I’ve fallen behind on my James Bond columns. Summer has been a lot crazier than expected. Travel and publishing a couple books has cut into my blogging time.
I’m back at it again this week with Roger Moore’s first adventure as Bond, 1973’s Live and Let Die. As always, I’ll look at the film’s plot and feel and examine where it fits in the Bond mythos and how well it stands up today. As a result, this post contains spoilers. You’ve been warned.
The film opens with a series of murders. Three British agents — one at the U.N., one in New Orleans, and one in the fictional Caribbean nation of San Monique — are killed, prompting M to put 007 on the case.
Both MI6 and the CIA suspect there is a link between Harlem gangster, Mr. Big, and San Monique’s dictator, Dr. Kananga. Bond flies to New York to join longtime ally, Felix Leiter, in investigating Kananga to root out the connection.
007 has barely got his feet on the ground in New York when it quickly becomes apparent he is in over his head. Mr. Big controls a vast network of hoods, and they are onto Bond immediately, assassinating his driver and nearly killing him in the process.
Bond pursues the killer into black Harlem, where he stands out like — as one character puts it — a cue ball. 007 is quickly captured by Mr. Big, who orders him killed. Bond only escapes when he is rescued by a black CIA agent, who had been shadowing him.
But before Mr. Big orders his execution, Bond meets Solitaire — a beautiful, young Tarot reader. Giving Bond a reading before his demise, the cards reveal that she and Bond will become lovers.
We quickly discover that Solitaire is working for Kananga, as are several of Mr. Big’s principal thugs. Both Kananga and Solitaire believe she has precognitive powers that allow her to interpret the Tarot cards and tell Kananga what he needs to do.
With New York proving to be a dead end, Bond flies to San Monique to investigate the murder there. He teams up with bumbling CIA agent Rosie Carver. But she’s actually working for Kananga, and her mission is to lead 007 into a trap. He figures it out quickly, and Rosie is assassinated by Kananga’s people before she can divulge any useful information.
Bond sneaks into Kananga’s palatial home, where he finds Solitaire. He seduces her by having her perform a reading to prove the one in New York is correct. Unknown to Solitaire, all the cards are “The Lovers,” so Bond will get what he wants.
After they have sex, Solitaire is terrified, because now that she is not a virgin, she’s lost her powers. She fears Kananga will kill her. Bond agrees to take her with him.
She shows him what Kananga has been hiding on San Monique — enormous poppy fields, enabling him to make and distribute heroin through his U.S. connection, Mr. Big.
Bond and Solitaire escape to New Orleans, but they’re quickly captured by Mr. Big’s people. There, Bond discovers Kananga and Mr. Big are actually the same person. Kananga intends to control all ends of the heroin distribution pipeline, and he’s going to give tons of heroin away free to crash the market and drive out competition. He’ll then monopolize demand as the only supplier.
Kananga also discovers Bond and Solitaire have been intimate. He sentences them both to death — Bond to be devoured at an alligator farm on the Louisiana Bayou, and Solitaire in a voodoo ritual on San Monique.
Bond barely escapes the farm before becoming lunch to a hundred crocs and gators. He then leads Kananga’s men on an epic boat chase through the Bayou before finally reuniting with Leiter. The two then arrange for him to rescue Solitaire, where he also kills Kananga and destroys his operation.
Live and Let Die is very different than its predecessors. Released in 1973, it has much more of a Blaxpoitation feel than an international spy thriller. Mr. Big’s gang of criminals use a lot of Blaxpoitation archetypes, and Yaphet Kotto deliberately sounds like a caricature of a villain from a Shaft movie when he is playing Mr. Big — a sharp contrast to the erudite dictator he plays as Kananga.
Additionally, the dress of the black characters is very much in the style of stereotypical black villains of the times. Mr. Big in particular, wears giant hats and fur coats and numerous rings and chains. He fits the image of the 1970’s pimp, and Leiter refers to the car used in the assassination of Bond’s driver as a “pimpmobile.”
As the film’s principal white guy, Bond, while capable in a fight or a chase, is completely out of his depth in this world. He can’t blend in, and he looks foolish a lot of the time, because he is acting as though he were in Europe fighting Blofeld.
All this actually works to make Kananga/Mr. Big a formidable Bond villain. 007 can’t infiltrate his network like he does with S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Everywhere he goes, Kananga knows exactly where he is and what he is doing.
This is also Roger Moore’s first picture, and it’s obvious from the get-go his Bond is different. Connery was cold; Lazenby was glib. Moore keeps aspects of those takes — he’s quick with a one-liner, and he had no compunction about killing Rosie after they’ve had sex if she doesn’t cooperate.
But his 007 is charming. Handsome, debonair, and witty, Moore’s Bond is lighter than Connery’s, more serious than Lazenby’s. We feel the animal less with him, and despite Moore’s interest and training in martial arts, he’s less two-fisted than Lazenby.
This too works against the backdrop of an overmatched Bond. Connery’s disdain and Lazenby’s fire might have made Bond seem like a racist facing down a black mafia. Instead, Moore sees them only as villains he must defeat.
Unfortunately, Moore does retain some of the misogyny prevalent in the Connery films. He’s completely dismissive of Rosie Carver, treating her as being worthy of no better than a sex object. To be sure, Rosie is incompetent (or at least she appears to be), but rather than wondering why Leiter would assign him someone so incapable, he puts it down to her being a young woman.
Likewise, he is disrespectful of Solitaire’s faith. He recognizes she is young and naive, and he manipulates that to get to Kananga. He tricks her into sleeping with him by stacking her Tarot deck and doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that she believes she’s ruined herself for Kananga. He also intends to use her as bait to draw Kananga to him, a plan that works better than he intended when they are captured as soon as they land in New Orleans.
Women’s lib was in full swing in the mid-’70’s, but James Bond was not onboard.
Where It Fits
Despite it being different from the other films in the series, Live and Let Die is a solid entry in the Bond chronicles. Kananga’s plot is lower key than a lot of 007’s nemeses, but it’s no less worthy of Bond’s attention.
And Kananga is a deadly opponent, easily worthy of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. His vast network makes it impossible for Bond to escape. He has a delightful gallery of privileged henchmen — Whisper, the soft-spoken big man; Tee Hee, the always-laughing killer with a steel arm; Baron Samedi, the voodoo witchdoctor.
The supporting cast makes this a very entertaining Bond caper, and Moore’s charming, wisecracking take on 007 is fun to watch.
One can’t mention Live and Let Die without giving a nod to Paul and Linda McCartney’s iconic theme song. It’s the first rock piece to grace a Bond film, and its signature chord progression permeates John Barry’s score. It’s easy to understand why “Live and Let Die” is one of the most popular Bond themes of all time.
If the movie has a flaw beyond its misogyny, it’s that we don’t get to see Yaphet Kotto enough. He’s terrific as Kananga, an avuncular but ruthless villain, who truly appreciates Bond as an adversary. The two have some fine exchanges, and it’s a pity the script didn’t give them a few more opportunities.
Overall, Live and Let Die is a good Bond flick. It’s by no means among the best films in the series, but unlike some of the other movies in this era, it hasn’t aged badly, and it’s fun to watch from start to finish.