WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: When three British agents are murdered in quick succession, England’s finest James Bond follows the trail to Dr Kananga, the sinister and superstitious President of the Caribbean island of San Monique. Bond’s doggedness makes him a marked man in New York and New Orleans, as well as on the island itself, and his determination to thoroughly examine Kananga’s tarot reader Solitaire puts the lives of both the spy and the beautiful young woman in mortal danger.
You might have thought that having transmogrified into Roger Moore, Bond had earned his bedrest with an Italian lovely at the beginning of Live and Let Die. But foreign intrigues wait for no man and three violent deaths seemingly connected to President Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) see M (Bernard Lee) sending 007 to New York to meet up with his old CIA chum Felix Leiter (David Hedison). Bond being Bond, he instantly gets himself into trouble with the local population in Harlem under the control of the aggressive, jive-talking Mr Big; however, he finds an escape route and heads off for voodoo-worshipping San Monique, where he encounters screamy CIA agent Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry), who is not all she seems, and Quarrel Jr. (Roy Stewart, in a nod to Dr No), who helps Bond get up close and personal with Kananga’s clairvoyant, Solitaire (Jane Seymour). Bond and Solitaire – her innocence, clairvoyance and usefulness to Kananga now despoiled – escape, incidentally discovering the poppy fields that Kananga and his henchmen, including the metal-armed Tee Hee (Julius W. Harris), are prepared to kill to protect. Bond stops off in New Orleans and tips off Felix about the heroin, but he can’t prevent Solitaire from being snatched back by Kananga or himself from almost certainly being the next meal for a group of hungry crocodiles. Surely this can’t be the end for 007 – not when there’s a damsel in distress and a villain to be foiled?
In terms of the 007 formula, Live and Let Die fits the bill nicely: Bond flies out to an exotic location, cheats death, escapes in a manner requiring amazing stunts and – time allowing – beds a woman for good measure. Repeat as necessary. To be fair, it’s nice to see New York in a Bond movie, and good to see Bond before he became invulnerable to machine-gun fire (ironically, although James clearly states his watch can deflect bullets, it never needs to). In general, there’s everything here to keep a Bond fan contented, notwithstanding the absence of Desmond Llewelyn as Q. The film also aims for relevance, mixing the drugs plot of The French Connection with blaxploitation fare (eg. Shaft).
However, go beneath the surface of Live and Let Die and things aren’t quite so satisfactory. Firstly, it’s instantly apparent that compared to Sean Connery’s action man, Moore’s Bond is a lover, not a fighter (it’s an easy pun, I know, but Roger Moore definitely lives up to his name). As soon as Moore’s Bond sets eyes on a woman his first instinct is to seduce her, and because this happens three times here Bond goes from being roguish to sleazy to unintentionally comic in one fell swoop, as his libido causes the previously virginal Solitaire to become a rampant sex kitten. Bond’s overwhelming ardour takes centre stage to the extent that the villains are marginalised, Mr Big (and his ‘big’ secret) and the semi-mechanical Tee Hee coming over as less than threatening; Kananga’s little heroin plot is taken care of by the CIA, leaving Bond free to rescue the pretty white girl from the nasty black bogey men, personified by the spooky and reputedly-immortal Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder).
Which brings us to the film’s racial politics. The problem is not so much that Kananga and all his immediate associates – the semi-virtuous Solitaire apart – are black, because we wouldn’t bat an eyelid at all-white SPECTRE agents. No, the problem is that the film implies pretty strongly that the greater part of the black population (in Harlem and New Orleans particularly) are part of a single criminal fraternity. To an extent, the scripts’ references to ‘honkies’ and ‘spades’ merely conform with the era the film was made in (my favourite line is ‘You can’t miss him – it’s like following a cue ball’), but the unflattering portrayal of a whole race as criminal, savage and superstitious now feels very uncomfortable. Of course, you could argue that Quarrel Jr. goes against type, and indeed he evades gangster stereotyping – only to fall into the equally offensive stereotyping of being lazy. Meanwhile, the only saving grace about Hendry’s cowardly, shouty, big-eyed, afro-ed caricature of Rosie Carver is that she doesn’t stick around for long.
Live and Let Die does do some things well. Although I’m not sure that the supernatural sits easily with Bond’s style, Solitaire’s fortune-telling is a novel twist and the bizarre voodoo sequences are genuinely weird (Baron Samedi is great fun). Also, the stunts are deftly handled, even if at twelve minutes the speedboat section is protracted and marred by the obnoxious tobaccy-chewing sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), who proved so unaccountably popular that he was brought back for The Man With The Golden Gun. The rocking title song is also one of the franchise’s best. But the successful moments must be balanced against the ugliness of the film as a whole, and while ugliness is a hallmark of 70s film-making, it doesn’t really mesh with the supposed suaveness of James Bond and Moore’s glib style in particular (there are some awful one-liners on display). And two more things, quickly: 007’s famous ‘crocodile jump‘ is rightly celebrated for its sheer lunacy, but I just can’t relax enough to accept that no henchmen would stick around to watch, just in case; secondly, the film’s climax is a real letdown, and I’d love to know how long scriptwriter Tom Mankiewicz kicked around ideas for where to have Kananga’s final showdown before saying to himself, ‘Oh sod it, let’s just give him an underground lair.’
Most of Moore’s Bond films fall into the category ‘not really very good but strangely watchable’, and Live and Let Die is no exception. Though unattractive in many respects and downright objectionable in its politics, it provides enough curiosities to make up for its manifest deficiencies as a tale of espionage. Moore would go on to be in better Bonds, but he’d also be in far, far worse ones.