Roger Moore is James Bond, but is his portrayal entirely the funny and kid-friendly 007 that his reputation suggests? We revisit 1973’s Live And Let Die.
This feature contains minor spoilers for Live And Let Die, The Man With The Golden Gun, and For Your Eyes Only.
“Darling, I’ve got a small confession to make now. Try not to be too upset. The deck was slightly stacked to my favour.”
He’s got the swagger, he’s got the eyebrows, he’s got the cheesy double-entendre name that the love interest would have if they ever did make a “Jane Bond” film – Roger Moore is finally here. And now that the 1970s have a bit of a head-start on the James Bond series, Live And Let Die has a better idea of how to modernise things.
Released in July 1973, this adaptation of Ian Fleming’s second Bond novel updates some aspects of the story and very literally cherry-picks others, coming out with an adventure that’s decidedly more surreal than anything before or since.
In the striking pre-title sequence, three MI6 agents are murdered while monitoring Dr Kananga, (Yaphet Kotto) the dictator of a Caribbean island named San Monique. Assigned to investigate, Bond discovers a strange connection between voodoo magic in the Caribbean and organised crime in New Orleans, which also implicates mob boss Mr Big and his personal tarot reader Solitaire (Jane Seymour).
Next to the Vegas-residency antics of Diamonds Are Forever, Live And Let Die is more outward-looking in its attempts to reconfigure Bond, from casting an established star as the lead to incorporating popular trends in American cinema, and even having a Beatle sing the title song just five films after that “earmuffs” crack in Goldfinger. This is not your older brother’s Bond.
There are umpteen ways its heady mix of gangsters, horror, and smut shouldn’t work, but this remains one of the series’ all-time bangers. Central to this is Moore, whose batting average is often skewed towards his later, even more tongue-in-cheek outings. We’d contend you wouldn’t necessarily know it to look at Live And Let Die, a film which still goes with the grain of 007’s on-screen personality while refining his sense of humour.
Third time’s the charm
Having got Sean Connery back for Diamonds Are Forever, United Artists made enquiries about the star returning for another go around, but he made it clear that he’d made quite enough money off the last film and had no desire to come back. And so, for the third time in as many films, there was a change of leading man in the Bond franchise.
UA suggested casting an American this time around and reportedly approached Adam West and Burt Reynolds about the role. Meanwhile, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli screen-tested John Gavin, Julian Glover, and Michael Billington. However, after being otherwise engaged when the casting call was out on at least two previous occasions, Roger Moore was available.
Moore was ready to move into films after fourteen years on telly and he turned down a second season of the hit show The Persuaders when he learned he was in the running for Bond again. Although UA felt dubious about Moore after he previously starred in the studio’s underwhelming 1968 crime movie Crossplot, Saltzman and Broccoli backed him and in August 1972, he was unveiled as the new Bond.
Despite the distributors’ reservations, he was already a bigger star than most other Bond actors were in their first films, thanks to The Persuaders and seven series of playing Simon Templar in The Saint before that. And so, Moore’s initial three-picture deal was worth $1 million and a percentage of the box office.
In assessing Moore’s take on Bond, we have to refer back to director Edgar Wright’s comments on the Happy Sad Confused podcast in October 2021. Wright observed that many of the names being floated to succeed Daniel Craig were quite like Daniel Craig, and his theory was that “the Bonds have got to be dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and you’ve got to alternate.”
We only mention it because “milk chocolate” is an almost unimprovable description of Moore’s era in contrast to the “dark chocolate” portrayals on either side. But if it’s all chocolate, then the Bond actors are all still Bond, and there’s undiscussed darkness in this version of the character who is so often remembered as the funny one or the kid-friendly one.
As one of Connery’s two direct successors in the series, he arrives as the opposite extreme to George Lazenby’s portrayal. Neither of these Bonds are as typically domineering as Connery or, later, Pierce Brosnan. Nor are they as good boyfriend material as Craig or Timothy Dalton. But where Lazenby is the fuckboy with a heart of gold, Moore is an impeccable gentleman with a well-developed mean streak towards lovers and foes alike.
This is softened by Moore seeing the character as ridiculous and playing him as such, which both masks and accentuates the odd darker moment, whether it’s beating a villain’s girlfriend for information in The Man With The Golden Gun or taking cold-blooded relish in nudging a henchman to his death in For Your Eyes Only.
Nevertheless, Live And Let Die amply establishes his “bit of a bastard” credentials while also tailoring the film to his strengths. On the bedroom front alone, he holds double-agent Rosie Carver at gunpoint during the worst pillow talk ever, (“You wouldn’t, not after what we just did.” “Well, I certainly wouldn’t have before”) then outright tricks Solitaire into sex a scene or two later, (at once exploiting and destroying the magic gift that the film seems to take completely at face value for some reason).
With a quotable script to hand, Moore also perfects the throwaway Bond mot – his witty remarks are savage without the near-psychopathic edge that Connery acquires in Diamonds Are Forever. Heck, Moore even verbally demolishes Baron Samedi as “a small-headed man of limited means who lost a fight with a chicken” with only his hat in the room.
None of this is intended as a criticism – if anything, it’s just to underline that Moore is not Mr Bean next to Connery’s Mr Bond, like the consensus that keeps proliferating around these perversely funny and surreal outings would have it.
But in Live And Let Die, there’s still a sense of Moore finding the sure footing we see in later films. He consciously tried to not to echo his Bond predecessors or his own Templar, so he’s not quite in his comfort zone. Plus, Moore can play Bond as aloof, but the character is out of his element for a change…
Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen
This ever-changing world
Meanwhile, returning Diamonds Are Forever screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz once recalled that he was instructed by UA president David Picker, no less, to make sure that the next film was “above all, entertaining”, and so packed with action that it didn’t matter who was playing Bond. Director Guy Hamilton, who was tempted back for his third of four outings by the prospect of launching a new 007, similarly wanted to raise the bar this time around.
Mankiewicz had declared his interest in adapting Live And Let Die while working on Diamonds, because of his interest in news stories about the Black Panther movement. Elsewhere, UA and Saltzman noted the growing popularity of so-called Blaxploitation films like Shaft and Super Fly with interest, particularly because of the genre’s noted similarities with the larger-than-life style of the Bond franchise.
While everyone involved seems eager to declare themselves progressive in retrospect, the trend of Hollywood studios mining for what contemporary industry reports called “black gold” was likely the larger motivator. How else do you not see that “what if a Blaxploitation movie but with a white man as the hero” is a fatally reverse-engineered pitch? It’s a bit like when tech bros come out with what they think are galaxy-brain ideas that just turn out to be sundials.
Also, its good intentions aren’t quite good enough. Almost all the Black characters in the film turn out to be villainous or treacherous, in part because UA vetoed Saltzman and Broccoli’s suggestion of casting Diana Ross as Bond’s main love interest, Solitaire, fearing they’d lose bookings in certain areas of America if they portrayed an interracial relationship. 21-year-old Jane Seymour was cast as the celibate clairvoyant instead, making Gloria Hendry’s Rosie Carver the first African-American Bond girl instead – a progressive leap forward for women being treated equally terribly by James Bond.
The mighty Yaphet Kotto was cast as the villain on UA’s endorsement shortly after starring in Across 110th Street for the studio. Kotto didn’t have a great time making the movie however, clashing with Hamilton and Mankiewicz over the script and its overuse of slang.
Worse still, after he was photographed punching the air in a Black Power salute, he was excluded of much of the publicity rounds for the film for fear of negative press. It goes without saying that Kotto brings a lot to his role(s), and it’s a shame how Eon and UA treated him.
Only a few years after the parodic You Only Live Twice, it’s testament to how “above all, entertaining” Live And Let Die is that it acquits itself despite the more misbegotten aspects of its genre crossover. Moore plays Bond confidently, but as written, the character is more often on the back foot, forced to improvise when far removed from his usual circles. Like many Blaxploitation films, it’s about the drug business, which also gives us the most sensible and creative masterplan the series has had since Goldfinger’s. Bond is also outnumbered by a host of henchmen including Tee Hee, (Julius W. Harris) Whisper, (Earl Jolly Brown) and the cackling Baron Samedi, all of whom are inspired by the Fleming source materials.
It may be a bit generic that they keep failing, but these gangsters come close to killing Bond without ceremony so many times. In true franchise style, their only failing is that they keep trying to kill him in protracted ways that they think will be funny, but they’re not wrong there. Mr Big interrupting 007’s introductory catchphrase with “Names is for tombstones, baby” and ordering his summary execution is iconic stuff.
And so, it’s with this instalment that Mankiewicz and Hamilton perfect what they called “the snake-pit situation”, dreaming up impossible-to-escape predicaments for Bond that play out in such a way where the audience has 30 seconds of screen-time to guess where the dazzling solution is coming from.
For instance, the crocodile farm was discovered during a location scout in Jamaica and then included in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. Left to be devoured at feeding time, Bond first tries to get out of trouble by attracting a boat with his magnetic wristwatch, and perhaps it’s because Saltzman was fed up with gadgets (Desmond Llewelyn’s Q is notable by his absence here) that this doesn’t work – the boat is tethered to the opposite bank.
Absurdly and brilliantly, Bond instead jumps across the backs of the angry crocodiles to safety. What we see in the film is the sixth take of farm owner Ross Kananga, who both dreamt up and performed the stunt six times. As if this isn’t enough to cement his place in cinematic history, the film’s villain was duly named after him too.
Originally conceived for the previous film, the motorboat chase at the end of the second act is the film’s action centrepiece, covering sea, land, and – oh yes – comic relief. Like its counterpart in the next instalment, the set-piece is a little stymied by indulgent editing and the thumpingly self-conscious addition of good ole boy Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), apparently a token white racist to appeal to the “eccentric” cops who so magnanimously accepted boatloads of money to let the Black cast and crew work in their parishes.
(On my grumpier days, I personally hold Pepper in the same sort of disdain as adult Star Wars fans reserve for Jar Jar Binks. At least he makes sense geographically in this one, but that’s a rant for next time.)
Altogether, there’s a sense of this Bond pushing the envelope and trying new things to shake up the franchise formula. There were a couple of big changes behind the scenes too – this is the first Bond film where composer John Barry was unavailable to score it, so Beatles producer George Martin and his old mucker Paul McCartney came in and literally expand what these movies can sound like. The rocking title song by McCartney and Wings also gives the film its own action motif, distinct from the Monty Norman theme, like few other entries in the series.
Despite all its innovations, whether consciously or not, the film winds up echoing a lot of Dr No, from the Jamaican setting and the callback of Quarrel Jr (Roy Stewart) to the general plot and structure. The excellent Writing Bond Twitter feed is well worth a follow if you’re a fan, and they’ve enumerated many more similarities in this thread:
— Writing Bond (@BondWriting) May 31, 2021
Still, those are features of a franchise that’s moving with the times, even if it’s not always graceful with it. While it might be misguided as a Blaxploitation flick, it proves a decent voodoo horror movie in places, as odd as that is to suddenly bring up eight films into a spy adventure franchise. It’s the sort of thing that leads to growing confidence in taking Bond’s toys into the playground with other popular genres.
Even if emerging blockbuster trends influence Live And Let Die, like Enter The Dragon does for the next film and Star Wars(!) a couple of films after that, the surreal, heightened tone lends to the feeling of the movie doing stuff that Bond hasn’t done before. Already an old dog in 1973, the series starts pulling new tricks as it rides the blockbuster boom into its second decade.
And it paid off too. While contemporary reviews were lukewarm next to previous outings, the film’s global box-office haul of $161.8 million was higher than Diamonds Are Forever and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was a pleasant surprise for UA. In a bonus bit of trivia, 23.5 million people tuned in to watch Live And Let Die premiere on ITV on 20th January 1980, which is still the most-watched film broadcast in UK TV history.
And fronting this aggressive expansion into blockbuster territory was Roger Moore – a star who both moves the character out of the shadow of Sean Connery’s popularity and finds inventive new ways to play a cold-blooded womanising killer, armed only with a smirk and (by his own admission) one of three eyebrow configurations. Moore could have done Diamonds Are Forever, but Connery could never have done Live And Let Die.
Not everyone prefers milk chocolate, granted. But when Moore gets a job to do, he does it well – oh, stick the theme song on if you haven’t already, you know you want to.
Live And Let Die is now streaming on Prime Video and will also screen in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 3rd June.
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