The 007 Collective is a bi-monthly column in which I revisit every official feature in the James Bond franchise and review how they hold up today. Along with a review of each film, each article in this 10-month-long series will dive into the historical place and production of each film in question. It will also feature a dossier i.e. a fact sheet with superlatives, ratings, rankings, best, worsts and other fun stuff in line with the format you’ve seen in my annual Year in Superlatives articles. This project isn’t meant to be the final word on the Bond franchise. It’s merely my take on the series. For previous entries, click here.
In this week’s The 007 Collective, I look back at Roger Moore’s first outing as James Bond in the blaxploitation-inspired camp-fest LIVE AND LET DIE.
Mission Title: Live and Let Die
James Bond: Roger Moore
Release Date: June 27, 1973
Source Material: Based on the novel “Live and Let Die” by Ian Fleming
Tagline: Roger Moo7re as James Bond
When three British agents are murdered, MI6 sends James Bond to the United States to investigate the deaths. His investigation leads him to San Monique Prime Minister Dr. Kananga but also to Harlem drug kingpin Mr. Big. But how are the two connected? With the help of CIA pal Felix Leiter and the beautiful Solitaire, Bond realizes that behind the voodoo and bizarre henchmen is a complex plot to flood the U.S. market with heroin.
In 1972, the Bond franchise was in dire straits. After the Lazenby fiasco of 1969, producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman fell at the feet of Sean Connery to restore stability to the franchise. After relenting for a sum of a then $1.25 million, a Guinness World Record at the time, Connery slept-walked through Diamonds Are Forever and then washed his hands clean of the franchise when shooting completed. With the Scottish actor proclaiming that he would “never” play Bond again, producers Broccoli and Saltzman were faced with finding a new actor to play Bond for the third straight movie in a row.
Enter Roger Moore. The British actor who had made a name for himself on television with The Saint had long been associated with the role – having first been mentioned during the casting sessions for Dr. No and then again for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But this time, he came out on top. Back to steer the franchise was Guy Hamilton, who had previously directed Connery in arguably his best (Goldfinger) and undoubtedly his worst (Diamonds Are Forever) Bond outings. Also returning was Diamonds Are Forever screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz.
With Moore cast, Hamilton and Mankiewicz quickly tailored the new adventure – an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s second and highly controversial novel, Live and Let Die – to the actor’s strengths while also distancing themselves as much as possible from the Connery movies. The first thing to go was the tired world-domination plot. Also erased was SPECTRE, the villains of the last four Bond movies. In their stead was a plot centering on heroin smuggling in Harlem, voodoo in the Caribbean and a drug empire built by Dr. Kananga, Mr. Big and their murderer’s row of henchmen including Tee Hee, Baron Samedi, Adam and Whisper. While this hardly qualified as original, it was nevertheless a more grounded affair, at least compared to the epic You Only Live Twice and flashy Diamonds Are Forever.
There was also a huge change in the series’ tone. While both You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever had comedic elements, this is the first Bond that truly embraced the camp. This was in line with Moore’s take on the character. His Bond was more playboy than a rugged ruthless killer; a charming gentleman who was smoother than silk with the ladies. Moore’s Bond chose to charm his way out of a situation rather than fight through them. His weapon of choice wasn’t his Walter PPK but his arsenal of puns and quips. If a villain threatened him, he simply killed them with his wit. He even dumped the vodka martini for smoked cigars and bourbon on the rocks. Hugh Hefner would have had him on speed dial.
Other changes included a concentrated effort to highlight the action. Although action scenes were always an important part of the Connery movies, it was only during the Roger Moore era that these sequences evolved into the over-the-top stunt spectaculars we’ve come to identify with the Bond franchise today. As Hamilton had already received some praise for the wild Mustang car chase in Diamonds Are Forever, he sought to top himself with Live and Let Die. Among the big action set-pieces are a daring scene on the streets of New York in which Bond has to maneuver a driver-less car from the back seat; a chase in a fictional Caribbean country involving a Double Decker bus and bunch of motorbikes and cop cars; and a close-quarters fight to the death on a train that echoes the iconic scene in From Russia with Love.
But the big stunt spectacular of the movie is the speed boat chase across Louisiana’s bayous and canals. Running a little over 12 minutes, the high octane scene includes everything from eye-opening jumps over cars (including a then world record-breaking jump), speed boats sliding from the water across land and then back into the water, and gun fights. The only problem with the sequence is that Hamilton intertwines it with scenes of a stereotypical Southern sheriff character named J.W. Pepper (the most irritating character of the entire franchise) trying to comprehend the chaos around him. It’s annoying, racist and just plain daft. My favorite of all the stunts though is the famous scene in which Bond, abandoned by Tee Hee on a tiny sandbar infested with starved crocodiles and alligators, somehow manages to scramble to safety by using the backs of three crocodiles as stepping stones. It’s a preposterous scene until you realize that it was actually performed by a stunt man!
This being the Bond series, an attempt was made to capitalize on the hottest trend of the era. You Only Live Twice capitalized on the popularity of Japan and the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union while Diamonds Are Forever cashed in on the Las Vegas’ boom. In the early 70s, it was blaxploitation leading the charge at American multiplexes so Broccoli and Saltzman wanted Live and Let Die to have elements of blaxploitation. But like most of this franchise’s attempts at being topical, the move mostly falls flat on its face. For one, the filmmakers’ understanding of blaxploitation cinema is woefully misguided; Blaxploitation films centered on black characters fighting against villainous white authority figures – not the other way around. Even if there was no way Bond could have been changed to a black man, it would have been nice to see him assisted by a host of strong black supporting characters (like how Shaft uses the help of Ben Buford and his gang in Shaft). Unfortunately, nearly every black character in Live and Let Die – from cabbies to waiters to female CIA agents to even freaking shoe shiners from Harlem to New Orleans to the fictional San Monique – is depicted as being part of an evil conspiracy. This is really troubling – especially considering the type of film they were trying to ape. In fact, only two black characters are positive – and one of them dies relatively early on in the film – that too, off screen. I will admit though that the scenes of the whiter than white Moore awkwardly walking the streets of Harlem while being called a “honky” and a “cue ball” by a bunch of black characters are hilarious.
The racial awkwardness is compounded by the fact that the main Bond girl, a white tarot-reading virgin named Solitaire (Jane Seymour), is stolen by Bond from Kananga, who had intended to save Solitaire for himself. Apparently, Diana Ross had been considered for Solitaire but Broccoli put a kibosh on this because many countries had still been enforcing a ban on films depicting interracial relationships. On this front, the choice to have Bond bed a black CIA agent named Rosie Carter is surprisingly progressive for the franchise, even if they are never seen sleeping together. Then again, Rosie does turn out to be a turncoat who betrays Bond; So much for positive black characters. While it’d be unfair to dub Live and Let Die racist or that the filmmakers consciously sought out to peddle hate, especially when they actually went out of their way to make sure they didn’t offend the African American audience, the end result is definitely one guilty of trading in stereotypes of the black community. Drug lords, pimps, voodoo, jazz funerals, ghettos, you name it, it’s here.
While the subtext of all villains being black is troubling, it’s nice to see that the actual antagonists themselves are genuinely threatening and incredibly smart. Kananga is a great Bond villain and Yaphet Kotto’s performance is suitably threatening and multi-dimensional. Kananga is conniving, a brilliant schemer and a well-rounded individual who always seems to be one step ahead of Bond. His scheme, while not exactly free of holes, is quite plausible, if someone had those kinds of resources. And as previously stated, his scheme—which does not involve any world domination—a refreshing change for a franchise that had grown stale. Save for the hilarious manner in which he is killed this is one of the more memorable big bads of the series. Mankiewicz also surrounded Kananga with the best gallery of henchmen of the series. Bond has to face off against not one, not two, not three but four henchmen! The most dangerous of the lot is Tee Hee (Julius Harris), the towering bald drug lord with a penchant for bright jackets who has a metal arm with a claw in place of his right arm. There’s also the seven-feet-tall voodoo high priest Baron Samedi who dances, prances and generally scares the living daylights out of everyone he meets. His evil laugh is enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine. The other two henchmen – Whisper and Adam –are more like sidekicks but they both get their moments to shine.
Live and Let Die may be far from a great Bond movie but it’s not as bad as many contemporary reviews make it out to be. It certainly beats Octopussy, A View to a Kill and The Man with the Golden Gun so far in this series, and with only Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only to go, I’m confident enough to dub it one of Roger Moore’s better Bonds. While the movie’s racial politics are troubling and grossly outdated, the action scenes are fantastic and the villains rank among the most interesting of the Moore era. It has a fantastic title song and wonderful score by George Martin. It even has one of the most strikingly beautiful Bond girls ever in Jane Seymour’s Solitaire. More importantly, it functions as a stellar introduction to Roger Moore’s smooth and gentlemanly spin on the character. With Moore, the franchise was finally able to achieve a semblance of stability, allowing Broccoli and Saltzman to look forward rather than backward at Connery for help. The 12-year-long Moore era may be the creative nadir of the franchise but without Moore’s popularity, there was assurance that Bond was going to be around for some time to come.
Notable for being the first Bond movie in which Bond himself never appears. Yes, From Russia with Love had a goon with a Connery mask on but the audience was nevertheless left in the dark and made to think that it was Connery playing the game of death with Red Grant. The Live and Let Die cold open kicks off with a British agent suddenly dropping dead during a U.N. council of nations at the U.N. Headquarters in NYC. It then cuts to another British agent getting murdered in sublime fashion in New Orleans (“Whose funeral is this?” “Yours”). It finally cuts to a third British agent being poisoned by a snake as he stands tied to a tree during a voodoo ceremony somewhere in the fictional country of San Monique. The opening sequence does a good job of setting up the mission and the three primary locations of the movie. The sequence may not be as flashy as some of the openings of the later Moore Bonds but it does set the tone of the film quite nicely.
Title Designer: Maurice Binder
Title Song: “Live and Let Die” performed by Paul McCartney & Wings
Famous Quote: “But if this ever changing world in which we’re living/Makes you give in and cry/Say live and let die”
You could tell that the Bond franchise was desperately trying to catch up with the times any way they could. In Goldfinger, Sean Connery compared drinking un-chilled Don Perignon to listening to the Beatles without earmuffs. But nine years later, who do they hire to sing the title song of their latest movie? Paul McCartney. Not only was the title song well-received but it became the most successful Bond theme tune to date. It also went on to become the first Bond theme song to score an Oscar nomination, only to lose to the theme from The Way We Were. Interestingly, Marvin Hamlisch, the Oscar-winning composer of The Way We Were, would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for composing the title song of The Spy Who Loved Me a few years later. Live and Let Die was also the first Bond movie not to be scored by John Barry as the composer was busy on another project at the time. Producer Harry Saltzman loved the arrangements of the title song so much that he invited Beatles producer George Martin to compose the score of the film too. Martins score works surprisingly well, incorporating many of the funk and soul elements popular in the blaxploitation genre of the day into the score.
Like many of the earlier Bond title sequences, Maurice Binder’s title sequence overtly addresses many of the themes of the movie including African American women, voodoo rituals, skulls, death heads, and fire. But other than addressing the themes, it doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with them. Nevertheless, it complements McCartney’s song quite well.
The Big Bad: Brilliant, conniving and ruthless Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto)—the Prime Minister of the small Caribbean nation of San Monique who masquerades as Mr. Big, the mad drug kingpin of Harlem. Dr. Kananga’s double-life is only known by a few of his closest allies. Kananga is highly superstitious and believes in voodoo. He keeps a high priestess named Solitaire as his prisoner/mistress and uses her to predict his fortunes and the futures of his enemies. As Mr. Big, Kananga also owns a franchise of restaurants located in poor neighborhoods in New Orleans and New York City.
Henchman: The big, tall and bald Tee Hee (Julius Harris) who with his metal clawed arm, powerful voice and brightly colored suits makes for quite the colorful character. Tee Hee oversees all heroin operations for his boss, Dr. Kananga and also functions as his boss’ hired hand and bodyguard. He attempts to kill Bond on several occasions including when he leaves Bond to die on a tiny sand bar crawling with crocodiles, and then on the train at the film’s climax.
Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder): A voodoo high priest who loves face paint, snakes and dressing up in flamboyant outfits. The Baron is the central figure during rituals and quite possibly the most memorable character of the movie.
Whisper (Earl Jolly Brown): Dr Kananga’s over-weight goon who gets his nickname because of his low-register voice.
Adam (Tommy Lane): Adam is the leader of Kananga’s army and is involved in hunting Bond on several occasions throughout New Orleans and its bayous.
Organization: San Monique, Black Widow Voodoo Cult, Harlem Crime Syndicate
World Domination Plan: Kananga plans on distributing the massive amount of heroine he has been stockpiling in San Monique en masse to desperate drug addicts in the United States for free. He will accomplish it through his chain of restaurants called Filet of Soul. He hopes that by distributing the heroin for free, he will destroy his competitors and then own the drug market in the U.S.
Primary: The strikingly beautiful and sexy high priestess/tarot reader Solitaire (Jane Seymour) who slavishly serves Dr. Kananga’s demands. Although she serves her master, she’s quite cunning and clever too. She is turned on towards Bond when he charms her during their first meeting. This causes her to tip Bond of Rosie Carver’s deceitful nature. After being tricked by Bond into sleeping with him, she loses her tarot reading ability – much to her disappointment. But Bond’s touch seems to instill a change of heart in her.
Others: Double-crossing CIA agent Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) who is killed by Kananga once Bond is able to extract information from her.
Italian agent Caruso (Madeline Smith) who Bond is sleeping with when we first meet him.
Felix Leiter (David Hedison): Hedison was the fourth actor to play the role of Felix Leiter in the Bond series. An old friend of Roger Moore, the actor shares a good comrade with Moore, and it shows in the genuinely warm relationship between Bond and Leiter. Hedison would reprise his role in 1989’s Licence to Kill, thus making him the only actor to play the role twice – until Jeffrey Wright portrayed the character in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.
Quarrel Jr. (Roy Stewart): A local CIA agent in San Monique, Quarrel Jr. is the son of Bond’s trusty friend Quarrel who aided him during his Dr No mission. Unlike his father, Quarrel makes it through the adventure alive.
M (Bernard Lee): Because of the urgency of the situation, M is first seen, not at MI6 headquarters but at Bond’s front door. He comes directly to 007’s apartment and informs him of the crisis after the death of three British agents. Bond is briefed in his living room and kitchen. Since this is the first film in the series where Q does not make an appearance, M is the one who hands Bond his fancy new gadget watch, which includes an electromagnet and a buzz saw.
Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell): Miss Moneypenny aids Bond from M by hiding the Italian agent Miss Caruso in Bond’s closet and then teases him as she leaves saying, “Ciao bello!” Cheeky!
Rolex Submariner Watch: Charged with a super electromagnet and a saw, the watch is used by Bond to pull a boat towards him when he is trapped on the sandbar full of crocodiles. He uses the electromagnet during the end of the film to get the compressed air bullet, and also cut himself and Solitaire free. He also uses the magnet to unzip agent Caruso’s dress (“sheer magnetism, darling”).
Shark gun and bullet: Confiscated from Bond by Kananga at the end of the film. Bond uses his electromagnetic watch to grab hold of the shark gun bullet. He then stuffs the bullet in Kananga’s mouth in a fight causing Kananga to inflate to disgusting lengths and explode into a million gory pieces.
Bug Detector Shaving Kit: Used by Bond to check his room for bugs.
Felix Lighter: Named after Bond’s best friend, the CIA agent, the item is a car cigarette lighter that is used a radio transmitter.
ODDS & ENDS
Most Memorable Quote:
[Bond is brought to Mr. Big’s hideout inside one of his Filet of Soul restaurants]
Mr. Big: [to his men] Is THIS the stupid mother who tailed you uptown?
James Bond: There seems to be some mistake. My name is Bond…
Mr. Big: Names are for tombstones, baby! Y’all take this honkey out and WASTE HIM! NOW!
[An MI6 agent is standing on a street of New Orleans when a jazz funeral procession comes walking past him. As another suited man walks next to him to look at the mourners, the agent asks]
MI6 Agent: Whose funeral is this?
[The man stabs him and he falls on to the floor.]
Most Embarrassing Quote:
[Adam has been pulled over for speeding on the highway of Louisiana. Sherriff J. W. Pepper has asked him to step out]
Sheriff J.W. Pepper: You gotta set of wheels that just won’t quit, BOY! If they’s yours that is…
[Adam reaches for his gun but Sheriff Pepper draws his first]
Sheriff J.W. Pepper: UH-UH! Spin around BOY!
[points at the car]
Sheriff J.W. Pepper: Ten fingers on the fender.
Sheriff J.W. Pepper: Legs apart.
[kicks Adam’s legs apart]
Sheriff J.W. Pepper: I take it this ain’t exactly your debut at this sort of thing. You picked the wrong parish to haul ass through BOY! NOBODY cuts and runs on Sheriff Jay Dubya PEPPER! And it’s him who’s speakin’ by the by.
The most stereotypical and blatant moment of casual racism in this movie.
Most Memorable Moment:
I’m going to go with the tense scene in which Bond is left to die on a rocky sandbar in the middle of Kananga’s crocodile farm. With the canoe out of his reach and with no one to help him, Bond has to rely on his quick wit, physicality and nerves of steel to get out of this situation in one piece. He sees a moment, and without thinking about it, he makes his move. It’s ridiculously risky but he makes it. You may think it’s a preposterous scene but it was actually performed by the owner of the crocodile farm where this scene was shot.
Here’s a great story from the Live and Let Die documentary about Ross Kananga, the man who owned the crocodile farm and performed the stunt himself. There’s footage of all his attempts at the stunt here too.
Most Cringe-Worthy Moment:
Anytime J.W. Pepper is on-screen, the movie comes to an absolute stand-still. Easily the worst character to ever appear in the Bond franchise to date –he’s more irritating than Dr Christmas Jones and Mary Goodnight—combined. He’s the Jar Jar Binks of this series.
[After finding a bloodied hat with a feather on it (a warning symbol) in her hotel room bed, Rosie screams and is terrified. James on the other hand, coolly remarks in order to calm her]
James Bond: Don’t worry darling, it’s just a small hat, belonging to a man of limited means, who lost a fight with a chicken.
Most Shocking/Outrageous Moment:
Come on… the scenes of the outrageous voodoo ceremonies. Talk about stereotypes. Those crazy black people, man! Be aware, white people!
Best Pun/Double Entendre:
[Bond has just killed Tee Hee by cutting off his metal arm and throwing him out the window of a train]
Solitaire: What are you doing?
James Bond: Just being disarming, darling.
Worst Pun/Double Entendre:
[Bond has just killed Kananga by stuffing a compressed air bullet into his mouth, thus causing the villain to inflate and explode in a gruesome way]
Solitaire: Where’s Kananga?
James Bond: Well, he always did have an inflated opinion of himself.
Best Stunt/Action Scene:
It’s really long and marred by J.W. Pepper’s stupid antics but the speed boat chase is the action highlight of the movie, bar none.
Most Dated Reference:
Trying to cash in on the blaxploitation craze.
Number of Times Bond Has Sex: A whopping 8 times! – twice with Agent Caruso, twice with Rosie Carver, and an insane four times with Solitaire. Then again, who wouldn’t? It’s Solitaire)
Number of people Bond kills: 7
Best Kill: Killing Kananga by shoving a compressed air bullet into his mouth, thus causing his body to inflate and explode into a million pieces. Gory? Yea. Implausible? Duh! Cartoonish? Absolutely!
Locations visited (In order of appearance): New York City, Harlem, New Orleans, San Monique (fictional), London
Misogyny Meter: 8/10
At one point, Bond tells Quarrel that Rosie is a lousy agent “but the compensations speak for themselves.” Carver is written as a buffoon who is prone to hysterics and needs rescuing from Bond despite being a trained CIA field agent. She’s also depicted as being superstitious. There’s also the whole thing about Solitaire being the willing kept and subservient woman of Kananga, waiting her turn to lose her virginity to him. He even tells her, “Your power exists to serve me, and it is mine to control. If and when the time comes, I decide you are to lose it, I myself will take it away;” Her power and virginity being one and the same thing. She eventually loses it when Bond rigs a deck of tarot cards in his favor and takes advantage of her. Dick.
Racism Rating: 8/10
As previously noted, although the major villains are depicted as being smart and competent, there’s no getting around the fact that every villainous character in the movie is black. It’s as if there’s a black conspiracy to destroy the white man. Even the black terrified female CIA agent is a double agent. Live and Let Die upturns blaxploitation on its head instead of paying homage to it. And of course, all the voodoo sequences are in very poor taste. The only reason this ranks below You Only Live Twice on the racism meter is because Live and Let Die is an equal opportunity offender that makes fun of the southern racist J.W. Pepper character too.
Box Office: $35.3 million ($162 million adjusted for inflation—making it the 16th highest-grossing Bond to date).
Oscars: 1 nomination (Best Original Song)
007 Chronological Listing: 8/24
Running time: 121 minutes
Companies: EON Productions, MGM/UA
The 007 Collective will return in:
Previous entries in The 007 Collective:
- Goldfinger (1964)
- A View to a Kill (1985)
- Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
- The World is Not Enough (1999)
- Die Another Day (2002)
- Quantum of Solace (2008)
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
- Octopussy (1983)
- Thunderball (1965)
- GoldenEye (1995)
- The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
- The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
- The Living Daylights (1987)
- Skyfall (2012)
- You Only Live Twice (1967)