Live and Let Die

religion, sex, race, drugs and politics in a surreal head-on collision.

WHO IS JAMES BOND? James Bond is, miraculously, young again, or at least seems to be (although Roger Moore, it should be noted, is in fact three years older than Sean Connery). He has hair again, and he carries his world-saving burden lighter than ever. He’s game, no longer smirking or winking, no longer punching women or minorities (rather the opposite here, as we shall see), seems altogether happy to be here. Good for him!

WHAT DOES THE BAD GUY WANT? I am pleased to say that Kananga, the bad guy of Live and Let Die, is, up to this point, as far as Bond Villians go, second only to Auric Goldfinger in terms of his complexity, intelligence and fiendishness. Kananga is both the leader of small Caribbean (republic? dictatorship? I didn’t quite catch it) called San Monique. In addition to being leader of San Monique, he also poses as “Mr. Big,” the head of a positively gigantic, incredibly well-organized black crime syndicate. As Kananga, he is the upstanding leader of a small island nation; as Mr. Big, he is the most powerful black criminal in the US. He plans to use his presidential power as a front to make a move to taking over the totality of American organized crime, by introducing two tons of pure heroin into the American marketplace, for free, causing chaos in the street, certain death to thousands, disaster for the currently reigning Mafia, and eventual dominance for both Mr. Big’s sydicate and Kananga’s island nation (where the poppies are grown).  Whew!

WHAT DOES JAMES BOND ACTUALLY DO TO SAVE THE WORLD? British Intelligence is, for some reason, interested in Kananga’s scheme, and their men keep getting killed in the course of their investigations. Bond is called in simply to investigate their deaths. He travels to New York to investigate Kananga, gets kidnapped by Mr. Big, escapes, travels to San Monique, investigates Kananga there, discovers the heroin fields, follows the heroin trail to New Orleans, is kidnapped by Mr. Big again, finds out that Mr. Big is the same guy as Kananga, is fed to alligators, survives that, destroys Mr. Big’s heroin-processing factory, then travels to San Monique to also destroy the heroin fields. Taken prisoner one more time, he turns the tables on Kananga, fights him, blows him up (rather literally, in one of the few ugly moments in the movie).

WOMEN? Three: an Italian intelligence operative in London, a Kananga/CIA double-agent, and fortune-teller Solitaire, about which more later. Apart from pulling a gun on the double agent (understandably under the circumstances) Bond is unfailingly polite, charming and sweet to these women (if not exactly deeply committed).

HELPFUL ANIMALS: It’s another new Felix Leiter, this time an American man more-or-less the same age as Bond, a little more cheerful than the last one, but again over-burdened with babysitting and make-work. Bond runs around saving the world, blowing shit up and screwing beautiful women while Felix sits in a hotel room, answers the phone and takes complaints from people who have had property destroyed by Bond. All I can think is, what the hell is Felix? An operative, a bureau chief, an operations officer, a political appointee? Why is he going around in public introducing himself? Have we learned nothing from Valerie Plame?

Then there’s Rosie Carver, the CIA/Kananga double-agent. Rosie is new at this espionage thing; she screams in terror when she sees a dead snake or a hat on a bed, but for a time she is Bond’s teammate on this adventure. She presents a comic possibility that goes mostly unexplored in this movie and, to my memory, the Bond universe: the mismatched partner. The idea of Bond teamed up with a green, skittish, black female (essentially, an individual who is everything he is not) is a good one that gets too short shrift here.

And Quarrel’s back! Or, rather, “Quarrel Jr.,” since the original Quarrel got killed by Dr. No’s “dragon.” In Dr. No, Quarrel was the bug-eyed native cowed by the scary man’s voodoo; here, he’s a CIA operative (and fishing-boat entepreneur) who sees through Kananga’s voodoo, knowing there are baser motives to his spirituality. A big promotion for Quarrel; sad that it took 11 years and a generation to make it this far.

HOW COOL IS THE BAD GUY? I must say, I find Kananga very cool indeed, especially as played by Yaphet Kotto, who makes him, I will argue, the most complexly-motivated Bond Villain yet, by a wide margin. He is both eerily calm in the enormity of his wealth and power and desperately seething at the thwarting of his gigantic ambitions. In one moment he will be cynically sneer at the predictability of the world, and in the next will tremble at the uncertainty of the spiritual world. For Kananga is more than just a politician posing as a gangster (or the other way around), he’s a deeply religious man posing as a brutal capitalist. He’s not just cynical, he’s schizophrenic; the light/dark schism runs through every fiber of his being (a schism echoed by the makeup of one of his associates, Baron Samedi, pictured above). Kananga’s perfectly willing to enslave thousands of innocents to a life of drug abuse in order to enrich himself and gain power, but he also worries a great deal about the good favor of his fortune-teller-mystic-vestal-virgin-high-priestess Solitaire.

Solitaire, in spite of her ridiculous outfits, garish makeup and standard-issue Bond-girl helplessness, represents a genuine effort to introduce a real, three-dimensional female character into the Bond universe. She’s not just there to be saved and then screwed (or vice versa), she’s got plans and worries of her own, ones that actually tie into the bad-guy’s plot and, further, into more mystical realms. Solitaire, according to her spiritual tradition (whatever that is), will lose her precognitive abilities if she has sex. She does and does, and the sense of genuine loss and sadness that ensues is palpable and affecting. Just as Kananga cannot reasonably expect to be both a crime lord and a spiritualist, Solitaire must also make choices about following her own spiritual path (which involves serving Kananga’s evil plot) or becoming her own woman (which involves, of course, screwing Bond — this isn’t Seven Years in Tibet, folks).

If Kananga’s coolness ended with his rapacious ambition, his schizophrenia and his love/hate relationship with Solitaire, he would still be plenty cool. But it doesn’t! No, he also has whole raftloads of other cool characters surrounding him. First, he has, and this is not an exaggeration, the organized, explicit support of every black person living in Harlem, New Orleans and San Monique. Now that’s a conspiracy! There’s no sneaking around or secret codes or hidden agendas — if a British agent in New Orleans needs to be assassinated, Kananga can just ask a few dozen of his fellow conspirators to stage a mock funeral in the French Quarter, kill the guy in broad daylight, and walk off with the body. If another British agent stumbles up to Harlem, he has literally dozens of operatives tracking his progress through the streets every step of the way. You don’t see this kind of power your garden-variety Italian gangster operations.

In addtion to the support of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens, he’s got Tee Hee, a towering fella with a mechanical arm. Played by Julius Harris, Tee Hee manages to be scary, menacing, funny, and the best henchman since Oddjob. (I wish that our cinematic fake-arm technology was what it is now, because Tee Hee could use some of that Pirates of the Caribbean Davy Jones CGI magic.) He’s also got the oddly affecting Whispers, an assassin with what sounds like damaged vocal cords, and the aforementioned Baron Samedi, a voodoo priest (and a mean choreographer of rituals) who has his own unpredictable bag of tricks. Not to mention both an alligator trap and a shark tank!   And a monorail!  Man! This guy oozes cool!

Minus one point for trying to kill Bond by, again, dropping a poisonous animal into his hotel room. Has anyone ever been killed this way?

NOTES: I must say, this movie took me by surprise. Like any given episode of The Venture Bros, it’s completely ridiculous on its surface, oddly sincere and thought-provoking in its middle, and utterly, deeply weird at bottom. That’s three levels! Try and think of another Bond movie with three levels! You can’t!

Let’s start with the race thing. Putting lily-white Bond in a story filled with black folks (northern urbanites, southerners and island natives) could have been uncomfortable at best and disgustingly racist at worst. And yet Bond navigates this terrain with relative ease. In Diamonds Are Forever, Bond was reactionary and reactive, fending off attacks on his straight-white-British-maleness, but here he’s wise (and generous) enough to realize that he is, in fact, the uncool one, and plays his uncoolness for something actually resembling high comedy. Sure, some ofthe “black language” is dated, but Bond never plays himself as superior to the people he encounters, even when they’re trying to kill him. He’s in over his head, he knows he is, and he adjusts his attitude accordingly.

It might sound racist to suggest that entire black populations of cities would willingly support the murderous scheme of a schizophrenic madman, but Live and Let Die meets the rising black cinema of the day and confronts it head-on. It must have seemed, and not just to whites, that there really was a whole secret black international culture, with its own rules, morality and code of honor. White America certainly wasn’t going to grant blacks power, not without a fight. Why not support a man like Kananga, or a gangster like Mr. Big? Their plans for domination may not be perfect, but at least they address the problem of the dominant white culture.

But Live and Let Die doesn’t stop at examining race problems in America, it goes on to examine religion too. I don’t know enough about voodoo to say how much of the stuff on display here is accurate and how much is total bullshit, and I can’t say I enjoy watching black people go bug-eyed and spooked by voodoo talismans.  But the mere fact that a Bond movie, for the first time, incorporates a genuine religious belief into a story at all has to count for something. It’s true that Kananga is using his local voodoo temple as a cynical ploy to dupe the locals, but it’s also true that the mystic holds a great, even crippling, power over both him and his court priestess Solitaire. Baron Samedi, for his part, refuses to stay pigeonholed — every time he is exposed as a fraud, he turns up again with a new, unexplainable miracle.

For instance, at the end of the movie, they do the “but one assassin would not stop” beat, and have Tee Hee show up to menace Bond in a train compartment.  And the screenwriter says “Why?  His boss is dead, why would he bother?”  But then we find that Tee Hee is not working for Kananga, but for Baron Samedi, who has, apparently, magically, survived several assassination attempts and is, even now, riding the locomotive engine, laughing into the onrushing night.  With this moment, suddenly the entire preceding narrative is thrown into question, as we realize that Bond may have gotten the wrong man, that all of this is a puppet show put on by a chortling voodoo priest.  It’s a creepy, surreal moment that is not easily reconciled.

But wait, there’s more!  The 70s car-crash genre was coming on strong, and Bond here steps forward to stake his claim.  There’s no mere tilting-a-car stunt here, no: there are three major, impeccably-mounted chase sequences.  One is a bus-and-car chase through the jungle, one is the parking-lot chase from Diamonds re-cast as an airplane-and-car chase across an airport tarmac, and one is a stupefying boat-chase-that-will-not die.  To top it all, Clifton James shows up as the drawling, mewling, tobacco-spitting redneck sheriff J.W. Pepper.  This character, the stubborn, fuming, none-too-bright, impotent southern law-enforcement officer, is one that would be revisited to the point of dead-horse-ness throughout the 70s, but James is so specific in his choices and so vivid in his delivery that J.W. pretty much explodes off the screen and one is sorry to see him go.

All I will say about the title song is that I have a sizable, extensive obsession with the life and career (if not necessarily all the music) of Paul McCartney, which will have to remain a subject for another day.

Roger Moore, I must say, immediately makes an impression as Bond and justly owns the part. If he is not as darkly sexy as Sean Connery was in 1962, he does put his own highly-crafted spin on the part.  If he had been playing Bond in Diamonds Are Forever, that movie might have been the light comedy it aspired to.  As it is, Moore handles the comedy here quite deftly thank you, and also manages to communicate Bond’s style, resourcefulness, ease and lethalness.  His luck with the ladies isn’t as strong; when he approaches, say, Rosie Carver, and suggests they go to bed after mere minutes of acquaintance, he comes off less like a smoothie and more like a creepy masher.

The photography is a big step up from Diamonds, and the use of locations is imaginative.  There’s a Ken-Adam-esque airport terminal (real life catching up to Bond Movies), a terrific, crumbling, ash-colored Harlem back-alley, a convincingly run-down island town, and the lush green jungles of San Monique.  The special effects are also much better.

There is a scene toward the beginning where M shows up, unexpectedly, at Bond’s house to deliver his assignment.  Bond has a bird in his bed and there is some ho-hum comedy wrung from his attempts to keep M from finding the girl.  Why, I don’t know, except that M is a father to Bond and one is always embarrassed to reveal to one’s father that one is getting some tail.  But then Moneypenny shows up and instantly discovers the girl, and her reaction is both sweet and heartbreaking.  She helps the girl hide in a closet, gets her her clothes to preserve her dignity, then trades her usual quips with Bond as though nothing has happened.  Her loyalty to Bond trumps her jealousy of seeing the cheap floozy sneaking around the house.  Bond is unaware of what Moneypenny has done, and goes on with his boyishly smutty life, while Moneypenny gives him a look and a sigh that tells us that seeing Bond in his element, after years of half-kidding flirtation, has truly crushed her spirit.  Bond, she suddenly knows, will never be hers, will never be anyone’s, really, and will never even know, is incapable of comprehending, the depth and extent of her affection for him.  It goes by in a mere moment, but it’s a brilliant performance and could be Lois Maxwell’s finest hour.

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24 Responses to “Live and Let Die”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Agree with your take on the film in general, wonderful analysis, although Venture Bros comparison to Bond (the layers thing) is not fair I think, Bond really wasn’t “twisted” or just “funky” enough to attribute all those layers. That was always the problem of the Moore era Bond, that it became a very straight, docile cartoon, and not for example a Venture Bros. Having said that, I think that Moore will always be “The Saint”, and it was odd how that went away as it was in fact a good role. The role, that kind of Britishness, the overall feel of the series on the tv screen fit him, even in a way continuing out of the “Saint”/George Sanders lineage. It just felt he was doing “Saint” / “Bond”, rather than creating a new character out of it, in the way, say Daniel Craig did today.

    • Todd says:

      I’ve never seen The Saint, but I’m willing to take your word on Moore’s performance.

      I sense that the Moore Bond does become domesticated, but I feel like Live and Let Die still has enough genuine weirdness, and genuine ideas, in it to warrant comparison to The Venture Bros.

      • dougo says:

        “The Saint” is worth seeing if you get a chance (the TV show, not the movie, which kinda sucked). It gave me a lot more respect for Moore (although that was somewhat of a low bar). And, at least in the episodes I’ve seen, the women characters are a lot stronger than any Bond girl.

        • teamwak says:

          I loved The Saint, also with the other guy as well. Loads better than than that tosh The Persuaders (which is set to be remade as a comedy with Ben Stiller in the Tony Curtis role and Steve Coogan as Moore).

      • I’ll just have to chime in here for a second to go on record as saying without Live and Let Die, there certainly wouldn’t be a Venture Bros.

        That and the theme song is tied for second place with You Only Live Twice in the “Best Bond Themes Ever” category. Minus one point for the whimsical reggae breakdown in the middle with the “you gotta give the other fella hell” line. Am I wrong here or is “fella” just not a word that should find itself in the middle of a James Bond theme?

        • Todd says:

          The reggae “B”-theme of the song “Live and Let Die” may sound awkward today, but it is thematically resonant — the “white” rock-n-roll beat doing battle with the “black” reggae beat — and the whole notion of a two-themed suite is consonant with the antagonist’s split-personality, the urban American gangster and Carribean mystic.

          Although, now that I look at the song, it seems there are four themes doing battle — the dreamy, soft-rock verse, the bombastic hard-rock chorus, the even-more-bombastic bridge, and the reggae break. The multi-themed pop-song is something of a McCartney specialty, of course, going back to the three-part “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” (or “A Day in the Life” if you like), and continuing later with “Band on the Run” and others.

          Thank you for clarifying the one line — for 24 years, I thought the line was “You gotta give the other fella a hand.” Which not only doesn’t scan, but makes no sense.

          It is indeed a fine song, despite the horrifying grammatical nightmare of “But in this ever-changing world in which we live in.”

    • ladylavinia says:

      If you want to blame Moore for turning Bond into a cartoon character, you might as well blame Connery.

      From GOLDFINGER (which really introduced the cartoon elements of the Bond franchise) to what I believe is the worst James Bond movie ever – DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER – I think that Connery made a great contribution to the cartoonish aspects of the franchise.

      • Todd says:

        I don’t blame Moore for turning Bond into a cartoon character. Time and fashion did that. Characters have to develop, even fantasy characters — either they become more realistic or they become sillier. Bond has done both.

  2. planettom says:

    …and this seems a fine time to pimp my James Bond Tarot Simulator!

    • Todd says:

      Of course, the one thing you forgot is that Solitaire’s cards, for no earthly reason, have a “007” logo on the back of them.

      • planettom says:

        I have to wonder, where did Bond gets all those “The Lovers” cards?

        When he was in the O Cult Voodoo Shop, did he buy 78 decks and then discard everything but The Lovers card from each deck, planning ahead for a chance when he might seduce Solitaire? Even in 1973, this would probably cost close to $800. I guess he can expense them.

        Did he buy one deck and then have Q make counterfeit duplicates?

        Or did he just find some closet in Katanga’s place that had 78 decks still in the shrink-wrap…

        • Todd says:

          When he gets to his hotel in San Monique, he walks by a tarot shop in the lobby with the cards prominently displayed — he must have bought them out there.

          That, of course, doesn’t explain how a “007” logo got onto the backs of them.

          • planettom says:

            Oh, that makes more sense.

            Still, the unseen scene that must have occurred of Bond with 78 decks of cards arrayed on his hotel bed, organizing his special How To Win Solitaire deck, suggests a Bond really, very dedicated to his work.

            “The things I do for England!”

  3. craigjclark says:

    To top it all, Clifton James shows up as the drawling, mewling, tobacco-spitting redneck sheriff J.W. Pepper. This character, the stubborn, fuming, none-too-bright, impotent southern law-enforcement officer, is one that would be revisited to the point of dead-horse-ness throughout the 70s, but James is so specific in his choices and so vivid in his delivery that J.W. pretty much explodes off the screen and one is sorry to see him go.

    The writers must have thought so, too, since he returns in The Man with the Golden Gun (but this time he’s a tourist in another country and more than willing to help Bond out).

    I’m glad you have such a high opinion of this film. It was always a childhood favorite, second only to For Your Eyes Only. And I cannot wait for you to bring up the subject of your obsession with Paul McCartney since I, too, have a great affinity for the work of the “cute Beatle.”

    • Anonymous says:

      J.W. Pepper didn’t need to come back in TMWTGG. In the first film, he was humorous and served a purpose. In the second, he was a shoehorned-in, unfunny racist. His entire shtick was that he called the locals “pointy-heads”.

      • craigjclark says:

        That, my anonymous friend, is the textbook definition of an Ugly American.

      • Todd says:

        In the first film, he was humorous and served a purpose.

        From James Bond: The Legacy by John Cork and Bruce Scivally:

        “In further efforts to balance the racial mix of good and evil in the movie, Bond works with two black colleagues. Also, the filmmakers developed the character of J.W. Pepper, who played an important stereotype — the Southern redneck. During the film’s extended boat chase, Pepper allowed the filmmakers to show Bond making a fool out of his pursuer. But in this chase, that fool is not the enemy agents but Pepper. Thus, the black villains are rarely the ultimate butt of Bond’s jokes — visual or verbal.”

        So J.W. was there in LaLD in order to show that Bond is not a racist. His role in TMWTGG is reversed — he’s now Bond’s sidekick, more overtly racist than before, while Bond scowls at him — but does not kick him out of the car.

  4. black13 says:

    I heard that another actor who was also briefly considered for the Bond part (but that may have been back for Diamonds Are Forever, I don’t remember exactly) was Clint Eastwood. He was rejected because he’s American.

    And went on to do Dirty Harry instead, for which John Wayne had been initially wooed.

  5. teamwak says:

    Moore best Bond, in my opinion.

    And I dont know if you remember, but the speed boat chase is amazing. It goes on for about 8 minutes solid. Its a real, quality set piece.

    The supernatural certainly plays a big part in LALD. I always remember that Baron Samdi gets his skull shot in but is still alive and blinking. And the tarot cards seem to work too!

    Loved the CO2 capsules, that inflate first the sofa, then Karanga himself. Theres also a cool gun mounted in the wing mirror of a car that kills Bonds driver.

    Theres definately a lot of cool in LALD!

    PS. I saw McCartney play LALD at Glastonbury festival 2004 in the bloody, pouring rain. He was fantastic, but God did it rain that night!

    • craigjclark says:

      McCartney performed “Live and Let Die” both times I saw him in concert — in 1989 and 1993. Both times were at Veterans Stadium in Philly, which was a terrible place to see a rock concert, but I didn’t care. I was in the vicinity of a Beatle.

      I’m pretty sure “Live and Let Die” is one of those “gimme” songs. He can’t not play it. It always gets the crowd pumped up. In my opinion, about the best Bond theme out there.

    • Todd says:

      And I dont know if you remember, but the speed boat chase is amazing.

      I remember it well — I refer to it as both “impeccably mounted” and “stupefying” — indeed the sort of scene one would go to see a movie for.

  6. ladylavinia says:

    But then we find that Tee Hee is not working for Kananga, but for Baron Samedi, who has, apparently, magically, survived several assassination attempts and is, even now, riding the locomotive engine, laughing into the onrushing night. With this moment, suddenly the entire preceding narrative is thrown into question, as we realize that Bond may have gotten the wrong man, that all of this is a puppet show put on by a chortling voodoo priest. It’s a creepy, surreal moment that is not easily reconciled.

    You are aware that in Vodoun religious circles, Baron Samedi is a loa or a spirit. He known as the “angel of Death”. Which is why he cannot die.

    • Todd says:

      Yes, but that suggests that the character in the movie is a genuine spirit, not a scam artist, which he was up ’til the very end of the movie. One of the things that separates Live and Let Die from the other Bond movies is that it suggests that in some way, on some level, there is a spiritual world.

  7. Todd says:

    Why on earth would three MI6 agents be investigating the actions of a Caribbean island prime minister? Especially if that Caribbean island obviously used to be French controlled?

    You’ve got me. Bond does all kinds of things outside his jurisdiction, it’s completely baffling.