One of the unwritten rules of this website is NO BOND; it’s not like I’m not au fait with the exploits of Ian Fleming’s super-spy franchise, having read the books and seen the films as a teenager, but I don’t see much point in writing about movies already covered in exhaustive detail elsewhere. But I was driving a good friend to a concert a couple of weeks ago, and when two British men are left alone together for a certain amount of time, the topic of the best Bond film inevitably comes up in an Alan Partridge way. True to my contrarian roots, I’ve shifted my selection from Peter Hunt’s reboot On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to Guy Hamilton’s reboot Live and Let Die, and don’t see anyone else selling quite the same angle.
I first saw Live and Let Die on its terrestrial tv premiere back in January 1980; 23 million other Brits were glued to the box that night in an orgy of mass film consumption. Of course, in the UK, the James Bond film are a secret code that are embraced by many and rejected by a few; Fleming’s stories were written in a different era, post WWII entertainments with a formula for a brutish hero tangling with despicable foreigners and winning; no Union Jack parachutes, just post WWII attitude. Bond has since been criticised as violent, sadistic, sexist and more, but his innate racism is an accusation that sticks, and flags up that a reboot is required, with this elephant in the room largely missing from recent cinematic entries despite his racial superiority being inherent to the original Bond character. Much as You Only Live Twice picks up on interest in the Far East, Diamonds Are Forever in Vegas, oil and space, and The Man With The Golden Gun in Japan and kung-fu, incorporating the latest cinematic fads was always a Bond trademark, and with the Shaft and Blaxploitation movies hitting big in the 70’s, Live and Let Die imagines James Bond in New York for a vicious, protracted fight against voodoo gangsters and a corrupt Caribbean dictator Katanga (the great Yaphet Kotto).
Live and Let Die marks a downbeat course correction for Bond; no giant villain’s lair for the climax, fewer silly gadgets, no Q. Instead, Tom Mankiewicz’s script positions itself on cultural fault lines. We open with an act of sabotage by a black hand of an unseen assailant at the United Nations, before watching New Orleans street-funeral turn into a party at the murder of a British agent. Sent to investigate is Bond (Moore) who we first see in his swanko house, unzipping a woman’s dress with his magnetic watch. A saucier than usual credits sequence features burning skulls and Paul McCartney’s series high theme song, then we head for NYC, specifically ‘uptown to Harlem’ and the Oh Cult voodoo shop. From Dr No onwards, it’s been a tradition for Bond to infiltrate a foreign culture and discover the false precepts by which the baddies keep the proles in thrall, but in this case, that doesn’t happen at all and Bond is swiftly run out of town. He soon falls into the arms of Mrs Bond (Gloria Hendry), Bond’s first black lover in these films; the movie wants to clearly mark Bond’s credentials as firmly anti-crime rather than racially motivated. The more alien the environment, the more it shows off Bond’s training, athleticism, stamina and general superiority, so Bond heads ‘where the real action is’, which means catch-and-chase routines in the Deep South then blowing up Katanga’s San Monique headquarters, complete with many tonnes of opium, while also stealing his Tarot-reading girl Solitaire (Jane Seymour).
Live and Let Die is a welcome low-key Bond, an ordinary who gets taxis from the airport, and whose big heroic moment involves him ripping a man’s prosthetic arm off with some sadistic glee. Untypically for this franchise, Solitaire’s supernatural powers are treated seriously making Seymour an interesting Bond girl, and there’s also the best franchise action scene bar none as Bond evades some alligators and avoids all captors in a lengthy speed-boat pursuit that distils a several hour river chase into ten minutes of impressive action. From the nudes-in-hell credits to the interrupted voodoo ritual of the climax, Live and Let Die attests to the influence of Fleming’s friend Dennis Wheatley, whose actual writing, like Fleming’s, is now unfashionable to current tastes due to racial attitudes. But Live and Let Die is a good example of Bond’s brand of superiority; any modern Bond, and an electric young star like London’s Daniel Kaluuya would be ideal for the role, would do well to take the character back to basics for a proper thematic reboot and return to the edge-lord branding of cultural superiority than made Bond such an international sensation in the first place.