Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

The blackest Bond: Live and Let Die

1973’s Live and Let Die is a reminder that the course of any serialized entertainment β€” comics, TV, film series β€” 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 β€” Paul McCartney and Wings β€” 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 β€” even Fred Flintstone got in on the spy game β€” 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 β€” Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Justice in Smokey and the Bandit (1977) is the best remembered β€” 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 β€” Kananga or Bond β€” 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 β€” 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.
#SFWApro.

10 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    You are a bit mixed up on your henchmen actors there; Julius Harris played Tee-Hee. Ji-Tu Cumbuka played a character with a similar mechanical hand, called Torque, in the tv series A Man Called Sloane, with Robert Conrad. he plays a villain in the pilot film, but an ally in the series. Harris had appeared in such Blaxploitation films as Shaft;’s Big Score, Superfly, and Black Caesar, as well as things like the Bill Cosby & Sidney Poitier film Let’s Do It Again, 1976’s King Kong and Darkman.

    JW Pepper is pretty much the redneck sheriff stereotype that was a staple of the era, with things like Burt Reynold’s White Lightning, well before Smokey & the Bandit. It was kind of a carryover of the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement, before it became more comical. Pepper is kind of where you see the more comical type emerging.

    I have always enjoyed most of Moore’s films (more early than later); but, I always felt like he was The Saint, masquerading as Bond, after the real Bond has been bumped off. The Saint suited him better and the gags in this kind of show why. Diamonds led them in this direction; but, they amped up[ the comedy because of Moore’s casting.

    This film did set a record for the longest boat jump and they had been moving in this direction, since Diamonds. YOLT and OHMSS had big stunt scenes; but, they were more in service to the story, whereas Diamonds onward seemed to build whole scenes around stunt ideas that were concocted before the script. By Brosnan’s time it had become ridiculous and his films ended up with such a distracting level of product placement and pointless stunt scenes that whatever plot there was got lost in the shuffle.

    The novel is one of the better-written in the series, but also extremely racist. Mr Big is a crime boss, but backed by SMERSH, to destabilize America, via drugs. It features Felix Leiter being fed to sharks, which got put into the film License to Kill. Other than the Mr Big name, almost nothing from the book appeared in the film, which was pretty much the standard, going forward, with the exception of For Your Eyes Only.

    If you have ever seen the behind-the-scenes footage, Ross Kananga doing the stunt of jumping across the backs of alligators is terrifying to watch as one almost chomps his leg. I always had a phobia about snakes, and other reptiles, to a certain extent, particularly alligators and crocodiles. Too many years of watching alligators creeping up on people in things like Gentle Ben, or crocodiles, in Tarzan. The whole alligator farm just creeped me out, as a kid, when I first saw the film on ABC TV.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    ps There was a Saint two-part episode, called The Fiction Makers, which was a spoof of the Bond films and novels. In it, Simon Templar is brought in to protect spy novelist Amos Kline, who has been targeted by a group. Kline turns out to be a woman and the people after her are a group of fans who want “him” to plan a daring robbery, as they have modeled themselves after the villain group, in the books. Simon masquerades as Kline, while the real writer acts as a secretary, until they are exposed and Simon has to plan the robbery of an underground super-vault, built in a derelict coal mine. The episodes were edited into a feature film version. I have always believed that it helped sell the idea of Moore, as Bond, as much as any other episode of The Saint.

  3. HAL 2000

    JW Pepper: You some kinda doomsdayyy machiiine boyyyy?

    James Bond: My name is Bond –

    Mr Big (Interrupting): Name’s is for tombstones, baby. Y’all take this honky out and waste him!

    Strutter: Great thinking, Bond. A white face in Harlem!

    Baron Samedi: AHAHAHAHA!

    Gee, I still like this silly movie. A thousand times more entertaining than, oh I dunno, Avengers Infinity War, “The” Batman, or some Sunder crap. The dialogue might not be Shakespeare or Paddy Chayefsky but at least it is memorable.
    Major debits: the treatment of Gloria, the White Virgin take on Solitaire. I’d have to have a heart of stone, no sense of humour, and a tendency to treat goofy things as entirely serious not to enjoy this movie after all these years. Even with its flaws Of course, Live and Let Die is a better Bond theme than any in the 2010s…or 2000s…or 1990s.
    Some of the makers didn’t want Roger to do too many of the things Connery had in these early pictures due to a “comparisons are invidious” anxiety, which was silly as invidious comparisons were made anyway, and have continued to be so ad infinitum ad nauseum. Oddly, others tried to have Moore take on some of the Connery Bond’s nastier elements. That’s why we get the scene in which Bond threatens to break poor Andrea’s arm in The Man with the Golden Gun. Yeuch. As with the entirely unnecessary despatching of Tilly Masterson (true to the novel but so what?), Countess Liesl, “Strawberry” Fields, and Berenice Marlowe’s character I could *really* do without that. On the other hand, Moore Bond’s smugly patronising promise to the terribly written Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), “Your time will come.”, still makes me laugh. It’s ludicrous, sexist, ludicrously sexist, and intentionally and it suits Moore’s semicomedic version perfectly. Although only bores and boors would miss that even the Connery Bond wasn’t to be taken entirely seriously (do such people miss those smirks of Connery Bond, are they literally blind?). Goofballs who want Bond to be entirely serious or who pick at everylittlebitofeverymovie as if to prove how enlightened they imagine themselves might be better off finding a way not to miss the point. There’s nothing wrong with declaring flaws but much of the time those who get most exercised about even what are clearly *jokes* or fantasies in Bond movies seem only to be practising the art of patting one’s self on the back while taking part in the Circle Jerk of Self-Righteousness and that is – in it’s own way – as bad and as stupid (though not for the most part as dangerous and scary) as the kind of fans who won’t question *anything* whilst seemingly pining for Jim Crow, the pre-Women’s Lib/pre-Roe Vs Wade era, and the HUAC. Even tho’ those things are from before many of them were even born. Hm, bit heavy but there y’go.
    The other thing I hate about Live and Let Die is that Strutter apparently gets offed too. Argh. The one totally benign non-white person in the movie and you kill him! Great thinking, Bond-makers. Fer shame, Tom Mankiewicz, fer shame. They were different times and they would never have thought of it as a problem, alas, but GAH. They wouldn’t have done that to a genuine Felix Leiter (spot the reference and win…nothing but a fist-bump).

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