Roger Moore’s 007 debut, Live and Let Die (1973), was also the first post-Blofeld Bond film, since the villain is allied with neither the Soviet organization SMERSH, as he was in the novel by Ian Fleming, nor Blofeld’s criminal cartel, SPECTRE. Its transitional status is accentuated by the absence of two series mainstays who, I would argue, were as important as any contributors, screenwriter Richard Maibaum and, for the first time, composer John Barry. Tom Mankiewicz (yes, one of those Mankiewiczes), who is credited—or blamed—with the massive infusion of comedy, worked with Maibaum on the films before and after this one, which was his only solo Bond credit, while the fine score was by “Fifth Beatle” and Fab Four producer George Martin.
This is singularly appropriate, because ex-Beatle Paul McCartney wrote the title song (the first to receive an Oscar nomination) with his then-spouse, Linda, and recorded it with their then-band, Wings. Smoothing the transition to give welcome continuity between Bonds was Guy Hamilton, who directed my favorite 007 outing, Goldfinger (1964), and also oversaw the remainder of the “Mankiewicz Trilogy”: Diamonds Are Forever (1971), which marked Sean Connery’s sad swan song in the official Eon Productions series, and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). As with a variety of Bond adaptations—or perhaps I should say “adaptations”—the plot of Fleming’s 1954 sophomore Bond adventure is hiding in Hamilton’s film somewhere, perhaps afraid to come out.
Bond is sent to New York to join his CIA pal Felix Leiter in probing the smuggling operations of a Harlem gangster, Mr. Big, who uses the voodoo legends of Baron Samedi (that’s “Saturday” in French, for all of you civilians) to compel obedience, and has already eliminated several people getting too close. Mr. Big—whose henchmen include Tee-Hee and Whisper—has eyes and ears everywhere, and no sooner has 007 entered a club belonging to him than the booth where he sits whisks Bond to their first meeting. 007 is subjected to an interrogation that threatens his pinky, and involves tarot-card reader Solitaire, but she throws in her lot with Bond and the lovers, who are later targeted aboard a train in the South, finally face the enemy in his Caribbean stronghold.
Sounds like a one-to-one correspondence, except that—like Bond in the movie—I have stacked the deck, accentuating only the similarities, whereas the differences are legion and illuminating, in some cases even improvements. Some are as simple as restructuring (e.g., the interrogation takes place much earlier in the novel, where Tee-Hee breaks Bond’s finger instead of preparing to snip it off with the mechanical claw that has no analog in Fleming) or substitution (e.g., New Orleans for St. Petersburg). The object of the exercise is now no longer rare gold coins from the pirate treasure of Bloody Morgan but heroin, as Mr. Big plans to eliminate the Mafia competition by distributing free samples, and then become rich by cashing in on a resulting influx of addicts.
Those familiar only with the cinematic Bond might be surprised when Fleming introduces two characters he revisits—and kills off—in Doctor No (1958): 007’s Jamaican allies Strangways, whose murder sets that plot in motion, and Quarrel, whose screen appearance in Live and Let Die is justified by referring to him as “Quarrel Jr.” (Roy Stewart). His Jamaican setting is changed to San Monique, the Caribbean island of which Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) is the prime minister. One of Mankiewicz’s notable innovations involves dividing the character of Mr. Big into three, since he turns out to be Kananga’s rubber-masked alter ego, while instead of claiming to embody Baron Samedi himself, Kotto relies on Geoffrey “Uncola” Holder, also the film’s choreographer.
It’s interesting to see how Mankiewicz transforms the slightest detail, as when Fleming’s Felix—also abducted in the club—says that Mr. Big’s goons “wanted to couple me to the compressed air pump in the garage. Start on the ears and then proceed elsewhere.” Here we can see the seeds of both the opening murder, when a U.N. delegate is killed by a high-frequency gizmo hooked up to his translator’s earphones, and Kananga’s own demise, blown up like a balloon by a compressed-gas pellet taken from Bond’s shark gun. This magpie m.o. recurs, for Fleming’s scene in which Felix gets maimed by a shark was borrowed (with the same actor, David Hedison, no less) for Licence to Kill (1989), as was Bond’s climactic “keel-hauling” in For Your Eyes Only (1981).
The filmmakers also “introduce” a luminous Jane Seymour—later to grace Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time (1980)—as Solitaire, beefing up her part and emphasizing the mystique that she will lose her virginity and her fortune-telling abilities at the same time, an event that Bond is quick to engineer. Other additions include the character of a turncoat CIA newbie, Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry), who enables Bond to break the cinematic color line before paying the price for failing to lure him to his death, and the innumerable demolition-derby-style car, bus, motorcycle, plane, and speedboat chases. The longest (one might say interminable) of these is accompanied by the introduction of redneck Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), who returns in Golden Gun.
The decision to film Live and Let Die after almost twenty years must surely have been influenced by the current vogue for blaxploitation, with the always estimable Kotto a superb choice as 007’s cultured, charismatic, and well-spoken opponent, one of the best in the entire series. The Harlem setting and black supporting cast contribute color in more ways than one, while the voodoo angle adds atmosphere, and Baron Samedi’s reappearance on the front of the train at the end, after he is “killed” in a coffin full of poisonous snakes on San Monique, legitimizes the supernatural aspect. Solitaire was written as a black woman, whom Mankiewicz wanted Diana Ross to portray, but a black leading lady was deemed out of the question, Bond’s dalliance with Rosie notwithstanding.
Alas, Moore exemplifies, but hardly bears sole responsibility for, the lighter tone that I think was the worst thing to happen to the series, including such after-effects as the overcompensation by his successor, Timothy Dalton, who looked like he was in a bad mood all the time. The essence of Bond is that he must exude danger, and Connery, who might have been born to play the part, always suggested a kind of controlled explosion, of which the dapper and debonair Moore was simply incapable, however handsome and talented an actor he is. In closing, I must offer a final shout-out to Julius W. Harris, who made a formidable heavy in Tee-Hee, and indirectly provided one of the biggest laughs in BOF fave The Taking of Pelham One Two Three the following year.