Live And Let Die, a reappraisal

We decided, after quite some time, to rewatch Live And Die. It was the debut of Roger Moore as James Bond but, in some ways, it’s more of a milestone than that. For some people, including Skyfall director Sam Mendes, it was the point of entry for a second generation of Bond fans to get addicted.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider Mendes’s own words at the Nov. 3 news conference Eon Productions held: “I vividly remember the first time I saw one of the Bond movies, which was Live And Let Die, and the effect it had on me.” Mendes was born in 1965, too late to catch the first wave of Bond films. For people of that age, their first 007 contact was the Roger Moore Bond of the early 1970s.

Given that, we thought we’d give it another view. First reaction: the Roger Moore 007 didn’t have the swagger, or seem to present the danger element, the way Sean Connery did. At times (mostly when 007 is dealing with African American gangster types early in the film), he’s like Lt. Columbo Bond, trying to lull his adversaries into complacency.

“Waste him?” Bond asks Solitaire (Jane Seymour) after Mr. Big orders his execution. “Is that a good thing?” Shortly thereafter, he’s forced from a door outside into a wall. “Thank you,” Bond says politely.

Later, when the odds have evened up a bit, Moore/Bond comes across as unflappable, rather than having the swagger of Connery/Bond. When he’s told that “Mrs. Bond” has already checked into his bungalow in San Monique, 007 registers concern for a second then cooly says, “Incurable romantic, Mrs. Bond.”

Live And Let Die definitely continues the trend begun in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, Connery’s farewell to the Eon Productions-made film series. Both films were directed by Guy Hamilton, with the final Diamonds script by Tom Mankiewicz (rewriting Richard Maibaum’s earlier drafts) and Mankiewicz working solo on Live And Let Die.

The humor in sequences such as the signature boat chase is even more over the top. Diamonds had some clueless law enforcement officers. Live And Let Die exceeds that with Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), a tabacco-chewing redneck (and clearly racist) sheriff. Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, in the documentary Inside Live And Let Die, indicates he didn’t want humor to be at the expense of the African American villains, thus he invented other characters to be the butt of jokes. Also, the death of Live And Let Die’s villain, Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), is on the same level as a Tex Avery-directed cartoon.

The movie is also dated in that it was influenced by so-called “Blaxploitation” films (Shaft, Super Fly) of the early 1970s. That bothers some first-generation fans, who feel that Bond led the way in the ’60s. Then again, when Bond was rebooted with 2006’s Casino Royale and its sequel, 2008’s Quantum of Solace, they were influenced by Jason Bourne movies starring Matt Damon. That doesn’t bother supporters of those films.

Still, the boat chase is amazing, no computer generated special effects (which, of course, didn’t exist then), just real men using their brains guts and tricks such as hidden ramps. So is the stunt by crocodile farm owner Ross Kananga (Mankiewicz’s inspiration for the villain’s name), doubling Roger Moore, he really did risk death five times before finally successful running over the backs of alligators to safety.

Composer George Martin tends to get overlooked because the title song by Paul and Linda McCartney was so popular. After six consecutive John Barry scores, it was up to Martin to provide the film’s background music. Martin didn’t write the Live And Let Die song but was vital to its preparation and selling it to Eon. So, perhaps because he had a vested interest, he weaves the title song throughout the film very effectively while working within the Barry/Bond music templates. If that sounds easy, we suspect it wasn’t.

Finally, upon this viewing, Yaphet Kotto’s performance struck us as interesting. For the film’s first half, he’s dour and doesn’t say much. After it’s revealed he’s both Dr. Kananga and Mr. Big, he suddenly begins having fun with the role. He explains Kananga’s plot of flooding the U.S. with free heroin to drive out criminal competitors. “Man or woman, black or white, I don’t discriminate.” He then says once the plan is implemented, and the number of addicts has doubled, he’ll start charging for the heroin, leaving “myself and the phone company as the only going monopolies in this nation for years to come.”

A Live And Let Die fan

Live And Let Die isn’t a perfect film by any means. (It was mostly panned in a survey of editors on the former Her Majesty’s Secret Servant website (this post used to have a link but it’s gone dead so we removed it.) But you can see how it appealed to a new generation of fans. Sam Mendes doesn’t exactly have a reputation for directing light movies, so we suspect Skyfall won’t resemble Live And Let Die. But it is interesting, at least on some level, that he cites Live And Let Die as an influence.

Finally, it should be noted that Live And Let Die was the first 007 film to have a higher worldwide gross than 1965’s Thunderball, $161.8 million to $141.2 million Its U.S. box office, though, was below Diamonds Are Forever.

In sum, Live And Let Die is a movie that’s going to divide Bond fans. The first-generation fans throw their arms up in the air while, for the second generation, it’s a landmark to explain how they became interested in 007.

UPDATE: 007 Magazine e-mailed us that is has a back issue concerning Live And Let Die. So if you CLICK HERE you’ll see a selection of back issues of 007 Magazine Archive Files, and find the issue devoted to Live And Let Die.

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10 Responses

  1. Not my favourite by a long way. I was born the same year as Mendes, but my first film was TMWTGG and that didn’t do ME any harm 😉

    Daniel Craig has also mention LALD, but I really hope that Skyfall has no resemblance at all to it.

  2. Beats out “Moonraker” (by one slot) on my own ranking. Also better than: “You Only Live Twice,” “Never Say Never Again” (if you count non-Eon films), “Thunderball” (yeah, I know: Tom disagrees with me on that probably most strongly), the 1960s “Casino Royale” (see previous Eon note), and “Quantum of Solace” (dead-last).

    http://brandingbond.com/2011/12/annual-james-bond-movie-ranking-2011/

    At the risk of sounding harsh – and given all we’ve seen since then – I’m not impressed that there was much thought behind the press conference reference. Yeah, he probably *had* seen “Live and Let Die.” But probably no more recently than in the 1970s. Someone probably anticipated the question would come up for him, and felt this sufficiently within the bounds to go with fact as answer.

    But has been pointed out on this HMSS Weblog in abundance, there’s not much consistency in anything we’ve heard and are hearing about “Skyfall” production. Or, for that matter, the disturbingly revisionist history to which we’re being subjected regarding the James Bond legacy overall.

  3. @M: Can’t imagine Craig doing a LALD-style film or, for that matter given the body of his work, Mendes directing one. On the other hand, if Javier Bardem blows up like a balloon (this time spewing blood and internal organs), we’ll be proven wrong. 🙂

  4. You forgot to mention how very cool the poster is…certainly one of my favorites. I thought Kotto and his henchmen did a pretty good job of being evil, with a smile. It is unfortunate that his demise was so gaseous. I remember an amusing discussion on alt.fan.james-bond about the exact physics of his flight to the top of the cave. All in all it is one of my guilty pleasures. Clifton James should have been nominated for best supporting actor. “A secret agent? ON WHOSE SIDE???”

  5. One might also keep in mind that Mr. Mendes was 8 years old when he first intersected with LALD. An impressionable age. It was TMWTGG that cemented my Bond-fandom. I too was born in 1965. Perhaps not the best Bond outings, these two early Moore offerings, but Bond never the less in a pre-internet age where exoticism and escapism still had much value and impact.

  6. Something I found fascinating LALD DVD commentaries: Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz talks about a subtext to the film, borrowing from the fairytale “Jack the Giant-Killer” (a.k.a. “Jack and the Beanstalk”). Mr. Big fills in for the Giant; Solitaire is the Goose That Lays the Golden Egg; and of course James Bond is Jack. Bond, through trickery, steals the Goose from the Giant — literally and figuratively; not only does he abscond with Solitaire, he also takes her psychic ability away. No more Golden Eggs of predictions and information for Mr. Big, making it harder for him to rule his fiefdom by fear of his magical powers. The rest of the film is 007 Solitaire evading the wrath of the Giant Mr. Big.

    It can be argued whether or not LALD was successful in its storytelling, but it shows Mankiewicz had more on his mind than just some dumb comedy bits. (It also plays to my personal opinion that James Bond stories are completely intertwined with classic fairy tales — having just as many wizards and dragons and monsters as anything by the Brothers Grimm.)

  7. Thinking on it, LALD may actually have been my first viewing of a complete Bond movie, when it was shown on UK TV in the mid to late ’70s. I remember enjoying it immensely at the time. My opinion of it since then has systematically lowered. As the early Connery films and the Fleming novels began to inform my view of Bond, LALD and the Moore films in general sank lower on my ranking of the films. My most recent attempt to view the film was a couple of years ago when I unintentionally got it as part of a box set — and I couldn’t even finish watching it. It seemed cheesy and silly to me, with Moore playing the role far too lightly. I may try another viewing and see how it appears now.

  8. As a hardcore Bond fan, I have my favorites and LALD isn’t one of the top 5. That being said, after repeated viewings, it’s become more near and dear to my heart over the years. I remember seeing it in a theatre for the first time, and it was one of the few films I actually SAT THROUGH TWICE – not because it was great, but because, like a good roller coaster ride, it was a heck of a lot of fun! I love the fact that the villains – both Kananga and his minions – all seem to be having the time of their lives! I also love the fact that Yaphet Kotto, as evil as he was, actually shows some passion and sadness towards Jayne Seymour (who looks drop-dead gorgeous) as Solitaire. It’s not very often we get that out of our Bond villains. (Robert Carlyle as Renard in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH comes to mind…). Roger had yet to grow in the role but he was enjoyable enough and George Martin’s score was fun – perfect for the feel of the movie. I remember my only disappointment was in Kananga’s cheesy-looking underground lair. (I sorely missed Ken Adam’s incredible sets). Otherwise, a FUN movie,that get’s better with repeated viewings!

  9. […] folks at The HMSS Weblog revisited Live and Let Die over this past weekend. Noted that Skyfall director Sam Mendes said something about having seen it. In the novel, Ian […]

  10. […] FEBRUARY 2012 POST: LIVE AND LET DIE, A REAPPRAISAL […]

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