Live and Let Die Review
“When you were young, and your heart was an open book, you used to say: live and let live...”
Voodoo and tarot-card reading; heroin smuggling and poppy fields; organised crime in Harlem and despotic dictators in South America – even today these don’t sound much like the ingredients of a Bond film; back in 1973 it must have been an even bigger shock to the system.
It was time to mix things up, however. Marked as the first proper reboot of the franchise – discounting the abortive attempt to put that Antipodean in the driving seat for what should have been the greatest Bond outing of all time (OHMSS), and after Connery said ‘never again’, ironically for the second, and still not final, time – it was necessary to find some new blood.
Enter: Roger Moore.
Mocked by many, but loved by even more – Sir. Roger Moore won the 2008 most popular Bond poll by a landslide 62% – and likely to forever hold the record for the most Bond films done by any one actor, this was not the first time that Moore had been in the running to play the globetrotting super-spy. Indeed he’d always been author Ian Fleming’s first choice for the role, something which few people could get their heads around. After being unavailable to do either Dr. No or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (due to The Saint and The Persuaders commitments – although he was never officially approached for Dr. No and, rather than do OHMSS, his first movie was set to be The Man with the Golden Gun), when Connery conclusively gave up the mantle after the disappointingly kitsch Diamonds Are Forever, a 45 year-old Moore was finally signed on.
By 1973, the intentions had shifted from shooting The Man with the Golden Gun as our introduction to Moore’s Bond, to doing Moonraker first – which Ian Fleming had planned to adapt for the screen even before he finished writing it back in the fifties. Yet with the Black Panthers and other racial movements at their height of power, and Blaxploitation movies taking off, Live and Let Die became the more obvious frontrunner. The second original Fleming Bond novel (and often regarded as the second best book, after OHMSS), which was written even before the first – Casino Royale – was even published, it presented a story about a Harlem drug lord, Mr. Big, with ties to Bond’s age-old enemies from the books, SMERSH (normally replaced by SPECTRE in the films). Of course the racial element became of most interest to the Studios, and many of the other elements from the novel were soon discarded. Arguably more of a personal foray, the novel would showcase a long-term friendship between Bond and CIA counterpart Felix Leiter, and utilise this – through an attack on Leiter – as fuel for Bond’s ongoing quest to take down Mr. Big. However little of this would see the light of day in the ensuing film adaptation.
With Connery’s departure, changes were, of course, inevitable. Using SMERSH/SPECTRE to tie Live and Let Die into the previous Bond instalments was now probably considered inappropriate – for Moore’s first outing there needed to be as few connections to Connery’s reign as possible – and so the story was reworked to make the villain nothing more than a drug lord intent on flooding US streets with free heroin, planning to simultaneously bankrupt his competitors whilst also cultivating a huge drug dependency amidst a greater percentage of the population. No evil villainous overlords. No grand plans for world domination. Just drugs – and money – as motivation for the death-dealing of the bad guy. Of course it was up to our favourite super-spy to stop him.
It was a fairly daring new idea for a Bond movie and, indeed, it’s no surprise that the only other time they would attempt to tackle this kind of controversial drug-baron subject would be in Licence to Kill, a film which would derive major elements for its plot from discarded ideas from the Live and Let Die novel, and a film which also suffered a less than resolutely warm reception.
“What are you, some kind of doomsday machine, boy?!”
Despite its massive box office success (grossing $161 million from a budget of just $7 million), Live and Let Die was a far from perfect Bond movie, trying so very hard to be different – and to be 70s hip to boot – that it forgot about so many of the elements that made Bond movies so great. The pre-credits action sequence (during which Bond himself was noticably absent), the trademark gun, the trademark car, the prevalent gadgets, even the tux – they were all largely jettisoned in favour of a new, fresh, look.
Still, this would prove not to be all that unusual for ‘reboots’ within the Bond franchise. Dr. No had been arguably one of the most non-classic-Bond Bond movies, and all of the other actors’ first times in the shoes of 007 would be noteworthy for how different they were from the general classic Bond framework: Living Daylights, Goldeneye, Casino Royale and even OHMSS. Each one shifted with the times, marking a big leap beyond the previous chapter and, after OHMSS suffered poorly from direct comparisons to Connery’s outings, and Connery’s own last movie – Diamonds are Forever – fared no better, the Studios weren’t going to make the same mistake with next reboot. Live and Let Die ended up being unlike any Bond film that had come before it – and was also arguably unlike any since.
It’s also a common pattern across the franchise that each successive new actor would require a couple of films before they made the role their own. Even Connery needed to do both Dr No and From Russia with Love before he reached the perfection found in Goldfinger; of course Lazenby and Dalton would never be given the chance; arguably Brosnan found a solid blend in The World is Not Enough (even if it was not as memorable as his slightly less traditional debut, Goldeneye) and perhaps even Craig will reach his nexus with Skyfall (even if Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were arguably two parts to the same story). Moore would follow exactly the same trajectory.
Across Live and Let Die – and the subsequent film, The Man with the Golden Gun – we would find Moore’s own take on Bond largely eschewing all of the trademark elements that defined the character. Cigar-smoking, whisky-sipping, often dressed in cool all-black attire, and – at least for Live and Let Die – avoiding both the tuxedo and the famous Walther PPK gun (he even sported a Magnum .44, which was surely a nod to the fact that they almost cast Dirty Harry himself as Bond – only to have Eastwood decline the role because he felt it should have been played by an Englishman). Indeed, in many ways, Moore’s Bond was the polar opposite to Connery’s iconic take on the character. Which was precisely the point.
“On the first wrong answer from Miss Solitaire, you will snip the little finger of Mr. Bond’s right hand. Starting with the second wrong answer, you will proceed to the more... vital... areas.”
As stated, many wonder what on earth the Studios had in mind when the cast Moore. I think he was the perfect choice. He was 45 at the time – the oldest actor to ever take up the mantle – and yet, perhaps thanks to his naturally slender physique and his lighter hair colour, he joined the franchise looking younger than Sean Connery did just two years earlier – when Connery was actually still just 41 (indeed this was largely as a result of Studio pressure – Cubby Broccoli repeated nagged Moore into losing weight and trimming his hair, so much so that Moore once wittily reflected “Why didn’t they get a thin actor who was bald to do the part?!” Whilst not having the same broad frame and rough-around-the-edges demeanour of Connery, Moore took a completely different approach to the character, giving us a spy who relied far more on his wit than his brawn.
It’s funny because I’ve always thought to myself, if you do a job where – on a daily, practically hourly basis – your life is in danger, there’s no way that you could survive it without having a sense of humour. Couple that with being faced with metal-claw-armed opponents that throw you into crocodile pits (and, later, gargantuan assassins with metal teeth) and your sense of humour better be fantastic. If you faced these scenarios with the brute force of Connery (for example, fighting Oddjob), then you’d have had a brain aneurism before you even hit 40. The stress would make your head explode. The only option – even more so as Moore’s adventures got all the more preposterous – was to raise your eyebrows and laugh it off with some throwaway comment. Who else, when faced with a 7ft opponent with metal teeth, grinning at him like he’s about to tear him apart, would proceed to grin right back?!
You’ve got to also remember that the sarcasm; the witty comebacks – they were all a well-developed defence mechanism for this particular super-spy. By now in the series, Bond’s wife had been tragically killed, and he wasn’t about to let anybody get too close to him again. The humour worked well to help him avoid emotional intimacy and to further dispel any signs of fear. Over the years we’d remember Moore for saying some cringeworthy things as Bond – no doubt at the writers behest, desperate to please the increasingly young audiences – but there were also some key moments where he was quite clearly just avoiding showing signs of fear, other occasions where he was just attempting to distract and ‘play along’ when he knew that it was a con (he was always the sneakiest Bond, seldom fooled even by the most duplicitous femme fatale) and perhaps the most important moments, where the characters he played against saw right through his protective veneer. This was never more obvious than in The Spy Who Loved Me, where his charm and persistent one-liners have next to no (apparent) effect on his spy counterpart / love interest, Barbara Bach’s Major Anya Amasova – indeed she not only deflects them, but actually manages to hit a sore spot with him when talking about his late wife. It’s here where we truly realise what all the over-zealous humour and over-confident charm is meant to cover up.
One also can’t forget just how much times had changed in the 70s. Post-Vietnam, the West – in particular the US – was a changed landscape. Nobody really wanted to see a cold-blooded, ruthless Government assassin travelling the world On Her Majesty’s whims. Watergate, Vietnam, Black power, Peace movements: they all had an effect, and Moore’s witty take on the character – still unflappably British, and interminably cool under pressure – was probably the biggest thing to keep the franchise alive. During that period, nobody could have done it better.
Of course, nobody could hope to beat Connery by pure imitation, so Moore didn’t even try, and he’s just as memorable as a result – in fact, given the number of later actors who have so often tried to adopt Connery elements into the portrayals, Moore’s distinctive approach is arguably even more unique. Again, despite his age, he brought a fresh new feel to the series, reinvigorating it over the course of the first three movies, finding his high point with The Spy Who Loved Me, before hitting troubled waters after the un-toppable excesses of Moonraker and after his age finally became an issue.
With Live and Let Die he was still finding his feet, and took Bond to all the places Connery had never been before, whether it was sharing a bed with the first African-American Bond girl, or beating his way through Harlem to face his first African-American Bond villain. He also brought Bond back to basics in a great many respects. Critics identify this trait in both Dalton and Craig’s interpretations of the character, but Moore did it first – check out the classic scene where he uses an aerosol as a makeshift flamethrower to kill a poisonous snake.
It was the witty remarks that Moore would become most famous for, having a clever remark to say in every situation. Sure, occasionally, they went that little bit too far – and it became a sore point amidst fans who would have preferred a grittier take on the character – but Moore’s Bond was far more debonair than we’d seen from the character before; far more refined (we’d get to see him in the kitchen making fresh coffee with an elaborate early espresso machine); more casually lascivious than Connery ever was (thus making his romantic trysts far less forced) and, ultimately, far cooler under fire. Epitomising the aristocratic Englishman, he was simply unflappable, and would sarcastically wisecrack his way out of any situation.
After his CIA contact – that aforementioned African-American Bond girl – screams upon discovering a voodoo ‘warning’ left in their hotel villa (a small black hat with a bloodied feather in it), Bond swiftly remarks: “it’s just a hat, darling, belonging to a small-headed man of limited means who lost a fight with a chicken.” Classic. Indeed some of Bond’s lines in this entry were even improvised by Moore himself – like the memorable moment where the metal-claw-for-a-hand henchman clumsily attempts to pull Mr. Bond’s watch off using his claw. What was Moore’s response? “Butterhook.”
Moore would certainly curry more than enough favour to allow him several more shots to perfect his aim in the role, but Yaphet Kotto – as with all the other actors ever chosen for the task – had just one chance to become a truly memorable villain, and largely struggled to do so. Perhaps it was the fact that his poor man’s Mission: Impossible mask didn’t really fool anybody, and that his dual-character portrayal was far from as clever as the filmmakers clearly thought it would be – either way, Mr Big / Kananga was nowhere near as weighty a villain as he should have been. It’s a shame because Kotto certainly had the presence – holding his own opposite the great Anthony Quinn in Across 110th Street is what got him the gig in the first place – and he’d later have a standout role in Alien as well as show some truly commanding presence in the acclaimed nineties police TV drama, Homicide. He just never quite managed to make it come across in Live and Let Die, falling short of being one of the great Bond villains.
Jane Seymour, on the other hand, would have little trouble becoming one of the most memorable Bond girls, and still remains a firm and fairly highly-placed entry amidst the top 10 Bond lovelies. Innate beauty might have had something to do with it – she certainly didn’t exceed herself in the acting ranks – but her somewhat shy, reserved demeanour does lend itself well to the role of a virgin tarot-card reading priestess who finds herself charmed by Bond’s larger-than-life presence in her inexperienced life.
“Name’s is fer tombstones, baby!”
The rest of the supporting cast offer up a mixed-bag selection of hit-and-miss components: Julius Harris has a wonderful time as Kananga’s lead henchman – the guy with the hook for a hand – but Gloria Hendry is far less than memorable as the first African-American Bond girl; Geoffrey Holder snakes his way around as the voodoo-driven Baron Samedi whereas Clifton James ultimately grates as the loud and inept redneck Sheriff dispatched to arrest Bond; David Hedison makes his mark as still one of the better Felix Leiter incarnations, but both Bernard Lee’s M and Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny are utterly wasted in an early scene that somewhat ill-advisedly takes us into Bond’s flat (and Q isn’t even in the movie, only being mentioned in passing when Bond receives his watch from M).
Running off a fairly restricted budget which was less than any of the last four Bond films, Live and Let Die often suffered with its more gritty, urban settings and less spectacular setpieces. The scriptwriters jettisoned two of the best scenes from the book likely because they were deemed too violent, but possibly also due to these budgetary limitations – the aforementioned shark-feeding attack on Leiter and the keelhauling finale which would be incorporated into later outings (although an alternative being-fed-to-sharks finale was left in) Indeed, its most memorable moments happened almost by coincidence: they came across a crocodile farm owned by a Ross Kananga (whose name was later used for the villain) and persuaded the guy not only to let them use the farm, but also do the famous crocodile-leaping stunt himself. Similarly, there was no intention to break any Guinness World Records during the speedboat chase sequence, but the assisted ramp-jump accidentally did just that; setting a new trend for Bond movies – spectacular stunts.
After doing the last five Bond scores, legendary composer John Barry (whose non-Bond work almost always carried those same classic Bond motifs) was unavailable for Live and Let Die and, with the budget blown on Paul McCartney’s chart-topping, Oscar-Winning title track, it was left to Beatles Producer George Martin to cobble together the rest of the score, cleverly playing variations of the excellent main track for the key scenes in the movie, but struggling to come up with anything particularly memorable during the rest of it. The innovative variations on McCartney’s main title track would, thankfully, still keep things alive, however, and the end result was far from disappointing – and, at times, highly engaging – but it just did not quite live up to classic Barry standards.
“There are two ways to disable a crocodile, you know.”
“I don’t suppose you’d care to share that information with me.”
“Well one way’s to take a pencil and jam it into the pressure hole behind his eyes.”
“And the other...”
“Oh the other’s twice as simple. You just put your hand in his mouth, and pull his teeth out!!”
Remember Live and Let Die for Roger Moore’s introduction to the role; Jane Seymour’s stunningly gorgeous Bond girl Solitaire; and David Henson’s debut as arguably the best Felix Leiter, as well as that opening song track. Remember the superb alligator-stepping-stone scene; the fantastic speedboat chase and stunts; and the double-decker bus that gets sliced in half; as well as that villain with the claw for a hand. This was a brave new direction for Bond to go in, and whilst it took a while for Moore to find his rhythm, it was a surprisingly engaging shift in dynamic from the Connery days of old. After Live and Let Die, one thing was for certain: Roger Moore was here to stay.