Page to Screen: Live and Let Die (1973)

Live and Let Die
based on the novel by Ian Fleming


I was driving home with a few friends in the car, on the way back from something, when “Live and Let Die” came on one of Atlanta’s classic rock stations. I usually play Russian radio roulette while in Atlanta since they took my beloved the Journey away, but I paused. “Hold on,” I said. “I think I recognize it.” “It’s that Bond song Paul McCartney did,” my friend Isobel informed me. “Back up, Paul McCartney did a song for James Bond?” Much riffing (on McCartney, Bond, and my own ignorance) ensued. So, as you can see, between Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan, the James Bond franchise is an empty desert dotted by the occasional Grace Jones. I had literally no idea what to expect from Roger Moore, so I went into Live and Let Die utterly blind.

Live and Let Die sees Roger Moore step into the shoes of James Bond. When three MI6 agents in various locales are killed within twenty-four hours of each other, the British government sends Bond to New York to investigate. Alas, his driver is immediately shot, but Bond tracks the killer, which leads him to Mr. Big, a corrupt businessman who owns a chain of Filet of Soul restaurants throughout the US. Also in New York is Dr. Kanaga, the corrupt dictator of San Monique, who relies on Solitaire, a young woman who can see the future through the art of tarot, to aid his nefarious goals. As Bond investigates further, he discovers a drug ring that goes deeper than he ever could have thought. It’s a new Bond in the New World.

So far, Connery was a cheerful, thuggish, and Scottish sociopath, and Lazenby was supple, good-natured, and sensitive—what’s Moore bringing to the table? Well, fussiness. It’s odd to think of Bond as fussy, but there’s something very light about Moore’s Bond. My friend Natalya informs me that Moore, in Bond on Bond, insists on referring to James Bond as “Jimmy”, which, I think, tells you quite a lot. We’re introduced to Moore’s Bond not in a fight scene, but rather in a comedy of errors scene, where M and Moneypenny pay a visit to Bond in the dead of the morning, but Bond has a half-naked Italian secret agent in his flat that he doesn’t want M to see. (You should assume that every time I mention Moneypenny I am also mentioning the fact that Lois Maxwell is flawless.) He’s capable, surely—he’s quite believable in action scenes—but there’s something so British about him that Connery and Lazenby didn’t put into him. His one-liners come off as dry, witty, and a little camp, for Pete’s sake. I’m into that.

And I think it’s played up a little bit to emphasize the humor of MI6 sending the whitest man alive into Harlem to investigate a murder, which characters actually comment on. I don’t have the specific lines, but one of the bad guys asks his boss who they’re looking for, and their response is essentially, “The only white guy in Harlem.” Watching Bond blunder into a blaxploitation movie is an utterly bizarre delight, especially for me, because I love seeing Bond fail. Of course, this is overshadowed by the fact that Live and Let Die is a movie where every black character is evil and involved in this particular drug ring, even the incidental singer in a restaurant. (There is a black CIA agent, who really should have been lead on this case, but he gets murdered off-screen. Of course.) On the one hand, yes, Bond is blundering into the predominantly black contexts of Harlem, New Orleans, and the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique. On the other hand, the only redeemable villain, Solitaire, is white. Screenwriter Mankiewicz briefly considered casting Diana Ross as Solitaire, which would have at least given them a little wiggle room, but the idea was rejected. Live and Let Die does feature the first black Bond girl in Rosie Carver, who, of course, turns out to be evil. I liked her clumsy, plucky CIA intern vibe, too! Curses!

As for the women… well, the film gets off to a good start with Miss Caruso, the Italian agent, who has a cute, flirty back and forth with Bond, but Solitaire… well, her power (which goes utterly unquestioned, interestingly for a supposedly “realistic” film series) is linked to her virginity. Bond, who does not know this, tricks her into having sex with him by offering her a loaded Tarot deck, which takes advantage of her previous vision that she and Bond would be lovers. The move is played as cheeky—my parents found it quite funny, while I clutched my head at yet another woman coerced into having sex with Bond, which we call rape where I come from—but Solitaire’s quiet anguish over the loss of her power and, therefore, her usefulness to Mr. Big before she embraces sex is hard to laugh at. Even Bond seems uncomfortable, until she suggests they have another go before they escape. It’s a rare moment of uncomfortable truth in an otherwise silly film. I don’t want to get into the ending, but it’ll make even someone invested in the movie quietly gather their things and leave the theater. It involves inflatable men. It’s definitely a rocky start to Moore’s reign as James Bond, but there’s enough in here that I like about his Bond that I look forward to The Man with the Golden Gun.

Bottom line: Roger Moore’s Bond, the most British thing to ever British, finds himself in an blaxploitation film, with problematic results. The problematic racial and sexual issues are hard to get down, especially in some of the film’s sillier moments. If you’d like.

I bought this film on iTunes.

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