Musings on Bond at 50: Live And Let Die

Posted: 31 August 2012 in entertainment, film
Tags: , , , ,

Live And Let DieRoger Moore’s reign as Jimmy Bond commences with Live And Let Die.

During the filming of Diamonds Are Forever screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz proposed adapting Ian Fleming’s second Bond novel Live And Let Die as the eighth James Bond film. His reasoning being that it would be daring to use black villains in an era of racial movements such as the Black Panthers. Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman acted upon Mankiewicz’s proposal and appointed Guy Hamilton to the director’s chair for a third time. As Hamilton was a jazz fan Mankiewicz suggested filming in New Orleans, though the director decided not to use the city’s famous Mardi Gras festival as he felt it was too similar to the Junkanoo event staged in Thunderball. Instead Hamilton decided to utilise two other well-known features of the Louisiana city: the canals and jazz funerals.

In common with the previous film most of Ian Fleming’s original story was junked in favour of new material created by Mankiewicz and the production team. Given that it was written in 1954 Fleming had a rather “old fashioned” view of African Americans (one chapter was entitled “Nigger Heaven”) and some of his concepts would likely be labelled racist if transferred to the big screen. Fleming was not a racist, simply a product of his time in common with authors such as Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie.

After Sean Connery rejected an offer of £5 million to appear in his seventh 007 outing Broccoli and Saltzman once again found themselves seeking out a new James Bond. And hopefully one that they could hang onto for more than one film! If Connery had agreed to appear it had been planned to invite Ursula Andress to reprise her role as Honeychilde Ryder from the very first Bond film Dr. No.

John Gavin, who had originally been signed to play 007 in Diamonds Are Forever, was briefly considered once again but Harry Saltzman nixed the possibility by mandating that the role must be performed by a British actor. That put paid to Guy Hamilton’s preferred choice in the role: Burt Reynolds! Hamilton considered Reynolds to be a terrific actor and well able to handle the physical aspects of the role…

Roger Moore had been a potential Bond since the franchise began in 1962. Now a decade on his time finally arrived. Known worldwide for The Saint and The Persuaders! he was only available to assume the mantle of James Bond due to the unexpected cancellation of the latter series, which had unexpectedly failed in the all-important American market. In common with the characters of Simon Templar and Lord Brett Sinclair the new James Bond (or “Jimmy Bond as Moore was wont to call him) was more of a light-hearted international debonair playboy that the “blunt instrument” of the Connery and Lazenby days.

Live And Let Die - boat jumpSelecting Roger Moore to assume the role of 007 remains a much debated decision almost 40 years on. Whilst Moore himself is likable, humourous and generous, he simply does not have the physical presence or gravitas to carry off the role believably. With Connery and Lazenby it was no surprise when opponents hit the floor during a fight and remained there – with Moore it was a surprise to the audience that anyone he struck fell down in the first place. The fight between Bond and Tee-Hee aboard the train at the film’s climax is an insipid slow motion imitation of the Bond/Grant confrontation in From Russia With Love. Moore’s Bond would be have been slaughtered by the SPECTRE assassin!

Moore himself took the lead for his version of 007 from a scene in the Goldfinger novel where the agent reluctantly kills a heroin smuggler in Mexico. Moore’s Bond is clearly reluctant to kill unless absolutely necessary and ultimately that neuters the character.

There was a certain inevitability about his casting given his position as one of the few British actors known around the world. Broccoli and Saltzman needed a “name” to attract audiences to the box office having been badly burnt by the unknown George Lazenby. Accepting the part was a good career move for Moore as his film profile up until that point had been fairly unmemorable.

Live And Let Die is the Bond universe’s attempt at a blaxploitation film complete with drug-trafficking villains, alarming afro hairstyles, pimpmobiles, black gangsters and derogatory racial remarks. By making this film the producers were jumping on the bandwagon of early 1970s cinema and that is a mistake. 007 sets trends he does not follow them, and he certainly does not end up used as a figure of humour as was the case here. James Bond has a licence to kill, he is a blunt instrument, yet here there is no sense of him even being able to overpower Miss Moneypenny!

Hard as it may be to believe the script for Live And Let Die is an even more woeful paper thin affair than the one produced for Diamonds Are Forever. Lacking any form of tension another group of one dimensional characters who could never exist outside of the events of this film are there simply to deliver their lines and then disappear into the ether once more.

Live And Let Die - J W PepperPossibly related to the sheriff who watched Connery’s Bond wreck havoc upon downtown Las Vegas in Diamonds Are Forever, Sheriff J W Pepper is a dreadful comedy racist caricature who belongs in Hal Needham comedy vehicles such as Smokey and the Bandit or The Cannonball Run – certainly not in a Bond. It boggles the mind that Pepper’s popularity with cinema goers was enough for him to be bought back for The Man with the Golden Gun.

Also on the side of American law enforcement (yet again the CIA is operating illegally on American soil) was another incarnation of Felix Leiter – the fifth in eight films! Looking remarkably like David Hedison (famous for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) thankfully there was chemistry between Leiter and Bond for the first time in years as Hedison and Moore were old friends. Hedison would become the only actor to play Leiter twice in the original 20 film timeline of the franchise when he returned to the role opposite Timothy Dalton’s 007 in Licence To Kill. In fact Dalton’s second Bond film contains more elements of the Live And Let Die novel than the film version thanks to the presence of the shark maiming of Leiter. That film’s villain, Franz Sanchez, would be a more effectively evolved version of Mr Big/Kananga – a drugs baron living behind the protection of international law within a Latin American country. Intriguing when 007 kills Kananga he commits a political assassination as the villain is a democratically elected national leader with associated diplomatic immunity. Unfortunately such potentially interesting concepts are buried beneath an overload of stunts, stunts and more stunts.

Live And Let Die - boat jumpThe seemingly eternal boat chase through the bayous was originally written in the script as just “Scene 156 – The most terrific boat chase you’ve ever seen”. Undeniably the stuntmen earned their money hurling power-boats around at incredible speed and setting a new world jumping a power-boat 110 feet over a causeway. But it reaches a point where the viewer wonders if the chase will continue into the next film.

Scenes set at the crocodile farm originated when the production team drove past a real farm during location scouting and were intrigued by the warning notice: “Trespassers will be eaten!”. The owner of the farm Ross Kananga readily agreed to have his business used in the film and became so well regarded by the film crew that Tom Mankiewicz was inspired to name the main villain after him. Kananga himself doubled for Roger Moore, using his clothes and shoes, in the scene where Bond escapes from an island surrounded by crocodiles by jumping across the backs of the assembled reptiles. Five attempts were required to complete the stunt. During the fourth attempt one of the crocodiles snapped at one the shoes that Kananga was wearing and nearly had the footwear away from his owner.

Later it transpired that Moore’s shoes were made of crocodile skin and the snapping reptile had likely been attempting to gain revenge for the fate of its comrade.

At the time Live And Let Die was in production Desmond Llewellyn was appearing in the TV series Follyfoot, but arranged to be written out for three episodes so that he would be free to appear as Q in the film. For never explained reasons the producers decided not to include an onscreen appearance for the Quartermaster even though he is referred to. Whatever the reason for Llewellyn’s absence the character would appear in every subsequent until the end of the 20th century.

As well as no Q in Moore’s debut there was nearly no M – or at least not the regular M. Bernard Lee’s wife had tragically died in a fire shortly before the film went into production and the actor was in deep mourning. Kenneth More offered to stand in but with the stipulation that the fee was sent to Lee.

After scoring six films in a row John Barry was absent for Live And Let Die with his scoring duties being undertaken by George Martin, who enlisted his old friend Paul McCartney to pen and perform the film’s memorable theme tune. Covered by numerous artists from Moby to Guns N’ Roses the song regularly tops polls when fans are asked to nominated their favourite James Bond theme.

That Live And Let Die lives in the memory mainly due to its theme song and stunts speaks volumes about the acting and the script. Yaphet Kotto is one of the most acclaimed and powerful actors of his generation thanks to appearances in the likes of Homicide: Life on the Streets yet his Bond villain is the poorest of the entire Roger Moore era. An actor can only build a great role when given the material to work with. Jane Seymour is very pleasing to the eye yet Solitaire is there mainly to lose her virginity to 007 and point him in the direction of the hidden poppy fields.

Roger Moore’s 007 debut received minimal critical acclaim but its box office return of $162 million on a $7 million budget and a good working relationship with their new lead actor was satisfactory enough for the producers to begin work on the ninth installment in the series. With The Man with the Golden Gun the creative stagnation than began with You Only Live Twice, and only briefly interrupted by On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, would sink to an all-time low and events would be set in motion that would have a profound effect on the series for decades after.

1 From Russia With Love
2 Goldfinger
3 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
4 Thunderball
5 Dr. No
6 You Only Live Twice 
7 Diamonds Are Forever 
8 Live And Let Die

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