When Diamonds Are Forever wrapped, Sean Connery put his foot down and said, never again. And we all know how that went. So the producers brought in Roger Moore, and he became the James Bond for an entire generation of folks. But the odds weren’t in Moore’s favor, because his first film was based on one of Fleming’s most controversial books. Was this film going to allow 007 to surive into the ‘70s or kill him on arrival?
Three British operatives are killed while investigating Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), the rich and powerful diplomat of a Caribbean island. M (Bernard Lee) assigns his best agent James Bond (Roger Moore) to the case. Bond finds himself in Harlem, New Orleans and finally the island of San Monique. The lovely Solitaire (Jane Seymour) seems to be the key to the investigation, but to get to her Bond must face the iron hook hand of Tee Hee (Julius Harris), the dreaded Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) and the mysterious Mr. Big. With help from Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry), Felix Leiter (David Hedison) and Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), Bond just might be able to Live and Let Die.
- Moore, Seymour and Kotto provide some solid performances
- The first half of the film is a gritty throwback to classic Bond
- The musical score by George Martin brings the ‘70s funk to the Bond sound
- The second half of the movie slogs to a halt
- The boat chase is one of the dullest action scenes in the entire series
- The humor comes across pretty forced
This is one of those movies I feel bad for not liking. There are so many elements in place that are good and nearly work. But time and again director Guy Hamilton diffuses the entire thing, but throwing in a comic moment at the wrong time or editing an action scene into a bore. If you do see this one, see it for some fun performances and a solid turn in the role by Moore.
Scores (out of 5)
In Depth Review
Let me get this out of the way, I like Roger Moore in the role of James Bond. I think he had a fun take on the character and could even give the part of bit of an edge when needed. Sometimes the scripts got a little too tongue in cheek and Roger had to play it pretty light. At those times, I roll my eyes but I’m usually along for the ride. But what is interesting about Live and Let Die is that we can actually see the franchise finding its feet.
First there was a new Bond to introduce, and lets be honest the last time this was attempted (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) the result was not to the producers liking. But Moore was more of a known quantity, being very familiar to audiences especially playing The Saint. Moore had plenty of acting experience and the decision was to let Moore tackle the role without trying to be Connery. We see it in his choice of drink (bourbon), his enjoyment of cigars, and in his more genial approach to the situations at hand. But we also see the darker side of Bond here (something that would pretty much vanish by the time The Spy Who Loved Me rolled around). When you watch the movie, you actually see a very accomplished performance as Bond, even if the movie around him doesn’t quite work.
Live and Let Die was always going to be a tricky adaptation. Nearly all the villains in the story are black, and there are some pretty unpleasant attitudes in it. What is interesting is that the movie is able to turn these into a strength. The villains lead by the debonair but deadly Dr. Kananga are some of the most competent and powerful Bond had faced yet. At nearly every turn Bond finds himself overwhelmed, outmatched and barely getting out of the situation by the skin of his teeth. When the movie is clicking, there’s a real sense of danger to the whole operation, and that’s because the bad guys are so good. Kotto plays his part with an intelligent malice. And his two henchmen, Tee Hee and Baron Semedi are very intimidating. The movie doesn’t make this into a white against black story – but a good versus evil story. And Kanaga is one nasty customer with a villainous plot that will turn half the U.S into heroin junkies.
How can I review this film without talking about Jane Seymour, looking absolutely beautiful in her costumes and practically glowing in each scene. She certainly is bewitching and we can see why Kananga and Bond are fighting over her. Sadly the part of Solitaire is underwritten, but Seymour does what she can with it. Yes, she’s basically the damsel in distress, but she never comes across as stupid or pointless (unlike the love interest in the next film The Man with the Golden Gun).
Since we’re talking about things I like about the film, let’s get into the music. I know it’s a bit of a heresy to say this, but I’ve never much cared for the Wings version of Live and Let Die. It was always just a little too cheesy for my tastes. But I do have to say that the tune itself is solid and I like that it rocks (as much as Wings can be said to rock) taking the feel of the film in direction away from the more brassy and very ‘60s stylings of the previous films. Bringing that oh so modern touch, in a ‘70s way, to the score is George Martin. He takes the Bond theme, the title song and turns them into funky guitar lead tracks. You’ve got your wakka-jo-wakka guitar material and it works great. Yes, it immediately dates the film, but if the clothes and cars didn’t already do that for you – then you must be blind. Bond films are great gauges of popular culture and music is part of that.
Speaking of popular culture, one of the interesting things that happened as the Bond franchise left the ‘60s is that instead of being on the cutting edge of pop culture, Bond was taking what was hot and fitting it into the Bond template. Live and Let Die is a perfect example of this. Blaxsplotaiton films had just erupted onto the scene the year before with films like Superfly. So maybe the decision to give Live and Let Die the green light was more calculated than I originally figured. Add to that the more edgy feel of the first half of the film. This may be one of the first times we actually see James Bond in a less then glamorous spot, in the slums of New York. It all feeds into an interesting theme in this film.
I can’t remember where I read this, but someone compared Live and Let Die with the myth of Orpheus. In a sense James Bond visits the underworld and battles with the forces of death. This is lateral and figurative. Death is all over this movie – from the title, to the embodiment of death in Baron Semedi. Solitaire’s ability to see the fate (and death) of others plays a key role. Bond literally is pulled underground in the Filet of Soul restaurant. Mr. Big is called a king of the criminal underworld. Then there’s the fact that Bond is very much the alien in this film. He nearly always looks out of place in surroundings and seems unable to get the upper hand. Even the last shot of the film features the embodiment of death impossibly sitting on the front of rocketing train and laughing at the audience – as if to say, there is no escape.
It’s an interesting conceit and one that almost makes the movie more interesting then it turns out to be… almost.
What really ticks me off is that the first hour of the movie is actually pretty good. It’s gritty, it’s dark, and it’s got an edge to it. Moore isn’t playing it too lightly, and the humor is a bit more organic to the situations. Sure there are a few cheesy moments. For example, the entire pre-credit sequence is just too silly and it doesn’t work as a neat mini-movie, something that previous and future Bond films excelled at.
When the film crosses into the second hour the wheels start to come off. Bond arrives in New Orleans and the pacing just stutters to a slow crawl. Most of the chases and escapes from this point on are filmed and edited poorly, draining all tension from them. And some of these should work. The crocodile farm scene just feels limp, and the great stunt work there is lost. But the real issue is the boat chase. This should be, and could have been one of the greats. But Hamilton just botches the whole thing. There are some great stunts here too, with some crazy jumps and explosions, but the whole thing just feels like it goes on way too long and has no tension in it. Compared to the amazing chase down the Thames in The World is Not Enough – well there is no comparison.
The final nail in the coffin is the abysmal character Sheriff J.W. Pepper, who is supposed to be HIGH-larous. Instead he’s so damn annoying that you are chanting for him to die. I get it, he’s supposed to be the honky southern police officer stereotype that blaxsploitaion flicks loved to smash. Clifton James plays the part to the hilt, with such over the top antics that I’m amazed any scenery was left standing. This hideous character injected into the languid pacing for the boat chase makes it one of the worst set pieces of the franchise.
As a whole, the humor really makes its appearance in the second half. There are some terrible one liners here and the whole chase on the airfield including an old lady learning to fly with James Bond is pretty cringe inducing.
The only thing worse is the amazingly stupid death for Dr. Kanaga. Death by inflation. Yes, he actually expands till he explodes. During my first viewing, I had to rewind the film to make sure I actually saw this. Was it supposed to be funny? Maybe ironic? I don’t know, but it is right up there with dressing James Bond up as a gorilla – but we’ll keep that for the review of Octopussy.