It’s been a number of months — too long — since the last 007 mission briefing. When we lost Sir Roger Moore last May, it hit me harder than I would have thought. I had just finished the buddy read on the original Fleming novels at that point, and while I managed to review Diamonds Are Forever a couple of months after that, my heart wasn’t in it. But as they say, time heals, and it’s time to move forward.
Live and Let Die is the first of seven films featuring Roger Moore in the role of James Bond, The film was written with Sean Connery in mind, but he declined once more (and with it a $5.5 million dollar payday), and the search was on for a successor. To give you an idea of where they were looking, Clint Eastwood was offered the role, fresh off his success with Dirty Harry. Eastwood was flattered (who wouldn’t be?) but following in the footsteps of Adam West, he declined, saying that Bond should be British. There is a holdover from this still in the film. Bond uses a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, the gun made popular by the Dirty Harry character. That’s not an accident.
Following his role on The Saint, Moore was shortlisted from the previous hunt to replace Connery, and the rest is history. Connery endorsed him, calling him “an ideal Bond.” Sometimes it just works out. That said, conscious effort was made to separate Moore’s Bond from Connery in a way that had not been done with Lazenby. I’ve already mentioned the weapon of choice, for example. Instead of a martini, Moore’s Bond drinks bourbon. He does not wear a hat as Connery did (both Connery and Lazenby wore hats in the gunbarrel opening), nor does he smoke cigarettes, preferring instead cigars. In fact, it’s said that a line-item edit in Moore’s contract kept those cigars coming. Over the course of his tenure, Moore’s Bond would redevelop some of the lost classic tropes, but by that point Moore would make the role truly his own. Interesting bit of trivia for those who care, Connery was 41 when he stepped down from Bond. Moore stepped in at age 45. Another point of consideration, producers didn’t want Moore to raise his eyebrow as that had become something of a signature in his time on The Saint. Moore, in his self-deprecating manner, writes in his books that the full extent of his acting ability was to raise the right eyebrow, and then the left to offer something different. Obviously, the eyebrows got their workout on screen in all of his Bond films.
To keep Bond relevant in the ever-changing world, EON Productions always did their best to ensure that 007 could ride the waves of anything modern pop culture had to offer. In the jazz era, Connery’s Bond famously suggested that one could not listen to the Beatles “without earmuffs,” rock and roll being the unsophisticated music of the younger generation. In one of those grand twists of fate, John Barry would take a temporary hiatus from Bond scoring duties. The soundtrack for Live and Let Die would be composed by former Beatles producer George Martin, with Bond’s first rock and roll title track performed by Paul McCartney and Wings, who reportedly recorded the track unsolicited and then offered it to the producers. According to McCartney, the producers listened to the recording and thought it was just the demo, asking when he’d turn in the final cut. Unsophisticated ears, indeed! Say what you will, McCartney uses it as a showstopper in his concerts to this day, complete with flamethrowers.
At the time, McCartney paid for the orchestra in the piece out of pocket, and Rolling Stone magazine accused him of selling out when the announcement of the theme was made. The song peaked at number two on the charts. McCartney became the first artist to be nominated for a Best Song Academy Award for the track. That said, the song still almost wasn’t used, weird as that is to think now. Producers wanted a black female artist (which seems rather natural in context with the film) and preferred Brenda Arnau’s version of the song. Her version appears in the film, making it the only time a Bond title track becomes source music within the film itself.
And that’s just the soundtrack. Visually, Bond had to keep up with the times as well. In the early 70s, the blaxploitation era was at its peak. Of course, Bond needed to get in on that action. Some might say this film felt like it was riding the coattails of that style, and it perhaps wouldn’t be wrong to nod in agreement. It suffers a bit (ok, a lot) from some of the worst stereotypes of that era — afros, pimpmobiles (one of which was actually used in the film Superfly), racial slang of the most 70s kind, and to offset it all: the obligatorily goofy white Southern sheriff without a clue (J. W. Pepper, played by Clifton James) so that this movie can be an equal opportunity offender.
Let’s face it, as easy as it is to look at this movie from a 21st century high horse and shake our heads in horror of how much this truly cannot live up to our *ahem* “enlightened” era today, the fact is that, after a fashion, all of this (with the notable exception of Sheriff Pepper) was civil and social progress on a number of levels. Cultural representation needed to happen, and these sorts of subgenres usually explode on the scene when their time has come. The counterpoint to the things that don’t hold up over time are that there’s a great deal of it that’s just undeniably cool too. When making a movie like this, it stands to reason that Harlem, New Orleans, and the Caribbean are going to make interesting and culturally relevant film locations. Of note, Harlem was one of New York’s most dangerous neighborhoods at the time, so some scenes were actually filmed on the Upper East Side for the most part… after the protection money paid to local gangs ran out, forcing the crew to relocate. Don’t tell anyone. On screen, a reputation alone won’t sell the danger, especially in 007 film. They had some proper musical atmosphere, of course, but what’s a Bond movie without a scene-grabbing villain who can truly dominate? It just so happens that Live and Let Die has some fantastic character actors in these supporting roles to give Bond some grief. In this case, our top villain Dr. Kanaga, played by Yaphet Kotto, is the leader of his own nation, which marks a first in the Bond films (not even Blofeld could claim that one), in addition to having his fingers in a number of international pies. At no time does anyone doubt this guy has the power to control his empire, such is the confidence he exudes.
claw hand man, Tee-Hee Johnson (Julius Harris), is both charismatic and terrifying, a vast improvement over his counterpart in Fleming’s novel. On his other hand, Kananga seems to have the power to summon a central figure straight out of voodoo, Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder), giving an already powerful villain a supernatural edge. This is the first and only time the occult features in a Bond film and is given any credibility. In another first for Bond, we have our superspy in an interracial relationship with our first African-American Bond girl, Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry). It apparently struck a chord, because the love scenes were removed when the film was released in South Africa due to the prohibitions in place by the apartheid government. This tells me they were doing something right when they made this film. Anything to piss off an oppressive regime tends to stand on the right side of history.
Let’s dig into the film, shall we?
In another first, we see M and Moneypenny (but not Q!) drop by Bond’s residence to brief him on his next mission. (Side note: I love his coffee setup and M’s nonchalant retort, “Is that all it does?”) While monitoring the operations of Dr. Kananga, the dictator of San Monique, several British agents are murdered. The last one was felled in New York where Kananga just happens to be visiting the UN, and Bond is sent to investigate. His driver is killed en route to meet up with Bond’s CIA counterpart Felix Leiter. The murderer leads Bond to local gangster Mr. Big (Kananga in disguise). At their first meeting, Bond also meets Solitaire (Jane Seymour), who has the ability to see the future. Again, nothing quite like that hint of the occult to give a villain that little something extra. A mobster with someone like her in his employ has an edge over any competition or threat.
As rotten as Bond can be towards the ladies in his life, this might very well be his lowest move ever. After following Kananga back to San Monique, he seduces Solitaire by rigging her tarot cards, creating an entire deck consisting only of “The Lovers” card. In the act of “compelling earthly love,” he actually robs her of her ability to see the future. It’s despicable no matter how you look at it. (Side note: the High Priestess card in Solitaire’s original deck is painted to look like Jane Seymour.) And just because I can, knowing that Bond’s loss to Le Chiffre in Casino Royale was merely a temporary setback, I’ll point out Solitaire is officially the only character to ever beat Bond in a card game. Take that, Mr. Bond.
So why the occult angle? It turns out, Kananga is a leading heroin producer, and he uses the fear of the occult to protect his poppy fields. The heroin is distributed — for free — through his chain of restaurants via his alter ego Mr. Big, doubling the number of addicts and leaving his rival drug lords out of business. Exploiting the resulting monopoly, Kananga is free to charge whatever he likes at that point to far more customers.
After escaping the fate of being eaten by crocodiles, Bond leads Kananga’s henchmen on a boat chase, ultimately circling back to rescue Solitaire and eventually killing Kananga and Baron Samedi. In a kind of postscript sequence, Bond fights Tee-Hee on a train, and Baron Samedi is seen once more, laughing ominously as the film ends.
It’s worth noting as a fan of the original Fleming novels that elements of the Live and Let Die novel are missing from this movie, such as Felix Leiter being fed to sharks, turning up later in License to Kill. Ironically, Leiter would be played by David Hedison in this film, and he would reprise the role in License to Kill. He is one of only two actors to have played the role more than once (Jeffery Wright being the other in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace). There’s a weird kind of synergy with that for me. It’s also the only one of Moore’s Bond movies in which Leiter appears.
Quarrel Jr. (Roy Stewart) is meant to be the son of Quarrel from Dr. No. The original novel featured Quarrel and took place before the Dr. No novel. Since Quarrel died in the first film, his “son” stepped in to avoid any problems on that front.
Ross Kananga (for whom the villain is named) is credited as the stunt coordinator. He was the owner of the crocodile and alligator farm that was discovered by accident during film location scouting thanks to a sign that read “TRESPASSERS WILL BE EATEN.” The stunt where Bond escapes the hungry crocs was performed by Kananga himself wearing Moore’s clothes and shoes (made of crocodile skin — Moore’s idea, of course). The stunt took five attempts, and a croc took a snap at the shoes during the fourth.
Crocs weren’t the only reptiles to get in on the action. Both Roger Moore and Geoffrey Holder were deathly afraid of snakes, so of course they have to fall into a bunch of them during a fight sequence. You know they hated it, but no one can question their professionalism or their devotion to their roles. The script supervisor was likewise so afraid that she refused to be on set, one actor fainted during that scene where he’s killed by a snake, and Jane Seymour became more terrified as one got closer to her. But it’s ok because if even Baron Samedi is afraid of snakes, everyone gets a pass on this.
Think reptiles are dangerous? Madeline Smith, who played Miss Caruso, said her romantic scene with Bond was awkward enough without Roger Moore’s overprotective wife at the time, Luisa Mattioli, hovering over the set during filming to protect her interests. Just to make matters more awkward, Bond uses a magnetic watch to unzip her dress. The effect was achieved by a wire attached to the zipper, manipulated by a stagehand lying on the floor underneath Smith. According to Moore, it only took 29 takes.
The boat chase is listed in the script as “the most terrific boat chase you’ve ever seen.” The speedboat jump inadvertently set a Guinness World Record of 110 feet (33.5 meters), which stood for three years. Clifton James’ reaction to the shot was spontaneous and kept in the scene. The second boat that collided with his police car happened while shooting the stunt, and the script was changed accordingly.
If you can find it, Roger Moore kept a production diary, cleverly titled Roger Moore as James Bond 007: Live and Let Die. It was published as a paperback in 1973 and covers the filming from day one to the end, including several color photos taken by Moore’s wife. Good luck finding it, though. It’s rare and was never re-issued. Suffice it to say, there are SO many more things about this film that are fascinating and fun to learn, and I just can’t include them all here.
Live and Let Die has the distinction of being the very first Bond film I ever saw, hence it’s a sentimental favorite. I watched it on TV in the mid-80s about the time A View to a Kill ended its theatrical run. I was 11 years old. Star Wars had ended, it would be another year before Star Trek would truly claim me to obsessive levels, I only got my monster movie fix on weekend afternoons, and I was beginning to explore the possibilities of what else might be out there. It just so happened that I recognized Jane Seymour from another early favorite of mine, Battlestar Galactica. Between her and the 30-second preview commercial that I spotted her in, I was curious. One hacked-to-pieces-for-ads viewing later, I found myself wanting more 007. In the days before the internet, you had to rely on the customer service reps at the local video store (remember those?) to be the source of extant information if you didn’t happen to have your handy dandy behemoth-sized film guide book with you. And of course when I asked where I could find James Bond movies, I was confused when they led me to the shelves that featured some other guy on the box art. Why was the guy from Darby O’Gill and the Little People on here? Where was James Bond? Ah, to be a naive kid again… Long story short, I watched Moore’s Bond first, then backtracked to Connery, and found Lazenby somewhere in the mix down the road after Dalton made his big screen debut. Ultimately, while I recognized later that Connery set the standards, it was Moore who introduced me to Bond and made me a fan. That’s why his death hit me as hard as it did. For me, Moore’s Bond lived on the little boxy television that helped me escape the confines of my life. So did Connery’s Bond, but that felt somehow different in a way I’m still at a loss to explain, sort of the difference between the Universal Monsters and the early Hammer Horror features; it’s the same, but not. It wasn’t until Dalton that I understood just how big 007 was supposed to be and demanded better presentations all around. More on that when we get that far.
I’ll also add that, thanks to a fear of dismemberment that Star Wars instilled in me from an early age, Julius Harris’ Tee-Hee haunted my nightmares for years. All these years later, I still love the performance.
As always, James Bond will return…