LIVE AND LET DIE: Take This Honky Out and Waste Him

Live and Let Die (1973) – The 8th James Bond Film; The 1st (of 7) Roger Moore Films – Directed by Guy Hamilton – Starring Roger Moore, Jane Seymour, Yaphet Kotto, David Hedison, Gloria Hendry, Julius Harris, Clifton James, Earl Jolly Brown, Geoffrey Holder, and Bernard Lee.

I stopped over to the Never Wrong to lift the movie poster for LIVE AND LET DIE, and noticed, way down at the bottom of the page, that Entertainment Weekly listed LIVE AND LET DIE as the third greatest Bond movie of all time, which is a pretty severe stretch for a film that more rightly belongs closer to the middle than the top.

The reason I can’t rank LET DIE higher is that it has plenty of things I don’t want in a Bond movie: awful locations, bad chase scenes, half-ass gadgets that turn out to be exactly what Bond needs to get out of a tight jam, ugly cars, uninspiring villains, weak females, and ridiculous, one-note types.

Aw, you thought I was going to say “Roger Moore” in there somewhere, didn’t you?

On the contrary, whatever faults lie on the perimeter of this film, at it’s heart LET DIE has Roger Moore, who slips into the James Bond role like he was crafted just for this moment. To his credit, Moore is not attempting to play Connery’s Bond (which is a good thing since Connery’s Bond was memorable only for the wrong reasons over his last three films). Rather, he’s doing his own take on the character and it’s highly impressive how comfortable Moore seems in the role. It’s sort of like when Sammy Hagar took over the lead singing duties in Van Halen from David Lee Roth; Van Halen stopped sounding like Van Halen, but they still sounded supremely confident in what they were doing – 5150 is a fantastic album, brimming with confidence, playfulness, great songwriting, and fantastic songs.

Just like Hagar, some people will never fully accept Roger Moore – or anyone not named Sean Connery – as James Bond. And you know, that’s fine. I’m not here to convince you that you’re wrong; I’m here to explain why I think the way I do.

I love Roger Moore as James Bond, just like I love Sammy Hagar as the lead singer of Van Halen. That doesn’t mean I hate Connery or David Lee Roth, but it does grate my brain when others can’t do the same in return. There’s a lot to like in Moore’s performance, just like there’s a lot to like in Van Hagar.

Moore’s Bond is the epitome of British cool. A bomb could go off during dinner and this dude isn’t going to drop a single pea from his fork. In the best scene of the movie, Bond enters the Fillet of Soul restaurant in Harlem like he’s entering a five-star restaurant in Paris, which we know he’s not supposed to do because when he enters the all-black customered establishment, everyone gets quiet and stares at the white guy. Bond doesn’t acknowledge there’s anything different or more odd about him walking into this establishment than if he’d walked into a five stat Swiss hotel for dinner with Grace Kelly. He simply walks to the bar and asks for his bourbon (neat, which he has to explain to waiter) and then takes a seat like he’s sitting down for a late lunch at Le Bernadin. When the table (which is set against a wall) spins around to deposit him in a secret room surrounded by bad guys, Bond’s momentary look of surprise at the table spinning is gone by the time it’s stopped.

It’s a great scene that both acknowledges that the super secret world of Bond is becoming a bit anachronistic and that Bond doesn’t see any need to change. Managing to be tragic and confident at the same time, the scene casts Bond as both timeless and out of touch.

LET DIE is an incredibly dated movie in this regard; released during the blaxploitation era, it seems determined to be both a Bond movie and something completely different, too. It’s like a Bee Gees album – there’s the familiar resonance of what came before tricked up to meet whatever’s cool at the moment. Unfortunately, the result is bleak and uncomfortable, as the producers take Bond and stick him in a blaxploitation plot, but then don’t have the stones to see it all the way though, so they muck the opening half up by introducing a bunch of ridiculous plot points and familiar Bond beats in the second half, thus rendering the whole film conflicted and stunted.

Worse is their decision to start the Roger Moore era with a film like this, which either screams out for the more aggressive masculinity of Connery or Craig or for the elimination of all the rotating tables and shark tanks. It’s easy to see the parody that Moore’s performance will engender in later years, but here he’s so relaxed and so assured that the usual Bond elements (the gadgets, the elaborate traps) actually work against the film. Moore’s Bond doesn’t look like he could beat up Miss Moneypenny, but he has enough self-confidence in his charm that he could sweet talk M and Q into a threesome.

There’s no reason why Bond can’t stop a wannabe drug kingpin, and there’s no reason why that drug lord can’t also be a politician hanging out at the United Nations, but if you’re going to go the “gritty” route with the bad guy, don’t give him a secret lair with its own shark tank and henchmen wearing the same outfits. Make him a bad ass through and through. Instead, we get to the cartoonish underground hideout with the shark tanks and the henchmen that look like they stole their outfits from the Nautilus.

LET DIES also gives us an incredibly awful chase sequence (powerboats through the Louisiana river system; it’s a dull chase and interminably long), and the image of Solitaire from being potentially sacrificed to a poisonous snake in front of screaming, gyrating, voodoo practicing islanders.

Yaphet Kotto is nearly wasted as Dr. Kananga/Mr. Big because the role is so silly. Still, Kotto tries to make this pap bearable as his interactions with Bond are fun and his interactions with Seymour are chilling. One wonders how great he could have been if he had a part equal to his skills as an actor. Instead, he’s forced to wear a latex mask when he’s pretending to be Mr. Big, and Bond, at no point, says, “Oh, by the way, old chap, what the f*ck is up with your face? I would suggest you moisturize once or twice a year.”

Kananga likes to keep his distance from his henchmen when on the island, issuing orders through phones in his hideaway as they carry out his commands and Bond, at first, seems like nothing more than a typical distraction to him. Just another MI6 agent for Kananga to off, like the three he has killed before the opening credits. As the film progresses and Bond keeps coming back, Kananga becomes angrier and more dangerous. But not to Bond. Nope. He becomes more dangerous to Solitaire, and it’s here that Kananga is at his most chilling. When he visits Solitaire’s quarters at his island estate to threaten her about her visions, the force of his personality is on full display and it’s great to watch.

In a more deft director or screenwriter’s hands, they’d push at this idea just a bit more, and we’d get something about how the bad-ass drug kingpin who wants to get the world hooked on his heroin is himself already hooked on his psychic’s visions of the future. I get the feeling, however, that Kananga is created as a paint-by-numbers villain, that the film’s creators were looking at a formula and went, “Right, now here we need him to threaten Bond, and 10 pages later we need him to threaten Solitaire” without any real thought to the words that were coming out of his mouth.

Kotto lets Kananga’s hurt come through when he gives Solitaire a psychic test that she fails. He realizes that Solitaire has slept with Bond and thus lost her ability to see the future. After he tells her he made the test as easy as possible, that he gave her a 50/50 chance “and you still weren’t even close” (which, yeah, I don’t know what that means – if it’s 50/50, how can you not be close?), and then delivers a violent backhand, he admits to her that “I would have given you my love when it came to it.” It just makes you wish the film was interested in this aspect of the character instead of trying to force it to fit some pre-conceived notion of how a Bond villain should act. Just like Moore, Kotto gives a performance that greatly out-distances his part.

There’s enough sex in LET DIE that the mission is almost an afterthought. Or rather, that the mission exists for Bond solely for him to talk new women into bed. When the movie opens he’s in bed with a missing Italian spy, and then later he has sex with CIA operative Rosie Carver. Carver is the first black woman Bond beds, and she also appears to be the worst spy in history, but that only lasts until you realize she’s actually the worst double agent in history.

Later, Bond charms Solitaire into bed by rigging her tarot deck in one of those seduction moves that would get you hauled in front of the Dean if you pulled it on a college campus. Bond knows that Solitaire absolutely believes in tarot and that she has some true sightseeing abilities. When she gives him an impromptu reading at their first meeting, she turns over the Lovers card, surprising herself because she’s a virgin who will lose her abilities if she ever lays with a man. Bond doesn’t know that last part until after he’s sexed her over. There’s a great bit when they’re in bed and she’s almost in tears about the gods breaking their connection to her and he’s looking at her like she’s completely bonkers, but then slowly realizes that while she may be in this crazy spy-ridden life, she’s not experienced (and I don’t mean just the sex) with the pitfalls of this lifestyle. When they meet again, Bond tells Solitaire (which, when you think about it, is a pretty stupid name for a psychic tarot reader; when she does a reading she’s practicing her religion, not killing time at the office) that if she really believes in the cards then they’re destined to be lovers. He tells her to pick another card and it’s the Lovers card again, but when he puts the deck down we see that he’s rigged it so that every card in the deck is a Lover’s card.

It’s a complete dick move, but then you realize he’s a spy and she’s a criminal and it’s an occupational hazard, even if she didn’t fully realize the dangers of the world she’s living in.

What’s great about the use of sex in the movie is that Bond has two sex drives – the occupational seduction and the shared victory romp. It’s the victory romp with the Italian spy, the occupational seduction with Carver, and both with Solitaire. He beds her at first simply because he believes it’s the key to getting information from her; by sleeping with her and stealing her powers, Bond realizes that she’s no good to Kananga anymore, which forces her to work with him instead of against him.

Solitaire’s attitude towards Bond is a bit inconsistent. At first she’s the stone cold psychic, but then the cards tell her she and Bond will be lovers, which weakens her resolve. Then he seduces/tricks her into the sack and she runs around with him. Then Bond gets captured and she’s all, “Ha! Bad guys rule!” Then she realizes her powers are gone and Bond is right back saving her. If we got a little bit more of her character this might seem like the complex turmoil of emotions I’m sure it is for Solitaire, but again, the film is just kinda doing a surface-oriented, paint-by-numbers bit. And why waste time with character development when we have an 83-minute powerboat chase to get to? Why would we want to spend time with the main characters when we can watch a fat, racist, redneck, tobacco-spitting sheriff run around calling everyone “boy” and generally acting like a caricature?

The action sequences are unforgivably bad, too. There’s a “car chase” scene at the beginning when Bond has to steer a runaway car from the backseat and a boat chase through the Louisiana swamps that goes on longer than the entire Smokey and the Bandit movies.

Ultimately, a pretty bleak, boring film that doesn’t take advantage of Moore, Kotto, and Seymour.

Note to time travelers: 1973 was a very good year for Jane Seymour.

Note to music fans: The use of McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” throughout the film is pretty kick-ass, but I don’t think the song sets a great tone for the film. In fact, I think it’s a pretty mediocre song, in general, as I love the slow parts of the song and find the fast parts a bit tedious.