The James Bond film franchise was well established by the early 1970s, but there is a feeling that perhaps for the first time it was having a minor struggle adapting to a changing world. In the long run, there would be a number of successful transitions to new social eras, but with Diamonds are forever, Live and let die and The man with the golden gun, we have three Bond films blatantly pandering to the American market as a way of keeping the franchise alive in what was a relatively uncertain time for the series. This gives director Guy Hamilton’s trilogy a distinctly irreverent flavour of its own, but it is probably just as well the series regained much of its earlier confidence by the late ‘70s. The suspense, style and glamour associated with the ’60s Bonds had been diluted with a dose of clichéd car chases, comedy situations and lazy scripting. No three Bond films look so keen to embrace the styles and fashions of the time or to capture favour as eagerly as these three are. Of this trio, Live and let die is perhaps the most distinctive and overly successful. However, just because Live and let die is a memorable entry in the James Bond series doesn’t necessarily mean its one of the best. As a Bond film, I find Live and let die to be considerably over rated, although it’s certainly enjoyable enough.
Live and let die is a film of changes and has a most obvious one in the lead actor. Some of these changes are also changes in style that had also been seen in Diamonds are forever, which had showcased a more fatuous approach to the spy’s adventures. So although Live and let die continues the light hearted style begun in Diamonds are forever, it has a bigger weight of expectation due to Sean Connery’s (apparently) final departure from the role. Despite an offer of $5 million (a phenomenal amount in 1973), Connery had turned down the offer to appear in Live and let die. So Live and let die presents us with the third big screen Bond, but more of him in a moment. In other ways, the film also seems to be attempting a fresh start, despite the continuation of the trends set in Diamonds. This is reflected in the somewhat untypical storyline and style, but there’s also a lot missing from this one. There’s no formal office scene with “M” for a start; instead his boss calls around Bond’s flat early one morning in a humorous scene where Bond makes his superior coffee and Moneypenny saves Bond from a potential embarassment (Lois Maxwell, showing good rapport with Moore). Bernard Lee is as brilliant as ever, looking utterly bemused by Bond’s ridiculous coffee maker: “Is that all it does?” If there was ever an argument for Bond being a bit of a girl’s blouse, then you could start with a look at the man’s kitchen. I mean, it’s not very masculine is it?! Also, this Bond doesn’t order a martini (a hallmark of the Moore years), there’s no gadget briefing from “Q”, Bond doesn’t appear in the pre-title sequence at all and the music isn’t by John Barry. Stepping in for the music is former Beatles producer George Martin, who does a reasonably decent job, and Paul McCartney and Wings supply the fantastic title song. In fact, it’s one of the film’s highlights.
Live and let die and The man with the golden gun rank as two of the most surreal Bond adventures ever, even if it is only through the often unique and bizarre visuals. As discussed, the two films are close relatives, and this is especially true since Gun was rushed into production and came just a year after Live and let die. Both films share the same director and star, for starters, and are both quite dated, looking far more of their time than most old Bond films. Diamonds are forever looks positively contemporary in comparison. But like Diamonds, they can also be highly entertaining.
Live and let die is, of course, Roger Moore’s debut as James Bond. An established television star, Moore was well known as Ivanhoe and The Saint. While the latter role might seem a close match to Bond, Moore struggles a little in such recently vacated shoes. And being Sean Connery’s shoes, they’re pretty big ones. Roger was to perfect a unique interpretation for Bond, a charming and sly English gentleman who would be very much a light hearted Bond. It would arguably take three films before the Moore Bond was firmly in place. In this outing, Moore can sometimes look wooden and awkward, although he handles the quips and humour very well. This is more apparent in certain parts of The man with the golden gun. I still find it difficult to dislike Moore, as he can be a charismatic presence. He may have been no Sean Connery, but some of us grew to love him because he’s Roger Moore. But I think Roger had a disadvantage with his first film anyway, as it’s a pretty weak script and the whole thing lacks the panache of the better Connery efforts. The story involves Bond in a murder investigation, which ends in a showdown with the drug baron “Mr. Big”, also known as Kananga. He doesn’t want to conquer the world, just the world heroin market. It all feels a bit small fry for a James Bond adventure, although it makes an interesting change from SPECTRE. Incidentally, SPECTRE and Blofeld would never be directly mentioned again in the Eon series (for reasons I shall come back to later). The Moore films would find 007 dealing with a multitude of wealthy lunatics, some far more preposterous than Blofeld and his friends. In some ways Kananga is the strangest of these new villains as his ambitions are relatively modest for a Bond foe.
But what makes Live and let die really odd, for a Bond film, is its meta-physical or paranormal content (call it what you will). This film also has the voodoo religion given prominence. On the supernatural side, the tarot reading Solitaire does appear to have some kind of mystical “gift”, but we don’t come close to explaining it. Perhaps that was the wise choice, as a Bond film isn’t perhaps the perfect forum for such things. But it is a strange area for a James Bond story to be skirting with, and I’m not sure it really makes it as macabre and as strange as it could have done. Perhaps if it had, this wouldn’t have been much of a Bond film, and perhaps therein lies the answer. It teases us with the occult and promises us some real strangeness, but it can’t see its promise through. Perhaps there’s a limit to what the world of 007 can incorporate. Still, it makes for an interesting change and does give the film a unique style.
Aside from the voodoo leanings, Live and let die owes much of its influence to the ‘blaxploitation’ films of the early ‘70s. Once again, this was a new area for a Bond film to visit, and it hasn’t done anything quite similar since. Both Live and let die and The man with the golden gun touch upon genres popular at the time. A good proportion of the cast are black, although they do tend to play villains. To compensate we have the character of Quarrel Jr., Bond’s Jamaican ally and apparently the son of Quarrel from Dr. No. In some ways Live and let die was one of the toughest Fleming books to adapt due to the somewhat racist subtext. But thankfully, due to the trend for blaxploitation action flicks, the film’s similar style (in homage) manages to remove any negativity. There does seem to be a trend throughout the ‘70s Bond films of adopting the franchise to whatever was the movie trend of the moment; whatever was hot at the box office. After blaxploitation with Live and let die, we have kung-fu in Golden gun. Bond was a true trendsetter in the 1960s, but with the advent of the Roger Moore era the series would become more and more prone to following the trends. Bond seems oddly out of step with the times, and the cold war hero of the glossy, stylish 1960s movies seems a long way off. For the ‘70s Bond was re-invented as a lightweight character with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek (as if it hadn’t been already). His exploits were fun, and would be great action movies, but it would be a substantial change from what had been before. Ultimately the series had to curb its more outlandish tendencies, as Bond started to resemble a complete parody of Fleming’s original character. There is an argument that says this doesn’t matter, as the Bond of the films is a different entity from the start. I agree there is a stylistic difference, but you can go too far. Bond started to resemble a spoof character. Maybe more Dirk Helm than Austin Powers, but the degeneration was there.
Fortunately, in Live and let die this hasn’t quite begun, and Moore plays Bond fairly straight, even if he can be a bit wooden and smarmy. Jane Seymour is beautiful, and adds a quiet charisma to her role of tarot reading Solitaire. Yaphet Kotto as Mr. Big (a.k.a. Kananga) is one of the cheeriest Bond villains and he often seems shockingly inept. But he certainly has more menace than Charles Grey’s Blofeld at any rate. Far more memorable is Kanaga’s henchman Tee Hee, played in a rather civilized manner by Julius W. Harris. The guy is a gentleman that is, until he gets cheesed off. He even does the obligatory “seek revenge on Bond after your boss is killed” bit at the end of the film. He’s kind of a proto-type ‘Jaws’, but his metal pincer arm is novel enough for him to be remembered. His clumsiness causes Bond to utter the great quip, “Butterhook!” David Hedison plays Bond’s CIA pal Felix Leiter (the character’s only appearance in a Roger Moore Bond film) and made such a good job of the role that he returned to play him again in Licence to kill (1989). There is also Geoffrey Holder as Baron Smaedi, a man with such a deep, mocking laugh he gets to end the film. A bit like a voodoo opera.
Some parts of Live and let die resemble a Smokey and the bandit type road film, with car chases and explosions the way forward. This continues the ‘Americanisation’ of the series in the early ‘70s, which had begun in Diamonds are forever. Plus the more tongue in cheek approach continues. These car chases are fun, but can tend to drag and Clifton James’ redneck sheriff J.W. Pepper could take some getting used to. He’s a bit like a cut price Jackie Gleason, but I quite liked him and he doesn’t outstay his welcome. “What are you, boy, some kinda doomsday machine?!” He is quite funny. Occasionally.
Roger Moore certainly wasn’t Sean Connery, but he was James Bond.