This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Matthew Noble’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Film #8: Live and Let Die (1973)
Directed by Guy Hamilton
Starring Roger Moore as Ian Fleming's James Bond 007
*This review contains spoilers for the book and movie versions of Live and Let Die. You have been warned.*
I'm writing this review over two weeks after I logged Live and Let Die, and I must apologise profusely for my lateness. I literally watched this the night before Sir Roger's passing, and I still can't quite believe he's gone. Silly as it may be, a small part of me was convinced he'd outlive us all. There is some consolation, though. As of writing, Moore was the only Bond actor I'd been fortunate enough to meet. And by meet, I mean "be in the same room with" when his speaking tour came to Scotland last year.
Needless to say, getting to spend 2 hours in the company of a cinematic legend is an experience I will never forget. Highlights included an Ivanhoe-related interaction with a middle-aged audience member ("Surely you're not old enough to remember that?"), an onscreen recreation of his Simon Templar halo, stories of Tony Curtis's weed habit, a welcome clip from The Man Who Haunted Himself (his finest performance), and a poignant final speech about the importance of UNICEF.
And the best part? Hearing the big man say those immortal words we all know and love:
"My name is Bond. James Bond."
Damn straight. I will give Roger a proper send-off in a few weeks, but for now, let's talk about Live and Let Die and how great it is. Long story short, it's a lot easier to appreciate once you've seen Diamonds Are Forever, as there is a world of difference between a good Guy Hamilton film and a mediocre one. Alas, it's here that the writers also became less faithful to the books, and as such Live and Let Die shares only some locations (New York) and character names (Solitaire, Mr. Big, Tee Hee, Quarrel) with its literary counterpart. Still, the movie manages to be enormously entertaining in its own right, regardless of its fidelity to Fleming.
Circling back to the lead actor, in his excellent series of James Bond retrospectives for Den of Geek (which you can find here), Max Williams demonstrated how cool Roger Moore is by envisaging what the six iterations of the character would be like if you met them at a party. In truth, I imagine all of the Bonds would be fun to hang out with over drinks or cards, just in different ways. Dalton and Craig would be angsty but sincere, and always with a cheeky twinkle in their eye. Connery and Brosnan would be amiable and stylish, if a little self-absorbed. But the Bond who would be most fun to hang out with? That has to be Moore. Okay, Lazenby’s a close second, but maybe that’s just me. Witty and sophisticated, Roger is the real charmer of the group, and more than any other actor, he appears to take the greatest degree of pleasure in simply being James Bond. And why shouldn’t he? Who wouldn't love to be 007?
Roger Moore’s performance is divisive among some fans, especially if they're Fleming purists. Speaking as someone who's merely a Fleming enthusiast, I love the guy. His Bond isn't as cold blooded as Sean or George, but he can still get the job done. But while Roger's interpretation remains the archetype for gentleman spies (along with Patrick Macnee as John Steed), he also strikes me as being more vulnerable than I remember. When Bond gets into trouble in Live and Let Die, you're a little more worried about him than you would be if Connery was playing the part. He may be sauve, but he's still very human.
Diving into the film itself, Live and Let Die's pre-title sequence isn't very memorable, though I suppose it works fine. But my God, the title theme that follows it is a whole different story. Performed by Paul McCartney and Wings, "Live and Let Die" is a propulsive powerhouse of a rock number that rightfully netted the series its first Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Maurice Binder's actual title sequence is great too: a fiery montage of voodoo and skeletons that sets the mood perfectly. This is a different Bond film for a different Bond actor.
Unlike his two predecessors, Roger Moore gets no grand introduction. Gunbarrel aside, he's first seen asleep in bed with a sexy lady. Pretty apt, I guess. Roger's a lover, not a fighter. In a further subversion, both M and Moneypenny come round to Bond's apartment (which is very 70's compared to when we saw it in Dr. No, complete with the infamous Expresso machine) to give him his mission briefing. No Q this time, though, as Desmond Llewellyn was off doing a TV show. Thankfully he would return properly in the next movie, and stay in the role until his death.
After a shag (Roger's Bond does a lot of that), our hero heads to New York, in a cool transition that teases the character of Solitaire and her mysterious Tarot powers. Naturally, Bond is rumbled by the bad guys immediately, and they try to assassinate him in a convoluted way. I'm not complaining though: that scene where he wrestles control of the car from his dead chauffeur is brilliant, especially when George Martin's thrilling music kicks in. We quickly meet Felix Leiter soon afterwards, played this time by David Hedison. Friendly and energetic, Hedison may be my favourite Felix since Jack Lord. Unfortunately, the character won't be reappearing until Timothy Dalton takes over. Oh well.
Not wishing to waste time, Live and Let Die swiftly introduces Bond (and us) to his leading lady. Jane Seymour as Solitaire is a typical 70's Bond girl: unbelievably attractive (it's amazing to think Seymour was around my age when she was cast - man alive is she a stunner), but ultimately a little helpless without 007. Still, Solitaire is one of the better ones from the 70's, primarily by virtue of not being annoying or obtrusive. Faring better still is Julius Harris as the henchman Tee Hee, with his hook arm, who is just one of an incredible ensemble of bad guys to be found in this movie.
Escaping another half-baked assassination attempt, Bond heads to San Monique to investigate the murder of a fellow agent. There we meet the enigmatic Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder), a nigh-mythological figure who is probably the most fascinating character in the entire movie. We also encounter Whisper (played by Earl Jolly Brown), another underrated henchman who tries to kill Bond with a snake, much like the spider scene in Dr. No. Predictably, it doesn't work. When will these guys learn? Soon after, Bond then meets his CIA contact, Rosie Carver, played by Gloria Hendry. Simply put, Rosie is a bit useless, both as a secret agent and as a double agent. No wonder Bond sees through her act immediately. Thankfully she gets killed off fairly quickly by a scarecrow with a hidden machine gun. What can I say, it plays better than it writes.
After Rosie's demise, Live and Let Die gets a lot more interesting really fast. Infiltrating the villain Kananga's island house with the help of Quarrel Jr. (the novel was set before Dr. No, so it was originally Quarrel 1.0's introduction), Bond seduces Solitaire. Admittedly he does this through trickery and deceit, but it doesn't seem nearly as unsettling when Moore is playing it. There's a weird gentility to his Bond that somehow makes him less creepy. Alas, Solitaire's deflowering means that she's now lost her powers, but now that she and Bond are romantically involved they agree to stick together, at least until they escape Kananga's sphere of influence.
The next morning, Bond and Solitaire uncover Kananga's poppy fields, determining that he is producing heroin. Topical, I suppose, since The French Connection had just come out. They are then pursued by his men in two consecutive chase scenes: the first involving a bus in San Monique, and the second involving a small plane in New Orleans. It's fantastic stuff to say the least, mostly due to the incredible stunt work, and it manages to produce more inventive and hilarious gags in 10 minutes than Diamonds Are Forever did in its entire runtime.
Solitaire is kidnapped at the airport, with Bond being captured soon afterwards at a Fillet of Soul restaurant. It's also implied they kill CIA agent Harold Strutter, yet they let Felix go free, alive. Okay, obviously the filmmakers can't just kill Felix off, but surely that could've been more well thought out. But no matter, for it's here that island diplomat Ross Kananga and crime lord Mr. Big are revealed to be one and the same. It's weird to think that Kananga is the first non-Blofeld villain we've had since Largo in Thunderball, but I'm glad he is. SPECTRE was a bit overexposed by this point, so it was time for a change. Yaphet Kotto plays the role with an appropriate level of menace and intelligence, making Kananga a solid, if unspectacular lead baddie. His plan is a bit odd though: flood America's streets with free heroin, then ramp up the prices when everyone's addicted. I'm not sure if that's the best business model to use.
Tee Hee then takes Bond to a crocodile farm, which is being used as a front for Kananga's heroin operation. This scene was written into the script when the producers came across a real crocodile farm, ran by a man named Ross Kananga. As well as lending his name to the movie's villain, Kananga is also the one seen jumping across the crocodiles - "bloody hell" is all I can say. It's obvious the creative team were building Bond movies around action set pieces by now as opposed to character-driven stories, but when the action is this fun, who am I to question their decisions?
What is questionable is the boat chase between Bond and minor henchman Adam that leads into the third act. It's not bad per say, but it sure is long. Like, 12 minutes long in a movie that runs 120 minutes. It's also crosscut with the antics of Louisiana's resident redneck sheriff, one J.W. Pepper, played by Clifton James. Many decry Pepper as the Jar Jar Binks of the James Bond franchise, but I must confess a slight fondness for J.W. on my part. What can I say? Still, his subplot does bog down an otherwise solid chase scene, which isn't a good thing, but at least we get some spectacular boat stunts to stop the audience from losing interest.
Having dealt with his pursuers and reunited with Felix, Bond returns to San Monique to rescue Solitaire, confront Kananga, and destroy the heroin operation. This climax is made even more enjoyable by Moore's outfit: a black turtleneck/holster belt combo that would make Frank Bullitt jealous, which was later copied by Daniel Craig in advertising for Spectre. The following scene where Baron Samedi and his cult attempt to sacrifice Solitaire is the highlight of Live and Let Die. It's a tense, atmospheric sequence, from the mounting drums to Baron Samedi's rise from the earth. Our beloved 007 fighting the forces of the undead? Count me the hell in.
The actual finale that follows may seem anticlimactic in comparison, but the threat of Bond and Solitaire's death at the hands of Kananga's sharks (why is it always sharks?) keeps the audience in suspense. Plus, it's rare that we actually get to see Bond bleed, hence why it feels so important when his arm is slowly slashed with a large knife. Again, his vulnerability is emphasised. But inevitably, Bond prevails, using his gadgetry to get the upper hand. So long, Kananga. Sorry you got landed with a ridiculous death. At least that's a definitive end - is Whisper still locked in that canister?
Bond and Solitaire finish Live and Let Die in that most Bondian of locations, the old-fashioned train. There, Tee Hee arrives for a final attempt on Bond's life, which ends as you might expect. God knows how he got past customs in the sack - I suspect you couldn't replicate that scene nowadays. The fight that follows ends the film on a fun, if somewhat insubstantial note.
But on balance, Live and Let Die is anything but insubstantial. Imperfections aside, it's a tremendous, terrifically fun ride. The characters are memorable, the action is enthralling, and some of the visuals are utterly unforgettable. And of course, we have the impeccable Roger Moore leading the charge. After a brief period of uncertainty, the James Bond franchise has entered a new era of brilliance, one which I am very excited to revisit in the coming weeks...
Best Aspect: I really dig the supernatural angle. Voodoo and Tarot symbols dominate Fleming’s Live and Let Die, but whereas the book seems to regard such things as hokum and superstition, the film mostly treats it as anything but. After all, Solitaire’s gift appears to be genuine, and Baron Samedi returns from the dead to bid goodbye to the audience in a Lazenby-esque 4th wall break. Some people may not like these concepts, but I feel their inclusion adds a unique and fascinating spin to the Bond mythos, and makes the film stand out from other entries in the series.
Worst Aspect: Rosie Carver, bless her heart.
Best Scene: Solitaire’s sacrifice, for all the aforementioned reasons. Runners-up include Bond’s attempted assassination in New York, the back-to-back chases in San Monique and New Orleans, and the segment at the crocodile farm.
Worst Scene: It’s not a bad sequence, but that boat chase does go on a bit, especially given the constant crosscutting between Bond and J.W. Pepper’s escapades.
This movie's MVP: John Barry and David Arnold may be the twin titans of Bond music, but many “guest composers” besides them have worked their magic on a few of 007’s adventures. The first of these is our MVP today: Sir George Martin. Referred to as the “Fifth Beatle” by Paul McCartney and others, Martin was a legendary record producer back in the day. As it turns out, he was also a hell of a composer in his own right. Martin’s score for Live and Let Die is properly funktastic, and gives the film a vital sense of energy. Case in point: great swathes of the boat chase may be a bit lethargic, but as soon as that rocking score kicks in, it amps you up like nothing else.
George Martin’s “complete” score
Feel free to buy the CD so you can get the extended soundtrack with 8 additional cues.
Speaking of boats, that leads us to another round of…
GUY HAMILTON'S CAR CARNAGE!!!
Wowza. This might be the pinnacle of Bond-related vehicular mayhem, at least for the time being. It makes the stunts in Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever seem tame. For starters, there’s that New York assassination attempt, which results in one wrecked car. Then there’s the chase through San Monique, in which three police motorbikes and two squad cars are ran off the road, and the roof of a bus is ripped off by a bridge. Next, there’s the pursuit at the New Orleans airport, in which three cars are crashed and about six planes are damaged. And finally, there’s the boat chase through the Louisiana bayou, which by my count leads to the destruction of five cars and at least five boats.
One more dosage of car carnage will follow from Messrs Hamilton and company…
James Bond will return in The Man with the Golden Gun