Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Nine: Live and Let Die (1973)

After all of the bad blood with Sean Connery, and the (at the time) failed experiment with the non-actor, in George Lazenby, EON producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman turned to an altogether more genial presence to play the lead for the eighth James Bond adventure, 1973’s Live and Let Die: namely, star of TV shows The Saint, and The Persuaders, Roger Moore.  Rumours have long abounded that Moore had been in consideration for the role back when Dr No was being cast in 1961.  Given Moore was born in October 1927, and was the relatively advanced age of 45 by the time he made his debut, this would seem plausible.  Whilst he could not comment on whether he was being thought about at that time, he told audiences attending his live shows in the years before his 2017 passing that he had been friendly with the producers, through their common patronage of a London casino, but there had been no discussions of any professional engagements.

After 1967’s You Only Live Twice, however, Roger had been in discussions to become Bond for the next adventure, planned to be The Man with the Golden Gun, and due to shoot in Cambodia.  When that country’s Samlaut Uprising put paid to this, filming was cancelled (with Moore eventually starring in a version of that film, in 1974). Moore recommitted to further seasons of The Saint, and the Bond series turned instead to Lazenby and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  It took until 1972, and the cancellation of the Tony Curtis co-starring The Persuaders, after a single season, for Moore to be available again.   This time he would grab the role with both hands, and not let go until the age of 58.

Roger Moore has always been one of the two iconic James Bond actors (the other being, well… obvious), but his reputation in the role has tended to wax and wane with the times, and the post-911 tendency towards grittier product, even in family fare: Bourne films, Nolan’s Batman series, and, of course, Daniel Craig’s take on Bond left Roger’s version looking campy and lacking for depth and substance.  Moore was also one of the last generation of leading men for whom a lack of involvement in the stunt work did not present a problem to audiences – and Moore did conspicuously less there than his two predecessors in the role.

It is virtually undisputed that he stayed in the role too long, and this tends to colour perceptions: in his later films there is a visible disconnect between Roger and the stunt performers – things heat up, then Bond is suddenly 20 pounds lighter, and noticeably more lithe!  Similarly, Moore was put up against women that were, by-and-large, too young for him, with his leading lady in 1985’s A View to a Kill telling Roger that he was older than her mother.  As there was an emphasis on the romantic aspects of the character in Roger’s take, this means that, for many, the portrayal becomes somewhat smarmy in later years.

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There are likely two major factors in the current upswing in Moore’s popularity as Bond.  The first is, put simply, that he passed away.  The genuine – and well-earned – outpouring of affection for the man upon his passing in May 2017, led many to take a fresh look at his work.  For all of the complaints that he was a weak action performer compared to Connery and Lazenby, that his romantic entanglements became more inappropriate over time, and that the quality control on some of the humour in his films was patchy, viewers couldn’t help but note the screen presence, easy charm and chemistry with co-stars.  The second factor is that the current Bond, Daniel Craig has been in the role since the mid-2000s.  There is always something of a pendulum effect, in terms of what the public want from James Bond.  Coming up on a decade and a half of one man and his relatively serious take on the character has left many ready for a return to something a little lighter.  As spy films have moved away from Bourne and towards Kingsman, and superhero fare has moved away from The Dark Knight and towards the Marvel Cinematic Universe – suddenly, Roger Moore is in vogue again.

It took a couple of films for Roger to find his voice in the role.  More accurately, it took a couple of films for the films to be adequately tailored to that voice.  In his debut, three MI6 agents are killed, in different parts of the World – New York, New Orleans, and the (fictional) Caribbean island of San Monique, in mysterious circumstances.  As all three were monitoring the island’s dictator, Dr Kananga (Alien‘s Yaphet Kotto), Bond is dispatched to investigate.  Those investigations lead him to Mr Big, a ruthless gangster.  Through Mr Big he meets Solitaire (Jane Seymour), a virginal tarot card reader, able to see both the future and events happening elsewhere in the present.  Bond finds that Big is simply a disguised Kananga, and has then to battle Kananga, and his henchmen, Tee Hee (Julius Harris) and Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) to prevent Kananga’s plot to flood the market with free heroin, bankrupting competitors, creating countless more addicts, before then dominating the market with the rich and plentiful product produced in San Monique.

The first point to make about Live and Let Die is that whilst this is yet to be fitted fully to Roger, it provides a freshness both in performance and in tone that suggests that the Bond series can move, finally, past Sean Connery.  Moore is noticeably less abrasive and more dapper than Connery.  Director Guy Hamilton (returning for the first time since Goldfinger, and making the first of three consecutive entries in the series) had ensured, with writer Tom Mankiewicz, that this Bond is just different enough: he doesn’t order a martini (Moore’s Bond never did – though they were ordered for him, on occasion); smokes cigars, rather than bespoke cigarettes; and when we first meet him, he’s not saving the world, he’s absconded with a beautiful Italian agent and is in bed with her at home.  His first exchange with M doubles down on the know-all quality that was starting to creep into the Connery version – and Moore will take that on further than any other actor until Brosnan assumed the role.  This Bond will fight, but only if necessary, and he will (generally) lack the underlying seething when engaging in the guest friendship – common to the series formula – between Bond and antagonist.  This adds up to far more genial presence for this James Bond, and one with whom audiences developed an easy comfort.

On a more negative note, Live and Let Die is the true beginning of the series ceasing to lead, and beginning to follow.  This film doubles down on the Blaxploitation craze of the era; the next film would reflect the then-current popularity of Kung Fu/Karate/Bruce Lee.  There would then be countless examples going forward – which we’ll discuss as they arise – of the series including plots, tones, actors, action sequences and references that were there solely to reflect ‘what’s hot right now’.  It is probably fair to say that this really began here, with Roger’s debut.

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That said, Live and Let Die is a triumph on almost every level.  A series best boat chase (although slightly too long); iconic henchmen; a title song written by Paul and Linda McCartney – and performed by Wings that is still usually ranked in the top handful; a very strong score (and one of the best non-John Barry efforts), written by Beatles producer, George Martin; and, finally, a leading man that producers, and the wider public, could believe would not only stick around in the role, but clearly had a distinctive take that would take the series through entries that would not simply mimic what had come before.

Off a budget of around $7 million (still less than Thunderball, eight years earlier), Live and Let Die took a massive $161.8 million.  Adjusted, this is one of the strongest performers of the series, and the highest – again, adjusted – of the Moore run.  With producers delighted with their new leading man, and noting the enthusiastic public reaction and hot box office, the schedule for the next entry, The Man with the Golden Gun was accelerated to 1974.  What could possibly go wrong?

The Road to Bond 25 will return with The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).

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