1973’s Live and Let Die is a reminder that the course of any serialized entertainment — comics, TV, film series — is often dictated by outside events and backstage struggles more than any big, overarching plan.
If George Lazenby had taken off in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the series wouldn’t have needed Roger Moore to replace Sean Connery. If Connery had walked away in 1967, after You Only Live Twice, we wouldn’t have Moore. However Connery struck a deal to make Diamonds Are Forever (1971) in return for Universal greenlighting The Offense (1973) and one other movie (never made, alas).
Thus we would up with Roger Moore as the new James Bond. When I saw Live and Let Die in the theater first-run, I was fine with the transition. Rewatching it for my Bond book a few years ago, I found many flaws I hadn’t recognized on first viewing. Still, comparing it to Dr. No does show how the decade changed the Bond series.
Not completely: the movie includes most of the elements that had become standard with Goldfinger:
- The Bond Girl. Jane Seymour as the clairvoyant Solitaire, whose allegiance switches from the villain to 007.
- The Bond villain. Te talented Yaphet Kotto plays Caribbean dictator Kananga, who’s secretly Harlem crimelord Mr. Big.
- The creepy henchmen, The talented Geoffrey Holder as Baron Samedi, Julius Harris as the hook-handed Tee-Hee.
- Colorful locations, primarily Harlem, New Orleans and the Caribbean.
- The opening credits, with a name act — Paul McCartney and Wings — delivering the theme song.
- Deathtraps and escapes from deathtraps.
- Gadgets. The big one is a super-magnet disguised as a watch, though atypically Q doesn’t give it to Bond. MI5’s tech whiz doesn’t appear in the film and Bond has the watch in his possession from the start.
The plot is a solid Bond plot too. M assigns 007 to investigate Kananga after the dictator eliminates several other agents with the same mission. It turns out he’s turned his island into an opium poppy plantation and now plans to dump two tons of free heroin into the U.S. market using his other identity as Mr. Big. He’ll create thousands of new addicts, shut down rival drug cartels by undercutting their prices and wind up with a monopoly. The scope of his ambition makes his drug-dealing worthy of Bond, unlike Robert Davi’s mundane drug dealer in Dalton’s License to Kill.
In other ways, the film is light years away from the grim, hard-edged tone of Dr. No. The series had developed an increasing comical streak as it went along and here it’s on full display. In the opening scene, Bond has to smuggle an Italian agent he’s sleeping with out of his apartment before M spots her; the early Bond films would never have indulged in such slapstickl
Where the early films inspired dozens of imitations and knockoffs — even Fred Flintstone got in on the spy game — Live and Let Die was following trends, not making them. It drew inspiration from the war on drugs and from the blacksploitation movies of the 1970s, with a much larger and more memorable black cast than we’d seen in the Connery films (not well used, though, as discussed below).
Moore is a much less physical Bond than Connery was. While he survives plenty of peril he doesn’t have a major mano-a-mano fight until his showdown with Tee-Hee at the finish. When Bond dispatches Baron Samedi he uses a gun rather than his fists; when it turns out 007 shot a mannikin, Bond shoves the real baron into a crate of snakes (Samedi, however, crops up at the end in circumstances that suggest he is indeed supernatural).
Then there’s the car chase. After Steve McQueen’s Bullitt showed what could be done on-screen to make a car chase exciting, lots of 1970s movies indulged in them. Here Bond is constantly in motion: car chase, bus-and-car chase, boat chase, lacking much excitement but full of gratuitous property damage. One chase draws the attention of Sheriff Pepper (Clifton James), a buffoon of a redneck lawman. Redneck sheriffs had become a stock figure in a lot of 1970s films — Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Justice in Smokey and the Bandit (1977) is the best remembered — but Pepper’s just annoying, and out of place in a Bond film (though he returned in Man With the Golden Gun anyway).
The film also stats the trend of recycling elements from earlier Bond movies. Tee-Hee’s final showdown with Bond on a train is obviously imitating the memorable battle with Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia With Love. While all the changes obviously worked to keep the series profitable, they didn’t satisfy me on rewatching. They aren’t, however, the main reasons the movie has not aged well.
The first reason is Solitaire. Jane Seymour remains one of the best actors to play a Bond girl but her character is completely passive. She spends most of the movie doing whatever she’s told or following whichever man — Kananga or Bond — she’s attached to. Unlike Pussy Galore or Tiffany Case, Bond doesn’t seduce Solitaire by being Bond but by tricking her with tarot cards to make her think it’s destiny. She’s also the only virgin Bond Girl to avoid having Kananga having been her lover — black man/white woman was still a touchy topic in that era.
That leads us to the biggest problem, race. Blacksploitation movies had white fans (I’m one of them) but their primary target was an urban black audience. They had black villains (white too) but black heroes and regular-Joe black characters in the supporting cast. While Live and Let Die could appropriate some of the tropes, it’s a Bond film made for predominantly white audiences. Bond gets the hero space, the black cast get the villain roles.
Regular black bystanders? Not in this film. Outside of a black CIA agent who pays with his life for helping Bond, every black character Bond deals with in New Orleans or Harlem works for Mr. Big. It has the same feel as anti-Japanese films such as Little Tokyo USA (1942), which presents the eponymous neighborhood as occupied territory, a foothold for America’s enemies.
There’s also the heavy use of voodoo, Kananga’s tool for keeping his people in cowed submission. This plays into lots of tropes about how superstitious black people are; the scene of Solitaire being dragged to an altar by blacks for a human sacrifice (which is not a thing in voodoo) taps into uglier ones. Whites have rationalized decades of violence against blacks by the spectre of virginal white women threatened by dark-skinned evildoers. It’s true Fleming’s original novel included both voodoo and racism but Diamonds Are Forever is not a faithful adaptation. A little less faithfulness would have been a plus.
Next up, Timothy Dalton’s debut, though I don’t know when I’ll get to it.