Roger Moore arrives! The entrance of the longest tenured Bond into the series kicks of with Live and Let Die. Moore jumped right into the character tackling him with his own style instead of trying to live up to Connery. It was probably the reason he was accepted on the whole.
As for Live and Let Die, neither Xander or I are running around crazy about it, but it’s a good entrance for Moore in the character. It is interesting to note how the film tackles race and adapting what is a pretty ignorant piece of fiction when it comes to blacks. What do you think about Live and Let Die and our takes on it in this Across the Bond?
After the mostly awful Diamonds Are Forever, Live And Let Die is a marked improvement but still a mixed bag. Roger Moore makes a confident debut, although that might have something to do with the fact he’s playing Roger Moore rather than any previously recognisable version of Bond. That’s not such a bad thing, as his persona overlaps with the character in many respects, only with a much greater emphasis on comedy. Moore can certainly deliver a line, seduce a lady and generally be the whitest man who ever lived – whoever had the idea of sending him into blaxpolitation-era Harlem for his first movie deserves a medal – but is physically a bit of a mess. As has been extensively documented, he can’t run without looking like he’s on broken stilts, and his fighting moves are ponderous at best. His charm wins out, though, making for a fun and slightly caddish presence at the movie’s centre.
For once, it’s a relief writer Tom Mankiewicz opted to ignore large chunks of Fleming’s novel. The first half is pretty similar, with both taking place in Harlem and featuring a villain called Mr. Big (although in the book, the character’s real name is Buonapart Ignace Gallia and isn’t concealing an identity as the dictator of a small fictional island), but the movie mercifully forgoes the jaw-dropping racial stereotypes and Fleming’s problematic attempt to phonetically transcribe his crude notion of black patois. I don’t think the author was a racist per se, but clearly had no idea what he was talking about and fell back on prejudicial assumptions of the time. Attempting to ignore such issues, the book (Fleming’s second, written before Casino Royale had been published) isn’t as immediately gripping as its predecessor, but shows early attempts to deepen the character and his friendship with Felix Leiter. Fleming’s knack for big villains continues with Mr. Big, and the idea of the Soviet Union working to undermine the West by collaborating with its criminal underworld adds a political frisson to the flavour of the book. I also like the idea that the Haitian Mr. Big controls his gang by cultivating rumours of his being the resurrection of vodou master Baron Samedi, the feared spirit (Loa) of the dead in Caribbean myth.
Where the black magic aspects to Fleming’s story are explained away as superstition – though it’s never made clear whether Solitaire, aka Simone Latrelle, actually has fortune-reading powers – the movie make the interesting choice of presenting them as potentially real. Rather than being an alter-ego of the main villain, Baron Samedi is his own character and damned creepy to boot. Bond has to kill him twice in the same scene (some speculate that the first version was a mechanical replica, hence it shattering when Bond shot it, but… what?) and then comes back again, complete with demonic laugh, sitting on the front of Bond‘s train for the movie’s closing shot. It’s ludicrous, but I quite like the idea of some supernatural elements existing in Bond‘s world, even if it’s a relief the series has never tried to take them any further. Geoffrey Holder is an astonishing physical presence as Samedi, while everything revolving around Solitaire’s tarot reading – the movie implies she really can see the future – is fascinating, with Jane Seymour strikingly gorgeous in her first major movie role. It’s completely different to anything a Bond movie had done before or would do thereafter, and considering how formulaic the Moore movies would become, that’s something to be thankful for.
Live And Let Die also marked the beginning of the Moore era’s strong focus on big stunts and set-pieces, this time in the form of a prolonged speedboat chase across the Louisiana bayou. There’s some fantastic stuntwork on screen, with boats zinging across dry land, flying over hills, smashing into police cars and generally causing havoc. It drags on, but is impressively ambitious. More ominous is the appearance of Sheriff J.W. Pepper, one of the most universally reviled characters in the Bond series, and while he’s nowhere near as awful here as his return outing in The Man With The Golden Gun – I’m ashamed to say Clifton James’ blustery delivery gets the occasional chuckle out of me (‘Secret agent! On whose side?!’) – he’s a one-joke character whose joke isn’t particularly strong to begin with and waaaaay overstays his welcome. As proof of how long the bayou boat chase is, Pepper doesn’t appear in any other part of the movie yet still receives a top credit. The prior scene with Bond stuck on an island in the middle of alligator-infested waters is shorter and stronger, not only for being a situation Bond cannot get out of using a gadget, but his inspired escape by hopping across the reptiles’ backs.
As a whole, the movie is an enjoyably daft romp, let down by a few poor choices and a plot which takes far too long to have any meaningful impact on proceedings. Yaphet Kotto is wonderfully composed and cruel as Kananga, but forcing him to wear a dismally unconvincing mask for his Mr. Big persona is ridiculous, and his death, though famous, is too idiotic even for Moore-era Bond. (Bond‘s pay-off line is not only weak, but is an answer to a completely different question than the one Solitaire asks him). Teehee and Whisper are fun henchmen, despite there not exactly being much to them, and David Hedison’s Felix Leiter has plenty of charisma but is given nothing meaningful to do. Accompanied by Paul McCartney’s terrific title song and George Martin’s zingy score doing a respectable job standing in for John Barry, Live And Let Die is certainly one of the more interesting and individual of Moore’s efforts, although it’s worrying to see how its most problematic elements would only get more pronounced as his tenure continued.
Every time I watch Live and Let Die I’m always surprised by it for many reasons not the least of which is how comfortable Roger Moore appears in the role. Unlike OHMSS, which feels like a new Bond, Live and Let Die simply jumps straight into it without looking back. Roger Moore takes to his interpretation of the role without looking back. This is probably one of the smartest moves he made as trying to compete with Connery would have been idiotic, especially since the two actors strong points are almost at odds with each other. This can be easily demonstrated in one of the smaller aspects of their performances: the deliver of one-liners. Whereas Connery’s one-liners were acerbic and almost condescending Moore’s are playful and and often tongue-in-cheek. Both work for the Bond they were playing, but I find that Moore’s allow him to deliver even the worst one-liners far better than almost anyone else, Bond actor or not. The man just had a knack for tossing out quips and Live and Let Die is a great vehicle for them. Xander already pointed out one of the weaker lines in the movie, but the key there is that Moore still delivers it straight and well. A better example of his ability to make any one-liner work is when Kananga is slowing cutting his forearm and Bond suggests “Maybe something in a simpler vein,” basically saying that Kananga should slit his wrist. The fact that Moore can deliver a deliciously dark one-liner like that right on key is a testament to why he’s got some of the most classic Bond lines.
Of course these are more generalities about Moore than about Live and Let Die. This is actually one of Moore’s stronger outings as Bond as his performance isn’t just the running gag that it became in other films. While his performance is far from the brooding comedy Live and Let Die gives him the chance to still be a little dark. His treatment of Solitaire by tricking her into sleeping with him is downright cold, and his annoyance with her being upset after he takes her virginity is played just comically enough to keep it from actually getting too dark. It’s one of the few films where Moore’s Bond seems more than just a caricature of the Bond myth. And, even though Moore is easily the weakest of the Bonds at fighting, there’s still a slight cruel streak in him that for some reason works in Live and Let Die (it’s entirely awkward in the next Bond film, but more on that Monday). His treatment of Rosey Carver by putting a gun to her head is quite ominous and threatening, and if Carver hadn’t been the next in a long line of idiot Bond girls it could have been a truly great scene. Thankfully she dies and we’re treated to the drop dead gorgeous Jane Seymour in a role that harkens back to Tatiana Romamova in that her innocence makes her eventual utter infatuation with Bond believable.
As Xander points out the beginning of the Bond era was also the start of the truly massive action set pieces. While Thunderball may have kicked them all off with its underwater war, it’s not until Moore’s time that they became the center of the films. One could point to Diamond’s are Forever as the first attempt to do this, but the action was so poorly handled and ham-handed that it barely registers as action at all. Live and Let Die is packed with quality action. The extensive boat chase through the bayou is beyond entertaining and I don’t mind it’s very long length at all even with J.W. Pepper in it. However, the other big action sequence often gets overlooked as Bond drives a double-decker bus in a car chase. It’s creative well put together and ends with one of the better site gags as Bond cleaves off the top half of the bus by driving under a low bridge only to have that top half land on the car that’s chasing him. There’s also Moore hang gliding while smoking a cigar. Many people may chide moments like this in Moore’s Bonds since he wasn’t being true to the original character, but it’s just too much fun to watch to actually be upset about it. You can’t ignore Roger Moore if you want to like Bond.
Which brings me to my final point about Moore and Live and Let Die. The film made a statement about Bond‘s fashion that pretty much stuck throughout the Moore films. Roger Moore’s Bond was not going to be swayed by what was trendy. He was an English gentleman and he was damn well going to dress like one and we can all thank him for it. By this time it was the 1970s and fashion was getting weird. Connery’s clothing in Diamonds are Forever is especially atrocious though very in style for the time I suppose. Moore with his ram-rod straight posture and height was having none of it. He roars into Live and Let Die dressed like as timelessly as one could possibly get in sharp suits, straight cuts and basic ties. If anything this is one of the few places where Moore’s Bond is like Flemming’s original character who would have never been caught dead in some of Connery’s outfits. I’m not saying all of Moore’s clothing choices were winners, but the man kept Bond‘s fashion grounded throughout the 70s and 80s when things could have gone very, very poorly in the clothing department. It’s a testament that he almost never looks dated in his outfits except for a few outlandishly large collars here and there. His top coat and suit when he first arrives in New York in Live and Let Die are the perfect statement that he was not going to mess around with fashion.