Background: I wouldn't call this a reboot, but the franchise was certainly dragged kicking and screaming into the 1970's with it's 8th instalment.
This was the first ever Bond film that I actually saw in the cinemas (well, I saw it at a drive in - remember them? But you know what I mean) as a result I tend to rate it a lot better than many others would. I had no knowledge of Connery, Blofeld or SPECTRE at the time, so when I saw this film everything was new to me. I'm convinced it's why I like Moore a lot more than plenty of others do. It's a little like the old adage that Dr Who fans tend to prefer their first Doctor over others who have played the role over the years.
As the producers had feared the deal with Connery and Diamonds Are Forever was a one time thing, so they had to find another Bond. A number of actors were considered, among them Americans: Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. Eastwood would have been dreadful, Reynolds was more promising, although two things counted strongly against him. One was his height, both Broccoli and Saltzman were quite insistent that the actor be over 6 foot and the other was that he was identifiably American and they wanted someone who was British, or close enough that it made no difference, for the part. Roger Moore had a profile on both sides of the Atlantic and he had now finished with The Saint, so the time was right. He had the two things that Reynolds didn't. He was over 6', I believe he's 6'4", and he was very most definitely British.
Live And Let Die, like Diamonds Are Forever before it was very definitely made to cater to the American market. It also sought to cash in on the blaxploitation sub genre, that was popular at the time. Broccoli and Saltzman didn't create trends, but they did know how to follow them and Live And Let Die is an example of that.
The casting of Bond aside, a lot of this one was steady as she goes, and they got Guy Hamilton back for his 3rd go at directing.
Story: Unable to use Blofeld and SPECTRE, they decided to take a different tack and focused on a drug lord based in the mean streets of New York and New Orleans and the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique. Being a blaxploitation film there's also plenty of pseudo voodoo talk and symbolism in this one. Baron Samedi in particular.
The opening shot, where Bond strolls onto screen in the sights of a gun barrel that turns into an eyeball, stops, turns and shoots had also been updated. The original shot used in the films wasn't of Sean Connery, it was one of the stuntmen. I'm not sure what film they first used Connery. Lazenby was certainly the figure in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and it was definitely Connery in Diamonds Are Forever. In all of the previous openers Bond wears a hat. The figure that performs the shot in Live And Let Die is unmistakably Moore, but he's not wearing the hat. It's a nod to the times (very few men wore hats in 1973) and a sign that Bond is finally acknowledging that it's no longer the 1960's.
Bond does not appear in the pre credit sequence (more on that later) and it may be an acknowledgement from Eon that they got the introduction of Lazenby as Bond wrong and didn't want to make the same mistake with Roger Moore.
Bond is wooing an attractive Italian intelligence operative when M arrives at his door, accompanied by Moneypenny. This forces Bond to hide his lover and pretend that he was at home alone. Bernard Lee was unwell not long before making the film and this may have been why they chose to cut down on his screen time and have him briefly at Bond's apartment. There's also very little flirting with Moneypenny, although she does discover the girl in the closet.
Bond soon finds himself in New York liaising with Felix and being taken hostage briefly at a restaurant in Harlem, meeting for the first time with the mysterious and scary Mr Big. He gets away with the help of a local CIA agent. Not Felix, he's overseeing the operation.
Before long Bond is checking out San Monique, using cans of spray deodorant to fight off snakes in his hotel room and meeting with his 'wife' local CIA agent Rosie Carver. There's also a nod to Dr. No when Bond and Rosie hook up with fishing boat owner: Quarrel (no, they didn't bring the original one back from the dead, this is his son; Quarrel Jr. Curiously everyone else has gotten older, except for Bond).
Rosie turns out to be a traitor and is killed by her own side, because she let Bond get too close for comfort. Bond uses Quarrel to get him close enough to island ruler Kananga's private estate so that he can hang glide into the compound, seduce Kananga's virginal tarot card reader and personal fortune teller Solitaire, check out the ruler's heroin crop and the village where he performs voodoo sacrifices, then it's off on a wild car chase through the island while Kananga's tame police force try to catch Bond and get Solitaire back. Bond escapes them in a clapped out double decker bus, and discovers and novel way of getting the tall vehicle under a low bridge.
Back in the States, Kananga retrieves Solitaire (he does regard her as his possession) and has Bond taken to a crocodile/alligator farm, that also doubles as a drug lab, for disposal. Odd that they included crocodiles, which while larger and more dangerous than alligators, are not native to the US. Bond manages to escape the jaws of death by running across the crocodile's noses. This in itself shown how far stunt work had come. I don't know what they would have done years ago, probably not included the escape. The owner of the farm that they shot the scene on; Ross Kananga (yes, the ruler of San Monique was named after him) actually performed the stunt himself. It took him five tries to get it right and he was very nearly bitten on more than one occasion!
After the escape is a thrilling boat chase through the swamps and bayous. The chase was really well choreographed and quite different, if a little long. It also introduced what I saw as one of the low points of the franchise and certainly Hamilton's films; the character of J.W Pepper. Pepper is an ignorant, loud mouth, racist, tobacco chewing Louisiana sheriff. Predictably Bond outsmarts him and Felix ensures that the British agent is not arrested by the overbearing police officer. Pepper is meant to be comic relief, he's not funny and most of his behaviour is cringe worthy.
Once he's out of Kananga's clutches, and the big reveal has been performed that Kananga and Mr Big are in fact one and the same, Bond heads off to San Monique to save Solitair, who due to her disloyalty and losing her gift by sleeping with Bond and therefore giving up her virginity, is going to be sacrificed to the voodoo gods.
Bond ruins the sacrifice and frees Solitaire, they flee into Kananga's underground lair, where like any good evil mastermind he reveals his plans before attempting to kill the hero. His idea is to get a large percentage of the world's population hooked on heroin and then use his monopoly on the drug to make himself one of the wealthiest most powerful people on the planet. He's a little like Goldfinger, he doesn't actually want to rule the world, he just wants to make lots of money.
Bond uses a compressed air pellet to literally blow Kananga up and he and Solitaire make their getaway. This is one of the very few Bond films that does not end on the water. The two actually find themselves in a cross country train. I'm not sure where they were going or what Solitaire was going to do with her life now that she was free of Kananga, but for the immediate term the two are going to enjoy a liaison on board a train. It's nearly spoiled by Kananga's henchman TeeHee stowing away on the train and attempting to kill Bond using his metal prosthetic arm, but Bond ingeniously gets the better of him and barrels on cross country in the arms of Solitaire.
It really doesn't make a lot of sense and it was very campy, although less so than Diamonds Are Forever. Moore's performance is quite light and breezy and he handles the one liners, of which there are many, better than any previous Bond. To own the role though he would need to harden up, not every villain plays things as by the book as Kananga did.
Director: Guy Hamilton returning was a bonus. He knew the franchise and was an experienced hand to guide it into new waters. With a new actor playing the main role that's an important thing and another mistake they made with On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Hamilton knew what was expected of him and how to do it, plus he also seemed to work well with Roger Moore.
James Bond: the experience with Lazenby had shown the franchise how important it was to get the right actor. Although other actors were discussed and considered, maybe even tested, the role was always going to go to Moore. He hadn't done it twice previously because he was otherwise employed. Broccoli was concerned about associations being made with The Saint to the extent that Moore was not allowed to do his single eyebrow raise (a few did slip through, though) as that was something Simon Templar had used! Roger Moore slipped into the role like a foot into a custom fitted shoe. He did not put a foot wrong. It's interesting that Connery was looking too old in 1971. Moore is actually three years older, but looked about three years younger. Smooth is the best way to describe his performance, if anything it needed a little roughening.
Dr. Kananga/Mr Big: the dual role of the villain was played by emerging actor Yaphet Kotto. Kotto had been seen in the blaxpolitation film in Across 110th Street and his performance impressed Broccoli, Saltzman and Hamilton enough that they cast him in Live And Let Die. He's not at all bad as Kananga, softly spoken, but menacing, a little less convincing as Mr Big, although that can be partly attributed to the make up he wore for the role, although it didn't look particularly effective. His intimidating size helped to make him quite scary.
Peripheral roles: due to illness Bernard Lee was in doubt, but recovered and soldiered on, although I think his role was made smaller as a consequence of that. Lois Maxwell had returned to her original hair colour, so didn't have to wear a hat this time. The lessening of M's role necessitated the same thing to Moneypenny's part and there wasn't any flirting with Moore's Bond, although she did bid him farewell with a rather sarcastic ciao in reference to the Italian girl hiding in his closet. I assume Desmond Llewelyn had another gig, because for reasons that left unexplained Q doesn't appear in this. It was the only film between From Russia With Love and The World Is Not Enough that he didn't appear in. One of his gadgets does save Bond's life, though.
TeeHee: this is Kananga's henchman. He's probably the most effective one since Oddjob (not coincidentally another Hamilton helmed production in Goldfinger). Julius Harris is a large and intimidating individual, add in a metal prosthetic that can bend gun barrels and snip off fingers and you've got one badass henchperson.
Rosie Carver: the role went to Gloria Hendry. Rosie, until her untimely demise, is really comedy relief and she plays that particular role very effectively. She's less convincing in the love scenes, though.
Whisper: the very soft voiced, overweight henchperson with the impressive beard was played by Earl Jolly Brown. His ability to only talk in whispers, which gave him his name, seemed to have also been used as a comic tool.
Quarrel Jr.: it was a nice nod to Dr. No to include Quarrel's son in this. I don't know if Roy Seymour watched the film a lot or not, but he played a younger version of Quarrel to perfection. He even looked similar enough that the relationship between the two was quite believable.
Felix Leiter: at long last they got it right. David Hedison was perfect casting. Right age, right look and the writing gave him a mixture of office and field work. If they had at this stage decided that they were going to continue to cast Hedison as Felix then I would have thought the finally got the right actor for the role.
Sheriff J.W. Pepper: I don't have anything against actor Clifton James. He got given a role and he did what he was told to do, possibly he did it too well. I never saw the need for Pepper's character, he was a mistake and the film wouldn't have suffered if he wasn't in it, in fact it may have been improved considerably.
Solitaire: I never quite understood what an English rose was doing working as a fortune teller on a Caribbean island, and the fact that the role was hereditary made it even odder. Diana Ross was considered before the decision was made to stick to Fleming's book version of the character, who was also white. Catherine Deneuve came up in conversation (they really had actresses they wanted to cast!), but seeing Jane Seymour in British period drama The Onedin Line got her the part. Seymour is the best actress in a Bond girl role since Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Like Rigg, Seymour was an actress first and a very attractive woman second. She was listed as being introduced in the opening credits, but she had appeared in a number of films by that stage, they just may not have been well known by American audiences. Her looks are perfect as Solitaire and she plays the innocent, naive, sheltered psychic with the right amount of vulnerability. She does a lot of screaming for James to help her, but given her background and upbringing that's not surprising.
The Curse of the Bond girl: Seymour is another one who bucks this tendency for the career to go south after doing a Bond film. Again that can be explained by her being an actor, not a model being thrust into an acting role. She continued to work steadily in films throughout the 70's and 80's, and achieved significant and lasting film on TV in the '90's in the title role of period drama Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Even after that show finished she's continued to get plenty of work mostly on TV and has aged very gracefully.
Pre credit sequence: this isn't an exciting pre credit sequence. It's rather like Dr. No in that it shows three separate assassinations: a British representative is electrocuted by his headphones while listening to a translated speech from a Hungarian delegate, a CIA agent is killed at a New Orleans street funeral and becomes the guest of honour and a British agent is executed as part of a voodoo sacrifice, and it's that last one that gets Bond sent on the mission. I think it was a good idea to wait until after the opening credits to introduce audiences to the new Bond.
Gadgets: there was really only one that was used extensively and that was Bond's wristwatch, which was a powerful magnet and a rotating saw. The CIA provide a cigarette lighter that doubles as a communication device. Bond even refers to it jokingly as a 'Felix Leiter lighter'. Kananga has his remote camera scarecrows that also have guns hidden in them and the flute communicator. TeeHee's arm could also be considered a gadget.
Music: Paul and Linda McCartney read the original novel before penning the song for the film. This was the first time in 5 films that John Barry didn't provide the song. It was the first rock and roll song used in the films and it was a chart success both in the UK and the US. Rather amusing that the most popular theme song in a long time was both written and performed by a former Beatle, when one of the earlier films had been so dismissive and insulting of the band. Harry Saltzman didn't like McCartney's version, preferring the lounge version sung during a restaurant scene. The man definitely had odd tastes. Live And Let Die by Paul McCartney and Wings was not only one of the best songs at the time, it stands up now as one of the best they've done.
James Bond will return in The Man With The Golden Gun.