A hale and hearty hello to all of you out there in nether regions of the outerweb! Once again, we plunge into the world of James Bond. Through this journey we’ve gone from “bad” to “not so bad” to “well, it’s better than stabbing ourselves”. So you see, we’re getting better and things will be okay. Tanya Roberts is behind us and the icky theme song from Spectre is just a bitter memory…that festers… Anyway, moving on we have a chance to examine a debut! A new James Bond? Is it possible? Oh boy!
So after Sean Connery walked away after You Only Live Twice, the producers were interested in Roger Moore in the role of 007. However, as he was committed to the TV series The Saint, he was unavailable. George Lazenby got the job, did On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the film only made $5.68 less than You Only Live Twice, Lazenby quit, and the hunt began again for another Bond.
American John Gavin, best known for being Janet Leigh’s boyfriend in Psycho and later ambassador to Mexico (no, really!), was cast as Bond (no, really!). The contract ink was barely dry when the producers panicked about having a non-Brit play Bond (even though Lazenby is Australian, but six of one, half dozen of another, mate), so they decided to go after Roger Moore again. Moore was busy this time with a commitment to the TV series The Persuaders. Even future 007 Timothy Dalton was approached at that time and declined, thinking himself too young for the part. He would get his chance over 15 years later in The Living Daylights.
Deciding to hedge their bets, EON productions then went after Sean Connery and offered him enough money for him to roll around naked on as he giggled with his Scot brogue the whole time. He accepted and did Diamonds Are Forever, for which I hope he cashed his checks before the movie came out. Connery’s deal was for one movie and only one movie. The producers went ahead with pre-production on the next Bond without even really knowing who would play the lead role.
The screenwriter approached Connery and talked about what he was plotting for the next Bond movie, trying to see if Sean was interested in coming back. Connery demurred and walked away, his kilt blowing in the breeze as he laughingly strode away. The producers tried one more time and finally, they got their James Bond: Roger Moore accepted the role.
Now what Ian Fleming tale was chosen for adaptation? Only several were left, but writer Tom Mankiewicz asked to do Ian Fleming’s second Bond outing, Live and Let Die. Mankiewicz, noticing the cinema trends, saw that the Blaxploitation phenomenon was making big money at the box office. Films like Shaft, Superfly, and Slaughter were tremendous hits. As the book has Bond deal with black gangsters, it was viewed as a natural choice. Much like Moonraker only looked good in the wake of Star Wars and Goldfinger was an obvious selection after millions of people were illegally transporting gold bullion in their Rolls Royces.
The producers knew that they would be heading in dicey waters in having Bond face-off against a black criminal organization. However this is a James Bond movie, which is nothing if not formulaic and evil criminal plots are thwarted by 007 all the time, regardless of the backgrounds of the baddies. At the same time, this film provided a great showcase and opportunity for some wonderful black actors cast as both good and bad characters.
For instance, Julius Harris immediately springs to mind as the head henchman, Tee Hee. He decided on having a hook with pincers for a hand because the idea of having metal teeth was stupid and the bowler hat wouldn’t fit right on his head. Geoffrey Holder played the seemingly immortal voodoo priest Baron Samedi. He even shows up as being on the same train as Bond at the very end. That Samedi never came back to beleaguer Bond in a follow-up is either a good thing or a missed opportunity, I’m not sure which.
In the Bond girl department, we are given Gloria Hendry, who does something groundbreaking: she is the first annoying Bond girl of color. Prior to Live and Let Die, irritating 007 characters were mainly confined to being Caucasian. (Yes folks, people of all races can sometimes be irksome characters in a Bond film! No barriers here. All are welcome in this inclusive place!) I like to think that Hendry had a backstory where her character had to play someone that is that bad at playing the double agent for Bond. It somewhat justifies her character’s actions. That Bond didn’t immediately dismiss her upon their first meeting is otherwise a mystery of the screenplay. I like to think Roger smarter than this, but then again he did appear in the Spice World movie.
Jane Seymour (no, not King Henry VIII’s third wife; believe me, I was confused too) plays Solitaire, a fortune telling mistress of the lead baddie. As you might have suspected, Bond seduces her to his side and she becomes more or less a tagalong companion of Bond or a hostage of the villain for the rest of the movie. I’m torn on Seymour. Yes, she is rather lovely, but her character has about as much arc as a school girl in a coming of age TV movie.
David Hedison, star of 1958’s The Fly and the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV show, stars as CIA agent Felix Leiter. His Felix Leiter is able to hold his own with Bond and is an asset instead of a hindrance. I’ll even go so far as to say that Hedison is probably the best Leiter of the Bond series until Jeffrey Wright had the role. Hedison even reprised the role in 1989’s License To Kill, which is otherwise known as the Bond movie where Batman, Indiana Jones, and Marty McFly teamed up to beat the snot out of at the box office.
The best part of the cast is most certainly Yaphet Kotto as main antagonist, Kananga. He is simply electrifying onscreen and can just feel the power that he wields. Kotto doesn’t shout or overact, he doesn’t need to as that could be too much. He has a quiet and subtle dignity about his characterization. Kotto even manages to play two parts in this movie as his character Kananga is also playing a double role as American gangster Mr. Big. Truly a worthy adversary for Bond.
But what about Bond himself? Right off the bat, Roger is actually quite comfortable in the role. His portrayal in his first Bond movie is not too different from his last one, aside from the fact that by then he looked like a melting ice cream sculpture. That being said, Roger plays a quip rather well and doesn’t look as embarrassing in the art of fisticuffs as he does in later Bonds. I cannot really imagine Connery in this Bond movie, which tells me how completely Roger took over. (I do love it when I hear that the producers were complemented on finding a younger Bond for the role. Roger was of course three years older than Connery and actually remembered fighting off pterodactyls as a child.)
The music for the film was composed by Beatles’ producer George Martin. His score is actually quite good with echoes of John Barry. Not-Yet-Sir Paul McCartney came in to write and perform the theme song, which was quite the hit. Such a hit that even when Guns N Roses ruined it back in 1991, it still managed to survive.
Now, so far everything has been mostly wonderful and chummy and complimentary about this movie. But there are some glaring problems with it too. Not the least of all is seeing Bond on the streets on 1973 New York. Bond is all about glamour and even Las Vegas in the last movie seemed better for his appearance. But seeing Roger Moore on the streets of Harlem is just way out of place for the character. Now, to the film’s credit, they do mention this in the screenplay, but still I am picturing John Shaft taking bites out of the Big Apple, not James Bond. Again, having 007 in New York (Get it, you Fleming dorks?) and especially in the U.S. as it just doesn’t make for using thrilling cities. (Get it, you Fleming dorks? Oh, forget it.)
Speaking of which, going to New Orleans is a little better, but not much. There is a fantastic stunt where Bond jumps across crocodiles which has to be seen to be believed. As a matter of fact however it takes an overlong boat chase to make things slightly interesting. And this is where one of the film’s biggest problems happens in the body of one person…
Sheriff. J. W. Pepper. What in the hell were the producers thinking when they decided to have this redneck cracker chasing all over the bayou as Bond is being chased by Kananga’s henchmen? Ye gods. As much a sore thumb as it is to see Bond going uptown in NYC, it is beyond a sore arm that is on the verge of being gangrenous to see this doughy sheriff provide comic relief for no other reason than it was the 1970s. At least they didn’t stick a slide whistle on the soundtrack when the boats were jumping in the air to make the frustration complete.
A bigger sin is that the producers thought the character was enough of a box office wonder to bring him back in The Man with the Golden Gun. Hey, I get the irritation of having Jaws come back after The Spy Who Loved Me, but at least he was a super strong assassin that was trying to kill Bond. The sheriff is just a burden to bear. For Live and Let Die, he isn’t relative to the plot. In fact, the entire boat chase could just play out on its own and it would not only improve the film, but also edit down the runtime.
Also weird is how Kananga is ultimately dispatched in the end. Bond shoves some kind of pressurized capsule into his mouth, causing Kananga to blow up like a balloon before bloodlessly bursting all over the place. Um, what? Upon rewatching, I’m told that this capsule was a pellet for a shark gun. Um, what? So this gun, presumably used to fight off a shark, is supposed to blow up a great white like it was the Bullwinkle balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade? Please tell me there’s footage of this on Animal Planet. Was this the basis of Spielberg having Scheider shoot the scuba tank in the shark’s mouth in Jaws? I feel there are better answers that just aren’t forthcoming.
Live and Let Die was the start of a long era of consistency for Bond. From when shooting began in 1972 to his final 007 outing in 1985, Roger played Bond in seven total films. Pretty amazing when you think about it. Roger was nothing if not affable and it is easy to see why audiences attached to him so quickly. His comic timing is rather good to the point that I wish he had done more farce-like comedies. Plus, at least this early on, he was able to do the stunt work somewhat and at the same time, Grace Jones was still just a model who had no acting aspirations.
Ah, doesn’t that make you feel good?