The changing of the guard: Live and Let Die

After the unsuccessful attempt to turn George Lazenby into the new James Bond, Eon Films finally made it work with Roger Moore in Live and Let Die (1973).
Well, sort of work. The film is at least as entertaining as Diamonds Are Forever, and it has an excellent cast, but it’s a long way from Dr. No, From Russia With Love or Goldfinger.
The plot: After three British agents investigating Caribbean island president Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) all die, Bond goes in. He discovers that Kananga is stockpiling two tons of heroin which he plans to distribute free throughout America, using a black-owned restaurant chain and his underworld connections in his second identity of Mr. Big, Harlem crimelord. Once the free heroin collapses the existing drug syndicates, he’ll start charging again with an absolute monopoly (Bond, of course, has other ideas).
The Bond: As the book Licensed to Thrill notes, Moore fits very well with the lighter comic tone the series had developed by this point—it’s hard to imagine Connery in the farce opening where Moore’s Bond smuggles out an Italian agent he’s been making love to before M can spot her. But watching so soon after Diamonds, it’s impossible not to notice how much less physically impressive Moore is. Up until the final fight with Tee-Hee (Ji-Tu Cumbuka), he engages in almost no mano-a-mano violence, dispatching Baron Samedi (the always impressive Geoffrey Holder) at a distance (using a Magnum revolver a la Dirty Harry rather than his usual Walther PP). That being said, he survives plenty of perils, including sharks, snakes, gators, Harlem gangsters and a tedious ten minute car/boat chase (I pretty much ignored that bit).
The Bond Girl: Jane Seymour (in her film debut) is an excellent actress, but as Kananga’s pet clairvoyant Solitaire, she’s one of the weakest Bond girls. Diana Rigg’s Tracy (Secret Service) participated some in the fight against Blofeld and Jill St. John’s Tiffany Case (Diamonds) had her own mercenary agenda, but Solitaire, despite her psychic gifts, is strictly passive: She trots along behind whichever man is currently in charge and doesn’t really decide between them (Bond tricks her into sleeping with him with a stacked deck of Tarot cards).
Race. It’s in the handling of its black villains that the movie becomes a complete mess. Much as I like it, I understand now why the handling of the black villains bugged so many people when it first came out (I was in my early teens, things like that didn’t register at the time).
First we have the voodoo, which Kananga uses to keep his island subjects in line. Scenes where the helpless white beauty is tied up to be sacrificed in the voodoo cult’s pagan rituals play into a lot of old and ugly stereotypes about blacks and their supposed fondness for superstitious devil-worshipping mumbo-jumbo. It’s true the voodoo was in Fleming’s original book, but the Bond films weren’t worried too much about fidelity to Fleming at this point so it’s no excuse (and the plot is indeed heavily reworked from the original).
Then we have Harlem, where apparently every African-American except a federal agent helping Bond is working for Mr. Big: Funeral mourners, taxi drivers, shoeshine guys, bartenders, they’re all part of one vast conspiracy to take out Bond. Which is admittedly not a radical idea for a spy film, but when all of them are black, it brings up a sense of racial conspiracy reminiscent of WW II films such as Little Tokyo USA (which portrays all of Los Angeles’ Japanese neighborhoods as a hot bed of spies).
Still, for better or for worse (or for both), this movie launched us on a new Bond era.

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7 responses to “The changing of the guard: Live and Let Die

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