Although Live and Let Die marked the appearance of a new Bond in Roger Moore, it formed the third part of an unofficial trilogy of films directed by Guy Hamilton. Of the early Bond directors, Hamilton was easily the most fascinated by space, place and mise-en-scene, and he extended himself further with each film he directed. In Goldfinger, he seemed to exhaust what the franchise could do with regular realistic spaces, so in Diamonds Are Forever he moved on to the hyperreal spaces of Las Vegas, presenting us with one of the defining postmodern portraits of the city in the process. In Live and Let Die, he moves beyond both realistic and hyperreal spaces to a more supernatural conception of space, producing the only Bond film that has a genuinely supernatural component – or at least a supernatural horizon.
That profound stylistic continuity with Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever means that there’s considerable less anxiety here about the new Bond than there was in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Perhaps there was more confidence in Moore’s pedigree than in George Lazenby’s, or perhaps there was just a sense that Sean Connery’s enthusiasm for the role had run its course by Diamonds Are Forever. Whereas Q and M appeared early on in Secret Service, Q doesn’t even make an appearance in Live and Let Die, so comfortable is the film with Moore’s presence. Moreover, the Bond song here, by Paul McCartney, has an upbeat bridge that effectively functions as a new theme – a theme that belongs to Moore and Moore alone.
On top of all that, Live and Let Die begins with three other agents being killed, meaning there’s such an urgent need for Bond’s intervention that we adapt to Moore’s presence pretty pragmatically. These three opening murders give Hamilton a chance to exercise his taste for set pieces in miniature, while also introducing the Blaxploitation elements that sets Live and Let Die apart from the Connery films, since each of these murders emphasises the power of black sound. We start at the United Nations, where a black hand takes out the wire providing sound to the delegate from the United Kingdom, plugging it into a device that emits a sound that produces instant death. We then shift to a jazz funeral in New Orleans, where an agent watching the funeral seamlessly becomes its corpse. Finally, we move further South, to the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique, where a third agent is killed in a voodoo ceremony.
These three scenes chart a passage from New York to the Caribbean, evoking a broad spectrum of African sounds and connecting them all to voodoo. Of course, this is regressive, but even so Live and Let Die feels more modern than any of the Connery films, which were ostensibly set in the present, but really unfolded in a more “gentlemanly” past. By contrast, the Moore films are much more open to the counterculture, which we see here in the title song by Paul and Linda McCartney, performed by Wings, as well as in the George Martin score. Bond now wears flared pants, and he’s comfortable around black people – you can’t imagine Connery’s Bond sleeping with a black women without making constant quips about her skin.
Moore’s Bond is also much more of a spy than Connery’s Bond. He’s lither, more slinking, always covered in soft textures for minimal friction – gloves, cravat and woollen coat. Whereas Connery was sleazy, Moore is genuinely suave, with a keener taste for the limber playfulness that any spy needs to get their job done. Similarly, whereas Connery’s Bond used espionage as a pretext to womanise, the misogyny feels more incidental here, less integral to the Bond character, who Moore reshapes, deeper into the Cold War, with more wit and tact.
For that reason, the film, as a whole, is also much more kinetic than the Connery films, with the exception of those directed by Hamilton. The turgid expository scenes of Secret Service are also long gone, as we’re introduced to New York, and the main story, by way of a thrilling car chase that could be lifted straight from The French Connection. This first act is continuous driving, chasing and tailing, as the action moves up Manhattan to Harlem – as if Hamilton is trying to summon enough mobility to evoke the dynamism of New York above 110th Street.
From here, we shift to a sustained second act that takes place in the Caribbean. To some extent, this is a (successful) attempt to remake Dr. No in Moore’s image, right down to the poisonous snake that takes the place of the tarantula. Yet this is also light years from the meditative quality of the first Bond film, as Hamilton sets out to match the frenzy and spectacle of the voodoo ceremony. Apart from the brief prologue, we first see voodoo played out as pastiche, as part of a restaurant show at an expensive tropical resort. There are still traces here, then, of the postmodern artificiality, the taste for pastiche, that drove Diamonds Are Forever, although they’re quickly inflected in a more supernatural and arcane direction.
As this Caribbean act unfolds, the voodoo narrative gradually slips the film into horror, moving us away from the tired Cold War narrative that animated most of the Connery films. The action here is scarier than in any of the previous films, but also more buoyant, limber and playful, as Hamilton uses voodoo to expand the spatial scheme of the franchise. He also uses tarot, since the Bond girl, played by Jane Seymour, is a tarot visionary who has been employed by a voodoo consortium to help with their drug trade. Her tarot readings compound this arcane sense of space – we hear about “the spiritual bridge to the secret church” – building a rich sense of place and an exotic atmosphere that often foreshadows the Indiana Jones films. If classic Spielberg had directed a Bond film, it would have likely looked something like this.
Of course, there’s also a Blaxploitation kernel here, which basically revolves around one driving premise – that black folk have preternatural powers of surveillance. The black characters in the film are onto Bond as soon as he touches down in Manhattan, then converge on him in Harlem, before the shift to the Caribbean produces a more futuristic and supernatural black surveillance space. In San Monique, voodoo heads double as vehicles for modern cameras and guns, while a series of traditional Caribbean objects and implements finally lead Bond to an enormous surveillance deck. At its best, this act plays like a Caribbean version of The Wicker Man – an exercise in folk horror, and eerie quaintness, as Bond wanders through pastiches of black practices that appear to be set up benignly for his amusement, but actually conceal a living, breathing and alterior black culture that is opposed to his agendas.
The spatial insatability of these scenes crystallises around car chases that fuse different planes of space, collapsing land, sea and sky in hallucinatory and inspired ways. Since there’s no Q, Hamilton doesn’t have to contort these scenes around a gadget or gimmick, and since there’s no Bond car, he can extemporise around whatever comes to hand. In one chase, a series of motorcycles careen into a Caribbean swamp, then a police car, encased in the top half of a bush, lands in a river, while Bond, driving the bottom of the bus, steers onto a jetty and hops onto a boat. In another scene, Bond and a trainee pilot dodge and wheel a plane around a series of cars on a tarmac, losing both wings as they crash through hangars and other planes.
Yet even these chases pale in comparison to the centrepiece of the film, which marks our return to the Louisiana bayou for the third act. The bayou is the objective correlative of these chase scenes, since, as a landscape, it already confounds sea, land and sky. When paired with the best chase of the film, it makes for the best Bond set piece up to this point, and perhaps the best set piece in Bond history – a perfect fusion of action and landscape, to the point where the chase seems to be entirely absorbed into, or emanate from, the texture of the bayou. It’s like watching a landscape come to life as Bond’s boat leaps over tongues of land, and dodges around impediments, setting a Guinness World Record for boat jumps in a remarkable scene where a speedboat careens over two cars, a road, and a confounded cop.
This chase scene also fuses comedy and suspense more dexterously than any Bond sequence so far, allowing us to enjoy the absurdity of the spectacle without it ever quite descending to farce. As Bond makes his way through the bayou, he (and the film) does away with white Southern gentility piece by piece. First, he interrupts a hick cop, the broadest character in the Bondverse to date. Then he speeds onto the grass, steering his boat in front of a pair of plantation owners reclining on their land (one of the pursuing boats ends up in their pool). Finally, he drives the speedboat into a Southern wedding, and then cuts directly through the lavish wedding cake as the bride and groom are collapsed into the sublime wake of the chase.
Scenes like this are the flipside of the film’s Blaxploitation focus. While black people are certainly exoticised here, they make up such a sizeable part of the cast that white people are minoritized too. Rather than being a voice of manly reason in a black world, as Connery’s Bond would surely have been, Moore’s Bond revels in his absurdity as a white protagonist trying to negotiate these space. You might say that Moore’s campier approach to the role has its origin in this encounter with countercultural blackness, which immediately divests him of Connery’s hubris. This allows him to embrace the comic datedness of Bond from his inception, so it makes sense that Moore’s final film, A View to a Kill, also immerses us in futuristic blackness, this time with a more 80s inflection, as Grace Jones becomes the main antagonist.
This all paves the way for the best finale so far, as Hamilton parlays the film’s supernatural imagery into a tribute to the franchise itself as a vehicle for spectacle. In the closing act, Bond penetrates to the heart of the voodoo ceremony, only to discover that it’s a front for an underground lair. We move so abruptly from the spectacle of voodoo to the underground apparatus supporting this spectacle that Hamilton seems to have turned his own spatial imagination, and the spatial vocabulary of the entire Bond series, into the main subject here.
At the very moment at which Hamilton discards supernatural space he thus abstracts the franchise into an exercise in pure spatial play. Rather than unfolding as a distinct or discrete space, this final setting is like a concatenation and condensation of every spatial cue in the franchise so far – a lair in a cave, an underground library, a massive control deck, a redundant monorail, an underground river, a shark pen – along with every other feature or fixture that could possibly be imagined by the franchise. And for that reason Live and Let Die finally feels like a challenge – a challenge set by Hamilton to the Bondverse, but also to himself, to see what future spectacle could possibly exceed the surreal visions of his first three Bond films.