The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)


The last time I decided to go through all the James Bond films was barely into Pierce Brosnan's tenure as the famous spy.  I knew most of the movies - the Sean Connery and Roger Moore films were played frequently on television, albeit quite edited, and I had seen the Timothy Dalton films when they came out on video - by The Man with the Golden Gun was a mystery.  I had never run into it on regular television or cable, and unlike the rest of the Bond films I had to look for this one at the video store.

I soon found out why.  It was not considered a great movie, and the video I was able to get of it, rather than at the higher end of quality of video tapes at the time, was a copy of a washed-out print.  It looked more like the treatment a low-budget film that had fallen into public domain than a big-budget action film.  That just added to the point that it was just not a very good movie.  Even Moonraker got better treatment, and it's typically considered the worst of Roger Moore's movies.

While there are many problems with The Man with the Golden Gun, I am inclined, like a number of films, to treat it a bit kinder after all these years.  Despite my more open-minded approach, though, I can still understand why this movie brought the franchise to a standstill and almost killed it outright.

M (Bernard Lee) summons James Bond (Roger Moore) back to headquarters after receiving a gold bullet with 007 engraved on it.  The fear is that the mysterious assassin Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) may be choosing Bond as his next target.  M decides to give Bond a sabbatical and remove him from a current assignment involving the developer of a solar cell that could help end the energy crisis.

The bullet Scaramanga used to kill another agent is traced to an arms dealer in Macau, that then leads to a recent custom shipment to Scaramanga in Hong Kong.  Bond attempts to turn Andrea Anders (Maud Adams), Scaramanga's lover, and manages to get a location.  However, it turns out Bond is not a target, but instead the inventor of the solar cell.  Evidence leads back to a Thai industrialist named Hai Fat (Richard Loo), but ultimately it appears that Scaramanga has plans other than just remaining the world's greatest assassin. 

The title comes from the fact that Scaramanga uses custom-made gold bullets fired from a gold gun.  His price is a million dollars a hit and he often runs games to keep him sharp, prepared by his servant Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize), who stands to inherit Scaramanga's private island and fortune if any opponent is ever successful.  It's the perfect type of over-the-top villain role for Christopher Lee, and he is in the movie a significant amount of time, which is refreshing.  Too many films, especially large budget productions, tend to waste Lee even if he is top-billed.

It's just that such a character as Scaramanga belongs in a much more serious movie.  Sure, he has his little funhouse theme going, but in the end he is a match, both in intelligence and style, for James Bond.  While Goldfinger was cunning and Blofeld good with grandiose plans, both were largely thugs.  Scaramanga is different, and deserved a bit more respect.  For some reason director Guy Hamilton decided that, despite all the possibilities of having these two masters of craft go against each other in a thrilling cat-and-mouse game, that he instead wanted to make a comedy.

I do think The Man with the Golden Gun is a lot less of a mess when it comes to plot than Live and Let Die, but for some reason Hamilton's takeaway from Moore's first turn as Bond was that the series needed more J.W. Pepper (Clifton James).  This time he shows up on holiday in Bangkok with his wife and, sure enough, ends up joining Bond in the movie's main car chase.  There is a lot less of him, but there really didn't need to be any of him.  There was already Lieutenant Hip (Soon-Tek Oh) and his nieces that had come to Bond's aid to escape an evil dojo run by Hai Fat's men that could have gone along on the journey, but for some reason he vanishes into thin air halfway through the movie.  Instead, we got Pepper once again as "comic" relief.

And that comic relief just keeps on coming.  Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), the agent sent to aid Bond in both Hong Kong and Bangkok, really does nothing more than play a typical dumb blonde role.  She may even be functionally illiterate to top everything off.  Ekland has in the past played leading lady roles as well as supporting roles in a number of movies prior to this, and often been one of the highlights, often both alluring and sinister.  It is sad to see one of the biggest mainstream roles of her career reduced to stupidly bumbling from one bad situation to another and then put in a bikini for spurious reasons.  Keep in mind this is supposed to be a highly trained MI6 agent, trusted to be a regional handler for someone of 007's caliber. 

Then there is the biggest sin this movie commits.  Both the boat chase through Bangkok's canals and the car chase are thrilling, but both marred in their own ways.  The worst is the movie's major stunt, a computer-calculated corkscrew jump that, somehow, worked on the first try and didn't kill anyone.  What does one of the most amazing stunts in film history get?  A slide whistle.  The music literally stops and, as the scene goes into slow motion to make sure the audience can see something so unique that producer Albert Broccoli made sure he put a patent on so no other movie could use it a year before or a year after, it is given the Sideshow Bob treatment. 

To contrast the humor, M is crankier than usual and Roger Moore's version of Bond less charming and more of a jerk, treating everyone like they are lower than him, threatening to break a woman's arm and throwing a child into a canal.  It was a conscious decision to toughen 007 up, but makes absolutely no sense when there is also a conscious decision to make the movie campier.  Also, Lulu does one of the worst theme songs; I have no idea why they didn't go with the Alice Cooper version, other than just wanting a British singer.

There are still plenty of great scenes in the movie, and the role of Bond certainly fit Roger Moore.  Hervé Villechaize was one of the breakout stars in this film and, despite its somewhat disappointing box office performance, his participation helped him get the future roles that would make him a star.  While it is rather obvious that Nick Nack was supposed to be in some ways a callback to Oddjob, Villechaize plays his part in his own unique way and manages to overcome the limitations of the role.  Though it is an obvious grab at a trend the brief martial arts battle is also quite fun.

In many ways, The Man with the Golden Gun is the movie to get offended by if you are a detractor of the James Bond franchise.  While in many of the other movies much of what is criticized is taken out of context of the time or the film, we have colonial attitudes on full display this time around as well as Christopher Lee, great as he is as Scaramanga, going brown-face to play a Cuban.  Not to mention the old attitude of, "They're Asian, so it's all the same, right?"  Thus, we get sumo wrestlers in Thailand.   Though thoroughly in the '70s, these attitudes seem out of place, and it was for the best that this was Guy Hamilton's last time directing a Bond film.

Although not an unmitigated box office disaster, this did not due as well as its predecessors.  Bad word of mouth didn't help and, over the years, treating The Man with the Golden Gun as a red-headed stepchild of the series hasn't helped its reputation.  Harry Saltzman left after this, selling his share in the franchise to United Artists to cover his own personal debts, leaving Albert Broccoli as the sole producer.  It also forced everyone to rethink their strategy going forward.  With few exceptions UA was churning on these movies on a yearly basis, but it was 1977 before the next film, The Spy Who Loved Me, hit the theaters and put the series back on track.

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Time: 125 minutes
Starring: Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, Maud Adams, Britt Ekland
Director: Guy Hamilton

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