Roger Moore makes his debut as the debonair James Bond 007 in this blaxploitation medley, but does it stand the test of time?
Before we begin this review, I have to get something off my chest. I used to HATE Roger Moore’s Bond.
Now we have six iterations of the venerable superspy to choose from, it’s all too easy to bemoan Sir Roger’s tenure as silly, fluffy and as far away from the Ian Fleming depiction as you can get. And yet, after re-watching every entry in the world’s longest-running film franchise, I’ve grown to appreciate both the former Saint and his 007 canon. In much the same way I’ve warmed to Adam West’s Batman for his indisputable part in keeping the character alive, my seasoned eyes have grown appreciative of Moore’s wily British gentleman who shies away from the more disagreeable Bond traits of roughing up women (mostly) and drowning in Martinis. Why shouldn’t there be a “cuddlier” James in a saga as ludicrous as this?
It was therefore a revelation when I revisited Moore’s first stint in the role, 1973’s Live and Let Die. In retrospect, this was a make it or break it film for Eon Productions. Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli had already lost their iconic leading man, Sean Connery, only to lose him again after his dreadful one-off comeback in Diamonds Are Forever (1971). The pressure was on to make his successor a winner, and to ensure that they kept their man, having been burned by George Lazenby’s inexplicable decision to retire from the role after his sole appearance in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). As directed by Goldfinger‘s Guy Hamilton (who also, strangely, made the aforementioned Diamonds and the really rather poor The Man with the Golden Gun), Moore’s debut had to fire on all cylinders, and it surely did, ranking fairly high in many a retrospective fan poll. I’m also pleased to say it has become one of my all-time favourites.
Based on Fleming’s second novel, Die has plenty of ties to the original source, taking its villain “Mr. Big” aka Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), and turning him into a heroin smuggler instead of an acquirer of pirate treasure. It also has a distinctly supernatural bent like the book, sending Bond on voodoo-infused trips to Harlem, New Orleans and the Caribbean. Along the way, he investigates the deaths of other government agents, charms Tarot reader Solitaire (Jane Seymour, in her screen debut), and looks mighty cool smoking a cigar whilst flying a glider. I also can’t get enough of that holster and polo-neck ensemble near the end there. Stylish, Mr. Bond.
Given a need to keep the series at its strongest and appease fans of the early adventures, Live and Let Die is all the more surprising due to its need to separate itself from everything that came before it. From a pre-title sequence that doesn’t feature our hero to an opening proper set in the rarely-seen confines of Bond’s home, Hamilton and the writers were clearly having a ball trying to keep the formula fresh. It also marks the first instance where the filmmakers would take direct influence from the cinema of the period, making this a legit “blaxploitation” flick in line with the likes of Shaft or Coffy (similarly, the following film would draw on the kung fu craze brought on by Enter the Dragon). This newfound ethnic diversity is also married to a fantastical plot that flirts with the surreal, making this one of the most distinctive instalments out of the twenty-four. And yet Hamilton never forgets this is a 007 joint, bringing in the requisite bevvy of gadgets, action, quips, and beautiful dames.
That mysterious opening was enough to suck me in; if only more films in the series were this efficient with setting up the story. There’s also no doubting that the title track which accompanies Maurice Binder’s montage is one of the greatest Bond tunes, with Paul and Linda McCartney’s Wings providing a crash of sweet guitar, drums and even a crazy reggae bridge. (And while we’re on the subject of music, Beatles’ production man George Martin provides one of the better scores of this particular decade, and is certainly leagues and bounds better than the likes of Bill Conti or Eric Serra.)
There’s also some great set-pieces and it must be said that Live and Let Die‘s pacing is exquisite for such an ageing movie. You’ll get everything from Bond commandeering an out-of-control taxi to jumping over crocodiles and driving a speedboat through the Louisianan waters in a cracking chase. Hamilton keeps things varied and exiting, constantly moving the plot along with clever reversals, sly humour and eye-popping photography.
I also think this has one of the stronger casts of the series. Kotto really delights in a role that is full of surprises and his sparring with the star provides some of the best hero-villain banter in Moore’s run. I also love his villainous plot to give away vast quantities of heroin for free to hook more buyers and put his competitors out of business (really, how often do Bond villains have motives that relateable?). Seymour is also a delight as Solitaire, being one of the more memorable Bond women for her generous looks as well as her unique characteristics. Does she really have the capacity to see into the future? It’s one of the many questions we have to answer for ourselves, and I like that about this one.
While I’ve been pretty positive so far, there’s no doubting that it has some big flaws, too. As the first African-American female for Bond to lure in, Gloria Hendry is a sorry bust as supposed CIA agent Rosie Carver. The actress gives it her all given the material, but the character is a pitiful joke who spends most of her time screaming or pointing weapons at innocent people. She’s also an obvious double-crosser, making the only heroic person of colour in the film Lon Satton as government man Strutter (like all Bond allies before him, it isn’t long before he’s bumped off). Due to this and the backdrop of the movie, some have called the film xenophobic or even downright racist, although I’ve never gotten the impression anyone on the production was anything but excited to employ these actors, and if the controversy is to be believed, it certainly isn’t as lamentable as Fleming’s outdated novel. It’s unfortunate, then, that we get a stereotypical Southern Sheriff in the grating J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), a comic relief racist who gives the critics an easy target (though, since it’s clear to anyone with eyeballs that he’s an idiot not to be identified with, I won’t add fuel to the fire). The fact he would show up again, inexplicably, in The Man with the Golden Gun is much more sinful.
So, what of Sir Moore? Against all odds, I have come to the conclusion that his first outing may be his very best performance. Though he was cast at the astonishing age of forty-five, he looks considerably more youthful and fitter than Connery despite being a year older. This is well before his haggard later turns where he looked every one of his years (indeed, it’s equally astonishing that he finally relinquished the role aged fifty-eight). And while the man himself will tell you that he’s not a very good actor, he more than survives on charm, eventually winning you over if you stick with him long enough. In retrospect, Moore really goes for it with his debut, and while you could argue that he wasn’t fully at ease till The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), his verve and swagger in the initial outing screams that he was taking the role seriously. Against all odds, revisiting this film awakened me to the realisation that he really is a worthy Bond.
It’s hard to tell how Live and Let Die will play for someone not well-versed in 007 lore, but to me, this is one of the best of the best, actually getting more entertaining with each viewing. At the very least, you should have a smile on your face from beginning to end, and isn’t that better than the likes of Spectre? Long live Sir Moore.
- Sean Connery turned down the then astronomical sum of $5.5 million to play James Bond. Connery gave Roger Moore his personal seal of approval for inheriting his role, calling him “an ideal Bond.”
- The producers offered Clint Eastwood the role of James Bond, fresh from his success with Dirty Harry (1971). He was flattered, but declined, saying that Bond should be played by an English actor. Notably, Bond uses a Smith and Wesson 44 Magnum in this film, the gun made hugely popular by the Dirty Harry movies.
- Ross Kananga (credited as “stunt coordinator”) was the owner of the crocodile farm in which Bond escapes some hungry reptiles. Kananga did this stunt by himself wearing Moore’s clothes and shoes made of crocodile skin. The crocodile shoes was a fun idea of Moore. It took five attempts to complete the stunt. During the fourth attempt, one of the crocodiles snapped at one of the shoes as it went by. The producers (while scouting locations) first took notice of Kananga’s farm from the sign out front which read: “WARNING; TRESPASSERS WILL BE EATEN.” This sign can be seen in the finished film. They liked Kananga so much that Dr. Kananga was named after him.
- According to Paul McCartney, after the director heard the title song, complete with orchestra and all, he said, “Yeah, that’s good for a demo but when are you going to do the real record?!”