Review: Live and Let Die

James Bond (Roger Moore) is sent to investigate the murder of three British agents, and the trail leads him to a Caribbean island dictator named Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), who seems to have ties to a Harlem drug lord named Mr. Big. Bond attempts to get to Mr. Big through his personal psychic Solitaire (Jane Seymour). Gloria Hendry plays a federal agent named Rosie Carver, Julius Harris plays henchman Tee-Hee, Geoffrey Holder is the creepy voodoo practitioner Baron Samedi, and Clifton James plays redneck Sheriff J.W. Pepper. David Hedison makes the first of his two stints as Bond contact Felix Leiter (he’d appear again a couple of decades later in “Licence to Kill” in the same role).

Everyone has their favourite Roger Moore 007 film, and for me it’s this, his first outing in the role from 1973. Directed by Guy Hamilton (“Goldfinger”, “Diamonds Are Forever”), it probably helps to be a Blaxploitation fan to appreciate this one, and it also has some awesome New Orleans jazz and voodoo flavour to it that appealed to me. We open with the best gun barrel 007 theme from the Moore era, with plenty of the twangy guitar that I irrationally believe crucial for a Bond film. Although the first scene is in New York, we quickly cut to New Orleans with what is one of the most unforgettable openers in Bond film history: The creepy New Orleans jazz parade/murder/funeral procession, followed by the voodoo ritual stuff from the fictional island of San Monique. After that we get some of Maurice Binder’s best work with the voodoo and flames inspired titles design, leading us to the all-time greatest Bond song: Paul McCartney and Wings’ classic title song. Even the briefing scene is a welcome change from the norm as M visits the new 007 at home. It’s funny stuff as Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) spots 007’s lady of choice (played by the lovely Madeline Smith) running out of the house sans clothing. It’s one of Moneypenny’s finest moments in the series, and Bernard Lee is good here as M. And who doesn’t love a good magnetised watch that’s able to unzip a girl’s dress? Classy stuff from our new, wink-wink Bond. It’s probably one of the series’ best gadgets, actually.

The music score in the film is actually by Sir George Martin himself, and although early on he adopts a very un-Bond 70’s Blaxploitation flavour, he doesn’t forget to incorporate the elements we all know and love. Being a fan of Blaxploitation films and the music featured in them, I had zero problems enjoying the score whatsoever. It’s my kind of music and certainly preferable to some of the disco/pop-infused Bond scores in preceding years. When the Bond theme kicks in from time to time, it’s done quite well, especially during a chase scene about 20 minutes in. It’s probably one of the series’ best music scores, and certainly the best non-John Barry 007 score to date. I also liked the occasional use of handheld camerawork by Ted Moore (“Dr. No”, “A Man for All Seasons”) during the American scenes, giving off a gritty 70s vibe in keeping with that music score.

One of the most interesting elements of the film for me is its depiction of Africans and African-Americans as rather tricky/duplicitous as well as somewhat mystical. Yeah, it’s racially stereotyped up to yin-yang, but it’s fascinating and slightly creepy at times. You feel somewhat off-kilter throughout, as does Bond himself at times. The best of these is Bond’s visit to a club where a Gladys Knight-esque singer doing a cool R&B version of the title song distracts 007 long enough for him to fall into a trap, lowered into a secret room before he realises it’s even happening. Even the main villain, is displaying a kind of trickery by disguising himself as another character. Yaphet Kotto apparently had a few misgivings about the racial stereotypes on display in the film, but he doesn’t let any of that show in his dual performance as Dr. Kananga (the ruler of a fictional Caribbean island) and Harlem drug lord Mr. Big. I don’t like the dual character ruse, as the makeup for Mr. Big is hideously cheap-looking and unconvincing. However, Kotto gives a classy performance as always. He’s probably a little underused in the film, but particularly towards the climax he really appears to be having fun with the part. He’s not a great Bond villain, but through Kotto’s solid performance he’s a pretty good one. In fact, the heroin smuggling operation, whilst perhaps a bit small-fry for Bond is perfect for what is a somewhat Blaxploitation-esque Bond movie.

Kotto is surrounded by a hell of a roster of henchmen, it has to be said. Chief among these is smiling, hook-handed Tee-Hee, played by the late, great Julius Harris, a long-serving familiar face from the Blaxploitation period and beyond. Easily one of my favourite Bond henchmen, he’s seemingly genial but hulking and rather sadistic. The late Geoffrey Holder, known best as a dancer gets to play a henchman based on a pretty well-known character from voodoo spiritualism, Baron Samedi. Holder, who choreographed his own ritual dance, is beguiling and cool-looking in the part. Seemingly otherworldly, there’s never been a character in the Bond series like him before or since and his few moments on screen are magnetic and creepy. I also enjoyed the performance by Earl ‘Jolly’ Brown (also sadly departed) as the aptly named ‘Whisper’, a big, menacing-looking bouncer-type who has a trademark quiet rasp in his voice. Like Baron Samedi, you won’t see much of Whisper, but when you do, you take notice. Look out for a genuinely hilarious Arnold Williams as a cab driver in Mr. Big’s employ who refers to Bond as ‘Jimmy’.

As for the Bond girls…well, it’s hit and miss I’m afraid. Gloria Hendry was quite fun in Blaxploitation movies like “Black Belt Jones” and the excellent “Black Caesar”, but she’s not a sterling actress and has been handed the dud role of Rosie Carver, idiot CIA agent. A bumbling, yellow-bellied twit, she’s the dreadful blend of Tanya Roberts in “A View to a Kill” and Karin Dor in “You Only Live Twice” with a touch of Britt Ekland in “The Man With the Golden Gun”. Probably among the 10 worst Bond Girls in history, if I’m being honest, certainly among the worst-written. She shrieks, she cries, and none of it is terribly convincing. Although I’m completely baffled as to why the perfectly bloody English Jane Seymour has had her voice dubbed here, she certainly fares much better than Hendry. Playing Mr. Big’s resident tarot card reader Solitaire, I may be the farthest thing from a “Dr. Quinn” fan but even I have to admit she’s pretty damn good here. Playing a somewhat mystical, heterosexual, less villainous version of Pussy Galore (not one of my favourite Bond girls), she’s not only quite attractive but the character is probably in the upper tier of Bond Girls. She’s perhaps a bit chilly in the romantic department but probably a lot more intriguing than many Bond Girls I could name. Her costumes are also incredible, I must say. It has to be said that it’s through the character or Solitaire that we see Roger Moore’s version of 007 do something rather manipulative and underhanded, not something otherwise terribly evident throughout his stint in the role, which is certainly interesting. He does something to her that these days would probably be referred to as a ‘total dick move’, and I’m not using that phrase in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge double-entendre fashion. The film gives us the first glimpse of redneck idiot Sheriff J.W. Pepper, a character who would inexplicably turn up again in Asia in “The Man With the Golden Gun”. Played objectively well by Clifton James, the character is often seen as a low-point in the series and an unwelcome distraction. I reacted badly against him in “The Man With the Golden Gun”, in fact that section of the film is, along with Maud Adams the weakest thing about that film. Here I can praise James’ performance, and he actually fits in here with both the story and flavour on show here. He’s also dumb enough that you don’t feel icky about his crass, good ‘ol boy lawman with none-too-subtle racial suspicions/prejudice. He offers up stupid humour and his only real crime here is he hogs up a bit too much screen time in the back end of the film, so that the major villains end up somewhat neglected for too long a stretch. I’m a “Dukes of Hazzard” fan, which admittedly helps, but a little J.W. goes quite a long way.

In addition to providing colourful flavour in both New Orleans and the West Indies scenes, the film is full of lovely scenery. Whether it’s the rather rundown locales of Harlem (perhaps not ‘pretty’ but certainly interesting), or the West Indies locales, it’s a really colourful, well-shot film. The chase scenes are fun too, including one between a cop car and a rickety-looking double-decker bus, and a cool, no-frills speedboat chase that thankfully is mostly free of goofy humour that seemed far too pervasive elsewhere in Moore’s 007 films.

As for our hero, Roger Moore will never be my favourite 007, but whatever your take is on his interpretation of the character, he gets into that groove remarkably quickly here. In fact, it’s my favourite Moore performance of his entire run. Even some of his double-entendres and one-liners are among the better ones, mainly because Moore doesn’t do what he would in every other film and deliver them with a sledgehammer’s subtlety. Starkly different to every other Bond before and since, he couldn’t possibly play it any other way and he’s remarkably assured first time out. The bit where he commandeers a flight school aeroplane is particularly amusing.

Flawed, but unquestionably one of the most entertaining Bond films, and quite unique in flavour. Scripted by Tom Mankiewicz (“Diamonds Are Forever”, “The Cassandra Crossing”, “Ladyhawke”), there’s never a dull moment here. Of all the outlandish Moore-era Bond films this one for me is the most successful.

Rating: B-


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