Guy Hamilton, 1973
Starring: Roger Moore, Yaphet Kotto, Jane Seymour, David Hedison
Live and Let Die is a truly bizarre entry in the Bond series. First, there is the introduction of new star Roger Moore, who would appear in six more Bond films through the '70s and early '80s. Moore’s start is shaky at best and follows the campier, more comedic tone of Diamonds Are Forever. The real issue is this film is essentially blaxploitation, using familiar tropes like afros, gangs and racial slurs and stereotypical locations like Harlem, the Caribbean and New Orleans. I absolutely love a lot of blaxploitation films, but much of what occurs here feels unabashedly racist, particularly the voodoo rituals and agent Rosie Carver. Carver, played by blaxploitation star Gloria Hendry, is the first African American character to sleep with Bond and is unfortunately one of the most annoying female double agents to do so.
Several MI6 agents investigating Dr. Kananga, the dictator of a Caribbean island, are killed and Bond is sent to New York investigate. He immediately plunges into an absurdly extensive network of spies and gang members who are also being observed by the CIA and Bond’s long-time ally Felix Leiter. Bond and Leiter team up to investigate Mr. Big, a Harlem gangster and drug lord. Bond meets Solitaire, Big's virginal, talented tarot card reader, before narrowly escaping Big’s thugs and heading to the Caribbean. There he rendezvous with double agent Rosie Carver. He seduces her and wins her loyalty, but Kananga has her killed before she can reveal anything. Bond also seduces Solitaire and forces her to help him defeat Kananga. They return to New Orleans, where it is revealed that Big and Kananga are one and the same and Kananga’s plans include selling tons of heroin to the locals. An enraged Kananga suspects that Bond and Solitaire have slept together (nullifying her occult power) and sets Bond up to be eaten by alligators and intends to sacrifice Solitaire during a voodoo ritual. Can Bond save himself in time to save her?
Though Live and Let Die is one of the lesser entries in Moore’s string of Bond films, there are plenty of fun moments. My favorite character is Kananga’s voodoo master, Baron Samedi, whimsically played by enormous Trinidadian actor Geoffrey Holder. The un-killable Samedi represents the series only involvement with the occult, furthered by a very young Jane Seymour’s lovely but irritatingly priggish Solitaire. Kananga’s henchmen, the giggling, metal hook-handed Tee Hee is a welcome addition to the list of of menacing Bond villains. Julius Harris obviously had a great time with this role and other Moore-era henchmen, especially those with physical deformities/enhancements, seem based on him. Yaphet Kotto is great in his duel roles of Big and Kananga, though his make up is a little ridiculous. There are also nice appearances from David Hedison, who plays a lighter, more jovial Felix Leiter and from Hammer film star Madeline Smith who has a memorable, early role as an Italian agent who gets her dress unzipped by Bond’s magnetic watch.
Speaking of memorable, don’t forget about the alligator farm and the amazing alligator jumping stunt, which is real. The farm is owned by a man named Ross Kananga, whose last name is used for the main villain and who performed the stunt himself. Another of my favorite set pieces, which reoccurs through the film, is the Olympia Brass Band leading a traditional jazz funeral march. The trick is that the coffin is empty and they are waiting to fill it with recently assassinated MI6 and CIA agents. Their killer in waiting is played by band member and trumpet player Alvin Alcorn.
Despite these fun elements, Live and Let Die unfortunately feels like an overly long live action cartoon, with action sequences jammed in around the plot. The absurd speedboat chase and double-decker bus scene fortunately do not take themselves seriously, but would also match perfectly with the theme music from Benny Hill. Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton returns, but leaves his former glory behind. The ending is particularly bad and involves Kananga’s death-by-exploding-gas-pellet. Both Tee Hee and Baron Samedi are given vastly superior death scenes. I wish there had been more to go around. The absolute worst element of this film is the character Sheriff J.W. Pepper, the incredibly stupid and racist comic relief in the form of a white, redneck Sheriff. Unfortunately he returns again in The Man with the Golden Gun.
So far I’ve failed to mention the famous opening song by Paul McCartney. Though it won an Academy Award, I find it incredibly grating and it remains one of my least favorite Bond songs. The opening sequence, while ridiculous, is colorful, fun and clues you in about what to expect from the rest of the film. Though flawed, Live and Let Die is still a worthy Bond effort and should be seen at least once. There’s a nice double-disc Ultimate Edition DVD, also included in the Ultimate Edition box set volume 3. The Blu-ray release contains much of these special features, including a commentary track from writer Tom Mankiewicz, director Guy Hamilton and Roger Moore, and a documentary about the film narrated by the wonderful Patrick Macnee (The Avengers).