Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal
Diamonds may be forever but after Sean Connery’s sixth outing as James Bond was released, it was clear that his time as the dashing and deadly Brit was coming to an end. Connery reportedly turned down a then-unheard-of $5.5 million payday to return for one more Bond film, causing United Artists to approach American actors like Adam West and Burt Reynolds as replacements. But it was producer Albert Broccoli who was insistent that the role be portrayed by a British actor and pushed for TV star Roger Moore, whose spy series The Saint bore certain resemblances to the Bond film franchise. Moore would go on to reprise the role six more times following his 1973 debut: the strange but satisfying Live and Let Die.
We meet 007 at the tail end of an Italian rendezvous, of sorts, as he’s briefed by M (Bernard Lee) about three MI6 agents who were killed in action within a day’s time. Though they don’t understand the connection just yet, the murders seem to be tied to one Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), the secretive prime minister of the Caribbean country San Monique. He has also drawn the attention of CIA agent and Bond confidant Felix Leiter (David Hedison), due to Kananga’s connection to a Harlem-based drug kingpin known as Mr. Big. Bond’s pursuit of Kananga and Big leads him first to the seedy streets of New York, then the sweaty swamplands of New Orleans and finally, the treacherous jungles of the Caribbean Islands.
The outline is standard-issue Bond but it’s all the peculiar wrinkles that make Live and Let Die an intriguing entry in the franchise. Its cold open is the only one in Bond movie history that doesn’t feature Bond himself, instead depicting three bizarre deaths of characters with whom we’re unacquainted and will never meet again. First, a UK diplomat receiving in-ear translation at a United Nations hearing gets blasted with an apparently fatal high-frequency noise in his earpiece. Then, in a bit that would kill on Corncob TV, a man is stabbed while watching a solemn New Orleans processional and the music turns joyous once his body is sucked up into the coffin. Finally, a death ritual is carried out against a man tied to a stake as he receives a deadly snake bite surrounded by celebrant voodoo worshippers. It’s an odd and ominous trifecta of death that sets up each of the film’s primary locations while keeping the audience on their toes like any good cold open should do.
Sandwiched in between blaxploitation classics like Super Fly and Three The Hard Way, Live and Let Die is also notable for its implementation of racial politics present both in film and real life during the early 1970s. Bond’s first lead sends him to the heart of Harlem, tracking a pimpmobile to the Oh Cult Voodoo Shop while being tracked himself as a “cue ball” in the predominantly black community. It’s a funny juxtaposition of how we’ve come to expect James Bond and most on-screen secret agents to conduct an investigation, seemingly unaware of how little discretion is being utilized. Watching the newly-minted Moore snoop around in a tailored suit like the out-of-touch “honky” that the Harlemites literally call him to his face is a bold showing of uncoolness for a character who is meant to epitomize cool.
Being a crime movie, the roles filled by African-American actors don’t have the most sophisticated range of characterizations — most are either villains or henchmen — but the diversity is still laudable for a franchise that was previously dominated by whiteness. The criminals each have their own idiosyncrasies that makes them just memorable enough: Julius W. Harris plays a metal-armed merc named Tee Hee, Earl Jolly Brown is a softly-spoken lackey known as Whisper and Geoffrey Holder portrays the tophat-wearing witch doctor Baron Samedi. Though his height made him an unpopular pick in the N64 game Goldeneye, his striking makeup and chilling cackle make him an unforgettable presence. As Kananga, Kotto puts forth a combination of intelligence and intimidation that all the best Bond villains possess.
Kananga’s final devious act, to slowly lower Bond and his love interest Solitaire (Jane Seymour) into a shark tank while revealing every detail of his evil plan, was immortalized by its inclusion in 007 send-up Austin Powers. While the sharks in Live and Let Die also don’t have frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads, Kananga does use an unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism and doesn’t pay attention to Bond as he utilizes not one but two functions of his Q-issued gadget watch. Speaking of dangerous water creatures, the film also features a stunt where Bond jumps on a series of backwoods-dwelling crocodile heads to get to safety, attempted over 6 takes by stuntman Ross Kananga (seemingly so impressive, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz named the film’s villain after him).
Even by today’s standards, the stunt work involved in the bayou-based boat chases is quite remarkable. Shot across a series of Louisiana lakes, the lengthy action setpieces feature speedboats zipping through land, air and sea at top speeds. They’re also marked by the inclusion J.W. Pepper, a hilariously sweaty Southern sheriff played by Clifton James in a very tongue-forward performance. It’s a complete caricature and one that director Guy Hamilton seems to fully embrace. I’ll admit to tugging at my collar during his introductory scene where he calls a black character “boy” but then he proceeds to call everyone else he meets, including white characters, by the same name. Oh, I’m sure he’s racist but the fact that he’s a bumbling moron who no one in the film respects makes his character just ridiculous enough to enjoy.
Moore would go on to do Bond movies that were even more campy than this one and while there aren’t any sights as goofy as 007 clowning around in full carney attire or bumbling around in a space suit, Live and Let Die is a fine foreshadowing of corniness to come. There are awful puns about “sheer magnetism” and Felix Leiter’s name being homophonous with a cigarette lighter (the number of gadget phones in this movie is staggering, I should note). Bond gets duped by two different trap doors but Moore remains calm and coiffed after both embarrassing incidents, cracking wise in the face of a bunch of armed thugs. Baron Samedi may get the last laugh in this entry but Moore’s use of self-deprecating comedy would go on to define his era of Bond pictures, for better or worse. It’s in that same spirit that I would recommend watching his first outing as Bond: don’t take it too seriously.