And with that, we’ve got ourselves a new Bond. And he’s a good one, which is great, because he’s going to be with us for a while.
Roger Moore’s first outing is interesting. For something as overrun with unfortunate stereotypes as this movie is…it’s actually pretty entertaining. It’s hardly going to win any awards for nuance or insightful commentary, but as a fun spy thriller action/comedy, it is actually a lot of fun. The problem is how bad you feel for liking it so much despite its unfortunate portrayal of the African American community, the Caribbean peoples, Southern white males, practitioners of Voodoo (and its Caribbean relatives), women, and crocodiles (not all crocodiles want to spend all their time threatening charming British spies, after all. Some of them have dreams of being loved!)
I may be exaggerating, but only a bit.
This movie has James Bond (Roger Moore) investigating a series of murders he believes could be linked. Along the way, he becomes entangled with a vast drug empire with ties to the mysterious Mr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) and his fortune-telling ward/assistant/kept woman, Solitaire (Jane Seymour). Fighting through a horde of henchmen including the Voodoo Loa Baron Samedi (Geoffery Holder), and the claw-handed Tee Hee (Julius Harris), Bond must figure out what Kananga has planned, even if he has to romance the answers out of the naive-but-powerful Solitaire.
I’ll get to the stereotype issues in a second, but I do want to give Roger Moore his due. He had pretty big shoes to fill. At this point, the Bond film series was a big moneymaker and was already internationally popular, so a change in lead actor (after two consecutive actor changes) could have been a disaster, especially since they were bringing in an actor who had a very different screen presence. But Roger Moore does beautifully in the role. He’s much more laid back and charming than Connery (or I should say charming in a different way, since Connery was the charming bad boy while Moore is the charming good guy), and has a goofier sense of humor. Although this is Moore’s first Bond film, he’s got the character pretty solidly already. You feel like you know him already. In one early scene where Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) bails Bond out of a tricky situation involving a lovely “missing” Italian diplomat whom Bond has hidden away in a closet, the audience can really feel the chemistry between the two, even though these two actors haven’t worked together before. Regardless of my issues with how overwhelmingly ridiculous the Roger Moore era got in later years, the man himself is an excellent Bond. I like that he’s not trying to be a Connery clone like Lazenby was. He finds his own version of the character, and really has a lot of fun with it.
Regarding the story itself, I’ve read differing opinions of its stereotypical portrayals of various groups. On one hand, this movie is clearly trying to capitalize on the popularity of the “blaxploitation” film genre which had hit its peak with such titles as the original crime thriller Shaft (1971), the wildly popular Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (1971), and the camp classic Blacula (1972) (among many others too numerous to name here). It was a short-lived era, with a few standout classics sprinkled amidst a bunch of cheap knockoffs, but it was culturally significant in that it allowed strong black characters to take center stage and fight against stereotypical Hollywood portrayals. Nowadays, the films have a goofy and over-the-top charm, but they do represent an important step in Hollywood’s history. On the other hand, the problem with Live and Let Die is that the main character is a white gentlemen who represents British imperialism (whether he wants to or not), and the black characters are, except for two of them, all villains, so it doesn’t quite work as a blaxploitation hybrid. Nevertheless, the influences are definitely there. Moore’s tenure as Bond is definitely marked by a desire to capitalize on popular movie genres; we’ll see the influences of the Bruce Lee-style Kung Fu movies in The Man with the Golden Gun and the sci-fi stylings of a Post-Star Wars world in Moonraker.
Now, personally, I don’t find this movie THAT racist. I quite like the character of Quarrel Jr. (Roy Stewart), son of Bond’s friend from Dr. No. When introducing him to Rosie, Bond describes him as “the man who shares my hairbrush” and the two seem to be really good friends. Then, later on, we meet Agent Strutter (Lon Satton) who is a minor but strong character who rescues Bond from Mr. Big’s men. The folks who get the most negative portrayals in this are women and, funnily enough, white Louisiana cops (the character of Sergeant J. W. Pepper has NOT aged well). There are still several unfortunate racial undertones that don’t sit well with contemporary audiences (such as the odd implication that all black people both in America and the Caribbean live in fear of Voodoo), but overall, I have more of an issue with this movie’s sexism.
It will be a long while before the Bond series sees a consistent lineup of strong women, and in this one, both Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) and Solitaire are portrayed as silly, easily manipulated women who exist to be objectified. The fact that Rosie is a black woman is a non-issue. I wish both Rosie and Solitaire were given more to do because they had the potential to be genuinely interesting characters, but this is a Bond film in the 70’s, and such progressive craziness won’t be a reality for about 20 more years.
Regarding its main villain, Kananga is a smart, genuinely lethal villain up until Bond confronts him in his secret underground facility (which comes with the standard issue shark pool). At that point, he sort of becomes a Blofeld-Dr. No clone, placing Bond and Solitaire in an easily escapable situation wherein Bond is able to quickly take him out. I like Kananga much more in the first half of the film. He’s very much a genius strategist, and his plan to create a drug monopoly seems like something that could seriously work. By the end, he suffers the same fate as Blofeld did in the previous film, making poor choices so as to ensure our hero survives until the next movie. Plus, his ultimate demise is one of the sillier of the franchise. Funny, but perhaps a bit too funny.
But plot-wise, this movie works very well. The action is consistent and entertaining and gives Moore plenty of opportunities to show audiences that he’s perfectly capable of being awesome. The big, famous boat chase (that still holds a Guinness World Record for longest speedboat jump in a film) is perhaps tame by today’s standards, but it’s brilliantly choreographed and edited. I’m also a fan of its explosive conclusion which shows that, while Moore may appear to be a more gentle Bond, he’s perfectly capable of taking out bad guys in inventive ways.
Plus, with serious spy thrillers like From Russia with Love in the past, Bond is embracing its camp status much more. We saw this in Connery’s era, too, but I like how the Moore era seems much more aware of its third wall. It never quite breaks it the way Lazenby did when he told the audience, “This never happened to the other fella,” but it does have a certain self-aware cheekiness, which is amusing. There’s one moment where we see white hotel guests enjoying a Voodoo-themed floor show which features Baron Samedi, someone whom the announcer reassures us is “just a performer in a musical extravaganza” (*wink wink nudge nudge*). But then we see him later on moving beyond the world of the theatrical, which causes the audience to wonder just who Baron Samedi is. If he’s a henchman of Kananga’s, what is his purpose? Also, by the movie’s end, we’re left wondering if he is actually a Voodoo Loa who just happened to hang around Kananga.
I love his “fake death” where Bond shoots him and he shatters, and then comes back to life. It’s a fantastic effect, and genuinely surprising. Sure, that could have been planned by Kananga behinds the scenes, but then Samedi’s “killed” again (death by snake) only to come back and laugh maniacally directly at the audience in the movie’s last seconds, taunting us with the possibility that there may actually be supernatural elements in this movie. I don’t know, maybe I’m overthinking things, but I love the Baron Samedi character, and I like how he works to reassure the audience not to take things too seriously, which will set the tone for future Roger Moore outings.
I also, of course, have to talk about the opening credits. Wings’ “Live and Let Die” is a fantastic opening credits song. It’s fun, bold, and goes along with Maurice Binder’s beautiful opening credits animation, which has come a long way since the dancing colorful silhouettes in Dr. No. I especially love the smash cut between the woman’s face and the burning skull. This is definitely one of those iconic Bond openings that is fun just as a standalone piece of media. Also, I love how Paul and Linda McCartney blended the familiar late sixties rock feel with the John-Barry-esque orchestra. I was actually surprised to read that it was Beatles producer George Martin, and not Barry, who composed the score for the film. The decision to hand the reins over to Martin isn’t surprising since he also produced Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger,” but I really like how seamless the transition between composers is. It blends very well with the Barry scores of the previous films. We’re not going to have such a good opening credits song until a couple years down the road.
Overall, this is a consistently fun movie that, instead of being accidentally cheesy, embraces the cheese whole hog. Roger Moore is a fantastic 70’s Bond, and though he doesn’t get the most interesting Bond girls to interact with in this film, he still manages to be suave and charming, and I’m glad he sticks around for a while.
-This movie gives us the first of many utterances of “Oh James!” I don’t know if it counts as a catchphrase, but Moore hears this one a lot during his tenure.
-I love the look Mrs. Bell gives Bond after he captures and destroys her training plane. I’m surprised her death stare isn’t a meme. I should make it one.
-I love the “Trespassers will be EATEN” sign at the crocodile farm.
-Bond orders a bourbon on the rocks at Fillet of Soul. The filmmakers may be trying to set him apart from Connery’s Bond, but still, the iconic martini will return in later movies!
-The convenient “oh wait, Bond’s watch is actually also a buzzsaw!” thing is WAY too convenient.
-“For the first time in my life, I feel like a complete woman.” Ugh. No one cares, Solitaire. Maybe if you were a stronger character with more interesting motivations, we’d believe you.
-This one ends on a train instead of a boat! (by the way, the tally so far is 5 out of 8 movies where Bond ends the movie on a boat of some kind.
Tune in next week (same Bond time! same Bond channel!) for The Man with the Golden Gun in which Bond faces off against a legendary assassin played by a legendary actor who has been a vampire, a wizard, a dragon, and a Sith lord. It’s going to be awesome!