A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN
Directed by Guy Hamilton
Written by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz
Premiered 19 December, 1974
The third and (unless I have forgotten something important) final opening sequence in a Bond movie that does not feature Bond himself, though a cameo is put in by a statue of Roger Moore's Agent 007, threateningly pointing a gun at nobody in particular, and anybody who holds that this meets the definition of an appearance by James Bond is not to be trusted on this or any other matters.
What it has, instead, is a certain man who, before we see his face or hear his name, is introduced to us as the owner of a third nipple, somewhat up on his left pectoral. I would say that this becomes important, later, but in fact it doesn't: it's merely a convenient way to identify somebody that we've already identified by the time we learn of his particular identifying mark. But I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to keep you in the same suspense that the movie does: this is Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), and what we need to know about him right now is that he lives in an island paradise with a sexy brunette (Maud Adams), and a very short, ethnically ambiguous manservant named Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize). He's also the owner of a fucking crazy funhouse-cum-deathtrap into which he has just been deposited along with a '20s-style gangster (Marc Lawrence). After a little bit of parsing out the uncut whatthefuckery of whatever the hell we're watching - it involves neon-colored skeletons, a grim mechanical parody of the Old West that suggests what Disneyland's Frontierland must be like on peyote, and Nick Nack shouting nonsensical insults over a loudspeaker, we figure out that this is Scaramanga's training ground, where he imports the deadliest killers from around the globe to keep him sharp.
I don't think I can sufficiently impress upon the viewer who has not seen the movie, just how goddamn weird this sequence is: as if, half a decade after the '60s has limped to a close, Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman heard some mangled rumor about "psychedelia", and decided to incorporate it into their Bond movie, with spectacularly incompetent results. On the other hand, it's absolutely not like anything else in any Bond movie, and that sort of thing goes a long way with me; it's also the most immediately disorienting and arrestingly strange opener to any film in the series, and that goes a long way with me, too. Let's call it an even draw.
Rating: 3 Union Jack Parachutes
A ghastly, caterwauling nightmare. In later years, pop singer Lulu (better known in the UK and Europe than elsewhere in the world, where she is primarily if not exclusively remembered for "To Sir, with Love") would admit that she was not the right person to sing the John Barry/Don Black title song "The Man with the Golden Gun", which found her trying too hard to do a really poor Shirley Bassey impersonation. My hat is off to Lulu for the openness of that confession; the problem is that it still leaves us with her take on "TMWTGG", which is really quite meritless altogether. If it's not the general inanity of the lyrics, enough to make "Thunderball" look positively respectable ("One golden shot means another poor victim / Has come to a glittering end"), it's the profoundly dumb - by Bond theme standards - sexual innuendo ("His eye may be on you or me / Who will he bang? / We shall see"). And if neither one of those does it for you, there's also the way that the title is stuck into a melodic line too long for it, obliging it to be sung as "the man with the golden guh-huh-un!"
Lulu, poor thing, could not do anything about these problems, which are endemic to the way the song was written. On the other hand, she also sings every note like a 10-year-old girl who has heard about orgasms but has not the slightest idea what they're actually like. And she certainly could have done something about that.
Rating: 1 Shirley Bassey
I have to hand it to Maurice Binder: with the motif of "silhouettes of naked girls dancing" having been locked down pretty intractably since Thunderball, it was in The Man with the Golden Gun that the designer finally did something interesting and motivated with that motif above and beyond the fairly surface-level interest of "Look, it's naked girls in silhouette! If you squint hard enough, boys, you might see a nipple!" For the first time, the flow of images tends to mirror the development of the song in a fairly specific way: the first verses, are accompanied by a dramatic succession of images distorted through water, the slowdown in the middle is matched with a more reflective, sexy passage that does an infinitely better job than the contemptible sophomoric lyrics of communicating the idea that the titular man's golden gun is an extension of (and replacement for) his phallus, and the return to the more raucous concluding verses kicks in with one of the absolute best shots in any Bond title sequence: a silhouetted woman gyrating in front of a yellow explosion from a Roman candle in front of a red backdrop.
It is, to my mind, the first really, honest-to-God beautiful credits sequence since From Russia with Love, eleven years prior (and the most erotic of the first nine Bond pictures), with the single genuine problem - and it is a serious one - being that it has to share space with the execrable theme song.
Rating: 4 Silhouetted Women
MI6 has received an alarming piece of mail: a golden bullet with 007's number etched onto it. This can only mean that the infamous, KGB-trained independent killer-for-hire Scaramanga, the legendary man with the golden gun (a sign of his affluence and elegance; more importantly, it is a way to kill opponents with one shot in multiplayer mode, making it supremely useful in addition to looking super-cool. GoldenEye 007 4-ever), has a contract to assassinate James Bond (Moore), leaving M (Bernard Lee) to demand the secret agent take himself off duty and hole up someplace safe, and certainly not pursue Scaramanga through secret channels, wink.
Bond tracks Scaramanga as far as his golden bullet supplier in Macau, and from there manages to trap Scaramanga's lover and henchwoman, Andrea Anders, the brunette from the first scene, in Hong Kong. Anders proves shockingly immune to a Bondian sexing-up, but does spill the beans that Scaramanga can be found at the Bottoms Up Club. Which is technically true, but this only muddies the waters: for as it turns out, 007 wasn't the killer's target at all; instead, Scaramanga puts a bullet in the head of a missing energy scientist, working on a super-efficient solar panel that might stave off the worldwide energy crisis just starting to form.
Just as happened in Live and Let Die, Bond has learned too much too quickly, and so we need to settle in for a long chunk of movie where nothing really happens: Bond travels to Thailand, pretending to be Scaramanga, to meet Bangkok businessman Hai Fat (Richard Loo), who put out the contract on the scientist, but Scaramanga got there first, and there's some business with the solar power MacGuffin, and Scaramanga killing Anders, while Bond, Hong Kong secret agent Hip (Oh Soon-Tek), and MI6's liaison officer in Hong Kong, Miss Goodnight (Britt Ekland) - her given name is Mary, but it's never identified as such in the movie - fiddle about, and Bond eventually has to join forces with a vacationing Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) to chase Goodnight, kidnapped by Scaramanga and Nick Nack.
Eventually, the story returns from its extended bathroom break, and we join Bond as he follows Scaramanga to a small island off the coast of China, where it turns out that this whole "kill the energy scientist and steal his amazing solar panel" business was all to construct a not-very-impressive laser, because Scaramanga collects symbolic penises. The most depressing part about this unfocused, low-stakes, and generally pointless mission is that it's still an improvement over Ian Fleming's novel, which had only reached its first draft at the author's death, and was published in its raw state. At least the movie feels finished, though a finished version of what, I cannot say.
Rating: 2 Stolen Nukes
Christopher Lee as a James Bond villain was one of those things that simply couldn't miss, and indeed did not miss (as opposed to Christopher Walken as a James Bond villain, one of those things that couldn't miss and did anyway). The actor - cousin of Ian Fleming and one of the author's own picks to play 007 himself - does not stretch all that far out of his comfort zone, but he doesn't need to in order to land squarely where the script wants him to be: as the dark counterpart to James Bond, a sophisticated, intelligent, highly efficient killer with no discernible moral code. And this is played out explicitly in what is absolutely, incontestably the film's greatest moment, a luncheon where Scaramanga entertains Bond prior to challenging him to a duel to the death, in which Lee plays the assassin's delight at meeting his one match in the whole world somewhere as a cross between a child on Christmas morning and a starstruck fan the moment they actually get to sit down in the same room as the biggest movie star in the world. The absolutely giddy enthusiasm of the moment, coupled inextricably with Scaramanga's happy chatter about how either he or his guest is about to end up dead, is shocking, and captivating, and it does a great deal to redeem a movie that has been badly slipping in the preceding hour; if The Man with the Golden Gun is mostly a better movie than a worse one (and I think, perhaps in despite of the evidence, that it is), it's primarily due to Lee's performance and this scene in particular.
That said, it takes more than an extraordinary actor to make a great Bond villain; it takes a strong plot and great threat, and a laser that doesn't apparently threaten anything beyond Scaramanga's hidden island fortress is, I'm sorry, really damn lame. Off comes a point.
By the way, I hope you don't enjoy these captivating, exciting, top-notch Bond villains, because its going to be a long time before we see another one.
Rating: 4 Evil Cats
Oh, Miss Mary Goodnight. How I hate you, so very, deeply, aggressively fucking much. She is not, I am afraid, the worst Bond Girl we'll come across before we reach the end of our little retrospective - while her name is kind of dumb and a little bit of a pun, at least it's not a holiday used to set up a testicle-crushingly awful joke - but there is not one single thing about her that works in any way. Even on the most basic, prurient level of "Bond Girl as sex object", I don't find Britt Ekland to be nearly as sexy nor as pretty as Maud Adams; she has oddly-set eyes.
As the first female field operative in the whole franchise, you'd think it would be incumbent upon Goodnight to be extra-competent and together, to reflect honorably on Her Majesty's government; this is not the case. Indeed, part of me thinks that it might be a deliberate attempt to defang a character who otherwise might have been too strong to need rescuing (because what kind of Bond Girl doesn't need rescuing?) that led the filmmakers to make Goodnight just so damn dumb; dumb in a way that would be unbecoming of a Hooter's waitress, let alone a woman in Goodnight's position. There might be no moment more ham-fisted than when she tries to plant a homing device in Scaramanga's car, and basically just stands there bent waaaaay over his trunk, taking about three hours to finish the job, as though even she realises that she has no actual function in the movie besides getting kidnapped to motivate the last third of the story. Or, subsequently, when she practically brags to Bond over walkie-talkie that she has the keys to his car with her, in the trunk. Or at the end, when she snatches defeat out of the jaws of victory by leaning her comely ass onto a button that might as well be labeled "PRESS TO RUIN EVERYTHING." And just in case you were able, through some Herculean effort, to find her appealing or sympathetic on any level as a character or a human being, Ekland's performance is one scene after another of a blissed-out, semi-articulate look of cheerful confusion, with every line delivery, regardless of its content, coming across as, "Wha? La la la. Spying, whee!"
Rating: 1 White Bikini
Nick Nack, I must say, presents one with a conundrum: he is such a fucking cartoon on the one hand (he's basically the exact same character Villechaize would later play on TV's Fantasy Island - not a flattering comparison), and yet the diminutive actor has such strangely magnetic screen presence on the other. The one thing you cannot possibly say about Nick Nack is that he's not memorable; and given Villechaize's hungry, devilish way of grinning at times that you'd really prefer not to see a gun-wielding midget grin, I have always believed that the character is genuinely dangerous and frightening in a way that many of the more celebrated Bond henchmen fail to be entirely. And yet, there's still something horribly crass about the way that the film keeps playing the "Wowzers, a killer midget! Goodness gracious!" card. It's hard to say whether he works in the film or not, though I know that I would never want to have him plucked out of it.
I would almost certainly have given him a net positive score, in fact, if not for the godawful final scene where he fights Bond, feeling uncommonly like the slapstick fight between Ash and the small Ash clones in Army of Darkness, and it's too ridiculous and embarrassing for words.
Rating: 2.5 Metal-Plated Teeth
THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
Maud Adams holds the extraordinary distinction of being the only woman to have sex with James Bond as two different characters in two different Eon Productions films, and as she is the official, actual Bond Girl - and the title character! - the second time she showed up, that performance very much overshadows her work as Andrea Anders; and yet I think it's very much the case that if she hadn't done such excellent work holding the screen with such a thankless role (though not abnormally thankless by the standards of the Dead First Girl), she would never have gotten that record-setting invitation to come back. Admittedly, the fact that her competition is the terrifyingly wretched Goodnight makes Adams's work a whole lot easier, for one could hardly be a poor enough actress not to steal focus from Britt Ekland's performance in this movie. But Adams clears that dismaying low bar and dominates every inch of her scenes:in her first encounter with Bond, she's vulnerable enough, and clearly scared enough by the spy, to do something almost unheard of in the Bond franchise: she actually pulls our sympathy away from the spy, revealing him to be the cold, nasty thug that always manages to seem charming, and never more so than in Moore's incarnation. Moore, bless him, plays along, but Adams sets the tone and forces him to give one of the best moments of acting in his entire career as Bond. Then, when she gets to the inevitable moment that she caves in and has sex with Bond, Adams injects enough nervous, flirty energy that it doesn't read like a complete reversal of personality (plus, her arrival forces Bond to shove Goodnight in a closet, putting me deeply in her debt). A slightly more dynamic part to play in the feature as a whole, and she'd be one of the all-time greats.
Rating: 4 Golden Corpses
The fact is, we're going to have to get used to a lot of low scores in this category as long as we remain in Mr. Moore's company. He's simply not a physical Bond; and that results in things like fewer actual fight scenes and more chases and stunts (as I've mentioned), with the fight scenes we do get turning out like his random stay in a karate dojo: slow-moving, blandly edited and choreographed, and not that tactile. Meanwhile, The Man with the Golden Gun also sports one of the saddest car chases in action movie history: two vehicles that are never clearly defined in relationship to each other moving at city-safe speeds, until eventually Bond gets on a straight, empty road and drives for a few minutes without seeing his quarry.
The good, such as it is: there is one hell of a cool car stunt, in which an AMC Hornet drives up a twisting ramp and performs a flawless 360-degree spiral before landing, and you'd have to lack anything resembling a soul not to be excited by it. On the other hand, no soullessness is required to be very saddened by its treatment in the film, where it is quite badly ruined by a comic sound cue, put in by the ordinarily sharp John Barry on what I can only imagine was the worst day of his entire life.
There's also a relatively engaging cat-and-mouse chase between Scaramanga and Bond, made rather more exciting because we're not entirely sure who's the cat, and who's the mouse; also made rather less exciting because the bizarre funhouse where it takes place is so eagerly nonlinear that it's pretty much impossible to tell where the two men are relative to one another, until Bond shoots Scaramanga in a terribly curt anti-climax.
Fuckin' hell, Roger Moore. Why'd you gotta go and be in your 40s when they cast you?
Rating: 1.5 Walther PPKs
None to speak of. We are told that Goodnight has a homing beacon in one of her dress buttons, but as gadgets go, that's weak sauce. The only other candidate is an attachment that straps on to the top of Scaramanga's car, giving it the functionality of a plane. The fact that it's not even a car that turns into a plane robs it of the idiot charm that accompanies e.g. Bond's Lotus Esprit transforming into a submarine, but it does permit a darling exchange that finds Bernard Lee and Desmond Llewelyn (who is back in top form after spending the last film regrettably off screen) getting a rare chance to play off of one another:
M: "So if I heard correctly, Scaramanga got away."
Bond: "Yes, sir."
M: "In a car that sprouted wings".
Q: "Oh, that's perfectly feasible, sir. As a matter of fact, we're working on one now-"
M:" Oh Q, shut up."
Rating: 1.5 Easily-Riled Welshmen
THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Well, he's no Ken Adam, but you know what? Production designer Peter Murton actually does a pretty fine job with a movie that sits uncomfortably on the line between the "let's use sets that look as sedate and real as we can" theme of Live and Let Die (a realist impulse that would thankfully die immediately following this movie), and the celebration of gaudy excess that the franchise had been intermittenly prior to this and would wholly embrace afterwards. There are really just two main locations where he gets to show off, of which the more prominent is unquestionably Scaramanga's hideout, with its ridiculous mirror maze and robot gunslingers on loan from Westworld. Setting aside the question of why, exactly, such a location needs to be in a James Bond movie (and thereby avoiding the embarrassing answer, "it doesn't"), I appreciate the subdued, minimalist approach Murton takes; just garish enough to be flavorful, but restrained enough to stay away from the territory carved out by the hallucinatory 1967 Casino Royale.
Anyway, I am personally much fonder of the brief appearance of the faked interior of the capsized RMS Queen Elizabeth, where M has relocated his office for the extent of this mission; the interior of the ship is at a heavy angle, with the furnishings wedged in to be upright as much as possible, with the result of a funhouse-style environment just as warped as Scaramanga's playground, but grounded in day-to-day realism - and never remarked on by any character - that makes it a good deal funnier and more memorable, to me.
Scaramanga also has a big industrial space that gets points for being incredibly big - one of the important characteristics of any proper Bond villain's lair - but doesn't otherwise look particularly different than any big metal room in any '70s thriller with sci-fi overtones.
Rating: 3.5 Volcano Fortresses
ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
Impressively dense, limited as it is to just one scene: but holy crap, what a scene! It's the lunch that Scaramanga makes to entertain Bond, and in just a few minutes of sitting at a monumentally enviable glass table - even with the bubble-headed Goodnight in between them, ruining everything - the two killers demonstrate more class and good taste per line of dialogue than anywhere else in the whole franchise. It is so classy that I want to curl up and die with it, and while I naturally have to dock it points for being such a minute fraction of a movie that otherwise does not offer much in the way of over-the-top elegance (in particular, Bond wears some really terrible clothes throughout), if the whole movie had been like that, it would have been so unbearably lush that there'd be no point in ever watching any other Bond movie.
Rating: 3 Vodka Martinis
APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
There are two!
1) 007 casually introduces himself to a belly dancer as he slips in, unannounced, to her dressing room.
Forced or Badass? Not really either, but since I've set up this dichotomy, I guess I have to go with Forced, since it's way the hell too laconic to be badass.
2) Bond, pretending to be Scaramanga, tells Hai Fat that Bond is on their trail.
Forced or Badass? It's pretty darn badass that Bond so causally tells a known villain that he's just one step behind, counting on misdirection to carry the day. That he's already been found out is largely beside the point.
BOND: "Who'd want to put a contract on me?"
M: "Jealous husbands. Outraged chefs. Humiliated tailors. The list is endless!"
The Man with the Golden Gun, out of all the Bond pictures, the one that gives me the hardest time in forming my opinion. I have a certain horrid up-and-down relationship with it: the first time I ever saw it, I pretty much hated it, and then the second time I saw it, expecting to hate it, I actually found it quite delightful and had no clue why I thought otherwise, and the third time, expecting to like it, I thought it was simply awful, and so on (this might be an appropriate time to point out that I've seen all of the pre-Brosnan Bond films at least four or five times each). It's entirely possible that this erratic response to what is not, by any means, a particularly distinguished or significant entry in its franchise is a sign of some awful failing on my part as a critic and a viewer, though I like to to myself the honor of coming up with a slightly more forgiving explanation: unlike most of the Bond movies, where good elements or bad elements tend to congregate to form generally good or generally bad movies overall, TMWTGG is perhaps the most inconsistent of all James Bond pictures, with some outstanding moments and sequences sitting quite blithely next to absolute rancidity; hell, some moments combine the sublime and the ridiculous in one gross little paradox, like that car jump: one of the most complicated and impressive stunts ever portrayed in a Bond movie, and yet it's scored with a God-be-damned slide whistle.
That pretty much describes the movie in a nutshell: plenty of things that work really well, until something comes along and wrecks it. Moore's performance, which is considerably more comfortable than his role debut in Live and Let Die, includes some of the best moments he'd ever play: pretty much everything with Andrea Anders, as I mentioned, striking the perfect balance between charming gentleman and government-endorsed savage (hell, I'd go so far as to call it one of the great moments in anybody's performance of Bond). And then there are moments when Moore doesn't even try to be professional enough to pretend that he has any interest in playing the comic beats with Goodnight being a completely useless idiot clown, or to mask his utter contempt for the J.W. Pepper scenes.
Which is fair, because in a wildly uneven movie, the Pepper material is by far the worst stuff. He at least fit into the world of Live and Let Die in some extremely broad, theoretical way; but forcing the redneck caricature to take an arbitrary trip to Thailand so that he can spout almost nonstop racist invective against the locals - his very first line is, "God damn! Little brown water hogs!", and it's downhill from there - is a sign of creative dementia. Allegedly, it was solely at the request of director Guy Hamilton that Pepper was included at all; and if there was no other reason to be grateful that Hamilton would cease directing Bond movies after this, his third go-round, that would do it for me.
As it is, Hamilton was probably a poor choice for TMWTGG. His treatment of Goldfinger way back in the day was inspired; a light, playful touch for a newer, breezier James Bond adventure. But Goldfinger had Sean Connery's far more sardonic, cold Bond to anchor it; given how much less serious than that Moore was in all but his most deadly serious moments, his films required a firmer touch to keep them on the ground. Hamilton didn't provide that in Live and Let Die, but that film was blighted from the ground up; he certainly doesn't provide it here, and the result is a movie that spends far too much of its energy being dumb, which is a very different prospect than later Moore films, which would frequently be very silly and insubstantial, but not even the abhorrent Moonraker would be, pound-for-pound, so colossally stupid as TMWTGG is during the Pepper sequences, or when the soundtrack gets bogged down with wacky sound effects, or anytime Britt Ekland moves her face muscles.
At some point, I think I mentioned that I liked the film, and the hell of it is that I do. Except when I don't. Part of me wants to hand-wave this all away as a learning curve movie, still trying to figure out what to do with Bond in the 1970s, still feeling out this new, very different James Bond that Moore played, but that only takes you so far, and it does to remember that From Russia with Love was just the second Connery movie. The good news is that the next film would find the Moore era figure itself out, for better or for worse (a great many people would say for worse), and at the very least the movies become more internally consistent from that point on. Leaving us with The Man with the Golden Gun, a movie of many conflicting impulses and identities, and surely the downright sloppiest movie in the James Bond franchise.
NB: this was the last Bond film for two of the series' most important contributors: producer Harry Saltzman, who was having personal problems as well as professional disagreements with Broccoli, and voice-artist par excellence Nikki van der Zyl. Let us pause to recognise the important things the both brought to the table, and note that they will be missed.
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