BOND, JAMES BOND: Live and Let Die (1973)

Directed by Guy Hamilton
Screenplay by Tom Mankiewicz
Release Date: 27th June 1973 (U.S), 12th July 1973 (U.K)

It had been a tumultuous couple of years for the James Bond franchise when 1973 rolled around. The character had been recast with  George Lazenby to a somewhat mixed reaction for both actor and film, while Connery returned to the role in 1971, but only for one last film (at least with Eon) leaving Broccoli and Saltzman with having to look once again for someone to take over the role.

The history of casting a new James Bond shows up an interesting way in which Eon would go about choosing a new actor in the role; more often than not, at least up until the casting of Daniel Craig, the series would turn to actors who had been previously considered or asked to play the role.

The backlash against Lazenby seemed to have the knock-on effect of making Eon somewhat reluctant to try and cast a relative newcomer in the role again. While the character had turned Sean Connery into a big name, they had failed to make the casting trick work a second time with Lazenby, who seemingly struggled to connect with audiences simply by being the first person to play the role who wasn’t Connery, and whose decision to opt out of playing the role beyond OHMSS meant his performance and film would have to wait patiently for reappraisal.

Roger Moore’s name had been mooted as a potential Bond when casting was getting under way for Dr. No, with his performance as Simon Templar in ITC’s television series of The Saint being a clear indication of how well suited he would be to the role of James Bond.

Future 007’s Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan were also considered at various points before they made their first Bond films, so it would stand to reason that Eon might want to play safe and go for a more established actor who had at one point had been considered as potential Bond material.

With Diamonds are Forever having achieved a return to box office form for the series, most of the creative team was retained for the eighth film in the franchise. Guy Hamilton returned to the director’s chair, as did screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, although there were some key changes behind the scenes. Live and Let Die would be the first film of the series not be scored by John Barry, while in front of the camera Desmond Llewelyn would be absent for the first time since he made is debut in From Russia with Love.

The music score would be delivered by George Martin and with his presence there would be an accompanying theme song courtesy of Paul McCartney and Wings. The song and the score itself was considerably more contemporary compared to the themes Barry had scored and produced, which had a more timeless orchestral quality as opposed to Martin’s which felt more like a score in tune with the period, but his work remains very effective even today and suits the film to a tee.

In fact, there seems to be an attempt to utilise some of the Bond tropes differently here than seen before. Instead of being called to M’s office, Bond’s superior shows up at Bond’s flat to deliver the assignment, the first time we see where the character lives, while Q’s gadgets are given to Bond by Moneypenny in a sequence of farcical comedy involving Bond and Moneypenny trying to hide Bond’s date with Italian agent Miss Caruso (Madeline Smith) from M.

It’s silly, funny, and ends with Moore’s Bond using a gadget to seduce Miss Caruso while delivering a pun. So, it pretty much introduced Roger’s version of Bond as it would mean to go on, although there are elements to the comedy and Moore’s performance that have the spectre of Connery hanging over it, not least in how caddish and more cynical some of the comedy is here compared to where the Moore era would go post-The Spy Who Loved Me.

The glint in his eye and his way with puns and one-liners are very much evident, but his manipulations of Rosie (Gloria Hendry) and Solitaire into sexual encounters feel a little too cynical and harsher compared to Moore’s later films and increasingly laid back performance and lighter style, while the cynical edge to his performance here and the next film feel more evocative of what Connery might have done.

Having said that, there are conscious attempts during other key moments to keep Connery at bay; Roger’s Bond smokes cigars as opposed to cigarettes, and doesn’t order a vodka martini, instead choosing bourbon as his drink of choice. While Roger’s 007 would return to his beverage of choice, he would never be heard ordering so.

The first of two gunbarrels featuring Roger Moore in his twelve year run as James Bond.

Diamonds are Forever ensured that there was some future for the series going into the 1970s, but it had also strayed away from the more overt spy-fy formula into the mould of an action comedy more indicative of where a fraction of the action genre was about to go in the 70s.

If Bond was a dominant pop culture force in the 60s, influencing the direction of various other movies and television shows, the 70s was going to see the series itself being influenced by other genres, culminating with the decade ending with a production that would see the series trying to compete with the biggest movie of all time.

In 1973, Roger Moore’s Bond would find himself walking into a film that was for all intents and purposes a Blaxploitation film and it’s here that one cannot talk about Live and Let Die without talking about this film and race.

Ian Fleming’s novel was published in 1954 and remains the most deeply problematic novel that the author wrote. Not that his other Bond novels weren’t problematic in other ways, because they were, not least at various points where he writes about how women enjoy, in his own words, ‘semi-rape’. The books are products of their time, but it doesn’t negate the fact the on top of the problematic gender politics, the racial politics are every bit as troublesome and rightly controversial in 2020.

Live and Let Die was Fleming’s second novel, with a story involving Mr. Big smuggling 17th Century gold coins in Jamaica. The film would, as was becoming very much custom, jettison a large part of the book’s narrative for one concocted by Mankiewicz, the only screenplay the writer delivered without any other contributors, and one of the few Bond films not to feature Richard Maibaum on the writing credits.

Like the first 007 film that didn’t feature Maibaum in the writer’s chair, Live and Let Die follows the pattern of You Only Live Twice in taking the bare bones of Fleming’s novel and going in a different direction with it, but where Roald Dahl’s screenplay for the fifth Bond took a more fantastic approach that owed more to the exaggerated elements of the spy-fy genre, Mankiewicz takes the novel into a story that owes a lot once again to the direction of 70s action films.

On top of the Blaxploitation elements, the driving force of the plot involves the villains of the movie, Caribbean politician Kananga and Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto on very entertaining form in dual roles) trying to flood the United States with free heroin and then charging extortionate prices once the number of addicts have doubled.

There is a sense of verisimilitude to the villains’ plan, that makes it play in a pool of other drug related action films of the period. The same year as Diamonds are Forever also saw the release of The French Connection, a thriller that played fast and gritty on the streets of New York with a story involving drug smuggling with one of the all-time great car chases thrown in for good measure, while watching Bond running around the streets of New York, specifically Harlem, makes one expect that Richard Roundtree as Shaft will show up in on direction, and Poppy Doyle in the other.

The fact that many of the villains are persons of colour makes the film a strange viewing experience, not only in the present day, but has done for the last few years. The film retains a flavour of Fleming’s novel in that there is a vast conspiracy of sorts amongst black people who are working with each other for a common, villainous goal, and only a white man, in this case Bond, can stop them and restore some sort of order.

Admittedly, there two good black characters in the movie; in a nice little throwback to Dr. No, Boind is assisted by Quarrel Jr, while at the CIA, Bond is assisted by Strutter (Lon Satton), a CIA agent who unfortunately ends up being this film’s sacrificial lamb.

Live and Let Die would take Bond and place him into not only a 70s action film centred around drug smuggling, but also into what was essentially a Blaxploitation film.

The villains are always one step ahead of Bond at various points and do manage to get one over on him frequently, but this is a Bond film and inevitably Bond will win the day.  The movie, as problematic as it is, is never as uncomfortable as reading Fleming’s novel, whose writing of the dialogue of any character that isn’t white is embarrassing and hard to read in the present day, and the film has remained something of a firm favourite with many, even being cited by both Daniel Craig and director Sam Mendes as one of their earliest experiences of the series. Moore’s look during the film’s final set-piece would be a massive inspiration behind the teaser posters for 2015’s Spectre.

Even with a villainous plot that revolves around drugs and a more grounded style of physical action, there are elements here that take the film into the realm of genre.

One of the main villains, Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) is killed but is seemingly returned from the dead in the possibility of a rematch that never came, while central Bond Woman Solitaire appears to be genuinely clairvoyant, something that is allegedly linked to her lack of sexual activity, which Bond takes full advantage off in a manipulative way that doesn’t do the series any favours when it comes to issues with consent in the post #MeToo era.

1973 audiences didn’t mind, however. Live and Let Die was a huge success at the box office and managed to outgross Diamonds are Forever at the box office, giving what was to be a twelve-year era for Roger Moore and major start.

Plans were quickly put in place to get the next film out as quickly as possible and strike while the iron was hot. Bond was about to go back to a one film per year schedule, albeit temporarily, with the next film following eighteen months later at the end of 1974.

However, just when it looked as if things might be back to normal, Bond was about to face another major hurdle, and this was the first of something of a major set back for the series. The Saltzman/Broccoli partnership was in trouble and it was about to knock the franchise back just when it seemed as if it was back on a smooth road.

1974 would prove to be the end of a pivotal part of the Bond series.

Bond, James Bond will return with… The Man with the Golden Gun.

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