This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
This is the one where James Bond does Blaxploitation. It’s Roger Moore’s debut. The One with All the Voodoo. Live And Let Die is memorable for numerous reasons. Great villains, the super-hot Solitaire, crocodiles and a distinct otherworldly flavor grant the film memorability: no small achievement when you’re the eighth child of 23.
It’s nearly a classic, and certainly one of Moore’s best, but the final half hour falls a bit flat. Switch off after Bond’s Crocodile Dundee moment, just before the looooooooong boat chase. This one has plenty of potentially offensive racial and sexual politics for that matter – but with Bond the latter is kind of a given.
The Villain: Both “two-bit Island diplomat” and Harlem gangster, Dr Kananga is a fine enemy for Moore to cut his teeth on. Notably the only black antagonist of the series to date – and the only one to use voodoo and believe in the occult.
In other respects, Kananga is a fairly typical villain. He repeatedly and unsuccessfully tries to feed Bond to various unpleasant creatures. He has an unrequited crush on the Bond girl, and an exceptional array of henchman. Loses points for a particularly stupid demise but that isn’t his fault.
The Girl: Kept in captivity by Kananga, relying on her virginity to read the tarot cards, Solitaire has far more backstory than most Moore girls. She has a brilliant name that sort of links to her character and doesn’t sound like the punchline to a dirty joke. She is alarmingly passive however: entirely at the mercy of Kananga, utterly reliant on Bond. At no point is Solitaire remotely helpful. Silent when threatened, during the climatic fights she just cowers. To be blunt, Solitaire seems a little dumb. But – appreciating 1970s Bond girls are not bastions of feminism – she’s an utter knockout and that counts for far more than I’d like to pretend.
Roger Moore isn’t the best Bond but he’s the most fun. He’s also the most generous, willing to do anything to ensure everybody has a good time. Dress up as a clown? No problem. Fight a midget? Of course. Drive a gondolier through the streets of Venice? If you must. Roger is happy to do stuff all the other Bonds would deem beneath them. He’s willing to play the fool. His biggest problem is his greatest strength.
Most of the James Bonds wouldn’t be much gas at parties. Connery spends the night gambling, and won’t bother talking to you unless you are either a beautiful woman or perceived threat. Lazenby cracks a few weak jokes and ends up cleaning puke from the toilets because he’s too damn nice to say no. Dalton leaves early. Brosnan is charming yet a little tortured, wincing slightly when you mention a trusted friend. Craig is curt and always seems on the verge of killing you.
But Roger – Roger is the life and soul! Roger instigates drinking games, performs magic tricks, starts up a conga line. Roger guffaws at all of your jokes, makes you laugh at his own slightly off-color ones and encourages you to text that girl you know you shouldn’t but really want to. Even though, deep down, you suspect he’s slightly too old to be hitting the shots, the guy is such a laugh who cares? Come the end of the evening, Roger leaves with the hottest, youngest girl on his arm and gives you a cheery wave: “absolute pleasure, old sport! Same time again?” And, clasping hands to your pounding head, you mutter, “Okay Roger. See you for brunch.”
Again, the acronymed title is nearly exquisite. Diamonds Are Forever becomes DAF and cries out for a final T. Live And Let Die translates to LALD – subtract that second L and you capture Moore to, well, a T. Utterly coincidental but mildly engaging nonetheless.
Appropriately enough, Roger’s first scene as Bond involves him smuggling a recently-bedded female spy around his apartment to hide her from M. It’s typical Moore, a joke at the expense of logic: surely M wouldn’t give a crap about two adults having consensual sex in their downtime? However, Rog stuffs Miss Caruso in the closet and shows off his coffee machine to the boss. The vibe is more Jason Biggs than Sean Connery but that’s only a negative if you take Connery as gospel. Which – heretically or not – many certainly don’t.
The pre-credits purge of the diplomats is brilliant. Particularly fun is the funeral parade and empty coffin ready to pick up the recently knifed spy. Cue carnival. Heaven knows how they worked that out logistically – “Everybody ready? Sad faces, people! Start walking… ah crap, he’s gone for a coffee” – but such elaborate machinations are the heart of Bond.
I don’t mention the songs much but for me Paul McCartney’s number is the best of the lot. It is a thrilling piece of music that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Recurs throughout – always a good sign. Good to see Sir Paul harbored no grudges over the Goldfinger jibe.
More than most Bonds, Live And Let Die is a triumph of mood over plot. Essentially no plot exists, certainly not in the traditional sense. Kananga plans to flood America with free heroin and reap the benefits once everyone’s addicted. It’s an, um, interesting business model that definitely stands up to economic scrutiny. Then again, he’s not trying to recolonise the planet from space. It always seems a little unfair that the villainous schemes half-rooted in plausibility get ripped apart more than the completely batshit mental ones.
The villains are a strength. Strange to think Live And Let Die was only the second film not to feature SPECTRE, and Kananga the first non-Blofeld antagonist since Emilio Largo. The film needed a strong threat and the quietly menacing Kananga provides. He is a more complex villain than most, his obsession with Solitaire and use of the occult adding interesting layers to the character. The film misses a trick by not exploring his double-life as Mr Big. Perhaps the premise falls apart if examined too closely but I feel a novel idea was sold short.
Mr Big’s self-referential line: ‘old Kananga, he believes all that voodoo crap’ raises a particularly tantalising question. Does he? He certainly appears to, as does Solitaire of course. But then he also manipulates voodoo to protect his drug empire. Is the result of his duel-identity that he believes as Kananga but not as Mr Big? Fertile ground left entirely unmined.
Like the villain, love the henchman. Live And Let Die boasts the best array of nasties this side of From Russia With Love. Portly, rasping Whisper could easily be chief sidekick in another film. Instead the role goes to Tee Hee, the right-hand man who doesn’t have one. Tee Hee is one of my favourite heavies. Even discounting the claw, he cuts an imposing figure: monstrously large and a fan of bright red suits.
Charismatic and garrulous, Tee Hee is a refreshing alternative to the typical monotone goon. The great henchmen – Oddjob, Jaws, Necros – tend to be strong and silent types. Hopefully Mr Hinx and successors follow Tee Hee’s example and talk rather than glower.
But Baron Samedi steals the show. Tall, flamboyant and with a laugh to trouble a seismometer, Samedi is the most enigmatic character to appear in a Bond film. Presumably ‘Samedi’ is merely a stooge hired by Kananga to impersonate the mythical Loa, but such is the presence and charisma of the late Geoffrey Holder that he could easily be the real thing. His final reappearance on the front of the train is a wonderful stylistic touch – and brilliantly atypical for a Bond film. Samedi is the bridge between the relative ‘realism’ of Kananga and the shifting, spiritual elements of voodoo and tarot running through the film.
I don’t want to dwell on the racial politics too much as ultimately this is a James Bond retrospective, not an academic essay. Race representation in 1970s America requires far more space, and a far more learned mind, than I can possibly provide. However just to ignore race in Live And Let Die seems cowardly so let’s examine it through the prism of the Bond series.
Firstly, let’s be blunt: the goodies are white and the baddies are black. Some goodies are also black – Quarrel Jr, Strutter – although no baddies are white. This isn’t actually as bad as it sounds. Kananga, Tee Hee, and Baron Samedi are all intelligent, charming and, crucially, competent villains who are depicted as Bond’s equals. (Naturally, their competency has a blind spot when it comes to killing Bond.)
Were the trio depicted as brutish or incompetent, or were the main villain white, the outlook would be bleak. Making the villains competent and black is a mark in the film’s favor (their evilness is neither here nor there. They’re Bond villains – of course they’re evil). That Kananga remains the only black villain to-date is a stain on the series, not this film.
Solitaire is another matter. A white woman kept by evil black masters is the stuff of Ku Klux Klan fantasy. The scene where she is threatened by Kananga and Tee Hee is particularly discomforting. Kananga has just discovered Bond has slept with her, and he screams in rage, “When the time came, I would have given you love!” We are obviously meant to find the idea repellent, just as with Goldfinger’s flirting with Pussy Galore and Largo’s dominance over Domino.
However, the lines blur. Is the repellence a question of morals or race? An evil man desiring an innocent woman or a black man desiring a white woman – deflowered by the white hero? Regardless of the film’s intent, it’s hard to watch the scene and not see the latter.
Kananga and Solitaire’s relationship throws up another issue. Bond bedding the villain’s woman is hardly new; from Thunderball to Skyfall, it’s a fairly standard development. What makes Live And Let Die unique is the insistence the villain himself has not bedded the woman. The film makes Solitaire’s virginity a central plot-point to ensure clarity on the matter. The sexual relationship between a black man and white woman is sidestepped.
We do get the first interracial relationship of the series between Bond and the highly annoying Rosie Carver. This is progress, I suppose. But Rosie is swiftly killed off – the film is prepared to offer a black Bond girl, provided she isn’t the main Bond girl. Really, Solitaire should be black. That would sidestep multiple uneasy subtexts (only touched upon above), correlate thematically and be a landmark piece of casting.
Instead it took until 2002 for the first – and still only – black ‘primary Bond girl’; while you can count the black ‘secondary Bond girls’ on one hand. Literally: Rosie, Mayday, Jinx and Eve Moneypenny. Yet compared to the black villains they are legion.
Right, that’s enough. I considered analyzing the sacrifices – in which a village of black voodoo-worshipers threaten a terrified white person with snakes – but frankly these scenes speak for themselves. And the subtext is too extensive for a paragraph. YouTube and judge.
So, the crocodiles! Good huh? Tee Hee’s cheerful abandonment of Bond on Croc Island is a brilliant scene, up there with the best of the series. The gradual incursion of the reptiles into Bond’s personal space is highly unnerving and Moore – who can play these moments a little too pat – looks suitably unnerved. The boat is a masterstroke – throwing a lifeline, then pulling it back. No gadgets here!
Sprinting across crocodile backs is a satisfactory escape but questions must be asked as to why nobody kept an eye on Bond. Surely watching a man get eaten alive is Tee Hee’s idea of fun?
Unfortunately the crocodile escape marks the point of decline. Because it is followed by a boat chase so long its climax takes place in a different geological era than its start. The chase lasts for approximately 12 minutes. That’s 10% of the entire film! Nor is it particularly invigorating – large swathes involve nothing more than a boat being followed by some other boats. No soundtrack either. Let the drone of the engines lull you into slumber.
Only when Adam (a henchman) finally reaches Bond does the music, and something vaguely resembling excitement, kick in. By this point the younger, older, or more hungover viewers may be dead to the world.
Wisely, the film intercuts the boat with alternative action. Stupidly, this action involves Sheriff Pepper – a very, very convincing candidate for worst character of the entire series. Sheriff Pepper is a loud, boorish Louisiana lawman who does for Southern Americans what Borat did for Kazakhstan. He is the first major-ish character of the series to be used solely for comic relief. Although unfortunately the moment of true relief – involving the Sheriff, some matches and gasoline – is left to the imagination.
Okay, I admit the bit where the oblivious Sheriff hails the arrival of his brother’s boat – the brother is named ‘Billy Bob’, naturally – while the bemused policemen see the black Adam at the wheel… I admit that raises a smile. Less amusing is when Pepper stops Adam in his car and immediately gets heavy-handed – and armed. I’m not sure if the casually racist attitude of Southern policemen is a particularly satisfactory way for Bond to evade danger. Post-Ferguson – and others – it really isn’t comfortable viewing.
The actual climax feels rushed and there is no sense of events reaching a head. That is the problem when the villain’s plan is business rather than destruction. I do like the superficially relaxed conversation between Bond and Kananga before Bond is fed to the sharks. (Seriously, K: stop trying to feed Bond to things! It doesn’t work!) The verbal interplay between Bond and the villain is invariably more interesting than a physical confrontation we know Bond must win. Live And Let Die later forgets this rule when, on the train, Tee Hee immediately attacks Bond after only the briefest dialogue. Even the Red Grant fight is founded on the long, incredibly tense exchange that precedes it, to the extent the actual violence almost feels a relief.
One does wonder where all Kananga’s henchman vanish to? We see them running around underground before Bond and Solitaire are captured; yet only Kananga and Whisper remain in the cave itself. Surely summoning some back-up, just in case, would be a wise course of action? Or simply keeping hold of a gun? The escape itself, incidentally, is a massive cheat. Bond uses a gadget – saw in watch – that the film didn’t previously reveal. No fair.
Kananga’s death is monumentally inane. Inflating like a balloon is completely unrealistic and betrays an otherwise fine villain. The line between elaborate and ludicrous may be fine but nobody could doubt where this demise falls. Almost as stupid is Solitaire asking ‘Where’s Kananga?’ just so Bond can spout a terrible line about him ‘always having an inflated opinion of himself.’ Never mind that it’s a crap payoff – the deeper concern is how the hell Solitaire failed to notice a man turning into a beach ball, levitating to the roof and exploding.
No matter. Live And Let Die is a confident debut and arguably the most interesting – if not the best – film of Moore’s entire tenure. His ease in the role is remarkable and vital: another Lazenby and that could have been curtains for the series. Instead a whole new chapter began. Sure, it might verge on unreadable in places, but the story would rarely be dull.
Best Bit: Can’t look past the crocodiles.
Worst Bit: Any moment Sheriff Pepper is onscreen.
Final Thought: Where did Bond get all those Lovers tarot cards from? Did he buy fifty packs and carefully extract the relevant card from each one?