Sean Connery is gone. George Lazenby is not coming back. Bond is finished. Right?
Roger Moore, the man who would be Bond long before Pierce Brosnan held the title, finally comes aboard in Live and Let Die. Moore had been considered (but was never asked) for Doctor No, was unavailable for both On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever. Connery was through with Bond, in fact openly hated the character. Lazenby had become disenchanted with the movie industry. Moore, on the other hand, had been a busy man.
EON had selected Live and Let Die as the next Bond film. Elements of the original story made it into the film, but the actual story, Bond and Felix Leiter chasing drug thieves across America, did not. Leiter’s fate in the books would later make it into Licence to Kill.
The premise: Three British agents investigating a Caribbean prime minister named Dr. Kanaga are murdered. One dies a very Bond movie death, murdered on the floor of the UN. One is killed during a New Orleans funeral and carried off by a Dixieland jazz band. The third is killed in a voodoo ritual. Bond is roused before sunrise, as well as from afterglow with a sexy Italian agent, to get a briefing at home from M. Soon, he’s off to New York to meet up with Felix. The CIA believes an American drug lord named Mr. Big is funneling heroin from Kananga’s island nation into America. Bond soon zeroes in on Kananga’s tarot card reader, Solitaire (played by Jane Seymour). Hilarity ensues.
Yaphet Kotto is great as Kananga/Mr. Bigg, one of the more intellectual Bond antagonists. His sidekick, Tee Hee, makes a more interesting henchman than Odd Job or, later, Jaws. But Tee Hee does more for Kanaga than the other two do for their bosses. Jaws, in fact, is a gun for hire in his two appearances. Seymour, as Solitaire, is actually rather wooden as a Bond girl. After Kissy Suzuki saving Bond’s fat from the fryer, the gravitas of Tracy Bond, and the cheek of Tiffany Case, Solitaire is a passive creature, resigned to her fate, and hardly a challenge for Seymour as an actress. David Hedison, however, could easily have kept the role of Felix Leiter had the writers continued with the character. At this point, only Bernard Lee as M, Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny (both underused in this movie), and Desmond Llewellyn as Q (absent this time around) remain from the original movies. Leiter could have given Moore’s run a stronger sense of continuity.
Now, the big question. How is Moore as Bond? Well, Connery’s Bond was cold, reserved, and ready for violence at the drop of a hat. Moore’s is smooth, charming, and unflappable. In one scene, he’s on a hang glider holding onto his cigar as he spies on Kananga’s hideout. Moore also had a problem taking on the role. He had to be a character not only created by Sean Connery but made iconic by him. The pressure likely derailed George Lazenby’s career. So Moore opted for a smoother, more comedic Bond. The movies had become, by now, self-parody. EON could walk a fine line between taut spy thriller and formulaic caper for a while under Moore’s tenure, but eventually, this would send the franchise teetering. However, despite the odd Blofeld trappings – Kananga’s hideouts and surveillance gadgets – this is a real-world Bond, reminiscent of Dr. No and From Russia with Love and closer to For Your Eyes Only and the Dalton and Craig movies.
However, the producers also wanted to send up the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. (Ironically, blaxploitation star Bernie Casey would later play Felix in the unofficial Bond movie Never Say Never Again.) At the time this was released, 1973, it was part of the cultural zeitgeist, and with Kananga and Tee Hee very much Bond’s equals, hardly insulting in its day. However, in the culturally divisive atmosphere of today, the appearance that every black person in America is out to kill James Bond becomes, if not problematic, then a bit uncomfortable. Too bad, because, despite meeting the most ridiculous death of any Bond villain – even Hugo Drax in Moonraker – Kananga is probably the most impressive. Whether intentionally or not, Kotto echoes Telly Savalas’s turn as Blofeld – smooth, incredibly smart, subtly angry at the world, and a bit too smug for his own good. (Aren’t they all? Especially Charles Gray’s Blofeld?)