Eleven James Bond novels and one short story collection reached store shelves before their author, Ian Fleming, shuffled off this mortal coil in 1964. The Man with the Golden Gun was one of those unfortunate books you sometimes see after bestselling authors kick it: a rough, unfinished work with no real meat on its bones, rushed to press by hungry publishers who’ve just buried their meal ticket. Perfect material for adaptation to the silver screen, don’t you think? Hell, they made movies out of anything back in the mid-70s. Why I hear some crazy asshole even gave the director of 1941 money so he could go make a giant shark movie…
For his third Bond screenplay in a row, returning writer Tom Mankiewicz junked most of the novel, as he did before in Live and Let Die. Returning director Guy Hamilton didn’t like what Mankiewicz came up with so he called in his old collaborator, Richard Maibaum, for a second draft. You’d think the issue of such veteran talent could only be good. Instead, these three produced the worst film in the franchise (up to this point). Sure, nothing beats Die Another Day nowadays, but after Live and Let Die, the drop off in quality really chapped my ass.
True to form, The Man with the Golden Gun starts out with its strongest element: international assassin Francisco Scaramanga. Believe it or not, Christopher Lee was the producer’s second choice for this, behind Jack Palance. Thank the powers of the darkness Boss Carl Grisom turned them down as Lee’s one of the few things in this movie that doesn’t make me want to claw the walls. He has the old-school vampire’s ability to portray a suave sophisticate and a cold-blooded killing machine in the same scene. He’s easily the most interesting villain we’ve had in the series since Gert Fröbe. Too bad the film wastes him.
The other thing that keeps me from drinking drain cleaner is Hervé Jean-Pierre Villechaize as Scaramanga’s butler, Nick Nack. Four years before his hit TV debut on Fantasy Island, here Villechaize plays a more murderous version of the same character. Thanks to the constant audio loop of his line, “Boss! De plane! De plane!” running through their heads, an entire generation of Bond fans are incapable of taking him seriously. I’m not one of those people so, to me, Nick Nack and Scaramanga have one of the most interesting villain relationships in the series…all of it squeezed into a pre-credit sequence.
Marc Lawrence (Mr. “I Didn’t Know There Was A Pool Down There” from Diamonds Are Forever) shows up at Scaramanga’s private island. Nick Nack shows him in and hands him an envelope full of cash to chase Scaramanga through the island’s private spook house/maze/wax museum. Scaramanga wins the chase, since there’d be no film if he didn’t, but ham-handed dialogue informs us Scarmanga’s left his entire fortune to Nick Nack should he ever perish. Meaning Nick Nack is actively engaged in plotting Scaramanga’s death from the very beginning, with Scaramanga’s full blessing. And I can’t help but wonder…why? Are these two just sadistic, or is there something more going here? They obvious seem to respect each other, in some weird way. Again, in true Bond fashion, we’ll never find out a damn thing about this, the strongest element in the film…but still, this is exactly the kind of crazy, Big Idea supervillain I think Bond should fight, so as the credits roll and the movie telegraphs its own ending, I’m pumped up for another rousing Bond adventure. Damn the torpedoes!
Then Lulu starts to sing John Berry’s title song. It, like so much else here, is supposed to be a callback to Goldfinger, but the triumphant brass and undercurrent of menace that made that little tune shine is replaced by warbling and bad double-entendres. Like
“His eye could be/On you or me/Who will he bang? We shall see!”
Yeah…no thanks, Lulu. If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not stick around and watch Christopher Lee bang anyone.
Worse yet, the film starts off on a sour note that brings up all kinds of annoying questions. Having received a golden bullet with Bond’s number etched into it – Scaramanga’s known calling card – M (still Bernard Lee) orders Bond off his present assignment…something about a solar energy scientist named Gibson (Gordon Everett)…
Question 1) MI6, the British Secret Service agency in charge with foiling supervillain plots the world over, supposedly has no picture of Scaramanga on file. So how does Bond rattle off a (pretty decent) Executive Summary’s worth of info on the master assassin, including the bit about his superfluous third nipple, seemingly off the top of his head? I know it’s the mid-70s and the Surveillance State isn’t what it will soon be…but c’mon, people – how does this guy get through customs? Where did all that information come from if Scaramanga’s so good at killing people? Was Bond listening into the theme song too? Because that just raises too many questions.
Question 2) M…is concerned…for the safety of James Bond. The man with at least six supervillain scalps hanging from his metaphorical belt? I’m sorry but, rapist werewolf though he may be, Bond’s obviously the top agent in the house. It’s high time M realized nothing can touch him and let Bond off the leash. Maybe that’s the intention, given the look M gives Bond as he departs…to once again “go behind M’s back” and chase down a lead. M’s either very smart or dangerously incompetent, but he certainly seems more pissed off with Bond than he’s been since the late-60s… even taking his anger out on poor Q (still Desmond Llewelyn) later on, which is just mean.
Either way, after chasing leads through the belly button of a belly dancer in Beruit and a golden bullet-maker in Macau that Bond threatens to shoot in the groin, we once again meet our First Bond Girl, Andrea Anders (Maud Adams), in a casino. Tracking her to Hong Kong, Bond does something he hasn’t done in almost ten years and straight-up tortures the time and location of Scaramanga’s next hit out of her…
Wow…so Richard Maibaum was the one who liked to have Bond hit girls. Glad that’s settled. Still, Roger Moore’s genuinely threatening in this scene, making it the one few tense moments in Man with the Golden Gun…and, hell, I’ll go so far as to say “the entire Bond series.” Unlike last time, when he came off as a Saint in Bond’s clothing, here Moore comes across as just the dead-inside, professional killer he by-God should be. He might have a soft spot for the ladies…but when he speaks of leading Scaramanga into a trap he sounds downright bloodthirsty, and why not? He’s a superspy with a license to kill for God’s sake, not a posh guest at the Playboy club. There’s murdering to be done.
As Bond discovers when he gets to Hong Kong and meets the most annoying part of the film: Agent Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), the flattest, blandest, least capable, most annoying and least-capably-acted secret agent since…well, Live and Let Die‘s Rosie Carver. I think we can blame Tom Mankiewicz for these last three films worth of limp-wristed Bond girls. There’s a throw-away line about her and Bond having some kind of thing two years ago…but it has as much impact on the plot as I do when I punched the screen every time Goodnight said something stupid.
Thirty minutes in, just as we’re getting comfortable, a second plot’s introduced when Bond just so happens to cross paths with that solar energy scientist mentioned in the beginning…I think his name was “the Gibson”…who just so happens to be in Hong Kong, having perfected the movie’s Maguffin, a “Solex agitator” which converts sunlight into electricity. High priced tech in the midst of “the Energy Crisis.” As opposed to, say, a silicon crystal…which does the same job, can be made out of sand, and can’t be turned into a doomsday weapon…no matter how much you modify it.
Scaramanga kills Gibson just as Bond arrives on the scene. Mistaken for the killer (what with his waving a gun around the street as he stands over a corpse) Bond’s kidnapped by Local Contact Lt. Hip (Soon-Tek Oh) and shipped out to the wreck of the Queen Elizabeth, which caught fire and capsized in Victoria Harbour two years before this film came out. We’re meant to think Hip might be taking Bond to some kind of evil headquarters (that’s what Bond thinks – he even tries to escape) but this turns out to be another one of MI6’s…complete with another Mobile Office for M so we can have another Briefing Scene. Joy.
The movie’s officially started over now that Gibson (whom we never met and don’t care about) is dead and the Solex is in Sacarmanga’s hands (the audience saw Nick Nack take it while Hip spirited Bond out to sea). Hope you enjoyed that globe-trotting tale of spy-fi intrigue. Time for the Fetch Quest! And time to recall previous series low-point You Only Live Twice. The sea-bound HQ with the weird (for a supposedly-covert agency) production design…Bond getting kidnapped by the Local Contact with the two female assistants…Bond being pampered by hot Asian chicks. Bond in yet another secret ninja academy. Oh, but this one’s evil? Well, nevermind. My comparison is obviously specious.
In fact, it’s a Dojo of Death, owned by this film’s Mr. Osato analogue, Hai Fat (Richard Loo), who hired Scaramanga to kill Gibson and steal the Solex in the first place. The idea being to build a working solar power plant that could also power a laser canon, then auction the plans for both off to the highest bidder. Or blackmail OPEC into the next century, whichever. When Bond comes calling at Hai Fat’s Bangkok home, snooping around in the guise of Scaramanga (complete with a superfluous nipple Q engineered for him), Hai Fat starts feeling the heat. So the real Scaramanga kills Hai Fat, declares himself “the new chairman of the board” and goes off to secure his title by killing Carrot Top…I presume.
This gives Bond enough time to get reacquainted with…ugh…Agent Goodnight. I’m sorry, models, but stop trying to become actresses. You’re not helping. Mary’s another victim of Tiffany Case syndrome, starting off strong and apparently suffering brain damage from exposure to Bond’s Man Radiation. She initially rejects Bond’s standard offer (he takes over an hour to shag someone in this film – downright revolutionary) before showing up in his hotel room because, she admits, “I’m weak.” And I think, Great. Why can’t she be the double agent who dies at the end of the first act? Oh, that’s right – because the first act was largely superfluous. Right.
Instead, it’s Andrea Anders – the interesting character – the woman so desperate to escape her abusive relationship she sent a golden bullet to a spy agency and outright prostitutes herself to the dude they sent back – who dies. Off screen. Worse yet, Bond takes her up on her offer, stashing Goodnight in the closet while he accepts premature payment for killing Scaramanga.
This is why I don’t call myself a Bond fan: sometimes, James Bond can be a real fucking asshole. And his worst fucking assholery is far too often played for comedy, which I find really insulting. He could get Andrea out of the city with a phone call, but he pauses to sign her death warrant by using her as bait. Meanwhile, poor Goodnight – I take back what I said two paragraphs ago. Listening to other people have sex through a wall (especially when you can’t join in) is its own special kind of “no fun.” So I feel for ya, girl.
And I feel for this film’s next scene, which tries so hard to show what the rest of this could have been…I’m sorry to say it only makes the rest look worse. Because here Christopher Lee delivers the Secret Origin of Francisco Scaramanga in a brilliant piece of insane, Silver Age Comic Book monologuing. It’s easily the best thing in the film, and it lays to rest any doubts we might’ve had about Scaramanga’s relative sanity. Stealing nuclear weapons is bad, sure…but killing someone…in public…and being gratified by doing it…that’s frightening in way that feeding henchmen to sharks isn’t.
Since every good thing in The Man with the Golden Gun comes with something equally awful to counter it, this great scene leads to a nine minute car chase…and the return of Sheriff J. W. Pepper (still Clifton James). Because every international spy thriller needs Odious Comic Relief from a racist Louisiana sheriff! If only he’d shut the fuck up the car chase might be exciting. Even its key stunt – the 360 barrel roll – is undercut by a comedic slide-whistle sound effect, as if Sheriff Pepper somehow infected the entire soundtrack. Put me firmly in the anti-Pepper camp, people. I’ve found him an inappropriate tone killer since I was eight, like all his Odious brethren.
But once he leaves, the movie finally reaches a high point. Scaramanga kidnaps Goodnight, because we have to have some kind of Damsel In Distress scenario (we’ve had one in the last three films) and a tracking device in her clothes leads Bond to Scaramanga’s island. We get the usual “We Aren’t So Different, You and I” speech, but Lee can sell it better than anyone, especially since he follows it up by challenging Bond to a duel. This is what the film could’ve been: a battle of wits and wills between two master assassins at the top of their game. Our villain’s already got a perfectly good reason to want to kill Bond:
“Like any great artist, I want to create one indisputable masterpiece before I die: the death of Double-Oh Seven!”
Hey, I’ll roll with it. Super-assassins are always trying to take your more traditional superheroes out for basically the same reason. Their interactions could’ve been the most fun since Bond went undercover with the College of Arms to talk to Blofeld.
Too bad it’s all tacked onto a redundant side-plot about the Solex Agitator, which feels shoehorned in to meet the series’ SF gadget quota and/or audience expectations. Scaramanga’s plan to auction off the Agitator (and the plans for building a power plant around it) is the most straight-forward villain plot we’ve had in the whole series, but do I care? Do I really care? No. I want to see the duel. Even if I know how it ends, it’s still a tense, well-directed sequence from a veteran Bond director grown comfortable, professional, and damn good at his job…when he’s got good material to work with.
Man with the Golden Gun wasn’t that. Flawed from the get-go, it’s more like two Bond films sown together by a mad Doctor in a exploitation film. Either one might’ve been decent, but together they make a substandard movie that feels its length in a way Live and Let Die didn’t…but Diamonds Are Forever certainly did. Instead of improving on shitty source material, everyone involved shored it up with Odious Comic Relief. This is the movie where Bond’s secret agent partner almost kills him with her ass! And you wonder why it’s maligned?
That said, as a movie…at least it’s not actively painful. Lee and Hervé Villechaize are great, as is the stunt driving. Maude Adams could’ve been great if her character were allowed to live. Scaramanga’s house is easily the best set since Goldfinger’s, meaning its the house I want the most out of all the houses in this franchise. Whenever I watch this movie, I’m watching it for those elements. The rest is easily forgotten, unless you love the hell out of Roger Moore. Me, I’m still waiting for a good version of James Bond vs. Dracula. Instead of that logical step, the next entry in the franchise saw him square off against Jaws.