Back on schedule following a tough week. In return for your patience, I offer you the surreal movie that kicked James Bond squarely into the 1970s while introducing a new take on the agent…
…AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Roger Moore
SETUP: Three British agents die on the same day in New York, New Orleans, and the Caribbean island of San Monique. M suspects the deaths are linked to the agents’ assignments, all revolving around the enigmatic ruler of San Monique, a man named Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). Bond’s mission is to succeed where those agents failed.
BUT IN REALITY: Kananga is more than just the wealthy leader of his own island nation. He’s also Mr. Big, streetwise drug dealer and mastermind of African-American organized crime in the states. As Mr. Big, Kananga plans to dump $1 billion worth of heroin onto American streets for no cost, driving his competitors out of business. Once he’s the only game in town, the price comes back up and the profit rolls in. Bond gets knocked around by Kananga’s vast conspiracy, but turns the tables by blowing up Kananga’s poppy fields and inflating the island leader to death with a gas pellet. Really.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Kananga belongs to a sub-category of Bond villains who create their own disfigurement with plastic surgery or makeup, in Kananga’s case a prosthetic face. He uses this disguise (and a jive dialect) to organize seemingly all the African-Americans in Harlem and New Orleans under his banner.
THE MUSCLE: Kananga has plenty of money for henchmen, and he’s not stingy. He employs Tee Hee (Julius Harris), a grinning assassin with a hook for a hand who terrorizes Bond until thrown from a moving train. Down in San Monique, Kananga keeps the superstitious locals in line with Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder), a flamboyant showman who cannot die. Bond tests the theory by putting a bullet through Samedi’s brain, but seems to shoot some kind of Samedi robot instead. It’s actually never explained, and Samedi’s laughing face appears over the end credits just to add to the confusion.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: The Bond Girl is Solitaire, played by future pioneer medicine woman Jane Seymour. Solitaire is an actual mystic who reads the future for Kananaga using a deck of tarot cards. The power runs through the women of her family until they lose their virginity, a fact lost on Bond until he sleeps with her only to discover that she’s now effectively useless to the plot (more on that below). The writers never do figure out what to do with her and she defaults to automatic damsel in distress until Bond can whisk her away in the wake of his victory. The usual.
There’s a minor femme fatale in this movie, a CIA agent named Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry.) Her special agent training apparently never prepared her for things like dead snakes or voodoo, leaving her to scream and cry helplessly into Bond’s shoulder. That is, until he discovers she’s working for Kananga anyway. Tee Hee silences her before she can spill any secrets.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: Roger Moore’s stint as James Bond is known for gimmicks and gadgetry, but this film surprisingly features no Q scene whatsoever. Q was absent in an attempt to distance Moore’s Bond from Sean Connery’s, but fans demanded the quartermaster’s return in the next film. Despite his absence, Q still manages to ship Bond a magnetic watch, which Bond uses during his final confrontation with Kananga.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: After Bond sleeps with double-agent Rosie Carver, he threatens her at gunpoint and demands information on Kananga. “You won’t kill me. Not after what we just did,” she says. Bond: “I certainly wouldn’t have killed you before.”
MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: If any Bond movie is ever censored by an angry mob, my bet is it’s this one. Where do I begin? Do I start in Harlem, where it appears that literally every black person in the city is working for Mr. Big, a known drug lord? Or do I instead look to San Monique, an island entirely populated by gyrating, crazed voodoo cultists and gangsters? The first appearance of JW Pepper (Clifton Webb) and his unique sense of justice?
Or do I leave the race angle completely and come to defense of Solitaire, a woman who is literally tricked out of her virginity by Bond, who constructs a tarot deck out of “The Lovers” and convinces her that the fates have spoken?
WORTH MENTIONING: David Hedison plays Felix Leiter in this film, his first of two performances of the role. He’d return in Licence to Kill, only to be partially eaten by a shark. Ironically, this was a scene written into the Live and Let Die novel, but cut from the film’s script… Kananga is named for Ross Kananga, owner of the crocodile farm seen briefly in the film… The title song was provided by Paul McCartney and Wings, arguably the first Bond theme song to become more famous than the film that inspired it.
OVERALL: Live and Let Die is a movie of its own time. It couldn’t have been made before or since without morphing into something completely different. Every frame of the film, every note on the soundtrack is 1973, including the racially driven plot which blatantly capitalized on the then-hot blaxsploitation trend in American film. Of course, someone got their facts wrong because blaxsploitation films were mostly about black empowerment, while this movie depicts a powerful black conspiracy brought down by a single white guy from England, leaving me to wonder exactly who they thought the audience would be. It didn’t matter. Roger Moore was an instant success as Bond, and fans happily embraced him as Connery’s heir.
No wonder. Issues aside, Live and Let Die is a pretty good adventure movie. Bond is constantly captured and thrown off his rhythm, out of his league, and this actually provides suspense, an element Bond movies had long learned to live without. Every time Bond believes he has the advantage, he has it stripped away from him. Sure, we know Bond will win, but we don’t quite know how, and the situation seems bleak. It’s classic adventure plotting.
I’ve always enjoyed the bizarre religion found in the film, the only time in 22 Bond films that there’s even a hint of the supernatural. Solitaire’s skill at reading cards is obviously real, but what of Baron Samedi? He survives Bond’s shot, clearly, but his underground entrance is revealed to be a mundane elevator lift. Is he as unkillable like the natives claim, or is he another of Kananga’s tricks? It’s left unresolved.
The action is impressive and Yaphet Kotto is clearly having fun playing a Bond nemesis. It’s a shame that his scheme boiled down to simple drug dealing, but his disguises and cyborg assassins make up for it. Really, the film’s bizarre reality works in its favor. This is a story about Bond in a world he doesn’t understand, and as it becomes increasingly bizarre and detached from our world, it somehow becomes increasingly consistent and believable, like a voodoo version of Wonderland or Kong’s Skull Island (itself a land of backwards racial depictions that almost, but miraculously don’t, hurt the film.) I’m not sure the end result is a proper Bond movie, but all things being equal, I like it.
The James Bond Project
14. Live and Let Die
15. Licence to Kill
22. A View to a Kill