Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Live and Let Die (1973)

Live and Let Die would set a new course for the Bond series with Roger Moore taking over the role. Inspired by the popular blaxploitation films of the era, Live and Let Die was one of the first to be influenced popular genres of its era - a trend for the franchise throughout the 70s.

Based on the second Ian Fleming James Bond novel of the same title, which dealt with smuggling in the Caribbean and Western anxiety about communism gaining a foothold in Latin America. The film omitted the international politics element and focus on the drug smuggling aspect of the story.

Filming on location in Harlem placed Bond in an unfamiliar atmosphere, while the sequences in Louisiana and Florida are like Dukes of Hazard meets Crocodile Hunter. Jamaica stood in for the fictional place of San Monique where Voodoo and magic play a role in the plot.

The prologue does not feature Bond, but sets up the story. Three British officials are killed in New York, New Orleans, and San Monique. All are connected to Prime Minister Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). M makes a pre-dawn visit to Bond's house and sends him off to New York to investigate. 

Kotto as Mr. Big/Kananga was a great casting choice, combining sophistication with menace. Jane Seymour made her film debut as Solitaire, a Priestess who uses Tarot Cards to guide Kananga. Julius Harris as Tee Hee Johnson wears a bionic arm, possibly a precursor to Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me. Geoffery Holder as Baron Semedi brought a supernatural element to the film, more trickster than a villain. 

Other peripheral characters include Felix Leiter, this time played by TV star David Hedison. Clifton James provides comic relief as Sheriff J.W. Pepper. Major set pieces included a double decker bus chase, a boat chase, and the final showdown between Bond and Kananga. 

The racial politics of the film have not aged well. Cultural appropriation cannot be denied since blaxploitation movies were made outside of the Hollywood system (which offered few too many roles for minorities) with African-American casts and crew. James Bond as a white character symbolizes British imperialism, so combining these two sensibilities was smart marketing and a bold creative choice, but poorly executed. 

Black characters in the film for the most part are either deceitful or cruel, the exception being Quarrel Jr (Roy Stewart). Caribbean politics are portrayed as corrupt and irresponsible. Kotto has spoken in interviews on how the producers did not want him at the premier and Moore's cool attitude towards him, in particular Moore writing unfavorably of him in his memoir as having "a chip on his shoulder."

Like much of 1970s pop culture, the James Bond films made awkward attempts to stay current. It's still an entertaining film and offers everything one would expect from the series. Paul McCartney's theme is arguably the best of the series, along with the soundtrack of George Martin.

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