With Americana firmly in the ascendance and coming off the back of the box office revival of “Diamonds Are Forever”, Tom Mankiewicz was given the task of penning the follow-up which would usher in yet another actor as James Bond, 007. The stage was set for a funky, voodoo-infused tale of heroin smuggling and who better to play Bond in the litter-strewn streets of urban America than the elegantly suave Roger Moore?
For only the second time in the series Bond doesn’t appear in the pre-credits sequence, but it’s not due to any coyness on the producers part, this time it’s a hefty dose of exposition as we’re shown how far Mr Big’s network can reach as agents are murdered in New York, New Orleans and the tiny (fictitious) Caribbean nation of San Monique. While it’s never really addressed why the British Secret Service are leading an investigation into an American Drug lord, the murder of so many agents brings M to 007’s front door in person to send him to investigate. He soon finds a connection between Harlem’s shadowy ‘Mr Big’ and the President of San Monique, Dr Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) but faces the challenge of outwitting Kananga’s personal fortune teller, the beautiful Solitaire (Jane Seymour), inexplicably dubbed throughout by long-time Bond vocal artist Nikki Van der Zyl.
There are pimpmobiles aplenty as Bond crashes headlong into the Seventies, borrowing heavily from the Blaxploitation genre as he does so – ‘Names is for tombstones, baby’ may be the best ever response to the line ‘The name’s Bond, James Bond’. There’s just so much more life to this slice of American pie than in “Diamonds Are Forever” and Roger Moore makes an accomplished debut as a more wry and debonair Bond than we’ve had to date. The story isn’t coy at all in embracing the supernatural – the only Bond movie which flirts with the theme – but thankfully this adds some much needed purpose and impact to Jane Seymour’s Solitaire who otherwise is a little bit of a limp ingénue content to simper and swoon over Bond. For a change, David Hedison’s Felix Leiter has a bit more personality than we’re usually given and makes for a reasonable M-proxy as he helps Bond’s mission.
It’s in the villains though that “Live And Let Die” really excels and as good as Yaphet Kotto’s ruthless and clever Dr Kananga is, he’s outclassed by his henchmen: the mechanical armed Tee Hee (Julius Harris), the rotund and quiet Whisper (Earl Jolly Brown) and the creepy and flamboyant Baron Samedi (a joyously sinister Geoffrey Holder).
The action in this outing is some of the best of the series and director Guy Hamilton continues to demonstrate his disdain for big American cars by smashing as many of them up as he can. “Live And Let Die” also marks the beginning of one of the hallmarks of Moore’s reign as 007: the unconventional chase scene. This time, there a bus and a light aircraft in the mix before the marvellous speedboat chase through the Louisiana bayous.
On the downside there’s no Q but the shortage of gadgets (beyond a magnetising watch) at least gives Bond the opportunity to show his ingenuity. The comic relief addition of Sherriff J W Pepper is a little too much but nowhere near as grating as it will be in the next film and the finale is a little bit of a let down: despite snakes, sharks and voodoo priests, Kananga’s eventual fate is more comical than karmic and the one point at which the effects just aren’t good enough.
“Live And Let Die” also boasts the first rock song Bond theme, courtesy of Paul McCartney’s Wings. It’s a decent if somewhat odd theme, with an inexplicable reggae bridge, lyrically repetitive but saved by the melody. The theme song features prominently in famed Beatles producer George Martin’s score, which sounds very un-Bondlike as it seeks to mimic a funky Blaxploitation sound. The theme also features in a weirdly meta moment when the cabaret singer in Mr Big’s Fillet Of Soul club performs the song and sings it to/at Bond.
Taking massive liberties with the source novel, “Live And Let Die” is nevertheless a prime example of how the Bond movies have cleverly moved with the times. Moore is cool and confident in his debut as 007 and although the tone may be more light-hearted, the action has never been better. It would take a couple more movies before this version of Bond would really find its groove but after the flawed and flaccid “Diamonds Are Forever”, the series was firmly back on track.