The Bond: Roger Moore, who played the character longer than any other actor. His gambling buddies, producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli, had wanted him for Bond for years, but he was in the TV series The Saint from ’62-’69. His character on that, Simon Templar, was also a spy, albeit a more comedic figure and Moore brought that same ironic, somewhat self-mocking wit to the Bond franchise.
The Release: June 27, 1973 in the US and July 6 in the UK. While the production was so troubled that the cast and crew half-joked that there might be a voodoo curse on the film (Moore was hospitalized with kidney stones, countless boats and stuntmen were damaged while filming the chase scenes), it grossed more than its predecessor with $126 million worldwide.
The Girl: Jane Seymour (yes, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) as Solitaire, the part that “introduced” her to audiences. Barely out of her teens, Seymour isn’t strong here as she would become. Her only convincing scene is Solitaire’s devastation over losing her powers of clairvoyance. Then there’s Gloria Hendry as Rosie. Her acting is as bad as Seymour’s, but she’s trying harder. There’s also Madeline Smith as Miss Caruso, an Italian broad who’s only useful because she allows Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny and Bond to interact when the faithful secretary helps Bond keep Caruso secret from M.
The Villain: Yaphet Kotto as both Mr. Big/Dr. Kananga. The way Kotto easily transitions between the maniacal aggression of the pimp-like Big and the dignified Kananga is really enjoyable to watch. He’s menacing but controlled in the same way that Telly Savalas was as Blofeld, but also human enough that in the scene where Big asks why Solitaire betrayed him, you almost feel sorry for him.
The Gadgets: While the various vehicles (speedboats, a hang glider, a double-decker bus) Bond uses to outrun Kananga’s henchmen are great, the only Q Branch-approved gadget is his Rolex watch. Not only does the high-powered magnet it contains help Bond undress a woman and attract a compressed gas bullet, but the spinning saw on its face allows Bond avoid becoming shark food in Kananga’s lair.
The Song: “Live and Let Die” written by Paul and Linda McCartney and performed by Sir Paul and the Wings. With its mix of dreamy, slow-build passages and kinetic guitar riffs, the song is a serious contender for Best Bond Theme of all time (it was even nominated for an Oscar). Maurice Binder times the credits sequence’s images to the song’s beats better here than for any of the previous films. Nothing beats the moment when, just as the tempo picks up and the film’s title appears, a girl’s head bursts into flames and becomes a skull.
The Book: Live and Let Die is actually one of the best books in the series even if it is horribly racist. While it’s on the shorter side, it packs in a lot of action from the moment Bond touches down at Idlewild. Sadly, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz preserved very little of it for the script (though some of its biggest plot points were used in 1989’s Licence to Kill).
Mr. Big is the most changed. In the book, he’s a brilliant gangster with ties to Russia who owns a private island surrounded by bloodthirsty sharks and barracuda. It’s very Dr. No. While Mr. Big’s alter ego in the movie is a diplomat, in the book, he claims to be the reanimated zombie of the Haitian voodoo spirit Baron Samedi. Big cultivates the idea by toting around an effigy of Baron Samedi wherever he goes: a cross wearing a bowler hat, coat with tails, staff and gloves. However, while Samedi is both a separate person and a seemingly un-killable being in the movie, the only evidence of actual magic in the book is Solitaire’s clairvoyance.
In the movie, she’s portrayed as a powerful priestess who divines the future through tarot cards, in the book, she’s just good at reading people with a slight ability to see the future. In the grand tradition (in the books, at least) of women who are not sexually awakened until they meet Bond, she is also a virgin. Unlike the film, however, her powers are not tied to her virginity.
The Movie: Live and Let Die is both horribly racist and not very good. Its treatment of the Dr. Kananga/Mr. Big character is especially problematic. While the Kananga persona is a harmless if qualified UN Ambassador for San Monique, Mr. Big is a ruthless criminal bent on monopolizing heroin sales in America who holds a girl hostage under the constant threat of sexual violation. Kananga may be a civilized dignitary in public, but he’s really a twisted criminal who dresses like a pimp at heart. At a time when films like Look Who’s Coming to Dinner were normalizing blackness for white audiences, the implied message is painfully clear.
However, the film’s most racist aspect is its preoccupation with miscegenation (the genetic mixing of races). It’s stated early on that Solitaire will lose her powers once she loses her virginity and Kananga has made it clear to her that he will be the one to decide when that happens. Bond supposedly saves her from that fate, but considering he tricks her into sleeping with him by using a stacked tarot deck, he’s not exactly a hero either. Even worse, Bond is both callously uninterested in her post-coital grief/fear of being killed by Kananga and clearly frustrated to learn that she’s lost her powers. (Just as an interesting aside, the movie seems to have no problem with Bond sleeping with Rosie, a black woman. Sure, she dies later, but that’s because that’s what happens to all Bond villainesses rather than for any subtextual race-related reason.) Mankiewicz originally envisioned Diana Ross for Solitaire and it’s interesting to wonder how different the film’s racial politics would read with a black woman in the lead. Sadly, the film audiences got instead is just plain embarrassing.