fair some of the scenes of New Orleans and the Caribbean are quite impressive. Live and Let Die is the first Bond film to also feature a black Bond girl –a CIA agent named Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry)– though United Artists refused to allow a black actress in the lead supporting role. Indeed the production crew apparently ran into considerable racism during filming in Louisiana, particularly for their black actors, hence why certain production decision were made –such as the brief appearance of a bumbling racist imbecile named Sheriff J.W. Pepper (who also reappears in The Man With The Golden Gun). It brought a smile to my face to see that “Quarrel Jr.” is introduced in this film (apparently he is the son of Quarrel from Dr. No), and the scenes with Felix Leiter and the CIA are nice but they are more or less frivolous background characters –contributing to the theory that James Bond is a subtle critique of the American method of espionage. At best, Live and Let Die is an entertaining movie and in the end, what more can you really ask for with a James Bond picture? At least, the Paul McCartney & Wings theme song is terrific and memorable! The notable Bond composer John Barry was forced to sit this one out for tax reasons so legendary Beatles producer George Martin completed the score for Live and Let Die.
Read my review of Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die here. Generally speaking, I prefer the novel to the film but neither are particularly stand-out achievements for the James Bond series.
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The risk of racism for films where black actors play the villains can be understandable. But I think that audiences, certainly fans of a popular franchise like James Bond, should be treated like they’re intelligent enough to look passed a villain’s skin color. We’ve become mature enough in the recent decades thanks to seeing villains like Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint) for Cube and Lance (Don Gilet) for Doctor Who: The Runaway Bride for their villainous characters and clearly not for their colors. And so Yaphet Kotto, Julius Harris and Geoffrey Holder should be accepted for their individualized talents as the villains for this one and they are indeed superb. Thanks for your review.
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