In which James Bond is sent to eliminate ruthless Caribbean dictator and heroin supremo Dr Kananga (aka Mr Big), in an escapade involving voodoo, tarot, crocodiles, snakes and sharks. Will our hero prevent Kananga flooding the heroin market with two tons of free product so that he becomes the world’s only supplier? Of course he will!
Producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli were desperate to sign Sean Connery up to play Bond for the seventh time, but not even a pay cheque of $5.5 million would tempt him. Instead, they considered many other actors, including Julian Glover, John Gavin, Jeremy Brett, Simon Oates, John Ronane, and William Gaunt. They favoured Michael Billington, who was best known for his appearances in TV’s The Onedin Line, but when Roger Moore became available, his star status was too much of a draw for them to ignore.
Ted Moore returned as Cinematographer again, for the first time since Thunderball, with editors Bert Bates (who had worked on Diamonds are Forever), Raymond Poulton (who would also return for The Man with the Golden Gun) and John Shirley. Guy Hamilton returned for the third time as Director; regular composer John Barry was unavailable and Paul McCartney, who had written the title track, was too expensive, so the producers chose George Martin – who was, of course, The Beatles’ producer – to compose the score. Design was by Syd Cain, who had designed From Russia with Love, and the screenplay was by Tom Mankiewicz, who had played a major part in revising the original script of Diamonds are Forever, and would go on to contribute to three later Bond movies. Live and Let Die, however, would be the only film for which he received sole credit for writing the screenplay.
Live and Let Die was published in 1954 and was the second book in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels. Fleming had actually finished writing it before the first book, Casino Royale, was published. It was written at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica, and was originally intended to have a more serious tone than its predecessor. Its original title, The Undertaker’s Wind, describes one of Jamaica’s winds that, allegedly, blows all the bad air out of the island. Many of Fleming’s own experiences were incorporated into the story. Scuba diving with Jacques Cousteau inspired the description of swimming out to Mr Big’s boat; his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book The Traveller’s Tree, which had also been partly written at Goldeneye, is full of information and insights about voodoo. Even the character of Solitaire took her name from the local Jamaican rufous-throated solitaire bird.
The previous film, Diamonds are Forever, was the last James Bond film that I saw with my schoolfriend John at the cinema sometime in the mid-1970s. After then, I did not see another James Bond film until I saw Skyfall when it came out. So until I watched the film for the first time recently, I had never seen Roger Moore in the role. More of him later!
There are some similarities between the film and the book; but there are more areas in which the two completely diverge. In both the film and the book M sends Bond to New York to investigate Mr Big, although in the book he is suspected of selling gold coins and in the film he is dealing in heroin. In both the film and the book Bond is assisted by his old friend and CIA agent Felix Leiter, although in the book Leiter suffers considerable injuries en route and the film he largely gets off scot-free. The character of Solitaire plays a similar role in both film and book, but the voodoo element is played up a lot in the film. Because of altering the sequence of adaptations in the film series, Quarrel in the book becomes Quarrel Jr in the film, as we have already encountered the former (and seen him die) in Dr No. In the book Mr Big is a member of SMERSH, whereas in the film he’s the alter-ego of the dictator of the fictitious island of San Monique, Dr Kananga. The characters of Rosie Carver, Tee Hee, Adam, Whisper and Sheriff Pepper were all created for the film only. Samedi is an established figure in Voodoo, but also did not appear in the book.
For the most part, the book received very good reviews. The Times Literary Supplement observed that Fleming was “without doubt the most interesting recent recruit among thriller-writers” and that Live and Let Die “fully maintains the promise of … Casino Royale.” The Daily Telegraph felt that “the book is continually exciting, whether it takes us into the heart of Harlem or describes an underwater swim in shark-infested waters; and it is more entertaining because Mr Fleming does not take it all too seriously himself”. The Times thought that “this is an ingenious affair, full of recondite knowledge and horrific spills and thrills—of slightly sadistic excitements also—though without the simple and bold design of its predecessor”. However, reviews for the film weren’t always quite so positive. The reviewer for Time Magazine described the film as “the most vulgar addition to a series that has long since outlived its brief historical moment — if not, alas, its profitability.” He also criticized the action sequences as excessive, but noted that “aside an all right speedboat spectacular over land and water, the film is both perfunctory and predictable—leaving the mind free to wander into the question of its overall taste. Or lack of it.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times stated that Moore “has the superficial attributes for the job: The urbanity, the quizzically raised eyebrow, the calm under fire and in bed”. However, he felt that Moore wasn’t satisfactory in living up to the legacy left by Sean Connery in the preceding films. He rated the villains “a little banal”, adding that the film “doesn’t have a Bond villain worthy of the Goldfingers, Dr. Nos and Oddjobs of the past”.
As usual, the opening credits begin, with Maurice Binder’s iconic glimpse of Bond walking across the screen whilst being captured by the barrel of a gun, only for him to turn around, see us, and shoot; and then for the blood to start filling up the screen. Where we’re used to seeing Sean Connery, Bond is now noticeably Roger Moore, a slightly more elegant and poised presence than Connery, a characterisation that continues throughout the film.
We’re taken to the UN building in New York, where the delegates are listening intently, if languidly, to a dull speech from the Hungarian delegate. However, an interloper replaces the feed from the translator to the British delegate with some kind of electric charge and kills him stone dead. Then we move to a New Orleans jazz funeral march, another British spy gets killed – knifed whilst watching the march, and then we move to the fictitious island of San Monique, where a Voodoo snake ceremony is taking place. As a consequence, a third British agent is fanged to death. Three deaths so early!
And now the credits really start with Paul McCartney and Wings’ performance of Live and Let Die, an iconic track that’s still much loved all these years on. Binder’s title sequence calls for a view after view of fire and fireworks, plus some very cheesy use of an oversized optic fibre lamp, which after a short while becomes slightly less than interesting. Luckily, there are a few shots of barely hidden bosoms to perk the credits up. But I would suggest this is possibly the least creative title sequence in the series so far.
And the locations? As already described, we start off in New York – from then, the action takes place in New Orleans and Louisiana, and the fictitious island of San Monique; scenes there were filmed in Jamaica. Whilst in New York, the producers were reportedly required to pay protection money to a local Harlem gang to ensure the crew’s safety. When the cash ran out, they were “encouraged” to leave.
Bond, James Bond. This was Roger Moore’s debut in the role – so how did he make out? Well, being Bond, he made out quite a lot. Aged 45 at the time of filming, Moore is very suave, very posh, very sophisticated; but to me, his performance felt quite forced. Guy Hamilton gave him the affectation of the cigar, which makes him look even more lascivious and creepy than he already behaves. His first words are not simply “Bond, James Bond”, which is rather a shame, considering in The Saint, he was “Templar, Simon Templar”. In fact, his first words are those of disappointment at an unnecessarily early visit from M – “not married by any chance, are you?” And when he does eventually formally reveal his identity to us, saying the familiar line “My name’s Bond, James Bond”, it’s not until we’re 23 minutes into the film, when he introduces himself to Solitaire for the first time. Sometimes Roger Moore’s trademark underacting doesn’t work for me. I think Bond should be a bit more animated!
Boo-boos. Here are some, I am sure there are more. When making the coffee for M, Bond puts the milk in the coffee and then puts the steam into the coffee, demonstrating that neither he nor anyone involved in the scene had the faintest idea how to use the machine; added to which, the coffee grinder is alternately empty/full between shots. When Bond gives Mrs. Bell her “flying” lesson, the wings are torn off the plane. Yet when he asks her “Same time tomorrow?”, the reaction shot of Mrs. Bell shows an intact left wing – it’s the same ‘reaction’ shot as when he climbed into the plane. There are two scenes of funeral marches in New Orleans; one at the very beginning, and one in the middle of the film. They were both obviously shot at the same time: the sun and shadows are the same, the marchers and dancers are wearing the exact same clothes, and the extras hanging around a doorway across the street are identical. The whole crew and spectators are reflected in the cab’s window when Bond leaves the Voodoo shop.
The Bond Girl. As usual, the producers and scriptwriter bowl us a couple of curved balls early on in the film to fool us as to who The Bond Girl is in this adventure. First candidate is Miss Caruso, the Italian agent with whom Bond is sharing intimate moments when M comes awkwardly to call. She is played by Madeline Smith, originally a model and then a starlet in grisly Hammer horror films, before becoming one of those bit-part actresses seen in numerous light entertainment and comedy roles on TV and in films. She was recommended for the role by Roger Moore himself, who had worked with her in an episode of his TV series The Persuaders. Her career wound down in the 1980s when she had a daughter, but she’s still going strong to this day.
Next candidate for Bond Girl is the apparently ditzy and careless Rosie Carver, played by Gloria Hendry. Rosie is an inexpert CIA agent who adds some nice touches of comedy to the film with her clumsy gadget-handling and useless spy skills. However, as Bond quickly comes to realise, this is all a bluff and she’s double-crossing the CIA by working for Kananga. Her employer realises she can’t be trusted and has her killed. Rosie and Bond’s affair is a brief, double-crossing fling which ends the hard way. Gloria Hendry was originally a Playboy Bunny but then gained a couple of acting jobs and her appearance in Live and Let Die was significant as being the first African American woman to become romantically linked with James Bond! She’s had a varied career in movies since then, and has also written an autobiography. When the film was shown in South Africa her sex scenes with Bond were removed because of the Apartheid laws.
However, the Bond Girl in this film is undoubtedly Solitaire, played by Jane Seymour. Solitaire is used by Kananga for her tarot, psychic and occult skills and is icy at first but soon warms up after Bond breaks down her resistance (so to speak). As a result, she loses those skills and is of no use to Kananga, and he orders his voodoo henchmen to assassinate her – but Bond has other ideas. Jane Seymour, who was not the first choice for the role – that was Diana Ross, has had a long and highly successful movie career from her first appearance in 1969’s Oh What a Lovely War right to the present day. She has earned an Emmy Award, two Golden Globe Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, not to mention her OBE in 2000.
What Bond Girls Are Like. Apart from the Japanese heritage that sets You Only Live Twice’s Kissy apart from the rest of the Girls, our currently agreed list of attributes common to the Bond Girls is: sexy, exotic, unpredictable, as equally likely to attack Bond as to support him, strong and self-reliant up to a point, sometimes tragic, professional, scary, vengeful, bossy – but with a vulnerable side. How well does Solitaire conform to the role? Well, she’s not that typical. She works for the other side, and her past has been pure until she meets Bond – and not a lot of his conquests can boast that.
The Villain. Meet Kananga – or Mr Big, as he is the same person; when he is acting as Mr Big he wears a facial prosthetic which gets removed to quite spooky effect. In many respects, Kananga’s a typical Bond villain – outwardly sophisticated and genteel, concealing a ruthlessness and cruelty to take your breath away. He was given the name Kananga – he’s only Mr Big in the book – by Tom Mankiewicz in honour of Ross Kananga, the charismatic owner of the crocodile farm used to shoot the scene where Bond leaps over the backs of several crocs to escape. Kananga suffers the highly improbable and deliciously disgusting fate of swallowing a compressed-gas pellet used in shark guns, causing his body to inflate up in the air and explode into tiny bits. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. Kananga was played by Yaphet Kotto, who had a long and successful movie career, including playing President Idi Amin in the film Raid on Entebbe. Despite evidence to the contrary, Kotto has claimed descendance from the Crown Prince of Cameroon and Queen Victoria – a fact dismissed by Buckingham Palace. He was apparently quite unhappy with Tom Mankiewicz’s cartoon-style blaxploitative script; he summed his feelings up as “The entire experience was not as rewarding as I wanted it to be”.
Other memorable characters? In addition to those already mentioned, we welcome back CIA agent and Bond ally Felix Leiter for the fifth time, on this occasion played by David Hedison, another actor recommended to the role by Roger Moore – they were old friends. Hedison enjoyed some charismatic roles, including the title character in the original version of The Fly, and Captain Lee Crane in the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Although Leiter isn’t given that much to do in this film, his on-screen chemistry with Moore worked very well – and he would return to the role many years later in Licence to Kill.
There’s a good performance from Roy Stewart as Quarrel Jr, the local agent who is always on hand to lend help with a boat. Stewart had a fascinating career, not only as an actor and stuntman, but also as the owner of a gym in Kensington (where the late Dave Prowse trained as a weightlifter) and the owner of a Caribbean restaurant, The Globe, that ran from the 1960s until his death in 2008 – and in fact, the restaurant continues to this day. Apparently, it’s where Jimi Hendrix spent his last evening alive.
Every good Bond villain has to have a chief henchman, and in Live and Let Die it’s Tee Hee Johnson, played by Julius Harris. Tee Hee is an elegant and smiling man – but definitely not to be trusted, with a hook for a hand like a Fleming version of a Peter Pan’s nemesis. It’s a great performance, with Mr Harris perfectly cast as this apparently upright, jovial chap but with a heart of complete stone. Julius Harris appeared in many notable TV programmes and films, including The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Super Fly, even Cagney and Lacey and Murder She Wrote. He died in 2004 at the age of 81.
Perhaps the most notable character is that of Sheriff J. W. Pepper, a creation of Mankiewicz, brought in to provide some light relief. This pompous, loutish cop would return in The Man with the Golden Gun. He was played by Clifton James, a man with a career in movies that lasted a full fifty years, and who died in 2017 at the age of 96. It’s an arresting (no pun intended) performance that certainly breaks up the intensity of the speedboat chases. However, personally, I found the character incredibly tedious!
As usual, Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell reprise their roles as M and Moneypenny, both just for the one scene. Q, usually played by Desmond Llewellyn, is absent from this film due to his commitments to the TV series Follyfoot, although the writers of that show left him out of three episodes of that series to give him time to play Q as well. When Q was written out of this movie, because the producers wanted to give less emphasis to the gadgets, apparently Llewellyn was furious. Fans demanded Llewelyn’s return, and he appeared in eleven more Bond movies from 1974 to 1999.
And what about the music? As always, the film starts with the main James Bond Theme, in a light, crisp guitar and string arrangement, written by Monty Norman; and then, once the opening credits start to roll, we’re straight into Paul McCartney and Wings’ Live and Let Die. A hit for the band, reaching No 9 in the UK charts but No 2 in the US Billboard Hot 100, plus No 2 in Canada and Norway, and 5 in Australia, it didn’t appear on a Wings album, which is odd as it would have fitted perfectly, stylistically, in Band on the Run. It was also successfully covered by Guns ‘n’ Roses. After that, there’s no John Barry, but George Martin, including Martin’s arrangement of both the Norman theme and the McCartney theme, primarily that chaotic and exciting Middle-8 sequence. It was the first time that McCartney and Martin had worked together since the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Most of the music was performed by an orchestra under George Martin’s directorship; two notable exceptions are B J Arnau’s soul version of the title track and the New Orleans Olympia Brass Band under the leadership of Harold “Duke” Dejan, who play the funeral march (twice) where spies get knifed. The actor playing the baby-faced killer was actually band trumpeter Alvin Alcorn.
Car chases. Not much in the way of car chases as such; there’s a sequence with James Bond leaving the airport in New York to meet up with Leiter, but with his driver having been killed without Bond realising; cue some hair-raising stunt collisions. Another car chase follows, where Bond in a taxi is followed by one of Kananga’s henchmen. Apart from those, there’s a brief helicopter chase, where Bond and Solitaire try to hide from the pilot, a scene where three cops chase Bond driving a bus (which gets decapitated as it goes under a bridge), the plane that Mrs Bell has her flying lesson in (chased by henchmen), and the extensive speedboat chase, which crosses roads, bridges, wedding receptions, garden parties and much more.
Cocktails and Casinos. As if to make a clean break with the Connery style-Bond, there are no casinos in this film, and cocktails are kept to the minimum. Rather than have a cocktail shaken not stirred, Bond creates that noisy and arduous Cappuccino in the opening scenes. Otherwise, Moore’s Bond drinks Bourbon with no ice – although Leiter changes his order at the club to two Sazeracs.
Gadgets. With Q absent, there aren’t as many gadgets this time round; however, those that did make it into the movie are pretty impressive. Bond’s magnetic watch starts by grabbing M’s coffee spoon from his saucer, remotely unzips Miss Caruso’s dress, but also turns into a circular saw and thus ends up both saving his life and helping end that of Kananga. There’s a hairbrush that doubles up as a cassette recorder (how charming), together with a device for locating bugs (the recording, listening-in type, rather than creepy crawlies). Rather quaintly, the hairbrush also sends and picks up morse code, which seems rather retro. Bond also has a shaving foam spray can that doubles up as a flame thrower – alas poor intrusive snake who lets himself into Bond’s bathroom. And Strutter’s car has a microphone in the lighter. The enemy also have some good gadgets; for example, the lethal dart thrower that is sent from Whisper’s wing mirror, and a ghastly recorder with a microphone attached. The actor makes an awful noise with it, even worse than a child playing it.
In Memoriam. In a running count of death counts in Bond movies, Dr No had the lightest number of fatalities at around 11; Thunderball is looking pretty heavy at around 50 people; but Diamonds are Forever is lethal at around 70. How does Live and Let Die compare? Let’s briefly look back at those who gave their lives so that Bond can rescue Solitaire from the wrath of the voodoo:
- First UN agent, electrocuted through his earphone
- Second UN agent, knifed by a passer-by
- Third UN agent, bitten by an asp
- Charlie the driver, harpooned in the head by a miniature dart aimed through the window by the henchman Whisper, driving an overtaking car
- 2 henchmen in the Harlem wasteland (although maybe not, it didn’t take much to kill them, just a kick or two)
- Henchman kicked over by Bond dangling from hang glider
- Strutter, knifed on a New Orleans street corner just like death #2)
- Billy Bob, thwacked on the back of the head by Adam (maybe?)
- Adam, doused in petrol by Bond and flambéd in the speedboat
- Dambala and another man in voodoo scene
- 3rd man in snake coffin – Samedi, or is he?
- Whisper – confined into a torpedo
- Kananga blown to smithereens (internally)
- Tee Hee, disarmed and ejected through the train window
Approximately 15? Maybe that’s not too many after all.
Humour to offset the death count. In previous films, Bond’s classic asides are normally delivered whenever someone dies. Live and Let Die continues the tradition of applying Bond’s wry sense of humour to all sorts of occasions. Is it me, or in this film he is particularly cheesy?
It all starts in his first scene, when he’s caught in flagrante delicto with the Italian spy Miss Caruso. When he uses the magnetic watch to unzip her dress and she admires his magic touch, he replies, “sheer magnetism, darling.”
When Felix Leiter listens into the conversation between Bond and the CIA agent Strutter, courtesy of a microphone in the cigarette lighter, Bond comments, “A genuine Felix Lighter – illuminating!”
When Rosie says she’s going to be of no use to Bond, he replies, “oh well I’m sure we can soon lick you into shape.”
Solitaire suggests a quickie before they go and capture Kananga. “Is there time before we leave for Lesson Number 3?” “Absolutely” replies Bond. “There’s no sense in going off half-cocked.”
When Leiter queries why Bond decides against the table by the wall at the New Orleans club, he replies “I once had a nasty turn in a booth”.
When Bond and Solitaire have been roped together in Kananga’s lair, Leiter tells the worrying Quarrel, “relax, he must have got tied up somewhere”.
And when Kananga cuts Bond’s arm to release blood to alert the sharks, 007 quips “perhaps we could try something in a simpler vein.”
After Kananga has been exploded into tiny bits: “he always did have an inflated opinion of himself.”
And as Bond tosses Tee Hee’s arm out of the window, after he’s been flung from the train: “Just being disarming, darling.”
Any less frothy elements? So once again it’s time to consider if there are any outstanding themes or elements that don’t sit well with today’s audience. In this film, latent (and not so latent) sexism tends to give way to racism, with the blaxploitation theme. It’s said that the racial overtones in this book make it Fleming’s most difficult novel to accept nowadays (I’ve not read it myself); and the creative team were very concerned about this being the first Bond film where all the villains are black. The driver of the taxi (who’s obviously in the employ of Mr Big) taking him into Harlem tells Bond that for a big tip he’d take them to a Ku Klux Klan hideout – that doesn’t sit very comfortably. One of the other guys radios in: “you’ve got a Honky on your tail”; and “you can’t miss him, it’s like following a cue ball”. It’s not the only use of the H word, and that also doesn’t sit very comfortably! Then Strutter refers to all the tarot cards as “spades” – with all its racist overtones.
Rosie Carver is another problematic character; the CIA agent who appears to be totally useless, and screams at the sight of the dead snake and the “warning” feather hat on the bed, feigns confidence but basically swoons into his arms at the merest suggestion of how’s-your-father. When Bond draws a gun on her as her duplicitousness is revealed, she says “you couldn’t, you wouldn’t, not after what we’ve just done”, and his response is “I certainly wouldn’t have killed you before”. To be fair, it’s probably no more or less sexist than his interaction with any other woman in any other Bond film.
Bizarre other stuff that occurred to me and a few observations.
Owner of the crocodile farm Ross Kananga was paid $60,000 to do the “jumping-on-the-back-of-the-crocs” stunt. Sadly, he died at the age of 32 from a cardiac arrest, two years after being attacked by his pet leopard, Satan.
Denis Edwards, who played the third British agent (Baines) in the opening sequence, was terrified of snakes and wasn’t aware that he would be confronted by one, face-to-fang. He passed out. All that and he didn’t even get a credit.
Whilst the team were filming in the apparently disused tenement blocks of Harlem, associate art director Peter Lamont wanted to include some of the trailing wires that were hanging loose from some of the buildings. To make it more obvious in shot, he arranged for the wires to be cut so that they hung in the right place for the shot. Later that day, the telephone engineers arrived as they had had several reports that the phone lines were down – red faces from the art design team!
Geoffrey Holder, who played Baron Samedi, was primarily a dancer and choreographer – in the 1950s he was a principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York. He had also once met Ian Fleming at his home Goldeneye in Jamaica. He was also terrified of snakes. One wonders how cruel the casting team really were! He appears in the very final scene at the front of the train, because originally the producers had thought of bringing him back for the next film.
Bond refers to Tee Hee as “Butterhook” when the actor Julius Harris fumbled a scene where he had to remove Bond’s watch with his hook; it was an off-the-cuff quip, but it stayed in the script, and subsequently became Moore’s nickname for Harris.
In the scene where Jane Seymour is about to be nibbled to death by a snake, Roger Moore crouches in the distance, watching, and his face conveys all the horror of being slightly late for tea. Talk about underacting!
Awards: Paul and Linda McCartney were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song – they missed out to Marvin Hamlisch’s title track for The Way We Were. They were also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, where they lost out to Neil Diamond and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Guy Hamilton did, however, win the Evening Standard award for Best Film.
To sum up: I was a little disappointed in this movie. I thought it was rather slow, rather coarse, lacking in finesse, and a little too easy. Solitaire is a rather ineffective and drippy Bond Girl, and Kananga lacks the brutal streak of a Blofeld. But mainly, I wasn’t over impressed with Roger Moore in the role and could see how either Connery or Lazenby would have nailed it much better. That said, having watched it three times over the course of writing this blog, the film and Moore have both started to appeal a little more, so I’m going to upgrade it by one sparkle. Nevertheless, I’m hoping for an improvement in his next offering, which was The Man with the Golden Gun. Fingers crossed!
My rating: 3 Sparkles
All photos from the film of course belong to their various copyright holders.