When one hears the title Live and Let Die, the first thought that probably enters their head is the kick-ass Paul McCartney and the Wings song which headlines the film. Perhaps the only case where a Bond song has become more well-known than its accompanying film (although arguments can be made for Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” or Licence to Kill‘s “If You Asked Me To”), the tune’s dark intimations and fiery instrumentals mark a change of pace not only for Bond music but the direction of the series as well.
Following Sean Connery‘s lone reappearance in Diamonds Are Forever, the Bond producers were once again faced with the daunting task of replacing their infamous lead. Having already suffered a misstep just four years prior with the ill-received George Lazenby (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and with little hope of coaxing yet another Connery return to course correct, the future of the series largely rested on this major casting decision. The result was Roger Moore – the impressive linchpin that allowed the franchise to continue prospering. Roger Moore’s success proved that James Bond was more resolute than any single actor’s interpretation.
Live and Let Die (1973)
Live and Let Die finds James Bond (Moore) investigating the mysterious deaths of three MI6 agents who were all killed in a single 24-hour period in separate North American locations – New York City, New Orleans, and the Caribbean. Partnering with American agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison) who has been monitoring the mysterious comings-and-goings of suspected drug mule Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto) and his international all-black operation, Bond quickly finds himself conspicuous and in-over-his head pursuing “white pimp-mobiles” in the ravaged backstreets of Harlem, getting nearly fed to crocodiles in Louisiana, and coming face-to-face with the undead during a voodoo sacrifice.
In hindsight, Live and Let Die is easily one of the most dated, arguably controversial 007 films. What many miss when discussing the film is its influence from the blaxploitation trend popular at the time with releases like Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972), and Coffy (1973). Taking the Ian Fleming source novel into consideration, this direction was quite logical at the time despite many elements present that may strike a contemporary viewer as questionable from the slang, social commentary, and overall depiction of black people in the film (it doesn’t help that a majority of them are villains). With this in mind, Live and Let Die is very much a film of its era, stocked with 70’s lore and musical annotations.
As the James Bond films continued to evolve, there was a significant reevaluation of how to keep the franchise in line with the changing motion picture landscape. As such, there were many instances where the series parroted popular trends – an effect that’s still very much present. Examples would include: The Man with the Golden Gun and the rise of kung fu cinema; Moonraker and the Star Wars effect; Licence to Kill and the Miami Vice-esque war on drugs; Casino Royale and the upsurge of cinematic prequels; and Quantum of Solace and the shaky cam insanity of the Bourne franchise. Live and Let Die was hardly the first Bond film to bend to current public appetites but it was the primary picture where such influences became very prolific.
This approach was a gamble to solidify the series beyond Connery’s shadow. With a marketable trend, a popular new star in tow, and a title song from a former Beatle (despite, oddly enough, Bond himself not being a fan of the Fab Four as stated in Goldfinger), Live and Let Die had quite a bit going for it. On first glance, it’s a beautiful looking film with a striking use of color, particularly red. Director Guy Hamilton, returning for his third 007 effort, brings back a unique sense of style to the series reminiscent of his work in Goldfinger.
Perhaps the lower key approach to the story was more suited to Hamilton’s style rather than the overblown camp of his previous turn in Diamonds Are Forever. At its core, Live and Let Die is far more subdued when compared to the global fiascoes of killer space lasers (Diamonds) and hollowed-out volcano peril (You Only Live Twice); rather, it’s a fast paced thriller (save for one overlong boat chase) with a greater focus on cloak and dagger machinations that range from hidden passageways through graveyards and revolving doors to masked identities and creepy riddles…
In fact, if there was James Bond film that serves as a prototype for Live and Let Die, it’s the series inaugural effort – Dr. No. Both have very much in common such as:
- The instigating actions that drives both plots are the mysterious deaths of British agents by order of a shadowy villain.
- A Caribbean setting with mystical undercurrents, local legends, and forbidden fortresses.
- Bond getting attacked in his hotel room by a deadly animal (a spider in Dr. No and a snake in Live and Let Die).
- The appearance of Quarrel. This lead to a slight challenge as the character was featured in both Fleming books which were adapted out of succession. Since the Live and Let Die novel predates Dr. No where the character met his demise, the film overcomes this by featuring his heretofore unmentioned son, Quarrel Jr. (Roy Stewart).
- Bond is assisted in both by American agent Felix Leiter who remains cozy on a boat as Bond takes off for his climactic confrontation.
- Both villains have a hidden lair with color-coordinated henchman and an aquatic theme (although Live and Let Die‘s villain has an underground monorail which itself is always a win).
Of course, as the biggest equivalence is that both films serve as the debut vehicles for Connery and Moore, it makes sense that the series would more or less go back to basics in hopes of establishing a new Bond actor as endearing as Connery. Interestingly, in congruence with the change of actors, the issue of identity makes up the main theme of the film – specifically, the illusion of identity and the duplicity of expectation.
Every character in the film reflects this idea which is most evident with the dual identity of Kananga who poses as the stereotypical, slang-ridden archetype of a black villain – Mr. Big – whilst truly being a sophisticated, debonair figure in reality (a twist that appealed to Kotto at the time for being a step forward concerning representation of black people on film). More examples include Solitaire confronting the loss of her perceived psychic powers, a showman and secret voodoo cult leader posing as the enigmatic Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder), and Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry), a duplicitous double agent. Moreover, the film playfully indulges with this concept by additionally misdirecting expectation such as a fake, murderous funeral march, a public kidnapping via rotating bar table, and the very nature of its title – a play on the phrase “live and let live.”
Amidst the film’s darker, supernatural overtones, it may come as a surprise to a casual fan that this was the debut vehicle for Roger Moore – the Bond actor most often identified as the eyebrow-raising campy iteration of the character compared to the brutish fists of Daniel Craig or the panther-like screen presence of Sean Connery. With this criticism in mind, it may surprise some first-time viewers to find Moore blowing a villain’s head off with a Smith & Wesson Magnum, dousing another in the face with gasoline before blowing him up, or being an outright ruthless bastard to the secondary Bond girl beyond any of Connery’s indiscretions.
While You Only Live Twice and especially Diamonds Are Forever serve as the first true instances of the over-the-top brand of silliness most associated with Moore, it is a bit of disservice to the actor to solely classify him as the childish Bond. True, there undoubtedly is an overt element of tongue-in-cheek vigor to his interpretation, but much was due to Moore wisely opting to distance himself from Connery – even so far as replacing Bond’s preference for cigarettes and martinis with cigars and bourbon (in fact, he himself never ordered a martini “shaken not stirred”).
With that said, Moore’s strongest contributions to the series was indeed a sense of lighthearted English sophistication. As he grew more settled into the role, his style would become the ideal perception of Bond as a gentleman spy. It’s mind blowing to realize that Moore, at 45, would be welcomed as a youthful replacement for Connery considering that he was actually three years senior! He was not only a competent fit to the character, he exuded, in Bond’s own words, “sheer magnetism” tossing out ridiculous one-liners with a flare unequaled by his peers.
But a Bond film is only truly as strong as its villains and Live and Let Die has a lively assortment. Kananga, despite his ridiculous Mr. Big make-up, is a palpable threat. His interrogation of Bond, where he pits the comical robot-armed Tee Hee (Julius Harris) to slice off 007’s fingers at each ill-favored answer, is relatively tense in spite of its predictable outcome.
Unfortunately, the biggest impediment to Kananga joining the ranks of the great Bond villains is his lamentable, balloon-inflating demise – a visual joke that not even Moore could walk away from. Geoffrey Holder as the colorful Baron Samedi, on the other hand, is an absolute hoot with one the greatest laughs in cinema.
Jane Seymour as the tarot card-reading Solitaire is simply tasty and her various outfits display some of the best costume designs in the series – so much so that even Bond tries on her elaborate headdress inaugurating a running gag of Moore in ridiculous getups throughout his tenure.
Felix Leiter makes his last regular official appearance in the series until Timothy Dalton’s films. David Hedison (who would also reprise the role in Dalton’s Licence to Kill) plays him as the frustrated friend – a true ally in the vein of his appearances in Dr. No and Goldfinger. Though he’s barely in the film, his character has a more significant role in the story and even gets a moment to shine as a “genuine Felix Lighter” – a radio transmitting car cigarette lighter, that is.
Whether by car, plane, boat, or even bus, Live and Let Die features many exciting variations on vehicular chases, easily upping the ante from its predecessors. Most are short, punchy, and effective such as a double-decker bus chase which results in an astonishing 180° turn. A few, such as a grounded plane chase, are silly and rely on the Diamonds Are Forever-style of stupidity where the villains dispatch themselves off as 007 chugs along effortlessly.
The two most celebrated showcases in the film are of conflicting quality. The first, an escape from a crocodile-laden island, is capped off by one of the greatest onscreen film stunts in cinema history as 007 runs along the backs of a row of live crocodiles. To call it impressive would be an understatement. The stuntman, Ross Kananga, was himself the owner of the crocodile farm used for location and offered to film the stunt a total of five times (one attempt, seen on the home video release, nearly cost him a leg)! In honor of his efforts, the film’s villain was named after him.
The second is an elaborate boat chase through the Louisiana bayou which features some of the most spectacular boat jumps and stunts of the time. It’s a fun sequence but is bogged down by two factors: 1.) its overlong, mostly scoreless pace and, 2.) the majority of the sequence focuses more on a racist, redneck cop than it does on James Bond! For a full stretch of run-time, Live and Let Die‘s narrative is preempted by one J.W. Pepper (played by the late Clifton James) and his epitaph-spewing rhetoric. A more exaggerated version of a similar sheriff from Diamonds (who also makes a short appearance here), J.W. Pepper, while genuinely funny at times, overstays his welcome and is generally at odds with the film’s overall tone. Whether you like him or not is completely up to taste although, to be fair, he is far more at home in this film than his follow-up reappearance in The Man with the Golden Gun. Regardless, the sequence ends on a high note once the focus reverts back to Bond and McCartney’s fiery instrumental lights up.
Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die
Live and Let Die, the second entry in the spy series following Casino Royale, is easily Fleming’s most controversial novel. Published in 1954, the book is very much a product of its time (similar to the film). Though certain attitudes, aspects, and chapter titles (such as the grievous “Nigger Heaven”) are very much dated, the overall story, imagination, and gripping momentum work to make it one of the strongest of Fleming’s books.
Similar to the adaptation of Diamonds Are Forever (though nowhere near as outrageous), Live and Let Die‘s first half shows more congruence with the novel than its latter half. With a focus on a pirate gold smuggling operation rather than opium, Bond and Leiter team up to take on Mr. Big and his fortune telling virginal mistress, Solitaire. Failing in Harlem, Bond and Leiter pursue him to Florida (rather than New Orleans) and, later, the Caribbean.
It is upon their arrival in Florida that the book and film take separate paths as Leiter is captured and mutilated by sharks – a sequence that was lifted whole for Licence to Kill which, oddly, also featured David Hedison’s Leiter. Stranger still, in the film version it is Bond that is fed to sharks with Leiter warning him of the dangers beforehand! The book’s climax, which has Mr. Big keelhaul a naked Solitaire and Bond through sharp coral, was incorporated in For Your Eyes Only. Additionally, the idea of Bond suffering throughout the story with a debilitating injury (a broken finger caused by Tee Hee) was also applied in The World is Not Enough.
Bond-less Teasers and Flaming Skulls
Live and Let Die is the only film the series where Bond (or a variation of Bond) does not make an appearance in the pre-credits scene. Besides a fleeting glimpse of the villain and Bond girl, the sequence is pure set up as we witness the three agents’ deaths – one at the United Nations, one after witnessing a funeral march that was a guise for his own murder, and one in a voodoo ceremony that featured a bogus looking real snake. Perhaps the most forgettable teaser in the series, it nevertheless instills a sense of mystery and effectively foreshadows events later in the film.
I cannot express my admiration enough for Paul McCartney’s title tune and accompanying credits sequence. Arguably the best song in the pantheon of Bond titles, “Live and Let Die” was the most hardcore entry to date with a blazing instrumental (which is used sparingly though no less effectively later in the movie). The heated tribal imagery and flaming skulls in the credits are mesmerizing and conducive to the darker tone of the picture.
The only misstep is a dancing silhouette with a fiber optic backdrop which is a bit underwhelming and at odds with the rest of the sequence.
Nevertheless, it’s a thrilling introduction to the film and a strong start to the experimental Moore era.
Overall, Live and Let Die is a solid introduction to Roger Moore’s Bond. Though there are significant flaws which blemish its impact (I’m looking at you J.W. Pepper), it’s a rapid fire ride with absorbing atmosphere, eerie mystery, and innovative action. Its success momentarily stabilized a continued 007 film stream but there were more immediate challenges ahead.
How did Kananga arrange an elaborate multi-dozen person procession to kill just one guy? Even if he had this many on payroll, the set-up, timing, costumes, and execution would be a logistical nightmare!
Live and Let Die is the only film in the series to date that suggests the supernatural. Those that doubt the veracity of Solitaire’s power should look no further than her deck of tarot cards which are fashioned with the 007 insignia!
After Bond takes Solitaire’s virginity (her very name serving as classic Fleming innuendo), he instructs her with a series of “lover’s lessons” – lessons that progressively become more and more ludicrous. Case in point – “lover’s lesson #4: follow the scarecrows.” Hopefully no one takes these at face value. There may be a cornfield somewhere full of disappointing horny people. It makes me wonder what lover’s lesson #5 would have been. To deter a nuclear bomb, dress like a clown?
After Bond is captured and taken to a crocodile farm, the villainous entourage passes by a warning sign stating “trespassers will be eaten.” Not even Jurassic Park was this honest! Funny enough, this sign wasn’t concocted by the screenwriters; instead, it was the aforementioned Ross Kananga’s legitimate warning posted outside his crocodile farm!
Live and Let Die was the only Bond film in the 20th Century not to host an appearance of Q (many forget that the character was played by a different actor in Dr. No). Once again, due to an effort to stave off formula, Bond never travels to MI6 headquarters and only mentions Q-branch to M (Bernard Lee) to show off his magnetic watch. On second thought, why is M, the head of British intelligence, visiting Bond’s house in the middle of the night to give him his orders? You would think that someone of that stature would compel his agent to report to him!
James Bond will Return
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
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