RECAP: Live and Let Die
Live and Let Die (1973): Guy Hamilton
Connery, Lazenby, Connery, and introducing Roger Moore. That was the order of four straight James Bonds in the 1960s and ’70s. Turnover should indicate tension, dissension, or fatigue, by the producers or the public, but Roger Moore appeared in seven 007 movies, still the record, across fourteen years.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: James Bond follows the Prime Minister of Caribbean fake nation San Monique and his links to voodoo and the drug trade.
Forty-six years old when he began playing James Bond, Roger Moore took over the world’s most famous movie role with several challenges. As if playing the super spy wasn’t enough, Moore had to help the public forget both the image of Sean Connery playing Bond and Roger Moore playing Simon Templar in more than 100 episodes of the hit series The Saint. Three tall orders. Luckily Moore is a tall man, and he can fill most any shoes. So began his venture as James Bond in Live and Let Die.
After three British agents connected to San Monique prime minister Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) are killed within 24 hours of each other, Bond’s boss M (Bernard Lee) rushes to Bond’s London flat to check on him and to get him on the case. M almost finds Bond in bed with a missing Italian bombshell/spy, and also delivers him the one piece of gear he’ll need in the field–a magnetic wristwatch.
Kananga runs the fictional island of San Monique, but much of his time is spent in America, especially New York, home to the United Nations. Kananga’s network forces Bond to trace him to Harlem. Here’s where the new Bond gets to shine.
Eon Productions knew how to use Roger Moore. Tall, slender, blond, leaning into foppishness and dandyism, Moore evoked the classic English Gentleman, while Connery always seemed like the rugby player-turned-society man. Moore could pull off the character’s humor better, and he uses that in Live and Let Die.
Bond must visit Harlem while tracking Kananga’s activities. Harlem was having a moment in the early 1970s, and if you think a dapper Englishman walking amongst the black Americans and colorful suits looks comically out of place, then you know the filmmakers did their jobs.
Bond enters a Harlem restaurant franchise called Fillet of Soul, and he promptly disappears behind a rotating wall. Later he’ll say he sat in a booth there once and had a “bad turn.” It’s in this secret room that Bond meets Mr. Big, a jive-talking connection to Kananga, and Solitaire (Jane Seymour), a tarot card reader of unsurpassed skill in Kananga’s employ.
Bond meets several CIA spooks in this venture (not surprisingly because he’s in America). Felix Leiter (David Hedison), of course, is one. Two others, Strutter and Rosie, help Bond some but aren’t great at their jobs. Leiter spends most of his time putting out Bond’s fires.
Bond’s efforts next take him to San Monique, where he deflowers Solitaire in an effort to get off and to obtain information. He achieves the former, but the latter fails him; Solitaire only reads the cards. She does not know information in the present tense.
Never mind, because Bond learns that Kananga has grown acres of opium, and he plans to distribute heroin to eager American addicts. He conceals the crop from the air with camouflaged netting, and from the locals through a series of voodoo objects and rituals that pop up around the island and scare the shit out of the people.
Bond, fooled neither by camouflage nor voodoo, retreats to New Orleans to destroy Kananga’s burgeoning drug empire. Most of the action occurs in the final third, and it’s really good, but it forces Moore to the background. That’s OK, because they built him well enough in the early going to make us accept the new, long-term, James Bond.
Kananga opens the movie at the UN, where the British agent watching him dies through sonic bomb transmitted through his interpretive headphones during a meeting. That killing alone tells you all you need to know about Kananga’s power and ambition.
Another agent dies in New Orleans as he watches a jazz funeral procession…his own! An empty casket descends over the man’s body after a random guy stabbed him. On San Monique, a white guy tied to a stake is bitten by a green snake in a voodoo ritual and dies.
These three murders occurred in a 24-hour period and spook M to Bond’s house. Turns out the CIA has long been on to Kananga, as it’s bugged his embassy apartment in New York. From the first minutes Bond enters the US until the final moments of the movie, Kananga’s long reach and deep pockets menace the Brit.
A car on a New York highway kills Bond’s driver minutes after landing at the airport. After Kananga flees his apartment through a secret elevator, Bond follows him to Harlem, only to have all of black New York track his movements on radios stored in cars, shops, and even the box of a street corner shoe shiner.
Seriously, Kananga is connected. And not just in America. Remember, this guy is the prime minister of an entire nation. He’s so rich he plans to give away two tons of heroin to American users. With such a giveaway Kananga plans to be the only other monopoly in the US besides the phone company.
With such power, it’s a wonder Kananga relies so heavily on the predictive powers of Solitaire. Her readings appear unassailable, even to her detriment. Solitaire is correct about Bond bringing “violence and destruction,” though perhaps she didn’t realize those nouns as correctly applied to her. Kananga, being the boss, interprets her words as for him, which of course turns out to be true.
In the long tradition of villains unable to kill Bond, Kananga wines and dines his enemy, even after Bond has foiled his plan by burning the entire nation’s opium cash crop. Why put a bullet in an enemy’s head when a slow descent into shark-filled waters will eventually suffice?
Perhaps the best boat chase ever put to film, Bond evades capture across the rivers and swamps of southern Louisiana. The chase is so long and expansive that it introduces and dispenses a new character named Sergeant Pepper. I mean, Sheriff Pepper (Clifton James).
Bond, having escaped from the crocodile farm, captures a speedboat and speeds across murky water. Now, if you know anything about Louisiana, and I do because I’ve been there, you know that the state consists of New Orleans, LSU’s campus, and swamps.
Kananga runs a huge network of criminals, remember, and they are called to chase Bond as he races across the swamp toward the Irish Bayou. All the local boatsmen seem to know where that is, and with a bounty on Bond’s head they race to intercept him.
Bond has luckily selected a fast boat, low and sleek, and it outruns most of his pursuers. He also isn’t afraid to skip over spits of land to cut corners. In chasing Bond, several enemies crash into trees. Somehow no one breaks their motors dragging them across the ground. Hmm.
Meanwhile, on land, one of the henchmen drives toward a spit of land that he apparently thinks is the only place where Bond could end his getaway. OK, let’s roll with that. While driving he’s caught doing 95 mph by Sheriff Pepper.
Pepper rolls up to accost the man, calling him “boy” and spitting on his shoes. We know this henchman is a bad guy, so we can overlook the less-than-exceptional racism going on here.
Sure enough, the man was correct about Bond, because here he comes driving full speed toward the end of the line. Bond heroically jumps the land bridge and hits the next spit of water to continue the getaway. Another boat also makes the jump, but a third boat doesn’t; it lands on Pepper’s car. Pepper, enraged, somehow shoots Bond’s boat engine.
Soon the leaking engine is coughing. Bond deposits it onto a plantation lawn, drawing a pursuer after him, who ends in the homeowner’s pool during a garden party. Bond escapes his boat and steals the docked speedboat to continue the escape. There’s still one boat on his tail.
The cops have not snoozed away all this time. They’ve erected a chain of rowboats at a bridge up ahead, a sort of river block. Bond and his pursuer turn the boats into toothpicks.
Pepper has also been at work. He’s commandeered a police cruiser and its two drivers. He’s also called his brother Billy Bob, the owner of the fastest speedboat in lower Looz-ee-anne. Hot dog, that Billy Bob’ll catch ‘im.
The driver Pepper initially caught, remember him? He has not stood idly by either. He is also aware of Billy Bob’s possession of the fastest boat, because the moment Pepper’s car was smashed by the flying boat he hightailed out of there and straight to Billy Bob. So the man is there to knock out Billy Bob and steal his boat just as he’s receiving the call from Pepper regarding Bond’s location and direction. This is exceptional henchman work here.
Bond continues to evade a boat, but Billy Bob’s aerodynamic, black hull zips by and gains on Bond. It is clearly the fastest boat. Bond leads the chase into a twisty river, dulling some of the black boat’s speed advantage. Bond tries the land slide trick again, taking his craft through a wedding venue in someone’s backyard. This move works to derail, so to speak, the other boat.
Now it’s only Bond and the black boat. Bond zooms along the river until he spies a huge obstruction blocking the way. he yanks the wheel right and flies over a road and into the next river. His pursuer follows. The flying boats confuse the drivers of the police cars, causing a four-car pileup. Pepper’s car flips over, but everyone is fine.
The two boats enter a shipyard lagoon, where ancient tanker ships rot in various states. Bond’s evades his enemy long enough to whip up some liquid concoction in a bucket. He pulls into the open long enough to fling the contents of this bucket at the boat driver, temporarily blinding him. Clearly the liquid wasn’t water, but I couldn’t tell more than that.
Bond swings his boat into a perfect maneuver, where he speeds his boat close enough by the black boat for him to flick down the black boat’s throttle. I don’t think such a move is possible, but Bond does it.
The black boat spins in circles. Bond helps it along, nudging it toward and into the open hold of a tanker ship. Whatever Bond tossed onto his enemy must have been flammable, because the boat and ship explode.
Bond finds a nearby marina, where he keeps his craft at a tasteful 3 mph. Bond disembarks to find Felix and his crew annoyed with him for having, once again, to clean up the mess. Pepper rides up as well. He’s hotter than a Joo-lie crawdad and delivers an all-time line. “What are you, some kind of doomsday machine?”
And that’s the end of Sheriff Pepper. What a ride!
Tremendous stunt work on display. The primary boat jump, in which Pepper’s car was destroyed, saw two boats fly over ramps at 75 mph. The trailing boat had to land in the lead boat’s choppy wake at about that speed and continue the chase. Sliding boats across land is controlled chaos and ended in several crashes and bashed heads.
I’d like to build up Solitaire here. Just know that her total objectification will be discussed below.
Solitaire wears blazing eye makeup when on tarot reading duty, which can occur anytime, anywhere. She probably learned her skills and workplace appearance from her mother and grandmother, who each had the gift of foresight.
Solitaire’s readings are solid, until she sleeps with Bond and ruins her gift in one act of sexual proclivity. She read they would be lovers, and the cards “have never lied to me,” so she felt compelled. Her disappointment is short-lived, though, because she’s ready to go again.
Once she devolves from henchwoman to damsel in distress, Solitaire loses much of her appeal as a character. That’s too bad, because she was one of the most interesting Bond Girls.
Solitaire lives in a mansion, alone, of course, given her name, where she often sits at a card table in a chair resembling an open eye. Amazing set and costume design adorn Solitaire, making her a person of exotic intrigue and desire.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s almost better that this Caribbean woman is white and not black, because black characters are often poorly portrayed in such lights, almost as if Seymour’s casting says, “See, white people can believe this shit, too.”
Kananga has some characters for sure. First, he pretends to be the jive-talking Mr. Big, wearing a face mask and everything. He’s got a silent type named Whisper to run his errands. Kananga’s muscle man is Teehee, the victim of a crocodile attack and possessor of a mechanical arm with claw hand and an infectious laugh.
Baron Samedi either works for Kananga or enjoys being a weirdo who hangs around snake ceremonies. Whichever, he claims that he’s immortal, and it shows at the end of the movie, when he shows up on the train.
I described the incredible boat stunts in the action section. I want to bring up one stunt that made my jaw drop. Recall the moment when Bond stands on a tiny island at the crocodile farm, where he’s been marooned to become crocodile lunch.
Bond tries to attract a boat using his magnetic watch, but the rope tying the boat to shore foils him. Hungry crocodiles creep toward him from all angles. Bond is a few feet from safety but seemingly a thousand crocodiles from it. He is left little recourse but to run across the backs of the beasts.
Now, I thought the stunt team had created some realistic crocs for this sequence. Nope. The owner of the crocodile farm and the stunt crocodiles, ran across real, live, flesh-eating reptiles in five tries before getting it right. They tied the legs together to prevent them from rolling, but those were REAL crocs the man ran over.
Right after Bond evades capture in Louisiana he must return to San Monique. First on the menu is saving Solitaire, who will surely die now. Bond rejoins his buddy Quarrel on his boat. Quarrel will set charges in the opium fields that will detonate at midnight. Bond will rescue Solitaire.
Bond heads toward the small church where one of the British agents died in the opening sequence. The same kind of voodoo dance party is going on again. People are blessing the stakes or something. Someone brings out Solitaire, wearing a simple white nightgown, and they tie her to the stakes.
Bond sits idly by watching this with a look on his face that suggests “I can’t help but think this is my fault.” No shit, James. If you could keep your dick out of–oh hey they’ve brought out a coffin full of snakes. What was I saying?
Never mind. The snake handler has selected the green snake, the same that killed the agent in the opening sequence. Bond continues to do nothing but look at his watch. He’s waiting for midnight and the bombs to blow. Luckily the snake guy dances for a full five minutes, menacing Solitaire.
Suddenly the dancing stops and everyone goes quiet. A somber trio exits the church and mopes at a gravestone, blessing it, and calling on Baron Samedi to rise from the grave. Mad creepy. With the Baron here, we can resume the snaking.
Bond can wait no longer. He shoots the snake handler and the Baron. Problem is, it’s some kind of doomsday–I mean, some kind of robot, because when the bullet blow off chunks of Samedi’s head, he just looks up at it as if a mosquito bit him. Bond runs out of bullets and nearly of sanity trying to parse the puzzle of the partly headless Samedi.
No time to contemplate metaphysics and spirituality, because the bombs are exploding and igniting the opium fields. The real Samedi pops up from a different grave to engage Bond in a machete fight. Bond easily beats him, shoving him into the snake coffin. The Baron has been defanged.
Bond rescues Solitaire, but they still have to get out of there. They also have to beat Kananga, I guess, even though his cash crop is destroyed. He’s the head of state, not some two-bit gangster. Where would he go?
Bond dislikes loose ends, so he pursues. They trick their way into the underground labyrinth of tunnels leading to, you guessed it, Kananga’s well furnished lair. Kananga seems unsurprised and jovial to see Bond again and offers him a drink. Bond suggests they drink to an earthquake, which makes Kananga laugh.
There’s some chit chat, of course. Kananga admires Bond’s shark gun and its compressed gas pellets. The idea is to shoot a shark. The gas would expand and explode the shark, and the resulting gore would distract other sharks. I think that’s the idea. Harpoons worked fine in Thunderball, but technology advances.
Bond and Solitaire are tied to a cage and very slowly lowered into the water. Kananga slices Bond’s arm to draw blood. Also in the water are sharks, again a la Thunderball.
Here comes Bond’s magnet watch to the rescue. Bond sees one of his gas pellets on a table and he attracts it with the watch, hiding the pellet in his mouth. Then the watch, out of nowhere, turns into a cutting blade. That wasn’t set up in the script! You gotta set that shit up. Bond cuts his ropes.
Bond swings free from the cage and easily dispatches Whisper before dragging Kananga into the water. Bond wrestles Kananga in front of him and jams the canister in his mouth. Kananga floats out of the water and explodes. Bond quips, as he saves himself and Solitaire, “He always did have an inflated opinion of himself.”
Live and Let Die doesn’t rise above its brethren.
Southern Louisiana stands out as boats zip across its waters (and lands).
Treating voodoo beliefs was always going to be troublesome. Remember that the Brits making James Bond movies came of age during the apex of the British Empire, when the entire world and its customs fell under the purview of the Crown. I bet a lot of guys thought, “Why not tackle this ancient religion we know next to nothing about?”
I don’t know anything more about voodoo than the next person. All I can say is that I didn’t come away from Live and Let Die thinking voodoo practitioners to be more “savage” or “backward” than other religious practitioners. Most of the icons and rituals are fronts for Kananga’s drug empire. The coconut-headed emblems in the jungle both scared the locals and had cameras and guns embedded to monitor and protect the paths to the opium fields.
We see Kananga’s technological prowess late in the movie as Bond helps pull back the curtain. The only thing left uncertain is Solitaire’s skill with the cards. There’s room for magic in the world the Brits helped create.
Solitaire is a woman of great power. However, “Your power exists to serve me,” says Kananga. He only keeps her around for readings. When she lost her power, Kananga was prepared to make the horrible, noble sacrifice of taking her virginity, before Bond swooped in and did so.
Kananga is hardly the only person to use Solitaire. Bond sleeps with her because he desires her. He tricks her using a deck of tarot cards stacked entirely with the Lovers cards and feels not a bit badly about it until she tells him that her life is over. Bond escorts her from her San Monique home, but then literally calls her a “valuable piece of merchandise” that Kananga will come after.
Even for the Bond franchise this is a low point. I wonder often how feminists can put up with these movies. They must compartmentalize like me!
The filmmakers knew they were skating on thin ice when they decided to make Live and Let Die, a story with many black characters who all happen to be villains. For its part, they handled the situation well.
Kananga is as classy, ambitious, overconfident, and angry as Blofeld and the other white villains previously vanquished by Bond. Kananga’s acolytes are as colorful (in a characteristic sense), menacing, and duplicitous as their white counterparts over at SPECTRE and other crime organizations in the series.
Bond receives aid from two black CIA agents. Both these characters pull guns on Bond, which heightens the movie’s tension but also raises concerns about depicting black characters as duplicitous. I doubt the latter occurred to the filmmakers.
- Burt Reynolds was almost Bond. Wow. I’m not one of these folks who thinks James Bond must be played by a Brit. It’s called “acting” after all. However, Reynolds was way too famously American to take on the role. Give me an unknown Yank, or Canuck, or even a French guy. George Lazenby was fine, and he was Australian. (Same difference to many people around the world.)
- The CIA does plenty of domestic work in Live and Let Die. Wouldn’t the FBI operate on American soil?
Summary (32/68): 47%
Live and Let Die works fine as a transition between Sean Connery and Roger Moore. Placing the dapper Moore in America and among voodoo-practitioners in the Caribbean sets him apart from his predecessor.