For today’s second review of Live and Let Die (1973), Here’s a review by Niall of Raging Fluff.
Many people rate Live and Let Die as one of the better entries in the James Bond series, and while it has many flaws, it is still an enjoyable adventure. The above-average screenplay is by Tom Mankiewicz (son of Herman, nephew of Joe.) The director is Guy Hamilton (who made one of the best Bonds, Goldfinger, and one of the worst, Diamonds Are Forever.) The jaunty score is by George Martin and the title song is by Wings.
Roger Moore was always Ian Fleming’s first choice to play Bond. The author was not fond of Sean Connery at all. Moore’s particular blend of debonair charm, smooth good looks and lightly comic touch was far more in keeping with the character that Fleming created than the slightly coarser man’s man quality that Connery brought to the part. Moore lost out to Connery because he was already playing a smooth-talking ladies’ man: he was contracted to play The Saint on television (Simon Templar is in many ways a forebear of Bond.) He would have to wait almost a decade to become 007, after both Connery and George Lazenby had turned in the keys to the Aston Martin. It’s too easy to dismiss Moore as a lightweight talent and to criticize him for making Bond something of a joke; while his range was limited, he brought a breeziness and natural charm to the part, and he knew well enough not to take it seriously, and no other Bond has ever matched Moore’s cheeky delivery of double-entendres (although Pierce Brosnan comes close.)
Whenever there is a new incarnation of Bond there is a change in how the franchise presents itself, and Live and Let Die is no exception, being quite unlike the films that preceded it, and setting the tone for the ones to follow. It has many of the familiar elements: beautiful girls, car chases, some dreadful puns, an outlandish henchman with a hook for a hand. But in many ways it is the most un-Bondlike Bond film, with refreshingly few gadgets and a villain who hides out in Harlem instead of under a volcano. Bond doesn’t get to drive his Aston Martin or wear a dinner jacket or order a martini, and Moore smokes huge phallic cigars instead of cigarettes.
I am not the first to point out the obvious about Live and Let Die: it’s a Blaxploitation film that just happens to have James Bond in it. The agent’s foray into Harlem is filled with practically every stereotype from the subgenre, with soul brothers who call him “Honky” and the like, and it produces some of the most hilarious, racially-tinged dialogue that you’ll ever hear in a Bond film. If Quentin Tarantino ever directs a Bond film (he has said he’d like to), he’ll probably do a remake of Live and Let Die.
While Moneypenny and M make their obligatory appearance, Q is absent (hence the lack of gadgets.) The mission brief happens in Bond’s bachelor flat instead of behind the door with the green leather. Bond’s flat has some appalling decor, by the way, but then again it was the 1970s (were audiences dazzled by his digital watch and snazzy kitchen appliances?) And the less said about some of the clothes that Bond wears in this one, the better: nobody ever looks cool in a powder blue leisure suit. Is it because MGM was unsure if audiences were willing to see yet another Bond film that Live and Let Die seems so … well, cheap? Or is it a reflection of the hard economic times that the film heralds? Previous films had seen the secret agent cavorting in a very 1960s jet-setter way, heading to exotic locations in Europe, the Carribean and Japan. Live and Let Die takes place mostly in Harlem, New Orleans, and the Louisiana bayou, with a detour to the fictional island of San Monique (played by Jamaica.)
But what really sets it apart from other Bond films is the villain. Kananga doesn’t have a plan to steal bullion from Fort Knox, nor does he have missiles hidden under a volcano (although he does have an underground lair filled with sharks.) He isn’t trying to get the world’s superpowers to start a war, nor is he going to hold them to ransom with a fearsome weapon.
He’s a heroin dealer. He wants to flood the market by freely giving away two tons of heroin and driving the Mafia out of business, “leaving myself and the Phone Company the only two going monopolies in this nation for years to come.”
Yaphet Kotto has a great time playing the role; like all the best Bond villains, he leaves the dirty work to others while he calmly rules his underworld empire. With his somewhat burly frame and distinctive, lisping, almost delicate voice, Kotto always had a refined air to his playing that still contained a dangerous element: in some ways he is the poor man’s Sidney Poitier, and when he disguises himself as Mr. Big the Harlem gangster, you can sense how ridiculous Kananga feels having to play this caricature, but also how he has decided he may as well make the best of it and have as much fun as possible.
Then again, being an exploitation film, it is filled with caricatures. There are jive-talking hoods, rednecks, good old boys, inept cops, voodoo priests, superstitious natives straight out of an old Tarzan movie, and Jane Seymour in her debut as the Tarot reading Solitaire, wearing plunging neckline dresses and delivering her lines as if she’s under a voodoo spell.
On the other hand, it has a thrilling boat chase, Bond hang-gliding, a fairly silly moment at an airfield, and perhaps best of all, the very tall, sublime Geoffrey Holder (who recently died) playing a role in all the silly voodoo stuff, and bellowing that unique hearty laugh of his.
And it has easily one of the greatest Bond theme-songs ever.