Reel Talk

Live and Let Die and Blaxploitation

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So this is kind of odd. I’ve only discussed two James Bond movies on the site before this project, Spectre when it came out, and Live and Let Die. I kind of considered not writing up Live and Let Die and just rerunning that article, but since that one didn’t use the same format I’ve been using for the project, and I feel like I’ve grown a bit as a writer since that article, I figured it could do for an overhaul. Plus, I love this goddamn movie so much I would take any chance to write about it. Seriously, every time I watch Live and Let Die I forget how much I adore the movie, and it all comes rushing back to me. There are some seriously problems with the film, but they’re almost all made up for by the sheer insanity and earnest surrealism that it exudes. I’m really not sure what the consensus on this film is in the Bond fan community, but I can’t really imagine people not liking it. It’s somehow huge and more down to earth than most Bond movies. And I love it so thoroughly and completely. By the end of this project I think I’ll probably write up some kind of ranking of the movies, and it may be a little surprising how highly this one will rank.

Beyond all of the bizarre qualities of Live and Let Die it also has a lot of firsts for the series, and takes the series in some bold directions. The first and foremost change for the series is the fact that this is the first film with Roger Moore as Bond. And let me just say here that I’m still saddened by Sir Roger Moore’s passing. He’s our first Bond to pass, and it’s really been an affecting experience. But, despite the performance that Sean Connery put in for Diamonds Are Forever the producers wanted him to come back, and he refused. Thus began a search for a new Bond, and I guess they decided not to fall into the same traps that they did with George Lazenby, and actually looked for an actor. There were some brief flirtations with American actors, namely Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, which would have been incredibly odd, but they finally landed on good old Roger Moore. Moore was coming off a long-running television series where he playing gentleman thief Simon Templar on the Saint, and the writers decided to bring Moore in, and change around the character of James Bond to better suit their new leading man. I have some very conflicting feelings toward Roger Moore, and my opinions on his films and his legacy as Bond have vacillated wildly, but this is a pretty great debut regardless of all that. But aside from Moore we also got some advancement in diversity for the series. Not only did we get the first black love interest, we got the first black villain. Plus, most of the cast is black. The end credits even thank the Black Stuntmen’s Association of Hollywood, which is great. And they took all of these new talents and wisely jettisoned the majority of the novel, which revolved around James Bond stopping voodoo gangsters from smuggling Soviet pirate gold, and crafted a truly unique and wonderful Bond flick.

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The film starts off by showing a series of black assassins murdering some British people. We see the British ambassador to the UN killed, an MI6 agent killed in the fictitious island nation of San Monique, and a CIA agent killed in New Orleans. And all of these deaths lead us right into the tremendous credit sequence, featuring what may be the best and most famous theme song of them all, led by the wonderful Paul McCartney. And after that we’re thrown right into James Bond’s apartment, where he’s sleeping with an Italian agent from his last mission. This is ended when M and Moneypenny show up at his house, getting ready to send Bond on an emergency meeting to figure out what’s going on with all of the murders. And his first step is to head to New York to deal with the ambassador, meeting up with his old buddy Felix Leiter. Bond arrives in New York, and an attempt on his life is promptly made by killing the driver of his car. He survives the attempt, and goes to talk to Felix, who is busy staking out Dr. Kananga, the ruler of San Monique. Leiter is convinced that Kananga is up to criminal activity, and he helps Bond track down the license of the pimpmobile (their words) that tried to kill Bond. This leads Bond to an occult bookstore in Harlem where he finds the car, and also witnesses Kananga’s entourage board a different pimpmobile and drive off. Bond follows them in a taxi, and ends up making his way to a soul food restaurant called Fillet of Soul. Bond heads in, turning all the heads in the joint, and ends up getting put in a booth that revolves into a secret room. And this is where he meets several of Kanaga’s entourage, including a man called Tee Hee with an elaborate prosthetic hook for a hand, and a woman named Solitaire who can predict the future using Tarot cards. He also meets a man named Mr. Big who runs all the crime in Harlem. Mr. Big has no time for Bond, and just tells his goons to kill him. They take Bond outside, where he’s saved by a CIA agent working for Felix, and is brought back to Leiter’s base.

Bond then decides he needs to move onto the next crime and heads out to San Monique where the other agent died. He gets to the island, and gets set up in a fancy hotel on the island. While there he learns that a woman claiming to be his wife has already checked into the hotel, and Bond ends up meeting a young CIA agent named Rosie Carver who has been sent to help him. Rosie seems rather incompetent, but Bond lets her tag along on the adventure, which starts the next day when they rent a boat and start getting a feel for the island. The boat is ran by Quarrel Jr, son of the man whose death was led to by Bond in Dr. No. Rosie leads Bond to the part of the island that she claims the previous agent was killed at, but immediately starts acting suspiciously. Bond realizes that she’s trying to trick him, and figures that she’s in league with Kananga. She tries to flee from him, and ends up getting killed by a hidden gun in a scarecrow, operated by Kananga’s men. But Bond doesn’t really care about that, because he’s recognized a better entry into Kananga’s operation. Solitaire. Back in Harlem Bond had a moment with her when he drew the Lovers card from her deck, so he stocks up with a whole deck of Lovers cards, and hang-glides to Solitaire’s private house on the island. He sneaks in, gets her to draw on of his Lovers cards, and convinces her to sleep with him. Which is a big no-no, since that apparently ruined her psychic abilities. But it gets Solitaire on his side, so the two escape San Monique through a thrilling bus-chase, where they also come across vast hidden fields of poppies being grown on the island, and finally board Quarrel Jr.’s boat and sail to New Orleans. However, when they get to New Orleans they find Kananga’s men waiting for them, and Solitaire is taken back. Bond manages to escape, and goes to meet with Felix.

The two decide to check out the local Filet of Soul, since that’s where the CIA agent from the beginning was killed, and Bond ends up getting abducted again. He’s brought to a secret room again where he meets Mr. Big once more. However, at this point Mr. Big reveals that he’s actually Kanaga, and basically fills Bond in on his plan. He’s growing vast amounts on poppies on San Monique and turning them into heroin, and then pushing them as Mr. Big, hoping to get a monopoly on the drug trade. He doesn’t mind telling Bond all of this, because his next plan is to have Tee Hee take Bond out to a crocodile farm/heroin refinery that they own, and kill him. Bond manages to escape the crocodiles, and gets away from the villains by boarding a speedboat and heading off into the bayous of New Orleans. And thus begins the Live and Let Die boat-chase, which goes on for approximately ten hours and introduces us to possibly the worst character in Bond history, the racist Southern Sheriff J.W. Pepper. And the less said about him the better. The boat chase is pretty impressive though, full of some great stunts. When Bond finally finishes the chase though he decides he knows everything he needs to know, and comes up with a plan to bomb Kananga’s poppy fields, and ruin his whole scheme. So Bond, Felix, and Quarrel head to San Monique, and while the other two set up the bombs, Bond goes to find Solitaire. Which is easy, because she’s about to be sacrificed in some crazy voodoo ceremony lead by one of Kananga’s henchman, Baron Samedi. Bond kills Samedi, saves Solitaire, and the two head into Kananga’s secret base, where they’re promptly caught. Kananga admits that Bond screwed up this heroin plan, but that it’s not going to stop him in the long run. He then ties Bond and Solitaire up and tosses them into a pool with sharks. But Bond is able to use his magic watch to free their hands, and uses it’s magnetic function to summon a pellet of compressed air. Bond then grabs Kananga, and drags him into the water, having an underwater fight where Bond shoves the pellet into Kanaga’s mouth, causing him to expand like a balloon and pop. And with that done Bond and Solitaire head off to have sex in a mode of conveyance, this time a train. But things his a slight snag when they’re attacked by Tee Hee on the train. There’s a brief and brutal fight, but Bond is able to throw him from the window, ending the threat, and the movie, before giving us out final shot of Baron Samedi on the front of the train, because he’s legitimately magic too?

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I love this movie. I love this movie so very much. It’s one of the Bond movies that I’ve revisited the most, because despite it’s issue it remains incredibly watchable. Though the movie does have its fair share of problems. That boat chase, while impressive, goes on for far too long and really kills the momentum of the film. J.W. Pepper is legitimately one of the most repugnant characters of the whole franchise, and it’s absurd that this isn’t the last that we’re going to see of him. I’m kind of conflicted on the character of Rosie Carver as well. On the one hand I appreciate the the franchise strove for some diversity, but on the other hand, she’s completely worthless to the plot of the movie, and is basically a weird incompetent and cowardly stereotype that really feels off. But just about everything else about this movie works for me. I’m not the world’s biggest Roger Moore fan, but I really love him in this movie, tossing off his ridiculous quips while still retaining a bit of the grittiness of the character. Yaphet Kotto is delightful as Kananga, even though the absurd makeup for Mr. Big has aged poorly, and remains largely unnecessary. Jane Seymour is great as Solitaire, and remains one of the most captivating Bond girls of them all. The music of the film is funky and great, and it’s full of some truly great 1970’s vehicle stunts. Plus, the movie is insane. Like, there are legitimate psychics in this movie, and Bond destroys one of their gifts to advance his own gain. And I guess Baron Samedi really is some sort of voodoo god? Or else that little sting at the end is just pure nonsense. You could probably argue that it’s a little strange that the first, and as of this writing only, black Bond villain was relegated to a plot that revolved around voodoo and heroin, but that gets to a larger theme of this movie that I find fascinating.

The James Bond movies have always been about chasing trends. They want to show what’s cool, and stay relevant in the larger cultural conversation. Sometimes that takes the form of featuring new technology and gimmicks, sometimes it requires lifting cinematography styles from more popular franchises, sometimes they ape whole shifts in tone that cinema as a whole are having, and sometimes that requires that they rip off a popular subgenre. And Live and Let Die falls into that last category. When this film came out the subgenre of Blaxpolitation was doing surprisingly great business for the studios investing in it, and the makers of James Bond decides they wanted in on that action. The novel of Live and Let Die is very different from the movie, but it still does feature a black gangster named Mr. Big working on an island in the Caribbean and ruling his organization through fear of voodoo. So when the producers decided that they were going to adapt Live and Let Die for their next movie, they decided to just fully embrace Fleming’s shocking addition of black people, and go full Blaxploitation. This film kind of feels like an anomaly to the franchise, because none of the other Bond movies really feel like this. The soundtrack has added funk flourishes, there are plenty of loving shots of a gross and dirty New York, there are easily more black people in the movie than the rest of the franchise combined up until this point, and it’s full of character actors who were working in the Blaxploitation world. This doesn’t feel like a typical Bond movie. Refined British secret agent James Bond is thrown into a world of heroin dealers, people calling him honky, and the frequent use of the word pimpmobile. That is so not typical James Bond, but I think it works beautifully. Having a down-to-earth and gritty plot like Bond stopping an international heroin trade is so classically Blaxploitation, and I love it. You definitely get the feeling the the producers are exploiting the genre, instead of trying to actually say something with the movie, but it’s still fascinating to see James Bond trying to adapt to a new cinematic trend. It obviously didn’t last, and was a one time experimentation, but it’s a really interesting experiment. I don’t know if I would have assumed that James Bond and Blaxploitation would have coalesced so well, but I really think it did. This movie takes the tropes of Blaxploitation and the tropes of the James Bond franchise, and smooshes them together. There are places where they don’t quite fit, but in my opinion it mostly jives together. And I dig the hell out of it.

Live and Let Die was written by Tom Mankiewicz, directed by Guy Hamilton, and released by United Artists, 1973.

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