00 Saturdays Week #17 – The Man with the Golden Gun Movie Review

“I am now aiming precisely at your groin. So speak or forever hold your piece.” – James Bond

Welcome back to 00 Saturdays here at Film Seizure.  This is our weekly walk through the Bond films.  We continue this week with the ninth James Bond film – 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun.

Let me provide to you the ingredients of this Bond film and let’s try to do a little deduction of how we think this will play out.

  1. Roger Moore is solidified as James Bond for a whole new era of the series
  2. Christopher Lee, one of the greatest film villains of all time, is superbly cast to play a darker version of James Bond.
  3. A spectacular location off the coast of Phuket.
  4. A hauntingly beautiful funhouse set for the villain’s shenanigans.
  5. One of the most amazing car stunts ever filmed.
  6. Britt Ekland and Maud Adams as Bond girls at the height of their sexiness.
  7. Kung fu.  Lots and lots of kung fu.

Now, I’m not the greatest mathematician, but I’m not too shy to say I can add stuff up pretty good.  You’d think with what I listed above that The Man with the Golden Gun would be the absolute best Bond film to have ever been produced.  Sadly, this is one of the cases of the sum is not greater than the collected parts.

This film would be released just about 20 months after Live and Let Die.  Sometimes you’d think that would mean a film was rushed.  That’s not the case here.  Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman produced four, full-fledged Bond films of high quality in consecutive years to kick this whole thing off.  This film is very well made and a lot of the parts are spectacular.  Moore is very good as he continues to make this role his.  Some of the action set pieces are great.  It just doesn’t quite work.

The movie opens with an awesome opening sequence at Scaramanga’s island hideout.  His butler, Nick Nack (Herve Villechaize) works to keep Scaramanga’s skills sharp by hiring an assassin to come to the island to kill his boss.  Scaramanga is left without access to his usual armory and has to find his signature golden gun.  Thus leads to Scaramanga to lead the assassin into a cat and mouse game in a funhouse style obstacle course before the assassin is killed by the golden gun.  We then see Scaramanga’s wax sculpture of Bond himself representing a sense of true reverence and respect for Britain’s top agent.

And, to be sure, Bond is seemingly the next target of Scaramanga’s.  Someone has paid $1 million to have 007 killed, so Scaramanga sends a bullet with “007” etched into it to MI6.  The movie continues on with Bond, despite being told to take holiday and run aground by his boss, M, untangling the mystery of where Scaramanga lives so he can stop the assassin before he is assassinated.

So one of the good things about the movie is Bond’s globetrotting that starts in Beirut where he has to speak to a belly dancer that an associate, 002, was romancing when he was killed mysteriously.  The indication is that he was killed by Scaramanga, but they don’t have the golden bullet to prove it because she wears it as a charm in her belly button.  After accidentally swallowing it and retrieving it for Q Branch to figure out who made it, Bond is off to Southeast Asia – Macau, Hong Kong, and Thailand to be precise.  These are all excellent location scenes and appropriate for a Bond film.  Interestingly enough, Phuket, at the time of filming, was simply a small, local village.  After the film’s release in December 1974, soon the tourism industry boomed there.  To this day, you can take a boat out and see the “James Bond Islands” where Scaramanga’s hideout was located.

During this globetrotting, Bond meets the two Bond girls.  First is Maud Adams as Scaramanga’s mistress, Andrea Anders.  She is the one that transports Scaramanga’s custom made golden bullets from Macau to his hideout.  She’s a very sympathetic character.  Bond forces her to tell him about Scaramanga which ultimately leads to her being killed.  There’s a chilling scene after Bond got the information from Anders, and Scaramanga killed one of his targets, a missing energy expert that was willing to cooperate with the British government.  Scaramanga only has sex with Anders before he performs a hit.  So he sexes her, kills that guy, and then returns to her and rubs her body with his gun while she looks terrified.  It is just Christopher Lee at his very best at being a villain and using his bravado to be horrifying.

Bond also meets Mary Goodnight, a British agent assigned to Hong Kong.  Britt Ekland might just be about as perfect a 70s Bond Girl as you could get.  The Swede is drop dead gorgeous.  But unfortunately, her character is a bit of a bimbo.  If we look at some of the best Bond Girls of the series up to this point, you’d see they have very honed personality that makes them something a little more.  Tracy was Bond’s perfect match.  Solitaire, despite being young and sexually inexperienced, was an eager learner and proved quite useful.  Pussy Galore was sharp.  Domino, while in pain over the death of her brother, used that to be extremely helpful to Bond in dealing with Largo.  Aki was a full agent in Japan, despite being unfortunately killed.

Goodnight, on the other hand, seems almost incapable of helping Bond.  They make several comments on her inexperience.  She knew Bond in the past, then was sent to Hong Kong for the last couple years and has gained some new skills.  That’s great and all, but she’s a little too googly eyed over Bond.  It turns her into a liability throughout the movie and tends to play up more of the sexual angle that should be a portion of the overall leading lady’s character, not her defining attribute.  It’s a shame because Ekland is a good actress and deserved better.

The story spends some time at a kung fu school which seems like would be, like, super bad ass?  But it kind of brings the movie to a screeching halt.  I understand the desire to show this cool kung fu stuff off, especially since that was popular in movies at the time, and it does pay off with Bond’s contact Lt. Hip and his “nieces” kung fu fighting the rest of the school.  That’s a fun moment, but it takes too long to get to that pay off in a movie that hasn’t progressed very far in the first hour of the movie.  It also ultimately doesn’t provide much context to the plot in the end.

After the kung fu fighting, Bond escapes in a fairly interesting boat chase through the canals of Phuket.  However, it leads to my absolute very least favorite thing in all the Bond series – the return of Sheriff J.W. Pepper from Live and Let Die.  I didn’t talk too much about Pepper (played by Clifton James) in the last movie review because he was fine as a cartoonish racist sheriff in the boondocks of Louisiana.  However, to bring him back for this film is too much.  If Bond was back in Louisiana, that’s fine, but halfway across the world?  That’s dumb.  The fact that he gets picked up by Bond and is part of an otherwise wonderful car chase makes his presence that much more of a stick in my crawl.

Let’s talk about that car chase.  The chase itself is fun as it works its way through the streets of Phuket.  There’s a ton of wrecked cars, and hair-raising near misses.  However, it’s how it ends that stands out.  Bond’s car travels a twisted ramp and does a full twist to land on the other side of a stream.  It’s an awesome moment and one of the very best practical stunts ever with a car.

There are little moments in this movie that work quite well.  Roger Moore is fantastic with his little one liners and comebacks.  This film is loaded with them.  Villechaize is a lot of fun as Nick Nack.  A scene in which we learn it was Anders that sent the bullet to Bond so he would come to kill Scaramanga.  Bond was never his target.  She wanted him on the case to kill Scaramanga to free herself from him.  She comes to him while Bond is about to bed Goodnight, so he’s got himself a real pickle of two drop dead gorgeous women wanting to give him whatever he wants.  It’s a clever scene that even finds Bond stumbling a little bit to hide one while he gets what he needs for the mission from the other.

I mentioned earlier that Scaramanga’s hideout is fantastic.  He’s got his fun house part.  He’s got a living quarters that seems so very mod.  It looks very much like a Ken Adam production design, but wasn’t.  Adam was working on Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (which he would eventually win an Oscar for), so the film has a lot of the same look, but it went to Peter Murton to design the look of Scaramanga’s home and his totally Bond villain style lab where he is working on a solar power machine that he plans to sell to the highest bidder who can then weaponize it.  As I also said, there are a lot of pieces to this movie that works, and the design is one of them for sure.

The very best thing about The Man with the Golden Gun is Christopher Lee.  Lee was not the first choice.  Co-writer Tom Mankeiwicz originally wanted Jack Palance, but he turned it down.  Albert Broccoli turned to Christopher Lee who was already tired of playing Dracula all the time so he jumped at the chance to play a Bond villain.  Furthermore, Lee was a cousin to Ian Fleming.  In fact, they both worked intelligence in World War II.  I don’t think there was anything more suitable for a Bond villain than Christopher Lee.

Lee and Moore work so well together.  They actually were well acquainted back in their early days of acting after World War II.  When Bond meets with Anders to get this solar energy machine thing that he is assigned to get and deemed to be payment for him killing Scaramanga for her, she’s been killed by the villain.  He then sits next to Bond and they have a tense scene together that is not action.  It is not threatening.  It is simply a conversation between adversaries.  Their final battle in the climax is exciting after a great deal of crackling lines between Lee and Moore up until their duel.  All this makes Scaramanga one of the very top of all the Bond villains.

The problems come from a slow story, not a particularly great character for the leading lady, a little too much reliance in areas for the lighthearted stuff (like Sheriff Pepper), and a forgotten real plot of a solar energy crisis and a scientist that had an item that would solve said crisis that falls into Scaramanga’s hands.  Honestly, that whole plot line of the “Solex” MacGuffin is briefly discussed here and there throughout the movie, but it doesn’t come into focus until the final act.  It’s a movie that I used to really dislike as a younger adult, but I realize where it does shine.   Now, it just leaves me wanting.

Unlike the Man with the Golden Gun, his film just misses the mark.

Join me next week for a look at the music of The Man with the Golden Gun.  In two weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the tenth Bond film, and easily one of 007’s finest, The Spy Who Loved Me.

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