Matthew Kresal disables a crocodile with a pencil...
With no chance of Sean Connery returning to play 007, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had to prove to critics that James Bond’s time had not come and gone. To do it, they brought in Roger Moore, an actor better known as Simon Templer and Brett Sinclair on the Saint and The Persuaders, respectively. Updating Ian Fleming’s most controversial novel, Live And Let Die, the producers, writer Tom Mankiewicz, and director Guy Hamilton choose to embrace the action packed comical Bond film as seen in the previous Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. But unlike that film, which turned out to be a very mixed bag, it works well here.
Roger Moore’s debut as Bond sets up the tone of the films to come. Roger is more comic than Connery or Lazenby, and in his later films is stuck with very bad one liners. But here, Bond’s quips are mostly well written, and while Moore is mostly comedic, when a serious moment comes, for the most part he can play well. Moore makes his own Bond and steps out of Connery’s shadow so well that it is extremely hard to make a comparison. On the down side, the more comedic 007 doesn’t help the film in the realism department and that hurts Live And Let Die quiet a bit: that Bond simply isn’t believable.
In the casting of Solitaire, Jane Seymour fits Ian Fleming’s description of the character to perfection. Not only does Seymour look the part, she also plays the part well. Given that in both the novel and the film, Solitaire is a poorly defined character who Bond saves at every possible chance, Seymour plays the role with a believability that is rarely matched by an any other Bond girl. While some of the lines are cliché, the tarot card and ESP abilities of Solitaire give Seymour a chance to show off her considerable talents that have only improved over the years since this film.
In Doctor Kananga, we get the first African American villain in a Bond film. Yaphet Kotto brings considerable menace to the character that is turned on and off as Kananga is both a public figure and then as drug lord Mister Big. It must be noted the well done plot twist of Mister Big being Kananga, though it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Two things ruin an otherwise memorable character: his plot and his death. What is the earth-shattering problem that is created by dumping free heroin on America’s streets? It isn’t as big as say irradiating Fort Knox or unleashing a biological weapon on the world. His death is completely absurd and doesn’t even seem realistic.
The supporting cast is mainly African American actors and actresses playing villains. That brings out the fact that while this a 007 adventure, it is also jumping on the blaxploitation bandwagon of the early 1970’s and serves to date the film. Those actors are underwritten and way too often used for comic relief, with Tee Hee and Whisper as two examples of this. Despite numerous attempts to kill Bond, they fail and Bond eventually gets rid of them easily. Rosie Carver is another example. She's an interesting character who is underwritten to the extreme, and so we come off not caring that she is dead.
Whilst on the subject of the supporting cast, it should be note that David Hedison makes a great Felix Leiter. The bad memory of Norman Burton’s Leiter is washed away, as this Bond and Leiter share a very believable friendship. It is only a shame that the character doesn’t appear again for 14 years as he could have added a lot to the Moore films.
If there is one outstanding example of a bad character in this film, it has to be Sheriff J.W. Pepper. He is out of place in a Bond film and one almost wonders what everyone was thinking when this character was added. Most of Pepper’s lines are cringe worthy, though the scene at the end of the boat chase where Pepper confronts Bond is the film’s best comedic moment.
Live And Let Die can be best viewed as a chase movie, as it is really a bunch of chases which the plot revolves around. While this is usually the kiss of death for any film (look at 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies for example), it works here. The chases are well done and, despite forty plus years of other action films, are still exciting. While humor fills these chases, which ruined many chase sequences in Diamonds Are Forever, it works here. The tension in the film is primarily found in these chases and the fights which test the abilities of 007.
If there is anything to complain about in these chases, it is the occasional lack of music. This is no more apparent than in the film’s best chase: the boat chase. It is the film’s lengthiest sequence and with good reason. The boat chase takes us across the buoy and showcases some amazing stunt work. The chase is occasionally hampered down by appearances by J.W. Pepper and his merry band of idiot cops, but is one of the better sequences to appear in the series and has truly stood the test time.
The music for Live And Let Die marks a milestone in the Bond films. It was the first time ever John Barry didn’t compose any music for a Bond film. George Martin, a long time Beetles producer, was hired to write the score, and he created the best non-Barry Bond score until David Arnold’s for Tomorrow Never Dies 24 years later. It has a great feel to it and doesn’t feel dated at all. Martin is however guilty for leaving some of the action un-scored, including the boat chase which is for the large part un-scored, but when the music does come in it adds to the excitement. Martin does a very good take on the James Bond Theme, giving it a much-needed boost for the film and it is so undated that it appeared in trailers for The Living Daylights fourteen years later. The film’s score is built around an excellent main title song. Paul McCartney's title track is an unabashed rock song, but it fits very well with Maurice Binder’s title sequence. It's not only an excellent Bond song but a truly classic single in general.
With a good main cast, a shaky supporting cast, good action sequences, an excellent title song and a wonderful score by George Martin, Live And Let Die is certainly an improvement over Diamonds Are Forever. Though when it is viewed in context with the rest of the series, it comes off as above average. One thing is clear though: Live And Let Die saved James Bond.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.
James Bond will return next Thursday...