Serial, Super Serial: Live and Let Die

Live and Let Die

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

When one era ends, another begins. Although Sean Connery is often considered the best James Bond, Roger Moore has done the bulk of the work. Spanning twelve years and seven films, his tenure as Bond may not be as highly regarded, but he’s had possibly more cultural impact. I’m both looking forward to and a little anxious about the next seven films, as I understand they won’t be enjoyable — but in the context of the series, there could be a lot of interesting fodder to write about.

Roger Moore’s first venture into Bond is Guy Hamilton’s 1973 Live and Let Die, based on the popular song by Paul McCartney and Wings, er, the second novel in Ian Flemming’s series. Sean Connery’s departure isn’t the only difference with this Bond film, as it tinkers with the formula a bit, from what I understand forecasting the look and feel of the ‘70s and ‘80s films.

The film takes Bond to New York City, which is a great new territory, and it captures the city’s grittiness and unique set of problems. After three MI6 agents are killed in three different parts of the world, Bond is ordered to see if there’s a specific connection to their deaths. As they were all killed on the same day, chances are likely, and indeed Bond uncovers an intricate plot involving a black-power street gang, a drug cartel, voodoo and a UN official.

If Diamonds Are Forever is a slapstick comedy disguised as a Bond film, Live and Let Die is blaxploitation wearing that same Bond costume. From my limited knowledge of the once-popular genre, 1973 is right in the middle of its cinematic heyday, with Shaft out in 1971, Super Fly in 1972 and Foxy Brown in 1974, among many others. In general, it’s not surprising that a film typically catering to a very white audience would branch out into this territory, but it’s still odd in the context of a Bond film, where the normal plot conventions are traded out for those of this new genre. Instead of a world-wide terrorist threat, we have a rather small-scale crime ring that Bond is thrown up against, which just doesn’t have the stakes that we need. With uber-white filmmaker Guy Hamilton back at the helm, it doesn’t feel like he has a great grasp of what the genre is all about. He does a fantastic job of finding and highlighting the natural camp of the material, but while Live and Let Die has incredible potential as another camp classic, something is a little off.

[Bond, James Bond]

The above said, Roger Moore isn’t at fault, and I actually liked him in the role quite a bit. Yes, Moore isn’t the caliber of actor that Sean Connery is, but it doesn’t feel like this was his first go-around in the role. The opening of the film helps indicate this. Unlike the George Lazenby picture or the return of Connery, we aren’t given a strange, mysterious introduction to the character where the actor is initially hidden. Instead, the film very matter-of-factly presents that Roger Moore is the new Bond, and there’s little fanfare to build him up. Still, he feels just as natural in the part as Connery, and I imagine that’s a big reason why he was cast in the first place. In fact, I see him as much more casual than Connery — he’s less formal in his appearance, manner and dress.

Given the blaxploitative nature of the film, we get a slightly different perspective on the character through the black point-of-view. Although our main character, Bond represents the “other” for much of the film, a character defined by how everyone else looks at him. On multiple occasions he’s referred to as “honky,” which certainly fits the genre the film’s gunning for but also feels pretty apt. Although I previously mentioned that Moore plays a more casual version of the Bond role, he still typifies proper, British whiteness. He not only looks like a fish-out-of-water, but there’s inherent communication interference between the two cultures — the “jive talk” on display, although simple to understand today, is completely misconstrued by Bond. While You Only Live Twice gives us a seemingly similar scenario with Bond in Japan, there the plot’s more focused on him conforming with a new culture, not completely clashing with it.

[The Mission]

The opening sequences of the film show off three different assassinations on MI6 agents and is one of the best pre-credits sequences of the series. The three deaths are unique, and although we don’t understand the implications of their connectivity they provide a scope that ties everything together — even without great stakes. This scene also sets up the three different locations Bond will work in: New York City, New Orleans and the fictitious Caribbean island of San Monique. Each locale has its own flavor that contributes to the atmosphere of the film.

In terms of the specifics of the plot, this is the first film in a while without any SPECTRE involvement — I believe only the second total, along with Goldfinger. While I definitely feel like SPECTRE had started to wear out its welcome, especially given that Blofeld was the major villain in the previous three films, the lower-key mission feels second-class in comparison. I suppose this set of villains and the new perspective has its advantages, but the lack of stakes Bond faces crushes a lot of the thrill and action. Of course Bond will always best the baddies, but this particular mission doesn’t hold a candle to plots involving nuclear devices, space shuttles and ransoms of major cities.

Specifically, our major villains plot to produce two tons of heroin and giving it away for free as a way to create more needy addicts and to wipe out other drug manufacturers in the U.S. I mean, drugs are certainly a problem worth addressing, but by MI6? Without the opening assassinations, they never would have been involved in the first place, and so it seems like those murders only occur to get Bond on the scene in the first place. I’m not even going to mention the cultural problem that exists when you finally feature African American villains in this series but have their crimes be the very coded African American activity of drug trafficking. Why couldn’t they have posed similar problems of a more global scale?

There are also large plot points that deal with Tarot and Voodoo, which I’m totally chalking up as something that would have been interesting in the early ‘70s. Unfortunately, they aren’t interesting anymore. If these points would have been just a snippet of the action they could have provided nice flavor, but major characters are only defined through fortune telling or Voodoo and the key climax centers around the dark arts. Part of my distaste with these aspects may be that Voodoo is so misinterpreted and a product of the time’s view. The major Voodoo sequences feel like they were produced as a ride at Disneyworld, not in any way authentic. In fact, there’s a demonstration of a Voodoo ritual at Bond’s hotel that should be that Disney-esque translation but in fact looks exactly like the “real” thing. The film also has a strange stance on Tarot, and I can’t tell if it believes in it or not. The film’s view of its fortune-teller is mostly negative, showing her to be naive, but her beliefs in magic are actually justified at points in the movie.

[The Villain]

As a take on blaxploitation, Live and Let Die features an exclusively black villain crew, which gives us a different vibe, as I’ve previously touched on. The main villain here, played by the great Yaphet Kotto, is the dual role of Mr. Big (American gang leader) and Dr. Kanaga (corrupt Caribbean dictator). Although the character is disguised, he doesn’t really put much effort in hiding his true identity, so there isn’t any mystery or change in the character’s two roles. Given the different nature of the villain, the role is surprisingly bland, but it’s saved by Kotto’s dynamic presence.

Although this particular villain is completely disconnected from the world of Bond villains, he acts just like them — a serious sticking point for me. Kanaga isn’t threatening the death and destruction of major cities or asking for million-dollar ransoms, but he still has the secret island lair that locals stay away from and an overly elaborate plan to kill Bond that ultimately fails. If he was more like the black-urban drug lord character than the Bond villain character, I’m sure he would have been perfectly content with just busting a cap in Bond’s ass and being done with it.

As is normal for Bond villains these days, Kanaga’s aided by a group of henchmen who are mostly nameless and voiceless followers. There are two notable exceptions: right-hand man (well, kind of) Tee Hee Johnson and Baron Samedi, the Voodoo ringleader. Johnson is one of those villains that’s only a villain because of a deformity; in this case he has a robot arm that includes a powerful pincher. There isn’t much more you have to know about him to understand why he’s evil. Baron Samedi is a more interesting character, and much more complex. He’s a representation of the Voodoo god of death and is called “the man who cannot die.” Appropriately, the film closes on him and his omnipresent nature giving his iconic laugh directly to the camera. He’s much more than just a Bond villain henchman, and his characterization conforms with the film’s strange relationship with the mystic.

[The Bond Girls]

Again, we have two new Bond Girls here, although the main girl is far less interesting to me. That would be Solitaire, played by a very young Jane Seymour, the psychic pseudo-henchwoman who works for Kanaga. Her character is wholly defined by her occupation as a Tarot card reader and fortune-teller, and she’s quite the blank canvas. Of course, when your character’s motivations and choices are determined by the draw of a card, you know your results will be quite limited. I suppose she’s slightly notable as being a very frigid character when she meets Bond — she’s pointed as a virgin. Sadly, though, once Bond gets his hands on her and literally tricks her into having sexual relations she becomes much more promiscuous. We’ve seen women who’ve denied Bond’s advances, but we haven’t had the opportunity of seeing a truly pure representation of a woman, which the film here cops out of. She’s also strangely a white woman amongst black men, and there are subtextual connotations of their sexual control over her, which isn’t good for anyone.

The more interesting character in the context of the film, though, is Rosie Carver, Bond’s first black companion — he doesn’t discriminate! Carver is an American CIA agent who actually works as a double agent for the villains. Although she has a very prominent and powerful position, she’s highly unqualified and under-confident for her job. Still, in a blaxploitation film, she’s an iconic figure. Just her appearance — with an afro wig, bikini and pistol in hand — is as much an indication of the film’s genre-aping as anything.

[The Gadgets]

Live and Let Die is another movie that doesn’t have the time to fit in a formal scene with Q, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any gadgets. In fact, this is probably the most gadget-heavy film so far — by that I refer to specific gadgets that don’t really exist in real life. The main gadget Bond employs is a wristwatch that’s also a high-powered magnet. In fact, it has enough power to deflect the path of a bullet, although we unfortunately don’t see that happen. The watch also is able to cut Bond from from rope binds, making it useful in multiple situations.

[The Song]

Let’s review: Matt Monro, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Nancy Sinatra. I don’t want to take away anything from them, especially Tom Jones and Nancy Sinatra, who are important and accomplished performers, but none of them are Sir Paul McCartney. His title track is most certainly the best thus far, at least out of the Bond context. Really, I don’t think the film utilizes the song to its best strengths, especially the awesome rock instrumental break. The song is mostly too slow to use to score the rest of the film, but this particular part of the song could have been used during a chase scene or something.

“When you were young and your heart was an open book
You used to say live and let live
But if this ever changing world in which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say live and let die”

This is the first song to be popular outside of any Bond context — I didn’t even realize it was a Bond song before seeing the film. It was the first big hit of the title songs, rising to #2 on the Billboard charts in the U.S. “Live and Let Die” also has the distinction of being the second meta song in the series, after “From Russia with Love.” During the film, we hear the song play at the opening title sequence, as usual, but also sung at a night club.

[Random Thoughts]

- Do Voodoo shops exist out of the world of the movies? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person, but they do tend to come up a lot in film.

- I’ve noticed a trend in the films where two Bond Girls will be introduced, with one killed half-way through and the other threatened near the end.

- The title credits say “And introducing Jane Seymour” — they must have foretold her future success.

- Strange that San Monique is the first fictitious country in any of the films. I wonder if no tourism board wanted their nation characterized as full of bloodthirsty Voodoo cults.

- Much like the need for the villain to have a secret lair, even the black-urban villain must have a moat filled with man-eating animals. This time: alligators!

- A white character calls some baby alligators “cute little nippers” — boy that was close!

- In order to escape from imminent danger, Bond seriously runs across a bridge made out of alligators. I’m not sure if this was the first time this idea had been used, but boy was that cliche!

- One of my biggest movie pet peeves is cutting off someone saying “fuck” with a loud noise or cut-away. This happens numerous times, especially with the black characters and their love for the word “motherfucker”.

- One of Kanaga’s henchmen look like the love-child of ?uestlove and Cedric the Entertainer.

- Blacks aren’t the only stereotypes in the film: the most aggregious BY FAR is the white southern cop, who’s off-the-wall bonkers. The end credits adds a line thanking the New Orleans police department. I’m guessing that’s for not suing over their portrayal.

- Anyone a classic WWF fan? Remember Papa Shongo (later “The Godfather” — the guy who came to the ring with the “ho train”)? He’s definitely inspired by Baron Samedi, and seeing him in the film brought me back to some nightmares of when he cursed the Ultimate Warrior. That shit was scary when I was a kid!

SERIAL, SUPER SERIAL will return in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN

tags: guy hamilton, james bond, live and let die, super serial

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