Enter Roger Moore, the third man to don the tuxedo and play James Bond, and the first who is actually English. In Guy Hamilton’s Live and Let Die (1973), Bond will be asked to foil an international drug cartel, escape a pit of alligators and enter a Harlem soul food joint by himself. I believe this is the only Bond movie where 007 has been called a “honky,” though Lord knows, he’s earned that distinction at other times.
Three British and American agents have been killed in a matter of days, one in New York, one in New Orleans and the third in San Monique, a fictional Caribbean island. All three were investigating Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), the dictator of San Monique, and his connection with the notorious Harlem gangster Mr. Big (Kotto again, which isn’t a spoiler; they look exactly alike and the movie stupidly tries to pretend that we don’t know they’re the same person for far too long until, when it does reveal it, we gasp, not in surprise but to say, “Finally!”). The matter is so urgent that MI6 leader M (Bernard Lee) gets his best man, Commander James Bond, in the middle of the night (interrupting a romantic evening with a player from Bond’s latest mission no less) and sends him to the States to investigate under the watchful eye of the CIA’s Felix Leiter (David Hedison).
Bond discovers a drug plot afoot (Kananga has the wheels in motion to make his country and himself the sole supplier of heroin to the United States) but becomes more taken with Solitaire (Jane Seymour), Kananga’s closest confidant, who he believes possesses hoodoo abilities that can divine the future through Tarot cards. This ability is determinate, apparently, upon her remaining a virgin, which is unfortunate with Bond around. He seduces Solitaire by stacking her Tarot deck to convince her that their love-making is predestined by the cards, something that is particularly shameless, even for Bond, considering that the perceived lack of her powers could mean her death. But, hey, what’s a fellow to do, spend the evening alone? From there on, the movie forgets the drug plot (it paid only lip service to it in the first place) and becomes a rescue movie, with Bond in pursuit of Solitaire and Kananga, and his men in pursuit of Bond.
After a certain point in their history, Bond movies simply began reflecting and absorbing the prevailing cinematic trends of the time. Moonraker (1979), a space adventure, was rushed into production to ride the Star Wars (1977) wave. The Man with the Golden Gun(1974) apes the kung fu trend, and we’re now seeing the influence of the Bourne movies and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies on the Daniel Craig-era Bond pictures. The leading genre at the time of Live and Let Die was the blaxploitation film, and the movie is obviously an attempt to fit Bond’s particular saddle to that even more particular horse. It’s not the most unusual of pairings (Bond seems as natural in Harlem as he does in space), though a great blaxplotation movie it’s not. I wouldn’t call it aggressively racist, but the movie goes to great and disturbing lengths to establish the native savageness or the mystical primitiveness of the San Moniquians (also, I find it hard to believe that Ernst Blofeld, the mastermind villain of many a Bond adventure, would leave the fate of his operation to Tarot cards, as Kananga does here).
Further, it’s at best unseemly to realize that at the movie’s core, Bond is going through all this trouble to save a white woman from a black gang. The movie’s redeeming quality is that Kananga and his operation, especially once they get beyond the pointless and undignified Mr. Big identity story thread, are as imposing and dastardly as any of Bond’s nemeses, albeit they have slightly more meager aims than the world domination Bond is typically up against (though their ploy is no less ambitious than the mere bankrobbing Goldfinger, the villain of a previous Guy Hamilton-directed Bond film). There is, odiously, a black double agent played by Gloria Hendry, who is not only grating, irritating and narratively useless but also piteously inept, an insult to the audience and certainly to Ms. Hendry, who has to try and play her.
What has always drawn me to Live and Let Die, however, is its strangeness. It has to be the most stylistically peculiar of the series. It’s not particularly well-written or well-made. It has some fine performances (Kotto is very good and Moore is certainly the funniest 007, a quality I value) but also some cheesy special effects (the climactic effect is laughably bad). In fact, my affection for it is almost exclusively earned in one sequence, an extended waterboat chase through the bayous of Louisiana that’s not even that well executed; it’s just gloriously odd, completely unprecipitated by the rest of the movie, awkwardly slapstick and broad. Bond is being chased by Kananga’s men through the water; he draws the attention of a cartoonish redneck local sheriff played by Clifton James, and soon we have a dramatic chase coupled with a Keystone Cops routine as if Bond had wandered out of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and into the “Dukes of Hazzard.”
It’s an odd but amusing marriage to be sure, which is a good word for it as the chase does barrel through a wedding ceremony with a boat crashing into the cake. This scene is so foreign to the rest of the movie and Bond is so superfluous within it, it defies every rule of classical screenplay structure and would be a mistake if it weren’t so refreshingly buoyant and ridiculous. Nearly all of the most inventive elements in the story are spent on this chase: finding ways to expose the cops’ incompetence by ramming boats into police cars or crashing police cars into each other. The cops and the locals are overdrawn stereotypes (note the confused oyster truck driver holding up the authorities by driving in the middle of the road), and in a series that has a number of famous lines (“Bond, James Bond.” “Shaken, not stirred.”), may I submit another, heard over a police radio: “Soon as you nayull that ohffendin’ veehickle, Miss Pairson jest called. Seems her dawg’s foamin’ awll at de mouth. She’s got ‘em locked up in the shed and wondered if you’d laike to come over and shoot it fuh heh.”